Research Challenges Assumptions about Gender and Sex

I grew up believing that men and women are different. I’m not talking just physically different, or just culturally different because they are socialized differently. I’m talking different. I was taught that men are designed to protect and provide, and women to care for children and nurture. I was taught that men wanted sex, and that women, being less sexual, were the gatekeepers. I was taught that men were just better at things like science and math while women were better at things like English and art.

As I left the conservative evangelicalism of my youth, I learned that many of these ideas were present in mainstream society, too. Something had changed, though. Rather than being rooted in religion, they were rooted in science. Men had evolved to be aggressive while women had evolved to nurture; men had evolved to be problem solvers while women had evolved to be communicators; and men had evolved to want sex more while women had evolved to want it less.

Anyway, in light of all of this I found a recent article in the New York Times really fascinating. In a nutshell, new data is leading scientists to question the common assumptions “[that] men are less selective about whom they’ll sleep with; [that] men like casual sex more than women; and [that] men have more sexual partners over a lifetime.” Here is an excerpt:

A COUPLE of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.” Upon hearing of the project, one colleague, dubious that a modern scholar could hope to know anything about that period, asked them, “So what do you do, close your eyes and dream?”

Actually, it’s a little more involved. Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today.

Lately, however, a new cohort of scientists have been challenging the very existence of the gender differences in sexual behavior that Darwinians have spent the past 40 years trying to explain and justify on evolutionary grounds.

Of course, no fossilized record can really tell us how people behaved or thought back then, much less why they behaved or thought as they did. Nonetheless, something funny happens when social scientists claim that a behavior is rooted in our evolutionary past. Assumptions about that behavior take on the immutability of a physical trait — they come to seem as biologically rooted as opposable thumbs or ejaculation.

The fact that some gender differences can be manipulated, if not eliminated, by controlling for cultural norms suggests that the explanatory power of evolution can’t sustain itself when applied to mating behavior. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve pushed these theories too far. How many stereotypical racial and ethnic differences, once declared evolutionarily determined under the banner of science, have been revealed instead as vestiges of power dynamics from earlier societies?

read the whole thing

This article made me think about something I learned in an undergraduate history class: namely, that during the middle ages and early modern period, women, not men, were considered to be the ones with uncontrollable sex drives. I learned in another class about how much of a sexual departure the Victorian era was, with its assumption that women were practically asexual and that men were the ones with sex drives that needed controlling. Since those classes, I’ve never been able to give much merit to attempts to explain why men “naturally” have higher sex drives than women. We are, I think, more shaped by our culture than we realize.

What do you have to add?

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Daniel Copeland

    “Biologically rooted” is not the same as “can’t change”. Biologically, men grow beards, but cultures that have wished to remove them have not found that difficult.

    • Kevin S.

      Not only that, but evolution is based on the idea of things changing over time in response to the environment. One of the fallacies of reductionist evolutionary psychology is that humans couldn’t possibly have evolved different behaviors since the Stone Age.

      • Daniel Copeland

        That’s not a great argument, I’m afraid. The “Stone Age” ended only about 400 generations ago, which isn’t time for much evolution. The populations of the different continents diversified in the “Stone Age”, and the genetic differences between them are pretty superficial.

  • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    I always remember this line: “All witchcraft stems from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” (From Maleus Maleficarum, or “The Hammer of Witches”, a medieval manual on the detection and punishment of witchcraft.)

    So yeah. Our views on sexuality have changed significantly, which rather suggests that sexual behaviors are not as immutable as they may seem.

  • Dan

    Funny coincidence that I was thinking about this topic not 30 minutes ago. Not *exactly* this, but the differences of sex preferences and traits between the genders. Specifically, I was thinking about the number of partners and how early on in a “courtship” each gender is ready to have sex. I know there are men who prefer sex with a committed partner and there are women who prefer sex more “casually”, but I’d venture to say that it’s more common the other way around. I’m not so bold as to try to quantify this in any way other than to say men are more likely than women to prefer “casual” sex and are more likely to want sex sooner in a “courtship”. This has nothing to do with how great one’s sex drive is, just more about preference, if only in a vague sense. At any rate, I think this is one reason why men can be thought (incorrectly, I believe) to have greater sex drives. It correlates with dubious bias. I am willing to venture that both sexes enjoy sex just as much and just as frequently as the other.

    Of course, my views can be shaped by my culture, too…

    Amusing and interesting read – the “Coolidge Effect” –

    First time commenting… but I’ve been reading your blog since you started it… Love it!

    • Rosie

      I don’t know that there’s any differences in the preferences between men and women as far as “casual” and “committed” goes, but given the culture men are probably more likely to express a preference for casual sex than women are, even if they feel the same about it.

      Coolidge Effect is interesting; I wonder if that’s (part of) what poly-folk call NRE (New Relationship Energy).

  • Ariel

    If you pick a man and a woman at random, the man will probably be taller. This is a fact. It’s a fact caused by biology and genetics with (probably) an evolutionary reason for it.

    That’s not to say that every man is taller than every woman.

    I’d be sort of surprised if there weren’t statistically significant psychological differences between men and women, and I’d be equally surprised if they did not have a biological basis shaped by evolution. But I suspect that most such differences are like height, only less so. Maybe women are genetically predisposed to be nurturers because of the differing selective pressures in the ancestral environment. That doesn’t mean that in every straight couple, the woman is more nurturing than the man. And saying that stay-at-home mothers are better than stay-at-home fathers is ridiculous. It’s like saying that every couple should organize their closets by putting the man’s clothes on the top shelf and the women’s clothes on the bottom shelf because men are genetically predisposed to be taller.

    Also, I agree with Daniel.

    • Uly

      If you pick a man and a woman at random, the man will probably be taller. This is a fact. It’s a fact caused by biology and genetics with (probably) an evolutionary reason for it.

      Yeah, the man will probably be taller… but not very much taller, and the range for men’s heights and women’s heights has some significant overlap.

    • Niemand

      Interesting speculation, but is there any evidence for it?

      • Anat

        Evidence for what? Height differences? The reason behind them? In mammals in general the degree of sexual dimorphism is correlated with average harem size for the species. Species that are monogamous for life have hardly any sexual dimorphism, species with huge herds of females per one male have the most pronounced differences (think elephant seals). Because the larger the harem the fiercer the competition with unmated males. Among the apes gorillas are the most dimorphic with a harem mating system, gibbons have barely ant dimorphism at all – they mate monogamously for life, the couple defends a territory together and hardly ever interact with other members of their species other than their own young. Humans are more dimorphic than gibbons but not anything like gorillas. It has been argued that this supports a mating system of about 1.3 (or so) females per male.

      • Niemand

        Evidence for what?

        The speculative differences you postulate might or even must exist because there are average height differences between men and women.

        Humans are more dimorphic than gibbons but not anything like gorillas. It has been argued that this supports a mating system of about 1.3 (or so) females per male.

        Again, an interesting argument, but extrapolations of behavior from other species to humans are tricky. And where is the 1.3:1 ratio considered the norm? I can’t think of any societies where men are expected to have 1.3 wives.

      • Anat

        The 1.3 number (or whatever the actual one was, this is from memory) would be a population average. Picture a society of mostly monogamous (probably serially) males, with occasionally one with 2 wives and corresponding single ones.

    • Kodie

      Yeah and there is a huge stigma against shorter men and taller women. You want to talk about random men this or random women that, and then “compare”. What do people do when they’re not in the “normal” range, change their height to match society’s expectations? Does height correlate to masculinity or femininity? Society tends to think so. And I’m not saying all shorter men do this, but I’ve met a lot of men 5’9 or 5’10″ who TELL me I must be 6’2″ because they’re certain they are 6′ tall, when I am actually 5’11″. Nobody believes the freakishly tall woman, and it’s “not nice” to disagree with the confident man or insult his height for being actually a few inches shorter than he says it is.

      In my experience, most men are shorter than me or the same height. Fewer women are my height or taller, but I see them. I don’t see a lot of men taller than me but a decent handful more than I do women. Anyway, within about 6 inches shorter than me, I can’t count. It looks like men and women are about the same height. Below that, definitely a lot more women are shorter than men.

      So, just having random data like that, I would say men and women are around the same height until you get to the outlying statistics where more tall men exist than tall women, and more short women exist than short men, but all people on the extremes are outliers statistically anyway. The advantages are thus: I can help people at the grocery store reach something off the top shelf. The disadvantages: I can’t find pants that fit off the rack.

      What’s the “significant” difference psychologically that you’re guessing? I would say we all have the same human brains with the same human capacity for learning. Some people have different learning styles or affinities for subjects that don’t feel as challenging to them, but I don’t think we have anything like coming from the proverbial different planets. That’s taught. And it only becomes worse when we train children to differentiate themselves according to sex. When they become adults, they are like from two different planets.

      • The Other Weirdo

        On the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily pay much attention to anything a 5’9″ man who thinks he’s 6′ thinks or says. I’m 5’9″ and I’m constantly surrounded by men 3″ or more taller. A friend at work used to poke fun at me for having to prairie dog to see over a cubicle wall while he could just lift his head and he’s 6’1″. How tall do these men think the men who surround them are? If you don’t know that you’re 5’9″, there’s something wrong with you.

      • Lindsay

        That’s funny that other guys keep telling you you must be taller!

        I’m 5’8″, and a lot of guys I meet are somewhere around my height, or a little taller or shorter, but there’s also a lot who are significantly taller. I’m not totally sure which group I see more of, but I have read that the average height for American men is 5’9″, which suggests to me that more men are taller than I am than shorter.

        I’ve had my height questioned once, by a boyfriend who was slightly invested in the idea that he was 5’8″. As he was clearly two or three inches taller than me, only one of us could actually be 5’8″. He eventually accepted that that person was me, though.

        Never run into anyone who thought they were six feet tall when they really weren’t, though.

    • Christine

      This holds true within any given culture, although the cross-cultural height differences are greater than the ones inside any given culture. If you ever get a chance to look at design standards (I’ve used ISO, I believe that ASME has a set too) they will list average height for men, women and for the general population. Make sure, however, that the population you’re designing for matches the population being measured. Don’t use American standards on a European population and vice versa. I have not used any North American standards that are less than 40 years old, so I can’t comment on if this is still true, but I can say that the the data (as well as enough observed evidence to feel confident) back this up every time I’ve seen them.

      And as someone who’s just below the 5th percentile height (for men). EVERYTHING in an engineering office is just a little bit too big for me. (And when you’re dealing with drawing storage cabinets that have been loaded to 150% of capacity that’s a big deal).

      • Lindsay

        Re. design standards – I’ve sometimes wondered who designed the kitchen in my house, because the cabinets are too high up for my mom (5’4″) to reach their upper shelves without standing on a chair, while the counter is too low for my dad (6’1″? He has shrunk a lot from his initial height of 6’3″) to wash the dishes without getting an ache in his lower back from stooping over to reach the sink.

        Everything is optimally placed for me (5’8″), though, which strikes me as kinda funny since it seems to me like most men are taller than I am and most women are shorter. Like I’m the elusive Average Person for whom things are designed.

      • Christine

        Well that’s what happens when you use an ill-thought out “average” for the population.

        My parents are about the same heights as yours, and were it not for worries about the resale value of the house (they say), they would have redone the kitchen so that both of them could have proper ergonomics. e.g. steps that would come out of the cupboards for my mom, extra levels for my dad, etc. My dad studied ergonomics during undergrad, so this is near and dear to him.

    • jose

      “It’s a fact caused by biology and genetics with (probably) an evolutionary reason for it.”

      Height depends heavily on nutrition, too.

      • smrnda

        True. An average woman today is probably a bit taller than an average man from the Dark Ages by a larger margin than say, the difference between men and women today.

      • jose

        I don’t want just to be a nitpicking pain in the butt, but these kind of claims are tossed around a little too carelessly. And it’s not only that it depends to some extent on this and to some extent on that, as if the different factors could be neatly separated. Give a specific individual, it’s impossible to separate factors to find out the influence of a certain factor on the magnitude of the trait. All the essential factors are intrinsically intertwined. Concretely, you can’t separate genes from food to find out why you’re tall for the simple reason that you’ve already eaten a lot since you were born. And nobody can test the effects of genes alone because without food, babies die. It really makes no sense to separate nature from nurture the way we do these days.

    • M

      Our perceptions of height vary quite a bit as well. What I mean is, our brains trick us into seeing what we expect to see.

      Example: In high school, I was part of the debate team. Very occasionally, we’d do an event called parliamentary speaking, in which we’d prepare “bills” and present them to a chamber of our peers, giving speeches for and against the bills. It was pretty formal- business dress and Robert’s Rules of Order. Anyways, the session is split up into two parts with a break between them. I, being the opinionated, articulate person I am, gave many speeches. During the break, one of the guys I’d never seen before came over and we started chatting. He was very tall- my guess is about 6’2″. I’m 5’3″. As we were talking, all of a sudden he looks down and blurts out “you’re short”.
      Me: Well yeah, I’ve always been this short.
      Him: No, no, I mean you’re really short. You’re tiny.
      Me: Yes, I know. I’ve always been short. I haven’t changed my height.

      Because I was confident, he “saw” me as being probably six inches taller than I actually was. It was only when he looked down at me in personal conversation that he realized how far down he had to look!

      In other words, we see what we expect to see. If men are supposed to be taller than women, than even if two people are the same height our eyes will translate the woman as being a little shorter, reinforcing our expectations.

      • Kodie

        There’s a whole sociological … thing.. about how society sees men as taller than women. Heterosexual couples in which the man is taller than the woman are “standard”. People actually eliminate potential mates on whether or not they are acceptable within that standard. It is very interesting in how couples are presented, they may be presented fictionally. One example that is noted, on a commemorative stamp of Charles’ and Diana’s wedding, Charles is placed a full head taller than Diana when she was about even to his height. Society demands and accepts this fiction.

        But perception is another thing. Me and a friend were talking about male movie stars and how tall they seem compared to how tall they are. Some talk show hosts are a lot taller than they seem until a guest comes out. Shorter actors can be compensated by camera angles and even the drape of their clothing or their bone structure is “handsome” and generates a “tall” perception, for example Tom Cruise. Knowing he’s not tall doesn’t seem to click with how tall he still seems. Billy Joel was another one. He sits at a piano for the most part. He doesn’t seem overly tall to me, but I saw him in an early video where he is much shorter than any of his band-mates – so what is wrong with that? I just never noticed. There’s this idea well compared to Christie Brinkley (back when he was in the public eye more) of course he’s not taller than her, but she’s an amazon. One stereotypical way I’m aware of shorter men have been known to compensate is to seek much taller than average women, so their lack of height is next to a giant woman (not unlike myself, I so say). If paired with an average height woman and still shorter, it’s actually much more conspicuous.

        Society expects men to always be taller than women, and the comparison next to the person they’re with is one of those things that people feel has to fit the ideal, even if they have to fake it.

  • Katherine

    There are all sorts of problems with evolutionary psychology as an academic discipline, and they are extremely well documented in several scientific communities. I think there is a (possibly larger) problem with people being more than willing to look at and talk about those problems when evolutionary psychology says that women “naturally” want to stay home with the babies, but are thrilled when the same shoddy science leads to conclusions like those in Sex at Dawn. The reality is that very very little is known about the circumstances and habits of early humans, and studies of modern-day hunter gatherer cultures have shown us that they vary widely. You’ll find that when a conservative evolutionary psychologist does a study… they somehow come to the conclusion that their conservative social views are supported by science! When a liberal-minded evolutionary psychologist does a study… presto! it turns out we evolved in groups that look very socially liberal. When their assumptions based on their studies (which often don’t employ the scientific method in any form) agree with our views, it does not mean that the science suddenly checks out.

    Granted, almost all researchers are affected by the cultures that they live in, but it is particularly bad in evolutionary psychology.

    Instead, the reasons that our gender roles are not “inherent” or “unchangeable” is because they obviously vary from culture to culture, and time period to time period (as you mentioned about the change in views of women’s sexuality). I don’t need “research” to tell me that the biological differences between the sexes aren’t as large as the cultural differences between genders, all I need to do is realize that there is nothing biologically stopping me from putting on a pair of pants, or cutting my hair short, or choosing a career.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      This is why I take evo-psych studies and articles with a peck of salt.

  • luckyducky

    It appears that evopsych has struck again!

    Evolutionary speaking, it seems like:
    – sex being pleasurable for both the male and female of the species and
    – humans having no obvious external fertility signals*
    would be arguments that human sex drive has evolved to maximize the amount of copulation — even consensual copulation — somewhat independent of reproduction.

    Seeing as we have:
    – matriarchal and patriarchal primate cousins,
    – have observed both matriarchal and patriarchal societies in human history (who controls resources and whose genes gets passed), and
    – a preponderance of evidence that that the social aspect of homo sapiens is very plastic as it adapts to a wide variety of of environmental constraints,
    it also seems to be a reasonable assumption any differences in observed sex drive is a social construct that changes according to who exercises the most control over reproduction.

    *I am vaguely aware of research that argues for subtle changes in physiology that signal changes in the female’s monthly fertility cycle but noting other obvious mammalian fertility signals, it seems rather strange argument to make that we wouldn’t be aware of our own and be unable to establish it via the rigors of the scientific method.

    • Daniel Copeland

      “Evolutionary speaking, it seems like… humans having no obvious external fertility signals… that human sex drive has evolved to maximize the amount of copulation — even consensual copulation — somewhat independent of reproduction.”
      That can’t be right. Bonobos have extremely high rates of copulation, and female bonobos have very obvious external fertility signals. Jared Diamond’s “Why is Sex Fun?” is good on this. He polls a number of different sociobiologists on the topic and concludes that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s idea is the best-supported: that our species lived through an infanticidal stage, where males kill infants so that their mothers will stop lactating and become fertile again. Obviously such males will avoid killing their own offspring or else die out very quickly, so they evolve the behavioural rule “Kill no infant whose mother you mated with while she was fertile”. To which the females respond (and according to Diamond this has happened in several primate species, not just ours) by losing their signs of fertility, so that the male can never be sure it’s not his own infant. Diamond adds that the males responded back again with a new behavioural rule: “Stick around any female you have mated with and keep mating with her (at least) until she becomes pregnant”.

  • Azura

    The thing is, sex only amounts for one single chromosome pair out of 23. Chances are the vast majority of personality (if biological in nature at all, highest estimates for that peak at 50%, the other half being environmental factors) is located throughout the rest of the genome. In the case that the biological aspects of personality are somewhere in the 22 non-sex selective chromosome pairs, then Darwinian selection for valuable traits would be spread fairly equally through the sexes. Same with the fact that introversion/extroversion measures are spread equally through sex, I’m pretty sure the other Myers Briggs measures are as well. /psych student rant over.

    Besides, one can both be a strong provider AND a warm caregiver. At the same time. In the same person. Why would we want people to be one dimensional? We don’t even like fictional characters to be just one or the other.

    • Katherine

      These are all really really solid points and I just want to say YES TO THIS and thank you for pointing them all out so eloquently.

  • Truthspew

    Interesting post! I will say this, I’m a gay male so I get to hear tales from females and I will say without reservation they can be every bit as promiscuous as we guys are, or every bit not as promiscuous. It’s a spectrum.

    In my limited exposure though like I said, most of the women I’ve been friends with have had active sex lives. Most of the men I’ve been friends with also have active sex lives.

  • machintelligence

    I originally made this comment on the guns gender and violence post, but it fits so well here that I am going to edit it and use it here too.

    Why do there appear to be sex related differences that cross cultural lines and why are males more violent? Good background reading includes Richard Dawkins “The Selfish Gene” and Steve Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” and “Better Angles of Our Nature” . The whole male patriarchy/male violence problem relates to the differential parental investment in males vs females. Males have basically two reproductive strategies: be a “sperm donor” and impregnate as many women as possible, leaving the mothers to care for the children; or go the monogamy (or polygyny) route and assist in the rearing of children. Pair bonding plus infidelity is a sort of compromise, and widely seen in “monogamous” species of birds who share the same investment/mating patterns that humans have.

    Women are pretty much precluded from the minimal investment option by their biological makeup. They need to carry the embryo to term and then nurse for a few years until the child can manage solid food. With modern technology and infant formula, this restriction is eased somewhat, but the bulk of parental investment is still on the shoulders of the female. Typically this results in mating being a female choice model. Evolutionarily males would then have to compete for females by display or territoriality — which they do. Some of the territory displays can be violent, but from an evolutionary point of view, that is not a real problem. Males are expendable, and losing at the mating game is the same as death from the point of view of the genes. (This is, of course, an over simplification.) Violent behavior can be an advantage for males.

    Females have a different perspective on the mating game. They can choose a “sperm donor” male and have no help in rearing the child or pick a monogamous type who might lack some of the advantages of the first type. Since all behavioral traits have a heritability component of .25 on up, picking the first type male increases the chances that her male offspring will follow in their father’s footsteps, and try to impregnate as many females as possible. This could be an advantage to her genes, since her sons carry half of them. Choosing the second strategy will probably result in more surviving offspring, but possibly not as prolific ones, since there are two parents around to raise the children. There is a trade off, but violence has no advantage for the female.

    There are some complications, though: dominant males can seek to restrict the choices of the females, and since they are the larger, stronger and more aggressive of the sexes, they can be successful.
    Also a problem is the fact that a female might bond with a “good provider” type of male and then have children from one of the “sperm donors”. This is a disaster from the good provider’s point of view as he has all of the parental investment and no genes passed to the next generation to show for it. This leads to extreme jealousy and eunuch harem guards.

    From an evolutionary and game theory approach this all leads to the conclusion that males are going to be the more violent of the sexes; single young males especially so. We can predict that having a family will also substantially reduce violent tendencies, except in the case of cuckoldry, real or imagined.

    I don’t have any great solutions to this problem, but according to Steve Pinker, having women around who are capable of interacting with men and making choices, and not having an excess of young males in the population are calming influences on male violence. A reduction in the value of the concept of personal honor also seems to be a characteristic of less violent societies.

    Sadly this is not a simple topic with easy answers.

    • Little Magpie

      @Machintelligence, above: Point taken, but a quibble:
      “There are some complications, though: dominant males can seek to restrict the choices of the females, and since they are the larger, stronger and more aggressive of the sexes, they can be successful.”

      Not always. Consider hyenas.

      • machintelligence

        I agree… not always.
        And the only groups that seem to take the evolutionary imperative of maximizing the number of offspring seriously are the Mormons, the Quiverfulls, conservative Catholics and the like.

    • BonnieLB

      Have you read Sex at Dawn? They have a pretty good case for why this standard evopsych story you give is horribly flawed. Among other things, it assumes the modern Western nuclear family; their case is that child rearing was more likely to have been communal in the past, where all adults in a small band shared responsibility for all children. And many other problems with the cultural assumptions underlying the standard evopsych version of things. Great book!

    • The Other Weirdo

      Summed up: The “Wild West” was wild not because of the gun, but because of lack of women.

      Wow, do I see a problem in China’s future.

  • Lassou

    Not a solid argument, I know, but in my community and among my age group…I see no difference. Everyone likes sex, everyone’s pretty selfish, a lot of people have no desire to ever have children. We’re all in college, so I suppose the culture here promotes that kind of behavior. I’d at least venture that the rules aren’t hard and fast, even if there is some tendency toward particular trends. Maybe it’s just access to birth control, I don’t know, but it sure doesn’t seem like females (or males) are particularly guarded or choosy in their sexual lives.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    Watching my husband with my stepdaughter when she was an infant was what made me totally fall in love with him. I had never seen a man so dedicated to his child to the point that I wasn’t allowed to lift a finger towards her care.

  • Isaac

    Great points, but I have one qualm: when we criticize the largely unscientific (and sometimes ridiculous) conclusions of evolutionary psychology, it’s important not to imply that humans don’t have a nature. I don’t think Libby Anne did, but many of the (good) criticisms I’ve seen of evo-psych do lean that way.

    I’ve studied both psychology and ethology, and I’ve found what’s important to remember is not that humans lack a nature, but rather than our nature is very plastic and susceptible to modification. Language, and the roots it takes in the brain, made this very easy in humans, but we aren’t the only higher animals who have flexible behavior. There’s an obvious selection benefit in this- it means individuals and groups are highly adaptive, relying on complex instincts, intelligence and experience rather than simplistic instincts alone.

    What this all adds up to is that whatever differences- if any- there are between genders seem to be massively influenced by our cultural history, not our genetic history. Due to our behavioral flexibility, any selection pressure exhibited by cultures on individuals would have had a very slight affect- if any- on the genetics of its population.

    Also, I’d like to point out that evo-psych relies Victorian suppositions about the natural order to make its conclusions. Out of the few animals that could be called higher social mammals (great apes, cetaceans, wolves, elephants) only chimpanzees show truly partriarchal behavior. Elephants and bonobos are largely matriarchal, cetaceans are relatively egalitarian and wolves are completely egalitarian.

    What all these creatures have in common are complex social structures and individual relations, strong bonds, alturistic and creative behavior, and so on. There’s something about sociality, intelligence, and behavioral flexibility that seems to bring out distinctly non-patriarchal behavior in animals- including humans- and yet evo-psych attempts to twist this the other way by referencing our bigoted cultural past as a form of common sense knowledge.

    • Isaac

      *Whoops, a few grammatical mistakes in there. Sorry.

      Rather that, not rather than

      Effect, not affect

      Relies on, not relies

  • Amethyst

    One word: Lysistrata.

  • Derek

    Read Sex at Dawn. It’s an enlightening and also very fun read. Despite what the article says the authors aren’t evolutionary psychologists.

    • BonnieLB

      Yeah, the article did them an injustice by lumping them in with the exact evopsych ideas they are trying to shake up.

  • Joy

    I’m firmly of the opinion that when it comes to gender roles, it’s not human species that evolves, but human culture. And a good deal of “women birth the babies” informs human culture, certainly, but absent that biological determinant, a lot can really vary. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s _Mother Nature_ is excellent, for those interested in the sociobiology of motherhood (and not just human motherhood either).

  • Sue

    Since all behavioral traits have a heritability component of .25 on up

    Ummm, How do you get this? Human heritability of any trait can have a probablity of less – 0.25 is only if the single gene is passed on as an active party in the genome. There are a bunch of ways genetic information can be turned off permanently which can be passed on -> genetic regulation and epigenetics. In which case it doesn’t matter if your probablity of inheritance of that particular sequence is 0.25 because if it is passed on in the always off state then the gene expression of it is none. You also have to take into account that most behavioural traits are going to have multiple genes that function to give the trait – therefore your probablity of having a genetic combination that leads to any behaviour trait is lower, then add the epigentic regulation due to the environment on top of that…. yeah – complex genetic traits…. not something you can put numbers too that easily. (For example if you need two genes for one trait your probability is 0.0625)

  • Pingback: Flawed NYT article on science & sex differences

  • Aniota

    English isn’t my first language, but how exactly is Sex at Dawn “recently published” in a 2013 article when Dan Savage described it back in 2010 as “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey[...]“? Sure, your mileage may vary on his opinion, but how does a *news*paper describe an event 2 1/2 years ago as “recently”? Doesn’t that word somehow imply that the reported event didn’t take place such a long time ago?

    Link to Dan Savage Savage: