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Thoughts on sex and gender


The science on sex.— It’s embarrassing (to humanity) that it’s still necessary to give evidence that men and women are, on average, innately psychologically different, but I’ll quote a couple of scientists whose books the reader may not have read. In The Blank Slate (2002), Steven Pinker summarizes what should be common sense: “Variation in the level of testosterone in different men, and in the same man in different seasons or at different times of day, correlates with libido, self-confidence, and the drive for dominance… When women preparing for a sex-change operation are given androgens, they improve on tests of mental rotation and get worse on tests of verbal fluency. The journalist Andrew Sullivan, whose medical condition had lowered his testosterone levels, describes the effects of injecting it: ‘The rush of a T shot is not unlike the rush of going on a first date or speaking before an audience. I feel braced. After one injection, I almost got in a public brawl for the first time in my life. There is always a lust peak—every time it takes me unaware.’”


“Many of the sex differences [in behavior] are found widely in other primates, indeed, throughout the mammalian class…” An obvious but very suggestive fact.


“The brains of men differ visibly from the brains of women in several ways. Men have larger brains with more neurons (even correcting for body size), though women have a higher percentage of gray matter. (Since men and women are equally intelligent overall, the significance of these differences is unknown.) The interstitial nuclei in the anterior hypothalamus, and a nucleus of the stria terminalis, also in the hypothalamus, are larger in men; they have been implicated in sexual behavior and aggression…”[1]


Pinker also gives compelling evidence that “two key predictions of the social construction theory—that boys treated as girls will grow up with girls’ minds, and that differences between boys and girls can be traced to differences in how their parents treated them—have gone down in flames.” One can expect that many feminists will dismiss Pinker as an ideologist and so forth, but the range of scientific literature he draws on is impressive.


Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (2003) is more systematic, providing overwhelming evidence that male and female brains are innately different, in interesting ways. His main thesis is that male brains are better at systemizing (which he defines), while female brains are better at empathizing. The “maleness” and “femaleness” of brains varies between individuals, but clear tendencies apply to each sex. The behavioral and biological evidence Baron-Cohen adduces validates most stereotypes about the sexes, such as male dominance, aggression, and interest in certain types of abstract intellection, versus female nurturance, attention to people’s feelings, and interest in people-centered things over “systemizing.” He mentions the usual compelling data relating to hormones, for example that boys born to women who have been prescribed a synthetic female hormone (diesthystilbestrol) are likely to show more female-typical behaviors. Or that male-to-female transsexuals show a reduction in “direct” forms of aggression (physical assaults) and an increase in indirect or “relational” aggression—which suggests that “testosterone affects the form that aggression takes.”[2] He also gives evidence to support the obvious idea that genes—and there are genetic differences between males and females—partly determine systemizing and empathizing abilities.


Anyway, isn’t it just reasonable to think that both biology and socialization would contribute to the nature of gender roles? A priori, this is what a reasonable person, unblinded by ideology, would think. No surprise, then, that science tends to confirm it.




Against politically correct dogmatism.— According to a scientific study conducted by Heino Meyer-Bahlburg, women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia “as a group have a lower interest in getting married and performing the traditional childcare/housewife role. As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.” In other words, shockingly, adrenal glands and sex steroids play some role in determining the sexually differentiated behavior of men and women, and “socialization” isn’t everything. Humans are not tabula rasas


Such ideas, of course, should never be used to rationalize social conservatism or discrimination against women, in part because socialization is, after all, an important determinant of gender roles. In any case, it's a vulgar fallacy to invoke natural science in support of bigotry. Nevertheless, we should hesitate before rejecting scientific evidence just because it contradicts favored ideologies.




Institutional blinders.— What makes things like academic “gender feminism” possible—or the postmodern dismissal of science, or scientists’ dismissal of philosophy, or analytic philosophers’ dismissal of all things Continental, or historians’ dismissal of sociology, or economists’ dismissal of history—is the parochialism of modern intellectual life, which grows out of the institutional fragmentation of society. Most of the time, whatever isn’t institutionally sanctioned isn’t pursued, because most people are conformists content to adopt the limits of their institution as approximately the limits of their mind. So academics narrow themselves to their chosen department of knowledge and rarely venture out into the big, scary world of other kinds of thought. “The way I do it is right,” everyone thinks, “and besides, it’s necessary to specialize in something. So I devote my intellectual labors to my specialty.” Also, understandably, all people (not just academics) interest themselves only in what they find most congenial to their tastes and beliefs. The problem is that their tastes and beliefs are encouraged to be limited and one-sided given the limits and one-sidedness of institutions, including the one that has molded them most.




Self-refuting postmodernism.— The concept of “socialization” cuts both ways. If feminists (some of them) want to argue that the character of sex and gender relations is solely a product of socialization, I can argue that they, and other postmodernists, have been socialized and indoctrinated into rejecting science (insofar as it contradicts certain dogmas), deploring “phallocentrism” or “phallogocentrism,” and exalting Foucault or other postmodern thinkers. That is, I can take their ideas to their logical conclusions: if our beliefs and scientific theories are mere products of power-systems, then postmodern beliefs, too, have no intrinsic rational validity but are only expressions of a certain kind of society. This reductivism of course conflicts with the implicit claims to truth that postmodernists make when they put forward their ideas. In other words, if their ideas are right, as they think, then they can’t be right, because there is no such thing as rightness or truth or autonomous reason. Everything is supposed to be a mere expression or reflection of a particular state of affairs, and nothing is even remotely “autonomous”—a dogma, incidentally, that denies humans dignity, creativity, freedom, and reason. This kind of (pseudo-)philosophical postmodernism amounts to a profound nihilism. Its extreme philosophical empiricism—much more extreme than, say, David Hume’s—is revealingly similar to B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism, which, likewise, effectively denied humans dignity and creativity by interpreting them in terms of mere conditioning, reinforcement, and stimulus-and-response. So, whether it’s behaviorism, or an empiricism that denies individuals contribute anything to their own development, or a postmodernism that says “Language speaks us” (i.e., we’re mere products of particular discourses or languages or power-systems or whatever), the Enlightenment values of autonomous reason and freedom have no place.


Nevertheless, there is some value to philosophical postmodernism: socialization does, after all, exist (though that has been understood for a very long time). Gender feminists, for example, have been socialized into their odd beliefs; they’re not as autonomous or rational as they implicitly, and self-contradictorily, think.




Postmodern irony.— Given the rigor of the scientific method, the conclusions of modern natural science are much less “socially constructed” than are the ideas of postmodernists who critique science as being socially constructed. Maybe these people should look in the mirror from time to time.




[1] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 346–348.


[2] Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 99.

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