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Equality without androgyny
There are some differences between men and women, and that's OK
The chapter of my book Of Boys and Men that my pre-publication academic reviewers disagreed most strongly about is the one where I address biological differences between men and women. Some strongly suggested that I remove it entirely, on the grounds that:
I didn’t need it for my other arguments, and that it might even conflict with them, for example urging men into female-dominated HEAL professions.
That it would provoke strong reactions from many on the progressive left.
Other reviewers urged me to keep the chapter, on the grounds that:
It is true.
Ignoring the issue would undermine the credibility of the book in the eyes of most readers, who do believe in sex-based differences in preferences and psychology.
We are different
I kept the chapter, with the title “Making Men — Nature and Nurture Both Matter”. Here is the essence of my argument:
Sex differences in biology shape not only our bodies, including our brains, but also our psychology. We are not blank slates. . . Men are typically more aggressive, take more risks, and have a higher sex drive than girls and women. Of course this is not a comprehensive list. There are other traits that tend to be found more often in men than in women. Males are a bit more interested in things, for example, while women are a bit more interested in people; the guy tinkers in the garage, his wife chats with a friend. But these three—aggression, risk, sex—are where the differences are most pronounced.
As I’ve been out and about talking about the book, this issue of sex differences has come up a bit less than I expected. I take this as a good sign. Most people know intuitively what the responsible scientists know empirically. There are sex differences, and while we should be aware or and attentive to them, we need not be defined or confined by them.
Denying the science on this does absolutely nothing to help us raise our sons and daughters. As the anthropologist Melvin Konner writes in his book Women After All:
I want [my daughters and son] to understand that there are differences between the sexes that are not shaped by culture but are more fundamental, rooted in evolution and biology. I don’t want any of the four of them—or my hundreds of students a year, or any young people, or anyone at all—to live with the great disadvantage of missing that fact.
First, the caveats
Of course, I get the worry here. The acknowledgement of sex differences can be used to suggest not just that men and women are different, but that one is better than the other. That’s why it’s important to get the caveats in early. I’ll focus on these here. and in future posts I’ll dive a bit deeper on four of the main areas of interest: risk, aggression, sex, and the people/things dimension. So here’s essential precautionary caveats:
Distributions overlap. While certain traits are more associated with one sex than the other, the distributions overlap, especially among adults. In other words, the differences are dimorphic—different but overlapping—rather than binary. The typical male has a greater willingness to take risks, for example, than the typical female (especially in adolescence). But some women are more risk-taking than some men. Most studies find the biggest differences are at the tails of these distributions, rather than for the majority of people. A large majority of the most aggressive people are male, but the differences in aggressiveness in the general population are much smaller.
Culture matters at least as much. Sex differences can be magnified or muted by culture. Some cultures valorize violence, while others do not. I’m pretty sure that I would be more physically aggressive if I had been born in Sparta a couple of thousand years ago. There’s just not that much use for it at the Brookings Institution. These cultural variations matter a lot for how, and how far, natural tendencies are expressed in behavior. Culture and biology do not develop separately from each other. They coevolve. Neither biology nor culture can provide the whole story. It may be true that men are, on average, more likely to be violent. But given that violent crime rates have almost halved in the U.S. in just 30 years, it seems clear that culture weighs very heavily on the expression of any biological differences with regard to aggression or violence. The fact that biology matters does not make culture less important. In fact, it makes it more important. Culture determines how we manage, channel, and express many of the natural traits that differ by sex.
They don’t matter too much. These sex differences typically have a rather modest impact on day-to-day lives in the 21st century. There are now much bigger drivers of behavior, including not only culture but personal agency. In modern societies, there is much more room, thankfully, for individuality. Breaking free of narrow definitions of what it takes to be a man or woman is a mark of progress, both as societies and as individuals. This does not require us to deny any natural differences, simply to address them responsibly.
Difference does signal inequality. Average sex differences do not justify the institutionalization of gender inequality. There is a fear that biology can be used to provide an intellectual foundation for sexism. This is well founded, given our history. In the wrong hands, evidence for natural differences can indeed be used to justify oppression. But denying science altogether is not useful; the truth always comes back to bite you eventually. The rather boring truth is that masculine traits are more useful in some contexts and feminine ones in others, and neither set is intrinsically better than the other.
Don’t stereotype. Average differences between groups should not influence how we view individuals. That is what most people call stereotyping and economists call statistical discrimination. even if, on average, women are wired to be a little more nurturing (which they are), it does not mean that my son cannot be an excellent, caring, and empathetic teacher of young children (which he is). You can probably think of some women who are not very nurturing. If you are hiring into a job where nurturing is important, focus on the individual, not their sex.
To be honest, I find this debate frustrating. Too often, scientists working on these issues in good faith, like Carole Hooven in her excellent book Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone That Dominates and Divides Us, are cast as “biological determinists” or “biological essentialists” merely by showing the biology plays some role. This means that a responsible debate about sex differences becomes difficult, as folks are forced to choose between a false binary.
The fear of biology is real. The neuroscientist Gina Rippon writes in her book, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, that “a belief in biology brings with it a particular mindset regarding the fixed and unchangeable nature of human activity.”
I think that’s the heart of the problem. Rippon is worried what it would mean to “believe in biology”. She is worried about the “mindset” that might. This betrays a lack of faith in the ability of people to hold two thoughts in their head at once. It is perfectly possible to have a “belief in biology” without mindlessly assuming that human nature is “fixed and unchangeable”. Or that culture and environment are irrelevant. In fact it is hard to find a responsible scientist who is either an outright determinist or an outright denier on the question of biology.
The real question is not about whether biology matters, but how much it does, and when it does. Can we have that debate?