Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Labels: boys, culture, education, equal education, equality, evolution, feminism, genes, girls, men, nature, women
In a nutshell:
We are all descendants of the ancient (male) hunters and (female) gatherers. Does that mean that we resemble them? Is it even possible to tell? What is the role of culture in the development of the human – feminine and masculine – nature? (Hint: a significant role, which can and should be reversed.) ,
Our ancient ancestors were, supposedly, female gatherers and male hunters (supposedly, since we cannot be completely sure. After all, it was some while ago). Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that each sex held the appropriate role with no exceptions, and that the difference in roles was due to physical differences between men and women. What does this imply about modern men and women?
It is sometimes claimed that present differences between men and women are "natural", owing to our history, and therefore it is legitimate (so the argument goes) to assume that men and women differ biologically in their preferences, skills and abilities. What follows is a legitimacy to attribute specific traits and abilities exclusively to women, and others – exclusively to men.
How much of this is true?
My counter-argument goes thus:
We don't know, and have no way of knowing, whether gender differences are biological or cultural.
Either way, culture has a considerable part in preserving, and even cultivating certain differences between men and women.
We should attempt to contradict this process by trying to eliminate cultural differences between the sexes, and minimize the effect of biological differences, for the benefit of women, men and the society as a whole.
a. Are gender differences biological or cultural?
After hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, we have no way of knowing precisely (or even remotely) which so-called "natural" attributes – feminine, masculine, or human in general – remained intact (if at all); which have slightly changed, and which have changed radically. The very term "nature" in this context is vague: what nature? That of the cavemen? That of Modern Man? How can we tell which is which?
The attempt made sometimes to explain differences between the sexes with reference to the natural world is necessarily biased: the natural world is so amazingly varied and diverse, that a specimen of just about any sort of behaviour is available. For instance: some species monogamously pair, and tend their offspring together. In other species, the female alone raises her young, and still in others – the male is the sole caretaker of the next generation. This diversity applies to other facets of our lives as well, of course.
To illustrate: let's take a look at altruism, egoism and the traits in between. Both extremities (pure altruism and pure egoism) exist within our culture, as do the middle shades. Which of these has proved more helpful to the survival of the human race, or to its productivity, in ancient times? Impossible to tell. And where do they stand within culture? A matter of changing trends: sometimes altruism is valued more, at other times – egoism is, and of course, different cultures value different traits. So, which is more "natural" to humanity? Is there an answer to this question? I don't think so, but even if there were, it is quite irrelevant to the question – which trait should be valued and encouraged.
A more "objective" example, that doesn't depend on subjective valuing: a certain genetic structure causing what we term (in western cultures) "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder" (ADHD), has been found, in a recent study, to be advantageous for nomadic tribesmen in Kenya. “Our findings suggest that some of the variety of personalities we see in people is evolutionarily helpful or detrimental, depending on the context,” said Dan Eisenberg, lead author of the study.
It is reasonable to suppose that men and women were biologically different in ancient times, and that due to this difference, men and women had different roles in ancient society. Does this mean that men and women today resemble our ancestors? Not at all, and even if it's true, we have no way of telling that it is. But what is much more important: the examples I brought serve to show that what may be beneficial to survival in one context (say, in ancient times) – may well be irrelevant in another context (nowadays). Human life within Culture does not resemble human life within Nature, and the needs in both cases are very different.
So what should we say about the biological differences that scientists find between modern men and women?
b. Culture plays a part in creating differences between men and women
I raise two arguments here:
First, it may be that biological differences are not necessarily innate. How so? For instance,
the brains of musicians were found to be different compared to the rest of the population. However, it seems that this difference, rather than being the reason for these people's musical talent, may be the outcome of their choosing to follow their talent and spend many hours a day practicing.
Why is this important? Obviously, I'm referring to differences between men's and women's brains. What the studies show is that there is some difference between most men (or the average man) and most women (or the average woman), but can we really be sure that these are innate, rather than culture-induced?
This is where my second argument fits: culture – including every one of us: teachers, parents, Pop Culture and every other aspect of our culture – is continuously emphasizing, sometimes actually creating, differences between men and women, and between boys and girls.
I believe that the root of the problem is circularity: for thousands of years, men have been "hunters", and women – "gatherers" and caretakers. It is only in the last few decades that women can lead different kinds of lives. In general, the idea of "male" and "female" roles lives on. As scientific studies show that genetic differences exist between (most) men and (most) women, the common view seems to be: it is illogical to try to work "against nature". But both assumptions behind this expression seem to be wrong: first, these differences are not necessarily "natural", but may only be a reflection of the different roles men and women actually play in society due to prejudice (as opposed to – should play due to different innate skills).
Secondly, even if these different skills are innate, it may not be for the benefit of society as a whole – men & women alike – to keep cultivating these differences.
c. We should actively encourage diversity, and avoid "gender-labeling"
Seeing all men as one homogenous group and all women as another blinds us, and prevents us from seeing that the diversity within each sex is wider than that existing between the two sexes. Does it even sound plausible that half (!) the world's population is comprised of very similar individuals, and so is the other half, but members of each half radically differ from those of the other one? I don't think so. However, it is very easy to fall into the pit of believing that this is true; that I, for instance, resemble all women of all times and cultures more than I do men of my own close surroundings. All it takes is looking at the obvious and huge deviations from the stereotypes as exceptions that prove the rule. For instance, a girl who likes climbing trees would be labeled a "tomboy"; a boy who likes to play with dolls – a "sissy".
Here the argument usually goes thus – boys "naturally" tend towards "boys' toys", girls – towards "girls' toys". However, It appears that parents (and specifically fathers), probably unknowingly, encourage their children (of both sexes) to play with toys stereotypically fitting their gender. Most researchers today believe that gender-socialization plays a larger part in shaping boys' and girls' (and later, men's and women's) preferences and tendencies than the formerly accused "nature".
It turns out that differences between "men", as a group, and "women", as a group, are probably negligible in relation to the differences within each sex, i.e. – among individual people. It also turns out that the existing differences between the sexes are, most probably, to the most part culture-induced.
We might still ask: be the reasons for these differences what they be, some differences between the sexes were found to be a fact. Shouldn't we better acknowledge them, and have men specialize in "masculine" activities, and women – in "feminine" ones?
My answer is flatly negative. True, some feminist theorists argue that letting women be stereotypically feminine, and men – stereotypically masculine, allows us to have the best of both worlds: the members of each sex thrive, according to this view, doing what they are naturally good at. The faults I find in this argument are, first, that it is impossible to determine what men or women are "naturally" fit to do. Secondly, and more importantly, any person – man or woman – is unique, and the diversity within each sex is greater than that between the sexes; it is ridiculous to look at "men" or "women" as if these were homogenous groups.
I would go so far as saying that labeling men as "masculine" and women as "feminine", when each of these is associated with a fixed set of traits, is no different than racism, in assuming, in relation to a huge group (half of humanity!), that by knowing one of its members, we more-or-less know the rest of them. I see this as practically dangerous. What about women who are closer to masculine stereotypes, men who are closer to feminine stereotypes, and men and women who are simply non-stereotypic? Encouraging a girl to be empathic, for instance, when she is by nature cynical and practical; or encouraging a boy to become "tough", when he actually wants to express his emotions (and become a poet, maybe), is a sort of "moral crime" towards the allegedly "exceptional" – who are (if we open our eyes to see that) the majority of humankind. ,
Posted by Adva Shaviv at 23:23