Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

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2 Responses to “Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes””

  1. mummpei September 16, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    Exactly.

  2. athanabanana September 16, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    loved the video..really set the mood for the rest of the article 🙂

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