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Gender Differences? 15 November 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Gender, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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In my ongoing quest to integrate genetic, neurological, biological, physiological, and evolutionary research and knowledge into my cultural sociological work, I am constantly trying to grapple with a way to theorize an integrated “nature/nurture” transaction in human behavioral and cultural characteristics. As I’ve said many times here before, I find it frustrating that English, because of its Western cultural heritage of separating humanity from nature, lacks a way to talk about the interaction of genetic/biological heritage with the umbworld (the combined physical, social, and cultural environment) in that intricate dance to create a phenotypical characteristic. The cultural baggage evident in the way we continue to talk of “nature v. nurture” forecloses our ability to think in terms of what is more or less the empirical emergence of human characteristics in an interactive dynamic of evolutionary, biological heritage and the social & physical environments.

Recently I tried to summarize where I stand with gender in my naturalistic sociological standpoint. I thought I would re-post this here on the blog to see what other people thought and get some feedback and pushback on these ideas. This was in response to two acquaintances who had taken very stark stances about the origins of gender, one hard to the biological side and one hard to the social constructionist side. This was my effort to offer a naturalistic and critical perspective:

This is an extremely messy discussion with no easy or clear answers. Both the biologically determinist and the culturally determinist position make me uncomfortable. Here’s where I am on gender difference right now:

There are average differences between the sexes in various areas of behavior and physiology. This however is complicated by several observations:

• in both behavioral and physiological characteristics where there are average differences, the bell curves overlap significantly, to that most individuals fall in the overlap area (the only exception to this that I know of off the top of my head is body mass, where males are roughly 20% greater than females, across geographic-races).

• the human brain is incredibly plastic, so that any characteristic that appears to be possibly an average difference (e.g., a preference for symbolic thinking or spatial reasoning) can actually be learned by any normal brain of either sex. in other words, many mental differences turn out to be preferences, but those preferences turn out to be so strong and universal that they appear to have at least some heritability

• it is difficult to tease out the differences that matter, and often the ones that we decide matter are because of our cultural biases; the best way to see through that is to do cross-cultural research, but cross-cultural research still risks being driven by the cultural biases of the researchers, regardless of their culture of origin

• early childhood studies consistently seem to show a base-line gender difference in behavior and cognition (meaning the *way* they think), even when conducted by feminists; but feminist researchers tend to explain it away as “constructed” difference; I’m becoming less and less convinced. This is completely anecdotal, and just meant for illustration my friends are generally pretty feminist, and all of them who have had both male and female children have been stunned at how gendered their small toddlers are.

• any individual man or woman can fall anywhere in the bell curve, and in any given characteristic be “masculine” or “feminine”, so even if there are generalizable, average sexual differences, they only function at a population and species level and tell us absolutely nothing about the person sitting next to us or about how we should organize our societies or how we should distribute social goods.

• finally, even if we are able to demonstrate clearly how exactly gendered phenotypes arise in human individuals, we run the risk of reifying them socially, so that they become normative: e.g., here’s the gendered mean for a male on characteristic X, therefore, men should or must behave like characteristic X. This is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw from any research that shows average gendered differences in behavior or physiology. This is why, especially for those of us who fall far outside the bell curve, such research feels threatening and dangerous and particularly UNTRUE.

[As a side note, I think the only two brain structural differences that seem to matter at all are the average size of the corpus callosum and perhaps the average sizes of the pituitary.]