Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Gender differences: Too Scary?

Thanks, Amy & Alex.

Super Spooky topic for Halloween: May we admit without hyperventilation that women and men and other genetically distinct groups of people (such as different races) are actually unlike each other in certain ways? Ahhhhh, hide under the covers!

Charles Murray bravely wades into the deep water with his freebie essay in today's WSJ, extracted from a much longer, even more annotated piece in Commentary. What one discovers pushing through the data is that cognitive differences exist. It's true, breathe deeply, and scientists have understood it for years. But talk about a concept which dare not speak its name- as a modern social taboo, it's a biggie in a society that equates equality with sameness. And many are afraid that if we promulgate the truth, the feeble-minded will generalize as an excuse for specific predjudice. Well, they will. As they always have. Welcome to human nature, and what else is new? But fearing that morons who can't tell a standard deviation from a deviant will call names doesn't mean that those of us who can think clearly shouldn't do so. In order to encourage excellence and achievement, which should always be one of humanity's goals, we ought to understand them as they're most often manifested. Here, I'll focus on the largest terrifying divide, male and female.

Here's a truth you may not know. In general, women have more acute senses than men, better hearing, sight, smell, and taste (ha!). Women are more sensistive instruments for detecting the world around them in richness and subtlety. Since it's girl-powery, I find people rarely complain about that discriminatory set of facts, discriminating because they draw differences rather than pretend homogenity. So, why are not more women premier sommaliers, chefs, perfumers, jewelers, and designers, much less notably excelling in the fields of science in which heightened senses would be beneficial? Perhaps it is the cultural and biological bias against forgoing motherhood or being neglectful mothers. Perhaps it is, until recently, the lack of self-supporting careers for women or that women were not historically raised by families in these traditions as the inheritors of these positions, chosen to study or apprentice for them. Murray writes:

Thus, for reasons embedded in the biochemistry and neurophysiology of being female, many women with the cognitive skills for achievement at the highest level also have something else they want to do in life: have a baby. In the arts and sciences, 40 is the mean age at which peak accomplishment occurs, preceded by years of intense effort mastering the discipline in question. These are precisely the years during which most women must bear children if they are to bear them at all.

Among women who have become mothers, the possibilities for high-level accomplishment in the arts and sciences shrink because, for innate reasons, the distractions of parenthood are greater. To put it in a way that most readers with children will recognize, a father can go to work and forget about his children for the whole day. Hardly any mother can do this, no matter how good her day-care arrangement or full-time nanny may be. My point is not that women must choose between a career and children, but that accomplishment at the extremes commonly comes from a single-minded focus that leaves no room for anything but the task at hand. We should not be surprised or dismayed to find that motherhood reduces the proportion of highly talented young women who are willing to make that trade-off.

I would blame not only socially-encouraged career/vocation obsession for males but what I empirically observe as an inherent sort of male single-mindedness (perhaps due to their bias for using the left brain more) versus a native female capacity for multitasking (possibly related to their double-sided brain usage). An inborn, laserlike focus on a mental construct to the exclusion of all else is frequent and anecdotal in the biographies of noted male geniuses, and might be a necessary trait, in addition to cultural support for childlessness or surrogate child-raising, required for brilliant women to succeed in fields of abstract reasoning. Are people dropping dead over their laptops yet? No? Perhaps these ideas themselves aren't lethal.

Ask any "unenlightened" sort of parent whether their little daughters from birth didn't behave differently and exhibit different strengths than their little sons and the answer is not only clear, it provides an opportunity for cooing over snapshots. Broad differences (no pun intended) among general comparisons don't mean that any given individual can't excel in a particular way, so there's no reason for panic at mere acknowledgement of the obvious. I extract and rearrange liberally:

[On testosterone] But this is just one more of the ways in which science is demonstrating that men and women are really and truly different, a fact so obvious that only intellectuals could ever have thought otherwise...

The Orwellian disinformation about innate group differences is not wholly the media's fault. Many academics who are familiar with the state of knowledge are afraid to go on the record. Talking publicly can dry up research funding for senior professors and can cost assistant professors their jobs. But while the public's misconception is understandable, it is also getting in the way of clear thinking about American social policy...

One such premise is that the distribution of innate abilities and propensities is the same across different groups. The statistical tests for uncovering job discrimination assume that men are not innately different from women, blacks from whites, older people from younger people, homosexuals from heterosexuals, Latinos from Anglos, in ways that can legitimately affect employment decisions. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 assumes that women are no different from men in their attraction to sports. Affirmative action in all its forms assumes there are no innate differences between any of the groups it seeks to help and everyone else. The assumption of no innate differences among groups suffuses American social policy. That assumption is wrong...

Thus my modest recommendation, requiring no change in laws or regulations, just a little more gumption. Let us start talking about group differences openly--all sorts of group differences, from the visuospatial skills of men and women to the vivaciousness of Italians and Scots. Let us talk about the nature of the manly versus the womanly virtues. About differences between Russians and Chinese that might affect their adoption of capitalism. About differences between Arabs and Europeans that might affect the assimilation of Arab immigrants into European democracies. About differences between the poor and nonpoor that could inform policy for reducing poverty.

Even to begin listing the topics that could be enriched by an inquiry into the nature of group differences is to reveal how stifled today's conversation is. Besides liberating that conversation, an open and undefensive discussion would puncture the irrational fear of the male-female and black-white differences I have surveyed here. We would be free to talk about other sexual and racial differences as well, many of which favor women and blacks, and none of which is large enough to frighten anyone who looks at them dispassionately.

Let us, my brothers and sisters, be afraid of none of the contents of our heads, neither the matter nor the musings. Reason has been one of humanity's best friends, let's invite it to supper, it's been too long.

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