On the Theory That Gender Difference is Innate, Part 2

image of male baby and female baby side by sideIn Part 1 of On the Theory That Gender Difference Is Innate, we examined common arguments and studies relied on by proponents of the theory that gender differences can be attributed to factors outside of our conscious control, like genes or brain development. In order to effectively address and counter these arguments, those who claim that socialization is responsible for these differences need to do three things:

  1. Address research that supports gender difference in fetuses and newborns;
  2. Show how socialization is a compelling alternative theoretical model for explaining brain and behavioral differences between the sexes; and
  3. Provide research supporting the theoretical underpinning of socialization as an explanation of gender differences.

The first task has been relatively easy for researchers. The behavioral study of newborns mentioned in Part I (paragraph 10) is an “outlier” study – one that contradicts the findings of a larger body of research into the same subject matter. In her critical review, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Spelke notes that the results of the study into newborn babies’ “looking times” have not been replicated; there is, in fact, an extensive body of research into newborns’ object vs. person focus that contradicts the findings of the oft-cited study from 2000.

As mentioned in Part I, the study into fetal corpus callosum size (paragraphs 6 & 7) revealed no significant size difference, but subsequent research that found greater cross-hemispheric activity in women has led to the assumption that this area of the brain is naturally larger in women, with inklings of size difference beginning as early as 26 weeks in utero. However, a meta-analysis of 49 studies contradicts this assumption when it found no difference in corpus callosum size between males and females, neither in children nor in adults.

Still, there are other  findings on brain differences between the sexes from six years of age on that merit examination. How do proponents of socialization counter the theory of evolutionary psychology — that, like all other organisms, human beings evolved in the way most advantageous to survival, which preserved certain gender roles in our genes and brains?

The basic response is that we aren’t like other organisms in key ways. There’s a philosophical path I could take — namely, that self-awareness and consciousness give us freedom and choice — but I’ll hold tight to the scientific path.

The factor that sets the human brain apart from that of other animals is its extreme plasticity — its ability to change. This ability is so great that the notion of “hardwiring” might not make sense when it comes to human beings.

Like a muscle that grows and gets stronger with exercise, we know that areas of the brain that experience more activity are more developed. One study, supporting the results of several others, found that video gamers have larger brain volume in areas responsible for strategic planning, memory and spatial orientation, for example. The fact that certain areas of the brain develop earlier or are more active in one sex could be accounted for by the fact that boys and girls are raised to think and behave differently; therefore, their brains develop accordingly. If boys are encouraged to think spatially and mathematically from an early age, areas of the brain responsible for such thinking will blossom earlier and be more active, and so with girls and language skills.

Brain plasticity is known to be at its greatest in childhood. This accounts for the well-known fact that children are generally better at learning languages than adults. Plasticity doesn’t cease with age, but declines. This suggests that the enforcement of gender roles in early childhood is highly influential to the developing brain, and may be difficult to reverse with age.

There is yet another explanation for some of the more notable differences between adult male and female brains — namely, differences in intra-hemispheric (within one hemisphere) and cross-hemispheric activity, and in grey and white matter content. Psychologist and author Cordelia Fine points out that these differences could be accounted for by the fact that males and females generally have brains of different sizes (males’ brains are about 10% larger on average). This may create the need for “different wiring solutions,” according to Fine. Supporting this theory, one small study found the connectivity patterns of brains to be dependent on size and not gender.

The third task of providing supporting research has been partly covered with the first two. The many neuroscientific and behavioral studies that show no difference or very little difference in fetuses, babies, and young children of different sexes offer support to the theory that socialization is responsible, to some degree at least, for later differences. What we know about how experience and training affect brain activity and development also supports this theory.

One final study I’ll note looked at gender differences among children growing up in either patriarchal or matrilineal societies in India. The researchers found no differences in competitiveness between the sexes before age 13 in either society, but girls’ competitiveness declined sharply in relation to boys’ after the age of 13 in only the patriarchal society, with no such change in the matrilineal society’s girls.

There is no solid proof for either theory of gender difference, and I have certainly not exhausted the topic. My hope is that I’ve given enough reason for us to think twice before we make our choices, question our abilities or narrow our interests based on what’s between our legs. Gender is increasingly being discussed as a spectrum, and if we allow ourselves to muddy the waters, we’ll open ourselves up to more possibilities.

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