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Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia
September 3, 2009 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Neuroscientist Lise Eliot finds that claims of sex differences fall apart. In one study, scientists dressed newborns in gender-neutral clothes and misled adults about their sex. The adults described the "boys" (actually girls) as angry or distressed more often than did adults who thought they were observing girls, and described the "girls" (actually boys) as happy and socially engaged more than adults who knew the babies were boys. Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens.

"Eliot immersed herself in hundreds of scientific papers (her bibliography runs 46 pages). Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia, she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either "blatantly false," "cherry-picked from single studies," or "extrapolated from rodent research" without being confirmed in people. For instance, the idea that the band of fibers connecting the right and left brain is larger in women, supposedly supporting their more "holistic" thinking, is based on a single 1982 study of only 14 brains. Fifty other studies, taken together, found no such sex difference—not in adults, not in newborns. Other baseless claims: that women are hard-wired to read faces and tone of voice, to defuse conflict, and to form deep friendships; and that "girls' brains are wired for communication and boys' for aggression." Eliot's inescapable conclusion: there is "little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains.""
posted by cashman (106 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yup.
posted by Eideteker at 10:31 AM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


Interesting, although I can't say I'm really surprised. The degree to which people force-fit infants, who are pretty much asexual in any meaningful way, into gendered roles is pretty amazing.

One of my friends just had a kid, and was remarking on just how much more "female" (i.e. pink) baby clothes there are than "male" (blue) or nonspecific (yellow, green) ones. There's apparently an expectation that parents of female children will be buying much more clothing from them, practically from day zero.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:39 AM on September 3, 2009


Obligatory note that the pink/blue roles use to be reversed. Pink (seen as a watered down red) was once much more masculine, and blue much more feminine for the wee bubbas. 'Couse they use to dress little boys in dresses as well, and no I'm not talking about Olde England.

I don't have kids, and we are childless by choice, but if I did there would be a lot of greens, and browns... well just about anything except blue and pink.
posted by edgeways at 10:44 AM on September 3, 2009


"Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens."

I don't think many would argue that adults can project their biases onto the world around them. This in no way, however, "disproves" the idea that differences do actually exist.

Aside from the incontrovertible physiological differences (rotator cuff, optimal stride due to pelvic orientation, "tackle"), the presence or absence of testosterone has a drastic effect on brain development. That has nothing to do with societal expectations or adult gender biases - If you have testosterone, parts of your brain develop more than if you don't (and vice-versa).

People need to stop wasting time trying to prove that the sky looks orange.
posted by pla at 10:47 AM on September 3, 2009 [22 favorites]


the presence or absence of testosterone has a drastic effect on brain development.

pla: did you rtfa? the claim is that she looked at those claims, too, and found the evidence wanting.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:49 AM on September 3, 2009 [12 favorites]


"The adults described the "boys" (actually girls) as angry or distressed more often than did adults who thought they were observing girls, and described the "girls" (actually boys) as happy and socially engaged more than adults who knew the babies were boys."

But also, later in the article:

"For instance, baby boys are more irritable than girls."

So maybe adults treating boys as more irritable are treating them as more irritable because boys are more irritable?
posted by The Tensor at 10:51 AM on September 3, 2009


If you have testosterone, parts of your brain develop more than if you don't (and vice-versa).

Who are these testosterone-free people to whom you refer?
posted by carmen at 10:52 AM on September 3, 2009 [9 favorites]


Yeah... I have a daughter (4) and a son (2), and in tons of ways neither of them fit the traditional gender molds. But there is a difference. And there is a clear difference overall, when you interact with a number of different kids. This is probably useful in clearing out some of the weeds (girls this, boys that, trucks and dolls, blah blah -- mostly nonsense). But there are obvious differences in how boys and girls approach the world, and people claiming there aren't, well you just have to wonder if they've met any kids. The problem is it's very hard to quantify the difference. It's not social abilities, language, motor skills... the best I can do it to say the genders are attentive to different things, and in a different order. It's like they learn about the world differently, even though they all get to the same places.

Now someone go design an experiment to prove that.
posted by rusty at 10:54 AM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens.

That apparently includes adult researchers as well.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:54 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens."

I don't think many would argue that adults can project their biases onto the world around them. This in no way, however, "disproves" the idea that differences do actually exist.

Aside from the incontrovertible physiological differences (rotator cuff, optimal stride due to pelvic orientation, "tackle"), the presence or absence of testosterone has a drastic effect on brain development. That has nothing to do with societal expectations or adult gender biases - If you have testosterone, parts of your brain develop more than if you don't (and vice-versa).

People need to stop wasting time trying to prove that the sky looks orange.


In threads citing scientific studies, you gotta do your own citing. Otherwise, its just hot air.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:56 AM on September 3, 2009 [21 favorites]



the presence or absence of testosterone has a drastic effect on brain development.

pla: did you rtfa? the claim is that she looked at those claims, too, and found the evidence wanting.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:49 PM on September 3


Well, I rtfa, and the word 'testosterone' does not appear in it at all.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't think many would argue that adults can project their biases onto the world around them. This in no way, however, "disproves" the idea that differences do actually exist.

That was my first thought as well. If you told people that a random person was trustworthy, or a sociopath, or a habitual liar and then had studied their responses, those biases would affect how they perceived that person. But that doesn't prove that the labels have no meaning, just that people will rely on labels to form their opinions of people in the absence of a lot of real experience with that particular person. That's not to say that the study is useless though, because it is important to find out what kinds of biases are associated with gender labels regardless of how accurate those biases are.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman : the claim is that she looked at those claims, too, and found the evidence wanting.

Hey, no problem, she "looked at it". So she can no doubt provide a perfectly rational explanation for the missing 100g (on average) of brain mass in "testosterone deficient" humans vs those with the broken-leg chromosome. Probably just a cultural bias that leads otherwise-identical-to-men to chemically lobotomizing themselves with too much hairspray, right?


Carmen : Who are these testosterone-free people to whom you refer?

Pbpbpbpbbpttttt. :)
posted by pla at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2009


Further proof that confirmation bias exists, just as I thought would.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:00 AM on September 3, 2009 [53 favorites]


The adults described the "boys" (actually girls) as angry or distressed more often than did adults who thought they were observing girls, and described the "girls" (actually boys) as happy and socially engaged more than adults who knew the babies were boys.

and

Other baseless claims: that women are hard-wired to read faces and tone of voice, to defuse conflict, and to form deep friendships; and that "girls' brains are wired for communication and boys' for aggression."

So, perhaps we should say socially wired from interactions with others
posted by scrutiny at 11:00 AM on September 3, 2009


And by wired I don't actually mean wired. I mean force-fed.
posted by scrutiny at 11:02 AM on September 3, 2009


So ummm ... Nature just took a hit in the Nature Vs Nurture wars. Good. It always gives me hope when science reveals that what we choose to do can actually influence things. I look forward to using this study to my advantage in some upcoming Labor Day Weekend bbq arguments.
posted by philip-random at 11:02 AM on September 3, 2009


So.

My father in law, Mike, visited from out of town when my boy was just about a year old.

He bought a plastic car set for him, and spent the day playing with him, pushing the cars around and making "vroom vroom" noises as they raced around the room and crashed into each other.

The next day, my son came up to his poppa with the toy cars, making "vroom vroom" noises. Mike smiled and turned to me and said "it's amazing, how they just know what cars should do, isn't it?"
posted by boo_radley at 11:04 AM on September 3, 2009 [23 favorites]


> Pbpbpbpbbpttttt. :)

I can tell you're a guy, 'cause you're so irritable.
posted by ardgedee at 11:05 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is the fact the author Dr Lise Eliot is listed "only" as an "associate prof" and doesn't seem to have an overwhelming number of publications to her name cause for being a little wary?

(Not remotely trolling. Interested in an informed opinion!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:06 AM on September 3, 2009


Hey, no problem, she "looked at it". So she can no doubt provide a perfectly rational explanation for the missing 100g (on average) of brain mass in "testosterone deficient" humans vs those with the broken-leg chromosome.

I don't know. She claims to have examined and found the evidence deficient. That's all I know, same as you. Read the book and see for yourself whether she's proved her claims or not. My point is, the claim being made is that evidence for those sex-related differences in brains is not there. You didn't disprove her argument that it isn't just by asserting that it is.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:08 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


It bothers me when people extrapolate about what their kid / pet is thinking. "She gave me this look like What, strawberry Yoplait again? She's such a little princess!" No, that's what you were thinking, you're making her a little princess by saying shit that. "He wanted you to go over to the back door and get the ball for him. He's such a selfish lazy dog!" No, he's just a dog, you're projecting onto him again.
posted by water bear at 11:08 AM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Ironmouth : In threads citing scientific studies, you gotta do your own citing. Otherwise, its just hot air.

Fair enough, and glad you called me on it! Sometimes, in looking for references, I find myself in error. In this case:

"Testosterone basically kills of some of the cells in the communication centers and grow more cells in the sex and aggression centers for the male fetus"

"So even when a cat is neutered, he still has a male brain, ready to respond to testosterone from any source, even a adrenal gland tumor" (cats != humans, of course).

"During the intrauterine period the fetal brain develops in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells"

"In neural regions with appropriate receptors testosterone, or its metabolites, influences patterns of cell death and survival, neural connectivity and neurochemical characterization. Consequently, testosterone exposure during critical periods of early development produces permanent behavioural changes"

Pretty much the first four (non-crap) google hits for the topic. I can post more if you'd like.
posted by pla at 11:08 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


In threads citing scientific studies, you gotta do your own citing. Otherwise, its just hot air.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:56 PM on September 3


Okay:

"Masculinization/defeminization of the mammalian brain is dependent on androgens, specifically testosterone."

"Fetal Testosterone Predicts Sexually Differentiated Childhood Behavior in Girls and in Boys."

posted by Pastabagel at 11:09 AM on September 3, 2009


Is the fact the author Dr Lise Eliot is listed "only" as an "associate prof" and doesn't seem to have an overwhelming number of publications to her name cause for being a little wary?

I'd say, "No."
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:11 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is an interesting study, but it's interesting for what it suggests about the psychology of the adults. It doesn't tell you anything at all about whether there actually are any differences between the kids -- that's an entirely separate claim. And bizarrely, the article matter-of-factly asserts that "baby boys are more irritable than girls," which directly contradicts their "inescapable conclusion" that there is "little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

I'm not sure whether this is sloppy science or just sloppy journalism.
posted by shammack at 11:15 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


pla:
"she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either "blatantly false," "cherry-picked from single studies," or "extrapolated from rodent research" without being confirmed in people. For instance, the idea that the band of fibers connecting the right and left brain is larger in women, supposedly supporting their more "holistic" thinking, is based on a single 1982 study of only 14 brains. Fifty other studies, taken together, found no such sex difference—not in adults, not in newborns.
This is what you're talking about when you talk about findings related to testosterone flooding in the womb causing the break-down of the connective matter in the corpus callosum of male fetuses. She specifically mentions that as an example of where the evidence is not as strong as claimed.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:18 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia, she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either "blatantly false," "cherry-picked from single studies," or "extrapolated from rodent research" without being confirmed in people.

I think she's got a tough row to how on proving this assertion in the face of studies like this (of which there are many). And 45 references is not that many more than one sees in any scientific paper.

Still, the baby thing rings true, especially given the unformed nature of their physical sex determinants and the tendency of humans to see through filtered lenses. My 1 y.o. grand-niece looks just like my nephew did when he was her age and I find myself forgetting she's a girl and seeing her activities as "boy-like". Got some evolving to do, I have.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:19 AM on September 3, 2009


But there are obvious differences in how boys and girls approach the world, and people claiming there aren't, well you just have to wonder if they've met any kids. The problem is it's very hard to quantify the difference. It's not social abilities, language, motor skills... the best I can do it to say the genders are attentive to different things, and in a different order. It's like they learn about the world differently, even though they all get to the same places.

None of that rules out socialization over innate differences. Nor does it rule out the effect of your expectations both influencing what you notice (boy being aggressive/loving tools, girl being nurturing) and what you don't (behaviors that contradict those assumptions).

And what of simple personality differences not springing from gender? Being "attentive to different things" seems to be something that would differ in any two people. And as for socialization, if girls receive extra positive attention/get more friends for playing with dolls, and boys for playing with trucks...that's going to affect what they choose to pay attention to.
posted by emjaybee at 11:19 AM on September 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


But there are obvious differences in how boys and girls approach the world, and people claiming there aren't, well you just have to wonder if they've met any kids. The problem is it's very hard to quantify the difference. It's not social abilities, language, motor skills... the best I can do it to say the genders are attentive to different things, and in a different order. It's like they learn about the world differently, even though they all get to the same places.
Oh yeah, generalizing about every single child based on a sample of two, one boy and one girl – one with an older sibling and one with a younger is totally reasonable, especially against the claims of someone who reviewed dozens of scientific studies.

Obviously if you had two kids of the same gender, they would probably behave the exact same way.

--

Now if people want to debate the studies and research, go for it I guess. But arguing from anecdote is pretty stupid. (like Larry Summers and his "Ladies are bad at science because my daughters play with trucks in a feminine way!")
posted by delmoi at 11:20 AM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


In physics, specifically cosmology, there is this thing called the Horizon Problem. The takeaway is that the Universe is fairly homogenous, on a large scale. The cosmic microwave background radiation is relatively smooth. The Universe is also very, very big — so big that, given the speed of light, no influence could have traveled from one end of the cosmos to the other to smooth things out. Why, then, is everything so similar, even in regions of space which have never contacted one another?

Human gender roles, on a large enough scale, tend to be fairly homogenous. Male domination, more instances of polygyny than polyandry, etc. Back before we had a global internet and television and "the wireless" and newspapers and even folklore, the speed of communication was slow compared to the various farflung places into which people had worked themselves. Why, then, is everything so similar, even in regions of the the world where people have never contacted one another? The Patriarchy could not have marched out of Rome before Christ and taken over the whole world, even unto the remote, isolated tribes, where we see the same patterns.

For the horizon problem, we wish we had another universe to study, but we have come up with some ideas. Fortunately, with the gender problem, we do have other populations to study: primates. Do primates have sexual dimorphism? Do they display differences in behavior along gender lines? To varying degrees, yes.

One possible explanation is that:

1) Humans, of all of the primates, are completely tabula rasa, coming without any instincts in that area at all, ready to be programmed, but this must be combined with ...

2) The first homo sapiens out of Africa brought with them an established culture of sexual difference, which they then spread across the world.

Problem A: Why would they have such a difference, and why on gender?
Problem B: Why would it be so coincidentally congruent with the behavior of other primates?
Problem C: How would it survive even though languages and just about everything else have differentiated wildly?

Another possible explanation is that humans, being primates, are prone to the same sorts of things that other primates come with. We can shave those apes with Occam's Razor, and they'll look a lot like us.
posted by adipocere at 11:23 AM on September 3, 2009 [14 favorites]


Is the fact the author Dr Lise Eliot is listed "only" as an "associate prof"...

It means she's at the beginning of her career, assistant prof means on tenure track, but still non-permanent. Essentially it's a 5-year probationary period for new hires that the department is trying out for life-long tenure.
posted by bonehead at 11:23 AM on September 3, 2009


Is the fact the author Dr Lise Eliot is listed "only" as an "associate prof"...

Associate Professor isn't a junior level title or anything. Associate professors are tenured, have put in their time, etc., but haven't gotten a "full" profesorship, which can take decades.
posted by zsazsa at 11:23 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not arguing she's right, btw. Just pointing out that her argument seems to be that the studies you're citing don't actually prove what they claim to, so it doesn't make much sense to cite that research to object to her.

Actually, I think the problem here is this article gives us practically nothing to go by, and on the basis of this report alone, it's impossible to weigh the validity or invalidity of her claims. The results from the studies in which researchers were misled about the gender of the infants they thought they were studying for their own research are interesting though.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2009


Pastabagel,

The 2nd paper you cite ( "Fetal Testosterone Predicts Sexually Differentiated Childhood Behavior in Girls and in Boys.") appears to be based on questionnaires given out to mothers.

I was interested enough to at least look at the methods used - just after the abstract in the pdf - and the authors seem to be saying that the CONFIRMATION of "sexually differentiated childhood behavior" comes from the findings of a survey - not hard science.

Maybe that's what the author of the book in the post means?

(If I've got this wrong, sorry. I'm not totally clueless but I'm not a boffin.)

and thanks for your response, Mental Wimp.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:30 AM on September 3, 2009


I regularly babysit for a 1-year old girl who is often mistaken for a boy when I put her in jeans and a blue t-shirt with no hair bow. This has nothing to do with how she looks and everything to do with how readily a blue-shirted toddler is taken as male, even in Brooklyn. The difference between comments from strangers is astounding given what color/gender her outfit is for the day.

Baby fiddling with my purse while wearing a blue t-shirt: "He likes zippers and pockets."
Baby fiddling with my purse while wearing a pink t-shirt: "She likes accessories."

Baby squirms in the stroller while wearing a blue t-shirt: "He's strong kid. Look at that reach!"
Baby squirms in the stroller while wearing a pink t-shirt: "Look how skinny her arms are!"

Baby crying while wearing a blue t-shirt: "Don't you have a temper!"
Baby crying while wearing a pink t-shirt: "She's getting pretty whiny, is it time for her nap?"

Baby crawling after a pink ball at the park while wearing a blue t-shirt: "Go Pele!"
Baby crawling after a pink ball at the park while wearing a pink t-shirt: "Your shirt matches your ball!" (no joke)

As I roughhouse with a child wearing a blue t-shirt: [strangers ignore us, walk by unperturbed]
As I roughhouse with a child wearing a pink t-shirt: [strangers frown, one mother cautions me about a baby's delicate spinal cord while I guide baby down the slide]

Things appropriate to note about a baby wearing a blue t-shirt: personality, athletic skills
Things appropriate to note about a baby wearing a pink t-shirt: looks, charm

I'd post more, but the baby wearing a pink t-shirt is up from her nap and needs to eat watermelons and juice like the dainty little daisy that she is (today).
posted by zoomorphic at 11:31 AM on September 3, 2009 [79 favorites]


Lise Eliot has some pretty good credentials, IMHO. When she says she "looked at" something she's using academic shorthand for examined in great detail, analyzed, evaluated, ad nauseam.

I have three sons, no daughters, so I didn't get to see differences between boy and girl children close up. But even if I had had children of both sexes, they would have been affected by the people around them, all of whom have been themselves molded by socio/cultural norms of gendered behaviors and expectations.
posted by mareli at 11:31 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'll bet over 90% of internet trolls are men. And they lack testicles, so testosterone is not the reason.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:32 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Male domination, more instances of polygyny than polyandry, etc. Back before we had a global internet and television and "the wireless" and newspapers and even folklore, the speed of communication was slow compared to the various farflung places into which people had worked themselves. Why, then, is everything so similar, even in regions of the the world where people have never contacted one another?

Uh, because men do have demonstrable physical advantages. The path of least resistance obviously favors men dominating females since men enjoy significantly more physical strength. No one denies men and women's bodies are different, as far as I know.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:32 AM on September 3, 2009


You know, when I zoom out a little bit from modern Western society, it is clear to me that we have much more faith in the "nurture" side of things than societies that are not modern nor Western. I think this is almost built into the often-derided 'American Dream'; the notion that anyone can do anything, and should only be judged by their actions, not their identity.

Overall, I think this is a good and admirable thing, but some people take it way too far. Some people are so troubled by variations in individual (or *shudder* whole different groups) that they engage in their own confirmation biases.

One problem with evaluating Dr. Eliot and her research is that I've only read this one Newsweek profile, and it is severely lacking in detail. So she "looked at" ALL those other studies and found them wanting? Well, I find this article wanting. Obviously, some people here are willing to imagine that she discounted the effects of varying levels of testosterone, going so far as to speciously suggest that because women have some testosterone, there's no significant difference. Do I even have to point out how wrong this is?

It is good and useful to investigate the ways in which we manufacture gender differences based on our expectations. I am just as confident that this happens, and is a big factor, as I am that you can't ignore the effects of testosterone differences. But it's a big leap to suggest that innate differences are minimal or insignificant.

Her explanation for how small natural differences between babies are amplified by how others respond to them is quite interesting. Interesting, because it blurs the line between nature and nurture, which jibes with my worldview (after all, "nurture" is itself a product of human "nature"). Not only are we influenced by both genetics and culture, but these factors interact with each other to the extent that they are nearly impossible to tease apart.

However, that doesn't mean that I accept this particular theory on face value. Has she tested this hypothesis? The article doesn't really make it clear. It's very interesting, but I am very suspicious of certainty in this arena.
posted by Edgewise at 11:33 AM on September 3, 2009 [7 favorites]


The publisher gives a much clearer summary of her thesis than the article. Eliot is not saying that there are no differences, but rather that the infant brain is so plastic that small differences in how adults treat their children will amplify certain behaviours and eventually lead to observable behaviour differences and differences in how the brain develops.

The fact that boys and girls are observably different does not contradict this. If this is true, it would be expected, not contradictory, that fetal testosterone would predict childhood behaviour. Not because it causes that behaviour, but because it causes the categorizations that produce the behaviour. Although, it's not actually clear that she disputes such hormonal effects of sex differentiation: she says in an interview
While prenatal testosterone has some pretty dramatic effects on play behavior and, probably, later sexual orientation, the sex hormones that rise at puberty and remain elevated in adults have surprisingly modest effects on our thinking—except for the increased sex drive that testosterone produces in both men and women.
I don't think it's productive to frame this as a part of some great "Nature vs. Nurture" thing. Most serious scientists of gender that I have known or read have put that dichotomy to rest. Rather, this appears to be an attempt to better understand how observable gender differences arise, part of a difficult attempt to account for very early brain development. It looks quite interesting, and it looks as though she has brought a great deal of expertise to the subject.

(on preview, Mental Wimp, not 45 reference; 46 pages of references)
posted by carmen at 11:33 AM on September 3, 2009 [14 favorites]


Lise Eliot has some pretty good credentials, IMHO. When she says she "looked at" something she's using academic shorthand for examined in great detail, analyzed, evaluated, ad nauseam.

Looked at what? ALL the studies of gender differences? Geez, how does she find time to cook for her husband?
posted by Edgewise at 11:36 AM on September 3, 2009


I'd say, "No."
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:11 PM on September 3


Then you'd be wrong. Eliot is one of the rare breed of scientists who rather write books that aren't peer reviewed and appear on mass audience TV shows where their peers won't confront them than publish in obscurity. Really, she's just selling what everyone wants to hear now, which is that boys and girls are really the same, it's just that adults enforce society's gender roles on their children.

What she doesn't tell you is that is good. Why are we assuming that the gender roles for women are negative and for boys positive? The article discusses how mom's allow infant boys to climb steeper inclines than girls even though they are both physically capable of climbing the steeper one. The implication is that the mom is being overprotective of the girl, because the target audience is trained to interpret any difference in treatment as automatically disadvantaging the girls. The article implies that a better result is for the mom to be as reckless with the girl as with the boy.

The question you should be asking is, given the maternal instinct to protect children, why is the mom more reckless with boys. Why does she encourage the boy to take above-average risk compared to the girl? Doesn't that disadvantage the boy?

Furthermore, we should not be treating people the same because all advantages, physical, social, intellectual, etc accrue to the specialist. The species needs specialization to survive. It is important to have some members of society trained to be more physical, others to be more social, others to be more empathetic, etc. rather than have everyone be mediocre at everything.

Articles like this are annoying because they reinforce the readers dumb preconceived notions. Boys are encourage to play sports in which players routinely break bones and suffer concussions but the game in which nothing of value is at stake continues. But somehow women are disadvantage because they aren't treated as carelessly.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:37 AM on September 3, 2009 [12 favorites]


This is one of those arguments that I'm always confused by, as everything I've ever read (including this article) seems to point to:

1. There are some innate gender differences (broadly, across populations, and with individual exceptions being relatively common) thanks to biological differences. There might be a lot of these, but it's also quite possible there are only a few, or they are relatively small.
2. There are huge, enormous, pervasive gender differences received and constantly reinforced by culture, including observer differences. It's very likely that these are so big that they are the primary actors in the gender differences we commonly perceive, and as a fun side effect, they make it awfully hard to study things cleanly for a variety of reasons.
posted by feckless at 11:39 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Another possible explanation is that humans, being primates, are prone to the same sorts of things that other primates come with. We can shave those apes with Occam's Razor, and they'll look a lot like us.

LOVE IT
posted by DLWM at 11:39 AM on September 3, 2009


"But there are obvious differences in how boys and girls approach the world, and people claiming there aren't, well you just have to wonder if they've met any kids."
Yeah, kind of a sloppy article. But the claim seems to be that there's no difference in their brains, not that there's no difference in behavior.
The argument seems to be that it's not a brain architecture thing as claimed. Not that there's not anything in the brain influencing behavior.

My kids vary in their gender reactions. I'd say my daughter is the hardest headed person I've ever met (this is saying something) but I don't know whether the demand (DEMAND) she wear dresses because she's a girl stems from that or some gender based urge.
It'd seem to be expressed in a 'masculine' manner. But then, you have bossy little girls referenced throughout history (Lucy van Pelt come to mind). And that raises the question too - whether certain behaviors are or are not dictated by brain architecture - how is it we classify them as "masculine" or "feminine."
I mean, I walk like I just got off a horse, but I do like wearing kilts because they're airy (I still take crap for it tho "hey, got yer dress on Smed"). And I can see putting dresses on all babies, so much easier to clean/change/ potty train, etc.
The devil seems to be not only in the details, but in the extrapolated social responses.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:44 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have no trouble taking this as serious, measured study, but only because MeFi's background is not pink.
posted by rokusan at 11:44 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Adipocere, I think you may be conflating physical and neurological dimorphism. Lise Eliot is laying out a "Mismeasure of Man"-level amount of evidence that there is no neurological sexual dimorphism in humans.

There's plenty of physical dimorphism, of course. Being the larger and stronger gender alone could account for most of the social/historical effects you mention.
posted by ErikaB at 11:47 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's very interesting, but I am very suspicious of certainty in this arena.

That's certainly fair, Edgewise.

(I can see she's perfectly legit. But I wish she had authored more papers.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:47 AM on September 3, 2009


Lise Eliot wrote What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. It's the first book I recommend to all prospective parents I know.
posted by ellenaim at 11:48 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid, I read X, A Fabulous Child's Story, about a little kid who was raised not as a boy or a girl, but as an X. It's a sweet story and I always wondered how it would turn out if someone actually had the balls to try it.

Now, apparently, a couple in Sweden are giving it a shot with their toddler, Pop. Some people seem to be freaking out about it, but to me it seems incredibly liberating. I'm really interested to see how this plays out and what it means for future gender studies.
posted by stefanie at 11:54 AM on September 3, 2009


Does this mean that I am really happy and socially engaged instead of the miserable prick that people say I am?
posted by digsrus at 11:59 AM on September 3, 2009


"Kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them,"

That's what concerns me about treating kids the same in terms of gender. How much of it is inflicted? I don't know that I'm 100% on board with Pastabagel's comment, but there does seem to be a problem with overgeneralizing.
My daughter likes climbing very sharp inclines, she was very agile from a very young age, so I simply allowed her the space. But that's a trait that's intrinsically hers, not 'girls' or some boys even. I did notice my wife, mom, other women in general were a bit more reticent to let her do some of the daredevil stuff. But I neither prevented nor encouraged her. If she wanted to do something, I'd spot her, and that's it. If she wanted to keep doing it, so be it. If she wanted to stop and do something else, so be it.

So I don't know about Pinker's response to Pop's "nature" in terms of gender, nor do I fully agree that it's good a parent enforce society's gender roles on their children (because what's a healthy role or the best traits to have?), but I do agree that child rearing is "about responding to each child’s needs as an individual.”
If I wind up with bookish boys and boisterous girls, so be it (alliteration there unintentional, the words just fit descriptively). Far as I know my job is to give them options so they can capitalize on their innate talents, not take them away.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:13 PM on September 3, 2009


I suspect that David Reimer would have to disagree with the Eliot's conclusions. I wonder how she's tried to account for a case that so clearly contradicts her hypothesis.
posted by evilangela at 12:17 PM on September 3, 2009


carmen, thanks for the links. It looks like this article is a pretty simplistic and sensationalized interpretation of her actual thesis. Her assertion that parents reinforce the differences in kids seems plausible enough (assuming she has some actual evidence), but it doesn't logically follow that that means there are no biological factors involved at all. On closer inspection she doesn't actually appear to be claiming that, so maybe it's a case of sloppy journalism after all. (Though the lack of peer review is still kind of troubling.)
posted by shammack at 12:30 PM on September 3, 2009


The argument seems to be that it's not a brain architecture thing as claimed. Not that there's not anything in the brain influencing behavior.

Ah. That makes more sense to me. I'm entirely willing to believe that. You can probably account for broad-scale inborn gender difference, especially as slight as it seems to be, with nothing more than hormone balance differences. Preferences and most if not all specific behaviors seem to me to be learned, or at most inherited in pretty obvious and direct ways from parents, and not related to gender. The "vibe" difference between boys and girls, even ones too young to be showing any real preference for anything, is probably hormonal.
posted by rusty at 12:39 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not conflating them, in the sense that I have mistaken one for the other. I am just not a big believer in the mind-body duality required to say "our bodies may be different, but our minds start off exactly and perfectly the same way, and only feedback generated by interaction of the different bodies against the environment can cause these changes in mind."

Minds are, as far as I can tell, the shadows on the wall, generated by brains. These brains are not firewalled off from the rest of the body, receiving only nutrients and sensory information, putting out only waste and motor impulses. These brains do not come with completely empty hard drives and without firmware on the peripherals. They do not come that way with any other species of sufficient neural complexity, so I wonder why is it we continually attempt to do that with humans? (I have guesses, of course, none flattering)

Like I said, it's possible it's that way, but it requires humans to be significantly different from most mammals other than naked mole rats, in a way that dwarfs even our much-lauded language and technology, and then it requires, as additional special sauce, another mechanism which just so happens to be highly similar in its effects to the other mechanism we just said no longer happens.

This plant over here, which is just a bit more successful than some other, earlier plants from which it is descended, has an entirely different set of hormones for growth, ripening, etc., but none of it provides any functional advantage over the other system, and happens to replicate it rather well, out of nowhere. It's proposing, well, congruent evolution in a place that makes little sense.

Do we have any known ethnic groups where the males have little difference in size and strength as the females against which we can test this hypothesis? I have no doubt that the reflection of an organism's phenotype off of the environment and back into a sufficiently complex neural network would have a contributing factor in behavior, but I am not ready to write off all of the genotype for it.
posted by adipocere at 12:42 PM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


It is important to remember that flawed research doesn't prove the opposite of its conclusion.
posted by srboisvert at 12:50 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


neurological sexual dimorphism in humans ... there's plenty of physical dimorphism

I understand what you're saying here, about external versus internal appearances and whatnot, but if the external bit is different, then the machinery that runs it is likely different as well. Maybe not in a gross way like brain size or interconnectivity of brain regions or anything like that, but potentially in smaller ways, like the concentration and native production quantities of different hormones. You can have the exact same cell type, but it may follow a different program based on the materials in the extracellular space around it.

As another example, you could probably take it as fact that the somatosensory and motor cortex have slightly different input/output paths (though probably at the level of the peripheral nervous system) where the respective regions of the body they represent are *ahem* different.

In the big picture however, any gender effect would likely be small, and largely insignificant compared to the body's response to individual actions that change the concentration of chemicals (food and drink) or learned behaviors that reinforce and strengthen activity in certain brain regions (practicing a sport, playing chess, or social pressures)

However, none of this says anything about the question people really seem to be asking about, which is whether the "entity" or "self" of a person is different in the brain in a way that varies systematically with gender. Odds are good that the answer to this question is no - and the evidence presented above certainly supports this claim. Even if it were present, there is so much variation within people that I suspect any gender difference would get swamped in the noise.
posted by scrutiny at 12:54 PM on September 3, 2009


And that is why one should almost always view evolutionary psychology (particularly as it relates to sex differences) with a hummer sized grain of salt.
posted by redbeard at 1:07 PM on September 3, 2009


Is the fact the author Dr Lise Eliot is listed "only" as an "associate prof" and doesn't seem to have an overwhelming number of publications to her name cause for being a little wary?

Most of the professors at RFUMS are listed as associate or assistant professors; the ones that aren't have been there for about a hundred years. Dr. Eliot is fairly young as medical school faculty go, and much of her research has been focused on publishing books, rather than peer-reviewed journal articles. She also does a LOT of teaching - she is the course director for the neuroscience course for first-year medical students at RFUMS and a couple of other graduate student courses, and she did the child development lectures for our second year neuroscience course, among others. This is a substantial time commitment, and for med school faculty, she's as good as it gets!
posted by honeybee413 at 1:12 PM on September 3, 2009


It is important to remember that flawed research doesn't prove the opposite of its conclusion.

No, we revert to the null hypothesis: we have no idea. When someone says "Brain research shows why boys/girls behave like that!" you say "I'm sorry, no it doesn't. We don't know what determines behavior."

It's dispiriting in one sense - gee, is this as far as we've got? What goes on in that brain thingy? We really don't know? - but in another sense it's quite exciting - look how complex we are! How does it all work?

And the sooner we recognise that it is really, really, really difficult to study human behavior, because of our own biases, then the better we'll do at figuring it out. And that means doing a lot of "We don't know."
posted by alasdair at 1:14 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Eliot is one of the rare breed of scientists who rather write books that aren't peer reviewed and appear on mass audience TV shows where their peers won't confront them than publish in obscurity.

Where did this come from? There's no evidence of this in the Newsweek link, and Eliot's credentials don't bear it out at all--in fact they specifically state that she's published many peer-reviewed journal articles. The Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist who reviewed and recommended her book on the Amazon page seems okay with it--admittedly, he's reviewing as a guest of Amazon, but I'm not sure that disqualifies his opinion.

I suspect that David Reimer would have to disagree with the Eliot's conclusions. I wonder how she's tried to account for a case that so clearly contradicts her hypothesis.

I'm not sure Reimer does contradict her hypothesis. Reimer's reassignment surgery was performed at 22 months, and he was raised as a girl after nearly two years of being raised as a boy. I think Eliot's hypothesis that the infant brain changes based on the way the child is treated as "boy" or "girl" from the earliest days could be supported by Reimer's reaction to his gender reassignment. From the Wiki link, it looks like the doctors assumed that Reimer, at 22 months, would be a blank slate, perfectly capable of adjusting to his new gender. I haven't read her book, but it seems like Eliot would argue that no, his brain has already been adjusting to his treatment as a boy for the past two years.
posted by gladly at 1:20 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is important to remember that flawed research doesn't prove the opposite of its conclusion.

I don't know why so many people in this thread are claiming that Eliot was trying to "prove" something, or that her credentials would make her results more scientifically valid, or whatever. I gathered from the article that she was trying to point out that a) people tend to believe there exists a vast gulf between men and women; b) scientific evidence for this gulf has lots of cachet, due to its being science; and c) some of this cachet is undeserved, because the science is demonstrably crappy. This is easy to do, even if you don't have lots of scientific credentials: find a newspaper article claiming a new discovery about how men and women are different, then go read the journal article it was based on - a lot of the time, there will be some weird assumptions that creep into the article's conclusion. Try it.

Part of the problem with the whole debate is the ease with which people devolve into a nature/nurture dichotomy: a certain behaviour must be the result of either nature or nurture. Of course this is not the case. If someone asks "is this behaviour/trait/whatever the result of nature or nurture?" the answer is almost always "both, in some unknown combination." It seems reasonable to assume that given the facts that nature and nurture almost always work in tandem, that the whole idea of what constitutes "nature" is fairly ambiguous to begin with, and that men and women are different in a lot of ways and similar in a lot of ways, we would see roughly as much research about similarities between men and women as we currently see about differences between them, and/or roughly as much research about socially/culturally-based sex differences as we currently see about naturally/biologically-based sex differences.

Since research into biological sex differences vastly overwhelms research into social/cultural sex differences and sex similarities, there's probably something strange going on, and it seems as though Eliot is trying to make this point. I highly doubt that she's trying to prove anything about nature or nurture.
posted by Dr. Send at 1:20 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is one of those arguments that I'm always confused by, as everything I've ever read (including this article) seems to point to:

1. There are some innate gender differences (broadly, across populations, and with individual exceptions being relatively common) thanks to biological differences. There might be a lot of these, but it's also quite possible there are only a few, or they are relatively small.
2. There are huge, enormous, pervasive gender differences received and constantly reinforced by culture, including observer differences. It's very likely that these are so big that they are the primary actors in the gender differences we commonly perceive, and as a fun side effect, they make it awfully hard to study things cleanly for a variety of reasons.


Yep, that's more or less how I see it: gender /= gender roles. It's the confusion between these two that fuel a great number of pointless arguments. I get tired of people from a certain ideology who state that "gender is a social construction", illustrate it with the pink/blue thing (or whatever), extrapolate that into some grand blank slate for all human gender, and then label me reactionary for disagreeing. But when we put aside social expectations, wearing dresses, playing football, being talkative, being taciturn, liking pink, liking blue, is there anything else left? I think it's reasonable to assume there is, more than it is reasonable to assume there's not.

As already mentioned, humans and near species have been involved in a natural experiment on gender for millions of years. Though it's too early to draw conclusions (and no doubt very difficult), the no-such-thing-as-gender argument doesn't seem to have a strong case. I'm not pretending that I, or anybody else, really knows what is going on, but dismissing gender completely as a construct is too clean and easy for what seems to be a very complicated phenomena.
posted by Sova at 1:22 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think this result is actually much narrower than a lot of people seem to think, since it only deals with infants. If it's true that the brain responds differently to different amounts of testosterone, that doesn't contradict this research, since this research deals with infants--it's actually a pretty narrow study. This research neither proves or disproves any notion about whether gender is innate or culturally defined. All it does is what it says it does--it finds that the same behaviors in two different babies are interpreted differently by adults depending on the gender the adults believe the babies to be. It doesn't prove that 'the brains of men and women are the same,' or that 'gender is culturally determined.'

In the certain narrow circumstances of the study, 'claims of sex differences fall apart,' sure, but to extrapolate that to all circumstances involving (real or perceived) sex differences is shoddy science. That's not what the study does--it looks like good, interesting research--but watch out for uninformed, unscientific interpretations along those lines.
posted by notswedish at 1:25 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


carmen: The publisher gives a much clearer summary of her thesis than the article. Eliot is not saying that there are no differences, but rather that the infant brain is so plastic that small differences in how adults treat their children will amplify certain behaviours and eventually lead to observable behaviour differences and differences in how the brain develops.

Or in other words, she's simply stating what developmental psychologists have known for decades. The nature/nurture dichotomy is crap and brains actually develop over time.

adipocere: Minds are, as far as I can tell, the shadows on the wall, generated by brains. These brains are not firewalled off from the rest of the body, receiving only nutrients and sensory information, putting out only waste and motor impulses. These brains do not come with completely empty hard drives and without firmware on the peripherals. They do not come that way with any other species of sufficient neural complexity, so I wonder why is it we continually attempt to do that with humans? (I have guesses, of course, none flattering)

Except for, ohh, the entire problem that we know that neuroanatomy in mammals is influenced by behavioral and environmental factors, most critically in the first 20 years, but arguably throughout the entire lifespan. (See for example the research showing that puzzle-solving and an active intellectual life helps mitigate the impact of senility and Alzheimer's.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:28 PM on September 3, 2009


"It is important to remember that flawed research doesn't prove the opposite of its conclusion."

Well, yeah, but can you say the stone in my pocket isn't keeping the tigers away? I haven't been mauled since the tiAAARRGH!
posted by Smedleyman at 1:34 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


evilangela: I suspect that David Reimer would have to disagree with the Eliot's conclusions. I wonder how she's tried to account for a case that so clearly contradicts her hypothesis.

I suspect that we are talking about two different hypotheses entirely. It is quite reasonable to propose both that the studies insisting on profound differences between males and females is crap, while still granting that there is likely some biology behind gender identity and sexual orientation.

And of course, as is usually the case, metafilter is getting its collective lace panties in a twist over a newsweek summary of primary research.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:36 PM on September 3, 2009


@pastabagel:

"Boys are encourage to play sports in which players routinely break bones and suffer concussions but the game in which nothing of value is at stake continues. But somehow women are disadvantage because they aren't treated as carelessly."

Yeah, women facing a culture of unwanted sexualization, higher instances of abuse, higher instances of sexual assault (even a culture of rape), more barriers to education and employment, a wage gap between themselves and their male peers - on a GLOBAL scale - totally have it better than men. Because men are encouraged to play sports!

Seriously, what?

Your essentialist view of gender disturbs me. Never mind that girls and women have varying levels of testosterone, just like men, and that men have varying levels of estrogen, just like women - but what about trans and gender non-conforming people? You say it's good for a society to have people who are "trained" to be good at physical tasks or good at social interaction - but people - even children - are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up with gender-appropriate interests and skills. Is society really better for forcing boys who are naturally gifted in roles that are considered "feminine" be forced to take on roles that are considered "male", even though they will be mediocre and miserable at those? You seem to imply no, but then to imply that keeping girls from traditionally "masculine" things is good for them - so, what, girls are the only ones to whom gender roles should be applied? What's wrong with people just doing what they're good at regardless of social mores?

Honestly, you're just being really offensive and not making any sense at all.
posted by ellehumour at 1:40 PM on September 3, 2009 [12 favorites]


Metafilter: An empty vessel waiting to be filled with interests
posted by scrutiny at 1:43 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sova: The problem as I see it is that often the claims are made on the basis of significant differences with a low effect size. Take for example, SAT mathematics. There is a difference in means between men and women, and quite significant because we have a massive sample size. But because more women take the test, there are more women than men ranking in the top 10%, and messy environmental factors like urban vs. rural school districts and SES have much larger effects on the mean. Using gender as predictive of a person's academic achievements and qualifications for admission to rigorous higher-ed programs of study isn't at all warranted, even using the data that claimants of fundamental gender differences use for their case.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:43 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


You see very often nowadays an argument that if a difference in mind (let us say, greater aggression) is found to be associated with differences in the material composition of the brain, then this must prove the difference is innate, or congenital. That is, that the difference must be down to 'nature'.

However, if mind is not separate from brain - if there is no ghost in the machine - then logically every difference in mind, whether innate or developed by experiences, must be associated with a material difference in brain. Therefore the discovery of a material analogue to a mental state tells us nothing at all about the nature/nurture debate. It can't.
posted by communicator at 1:46 PM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


(on preview, Mental Wimp, not 45 reference; 46 pages of references)

So painful to see my double carelessness pointed out, but thanks for rectifying my mistakes. That is an impressive number of references and is about right for a thesis-sized work.

I'd say, "No."
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:11 PM on September 3

Then you'd be wrong.


On the other hand, this is what happens when attempted corrections go bad. My response was to the question whether someone shouldn't trust an academic because they are "only" associate professors. Some of my most brilliant and accomplished colleagues are associate professors. Eliot may be a complete dolt, but the answer to whether she should be judged unreliable as an academic solely on the basis of her rank is still "No."
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:52 PM on September 3, 2009


communicator: I'll go further than that. The nature/nurture debate is essentially political and divorced from the science. The central theoretical concept that makes evolutionary biology possible as a science is phenotype = genetics + environment. Evolutionary biologists understand this. Cognitive and developmental psychologists understand this. The most vocal advocates of evolutionary psychology don't, which is what makes them pseudoscientific hacks. (Until you can pin down hard numbers to that equation, or discover multiple living species that originated in the paleolithic, you can't claim that your hypothesis about sex-segregated cavemen has anything to do with evolutionary biology or science.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:57 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


@pastabagel:

"Boys are encourage to play sports in which players routinely break bones and suffer concussions but the game in which nothing of value is at stake continues. But somehow women are disadvantage because they aren't treated as carelessly."

@ellehumour:

Yeah, women facing a culture of unwanted sexualization, higher instances of abuse, higher instances of sexual assault (even a culture of rape), more barriers to education and employment, a wage gap between themselves and their male peers - on a GLOBAL scale - totally have it better than men. Because men are encouraged to play sports!


These are the only stats I could quickly find on differential rates of assault. But it doesn't really matter. Playing "Who's the biggest victim" doesn't really help the underlying problem. We can all agree that women and men are treated differentially in most societies and that men have accrued more power than women. Status is equalizing more in our society as we become more progressive, but it doesn't seem to me like we have reached equality yet, given statistics on wages and other measures of economic well-being.

The question isn't, as oft-stated, "nature vs. nurture", but the answer is nature and nurture. And it isn't simply that one contributes a moiety and the other its moiety, but rather we are a delicate interaction 'twixt the two, as has been alluded to in previous comments. The impact of nurture (environment) is amplified for some natures (genotypes) and damped by others. The positive feedback loops suggested by the article mean that small differences in nature can become big differences as a result of this interaction. I applaud the effort represented by this research to tease apart some of the mechanisms by which this happens, but it certainly doesn't resolve the question to any noticeable extent. But that is the way science usually progresses. The big leaps are exciting and revolutionary, but they are the exception.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:04 PM on September 3, 2009


I had to wait how long? to get my worldview reified?

*sigh* About time.
posted by Theta States at 2:07 PM on September 3, 2009


You can't conclude anything about the existence or non-existence of behavioral differences between in infants of different genders from the 'cross-dressing' experiment as described by Newsweek. All it says is that the dress bias is stronger than the perception of any actual behavioral differences which may or may not exist.

Instead of a cross-dressing experiment you'd leave less room for ajournalistic fudging with a 'uniform-dressing' experiment where all the babies are dressed alike and the observers are made aware that half are boys and half are girls.
posted by Anything at 2:08 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


By the way, why is it that the few Newsweek stories that ever grab my attention usually turn out just as shoddy as this one?
posted by Anything at 2:14 PM on September 3, 2009


This study confirms my world view so I embrace it. Unlike those other studies that go counter to my world view and thus by default are biased. And to those I reject.

Oh, world view. It is so safe and cozy in your warm smooth gender neutral embrace.
posted by tkchrist at 2:23 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Something to keep in mind when reading the results of any study on gender, sexual orientation, or damn near any other potentially touchy issue: Everyone has an axe to grind.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:51 PM on September 3, 2009


I've never wanted to vote a comment down until now.

Boys are encourage to play sports in which players routinely break bones and suffer concussions but the game in which nothing of value is at stake continues.

The values of rejoicing in victory or wallowing in despair are nothing? The values of teamwork and sportsmanship are nothing? To speak/write so ignorantly of the values of athletic competition impeaches your argument.

Eliot is one of the rare breed of scientists who rather write books that aren't peer reviewed and appear on mass audience TV shows where their peers won't confront them than publish in obscurity

Wow. It's awfully embarrassing that 7 people favorited that comment. Perhaps they were also amazed how you pulled that statement completely out of your ass.

The species needs specialization to survive.

Oh, so wrong it hurts. The future is interdisciplinary.

Lise Eliot wrote What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. It's the first book I recommend to all prospective parents I know.

Danke schoen. Just ordered it....
posted by mrgrimm at 2:57 PM on September 3, 2009


The nature/nurture debate is essentially political and divorced from the science.

Sadly, so is most news coverage of studies on gender, and for that matter, a lot of the funding available for studies (on gender or anything else).

I know many genderqueer/feminist/gay/take your pick types who spend a lot of time fighting off the political issues connected with the nature/nurture/gender essentialism debate, and I can't say that I've ever heard any of them say a newborn is a tabula rasa.

I'd just like to call out that strawperson of indeterminate gender.

But being in the groups that tend to be on the sharp end of policies, political movements, and prejudices that like to use "science" as a reason to declare them non-persons or monsters, well, they're a little...skeptical of new shiny How Gender Explains Everything And Hey, That's Great! studies.

Put simply, there is no giant Crazy Librul movement for erasing the concept of gender, but plenty of people who are tired of gender being used as a club with which to beat them over the head and tell them what they can and can't do.

Feel free to stake out your Gender Really Does Mean Dudes Love Fixing Cars (or whatever) position, but be aware that it's the exact same argumentative ground that has historically been used for such lovely things as marital rape, executing homosexuals, and forbidding women to get an education or own property. And as such, don't get all offended when people question your motives or your assumptions.

Perhaps you really are a paragon of pure, unbigoted scientific curiosity, merely trying to find out the Ultimate Truth about this issue. But those who came before you largely were not.
posted by emjaybee at 3:09 PM on September 3, 2009 [7 favorites]


mrgrimm : The values of rejoicing in victory or wallowing in despair are nothing? The values of teamwork and sportsmanship are nothing? To speak/write so ignorantly of the values of athletic competition impeaches your argument.

Umm, sense of proportion here? I can rejoice in victory or wallow in despair over a game of Trivial Pursuit, with (nearly) zero risk of serious injury. I can (and pretty much must) work as a "team" at work. And as for the "value" of athletic competition, let's not make things up here - Sports act as a thinly veiled substitute for war, plain and simple.

Incidentally, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy attending the local gladiatorial matches and cheering for the home team to decapitate and molest the corpses of the enemy's team. I just believe in calling a spade, a spade. ;)
posted by pla at 3:12 PM on September 3, 2009


Surprise! The world 'study' doesn't mean anything until the experience and motives of the authors are known.

There's no question that human genders are biologically different (duh!) and have different hormones raging through their torsos. Apart from that, I've never seen a reason to suspect that brains were differently wired or, on the average "superior/inferior" (in genders or in races).

Like many of the social roles we can choose to identify with (or be cast into without our choosing), I think that gender roles are very much just that: play-acting (informed by individual preferences aka innate personality) built on top of distinguishable physical differences.

Most of the wisdom-systems of the ages ... and a whole lotta artists ... and a few schools of psychology ... recognize the yin/yang male/female sun/moon logos/sophia duality built into all psyches. Someday "black and white" will fall to wisdom. We hope.
posted by Twang at 3:28 PM on September 3, 2009


And as for the "value" of athletic competition, let's not make things up here - Sports act as a thinly veiled substitute for war, plain and simple.

Um, isn't that the point?
posted by kersplunk at 4:34 PM on September 3, 2009


The difference between comments from strangers is astounding given what color/gender her outfit is for the day.

I have a friend with a couple young (under 4 years of age) nephews. When they break or smash toys, use the Slinky as a numchuk, etc. she'll report back and coo, "He's such a boy!" with a proud-auntie grin on her face.

I am certain I (a female) did similar things as a toddler....and got shamed by being called "a very bad girl."
posted by availablelight at 4:34 PM on September 3, 2009


Wish this was surprising, but it's not to me. Societal-imposed gender roles make me gag.
posted by agregoli at 4:45 PM on September 3, 2009


Pastabagel: Why are we assuming that the gender roles for women are negative and for boys positive?

If you cared to familiarize yourself with some of the enormous body of historical literature on gender roles, you'd find out.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:50 PM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


This book is an unintentionally effective critique of science itself, especally given this:

Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia, she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either "blatantly false," "cherry-picked from single studies," or "extrapolated from rodent research" without being confirmed in people.

Was Sherman an unbiased fair witness to the conflicts underlying the Civil War?
posted by msalt at 5:35 PM on September 3, 2009


"The question you should be asking is, given the maternal instinct to protect children, why is the mom more reckless with boys. Why does she encourage the boy to take above-average risk compared to the girl? Doesn't that disadvantage the boy?"

This is so phenomenally dumb that I wonder if you RTFA. The estimate of mothers given for their sons was accurate. That's why it's the baseline to measure against, and trying to define something as "above-average" by comparison to an inaccurate estimate is mind-cripplingly ass-backwards. If mothers thought their boys were more capable than they are, then it'd be worth wondering why that was, but as the protection there is accurate it's de facto "over-protective" when it's not necessary. Plus, the "maternal instinct to protect children"? As opposed to what, the paternal instinct to feed them into wood chippers?

And the hand-waving about the benefits of sport—in your goatee universe, is the NBA a kind of community service that wayward giants are expected to perform out of charity? "Well, Kobe, you did run that stop sign. I guess it's a couple more years playing power forward for the Lakers. Keep your nose clean, and maybe we can get you traded to Portland."
posted by klangklangston at 5:40 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hey, no problem, she "looked at it". So she can no doubt provide a perfectly rational explanation for the missing 100g (on average) of brain mass in "testosterone deficient" humans

You are kidding, right? Are you seriously bringing up that "men have bigger brains than women" canard which belongs to the very earliest years of the 20th century, to "science" which was mostly concerned with trying to establish the inferiority of non-white races through skewed measurements of skull capacity and brain size? Really?

Pbpbpbpbbpttttt.

Now that's what I call a well-argued rejoinder. Sheesh.
posted by jokeefe at 5:58 PM on September 3, 2009


To be fair, Jokeefe, physiognomy is an emerging science.
posted by klangklangston at 6:08 PM on September 3, 2009


So ummm ... Nature just took a hit in the Nature Vs Nurture wars. Good. It always gives me hope when science reveals that what we choose to do can actually influence things. I look forward to using this study to my advantage in some upcoming Labor Day Weekend bbq arguments.

I take hope whenever Nature wins out. It gives me hope that a talented individual can succeed regardless of environmental disadvantages. Also it throws a spanner in the works of ax-grinding social engineers to find out that they don't have the control over children's development that they might think they do. Genes ftw.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:13 PM on September 3, 2009


Ah yes, the "breeding will out" philosophy. How's that going for you?
posted by klangklangston at 6:17 PM on September 3, 2009


Whatever their origin, I'm not sure we really WANT to get rid of gender differences, because I think that if we try to avoid them, we'll default to the boy model and lose all the positive things we now associate with the feminine. The goal is not to get rid of gender differences, but to start seeing these traits as positive human attributes-- courage, risk-taking, and aggression are appropriate in some places, and nurturing and empathy in others, whether it's a boy or a girl with those attributes.

I am reminded of when public schools got rid of home economics because it was considered sexist, but kept shop class because it was "useful." So girl stuff sexist and worthless, boy stuff normal and useful. We now have several generations of people who can't thread a needle or make a meal, but we all know how to wire lamps and use a power tool to make a cutting board. Which skills might be more useful in daily life?
posted by nax at 6:47 PM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


As a member of the polychaete class of annelids, a species which just loves to reproduce asexually, I find this entire conversation extremely unhelpful. Am I supposed to have a gender war with myself? On second thought, that could be kind of hot...
posted by boghead at 7:30 PM on September 3, 2009


You are kidding, right? Are you seriously bringing up that "men have bigger brains than women" canard which belongs to the very earliest years of the 20th century, to "science" which was mostly concerned with trying to establish the inferiority of non-white races through skewed measurements of skull capacity and brain size? Really?

Actually, men typically have slightly larger brains in general but I think this is to cope with having more mass to move around. The encephalization quotient (EQ) represents the ratio of the brain weight of an animal to the typical brain weight of an animal that size. The argument goes that since men are typically larger, they require more brain to deal with motor and self-regulation tasks. Whether or not this has any import on cognitive skills is relatively unspecified. However, from this tidbit (granted, quoted from wikipedia):
There is however another argument for this thesis, based on the brain-to-body ratio of men and women. Females generally have a somewhat smaller brain volume than males, but if you correct for the higher percentage of body fat in women the ratio/EQ will be the same as in males. This correlates with the result of IQ testing, the same in average for males and females.
This implies that there should be no cognitive difference between the two groups based on brain weight alone as the difference in brain weights can be accounted for by the varying body size.
posted by scrutiny at 3:34 AM on September 4, 2009


I take hope whenever Nature wins out. It gives me hope that a talented individual can succeed regardless of environmental disadvantages.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft


You only think that because you were brought up that way.
posted by vanar sena at 5:04 AM on September 4, 2009


I really don't care whether gender differences are nature vs. nurture. I just hope this research leads to a world mindset where it doesn't matter-- where people have stopped saying, "You like X and you're good at Y because you're female/male" and have started saying "You like X and you're good at Y because you're you."
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:19 AM on September 4, 2009


"You like X and you're good at Y because you're you."

Or, more succinctly, "You like X and you're good at Y because you're you."
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:34 AM on September 4, 2009


Sova: The problem as I see it is that often the claims are made on the basis of significant differences with a low effect size. Take for example, SAT mathematics. There is a difference in means between men and women, and quite significant because we have a massive sample size. But because more women take the test, there are more women than men ranking in the top 10%, and messy environmental factors like urban vs. rural school districts and SES have much larger effects on the mean. Using gender as predictive of a person's academic achievements and qualifications for admission to rigorous higher-ed programs of study isn't at all warranted, even using the data that claimants of fundamental gender differences use for their case.

That's probably true. The effect of gender - whatever it may be - is potentially less than the effect of numerus other factors. Indeed, the thrust of this article is about how adults create and enforce different environments/experiences for male and females as they're growing up. The outcome is that innate gender differences would be hard to see or understand, obscured by a mass of other socially influenced differences. But I feel that to declare them wholly absent is more driven by politics than by science. I don't believe that science has proven that to be the case, in fact the opposite (despite being disputed in this article) is that there seems to be an amount of research which has found differences.
posted by Sova at 11:42 AM on September 4, 2009


I just came from the park with our 14 month old girl. Today was a day that all the girls went and stole all the trucks from the little boys and proceeded to play with them and not went to give them back. They must have not received the memo.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:05 PM on September 4, 2009


I know many genderqueer/feminist/gay/take your pick types who spend a lot of time fighting off the political issues connected with the nature/nurture/gender essentialism debate, and I can't say that I've ever heard any of them say a newborn is a tabula rasa.

I'd just like to call out that strawperson of indeterminate gender.


Really? As a "take your pick type" person who's been involved in these kinds of politics, I agree that the blank slate view of gender is nowhere near universal even in queer society. But it's not a strawman, and there are people who really believe in a wholly socially constructed view of gender. I've known genderqueer/transgender people who have been just as hurt by claims that deny gender as revelatory, as they have by attempts to use gender essentialism to define and constrain them.
posted by Sova at 12:28 PM on September 4, 2009


Coming late to this gender-equality battle page, but, pla, when you wrote:

Aside from the incontrovertible physiological differences (rotator cuff, optimal stride due to pelvic orientation, "tackle"), the presence or absence of testosterone has a drastic effect on brain development. That has nothing to do with societal expectations or adult gender biases - If you have testosterone, parts of your brain develop more than if you don't (and vice-versa).

... well, you lost me. The article is about gender differences in babies. I'm aware that baby boys have different "tackle" than baby girls do, but do they really have different rotator cuffs from birth? It was my understanding that it was relatively difficult to determine the gender from a baby's skeleton. And where are these babies with optimal strides? The ones I've seen can barely crawl.

Seems like you may be projecting a little onto babies yourself...
posted by IAmBroom at 2:06 PM on September 4, 2009


I just wonder if we aren't due a brilliant cultural 'gender revolution' -- I thiink zoomorphic is already onto it:

In some future world parents will hide the sex of their babies for as long as possible so that young 'gender identities' can emerge with as little projection or 'wiring' as possible. Well-meaning adults will be held at bay while nature proceeds to surprise us all. Imagine the freedom of exploration!
posted by Surfurrus at 4:51 PM on September 4, 2009


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