Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Snakes, and snails, and puppy dog's tails

On yesterday's post, the indispensible Coturnix left a link to this article at PLos Biology, Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science.

In it, the author Peter A. Lawrence, a molecular biologist, tries to show how the facts that men and women's brains are "on average" structured differently and that therefore their thought processes are "on average" different might be applied to a liberalization of his profession and the opening up of more opportunities for women in the scientific fields.

Lawrence takes it for granted that his treating the differences as facts will not sit well with many campus Liberals. He means Feminists but he doesn't name them as such. He's probably right.

I think most Feminists, even while they accept that there might be structural and chemical differences between male and female brains, would argue that those biological differences don't result in enough functional differences to matter when talking about gender issues. They believe, with good reason, that usually when the argument that women's and men's brains are different is put forward it's part of a larger argument attempting to limit opportunities for women and defend entrenched male privilege and power.

Of course, just because a fact is inconvenient and can be used against us, doesn't make it less of a fact. (Hello, President Bush!)

The biological evidence aside, it's only logical that the kind of body you happen to inhabit has a profound effect on the way you think, how you view life, and how you navigate through it.

It matters to who you are if you are tall, short, beautiful, not beautiful, strong, fast, near-sighted, color blind, left-handed, ambidexterous, whatever. So of course it's going to matter to who you are if you were born with a womb or with a penis. And just as people whose outward physical structures are similar will develop similar approaches to life, people whose innermost structures---whose brain designs---are similar will develop similar ways of using those brains.

Similar is not a synonym for the same.

Parents and teachers can and will happily provide lots of anecdotal evidence of this of the boys like trucks and girls like Barbie kind. But I'm more intrigued by studies that have shown that men tend to come to decisions by eliminating choices and women tend to do it by adding them---which explains shopping and why men tend to hate it---and other studies that show that women tend to navigate by identifying landmarks and men tend to do it by watching the light and measuring the passage of time---which explains why men tend not to like to stop to ask for directions; it throws off our inner clocks.

Note the overuse of the word tend in that last sentence.

Just because there's undeniably a typical male body shape---large-boned, heavily muscled, hairy---that doesn't mean all men look like Johnny Damon or were supposed to.

Thank God.

Human beings aren't assembled by infallible robots out of kits. They assemble themselves in utero, blindly and unconsciously, following a generalized process that is subject to all sorts of variables, vagaries, and accidents.

So, as Lawrence points out, just because there is such a thing as a typical "feminine" brain, that doesn't mean that every human female was issued one.

Lawrence accepts an estimate that brains were handed out in about these proportions: 60 per cent of women have typical "feminine" brains, 20 per cent have "balanced" brains, and 20 have "masculine" brains.

Meanwhile men's brains sort out similarly, with 60 per cent of us having typical "masculine" brains, etc.

What this means is that just because you happen to be a woman, you don't necessarily think like a woman.

(It also means that, statistically, it's likely that you do.)

What this ought to mean, as far as schools are concerned, which is the subject I'm tackling with this series of posts, is that when teachers face their classrooms they have to know that 40 per cent of the people in it don't think in ways typical of their sex, and since they can't know which kids have which kinds of brains, they have to teach as if everybody has both and then deal with each individual student as an individual, as a person in his or her own right, whose "typicalness" can't be judged or used against them.

Or for them.

This isn't exactly the point Lawrence is making.

Lawrence is more interested in the fact that there is an average, that it is a given that on average boys will be boys and girls will be girls.

And I guess I agree with him.

But where he loses me is where he assumes that the prime difference between average boy behavior and average girl behavior is that boys tend to be more aggressive.

Most people who acknowledge the differences between boys and girls use that word. Aggressive. And I can't stand it.

Not the word. Their usage.

Because they use it as if it didn't have more negative connotations than positive ones. They use it as if it's a synonym for assertive, competitive, energetic or physically active, and---one of these things is not like the others, folks---combative.

The result of this sloppy word choice is that boys are often described as aggressive in the most negative sense and this leads to one of two bad outcomes. People see typical male behavior as a threat that must be severely controlled if not stamped out or they see it with an approving shrug---hey, boys will be boys, let them fight it out and hey, boys will be boys, and if the girls can't keep up they should go back to playing with their dolls.

Now, while "conservatives" like to complain that the first reaction to boys' aggressiveness, stamp it out, is the one being forced upon all of us by a coalition of Feminists, Nanny State Liberals, gays, and weak-kneed, self-castrated men, the second attitude is actually the one that our society at large embraces, encourages, enables, and enforces.

Boys will be boys even if it means they should all grow up to be mouth-breathing, women-hating, self-hating, ignorant slobs, bullies, and louts.

Boys will be boys, that's a biological fact, but the history of the human race is the triumph of education over biological fact. That's why we have forks, indoor plumbing, Beethoven, and baseball.

Not to mention schools.

Girls can be taught to be more assertive. Boys can be taught to sit still and pay attention.

Girls can be taught to be less self-effacing. Boys can be taught to be considerate.

Girls can be taught how to do differential equations and boys can be taught to write a sestina.

This is just to say that whatever brains we are blessed with or cursed with, we can all learn how to be grown-ups.

We can all be civilized.

Even boys.


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