Monday, September 15, 2014

Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man? My Review Of A UK Telegraph Article on Biological Sex Differences

This is the title of a new book about biological sex differences.  The first I heard about the book is today's article in the UK Telegraph.  The bolded bit at the beginning of the article gives us all the clickbait anyone would wish for:
Yes, it's official, men are from Mars and women from Venus, and here's the science to prove it
In his fascinating new book the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert argues that there is actually hard science behind many of our stereotypical gender roles
After all that the article itself is quite disappointing, because everything in it is pretty old hat.  Wolpert argues that men are more promiscuous than women because of that evolutionary biology "hard science" which took a time machine and went back to prehistory and decided that the most promiscuous men left the largest numbers of children, all with hard-wired promiscuity gene.  Oh, except for the female children, of course.

Then there's the problem of trying to figure out who the men are promiscuous with if they are heterosexual.  Either women, too, are promiscuous (which even the more recent evolutionary psychology stuff admits to) or a small number of women are extremely promiscuous.

Wolpert places a lot of weight on Simon Baron-Cohen's research in this piece.  For instance, the mechanical mobile vs. face study is one in which Baron-Cohen participated:
A few hours after birth, girls are more sensitive than boys to touch, and 40 hours after birth girls look longer at a face than boys, while boys look longer at a suspended mechanical mobile.
Perhaps this study (on very young infants) has been replicated by someone later, but when I looked into it a couple of years ago I didn't find any evidence that it had ever been replicated.   The study was been criticized by Elizabeth Spelke in 2005 and by Alison Nash and Giordana Grossi in 2007.  I strongly recommend reading those criticisms, because one of the magical tricks in the writings of this field is to present a particular piece of research as the very-final-and-confirmed scientific truth when, in fact, the debate in the field continues.

Can you spot the difficulty of responding to something like this piece by Wolpert?  Almost every sentence he writes makes me think of references that show otherwise or at least cast doubt on his statements.  For instance, the stuff about women being better at empathy than men doesn't necessarily mean (if true) that the differences are inborn, and distinguishing between reported empathy and other measures of empathy may matter.

But none of that is visible in Wolpert's arguments:

Emotional differences are also manifest. Almost the opposite of aggression is empathy, an emotion that marks a fundamental difference between the two sexes, being much stronger in women. Empathy is the ability to share others’ feelings, to take a positive interest in them and to decode non-verbal emotional cues. Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, while the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for systemising, that is, for understanding and building systems.
The problems with Baron-Cohen's systemising vs. emphatizing theory are many and serious.  I have written about them before, but in case you missed it, a VERY long excerpt from my files is attached to the bottom of this post.  It's important to understand what the evidence for Baron-Cohen's theory really looks like, so do take a few minutes to read that excerpt after the asterisk.*

Wolpert tells us that mate selection is biologically based but fails to really take into account that it is also based on economics, culture and so on:

On what basis do men and women choose their sexual partners? Humans all around the world discriminate between potential mates according to physical attractiveness, which has an evolutionary basis, probably because it indicated good health. A recent worldwide survey showed that visual stimuli play a much greater role in male sexual behaviour than in that of women, who value status, ambition or wealth more highly.
At least Wolpert has updated the old evolutionary psychology argument that men care about looks and women about resources and status.  Now women are also allowed to care about looks, as long as they don't stop caring about resources and status.  The problem with such worldwide surveys is that worldwide it's still pretty much the case that men have the wealth and that for women to get some of it they need to marry it.  This was even more true in the past.   On the other hand, imagine a world in which women had the most status and resources and wealth.  If that was the case, men would probably want to know a potential mating partner's wealth before committing, because their futures would suddenly depend on that and not just on the attractiveness of the potential partner.

 The distinction I make here is not a trivial one.  Wolpert seems to suggest that the preference for hypergamy is hard-wired into women; I suggest that it's because of the way wealth is divided in reality and doesn't have to be "hard-wired" at all.  Indeed, some evidence suggests that the mate preferences of women and men become more alike when cultures become more gender-equal.

Now I'm tired.  As I pointed out earlier, the problem with responding to very concentrated summaries of research which relies on only some studies and ignores others is that there is no short-cut around talking about that research and the omitted research.

The problem with deciding what is culturally induced, even if common, and what is biologically "hard-wired" is difficult if the cultures don't differ enough from each other to give us a natural test.  But when they do differ enough, the data should be included.  And we should at least be notified that no genes for these gendered behavior patterns have been yet found.

Then there's the problem with that bolded bit at the beginning of the article, most likely not picked by the author himself.  But the article doesn't actually explain why "stereotypical gender roles" are the best.  For instance, if women are much better at reading people and at empathy, then all clergy and health care professionals should be female, anyone running an organization should have at least one woman at the helm helping to decipher all that difficult crap and so on.

Two further thoughts before I sign off.  First, this piece is filed under "Women's Life" at the Telegraph!  Second, I will leave you with these beautiful thoughts about the comparative advantage of each gender, by Lewis Wolpert:
The areas in the brain where men and women generate their intelligence differ significantly. Men excel at mental rotation, where a subject is asked to compare two three-dimensional objects or shapes, and say if they are the same or mirror images, while females struggle.** Women do better on precision manual tasks involving fine motor co-ordination, such the assembly of circuit boards in a factory, which may be a result of foraging skills that evolved long ago.
Precision manual tasks?  Such as are needed in brain surgery, perhaps?  And I guess that manual dexterity is not needed for holding a spear or for making one or for skinning the animal or whatever else these people think prehistoric men engaged in.  They wore mittens while rotating animals in the air?

*Baron-Cohen's starting point in creating the theory of sex differences is in autism, his actual field. It is his assertion that the autistic brain is an extreme male brain, bent on classification and typologies and the analysis of systems. Autism is more common in men, hence the assumption that whatever autistic individuals exhibit is just a sharpened form of the general male brain. Women are offered the empathizing alternative, perhaps because they have to be offered characteristics which autistic individuals have been argued to lack. Baron-Cohen even muses in his book that there SHOULD be individuals with an extreme female brain, very high on empathizing and very low on systematizing, to match his views of autism as the extreme male brain. He then asserts that such individuals would be treated better by the society than autistic individuals are:

When we find someone with the extreme female brain, my guess is that we also find that society has made it easy for them to find a niche and a value, without that person having to feel they must in some way hide their systemblindness.

I hope that at least one benefit of this book is that society might become more accepting of essential sex differences in the mind, and make it easier for someone with the extreme male brain to find their niche and for us to acknowledge their value. They should not feel the need to hide their mindblindness (as many currently do).

Baron-Cohen continues:

A central tenet of this book is that the male and female brains differ from each other, but that overall one is no better or worse than the other. Hopefully, in reading this book, men will also experience a resurgence of pride at the things they can do well, things like being able to work out confidently how to program a new appliance in the home, being able quickly to discover how to use a new piece of software, or how to fix something with whatever available tools and materials are around. All these need good systematizing skills.

It sounds like Baron-Cohen thinks men can't currently feel pride in their technical skills? Everything in the above quote smells of gender politics.

Sometimes a general theory can arise serendipitously from theories pertaining to some special problem. But not in this case. To see what the problems might be, let's turn to the questionnaires Baron-Cohen initially used to create his definitions of male and female brain as systematizing and empathizing, respectively. They are available in the Appendix of his book but have also been widely disseminated by various websites.

There are two sets of questions, one part testing the respondent's empathizing skills, one part testing her or his systematizing skills. Here are two sets of the assertions in the questionnaire from the original BBC version of the test, which is no longer available in the same form. The first set of questions is from the empathizing part, the second from the systematizing part. For each assertion, the respondent is supposed to state agreement or disagreement, and those answers will then be added up to get someone's overall empathizing and systematizing scores.

Empathizing assertions:

I really enjoy caring for other people.
          It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much.
I find it easy to put myself in somebody else's shoes.

If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn't like it.

Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

I am able to make decisions without being influenced by people's feelings.

People sometimes tell me that I have gone too far with teasing.

I usually stay emotionally detached when watching a film.

I can tell if someone is masking their true emotion.

Systematizing assertions:

I find it difficult to read and understand maps.

I find it easy to grasp exactly how odds work in betting.

I find it difficult to learn how to programme video recorders.

I do not enjoy games that involve a high degree of strategy (e.g. chess, Risk, Games Workshop).

I can remember large amounts of information about a topic that interests me e.g. flags of the world, airline logos.

I know very little about the different stages of the legislation process in my country.

I can easily visualise how the motorways in my region link up.

Notice anything odd about those sets of questions? The systematizing questions contain many more specific examples and applications than the empathizing questions. Notice anything even odder? The examples given are about maps, programming video recorders, highways/motorways, flags of the world, airline logos and so on.

Those examples have the power to steer individuals towards certain answers, and the power appears tilted towards male hobbies and preoccupations. Now, it could be that those hobbies and preoccupations are predominantly male because of that, you know, systematizing brain thing. But it could also be that a woman with a very systematizing brain is steered away from responding as a systematizer because the examples are about male systems.

There are traditionally female systems, in terms of gender roles. Cooking a complicated meal, following and deciphering complicated knitting or crocheting instructions, cutting patterns for dress-making and the order in which the parts are put together and so on. Likewise, women can remember large amounts of information about a topic that interests them. Among those traditionally female topics would be all the various types of make-up items, all the small details which define this year's fashion rules and so on. Do a thought experiment and replace a few of those systematizing assertions which are tilted towards male hobbies with some of my suggestions. Isn't it possible that more women and fewer men would now score higher in systematizing? 
This criticism matters, because the questions confuse something that is supposed to be innate with cultural gender role patterns. The questions also omit almost all possible traditionally female systems.

For more examples of the problems with the questionnaire, have a look at these additional systematizing questions:

Do you know how to fix electrical problems in your house? 
When you see a piece of furniture, are you interested in how it is made?

Do you like collecting rare coins or stamps?
The last two questions are yet more examples of the effect of using predominantly male hobbies in the examples which steer answers. Imagine them being replaced by these alternatives:

When you see a beautiful dress, are you interested in how it is made?

Do you like collecting vintage costume jewelry or old Barbie dolls?

But it's that question about electrical problems which is the truly problematic one. It manages to both discuss a culturally gendered task, fixing electrical problems in the house, AND adds something which simply cannot reflect an essential, unchanging attribute in a person. The latter means that this question should certainly have been deleted from the questionnaire. Here's why: Before I became the proud owner of a fixer-upper house I knew nothing about fixing electrical problems. But now, many years later, I'm not bad at that chore!

Did I somehow become more systematizing? If systematizing is an innate characteristic, such learning shouldn't happen.

Here are a few more questions for your analysis. By now you should be able to see how very tilted these systematizing questions are:

If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity.

I rarely read articles or Web pages about new technology.

I am fascinated by how machines work.

I find it difficult to understand instruction manuals for putting appliances together.

If I had a collection (e.g. CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized.

When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football scores or stock market indices.

When I look at a building, I am curious about the precise way it was constructed.

Mmm. And this is how we created the female empathizing and the male systematizing brain concepts!

Given these problems, Baron-Cohen's questionnaires cannot be regarded as a proper research tool for defining innately empathizing and systematizing brains. Besides, there's nothing to stop a respondent from scoring high on both dimensions or scoring low on both dimensions. What are those individuals who score high on both the male and female brains? Or low on both? And why would Baron-Cohen assume that the two characteristics are mostly mutually exclusive?

But wait, there's more! Even with the tilted questions, Baron-Cohen's original research subjects failed to answer the questionnaire in a way which would justify the equation of an empathizing brain with a female brain or a systematizing brain with a male brain. In that study, depending on the way classifications were done, between 46% and 51.5% of women did not have "a female brain" and between 48% and 40.4% of men did not have "a male brain." Instead, they had either stolen the brain of the other sex or had "balanced" brains.

Baron-Cohen does argue in his book that all what matters is whether more men than women score higher on systematizing and whether more women than men score higher on empathizing. But calling these hypothetical brains female and male is somewhat a stretch.

**For more on three-dimensional mental rotation, see my post here.  And isn't it funny that Wolpert does that "men-and-females" thing I just complained about?