I read over on the ScienceToLife blog (a cool blog about science news affecting people’s lives) a piece on a BBC science program regarding differences between male and female brains. And on the BBC website, you can take the tests that they used in the series, and see whether you have a male or a female brain. (Fun test, although it does take some time.)
Not too surprisingly, I scored more male than female on their test. On a spectrum from 100% typically female, to evenly balanced between the two, to 100% typically male, I scored significantly more male than female — 25% on the male side of neutral. (For point of comparison, the men they tested averaged 50% on the male side of the spectrum.) Among other things, I’m better at spatial relationships than I’d expected, worse at identifying facial expressions, and I apparently tend to make decisions more rationally than intuitively.
Obviously, I’m not going to change my philosophies about life and gender based on pop-culture TV psychology (although this piece of it seems more based in real science than, say, your average Cosmo personality quiz). But it reminded me of a rant I’ve been wanting to make on a rather large question:
Is gender born, or learned, or some combination of the two? And if it’s a combination, what combination?
Now, I’m hardly going to be able to answer this question once and for all. Smarter people than me who actually do research in this area have been trying to answer this question for decades But I do have some thoughts on the subject that I’ve been mulling over for many years, and this seems like a good excuse to blather on about them.
One: No matter what, nurture is definitely part of the picture. A big part. If nothing else, the fact that gender roles have been changing and are different in different cultures and historical periods is proof enough of that. What’s more, I’ve seen research showing that people treat infants they think are male and infants they think are female significantly differently — in ways they’re not even aware of, and will even deny. (Specifically, people encourage physicality and assertiveness in infants they think are boys, sweetness and sociability in infants they think are female.)
So when people say, “Of course gender is hard-wired, look how different my five-year-old boy and my six-year-old girl act,” my reaction is, “Well, yes — they’ve been getting intensive gender-role training for five/six years. That proves exactly nothing.”
Two: If research does show that male and female brains tend on average to be different, that doesn’t prove nature over nurture. My understanding is that the brain is shaped — literally, physically — by experience as well as by genetics. The differences could easily be learned.
And both Thought One and Thought Two point up the difficulty of coming to any final conclusion on this subject. Given what a huge part nurture clearly plays — and from the day we’re born, no less — it may prove damn near impossible to tease out the learned behaviors from the hard-wired ones (if there are any).
All that being saidâŠ
Three: We tend to forget that people are animals. We are not separate from nature: we are a species of life, in the animal kingdom, in the mammalian class. And most animal species have some sort of gender-differentiated behavior that, as far as we can tell, is genetically based. This obviously doesn’t prove that human gender differences are hard-wired — we could certainly be one of the exceptions — but it wouldn’t completely surprise me to learn that they were.
Four: I think it’s a very bad idea to critique a scientific theory on the basis of its political implications. A theory is either true or it isn’t. It either describes reality or it doesn’t. A theory or a study may be flawed because of political prejudices and biases, and that’s certainly worth looking at. But the fact that we may not want a theory to be true doesn’t make it not true. That’s the kind of bullshit the creationists pull — I really don’t think feminists should be pulling it.
I remember reading/hearing about/participating in the “constructionism/essentialism” debates back in my early queer-theory days, and while in my heady youth I was very taken with strict constructionism, I became more frustrated with it as time went on. The theory didn’t really seem to based on anything — not research, not neurology, not logic, nothing except the fact that people who held it wanted it to be true (or, more accurately, didn’t want essentialism to be true). And that is really not okay.
Now, all THAT being saidâŠ
Five: Even if there is a genetic component to gender differences, it’s clear that it’s true only as a generalization, and a pretty gross generalization at that. There are tons of exceptions, and huge areas of overlap on the scales. Just look at my “25% more male” score on the silly BBC brain-sex test. (And if you take the test yourself, do post your scores in the comments here!)
Plus, there are dozens of different types of behavior that are commonly believed to be gender-based, and individual men and women are all going to rank differently on all of them. (I scored male in my spatial relation ability, female in my verbal ability, neutral on some other scales that I can’t remember now.)
Six: Humans seem to have a unique ability to transcend our genetic programming and choose our own behavior. Our ability to do so is almost certainly limited, but it doesn’t seem to be nonexistent. (Example: Given my genealogy of alcoholism all over both sides of my family tree, it’s a fucking miracle that I’m not an alcoholic. And I’m not an alcoholic, at least in part, because I know that it could be a problem and choose to be very careful about my alcohol use.)
My point? Even if there is some basis for believing that some gender differences are hard-wired, that’s no excuse for sexist behavior or policy. Even if it’s true that men are, on the whole, better at spatial relations, and women are, on the whole, better at verbal skills, we still have to treat people as individuals, and assess them as individuals.
In a perfectly non-sexist society, it’s possible that we might still have more male engineers than female, more female teachers than male. I don’t know. I don’t think any of us knows. But we sure as hell would have more female engineers and male teachers than we do now. Good ones. Ones who now aren’t living up to their potential.