May 31, 2005

"If the theory's right..."

NYT's John Tierney is still promoting the theory that men are by nature more competitive than women. Harvard president Lawrence Summers got slammed for speculating about genetic difference as an explanation for a pattern of more success for men and women. Tierney's game is to find a woman scientist to state the theory:
[T]he evolutionary roots of [competitiveness in males] seem clear to anthropologists like Helen Fisher of Rutgers University.

"Evolution has selected for men with a taste for risking everything to get to the top of the hierarchy," she said, "because those males get more reproductive opportunities, not only among primates but also among human beings. Women don't get as big a reproductive payoff by reaching the top. They're just as competitive with themselves - they want to do a good job just as much as men do - but men want to be more competitive with others."

Evolutionary psychologists see two kinds of payoffs that traditionally went (and often still go) to victorious men. Women have long been drawn to men at the top of a hierarchy (a clan leader, Donald Trump) who have the resources to support children.

And when women pursued what's called a short-term reproductive strategy - a quick fling - then presumably evolution favored the woman who was attracted to a man with good genes, as manifest either in his looks or in some display of prowess. If the theory's right and the unconscious urges persist in women, you can begin to understand why some women wait in hotel lobbies looking for rock stars.
Tierney is responding to the criticism his earlier column on the subject touched off. I wrote about that column myself, saying:
The usual strategy for talking about sex differences.

A modern convention: To write or talk about how women and men are different, make sure you portray whatever attribute you ascribe to women as better.

And wouldn't you know, the female expert Tierney finds to say the theory in today's column has written a book called:
"The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World."
Yes, yes, women are better than men. On a genetic level. A woman scientist says so.

Sorry, I'm not buying this sugar-coated stereotyping. It will hurt women!


M. Simon said...

I think it is important to differentiate between group differences and individual differences.

It is possible to say that women as a group....

While still allowing that this woman vs. that man.....

Bruce Hayden said...

I agree to some extent with M. Simon. For example, I have commented before on what appears to be significant differences between how the two sexes tend to navigate. Men by a visual map in their heads, and women by landmarks.

Yet, my mother was extremely good at both. Better with a map than 98% of men. No surprise, an undergraduate degree in mathematics.

But I would also suggest that it is plain silly to discount very real statistical differences in mean/median behavior between the two sexes. Sure, some is socialization. But the more research that is done, the more it becomes apparent that some is psyiological. Male brains and female brains are, at the means, different.

Is one better than the other? I would suggest that Summers is wrong, and that indeed, on the mean, a male brain is better than the female for some tasks, and the female better for others.

But note, I talk means here, and that means that some women are better than most men at classically male tasks, and visa versa.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me also point out that the idea of different mating strategies between the two sexes appears to have a lot of basis in fact.

The example was given of women waiting for rock stars in the hotel lobby. But this is only part of the typical female mating strategy. The problem typically faced by women was that in finding and keeping a mate who could provide the resources for her to raise her kids.

Now, his optimal strategy is to spread his oats, but only pay to raise his own kids. So, if he thinks it likely that the woman's kids are not his, but those of a rock star, he is going to go look for another woman.

Hence, I would suggest, a lot of our societal double standard, including Islamic Honor Killings, stoning of adulterers, etc.

In other words, in a world before genetic testing, the better that a woman can convince a man that these are his kids, the more likely it is that he is willing to raise them.

Of course, the other side also exists. Women are obviously attracted to Alpha Male genetics. But most women cannot get the Alpha Male to raise any kids they might have with him. Thus, a lot of romance novels, and at least some cheating. Indeed, genetic testing has shown that the number of children fathered by one guy but being raised by another as his own is surprisingly high.

Ann Althouse said...

Bruce: the problem is stereotyping and the discrimination that comes from it. You're referring to generalizations, based on studies with overlapping bell curves. It's not men do one thing and women another, but that more men tend in one direction than women, and so forth. But the generalizations are pernicious and hurt individuals. And what Tierney has done, which I especially object to, is to put the difference at the genetic level and to characterize the stereotype that has hurt women as good. Both of these things have potential to hurt women. The genetic theory reinforces the belief that the status quo, with less advancement for women is natural and appropriate. And the women-are-better theory also can breed complacency: don't bring women into the sciences, politics, etc., because they are more suited to and better off doiing the beautiful womanly things women have always done.

Bruce Hayden said...

As a male, I am not sure I would want to be rasing boys today. The advantages seem to go to women - at least right now.

The problem, as I see it, is that typical male behavior is at odds with modern American society and its economy.

We all know about ADHD, etc. and how the schools handle this through Ritalin. But it seems to me that the reality is that many, if not most, of these boys are wanting to do what boys have always wanted to do at these ages - run around like wild Indians. While the girls are content to sit around and do what society wants them to do - study.

So, no surprise that in my daughter's middle school class, there are maybe five straight A girls, and one boy. (Obviously, this changes in high school and college).

So, I was happier having a girl. She studies hard, and doesn't have to run around to burn off energy, etc. To me, a much better strategy for today's economy. No wonder that women are starting to predominate in academia.

But both males and females seem to still be wired for the big powerful Alpha males. In high school, they get all the girls. But then, when you go back to a reunion twenty years later, it is the nerds who are successful, the doctors and lawyers (well, traditionally we were considered successful).

And it can get rather humorous. My quasi-girlfriend's ex husband, still huge at 54, showed up at one of her surgeries. He stood there massively expecting to be recognized. Her back surgeon, all of 5'9, all but treated him like wallpaper. After all, he was the one with the international practice and earning in the mid seven figures a year.

But 35 years ago, the tables would have been turned. The studious nerd could have only dreamed about prom dates.

Bruce Hayden said...


I totally agree that it is a question of overlapping bell curves. That is why I used the example of my mother (the outstanding science student at the U. Ill. in 1944), and used "mean" and "median".

My daughter is either #1 or #2 in math in her 8th grade class (of about 70). Partly, I will admit, it is because we expect it. And yes, I do use her mother and great-great aunt as examples (the later got a master's in math from Columbia in 1925). So, no, I don't buy into the stereotypes.

But I am arguing from the opposite side, which is that there are real sexual differences. Not as significantly in academic areas, but rather in such areas as agression. (But I attribute Sommer's delimma more to socialization differences - notably that men are still the ones expected to sacrifice all for their careers, and women for their families).

For example, in my daughter's school, sports are mandatory. But they are very different for the boys and the girls. The boys seem to revel in physical contact. Boys' hockey in particular, seems to breed injuries. And the boys love it. (Again, bell curves - I didn't).

The other, related, place is in fighting. Most of the women I have known in my life tend to not fight, unless forced to it. But then they fight to win. Most guys seem to just enjoy combat, per se. Winning is good. But competing is more important.

I guess my problem with your problem with stereotyping is that it to some extent backs you into a corner. There are sex differences - though, as we both agree, in the means of the bell curves. And ignoring them, pretending like they don't exist, seems counterproductive, esp. with ever more studies showing that there are indeed differences in how our brains work.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do find it silly though to extend the boys are better at abstract thought into the idea that women shouldn't go into the sciences. First, as Ann has pointed out, it is a question of means of bell curves.

Besides, there are more than one trait that are needed to be successful in the sciences, and some of these traits are statistically advantageous for women, and some men. Indeed, I really cannot think of any place in the sciences where the "male" traits should really be critical in determining success (ignoring the bell curve issue).

Of course, I am biased. In my family, women were better than men in the sciences. My ex is an extremely competent engineer. And my brother married into a family where 3 of 4 kids have PhDs in the sciences, and two of them are women (including his wife).

Ann Althouse said...

Bruce: I'm not opposed to studying sex differences and I believe they do exist, but it's the rhetorical use of sex difference that I'm critical of. I'm also very wary of the sociobiologist sort of speculating about why we evolved the way we did. And I detest the female superiority argument, which to a great extent actually promotes male superiority, but in any event is just inane and unhelpful.

Bruce Hayden said...

Sorry to go on and on, but...

I am always surprised that the two sexes end up at the same place most of the time. I was raised in a family of five boys. We talked in Male Speak. And then, about a decade or so ago, I started to read about gender differences, and in particular, Deborah Tannen's books on language. And was surprised to discover that to a very great extent, there are two different languages spoken. Male Speak and Female Speak. We use the same words, but often, they mean quite different things.

For example, my mother would often ask if I wanted to do something, like take out the trash. Of course, I didn't want to. Just as bad - many women ask a guy if he can take out the trash. He translates that literally as to whether he can physically do it, which is an attack on his competence. A woman would typically take either as a request. Much better though with most men - just ask them please take it out. Makes them a hero, instead of questioning their competence.

I think Dr. Tannen tried to answer the question of whether this was innate or learned with the former. But I am not convinced.

Bruce Hayden said...


Aren't you still sticking your head in the sand?

As is obvious, I do believe that in our current environment, many traditionally male traits are counterproductive.

As to the sociobiologists (or whatever they call themselves these days), I would suggest that if we know, potentially, why there are differences (again, the bell curve means), then maybe we can go on to address some of the resulting issues.

One, near and dear, to my male heart, is the implied assumption that males should be happy to act like females in lower school. Sitting quietly and learning. I would suggest that the refusal to accept innate sexual differences is one of the big reason that so many boys (esp.) are being drugged these days. (Again, I wouldn't have been, being nerdly studious). But boys will be boys, and trying to force them to be like girls just harms them.

Smilin' Jack said...

Sorry, I'm not buying this sugar-coated stereotyping. It will hurt women!

I agree that the sugar-coating is a rather pathetic sop. But the so-called 'stereotyping' simply reflects a fact that we will all have to deal with. As Steven Pinker said, the truth cannot be offensive.

There's some confusion in the comments regarding the significance of distribution means. Summers's point was that, regardless of the mean, the variance of men's abilities is larger, so they can be expected to dominate the right tail of the bell curve in all areas (even cooking and interior decorating), but especially math-intensive endeavors, where their mean is also higher. He was concerned with the extremes of ability, as would be appropriate for Harvard faculty. Sure, women can become competent scientists and engineers...but it will be a man who proves the Riemann hypothesis.

Yes, people will generalize from this, sometimes can't get to know everyone in the world on an individual basis. And if that hurts women, well, as we all know, the world isn't fair--and besides, women are better at tolerating pain!

Slac said...

Ann, your words are a breath of fresh air.

I was raised in the Catholic school system, where practically all the teachers were women who blatantly favored the girls and looked down on the boys. The asymmetry was remarkable. Although sneaking a peak at a raw grade list was rare, it was apparent that the top half of the scores in the class represented mostly girls and the bottom represented the boys.

No one ever really questioned that girls were just "naturally better at school" and that boys were naturally problematic and stupid. The boys were too busy hating school and the girls were too busy doing their homework to notice. I started pointing injustices out to teachers as I grew older, but I'm sure they interpreted it as adolescent angst.

Moreover, I am the youngest of six, with five older sisters. I've had a fine opportunity to observe social and "politcal" behavior towards the sexes from multiple perspectives.

The problems concerning the WAY we understand the sexes are right now more important than the understanding itself. I prefer discussion about the discussion over the actual nature of asymmetry between sexes, whatever it may be. The latter may certainly be nice, but the former is critical.

So, I just wanted to say thank you, Ann, for shifting the focus to where it needs to go.

Kathleen B. said...

you have got to be joking Smilin Jack. Nothing you have said demonstrates "truth" (except maybe your characterization of Mr. Summers' remarks.)

and as far as the "rock star groupie" example goes - give me a break. What percentage of women hang around and are groupies? I would think 20% would be a staggeringly high percentage. But let's assume that is correct. so 20% of women do something that is supposed to be "ingrained" and "biologically necessary" to the extent that it is an example of sex differences?! what about the other 80%? This is exactly the problem with these types of discussions. People take some little bit of statistical information, take some personal example they have, and then extrapolate some big theory on how humanity and gender evolved. Let's try to have a little intellectual rigor here please.

Bruce Hayden said...


I saw somewhere that maybe 20% or so of kids born in wedlock were biologically fathered by other than than the guy married to their mother. And this appears to be both cross-culteral, and cross-species.

It is not just the rock star, of course. Include in there the massive guy formerly married to my quasi-girlfriend. At 54, still rock hard, 6'3, 250 lbs. Surprising number of women just melt around him. Still. Needless to say, it was his fathering kids out of wedlock that sank their marriage.

I disagree with what both you and Ann appear to be saying, which is that there is no such thing as male and female mating strategies. My view is that there are both. Males put most of their resources into their official mate, but try to sow their oats elsewhere on the side to increase their genetic success. As long as they aren't caught, it is cheap for them - the possibility of offspring w/o having to expend resources.

As for women, the Alpha Males can only support one (in our society) or a very few women and their kids. But at least some women seem driven to sneak their genes over those of their mate.

I would suggest that this is the primary reason that for so long most societies in this world have put such severe constraints on women. Including, of course, Moslem Honor Killings, stoning of adulterers, the emphasis traditionally made of female virginity, etc. In other words, the real fear that a woman will do exactly what you suggest is so rare - cuckhold her husband, causing him to raise some other man's children as his own.

I would also suggest that romance novels that are so attractive to so many women have their basis in precisely this dynamic - being swept of her feet by some Alpha male.

Note, BTW, that I don't suggest that any female reader here would be tempted to do this. But I do posit that this dynamic is at the root of much of why women have been so severely constrained and oppressed over history. That if this were a neglible problem, as apparently suggested by Kathleen, this would not have been the case.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that we shall soon see if I am right or not. In the old days, it was often not possible to determine biological fatherhood. Now, it is easy, and not that expensive.

Of course, this ignores that male jelousy may have a valid strategic benefit - in that it may have provided males with a greater chance at raising their own kids. And if we have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years of this selection, we won't be able to overcome it that quickly.

rondout said...

Ann, you say his comments are "unhelpful," which is an interesting criticism.

For a politician or statesman, "unhelpful" would be a valid criticism, since what they say is supposed to be helpful.

But the only on-the-job "helpfulness" for a journalist -- or a law school professor -- should be to get at the truth, unless there's some extraordinary reason not to (national security considerations, for instance -- I don't think the fear of sexism or discrimination in these circumstances would meet that standard). If certain gender differences exist, or if certain other behaviors exist, isn't it in fact the most helpful thing for us to acknowledge that (or, just as important, prove that it's wrong in the clearest, most open arguments possible)? Let's get at the truth rather than censor ourselves to avoid discomfort.

If the problem is that people will over-generalize from bell curves, then fight against over-generalizing from bell curves. Don't say that we need to shut up because someone somewhere will misapply an idea. As much as I appreciate a dim view of human nature, when it comes to important discussions, we need to be as plainspoken and honest as possible.

And I'd love to read why you think calling women superior promotes male superiority.

amba said...

I agree with Ann that the "little woman is superior" thing is cloying and hypocritical. It's that old condescending "gallantry," right out of the John Wayne era.

While I think it's right that it's easier for girls to sit still in school, and that so many boys are being drugged because their nature is not so easily tamed and industrialized, I would like to add that little girls these days are wildly physically active and athletic, and that one reason they were not when we were growing up in the '50s is because they were chided and shamed out of it. I remember being VERY annoyed by an ABC special on sex differences some years ago with John Stossel that showed boys roughhousing and girls having a doll tea party. These were not the little girls I knew (or was). These "difference" theorists always seem to conflate assertion with aggression, so the fact that girls don't wrestle much or have many fistfights is equated with their being demure and still and strictly social, when actually, they are hanging by their knees from the monkey bars.

Finally, the last time this issue came up (the Summers flap) I found myself agreeing with someone I'd never thought I would ever agree with about anything: Charles Murray (author of THE BELL CURVE). His quote is here.

amba said...

P.S. Regarding the difference between aggression and assertion/activity, watch puppies or kittens (or young monkeys). Both sexes run around and play like crazy, but males play-fight more.

Ann Althouse said...

"Why calling women superior promotes male superiority"?

1. It's used to make stereotyping palatable, and stereotyping will be used as it's been used traditionally, to hurt women. (It will hurt men too.)

2. When women's options were severely restricted, women were portrayed as superior to men: we are too good for the business word, too beautiful to be spoiled by the real word, too kind to be spoiled by competition. Don't worry your pretty little head.

amba said...

Case in point: go to Augustine's Blog (you should be going there anyway, if you're not already) and scroll down to the post "Some Critical Childhood Moments." (She doesn't seem to have any way of linking to individual posts.) There is a comic strip, in the last panel of which Natalie has written: "I am nine, playing with my cousins, running around in circles, wildly ecstatic. My father comes outside and stops me playing. He says I must not get so excited."

That just says volumes about this whole issue.

Bruce Hayden said...

I respectfully disagree with all the esteemed ladies in this audience.

Let me suggest that back then, men did not truly consider women superior, except maybe from a moral sense. Rather, if you were to ask them if they had the choice of a boy or a girl, they would of course pick a boy. No man back then envied the state of women.

Women were considered fragile. I think too that there was some guilt - after all, a woman by marrying a man and trying to have his kids often signed her death warrant. So, no surprise, that girls and women were coddled. Possibly also in the (mistaken) belief that this would increase the likelyhood that they survive childbirth.

This indeed was the big divide in the relationship between the sexes - when modern medicine practically eliminated childbirth death, which was so prevalent even a hundred years ago.

I am not in the least suggesting that girls don't want to run around. But I am suggesting that, by and large, they are much more comfortable sitting for long periods of time in a boring classroom, esp. when young. This is one of my male moments - decrying (almost exclusively female at this level) teachers trying to treat the boys like girls in elementary school.

Today, I would suggest that many, if not most, girls are not coddled. You note sports. My daughter (in private school) has mandatory sports. One per trimester. Field hockey, basketball (full court these days), and soccer (soon to switch to lacrosse). And then swim team in the summer. Is it good for her? Of course. Is that going to change? No way!

But that doesn't detract from the fact that four of five of the straight A students in her 8th grade class are girls.

So, did men really think that women were superior back then? No. Just, as I said morally, because of the childbirth thing. But men then never believed that they were superior (except morally).

So, we don't coddle our females any more (well, usually - there is a place for romance). And all here, I would suspect, think that is a very good thing.

So, maybe I am suggesting that the pendulum should swing back towards the middle a little, and we should start worrying about our boys, instead of worrying so much about women losing an inch or so of ground. You won't.

It may be awhile before women start winning as many Nobel prizes as men do. But they are entering the sciences. And they are getting undergraduate and graduate degrees at a significantly higher rate then their male colleagues. Even now in some of the sciences.

So, don't panic. There is very, very, little, that girls cannot aspire to today. And this isn't going to change.