biology and gender

Alan commented on my review of Get to Work with a link to his critique of Hirshman’s essay.  I promptly clicked over, and have to admit that he nearly lost me with the first paragraph, which begins:

"Ms. Hirshman, your complaint, strangely enough, makes me think of Henry Higgins’ lament, "Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” You refuse to consider that it may be differences in women’s and men’s brains (differences which evolved over eons–look into evolutionary psychology or sociobiology sometime) that account for some of their differences in behavior."

I have a pretty solid knee-jerk antagonistic reaction to sociobiological arguments.   After a moment, I realized I was doing almost exactly what I had accused Hirshman of — dismissing the argument because some (many? most?) of the people who make it are conservative anti-feminists.

I do think the science behind sociobiology is extraordinarily weak.  The fossil and artifact record tells us very little about how our ancestors organized their lives.  It’s a field where people seem to miraculously find confirmation of whatever they believed going in.  You find people arguing that women are biologicially wired to care more about housecleaning because they’ve got keener senses and people arguing that women are biologically wired not to notice how bad poopy diapers smell.  And Newt Gingrich arguing that men are biologically wired to wallow in the mud and hunt giraffes.

I also don’t think that you need to rely on sociobiology to explain gender differences in behavior.  For example, Rhonda Mahony does a perfectly good job of explaining how pregnancy, breastfeeding, and maternity leave can give mothers a "head start" in attachment to babies, which leads to decisions that perpetuate the inbalance. 

In yesterday’s post, Deborah Tannen reviewed a new book, The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine.  She concludes her review: " But given the character — and rancor — of our dichotomous approach to the influences of biology and culture, readers likely will be fascinated or angered, convinced or skeptical, according to the positions they have staked out already."

While I’m skeptical of sociobiology, I do believe, as I’ve said before, that estrogen and testosterone do affect our brains as well as our bodies.  I’ll see if I can get the book out of the library.

14 Responses to “biology and gender”

  1. chip Says:

    I’m sure you’ve read about studies where they dress the same baby up as a boy and then as a girl and find tremendous fundamental differences in how people interact with the baby. I think we cannot even begin to understand the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which, from birth, we are being trained to be masculine or feminine.
    On sociobiology, you’ve really nailed it. Echidne had an excellent post on this, pointing out just how exactly findings can be interpreted to fit prior beliefs, it’s funny and worth the read:
    Finally, one of my biggest problems, as a guy, with arguments like Alan’s, is that they basically condemn me to the “male” role, tell me I can’t be a nurturing parent, the primary care giver, etc. In short, these gender roles are constricting and thus destructive.
    (BTW, I read In the Little World over my vacation: you’re right, it’s a great read.)

  2. bj Says:

    And, when we’re talking about anecdotes (i.e. our own children, n=1 of each gender) we have terrible confirmatory biases. For example, for years, I’ve seen the evidence cited of little girls who played with their mama, papa, and baby _trucks_ when given trucks. And my first, my daughter, did this. We talked about it, and found it funny. She also played with mama, papa, baby circles, and mama, papa, baby pieces of toast. Obviously, she’s a girl, right?
    But, my son did this too; we just didn’t notice as much. And we didn’t encourage it in the same way. We live in a terribly gendered world, and we and the children reinforce it constantly. Most of this stuff just becomes impossible to separate and certainly shouldn’t be used to justify social policy.
    That’s the key, to me. I agree with the notion that hormones effect the brain as well as the body (I study the brain — it’s just another part of the body). I’d also not be quite so dismissive of sociobiology, which I think explains social structure in birds, bees, frogs, and lots of other animals. What I do think is that whatever explanations it provides for human behavior don’t trump all of the environmental influences on people’s behavior, and thus, can’t be used to set social policy.

  3. Christine Says:

    I would be more willing to accept sociobioligical theories if they weren’t meant to prove one gender is better than the other. Most of these arguments are used to say men are smarter and women should remain enslaved to the home. It can be downright aggravating. My husband can do some things better than me, but he can’t multitask at all and on some level I find that a weakness. I don’t blame it on testosterone, but personality or environment. He was raised in Europe in a laid back environment, not the workaholic American environment. The entire thing is ridiculous.

  4. dave s Says:

    Let me play skunk at this garden party – and I’m basically with bj, sociobiology is extremely good at explaining a lot of animal behavior. As well, something like 8 per cent of Chinese men have the y chromosome of Genghis Khan, one of the reasons Pat Schroeder objected to going to war for Kuwait at the time of Gulf War I was the habit of the ruler there of marrying a new girl every week and his hundreds of children, and the genes of the people living in England turned over hugely to those of the Anglo-Saxon invaders within a couple of hundred years – so I’m not sure what confirmatory human data you really think you need here. Christine says ‘one gender is better’ but I think that’s a mischaracterization – better to note that sociobiology predicts that individual members of one gender (women) are far more likely to have SOME reproductive success where for members of the other gender they likely either hit the reproductive jackpot and have twenty or fail entirely, and that men’s inherited behavioral tendencies are likely to be those of the ones who succeeded in becoming their ancestors (anybody read the recent obituaries of Alfredo Stroessner?)…
    It’s worth reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, I think, who has thought about feminism and sociobiology. I also think, well, biology is not necessarily destiny. In some ways Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is worth a look, for his ideas of emergent properties of groups. I am a monogamous man with three children – well socialized, trying to do the right thing by my wife and kids. And I’m trying to socialize my boys towards what I think is right action and away from their inner Genghis Khan, and my girl towards skepticism towards the Genghis Khans who will try to come into her life. And I want support! from society – I prefer that the guys we make into heroes act more like me and Al Gore and less like Genghis Khan/Bill Clinton/Hugh Hefner. My boys idolize Ryan Zimmerman – if he’s chasing the ladies, I hope they don’t hear about it.
    But I think that the notion that there are not strong heritable influences on our social and sexual interactions is extremely implausible, and that the ‘just-so’ stories of the sociobiologists are the most credible attempts to make sense of this.

  5. Ailurophile Says:

    Roger N. Lancaster has an excellent critique of sociobiology in his “The Trouble With Nature;” so does Jonathan Marks (a biological anthropologist) in “What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee,” and Mary Clark (a biologist) in “In Search of Human Nature.”
    I don’t swallow most of the claims of sociobiology/ev psych. In particular, I don’t swallow the claims that our Pleistocene ancestors were a lot like the Flintstones – daddy-provider, mommy-housewife cozy nuclear famblee. Data from existing foraging societies show a) women provide most of the food, b) there is a high degree of gender equality and c) little emphasis on the nuclear couple family and much on the extended kin group. Lancaster goes into the vast cultural diversity found in human societies.
    I’d probably have less quarrel with sociobiology if it didn’t sound like a social conservative wish list for How To Take Us Back To An Idealized 1950’s. As Charles Jencks said, “Why should evolution stop and get fixated in suburban America?” Most of the just-so stories are no more than Leave It To Beaver on the savannah.
    I make an exception for Sarah Hrdy, though – her “Mother Nature” is an excellent read. I don’t agree with much of what she says, but her sociobiology appears to be more grounded in plausibility and less in Just-So. In particular, something that Hrdy proposes which I find plausible: humans evolved to be “cooperative breeders” (like wolves), where not just Mom and Pop but a whole kin group takes care of the dependent children. Whether or not we actually evolved that way, it makes sense; I think kids benefit from having an extended family.

  6. dave s Says:

    And furthermore: the examples I gave a couple of posts ago were mostly about the behavior of men. Here are some behavior-of-women examples. Our lesbian friend who wanted kids went to a sperm bank, and decided she wanted a donor who was smart and successful and VERY TALL, and picked one out of the catalog and now has a couple of smart and VERY TALL schoolchildren. The NY Times had an article about the business of sperm banks a month or so ago: sperm banks don’t even bother with donors who are less than 5 foot 9 these days. No one picks them.
    Sociobiology is a lot of things, I realize, and I have focused on differential reproductive success and about people using strategies which increase theirs. Ozzie and Harriet in the Pliestocene is not very compelling, but the idea that we are a blank slate for current pieties to be printed on seems a nonstarter, too. I think my kids have, that I had, tendencies of which I disapprove, and that my civilizing task as a parent is partly to get them onto paths which are, in fact, not natural to them.

  7. dave s Says:

    Somehow I want to chew on this gristle some more. You said you had ‘pretty solid knee-jerk antagonistic reaction to sociobiological arguments’ – as do many others! And it seems to me that we can look for a common thread in opposition to sociobiology, evolution, ideas of hereditary influences on behavior, Creationism, etc. Stalin had those who doubted Lysenko put away, Kansas is the scene of pitched battles between people who want to teach evolution in schools, there was a huge attachment to the Freud theories about mental illness coming from early life events/talking cure therapy and attempt to explain away the success of anti-mental-illness medications. All of these seem to me in some way to reflect squeamishness about the connection between the meat and the behavior, or the body and the soul.
    Sociobiology suggests that some pretty unattractive behaviors (1) result in more children and (2) thus contribute to reproductive success and (3) that genes leading to behaviors which contribute to reproductive success are selected for, so (4) if these behaviors are influenced by genes, they are and have been selected for. Seems plausible and likely to me. And if you want people to be have better, you take them where they are and try to move them towards what you think is right. There are also attractive behaviors for which there are plausible ‘just-so’ stories: altruism, attachment to groups. My kids’ astonishing loyalty to the Nats and the Redskins, who they have never met, but who are ‘we’.
    This is not comfortable if you want to believe that through struggle in the society you can create the New Socialist Man, or if you hold to the book of Genesis as history, or if you want to quickly go towards a just society of shared childrearing, less emphasis on status/dominance displays, no playground bullies, people ignore Paris Hilton, and peace in the Middle East. Oh yeah, and sensible shoes for all. Did I leave anything out?
    I squandered a lot of my junior high school years on science fiction, and in particular read a lot of Robert Heinlein. And one of his writing tricks was to develop aphorisms – maybe my fave is ‘when the people vote for the impossible, the disastrous possible happens instead’.
    Now, I want all the good stuff, too, though I pay far too much attention to Paris Hilton for my soul’s good. At least, Paris Hilton is a GUILTY pleasure, right? But I think the chance of getting to the right place is a lot better if one bases one’s strategy on the best and clearest look at the facts, rather than on what one thinks ought to be the case.
    Here’s a charming story about marmosets from the Economist. Now THAT’s good-dad behavior.

  8. Linda Hirshman Says:

    Turns out your first instinct was right after all.
    From my blog Go to the blog for the whole sorry story.
    First Annual “More Likely To Be Killed By a Terrorist than Marry Retraction” Award to “The Female Brain”
    Announcing The 2006 “More Likely To Be Killed By a Terrorist Than Marry Retraction” Award to Louann Brizendine, for “The Female Brain”
    This summer Newsweek Magazine retracted its twenty year old story predicting that educated women over thirty were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a man who would marry them.
    Despite the retractions, terrible methodology and hostility to women’s aspirations combine to create an apparently unlimited market for books that punish ambitious women. Every day I turn on my TV and see another such volume or report. So I have decided to create a prize. I will restrain myself to giving it only once a year, although the competition will be keen. It’s the “More Likely to Be Killed By a Terrorist Than Marry Retraction” Award for the dumbest, most obviously concocted, damaging suggestion in the area of women’s lives, which, after two decades of terrorizing the women it purports to help, is absolutely guaranteed to generate a belated retraction, sort of like pulling out the emptied fang of a spent rattlesnake.
    This year’s winner is the transparently nonsensical “Female Brain” by self-proclaimed (honest, it’s on her book publicity) “pioneering neuropsychiatrist” Louann Brizendine. If it were true, The Female Brain would be a scary book indeed. But of course it’s not.
    Insecure readers might coubt their own sanity when reading the thing, because the short book is supplemented by mind-numbing pages of citations to scientific journals. But happily as far as I know the articles Brizendine cites bear essentially no relationship to the propositions in the text of the book. As the only real academic to look at it reveals, she might as well have cited to passages in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The methodology is the all-too-familiar incredible assertions supported by a Million Little Pieces of unrelated footnotes.
    “Science” books with faux citations are a problem. But perhaps a worse problem is that not a single book reviewer in the country took the time to go to the local university library and see whether Brizendine’s “sources” actually said what she said they said.
    Blessedly, Mark Liberman, the Trustee Professor of Phonetics, Department of Linguistics and Professor, Department of Computer and Information Science, at the University of Pennsylvania, was intrigued enough by Brizendine’s unlikely assertion that “A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000″ to try to run down that one building block of her Mars/Venus “neuropsychiatry.” He reports on his blog first, that there was absolutely no legitimate source whatsoever for the factoid and speculating that some marriage counselor must have made it up, then, that metasurveys revealed no such thing, and finally, doing his own test found that men use more words than women do!
    Alerted to the possibility that Brizendine might have made it all up, Liberman rummaged among his books and fired up his online university library system and investigated the citations for Brizendine’s assertion that “studies indicate that girls are motivated — on a molecular and a neurological level — to ease and even prevent social conflict.”
    Here’s what he found:
    [in sum]
    1. Jasnow 2006: Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships or humans of any sex.
    2. Bertolino 2005: Nothing here about social conflict or preserving relationships or teenagers of any sex.
    3. Hamann 2005: Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships or teenagers.
    4. Huber 2005: Nothing here about sex differences, about social conflict avoidance, about preserving relationships, or about humans of any age or sex.
    5. Pezawas 2005: Nothing here about sex differences, about social conflict avoidance, about preserving relationships, or about teenage girls.
    6. Sabatinelli 2005: Nothing here about sex differences or social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships.
    7. Viau 2005: Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or about preserving relationships.
    8. Wilson 2005: Because Penn lacks a subscription to this journal, and I was unwilling to pay $30 for a 7-page article, I’m not sure about the details. Unlike the other articles cited, it does have something to do with social interaction, but there’s apparently no direct relevance to social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships.
    9. Phelps 2004: Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships.”
    Inspired by Liberman, I did a little snooping into the vita of the self-proclaimed UCSF Professor and found that she is in fact not an academic professor, but a clinical professor, running a clinic she herself founded treating women’s psychiatric problems from a hormonal standpoint, at $180 a session.
    Now clinical professors do good and important work in many institutions, but this does mean that she has not had to undertake and meet the rigorous competition for an academic position at a leading medical school. Just as well. During her fourteen years as a “Professor,” prior to the 2006 Terrorist Retraction Prize winning “Female Brain,” Brizendine was an author on exactly seven papers, the most recent one published four years ago in 2002. According to PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, which is cited on Brizendine’s own academic bio webpage, she was not even the first named researcher on any of the seven. Just to put her accomplishments in context, her colleague in the psychiatry department at UCSF, Associate Professor Steven P. Hamilton, has published twenty-four papers since 1994, first listed author on eleven.
    I guess it depends on what “pioneering neuropsychiatrist” is . . . is.
    A quick web search for other Brizendine contributions to medical science turned up report that she told the audience at a fund-raiser that “the World Health Organization has projected that by 2003, depression will be the number one disease in the world, surpassing diabetes, heart disease and others.” I guess it depends on what “number one disease” is, but I would be surprised if the WHO thought depression was a worse threat to human well-being than, say, malaria or AIDS.
    The book stores are full of loony books that look at first glance like science, so it is probably too much to ask that the publisher withdraw its endorsement of The Female Brain, as publishers did in the cases of the fake memoir “A Thousand Little Pieces” and the plagiarized “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life.” But I venture to guess that if a book about anything except why women should behave in old-fashioned and traditional ways contained this staggering percentage of misrepresentation and error, someone beside a blogging linguistics professor would have picked it up long ago.

  9. dave s Says:

    Hirshman’s comments here are interesting. I am thinking of my kid, hiding under a blanket and saying “I CANT HEAR YOU!! I CANT HEAR YOU!! I CANT HEAR YOU” when some unpleasant news is coming his way. Let’s summarize: Brizendine cites some articles which, on inspection, don’t back up her statements. Therefore, her book is junk and her thesis is wrong. Okay, maybe the book is junk, I haven’t read it, nor have I looked at whether her other references are fairly described in her text – but Brizendine is not its only exponent, and are the others all tarred with her brush?
    Hirshman herself has made some interesting choices: she says women looking to succeed should have one child or none (she herself had three). She had a job as a lawyer in a firm, exactly the sort of job in which she encourages women to immolate themselves, but left it for the far more family-friendly groves of academe. And I’ve never seen her address the question, what would the long-term effects be in society if high-achieving women systematically removed themselves from the parent pool by having one or no children. Will they all hope to be cared for, in their ultimate nursing homes where no-one visits them because by their deaths their families will go extinct, by the fourth and fifth children of women who had larger families?
    Hirshman has a fixation on status which I find unattractive – in her demand that women should seek the most powerful and glamorous of jobs, and here in her post, where she sneers at Brizendine for being an adjunct. I’m reminded of a very cute paragraph brought to my attention by Laura McKenna at 11D and written by the blogger Megan McArdle, in writing about Professor Brad DeLong:
    “…Given that Mr Delong is at the apex of a group I once described as “one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles”, I am surprised at his readiness to attribute such dreadful motives to the rich. I’ve had a taste of both academia and investment banking. The dominance hierarchy of banking is so strong that if you could get the bankers out of their pinstripes for an hour, you could have filmed your average pitch meeting for the Discovery Channel. Yet when it comes to hyper-obsession with invisibly fine status distinctions, no banker could hold a candle to the average academic–or journalist, for that matter.
    I am quite positive that Mr Delong’s enjoyment of his prestigious professorship is substantially augmented by its position high in the academic firmament, twinkling light years above adjunct professors at Missoula Central Community College. Would he describe that emotion as spite for those less fortunate than himself? For after all, the existence of a pyramid for them to be at the top of is what makes him and his colleagues successful academics, rather than cranks with an odd hobby of publishing monographs almost no one reads…”
    I kind of hope that ideas and the strength of the evidence behind them should matter, not the success with which their proponents have climbed the greasy pole of academe.
    My wife and I have two boys and a girl. My daily experience leaves me with no doubt whatsoever that girls and boys are different, and in ways which are consistent with general views of women’s and men’s natures. When our daughter started having independent views, a lot of pink and spangle came into our home life, which had previously revolved around Star Wars and trucks. Princesses are big now, and tiaras. Better? Worse? No, different.
    Here is part of a post from the Alpha Psy blog, to which I was led by Gene Expression:
    “..The Ultra-Left review “Social Anarchism” reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, and surprise! It is overwhelmingly positive. Are you seated? …’We, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature'” (go to
    Now, I haven’t read Brizendine, though I have looked at several reviews, but it seems to me that Hirshman is misrepresenting when she says “..But I venture to guess that if a book about anything except why women SHOULD (emphasis added) behave in old-fashioned and traditional ways contained this staggering percentage of misrepresentation and error..” – at least as I read the reviews, Brizendine is offering ideas about how women DO behave, and why, not necessarily about how they SHOULD behave.
    I want all of my children to have successful and happy lives. I hope they don’t end their lives alone in nursing homes with no one outside caring for them. I am far more interested in reconfiguring the tracks in the rat race than in fitting my daughter – and sons! to run well in the tracks as they are presently laid down, and that is I what I see Hirshman advocating. And attempting to pretend away the increasingly overwhelming evidence about human nature will not help.

  10. dave s Says:

    There is a very fun academic grudge match between Pinker and Lakoff (can I watch? Mom, please, can I watch?!) and here is a commentary on it – relevant here as an example of disputation done right, as a contrast with Hirshman’s slam on Brizendine, I think, and because Lakoff’s stuff has some of the flaws of Hirshman’s: scroll to Oct 7

  11. dave s Says:

    Hirshman’s attacks are clearly not slowing Brizendine down much, in the war for public attention…

  12. dave.s. Says:

    This was at
    Remember the book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”?
    Well, here’s a prime example offered by an English professor at
    Southern Methodist University, English 44A, SMU,
    Creative Writing, Prof. Miller.
    In-class Assignment for Wednesday:
    “Today we will experiment with a new form called the
    tandem story. The process is simple. Each person will pair off
    with the person sitting to his or her immediate right. One of you
    will then write the first paragraph of a short story. The partner
    will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to
    the story. The first person will then add a third paragraph, and
    so on back and forth. Remember to re-read what has been written
    each time in order to keep the story coherent. The story is over
    when both agree a conclusion has been reached.”
    “The following was actually turned in by two of my English students:
    Rebecca – last name deleted, and Gary – last name
    _____ STORY: (first paragraph by Rebecca) ________
    At first, Laurie couldn’t decide which kind of tea
    she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite
    for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of
    Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked
    chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep
    her mind off Carl. His possessiveness was suffocating,
    and if she thought about him too much her asthma started
    acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question.
    ———————– Gary ———————————————-
    Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of
    the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had
    more important things to think about than the neuroses
    of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom
    he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago.
    “A.S. Harris to Geostation 17,” he said into his
    transgalactic communicator. “Polar orbit established. No sign of
    resistance so far…” But before he could sign off a
    bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted
    a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the
    direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across
    the cockpit.
    ——————– Rebecca ——————————————-
    He bumped his head and died almost immediately, but
    not before he felt one last pang of regret for
    psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for
    him. Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless
    hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4.
    “Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and
    Space Travel,” Laurie read in her newspaper one morning.
    The news simultaneously excited her and bored her. She
    stared out the window, dreaming of her youth — when the
    days had passed unhurriedly and carefree, with no
    newspapers to read, no television to distract her from
    her sense of innocent wonder at all the beautiful things
    around her. “Why must one lose one’s innocence to become
    a woman?” she pondered wistfully.
    ———————– Gary ———————————————-
    Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds
    to live. Thousands of miles above the city, the
    Anu’udrian mothership launched the first of its lithium fusion
    missiles. The dim-witted wimpy peaceniks who pushed the
    Unilateral Aerospace Disarmament Treaty through Congress
    had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien
    empires who were determined to destroy the human race.
    Within two hours after the passage of the treaty the
    Anu’udrian ships were on course for Earth, carrying
    enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet. With no one
    to stop them, they swiftly initiated their diabolical
    plan. The lithium fusion missile entered the atmosphere
    unimpeded. The President, in his top-secret mobile submarine
    headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, felt the
    inconceivably massive explosion which vaporized Laurie and 85 million
    other Americans. The President slammed his fist on the conference table.
    “We can’t allow this! I’m going to veto that treaty! Let’s
    blow ‘em out of the sky!”
    ——————– Rebecca ——————————————-
    This is absurd. I refuse to continue this mockery of
    literature. My writing partner is a violent,
    chauvinistic, semi-literate adolescent.
    ———————– Gary ———————————————-
    Yeah? Well, you’re a self-centered tedious neurotic
    whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of
    ——————– Rebecca ——————————————-
    ———————– Gary ———————————————-

  13. Christine Says:

    I smell romance – or am I wrong?

  14. dave.s. Says:

    Take-down on Brizendine:

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