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Gender on PBS 25 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Cognitive Science, Gender, Science.

The past couple weeks, PBS has been airing a British documentary program with the absurd but titilating title, "The Secrets of the Sexes." I watched about 1/2 hour of it, and literally every single segment was characterized by misrepresenting and exagerating evidence, occluding contradictory research, tacking on irrelevant research, ignoring complexity, drawing conclusions not warranted by evidence, and/or pretending no human being has ever been socialized. Admittedly, I could only make it through about 1/2 hour before my brain started to seize, so maybe things got better or they repented of their intellectual sins later in the show. But in the 30 mins I watched, I kept thinking about all the amazing gender researchers in cognitive science and anthropology and even genetics who are doing such amazing work on the complexities of gendered phenotypes and how they were completely missing from this "scientific" program.

To be clear: I do believe that male and female bodies occupy different bell curves for a number things (not least of which is physical stature). However, scientifically, those bell curves overlap a great deal, so that most human beings actually fall within the same statistical norms for things like cognition and emotionality (not to mention physical stature). But for some reason, we seem incapable of having the complex discussions about the mutual relatioship between bodies/genes and society/culture–indeed, as I've said before, I don't think "nature" and "nurture" can be separated anymore in any scientific way. But culturally, it is just too easy and comforting to think that Women Are from Venus and Men Are from Mars. (Please, if you really believe that, you've never spent a night at a bar with a man who just got dumped.)

Let me give one illustration: A group of scientists begin by testing multi-tasking abilities. They find in the population that women score better. Therefore, they conclude that "women" must be better multi-taskers. In reality, what they found was overlapping bell curves; that is, lots and lots of men are also really good multi-taskers. So then they have to figure out why say 65% of women and about 35% of men are good multitaskers, but the rest are not. They begin to find that scores correspond to jobs, so that stay-at-home moms with more children are very good multi-taskerrs; so are nurses (both men and women) and elementary school teachers and university professors. Then the neuro-scientists sweep in and begin testing and find that the ability to multi-task can be learned, and is in fact learned relatively easily in both sexes.

So not conceding anything about the gendering of multitasking, let's assume for the sake of argument that a female brain may more naturally be able to multitask. Even if that were true, the complexity is that all normal human brains actually can multitask right nicely and are easily trained to do so. This holds true with just about any cognitive ability you can think of, from nurturing and caretaking, to being an engineer or a physicist. Even morphological differences are actually plastic. For example, in the bell curve, women's brains tend to have more connections between the hemispheres; but women whose lives revolve around, say, computer science have connections that look more like "men's" and men whose lives revolve around say raising children have connections that look more like "women's".

Like I said, I do think that our genes play an important role in how we gender (i.e., nature); but the realities of those genes' phynotypical expression is that they are intricately connected to our social and cultural world (i.e., nurture)–that is, socialization and experience in the lived environment, including the social and cultural experiences, interacts with genetic expression. In fact, most evolutionary scientists working in cognition now argue that our brains evolved in precisely this way, giving us the advantage of being able to pass on to new generations incredibly stores of information. On the other hand, it is important to note that our brains are biological and physical, and that they work in particular ways to specific ends; they are plastic, but not completely plastic; our brain structures and genes determine how we learn and how we pass on information and even how we socialize. Like I said earlier, the separation between nature/nurture is false and detrimental to our understanding of where human minds and cultures actually come from. But for the issue of gender, our brains are so plastic and our genetic predispositions so connected to the experiences of our socialization as to make any easy statements such as "Women are" or "Men are" nearly impossible to make without a hundred caveats.



1. mattblack - 26 May 2006

Well put. I think it’s a pretty common logical fallacy to assign causality to data that is merely descriptive. In complex, fluid systems it’s rarely that simple.

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