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Are Gender Differences Biologically or Socially Determined? Research Paper Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1491

Research Paper

From the perspective of sexual selection, men and women are indeed quite different. The biological differences of sex mean that men and women face quite different constraints, challenges, and opportunities in reproduction, differences that may be expected to have ramifications for gender (Davies & Shackelford, 2006, p. 640). Specifically, there is a fundamental asymmetry between men and women in terms of the costs associated with reproduction: owing to the tremendous investments required by pregnancy and childrearing, women have relatively fewer opportunities for reproduction, which is inevitably quite costly for them; by contrast, men do not become pregnant and may, in some circumstances, avoid the costs of raising children. This much is a commonplace, a recognized fact of biological sex; the question is whether or not it has an impact on gender differences as well.

Using an approach grounded in evolutionary psychology, Ward and Voracek (2004) predicted that these sex differences would have an impact on gender differences: specifically, that women would be more distressed by emotional infidelity, i.e. a mate being in love with another person, while men would be more distressed by sexual infidelity (pp. 167-168). What these authors in fact found was that indeed, men find sexual infidelity, even a one-night stand, more distressing than emotional infidelity, i.e. emotional attachment without sex. For their part, women find emotional infidelity more distressing than sexual infidelity (pp. 168-169). The reasons for this, from an evolutionary perspective, are not difficult to fathom: because women have limited opportunities for reproduction, and because raising children is costly in every culture, having the assistance of a mate is of considerable importance. Thus, emotional infidelity is the more distressing, because it threatens the bond between partners. For men, however, sexual infidelity poses the risk of raising another man’s offspring, thereby explaining why men find this form of infidelity the more distressing (pp. 168-169).

The greater aggression of the male sex is another difference often pointed to as evidence of innate, biological underpinnings of gender. However, the social constructivist perspective is that this is due to the socialization of boys into more aggressive behavior. But as Steven Pinker observes in his work The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), men in all cultures are more aggressive, more violent, and more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior “for status, attention, and other dubious rewards” (55%-56%). But how to tell if this difference is indeed more than social conditioning? One of the answers provided by evolutionary psychology is that human sexual dimorphism speaks to an essentialist basis for male aggression: on average, males are taller and physically stronger than females. As every evolutionary biologist knows, larger size and greater strength in males consistently indicates evolutionary pressure in the form of male-male competition, often violent, for mates (56%). These physical differences map onto precisely the same kinds of behavioral differences (increased aggression and competition between males for mates) in other primates, and other kinds of mammals entirely. Are we to believe that these biological similarities uniting so many species of mammals do not bespeak a biological component for gender? (56%).

Fischer and Rodriguez (2001) criticized the contention that male-male competition for mates is the main motivation for male aggression and anger, drawing attention to the importance of other factors, particularly “maintaining respect, or social status” (p. 6). Indeed, they demonstrated that threats to self-esteem and status are often very important motivators for male-male aggression. It’s not even that men necessarily want to be aggressive in many of the situations where they in fact display aggression: rather, these scenarios follow the logic of the Hobbesian Trap, with individuals seeking to intimidate potential adversaries as a means of warning them away without an actual fight (pp. 11-12). They even found evidence that aggression in each of the genders varies across cultures, with women’s aggression varying more than men’s in relation to the levels of gender empowerment (pp. 15-16). However, a crucial distinction must be raised between proximate and ultimate causes: while men may exhibit more aggression than women for the proximate reasons of defending status and ‘honor’, the mere fact that it is the male gender that engages in aggression for honor speaks to the male need to compete for mates. In cultures with sharply-defined ‘status concerns’, a male who fails to defend his ‘honor’ will be seen as weak and an easy target (Ainsworth & Maner, 2012, pp. 819-821; Fischer & Rodriguez, 2001, pp. 17-18).

The influence of hormones provides another very key line of evidence connecting the observed facts of biological sex with the behavioral patterns of gender. Testosterone has the well-known role of ‘masculinizing’ the brain of male fetuses from an essentially female template (Ellis, 2011, p. 709). This has many effects: for one thing, it makes male brains less sensitive to stimuli, including painful stimuli; this in turn translates to a tendency in men to “seek less familiar surroundings even if doing so in the past resulted in discomfort or punishment” (p. 709). This is the result of the tendency for suboptimal arousal in male brains, another manifestation of which is faster brain activity in women under conditions of standard testing (p. 709).

Of course, the ultimate test of all of this would be an individual possessing hormones identified with one sex being raised as a member of the other sex (and corresponding gender). Nature has provided the biological underpinnings for precisely such an experiment: congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a condition characterized by fetal exposure to unusually high levels of androgens (Berenbaum, Blakemore, & Beltz, 2011, p. 812). According to gender essentialism, girls with this condition should act remarkably like males, despite social conditioning to make them act like girls—and that is precisely what has been observed. Girls with CAH act like boys from a very young age: they engage in rough-and-tumble play and have more ‘masculine’ interests, although they continue to identify as females (p. 812). A more extreme case is that of baby boys born with cloacal exstrophy, a congenital condition characterized by the lack of a penis. One study looked at twenty-five of these boys, who had been castrated and raised as girls (standard practice at one time): not only did all twenty-five act like boys, but over half of them “spontaneously declared they were boys, one when he was just five years old” (Pinker, 2002, 57%). In every case, the results of these appalling experiments have demonstrated the spuriousness of the claims advanced by radical feminists that gender differences are nothing more than social and political constructs (57%).

As Pinker (2002) explains, the essentialist perspective illuminates much about human nature and behavior. The consistent sexual dimorphism and hormonal differences offer too neat a fit with observed patterns of behavior cross-culturally to discount, especially because the latter are precisely what one would predict from the former (57%). However, this does not mean that there are not many, many ways in which gender differences are either minimal, or the result of environmental factors. Jing, Spence, and Pratt (2007) found a difference in spatial attention that mapped onto gender lines, with males evincing higher-order spatial cognition. However, they also found that this disparity could be virtually eliminated by means of simply playing a video game (pp. 850-853). What this indicates is that in this as in so much else, men and women are more alike than they are different (p. 853). And as Eliot (2010) explains, although the genders have different interests and display different self-regulatory behavior, the brains of boys and girls are remarkably similar, and their prefrontal cortexes develop at essentially the same rates (p. 34). Thus, although there are biological underpinnings of gender, there are also important similarities and social influences (p. 34).

References

Ainsworth, S. E., & Maner, J. K. (2012). Sex begets violence: Mating motives, social dominance, and physical aggression in men. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 103(5), pp. 819-829. DOI: 10.1037/a0029428

Berenbaum, S., Blakemore, J., & Beltz, A. (2011). A role for biology in gender-related behavior. Sex Roles, 64(11), pp. 804-825. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-011-9990-8

Davies, A. P. C., & Shackelford, T. K. (2006). An evolutionary perspective on gender similarities and differences. American Psychologist, 61(6), pp. 640-641. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.6.640

Eliot, L. (2010). The myth of PINK & BLUE brains. Educational Leadership, 68(3), pp. 32-36. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/

Ellis, L. (2011). Evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory and universal gender differences in cognition and behavior. Sex Roles, 64(9), pp. 707-722. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-010-9927-7

Fischer, A. H., & Rodriguez, P. M. (2001). What concerns men? Women or other men?: A critical appraisal of the evolutionary theory of sex differences in aggression. Psychology, Evolution & Gender, 3(1), pp. 5-25. DOI: 10.1080/14616660110049564

Jing, F., Spence, I., & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science, 18(10), pp. 850-855. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01990.x

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin Books. Kindle edition.

Ward, J., & Voracek, M. (2004). Evolutionary and social cognitive explanations of sex differences in romantic jealousy. Australian Journal of Psychology, 56(3), pp. 165-171. DOI: 10.1080/00049530412331283381

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