Little to say for myself

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gender Differences

Yesterday I went to one of my favourite blogs, the Ex-Communicator's Livejournal, which is always a stimulating read, and saw this post about a recent scientific report. The report (from the journal Evolution and Human Behavior) was of observations of vervet monkeys playing with human toys. It seems that male vervets prefer to play with toy balls and trucks, and females prefer toy pots and pans, and dolls.

I ended up writing a lengthy comment on her post, because it seemed that the vast majority of commenters were up in arms that there should be such a finding. They asserted that the experiment must have been flawed, since there can't be such differences in a species that knows nothing of pots and pans or toy trucks. It seemed that the comments came from a reluctance to consider any differences between the human sexes, since this would be sexist.

My first thought about the report was "Oh, that's clever. There's always a debate, especially among right-on parents, about whether their children play with certain toys innately or whether they're influenced by their environment (parents, friends, TV etc.). Here's an attempt at avoiding that debate - by trying it with a species that has none of those influences."

It wasn't until the 29th comment that someone (Temeres) actually addressed the content of the report, rather than simply rail against its existence. To save you the trouble of digging (although I recommend you read The Ex-Communicator's blog), this is what I said:

Bravo Temeres. At least you're looking at the alleged findings of the study and making a stab at interpreting them - rather than just rubbishing the whole thing because it doesn't fit in with a pre-formed, politically correct conviction of gender equality in humans.

I'm all in favour of equality of opportunity for us humans, and I'm constantly on the lookout for those occasions when I prejudge someone on the basis of their gender (yes it happens, and I challenge anyone to refute that they do it sometimes too). But that's all consideration at a SOCIAL level, rather than genetic.

We all seem to accept that, in other species, there are several behaviours that are the domain of either male or female - like young-rearing, hunting, nest-building etc. It's also interesting that for virtually every one of these behaviours, you can find some species where the behaviour belongs to one gender and other species where it switches gender. It should come as no surprise that humans and their immediate forebears might show similar signs of differentiation, given that our genome had to come from somewhere.

What's useful here is to distinguish that we have something the vervet, and every other species on the planet, lacks: language. We can have conversations about stuff (like here) - they can't. It matters much less to me what the vervet or human male and female genetic predispositions are, than it does to know that we can have conversations about gender differences that take them or leave them and create whatever we like around them.

I'm perfectly happy to believe that female vervets play with pots, pans and dolls, and males play with toy trucks. I'm even happy to believe that, if humans were mute, we would show exactly the same behaviours. What makes all that stuff interesting at a biological level, and completely irrelevant at a social level, is that we as a species are not constrained by our genes. We can use language to invent anything we like - from social systems that enforce equality of opportunity for the sexes, to things as counter-biological as breast-milk dispensers for men and strap-on dildos for women.

It's disempowering to deny that there are differences between the sexes (you only have to blunder into the wrong changing room to become aware of the more overt ones). What's powerful is to know that those differences can be taken or left.

We have a choice. Vervets don't.

Hmm, having read that through I've just had troubling thought: I realise that I've resorted to quoting myself as something to write about. Narcissus has nothing on me...

posted by Plig | 13:21 |

Comments: Post a Comment
Forget the sentimental notion that foreign policy is a struggle between virtue and vice, with virtue bound to win.
Forget the utopian notion that a brave new world without power politics will follow the unconditional surrender of wicked nations.
Forget the crusading notion that any nation, however virtuous and powerful, can have the mission to make the world in its own image.
Remember that diplomacy without power is feeble, and power without diplomacy is destructive and blind.
Remember that no nation's power is without limits, and hence that its policies must respect the power and interests of others.
Hans Morgenthau

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts
Bertrand Russell

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one
Albert Einstein

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative
Martin Luther King Jr.

Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man
Bertrand Russell

I think it would be a good idea
Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization

There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun
Pablo Picasso

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others
Groucho Marx

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it
Mahatma Gandhi

Always make new mistakes
Esther Dyson
blogs I like
The look of this blog owes much to Mena Trott, but everything posted to it is my copyright, unless I say otherwise. If you want to use or quote any of it, please do the decent thing and let me know.