I really want you to read this article in Scientific American Mind on the alleged biological differences between boys and girls, but it’s behind a pay wall. So what I’m going to do is blog the article in multiple installments, starting with the big picture.
The author is a neuroscientist named Lise Eliot (right), and she brings a welcome dose of sanity to a subject I had last encountered in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a masterpiece of conservative political philosophy masquerading as objective science. (Too harsh?) Pinker is emphatic that, as every parent “deep down” knows, “boys and girls are [not] interchangeable” (422), and anyone who coolly analyzes the evidence must come to the same conclusion. Of course, the evidence he offers is little more than a grab bag of isolated, circumstantial factoids.
In the case of girls v. boys, Pinker’s primary argument for innate differences is the claim that “[c]ontrary to popular belief, parents in contemporary America do not treat their sons and daughters very differently” (350). He backs this up by citing “a recent assessment of 172 studies involving 28,000 children[, which] found that boys and girls are given similar amounts of encouragement, warmth, nurturance, restrictiveness, discipline and clarity of communication. The only substantial difference was that about two-thirds of the boys were discouraged from playing with dolls, especially by their fathers, out of a fear that they would become gay.”
We’ll leave the “discouraged from playing with dolls” doozy for a separate post. The rest is über-scientific, right?
Not according to Eliot, who takes the more systematic approach of examining the developmental trajectories of boys and girls along each dimension of supposed biological difference – reading and writing, math skills, aggression, etc. – to identify points at which culture has likely entered the picture.
Here’s how she summarizes the evidence:
Boys and girls are different, but most psychological sex differences are not especially large. For example, gaps in verbal skills, math performance, empathy and even most types of aggression are generally much smaller than the disparity in adult height, in which the average five-foot, 10-inch man is taller than 99 percent of women. When it comes to mental abilities, males and females overlap much more than they stand apart.
Furthermore, few of these sex differences are as fixed, or hardwired, as popular accounts have lately portrayed. Genes and hormones light the spark for most boy-girl differences, but the flame is strongly fanned by the essentially separate cultures in which boys and girls grow up. Appreciating how sex differences emerge can reduce dangerous stereotyping and give parents and teachers ideas for cross-training boys’ and girls’ minds, to minimize their more troubling discrepancies and enable all children to more fully develop their diverse talents.
Among certain parents, it is an article of faith not only that they should treat their sons and daughters alike, but also that they do. If Jack gets Lincoln Logs and Tetris, and joins the soccer team and the math club, so does Jill. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, doesn’t think these parents are lying, exactly. But she would like to bring some studies to their attention.
In one, scientists dressed newborns in gender-neutral clothes and misled adults about their sex. The adults described the “boys” (actually girls) as angry or distressed more often than did adults who thought they were observing girls, and described the “girls” (actually boys) as happy and socially engaged more than adults who knew the babies were boys. Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens. In another study, mothers estimated how steep a slope their 11-month-olds could crawl down. Moms of boys got it right to within one degree; moms of girls underestimated what their daughters could do by nine degrees, even though there are no differences in the motor skills of infant boys and girls. But that prejudice may cause parents to unconsciously limit their daughter’s physical activity.
Contrast that with Pinker’s claim that boys and girls are treated identically, and then groan at his presumption to speak Truth to the Humanities Department.
Next time we’ll look at what Eliot has to say about aggression in boys.