1. The article starts by noticing that
which of the differences between the sexes are “biological”, in the sense that they have been honed by evolution, and which are “cultural” or “environmental” and might more easily be altered by changed circumstances, is still fiercely debated.
Please note the link between biology and evolution. Without going into Lamarckian theory, it is important to consider that biology has also adapted throughout history. This means that we are not the same we once were and that present and future challenges will determine biological differences.
2. The article then surveys relevant studies.
Simon Baron-Cohen and Svetlana Lutchmaya, two researchers at Cambridge University, found that boys exposed to relatively high levels of testosterone in the womb looked less often at their mothers' faces, made eye contact less frequently and had smaller vocabularies than those exposed to lower levels—though this study has yet to be replicated successfully by other researchers.
Please note the lack of further evidence and also the following:
a) “the results of hundreds of tests of vocabulary and reading comprehension show there is almost no gap between the sexes.”
b) Simon Baron-Cohen focussed on autism, which is an extreme example and is by no means relevant to the rest of the population.
c) “the problem with trying to argue that the male tendency to systemise suggested by Dr Baron-Cohen might lead to greater mathematical ability is that, in fact, girls and boys are equally good at maths prior to puberty.”
3. Differences between male and female brains (such as percentage of grey matter, white matter, synapses and so on) have been explored, however, “these examples show how tricky it is to find correlations between behaviour and differences in brain structure and brain activity. And even if a connection to brain structure is found, that does not mean it is innate. Most of these studies are done on adults, so it is not clear when differences start to arise. The brain is by no means immutable, even in adulthood. In the hippocampus, an area thought to be involved in spatial learning, new nerve cells can be born in an adult and hormones influence their birth and survival. Dr Shors says that her work has shown that the female brain, at least, is very plastic, changing dramatically during life in response to pregnancy and menopause as well as puberty.”
Please note that
a) no correlation between the brain structure and behaviour has been found;
b) the studies were done on adults therefore ‘environmental’ factors and their life experiences will have had an influence behaviour (and I would say the most significant influence);
c) the brain is not immutable. Shame that neuro-endocrinological research is still in its infancy, hormones clearly have an impact on us. But how much? And what kind of impact?
d) how much do environmental and personal experience change the brain?
there are a number of problems with these studies. One, according to Dr Hines, is science's bias towards reporting positive results, so that research which shows no differences is likely to get lost. Another is that because differences between the sexes are so often popularised and played up in the popular media, people tend to pay them disproportionate attention.
Please note scientists are not free from cultural influence. I would also add that science has rarely been free from ideology, and that today there are numerous problems with the lack of transparency of the conduct and results of experiments (remember the BMJ protest?).
5. Going back to the ‘evidence’,
researchers use a statistical measure called d. … For behavioural and psychological phenomena, a value of d greater than 0.8 is considered large, of 0.5, moderate, and of 0.2, small. Any d less than 0.2 is a negligible difference. … Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to investigate just how different men and women are. She collected all the important meta-analyses that have been conducted on differences between the sexes. … Of the 124 effect-sizes she calculated, 30% had a value of d close to zero and in a further 48% of cases, d was small. In other words, only 22% of reported behavioural differences between the sexes are worth raising an eyebrow over. … The largest gaps were, not surprisingly, in physical attributes such as throwing velocity (d=2.14) and throwing distance (d=1.98). These closely reflect the difference in height between men and women.
Please note the finding of negligible difference in attitudes. Another consideration to be made is about statistics. Statistics is not an exact science (not all disciplines that use numbers are exact science), it’s based on the law of average. It follows that there cannot be any biological determinism: not all men and women have respectively ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. Which explains why most of the women I know who took Simon Baron-Cohen’s test found they had a male brain.
6. There is little evidence to substantiate (statistical) difference in spatial ability, however "in this case the limited evidence available suggests the difference is related to the post-birth testosterone surge in boys.” Also, men do not excel in all spatial tasks”. Furthermore, abilities can be trained and this has been shown to work. “Spatial ability is amenable to training in both sexes.”
I do think this research is a waste of time and I was very reluctant to even mention this topic. The main difference between male and female are hormones. There are variances between hormonal levels between individuals, individuals are also affected differently. We are different. People might have different innate (inherited or not) abilities, but where do these abilities come from? Clearly not from gender. What impact socio-environmental factors have on abilities? Finally, abilities can be trained (genius included and it has been shown).
However the most stupid and surreal aspect of the ‘diatribe’ (or monologue), is the correlation between a biological ability, for which we have very little evidence, for which nobody has taken into account society and personal experience (which includes training), with someone’s ability to do a particular job. This pathetic non-evidence is supposed to account, at least in part, for fewer women in science or engineering and so on. How about plumbers then? Alleged biological differences have always been used to justify the social construction of femininity and women’s roles in society. Sadly, it appears that this is still the case. For both biological determinists and sociological determinists (where everything is determined by society), individual liberty is a delusion. If you’re such a miserable git, why should you make everybody miserable as well?
Fortunately, there have always been people who have gone against this dogmatic determinism and have fought to own their lives. The world is not divided between men and women, but sheep and dogs. Dogs might be loud and rebellious but they lead. The sheep only follow.