Monday, November 15, 2010

Madeleine Bunting debunks the 'science' of sex difference

"The truth about sex difference is that if men are from Mars, so are women" -- The Guardian, Nov. 14, 2010.

Excerpts below:

Type "men" and "hardwired" into Google and you tap into a wonderfully absurd catalogue of assertions about male behaviour. Men are "hardwired" to cheat, ignore their wives, suspect infidelity, overspend, fail, love money, pursue women and achieve supremacy in the workplace. Meanwhile, women are "hardwired" to worry about their weight and dump cheaters. All include the magic phrase "scientific studies show". It's a snapshot of how science is being used and abused to legitimise gender stereotypes. It would be laughable if it didn't signify how a form of biological determinism – the claim that differences between men and women have a basis in innate biological characteristics – has re-emerged and acquired an astonishing popular currency...

What's changed in recent years is that the idea of innate biological differences – for instance in cognitive abilities or communication skills – has gained academic credibility and powerful champions in widely admired researchers such as Simon Baron Cohen (author of The Essential Difference) and Steven Pinker. In their wake has followed this boom in scientific studies claiming to find hardwiring for sex differences, and every time they do so, they are guaranteed to accumulate column inches of free publicity. The argument is that breakthroughs in neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary psychology are proving false the feminist consensus of the last 30-odd years that gender is entirely a social construct. The claim is that there are innate differences, and they go part of the way in explaining why men and women have such different lives.

Nonsense, retort a number of prominent women academics who have been trying to fight back in the US and the UK. A new book, Brainstorm, by Rebecca Jordan-Young exhaustively analyses every relevant study on hormonal sex differentiation of the human brain, and argues that they are riddled with weaknesses, inconsistencies and ambiguity. It's a clarion call for better science on the subject.

Jordan-Young's call is echoed in the UK by Deborah Cameron, an Oxford professor of language and communication. She takes issue with one of the central claims that women have superior verbal abilities; some speculate that this is linked to brain structure, others that it has an evolutionary explanation. Cameron sees both as purely speculative, and insists that explanations of difference must take account of three much more prosaic factors...

[re factor two:] Contrary to the commonplace assumption that women speak more, there is now mountains of evidence, claims Cameron, that where status is not a factor there is no difference between men and women; where status does matter – such as office meetings – men talk much more than women...

Or take another central pillar of the new biological determinism which asserts that men and women have different cognitive capabilities. Professor Elizabeth Spelke has spent her academic career looking at cognitive development in infants, and concludes: "All this research supports the startlingly boring conclusion that there are no significant differences between men and women's cognitive abilities."...

But if the evidence for biologically innate differences is so flimsy and full of conjecture, why does it continue to have such a hold on the imagination – in bestselling self-help books and among brilliant, respected scientists? Cameron suggests that this grasping after certainty about gender roles is a response to anxiety. There has been, and still is, rapid social change around the roles and opportunities of men and women.

Cameron adds that a lot of the debate around differing communication skills seems rooted in a rise in conflict between the sexes...

Spelke adds another intriguing dimension to the sustained popularity of forms of biological determinism. Her most recent research devised tests which showed that children as young as three begin to categorise the world by gender. Work she is doing indicates this could begin to develop even earlier – at 10 months. Interestingly, the same process of categorisation in infants is not evident when it comes to race. "We are predisposed to see the social landscape in terms of gender," says Spelke.

She thinks it's possible that it served some adaptive purpose in our evolution, but that actually gender is a very bad indicator of behaviour because there is so much variability within each sex...

Good science will challenge the tendency to stereotype. The danger though is what Cameron refers to as "stereotype threat". If you tell women that women do less well in a maths test, they will do less well, confirming the claim. Don't tell them, and they do better. Stereotypes are dangerous; they become self-fulfilling and can generate discrimination. Cameron points to interviews with call-centre managers who were discriminating against hiring men on their assumption that women were better at empathising. So beware a popular mythology of hardwiring that can result in some very concrete – and pernicious – outcomes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

empathetic genes; survival of the kindest

Essential reading. I'm skeptical that "empathy" is found in one gene, but broadly sympathetic to the thrust of this developing domain of research.

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

And much more...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Erica Jong on "attachment mothering"

Brilliant! From the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 6, 2010. Full article here.

We also assume that "mother" and "father" are exclusive terms, though in other cultures, these terms are applied to a variety of aunts, uncles and other adults. Kinship is not exclusively biological, after all, and you need a brood to raise a brood. Cooperative child-rearing is obviously convenient, but some anthropologists believe that it also serves another more important function: Multiple caregivers enhance the cognitive skills of babies and young children. Any family in which there are parents, grandparents, nannies and other concerned adults understands how readily children adapt to different caregivers. Surely this prepares them better for life than stressed-out biological parents alone.

Baby as accessory: Gisele B√ľndchen with baby Benjamin (Getty Images)