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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gender and genes

In response to my post defending Larry Summers's infamous comments on gender and genes, Anna Gordon wrote:
1. I think few would disagree that by the time teenagers take the SAT's they've already been substantially influenced by differential cultural factors based on their gender.

2. The etiology of autism spectrum disorders including Asperger's is very, very, very poorly understood. The best anyone can say at the moment is that evidence is consistant with the disease's resulting from a combination of factors which have yet to be well elucidated. Those factors may include genetic susceptibility but almost certainly include environmental factors. Environmental factors are not randomly distributed with regard to sex, and that difference is an artifact of culture. Therefore it would be misleading to use the gender distribution of those diseases as evidence of extra-cultural differences between the sexes.

3. You say the question is reasonable, but I must disagree with its premise. Why ask if gender differences are cultural or not? If they're cultural they could potentially be changed.

As you point out, you can never fully "adjust" for cultural factors, because the contstruct encompasses a seeming infinity of causal pathways. In this context, every new cultural difference discovered presents an opportunity to narrow the gap between men and women in the sciences. On the other hand, anything that can't be explained by already known cultural factors goes into a catch-all which you have carefully avoided calling "innate" differences. But the term "cultural" includes every aspect of human life that is sensitive to human intervention.

So if the difference isn't cultural, what is it? Biological? Genetic? Divine? Searching for causes of gender disparity that fall within our control has scientific relevance because it shows us what we can change. Searching for differences beyond our control is searching for a reason to give up. It's also inherently unproveable. The latter makes it sloppy thinking, the former makes it hurt.
I think the central question here is Anna's point 3: why ask if gender differences are cultural or not?

There are many other questions inside that one. Are men like Summers connoting that their success is purely due to merit, and not to men's social advantages? Why search for genetic differences in aptitude for social roles or intellectual specialization? And even if there is some evidence for these, why point it out?

I strongly disagree that "Searching for differences beyond our control is searching for a reason to give up." Summers's speech is wide-ranging and considers lots of possible options, and in it I think he is legitimately searching for understanding and wisdom.

I agree with Summers that in the past 30 years there has been a lot of fair research concluding there is an impact of genes on personality, athletic ability and intellectual direction. I am thinking of studies on separated identical twins, infant body chemistry, and differences in the focus of newborn boys and girls. None of these mean that socialization does not factor hugely in the organization of our world, and in particular I think this trend has been incorrectly, and maliciously, interpreted in support of racial discrimination--see Stephen Jay Gould's debunking of The Bell Curve. But the findings should not be ignored merely because we do not want them to be true or because their most familiar promoters are assholes.

Why are the two choices in nature/nurture debates so often presented so as to suggest that it is only acceptable to search for things we will be happy to find? I too would prefer that there were no connections between gender and genetic predispositions, but I don't think it is so.

I agree that the relationship between autism and gender differences is still not well understood, but it seems to me that the trend in research makes it hard to remain agnostic of the genetic-cause hypothesis. Simon Baron-Cohen--and his mostly female graduate research team--have recorded the amount of attention days-old babies pay to faces versus inanimate objects, and it seems that baby girls are interested more in people than in things, and baby boys the reverse.

Culture could creep into those results because of researchers' expectations, the treatment, attention and affection baby girls versus baby boys experience in their first days, and even different behavior by the parents while the baby was in utero; also, their numbers suggest that if there is any measurable difference at that age, it is slight. But is our best, most intellectually rigorous conclusion from such studies just to chalk up the cause as culture, and dismiss genetic causation as a relic of the past on par with superstition?

Most importantly, genetic predispositions are no reason to give up; quite the contrary. Simon Baron-Cohen's research suggests that men are genetically predisposed to what he calls "systematic" thinking--not just in ability but, more importantly, in interest. At first glance such a view seems in line with giving up on encouraging women to excel in math and science, but it could mean just the opposite. Women may well need extra attention in communicating what is attractive and interesting about science and math, and even more clear opportunities to begin extracurricular hobbies in design and computing through alternative groups that are not the usual boys' clubs.

After all, abstract-thinking, systematizing boys of the same age exist in large enough numbers that they can reliably find each other for designing intricate Dungeons & Dragons maps, hacking computers, building bedroom security devices, and making blueprints for robots (I speak from experience). It must be much harder for those girls who also want to design robots to find each other, believe that their interests are valid, and continue to develop them.

The limiting of opportunities for women in our culture is awful, and arguments like Summers's and mine can't help but be reminders of that. I do know that that hurts. But the facts on this issue aren't necessarily favorable to either sex. The trophy does not so clearly belong to the gender that is overrepresented among the abstract-thinking and socially dysfunctional.

Finally, if we are seriously trying to figure out how human beings work, we need to put off emotional and political reactions. We should not condemn Summers or anyone for others' interpretations of their views, and we should not demand justification for asking the questions that they do. There is value in the truth in its own right.