This just in: biology

Susan Walsh of Hooking Up Smart wrote today about recent studies essentially proving that men and women are, in fact (shock!) different.

Conversely, three days ago, The Guardian published an article claiming pretty much exactly the opposite.

You know, I just think it’s, well, rather… odd… that we really have to talk about this so much. It’s obvious that most males and females differ in ways that are probably at least a little innate to our biology; that says nothing, however, of women’s and men’s rights to be treated as individual, autonomous beings who are capable of making decisions for themselves, cooking, cleaning, talking, parenting, governing a state or nation, or being the head of a Fortune 500 company. It says nothing of our abilities to do well in school. It says nothing of our learned skills. It’s annoying to me that this needs to be discussed: there’s the camp of misogynist men who like their misogyny validated. The ones unhappy with any mention of differences between men and women are coming from that confusing group of feminist denialists. Anyone heard of David Reimer? Some feminist groups at the time were very interested in the case of David Reimer (then Brenda Reimer) when news broke about his botched circumcision and the doctor’s and parents’ plan to raise him as a girl. This was poised to be the ultimate answer to the question of “nature vs. nurture”– with feminists, of course, in the “nurture” camp. Those feminists groups were also very upset, as was the doctor, when it became very clear early on that it just wasn’t going to work out as expected.

So what if we admit that most women cannot lift as much with her upper body as most men of her age? So what if we admit that estrogen, which most women have more of, and testosterone, which most men have more of, are largely responsible for certain things about us, respectively? Would it mean that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, after all (oh, and Happy birthday, 19th Amendment!), or that we should go back to being our husbands’ property? Would saying it out loud mean that the fight to end rape culture and objectification and oppression against women is a wash?

No. It definitely doesn’t. Sheesh. Now let’s get over it. This isn’t gender essentialism; it’s fucking biology. If you’re not into that, I see some Tea Partiers just behind you, talking about the global warming hoax, the importance of abstinence-only education, ex-gay camps, and the benefits of teaching Creationism in science classes. They’re waving.

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19 Responses to This just in: biology

  1. Clarence says:


    No, it doesn’t mean ANY of that, as you rightfully point out.
    However what it does mean is that there are likely to be sexual preferences about not only what mating behavior is expected of the opposite sex (assuming two neurotypical people and ignoring the gay and the trans for simplification) and also what careers/interests they are likely to have.

    The reason this comes up so often is that not only do a large contingent (if the not the majority, I’m not sure) of active feminists deny this reality, but also there are programs such as Title IX that are federal laws specifically based on the belief that the sexes are not gendered at all biologically and that if there are any disparities in say, sports participation its because of sexism and can be nothing but sexism. In short men, who may have done nothing and even like the occasional tomboy female player in a mostly male sport, like say, greco-roman style wrestling are attacked as being a bunch of sexists who just don’t want to let more girls join the club. The previous administration, for instance, let schools send out student surveys of sports interest and provided the money spent on boys/girls teams was proportionate to that interest as shown in the surveys the schools were presumptively assumed to be in compliance with Title IX. Now my understanding is that the Obama administration is having none of it: girls and boys athletic funding will be exactly the same, even if one has to drop boys sports to acheive this because not enough women are coming out for the girls basketball or competitive cheerleading (which was recently ruled as NOT a sport, and so will make compliance harder) squads.

    Assuming that given girls opportunities to do any profession a male can do and boys opportunities likewise means that all types of jobs will be equally chosen or WOULD be equally chosen if only we raised our kids in a non-sexist manner strikes me as a bit of folly.

    I think it would behoove feminists and anyone really, who wants to make laws whose underlying premise is that men and women are exactly the same and like the same things and can do *on average* everything equally to consider how to UNDO the changes they would impose if those changes turned out to be harmful or counterproductive to women, men, or society as a whole. But the social-constructivists NEVER do.

  2. Susan Walsh says:

    April, thanks for the link! I wasn’t even aware of that Guardian article – good find. Reading it, it seemed to me that there wasn’t a clear delineation between intellectual differences and behavioral differences. Brizendine is coming at the question from the perspective of hormonal activity in the brain, and its effect on behavior. As a scientist herself, she’s obviously not trying to address questions of intellectual aptitude. Those questions are even thornier. For example, it may not be that women are more verbally gifted than men – it may be that we just like talking more. Or talking in a certain way – more emotional expression, for example.

    • April says:

      Brizendine is coming at the question from the perspective of hormonal activity in the brain, and its effect on behavior.

      True. And behavior, if one wishes, is something that can be modified. For example, in a heterosexual relationship, a woman may have a method or style of communication that is seemingly incompatible with her husband’s, both of which may be aligned with many studies findings on differences between women and men. Each style may come naturally to each spouse, but it’s not impossible for each to modify their communication styles to communicate with one another more effectively. It in no way gives a moral weight to either style, but merely acknowledges that the difference exists.

      And, as you said, Brizendine didn’t make any assumptions of intellectual capacity or capabilities, and it doesn’t exist in the research. Biological differences between most men and women are just there, and really, only misogynists are going to use those finding to extrapolate some kind of false assertion that difference means that women are inferior to men.

      The opposition to this kind of research is rather baffling to me. You can’t stop someone from twisting research into something logically false. It’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to stop the research or remain silent about it.

  3. A.Y. Siu says:

    Feminist groups were very interested in the case of David Reimer (then Brenda Reimer) when news broke about his botched circumcision and the doctor’s and parents’ plan to raise him as a girl. This was poised to be the ultimate answer to the question of “nature vs. nurture”– with feminists, of course, in the “nature” camp. Feminists were also very upset, as was the doctor, when it became very clear early on that it just wasn’t going to work out as expected.

    I actually read a very detailed biography of David Reimer. His parents didn’t raise him as a girl… not in any normal way. As an example, he had a birthday party on a freezing day when all the other normal girls at the party were wearing (quite sensibly for the weather) jeans, but his parents insisted he wear a skirt. He was absolutely forbidden from playing with boy toys (trucks and such).

    That is not how girls are normally raised. Yes, girls are raised to wear skirts, but if all the other girls are wearing jeans, generally your girl should be allowed to as well. Yes, many girls play with dolls or get bought dolls, but with a normal girl if she says “Mommy, I want a truck,” we decide she’s going through a “tomboy phase” and give her the truck and think that’s cute. We don’t say to ourselves “Oh, no! We have to force her to be a girl!”

    He also had to go to regular therapy sessions with some sick doctor who made him practice sexual positions with his brother. And he got regular hormone treatments to make sure he was kept “female.”

    No, this isn’t a simple “nature v. nurture” debate with the botched circumcision, despite what some people insist.

    • April says:

      Are you talking about As Nature Made Him? I’ve also read that book. You’re right, the entire situation was absolutely terrible. I don’t think that if they’d raised him more “normally” as a girl, though, that he would have been more content living as a female.

  4. dan_brodribb says:

    The handy thing about biology is it also gave us an out.

    Brains are flexible things. Neuroplasiticity, I believe it’s called, and it means our brains can change to adapt to new and different situations.

    I think the balancing act is accepting our biology without using it as an excuse.

    • April says:

      I think the balancing act is accepting our biology without using it as an excuse.

      I think that’s right on!

    • Desipis says:

      When we are looking at a statistical difference in outcome (e.g. career path, income, life expectancy, etc) how do we determine how much of that is biology and should be accepted; and how do we determine how much is socialisation and could be adjusted to a more equal outcome by social change?

    • RandomGermanDude says:

      You can’t determine that by simply looking at those numbers. There is too much aggregated information in them. You need to work on the question by going bottom-up.

  5. Clarence says:


    I’m not sure what you are trying to say. Brains are not infinately malleable they exist in a chemical and genetic environment (your body) and have limited scope to acquire new information and new world models.

    In short, you can’t turn just anyone gay merely by changing the social environment. Or straight for that matter. Socialization has limits, and while we don’t know what all those limits are -in part because experiments on human subjects as babies are often illegal- that doesn’t mean we get to assume there are no limits.

    I suspect you can push things at the margins.
    Now if you are talking evo-psy stuff that’s a bit different. Of course the higher cognitive centers of our brain can and should be expected to repress the lower centers when it comes to things like rape and other activities that can violate someone’s rights. But that suppression doesn’t make the underlying biological instinct or urge go away.

    • April says:

      I’d like to jump in here for a minute.

      I don’t think that Dan was trying to say that things like sexual orientation are changeable. While it may be possible, for example, to successfully stop or start being attracted to an individual, that’s not the same as sexual orientation.

      I read the comment more as talking about communication, behavior, etc., not something as fundamental as sexual orientation.

  6. Pingback: A Most August Open Thread | Feminist Critics

  7. Schala says:

    Behavioral therapy, as has been employed against gay individuals, trans individuals and those judged as mentally ill – can work…to an extent. It won’t make someone not gay, not trans, or not mentally ill…they merely “appear less so” and are taught to see their difference as extremely negative (even moreso than before “treatment”). At the cost of trauma, and often, PTSD. They are taught to not do what is usually called “stimming”, in the case of autistics, even if it’s understood as coping behavior (coping with the environment aggressing your senses), they want to “extinguish” that behavior. Gay people are taught to think “heterosexual taughts”, and both gay and trans individuals are given a “crash course” on “being real men/women”…or electroshocks in the past.

    Read on about Judge Rotenberg Center (It’s in the US, and still not closed) and allegations of abuse against their minor “students” who cost 200k+$ a year to the state to be tortured, legally. They don’t try to adapt to the learning style of their autistic patients, they don’t try to have them learn helpful life skills (like being able to cook for yourself, do your laundry, or concentrate on a single task for a while)…they just want them to always maintain eye contact (which autistics don’t do often, while still listening), “not react violently to extreme stimuli*”, and order stuff logically…in the logic of the staff of course.

    *For many autistics, light, sound and patterns in rooms or places affect them greatly, needing time to adjust. Instead of helping them adjust, they torture them when they need time to.

    JRC uses electric current as “aversive”, which has caused serious burns to “students”. The electrical dosage is much too high to be simply disuassive like you would for a pet – it wouldn’t pass reglementations for cats and dogs (and yes I saw those ‘pet collars’ and find them abusive in themselves)…but it’s used on human children. They can also be punished by being starved (getting down to at worst 1/4 of your daily food), tied up with no possibility of moving (on a chair, on a bed), or held down by staff (which are like, 3 times the size of the kid sometimes – at least one kid died that way). God knows I would panic if I was tied down with no possibility of moving, by someone I don’t trust at all (someone who hands me down pain regularly without me being masochist and agreeing with it…isn’t someone I can trust), let alone if those people barely graduated high school (and yes many of their staff have no qualifications beyond that) and do it on a whim. I would panic even if in principle I like bondage.

    One has to wonder where that 200k a year cost goes to. Not food (food costs me 2500$ a year), not lodging (you’d have to live in a castle for that amount, alone – turns out they live in group houses, cuzy, but they’re 4-5 per house – that’d cost me 5k a year, no more), not shrinks who torture you (their wage isn’t even 200k, and they got more than 1 person to take care of)…so where?

    So yeah, behavioral modification has been used often, requested by parents to remove unwanted behaviors or orientations from their children. It’s only sensible when requested by the person hirself, with informed consent of all it entails, to quell something the person hirself sees as harmful (say smoking, doing hard drugs, alcoholism, other addictions). And without abuse of course.

    • Jim says:

      “Behavioral therapy, as has been employed against gay individuals, trans individuals and those judged as mentally ill – can work…to an extent. ”

      This type of thing can be used to break a perosn of speaking thier native language, for that matter. And has been, on a wide scale.

  8. Desipis says:


    That sounds like a nightmare. I’ve often wondered if I fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum such as having Asperger’s syndrome. Some of the more distinctive things I’ve experienced are a strong light and sound sensitivity as well as some social aspects such as having difficulty looking people in the eye. The best way to describe it would be that looking people in the eyes feels physically painful. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to be punished with more pain simply because I couldn’t resist the initial pain and exhibit ‘normal’ behaviour. Luckily I’m able to live life relatively normally (albeit with a small impact on social life) so don’t have any risk of being treated like that.

  9. Schala says:

    Asperger barely falls on their radar. Shrinks have said in the past that I couldn’t possibly have Asperger Syndrome, because I don’t have hand flapping and visible tics. I also more or less learned to make eye contact when I deem the encounter important (an interview for a job), to force myself to do it, even if it doesn’t feel natural or useful to me (I can listen fine if you’re behind me and I look forward, I also don’t get non-verbal cues, so what’s the bonus for me looking at the person?).

    They take lower functioning people, or people who would have later qualified as Asperger but had a slight delay in language (my own brother didn’t make grammatically correct sentences until he was 5, and only said single words for what he wanted at 4 – yet now he’s more than fine, also seems Asperger). If they took him at 3 and did everything to make his life hell…he might have not cared about progressing further.

    Those people also prefer their “student” not to mingle with each other, not that language is learned by hearing people speak it…nope, that’s fairy tales. Language is learned by psychologists and other shrinks who tell you what and how to say stuff…which you don’t understand the meaning of, or the reason its required, long after the “treatment” ended.

  10. DanceDreaming says:

    Piping in here randomly:

    I do not believe Dan was speaking, in terms of mental plasticity, of -forcing- anything on anyone, ala behavioral therapy. Merely that the individual human has, within it, the capacity to transcend many apparent limits. Though I may be incorrect.

    As to the original piece: David Reimer is not a useful case study. Both because he was not raised in a similar fashion to those girls around him(this is why double-blind studies are to be preferred), but also because a singular instance is statistically irrelevant. He was psychologically tormented. This stands as an example of how child abuse that is sexually/gender focused can hurt an individual not really useful as an example of much else.

    One difficulty of taking existent individual boys and girls and doing brain mapping and similar black box radiation testing is the effects of epigenetics. Effects that have been proven to be -particularly- powerful in affecting the structures of the brain. That is: the capacity of environment and experience, including -extremely- subtle elements, to drastically alter the growth, development and structure of an organism.

    In the case of brain differences, this isn’t just some subtle sideline(actually it never is, but it’s hard to explain that well). It’s really up front and obvious. An infant that is often surrounded by bright colors and movement, and that is interacted with, will develop more ganglia and more neural connections on average than a child that is not. This is fairly undisputed. Many similar cases abound. Adults who experienced extreme trauma as children will tend to different structural development than those who did not. Lots of studies.

    So. All those structural differences between men and women. Possibly arise purely from the interaction of sex hormones on the structures of the brain, granted. But an equal possibility is that childhoods that rewards certain activities and psychological tendencies in girls, and others in boys, will result in developmental differences. In fact, this possibility is more than possible, it’s fairly certain. The only question is whether sex hormones(both genital and in vivo) affect these structures -too-. And by how much.

    Also whether it matters. The urge to transcend the social limitations on -both- genders exists and is undeniable. Whether these limits have a biological basis or no, a social structures that most clearly supports such transcendence seems on the whole a positive.

  11. DanceDreaming says:


    The cast of hormonal characters is blatantly insulting to the intelligence.

    Dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin and vasopressin occur in very similar proportions in males and females(the last 2 tend to very slightly different proportions). And tend to produce in them virtually identical effects. For instance, characterizing cortisol in women as: ‘Frazzled, stressed out; highly sensitive, physically and emotionally’, and in men as: ‘Fires up when angry to fight for life and limb.’ is blatantly disingenuous. Both are true in both genders, and reversing the descriptions is simple. A man stressed out and frazzled by a hard or upsetting day at work is under the effects of cortisol, as is a woman who is defending herself, or if you want to go all stereotypical, defending her children.

    The descriptions are gendered solely by the choice of the author, and would be just as accurate in most instances if they were inverted. But they wouldn’t ‘explain’ the perceived differences in men and women then.

    Confirmation bias is one of the classical logical fallacies, and for good reason. Evo-psych and sociology are equally guilty of falling into it pretty much continuously. Not as in ‘often’, but as in ‘in all, or nearly all instances’.

  12. Schala says:

    Data from transsexual people, trans men and women, who takes HRT, has shown that testosterone in general dulls emotions (takes a lot more for them to get out, including anger). Estrogen makes crying more easy, or maybe it’s the low level of testosterone – regardless, it makes a hormonal difference between average men and women.

    I can much more easily get a tear-jerking moment by just remembering something pleasant from my childhood (Say, Short Circuit movies – I almost cried relistening to the 2nd movie’s end-theme where Johnny 5 goes all out), let alone something unpleasant (I habitually try not to think about those, because it almost always makes me cry if I think more than surface about it).

    This definitely changed since taking estrogen and completely blocking testosterone. So did my skin thickness, texture, and smell, acne went bye bye at 98% (it was horrible, now, it’s more adult with a pimple a month, maybe), I developed more sensitivity at the breast level, and breasts themselves, however small (I’m not genetically gifted for that it seems, my mother is also not too endowed there). It very minimally affected already-adult body hair, and I didn’t notice any effect on head hair (it was already pretty healthy, long, shiny…without products).

    After over 4 years of HRT, I can definitely say it’s affected my emotions some – or rather, my likeliness of ‘letting go’ (regardless of wanting to or not). Some people say it also affects anger, but my personal evidence isn’t good for measuring that – I’m a very calm person already. If I get frustrated, I just leave the source of frustration for a few minutes.

    Ask trans men if they get angry more easily, or if they find more dulled emotions due to HRT (dulled means they’re less at the surface, can be ignored more easily). You might be surprised by the answers.

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