Brain, Brain, What Is Brain? or, Is Gender Hard-Wired?


FacesI 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.)

MarsNot 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?

Question_mark_1Now, 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.

*****

InfantOne: 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.”

Brain_1Two: 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 said


EvolutionThree: 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.

CreationismFour: 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 said


SpectraFive: 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!)

SpeakPlus, 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.)

ChooseSix: 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.)

Dna_1My 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.

BergstromIn 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.

Comments

  1. Laura Deal says

    I scored 25% towards the female end of the spectrum. I scored low in part 1 in both the male (spacial ability and female areas (noticing where things moved) but since I’ve always had visual problems, not a big surprise there.
    I’m off the charts on empathy and above average for judging emotions… again nothing surprising here, since I’m a teacher of young children.
    I found the hand clasping and finger parts silly especially since they say I grasp like a guy but have the fingers of a woman.
    I was stumped by the facial attractiveness thing since I felt almost no preference for one face over another but they had no choice of no preference.
    I got an almost perfect score on the 3-D puzzles and was way above average on verbal fluency, but I think that has more to do with growing up doing puzzle books that had puzzles just like these than any male brained 3-D skills or female brained word skills.
    It seems I’m way more of a wuss on asking for money than even most women, It amazed me that most people asked for more than half.
    So while I think hormones do affect the brain and therefore some traits tend to be naturally more common in one gender than another, I think a lot of stuff on this test is shaped more by nurture.

  2. Hayley says

    I got a 50 towards the male side. But I think this test is a little bogus. I already know on most of these test I am more of a spatial-mathematical thinker. But on each individual section I got that I was right in the middle. Plus, I got really high on the empathy. My finger ratio was male on the right hand and female on the left. Maybe it’s because I really blew the word association. I got “grey” and I don’t think they gave me credit for things like “matter, mood or water” which I think should be associated with grey. But I agree that this is learned. The idea that men are supposed to be better at math and women at language is really a societal thing. I think math and language are two sides of the same coin. They are both ways of compacting ideas into manageable packages, they both require memorization and constant use and practice. But the handed thing is really cool. I am going to pass that around. Good party trick.

  3. Hayley says

    Another thing that might have put me on the male side was I asked for 35 British pounds out of the 50. I kind of figured what they were looking for and decided to screw with the test. But also, if I were on the other side of things, if someone gave me 15 pounds or nothing, I’d take the 15. So in another sense, like a lot of tests I took in school, etc… it can be hard to not have your decisions influenced by what you think they are looking for.

  4. says

    I surprisingly scored right down the center. I was expecting a more male return. I got a 0 overall score, but instead of scoring each test right down the center, I scored firmly male for some and firmly female for others (and 1 or 2 toward the center).
    However, I’m also not on my medication right now. And with my ADHD, my medication affects how I test with things like this. When I can concentrate better, I take tests like this better. And I found myself getting bored (or worried my employer was going to find me not working) and I know I wasn’t testing as accurate as possible.
    I’m going to try it again later and see how I score.

  5. Jason says

    1. There is overwhelming scientific evidence of sexual dimorphism in human beings that goes beyond the obvious anatomical differences between the sexes and extends to behavior and cognition.
    2. Differences that are statistical in nature may nevertheless have major policy implications. For example, if women by nature tend to be more willing to give up a professional career in order to care for their children than men, public policies predicated on the assumption that all observed imbalance between the sexes in child care responsibilities is caused by sexism or other cultural effects are wrongheaded and should be discarded.

  6. Laura Deal says

    Jason,
    What public policies do you mean? Unless you are talking about policies in nations more progressive than ours, I’m not aware of many policies set up to help women and men achieve greater balance in sharing child care
    responsibilities.
    My best guess is you are talking about family leave policies that allow men as well as women take off time to care for their children. If so, I think our country needs more such policies. These policies would not prevent women from being stay at home moms if they want, but they would allow families to make the choices that work best for their family. Especially considering that some families are single father or two father households.
    As a teacher, I have seen fathers who are much more suited to caring for their children than their wives. Yes, they are in the minority, but whether that is due to nature or nurture can not be proven at this point,.
    However, even if more women than men are predisposed by nature to give up their careers to care for their children, that doesn’t make it true for every woman or man and laws should be set up to serve all citizens, not just that conform to norms, whether social or genetic.

  7. Jason says

    I mean what I said: Any public policies predicated on the assumption that all observed imbalance between the sexes in child care responsibilities is caused by sexism or other cultural effects. Examples might include policies to encourage more women with young children to join the workforce or that encourage more men to become stay-at-home parents, in order to try and achieve parity between the sexes in these roles.
    Similarly, if it is true that men by nature tend to be more competitive and aggressive than women, or that the distribution of natural talent tends to cause an overrepresenation of men among the most talented members of a population, then we would expect men to dominate top positions in business, academia, the arts, etc., and our public policies should not be based on the assumption that any imbalance between the sexes reflects discrimination or other cultural effects.

  8. Jason says

    Laura writes:
    “As a teacher, I have seen fathers who are much more suited to caring for their children than their wives. Yes, they are in the minority, but whether that is due to nature or nurture can not be proven at this point”
    Anthropologist Donald Brown’s List of Human Universals includes the item “Females do more direct childcare.” The list consists of traits that have been found in every human culture ever studied. It is very likely that these traits are rooted in nature rather than nurture. The probability that all human cultures would by chance just happen to share the trait without a strong biological cause is extremely low. So while there may not yet be “proof” that women tend by nature to be more suited for direct childcare than men, there is strong evidence for it.

  9. Laura Deal says

    Jason,
    I am not aware of any policies that encourage men to stay home with the kids and the only policies I know of that encourage woman to return to the workforce also apply to men. So I guess I need to rephrase my question. What REAL LIFE policies do you mean, or are you just talking about some imaginary policy that Rush talked about to stir up the doo doo and his failing ratings.
    And I repeat my assertion that even if women tend to be more naturally suited for childcare (and I would concede that due to breast feeding they were definately more suited to early child care before the invention of the breast pump) There is no reason not to allow family leave for fathers who want to be stay at home Dads if that is what works best for their families.
    Since for whatever reason men still earn more, hold more positions of power and bear less responsibility for child care, I suggest you stop worrying about the vast number of policies oppressing the straight white men ,because whether due to luck or your natural superiority, our vast left wing feminist conspiracy has failed to hold you all back. So continue to partty like it’s 1899.

  10. says

    I gotta say, I am completely with Laura’s position on this one. Even if there are genetically-based behavior differences between women and men (a position that I think is plausible but far from proven), they represent broad generalities and general statistical trends only. There are clearly *lots* of exceptions, *lots* of people of all genders with character traits that contradict what you might expect based on their gender.
    Look at what’s happened in the last thirty years or so. Even the half-assed attempts our society has made to alleviate sexism has resulted in more female firefighters, police officers, engineers, scientists, construction workers, CEOs, etc. — and more male teachers, nurses, and stay-at-home parents.
    And you know — even if sex differences were almost entirely genetic and there were very few exceptions indeed? That would still be absolutely no reason whatsoever to embed sex discrimination into law and public policy. We need to be evaluating people’s abilities on the basis of, you know, their actual abilities, not what we think their abilities might be based on whether they have a peenie or a hoo-hoo. Sex discrimination in law and policy serves no purpose.
    Example: Even if it’s true that women tend genetically to be more inclined to do child care, what kind of law or public policy (or even private policy) could possibly be an appropriate reflection of that? One that requires women to stay home if they have children? One that bans men from the teaching profession?
    Or just one that sees women not getting promoted into positions of greater responsibility in schools, and doesn’t worry about whether a glass ceiling is in effect — because, after all, women are genetically predisposed to enjoy child care, and therefore if they’re not getting promoted it must be because they don’t want to be?
    As long as nurture (i.e., sexist gender-role training) is part of the picture — and one of the few things we know for sure on this topic is that nurture is, at the very least, a HUGE part of the picture — we need to be taking active steps to undo that.

  11. says

    Help! I tried to take the test and, after doing the “angles” portion twice, it showed that I had not completed any of the portions. What do I click on when I’m done with a portion so I can go onto the next one? I feel myself to be quite intergendered, as are my parents, and the only one of my siblings to be this way. I wanna find out how I stack up!
    Oy.
    I see what Greta is saying regarding nurture being stronger than nature, though I’m not sure I agree. Yes, gender-specific normative behavior is strongly influenced by culture. But there is compelling evidence that nature is very strong, indeed. I’m thinking of those individuals who were born with “indeterminate genetalia” and underwent surgery in infancy to “correct” their “malformation.” Often, these children were XO genetically, but raised as girls (XX). Apparently no one thought to actually do a blood test to see what the genetic markers were, and the surgery was done to make the parents less uncomfortable with having a child whose body is different from others. In many cases, the “girl” very early on acted like a boy and insisted on being called by a male name and dressing as a boy. In short, FEELING as if they were trapped in the wrong body and, upon testing as adolescents or young adults, being validated in their sense of themselves. I don’t dobt that some people raised as boys and feeling weird about it have been determined to be, in fact, genetically female.
    And we can’t forget the physical differences in the brain structure of males and females; how much of each brain is devoted to what skill sets and tendencies.
    Overall, I used to think nature/nurture was 50/50. I think now it’s more along the lines of 60/40, or more, toward the side of nature.

  12. Jason says

    Laura,
    I am thinking of things like gender-based affirmative action programs that give educational or employment-related preferences to one sex because they are in the minority. In cases where there is clear evidence that the minority status is a result of invidious social discrimination, such policies may be justified, but the mere fact that one sex is in the minority is not enough to establish that. Most nurses and teachers are women. Most engineers and CEOs are men. I believe that some of this gender imbalance probably is caused by (past and/or present) social discrimination, but also that some of it probably reflects natural differences in talents and temperaments between the sexes. It’s not clear how much is nurture/discrimination and how much is nature/genes, and we need to be careful about making assumptions that are not justified by evidence.
    I completely agree that invidious social and legal discrimination is wrong, and where it is shown to exist it should be strongly opposed. As Gloria Steinem put it with regard to gender, there really are very few jobs that actually require one to have either a penis or a vagina, and everything else should be equally open to both sexes. But that doesn’t mean that the sexes are equally talented or equally disposed to every kind of job, and in a sexism-free world, I don’t think we should expect to see equal gender representation in most kinds of job or other roles in life.

  13. says

    Affirmative action.
    I see.
    See, here’s the problem. In all this complicated mess, one of the very few things that we know *for sure* is that there *is* sexist, racist, etc. discrimination in the workplace, in business, etc. Sometimes it’s unconscious, sometimes it’s not so much — but it’s there, it’s strong, and it’s very well-documented. (And I don’t just mean documented by simple numbers.)
    And as long as that’s the case, we need to be taking steps to alleviate it.
    Affirmative action policies do *not* assume that there are no inherent gender differences. What they assume is that there *is* sexism — learned, cultural, nurture-type sexism — deeply ingrained in our institutions, which keeps otherwise qualified women (and people of color, etc., but we’re talking about gender here) out of certain kinds of positions. Which we know for a fact is true. And it assumes that employers have to make a conscious effort to counteract this tendency and balance the scales, by making a special effort to look for and consider female candidates for jobs.
    And while I don’t think it’s always been handled perfectly, I do think that it’s made a big, positive difference.
    I’ll quote one of my earlier comments here, since I don’t see any reason to rewrite it: “Look at what’s happened in the last thirty years or so. Even the half-assed attempts our society has made to alleviate sexism has resulted in more female firefighters, police officers, engineers, scientists, construction workers, CEOs, etc. — and more male teachers, nurses, and stay-at-home parents. Clearly, taking active steps to alleviate discrimination (including, but not limited to, affirmative action) have been having an effect.” Nature may play a part, maybe even a substantial part — but it’s clearly not the whole picture.
    And if the half-assed, strongly-resisted efforts of just a few decades can make such a radical difference, it seems glaringly obvious that a better and more sustained effort would make an ENORMOUS difference. Again to quote myself: “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.”
    I think part of the problem is that privilege can be very invisible to people who have it. People in privileged positions and classes (of which I am certainly one: I’m white, middle-class, and college-educated) often complain about the few times that the system works against them… without seeing the hundreds, indeed thousands, of times that it works in their favor. When it works in your favor, it’s just the way it’s always been, you don’t notice it any more than you notice the air. And often the privileges have to do with what doesn’t happen to you, rather than what does. You don’t notice *not* having your tits stared at, *not* being the one who’s always asked to make the coffee, *not* being followed around in a store by security, *not* being refused bank loans… and *not* being passed over for promotion again and again.
    So every time I hear white men complain about how unfairly the world treats them, I want to either laugh or scream.
    (Oh, one more thing: I feel like I need to address a common misconception about affirmative action. The idea, at least in theory, is not to lower standards in order to get more diversity. The idea is to make a deliberate effort to cast a wider net, to get a more diverse group of candidates than you’ve been getting.)

  14. Laura Deal says

    I second everything Greta said.
    Howard Dean had a great story about affirmative action. His chief of staff as governor of Vermont was always a woman. After two or three years, Dean noticed that she had a “matriarchy” in the office. When the chief of staff was going to hire a new person, Dean said, he told her, ” `I notice we have a gender imbalance in the office, and I wonder if you could find a man.’ She said , I’d really like to, but it’s really hard to find a qualified man.”
    His point was that people tend to hire people like themselves. Not always on purpose, but because people in general tend to network with people like themselves. This is why affirmative action is important. It forces people to look outside their network and bring in qualified people of different races and genders. As Greta says it’s not a perfect system, but it does seem to be helping more than it’s huring IMO.
    I think that in certain instances that even in a society free of sexism (btw I’m not holding my breath for that one) there would still be more men or women in certain careers. For example there would probably be more male fire fighters than female. More men than women have the upper body strength needed and I definitely think part of that is nature, though I also think as the 2nd generation of title 9 girls grow up and join the work force we will see that part of it is nurture. However we don’t live in a society free of sexism and those women that do have the strength needed still need some help breaking into male dominated fields.

  15. says

    Nina: “And we can’t forget the physical differences in the brain structure of males and females; how much of each brain is devoted to what skill sets and tendencies.”
    That’s true. But that doesn’t necessarily prove nature over nurture. A growing body of evidence is showing that experience changes the brain — physically, and fairly dramatically. So if you want to know if male and female brains are inherently different genetically, you need to look at infant brains, not adult brains or even child brains.
    There’s a good conversation about this over on the Frontal Cortex blog:
    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2007/02/is_neuroscience_conservative.php?utm_source=mostemailed&utm_medium=link
    They’re discussing whether neuroscience supports the conservative viewpoint (namely, the idea that people are how they were born and there therefore isn’t any point in trying to help the poor), but it applies here, too.

  16. says

    Yes, experience actually does change the growth and development of the brain, especially in infancy and early childhood. (A great book on this is “A General Theory of Love”). We touch, hold, comfort and interact with infants differently depending on which gender we think they are, so the nature/nurture tussle starts right out of the gate.
    But HOW experiences changes the brain would also depend, on part, on which brain is having the experience. Depending on how big a person’s visual or verbal or spatial areas were, for example, different stimulation/exposure wold affect the child differently.
    I do think it comes down to nature in the end, though, as I belive that DNA has the upper hand over time. People may be trained and conditioned to act against their “true natures” but the results are rarely happy, as the constant internal stress of maintaining a persona that is not authentic to onself usually has negative consequences, both on the personal and societal level. People can, and have, been taught and trained to act against their own best interests with out knowing that that’s what’s going on.
    I”m still trying to get a clue on how to navigate the brain test, though. It won’t show when I’ve completed a portion, even though I completed a single portion twice. Any help there would be most welcome.

  17. Laura Deal says

    I just read about a site that tries to predict the gender of an author by using some algorithm.
    You just submit a sample of your writing (the more words the better) and it will guess your gender. The first two submissions I entered both read as female but the second two both read as male.
    After it guesses your gender it shows you the breakdown of the words that read as male or female. It seems “is”, “are”, & “as” are guy words but “and”, “be” and “was” are chick words. What gender owns “WTF?”
    Anyways if you want to check it out:
    http://www.bookblog.net/gender/genie.html

  18. Laura Deal says

    This is sort of off-topic, but it’s Joss Whedon and I think he relates to any topic, and I just thought a lot of the people who read this blog would be interested, so here’s the link to his Equality Now speech (I didn’t think it would be possible to fall any more in love with Joss…but I have)…and could this sentence get any longer, it seems it can…anyways…enjoy.

Leave a Reply