Gender Differences: What Science Says and Why It's Mostly Wrong

By Hall, Harriet | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Gender Differences: What Science Says and Why It's Mostly Wrong


Hall, Harriet, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


MEN AND WOMEN DON'T COME FROM MARS AND Venus, but they are undeniably different. Vive la difference! Without it life would be far less interesting. It's not just the anatomical differences like chest bumps versus dangly bits; there are also differences in psychology and behavior. My daughters and I are frequently mystified by men behaving in ways that seem irrational, stubborn, willful, incommunicative, or inexplicable. We can only throw up our hands and say, "It's a guy thing?'

It's perfectly acceptable and accurate to say a certain behavior, ability, or preference is "a guy thing" or "a girl thing" in our society, but that's only a starting point. It's descriptive, not explanatory. And it's certainly not exclusionary: there are guys who do needlepoint and girls who fix trucks. We must go further and ask why a trait is more of a guy thing in our society. Is the trait universal across all societies? Is it built into the DNA of his Y chromosome, is it determined by his level of testosterone, is it a function of gender differences in brain structure and organization, is it a result of cultural influences? Can it be changed? It turns out that answering those questions is extraordinarily difficult. Science has had a lot to say about sex, gender, and sexuality, but most of it has been wrong.

What is "Human Nature"? Does It Differ for Males and Females?

Donald Brown, in his book Human Universals, (1) has compiled a list of "those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions." Several of the items on his list describe gender differences:

* division of labor by sex

* females do more direct child care

* husband older than wife on average

* male and female seen as having different natures

* males dominate public/political realm

* males engage in more coalitional violence

* males more aggressive

* males more prone to lethal violence

* males more prone to theft

* males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime

* mother normally has consort during child-rearing years

* sex differences in spatial cognition and behavior

* sex (gender) terminology is fundamentally binary

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The complete list is available online. (2)

Human universals describe the consistent features of human nature, but they do not tell us whether those features are innate and fixed (determined by biology) or malleable (determined by culture). It is quite possible that human nature creates these gender differences by establishing customs and educating children in societal norms. And these universals are descriptive, not prescriptive. Even if they have been true for every society so far, that doesn't mean that they couldn't (or shouldn't) be changed in our society.

Evolutionary thinking leads to ready explanations for how gender differences might have enhanced survival of the species. Sometimes these explanations are plausible, sometimes not. It's plausible that a division of labor with an innate female preference for childcare would enhance the success of breastfeeding and infant survival. But evolutionary psychologists looked rather foolish when they tried to explain girls' preference for pink. They speculated that women evolved to have a preference for red because this improved their success in the role of gatherer (detecting ripe fruit by its redder color). They were ignorant of history. The association of pink with girls is purely cultural and quite recent. (3) A Ladies' Home Journal article in June 1918 said,

   The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and
   blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a
   more decided and stronger color, is more suitable
   for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and
   dainty, is prettier for the girl.

Any explanation is superfluous because it turns out girls don't really prefer pink. …

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