Magazine article Science & Spirit

Biology May Be Our Destiny: Seeing the Differences between Male and Female

Magazine article Science & Spirit

Biology May Be Our Destiny: Seeing the Differences between Male and Female

Article excerpt


For generations, the differences between men and women have entertained our society. The proverbial "battle of the sexes" has driven our literature and filled our movies. The point always seems to be,

"Of course, the differences are obvious."

But that conclusion has become sharply controversial in recent years as academia has weighed in on the topic. For the past few decades, millions of research dollars and thousands of studies have tested this conventional wisdom. Faced with the reams of research, one wag asked, "So, are we finally certain that men are more likely to enjoy casual sex and women babies?"

Three areas of research have shown these differences. The first looks at sex differences in newborns. In the first days and months of their lives, girls look longer at human faces and boys are more drawn to moving mobiles. Later, girls respond to others who show distress more than boys.

Cross-cultural studies also find the differences. After looking at a large number of studies, Yale psychologist Alan Feingold concluded that the differences "are generally constant across ages, years of data collection, educational levels and nations." Finally, research on hormonal effects shows that when women have been exposed to high levels of testosterone, they tend to be more assertive, aggressive, competitive, and career oriented than other women. Testosterone also dampens nurturing behavior.


Biologists and medical school researchers routinely discuss these kinds of research at conferences or in their specialized literatures. Nevertheless, evidence for sex differences has been downplayed at university campuses because broad discussions of sex or gender are dominated by social scientists and humanists who usually believe that patriarchal culture, not biology, has made women different from men. In this view, masculinity and femininity are learned, imposed first in the family and then by culture and media. The gender studies movement sees sex as malleable and male and female as essentially androgynous. This view has had a strong influence on culture and public policy.

Whereas this group talks of "gender," biologists still talk about "sex." The gender researchers usually ignore biological variables, such as hormones, and to some extent focus on different measures.

Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a massive "meta-analysis" of studies on the differences between men and women. Her 2005 article, "The Gender Similarities Hypothesis," concluded that "males and females are alike on most--but not all--psychological variables."

But the exceptions are noteworthy and consequential. Men and women were quite different in the areas of sex, tender mindedness (or what I would call nurturing) and aggression. The Hyde study calls the sex differences on sex and tender mindedness large and those on aggression moderate. Her "moderate" conclusion about aggression relies on laboratory studies like the one of college students reacting to video games. A better source is actual crime data: In cultures around the world, there are twenty-five or thirty men who kill another man for every woman who kills another woman.

One reason for disputes over the data on sex, nurturing, and aggression is that gender researchers look more at behaviors and attitudes and give less attention to feelings. Behaviors and attitudes can change with the times, but feelings are more deeply rooted in biology and less likely to change. Thus both men and women are more accepting of pre-marital sex and working mothers than they were in the fifties, and the sex differences are not large. But in both cases, the research shows a stark difference between these new social attitudes and the actual "feelings" of women in regard to sex and work.

Take casual sex. Many unmarried women have no principled objection to it and engage in it for a time. …

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