In Search of The Middle Ground.

When discussing sex and gender with my step mother, I tend to try and tread pretty carefully. My brothers, Jack 3 and Edward nearly 1, always get drafted in as the main examples during these debates which become increasingly more heated, not to mention absurd, as they progress. “Your brothers just like tractors, they have since day one”  is a line that comes up often, not to mention the inevitable “they just don’t concentrate like you did as a baby, too much energy, they are boys after all!”  In between these assertions I try to bring in the possibility that, perhaps, the boy’s seemingly innate love of combustion engines and beating each other senseless may have come from the specially shaped world of World War II Spitfire annuals and rough and tumble that they have been exposed to since birth.  At this I get shot down. I am assured that when I have children of  my own I will understand that it is nature, not nurture, when it comes to the difference between boys and girls.

Contrary to what my family may think, I  do not in fact  believe that human  identity or behaviour is  entirely socially constructed. The scientific evidence that cheerleads for the nature team is hard to ignore.  For example, tests carried out to measure the effects of high levels of testosterone produced in the development of male children have shown that the higher these levels are at the pre natal stage, the less eye contact the child will make in the first few years of its life and the smaller its vocabulary will be at 18 and 24 months. Thus it may be concluded that girls are innately more social than boys.   This, and many other studies like it, do seem to prove those that would have us believe that gendered behaviour is biologically determined right.

However, before those batting for the nature team get too excited, their are other factors which affect the evidence which such studies have produced. The psychologist who carried out the aforementioned experiment, Simon Baron-Cohen, is the first to admit that social as well as biological factors must be considered when drawing conclusions from these studies. He explains that if a child does begin life by looking in to people’s faces and trying to form more words then these traits will be encouraged by the reactions of others and so develop further. This interaction between nature and nurture, he explains, makes it very difficult for scientists to say where the effects of one finish and those of the other begin.

Baron-Cohen also explains that the conclusions drawn from experiments that seem to prove the natural inevitability of gender binarism speak in terms of averages not individuals. Therefore, the findings of certain MRI studies that show that women mature earlier than men since a woman’s brain, on average, reaches it’s maximum volume two years earlier than a man’s, are not realities set in stone. It may be that a large percentage of women and men mature at different stages in various cultures, but this does not mean that this trend can’t be bucked by vast numbers of individuals whose bodies and experiences differ from the statistical norm.

Therefore, assertions about what we can know about a person based purely on their sex need to be reconsidered in the light of the indecipherable mix of biology and social learning which results in a person’s gender identity. Discrimination and stereotyping based on such assertions must be exposed not only as morally but also scientifically bankrupt modes of behaviour. I am not sure how much weight this argument will have with my step mother, but I hope others will find for this view and will enable my brothers to grow up free to be whomever they want to be, comfortable with picking both tractors and baby buggies out of the toy box.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve just read a book about the nature-nurture gender argument. It’s called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Unsurprisingly, she devotes a number of pages to Baron-Cohen’s infamous eye-contact experiment. The methodological flaws are serious, the results are not that clear, and it has not been repeated. The evidence I’ve seen overall on the nurture side of the argument seems incomparably stronger than what I’ve seen for the nature side, though I’m sure I’ve been exposed to more of the former than the latter. And you are right to say that the dichotomy is a false one. The two sides are really a single force. It’s also far from clear that the “social” side of development is any easier to alter than the “biological” side, especially as we enter the age of genetic technology.

  2. Not strictly relevant to what you were saying but I can’t believe it when women respond with ”If you were a mother you would understand”, not just regarding this issue but in general.

    They just assume

    a) All Women will have children and want to.

    b) As a mother that makes them more qualified than you to understand children.

    You could be a nanny for ten years and never have a child of your own but you’d probably know more about children than a mother of one four year old.

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