September 02, 2006

The superior cunning of women

A hundred years ago, many scientists saw cognitive differences between human sexes and races -- or thought they did -- and hypothesized that these differences were biological, due to inborn, instinctual differences like those in aptitude and temperament between animal breeds. During the middle of the 20th century, this perspective had a run of bad public relations, but recently, biologism is back. In the modern version, it's sometimes women and members of other disadvantaged groups whose innate characteristics are depicted more positively. But we need to remember that this was also often true of the stereotypes in vogue a hundred years ago.

Thanks to Google Book Search, I recently stumbled over a lovely example of this, in the conclusion to a paper by William Isaac Thomas, "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races", reprinted in his collection Sex and Society, which was published in 1907 by the University of Chicago Press (p. 312 of this 5 MB .pdf):

Indeed, when we take into consideration the superior cunning as well as the superior endurance of women, we may even raise the question whether their capacity for intellectual work is not under equal conditions greater than in men. Cunning is the analogue of constructive thought -- an indirect, mediated, and intelligent approach to a problem -- and characteristic of the female, in contrast with the more direct and open procedure of the male. Owing to the limited and personal nature of the activities of woman, this trait has expressed itself historically in womankind as intrigue rather than invention, but that it is very deeply based in the instincts is shown by the important role it plays in the life of the female in animal life.

Compare this passage from Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain (p. 21):

So why is a girl born with such a highly tuned machine for reading faces, hearing emotional tones in voices, and responding to unspoken cues in others? Think about it. A machine like that is built for connection. That's the main job of the girl brain, and that's what it drives a female to do from birth. This is the result of millennia of genetic and evolutionary hardwiring that once had -- and probably still has -- real consequences for survival. If you can read faces and voices, you can tell what an infant needs. You can predict what a bigger, more aggressive male is going to do. And since you're smaller, you probably need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked off caveman -- or cavemen.

If you're a girl, you've been programmed to make sure you keep social harmony. This is a matter of life and death to the brain, even if it's not so important in the twenty-first century. [...] Typical non-testosteronized, estrogen-ruled girls are very invested in preserving harmonious relationships. From their earliest days, they live most comfortably and happily in the realm of peaceful interpersonal connections. They prefer to avoid conflict between discord puts them at odds with their urge to stay connected, to gain approval and nurture. [...] The testosterone-formed boy brain simply doesn't look for social connection in the same way that a girl brain does.

The "superior cunning of women... very deeply based on the instincts" and the "need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked off caveman" due to "millennia of genetic and evolutionary hardwiring" are congruent stereotypes.

Similarly, in 1911, Rudyard Kipling foreshadowed the modern stereotype of male communicative inadequacy: "Man's timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say" -- struggling as he is with testosterone poisoning on the fringes of the autism spectrum. Of course, Kipling's purpose was to argue against women's suffrage:

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her

But we need to remember that biologism's connections to politics are flexible. At the very end of "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races", William Isaac Thomas came down on the opposite side from Kipling with respect to women's participation in public life.

Whether the characteristic mental life of women and the lower races will prove to be identical with those of the white man or different in quality is a different question, and problematical. It is certain, at any rate, that our civilization is not of the highest type possible. In all our relations there is too much of primitive man's fighting instinct and technique; and it is not impossible that the participation of woman and the lower races will contribute new elements, change the stress of attention, disturb the equilibrium, and force a crisis which will result in the reconstruction of our habits on more sympathetic and equitable principles. Certain it is that no civilization can remain the highest if another civilization adds to the intelligence of its men the intelligence of its women.

And biologism's connections to science are equally flexible. In this connection, I'd like to reiterate something that I wrote a couple of years ago:

[This is an area] where published claims sometimes contradict one another, and where the various things that "everybody knows" are not always confirmed by experiment. This happens in every area of rational inquiry, but it's especially common in cases where generalizations are associated with strong feelings. In this case, we're talking about the nature of men and women as biological and social categories, and the way individual men and women interact in both private and public spheres. There aren't many topics that generate stronger feelings than this one.

Strong feelings tend to generate contradictory research for two obvious reasons. First, systematic observation sometimes fails to confirm evocative anecdotes, which may be evocative because they resonate with stereotypes rather than because they genuinely confirm experience. Second, even systematic observation can be misleading, if you don't make the right observational distinctions or don't control for the context in an appropriate way. When the emotional stakes are high, people should in principle be especially careful not to overinterpret or overgeneralize their findings, but in practice, the opposite is often true.

Unfortunately, much of the "emerging science of sex differences" -- at least in its popular presentations -- seems to trade not only in overinterpretation but even in outright misrepresentation.

Other LL discussion of Leonard Sax, Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2005)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)

"Girls and boys and classroom noise", (9/9/2006)

And of Louann Brizendine, The female brain:

"Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (8/6/2006)
"Sex-linked lexical budgets" (8/6/2006)
"Sex and speaking rate" (8/7/2006)
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting" (8/14/2006)
"The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006)
"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)
"Open-access sex stereotypes" (9/10/2006)

If you're interested in the science in this area, a survey that (in my opinion) gives a fair presentation of the evidence (as of 1999) is Doreen Kimura's Sex and Cognition. Kimura believes that "the effects of sex hormones on brain organization occur so early in life that, from the start, the environment is acting on differently wired brains in girls and boys", but she doesn't make stuff up. She also emphasizes the need to think about within-group variation as well as between-group differences in averages, to the extent of devoting an 11-page appendix to this question.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 2, 2006 08:27 AM