Nurture, not Nature

22:54 Sun 22 Aug 2010. Updated: 10:54 22 Oct 2014
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I’m posting a link to this article primarily because the article agrees with me: “Male and female ability differences down to socialisation, not genetics”—I’ve believed for years that behavioral differences between genders (or between other sets of people, really) are due to cultural and social factors, not differences that are somehow “innate”. That article is a good summary of scientific findings that back up my belief.

Unfortunately there are plenty of findings that go the other way, hence the quotation from Simon Baron-Cohen at the end. As I haven’t spent my life studying genetics, psychology, and biology, I cannot claim to know for certain that the articles supporting my viewpoint are more accurate than the articles going the other way.

However, here are some of the reasons why I have that viewpoint:

  • The “innate” side of the argument always seems to support the status quo. That is, you almost never hear the claim that biology has “proven” something that means gender roles should be radically different from their traditional modes. Quite the opposite. More broadly, it always seems, from that side of the argument, as though our society has magically ended up being perfectly in tune with how our genetic coding says it should be. Naturally, I find that an implausible coincidence.
  • I know too many individuals who defy gender stereotyping in a variety of ways. This is not mere anecdata, because it would be rather unlikely for me to know these people if they were incredibly rare; the more likely explanation is that in fact deviations from these purported norms are rather common.
  • The power of cultural conditioning is extremely strong, and most people arguing for innate tendencies underestimate it. A great example: Shih’s study on Asian-American women in which the subjects were given math tests; one cohort was a control, one cohort took a gender-related survey before the test, and the last cohort took an ethnicity-related survey before the test. The stereotyping of women as bad at math and Asian-Americans as good at math played out: the second cohort did worse and the third cohort did better. Given this kind of impact even in the short term, how can any study claim to measure performance differences as being based in genetics, as the cultural conditioning is clearly so strong?
  • The predecessors of today’s “innate” side of the argument have repeatedly been proven wrong. One hundred years ago they would have made claims about women that have since been proven false, and many more recent claims based on females lacking certain capabilities have similarly been proven false. An excellent example of this is chess and the Polgár sisters: László Polgár managed to raise three daughters (Susan, Sofia, and Judit) who all became Interntional Masters. If the reasoning ability to play chess at a high level is something that women simply lack (as was the claim), how could the sisters all be so good at chess?
  • Human beings are extremely flexible, and have taken on vastly different roles and lifestyles in highly varied environments. Given this flexibility, it seems unlikely indeed that each gender would be so behaviorally limited by genetics.

One Response to “Nurture, not Nature”

  1. Graham Says:

    “it would be rather unlikely for me to know these people if they were incredibly rare”

    Unless, of course, you are incredibly rare yourself!

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