I started classes last month (this is my excuse for the slower entries) and a couple of things have surfaced: firstly, in a study of masculinities and femininities course, the inquiry of nature versus nurture in regards to gender predictably emerged. Secondly, in a timely manner, Scientific American produced this excellent article critiquing a study conducted on the subject that concluded that not only are men and women different, but are observably from different species. The mere suggestion of the latter is more than absurd–it is worthy of ridicule, because men and women are quite obviously from the same species.
Their data come from assessments of 15 personality variables using scales such as “reserved vs. warm,” “serious vs lively,” “tolerates disorder vs. perfectionistic,” and “shy vs socially bold.” These are indeed personality assessments but they are mired in cultural contexts and meanings, not easily transferable across human societies in time and space, and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to connect, quantitatively, to any aspect of human physiology, neurology, or other structured, identifiable, target for natural selection to act on. Also, these are most likely not static traits of individuals, but rather dynamic states that are fluid over the lifetime.
Finally, when talking about evolved differences in behavior between males and females one cannot make statements like “when it comes to personality men and women belong to two different species” without noting the biological reality that we are, indeed, the same species. There are no consistent brain differences between the sexes [iii], there is incredible overlap in our physiological function [iv], we engage in sexual activity in more or less the same patterns [v], and we overlap extensively in most other behavior as well. There are some interesting re-occurring differences, particularly in patterns of aggression and certain physiological correlates of reproduction, muscle density, and body size. However, anthropological datasets show enormous complexity in how and why men and women behave the ways that they do [vi]. Studies in human biology and anthropology regularly demonstrate a dynamic flexibility and complex biocultural context for all human behavior, and this is especially true for gender.
I don’t believe there is any rational individual who would argue that it’s all biological or that it’s all social conditioning, but there is a reason biological arguments are disregarded particularly from fields concerned with social justice: these arguments don’t matter. They are not relevant to treating people justly. Not only is the biological perspective commonly championed by those who have a poor understanding of neurology and who depend on pseudo-science (and consequently exaggerate otherwise viable points), but they are used to justify oppressive social and legal orders.
Contrary to what many believe, as feminists we do not found our arguments for gender equality on the presumption that men and women do not have biological differences. For centuries, however, the argument for gender inequality was based on the presumption that men and women are vastly and biologically different—far more different than we are in reality—so different, in fact, that we are of different species. Even while this is blatantly demonstrably false, it is so finely imprinted in our mentality that one cannot make an argument for social conditioning without running into defensive resistance delivered from a biological standpoint, as though we would ever magically forget that women can give birth or are stereotypically more dexterous. Or can’t drive. Heaven forbid women ever forget that we can’t drive!
This is what the logical extension of the nature argument is when we incorporate the dominant worldview that what is natural is moral (which we must incorporate, because as we have seen through history nothing exists in a vacuum): those who diverge from the gender assigned by a society that believes gender is sex are not only viewed as perverse or aberrant, but are even incorrectly viewed as unnatural (and therefore perverse or aberrant) and thus women are arrested for wearing pants and ties. Furthermore the argument for nature—and only nature—has attempted to expand dangerously to cover aspects that are socially conditioned: you tell a woman she is substandard in her spatial-visualization ability, she’s going to fulfill that prophecy, even though she is not biologically incapable of parallel parking. Studies have shown that when specific demographics are targeted with un/favorable claims there is a positive correlation in the performance results. Children perform considerably worse when they are told they will.
With the approach we take as a society toward biological differences, deeming some superior to others (in a patriarchy, guess who?), we employ considerably damaging generalizations on a variety of different individuals. When individuality is overlooked, oppression manifests itself into the realm of probability. Women who are perfectly capable—and even outperform—men in traditionally male-dominated fields are dismissed as “pre-disposed” to inadequacy. And yet here they are—the exceptions, existing just as strongly and rightfully as any other being. They are neither perverse nor aberrant. Extendedly, men who can become pregnant should have the right to maternity leave. Any individual who is impregnated should have the right to maternity leave–these specifications embedded within legal frameworks are delivered on observable results, not psuedo-science or presumptuous conclusions.
So when a society builds its legal and moral order on these demonstrably false assertions, these constructed orders are destabilized when it turns out such presumptions aren’t true. And those who argue from a biological standpoint with the calculated face of “What’s the big deal? Why are you denying the truth? You got a problem with FACTS?” as though they have nothing to lose know very well the game they’re playing. Much like those who argue against same-sex marriage on the irrelevant point of whether or not it is natural, those who maintain that men and women are biologically different are advocating/protecting a specific social order based on the naturalistic fallacy that what is natural must be good, or that what is natural is unquestionably moral.
We cannot truly know what is biological and what is a result of social conditioning, without conducting unethical experiments in which we entirely separate individuals from all human and societal contact that could possibly influence them. The dictations of culture, society, and all its derivatives of stereotyping and coercing will always be there. There is no available control group.
The only certainty is that oppression / marginalization / stereotyping restricts an individual’s range of potential, and that this is often falsely attributed to biology.