Men are from . . ., Women are from. . .

I’ve long been a skeptic of the rushed conclusions read in the popular press about neuroscience and psychology. I’m especially skeptical about the John Gray thesis that Men are from Mars and Women from Venus. Gray, you may know, has his doctorate from the diploma mill, Columbia Pacific University, which was shut down by the state of California and his bachelor’s degree from the also suspect Maharishi International University which has no records of him. His book was written without any statistically valid evidence; just his hunches.

Recently there have been other criticisms of the use of fMRI research because the research uses only a handful of subjects and the actual researchers wisely, do not make the far-reaching claims that some others base on their work. (Of course there are valuable things being learned in neuroscience research, but it is the early days and it will likely be years before it’s all turned into hard evidence.)

Men Are Not Hardwired for Infidelity: Why Does Pop Culture Insist on Biological Differences Between the Sexes?

Grasping after certainty about gender roles has fostered some bad science and stereotyping that harms both sexes.

November 15, 2010 |

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.

This fascination in differences between the sexes is a staple of the self-help industry. John Gray’s thesis about planetary confusion (Men Are From Mars and Women are From Venus) has spawned nearly two decades of publishing with guides on everything from communication to food, and all still enjoy warm Amazon reviews and healthy sales.

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.

First, that verbal behaviour is linked to “activity type” — what someone usually spends much of their time doing. If that activity type is looking after small children or repairing drains, it will affect how they use language. Second, verbal differences reflect differences in power and status. 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.

Finally, Cameron argues that we use language to project our identity — much like our choice of clothing — to distinguish our sense of who we are in terms of class, life role as well as gender, and all of these identities are socially constructed. Factor out these variables, and you’re left with no clearcut differences in how men and women use language.


One Comment

  1. Posted November 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with the closing remarks concerning language as a means for identification. Language serves as a fundamental part of a social construction of who and what we think we are, which is always in relation to perceived qualities of ‘the other’.

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