Why We Should Not Deny Implications Of Biological Sex Differences

Societal sex differences can be driven by and reflect biological sex differences. Is there no place for the liberal who believes this?

I know I’ve arrived in a bad corner of the internet when I find myself reading below-the-line comments that talk about feminism as if it were a bad thing, often linking it with either biological or societal sex differences. But such a nether world is, apparently, where I belong, or at least that’s what a number of people – and people with an awful lot of twitter followers – seem to have been telling me recently.

The thing is, I believe (as the best judgement of a lay person, on the available evidence) there are some behavioural differences, on average, between women and men that are the result of biology, not society.

That needs a bit of explanation, as well as a defence, but even so, does it mean that I’ve exiled myself to a forsaken land of neo-Nazis and Fox News viewers? Is liberal opinion so narrow as to leave me no place to stand?

Dictatorship of the T-Rex

My questions are prompted by the grandstanding of several celebrity scientists after Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex was announced as the winner of the Royal Society’s science book prize in September.

Taking down scientific claims for sex differences in behaviour is Cordelia Fine’s shtick, rehearsed in her first book Delusions of Gender and now recapitulated in the prize-winning Testosterone Rex.

The argument in the new book is specific, focusing on claims about testosterone as the carrier of male traits, though with plenty of more general arguments thrown in for good measure. While Fine’s critics acknowledge that much of what she says is true, the problem is, they say, that it’s an attack on a straw man. She deflates the most overreaching claims of testosterone research but avoids engaging with well-evidenced arguments for underlying sex differences and for the role of hormones. Moreover, she cites weak studies where these support the idea that any differences are the result of social norms.

These criticisms seem persuasive to me, as an outsider, but Fine’s work isn’t really my point here. Rather, it’s how her win was greeted by members of a pop science establishment who just didn’t seem bothered about how their smug self-congratulation might dent the cause of feminism – and for that matter, science.

Cordelia Fine, feminism, science, social media, sex
Cordelia Fine argued that biological sex differences cannot explain societal differences between sex and women. [Image: Santa Fe Institute]

Science, fiction?

Brian Cox presented the awards and it’s hard to know if he was being disingenuous or dim when he said that, ‘the very idea that a book about science as we currently understand it can be considered provocative tells me that there is something amiss in public discourse’.

Just in case Brian really was being a bit slow on the uptake, let me explain: Fine’s point was to dismantle science that she believed to be widely accepted but wrong, to cause a bit of a stir, to be provocative, and not to report on a worthy consensus. What is more, her many targets, senior figures in the field such as Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge, don’t seem to have suddenly signed up to her programme.

After Brian, Adam Rutherford joined in the fun on Twitter. ‘I am already enjoying the boys grumbling about Cordelia Fine winning’ was his character-restricted witticism. Well, no doubt Adam is a fully grown man, but several of Fine’s most eloquent critics are also fully grown women. Indeed, perhaps you can criticise her positions without being a nerdy, male adolescent?

Most egregious of the lot, though, was Richard Fortey, as chair of the judges: ‘Every man and woman should read this book on gender bias. […] Pressingly contemporary, it’s the ideal companion to sit alongside The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power’.

Now, if I were Fortey, I might not have listed my science book winner alongside two works of fiction, but he did say this and there seems to me no way of interpreting it other than as saying that anyone unpersuaded by Fine is also rejecting Atwood; that they are, in short, sympathetic to the theocratic rapists of The Handmaid’s Tale’s imaginary dystopia.

“[A]nyone unpersuaded by Fine is also rejecting Atwood; that they are, in short, sympathetic to the theocratic rapists of The Handmaid’s Tale’s imaginary dystopia”

The feminism litmus test

Let’s take a step back. Being a feminist is about supporting the political, economic, and personal equality of the sexes in a world where women have, systematically, fewer opportunities. To be successful, feminism needs to be a broad church. Setting up a test in which we’re all required to agree with Fine’s denial of underlying behavioural differences, and then pointing a finger at those who fail, really doesn’t help.

My position on behavioural sex differences certainly doesn’t feel extreme. If you suggest that sex differences manifest in behaviour, as well as in anatomy, it doesn’t mean that you’re blind to the importance of socially-constructed gender roles or the way they dominate the prospects available to women and men and the everyday experience of sexism in Hollywood and Cricklewood.

If you suggest that sex differences manifest in behaviour, as well as in anatomy, it doesn’t mean that you’re blind to the importance of socially constructed gender roles or the way that they dominate the prospects available to women and men

Nor does it mean the traits more common to one sex have any greater value. Darwin may have thought that empathy made women suited to the home, but it may also be the key to success in the twenty-first century economy. (There is some evidence that women are more empathic, though none, I should note, that shows this to be biologically determined. It also looks like Darwin may have been less thoroughly Victorian in his attitudes to women than often claimed.)

The balance of evidence

So why hold with this dangerous idea? As with anything involving humans and probabilities, the science is messy and contradictory. Ethics and practicality rule out controlled experiment, leaving us to interpret distinctly uncontrolled reality. Nonetheless, as an interested lay reader, the balance of evidence seems to me to point unambiguously to a limited number of sex differences in behaviour, and to suggest that some of these have a biological basis, rather than reflecting the influence of a gendered society on how women and men think and act.

Girls who experienced unusually high levels of prenatal testosterone tend to show the patterns of rough and tumble play associated with boys; neurodevelopmental conditions like autism affect boys more than girls; and boys report a stronger sex drive upon entering adolescence. On a less scholarly plain, if we acknowledge a mental and emotional impact on women of biological events such as premenstrual syndrome and menopause, then it seems illogical to deny that behaviour can be influenced by sex.

In truth there’s a bit more to my position than the current state of scientific evidence (though, hand on heart, I’d change it if compelling new data showed me to be wrong). It seems hard to explain why men gained power in so many societies in purely social terms – which, of course, doesn’t make this ‘natural’ or right for the future – and claims that patriarchy arose inevitably in prehistory alongside agriculture seem half-baked.

Moreover, sex differences in behaviour are an ubiquitous part of the animal kingdom and of our nearest primate relatives. Given this, denying the possibility of similar differences in humans feels like a rear guard action against the theory of evolution.

Cordelia Fine, feminism, science, social media, sex
James Damore was fired from Google after he argued that biological sex differences explain the gender gap in tech and leadership. [Source: BGR]

Am I a hate-speech spewing member of the alt-right?

Right now, accepting some level of behavioural difference between the sexes really does seem like a dangerous position to hold, at least if you’re a reader of the liberal press. The tweets at Fine’s Royal Society win didn’t disturb an otherwise calm conversation; the issue had already been weaponised as a result of the ‘Google memo’ controversy back in August.

This spat arose – if you’ve forgotten – when Google employee James Damore wrote on an internal mailing list that the company’s actions to promote gender equity were likely to fail because they ignored biological differences in interests and preferences between the average man and the average woman. He made some suggestions for alternative approaches and was then fired.

Reactions to the controversy seemed to me to reflect people’s own workplace experience. If you’d had a lifetime of casual sexism, dressed-up with spurious claims to science, then you were likely to see Damore’s memo as another example and his reasonable tone as a ruse. If you’d recently been on the receiving end of a company management’s determination to signal their own moral superiority by mandating bogus training, then you were likely to sympathise with him.

At face value, though, Damore’s memo was not a ‘sexist screed’, as the cliché has it, but a partially accurate (if not comprehensive) review of the available science and one that positioned itself as a contribution to debate. That’s not, however, the impression one gets as a reader of the Guardian.

Following the story, the paper ran a long, laudatory interview with two lawyers who specialise in sex discrimination cases in tech. Their work seems admirable but their worldview is alarming. In a paragraph about Damore we are told that the lawyers are ‘increasingly concerned by the normalisation of hate speech used against women’ and one is then quoted, approvingly, as saying ‘with the alt-right, we are getting these strange views that we haven’t had in the open for a long time’.

So there we have it. when I described the memo as ‘partially accurate’, I was, in fact, using hate speech and giving myself away as a member of the alt-right.

This isn’t an editorial line (the piece ran in a magazine supplement), but it comes across unchallenged and as the authentic voice of the paper. It seems that I’ve been exiled from the clan of the Guardianistas.

First the Damore controversy, then the grandstanding around Fine’s book: recently, anyone with a mild belief in biological sex differences is likely to be feeling punch drunk. I’ll leave it at this. Social constructionism is the view that human identity and knowledge is socially constructed. Feminism is not the property of social constructionists. If those with power in the media imply that it is, they do damage to the cause of equality.

About Michael Clegg

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Michael Clegg took a PhD in Cognitive Psychology and having worked in Government he is now a freelance writer and teacher with particular interest in art history, current affairs and secularism.

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2 comments

  1. All of the above is true and unproblemmatic, until you say “and each has different roles to play in a family, in a society”. There you are committing the naturalistic fallacy and using an age-old trope to keep women in their places – i.e. to domesticate them. Is that OK? Isn’t it frighteningly sexist?

  2. Yes, women and men can indeed do a multitude of roles, and as you say, they can work side by side, or they can do them independently of one another, or women can be forced to do the lion’s share of hard work while men sit around reaping the rewards as happens in many less developed parts of the world. If you believe these things then why say that women “have different roles to play in a family, in society”?

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