The How and Why of Sex Differences

Sexually dimorphic psychological adaptations

Why Most "Sex Differences Experts" Actually Aren't

What Sex Differences "Experts" Need to Know
Joan C. Williams
This post is a response to Men and Women: Still Both From Earth by Joan C. Williams

"Gender differences aren't born - they're made."
      -- Joan C. Williams & Rachel Dempsey, Psychology Today blog post: Men and Women: Still Both From Earth

"(Some erroneously believe) ...that words have the power to dominate reality, that social constructs such as gender are much stronger than the 300 million years of genetic evolution that went into producing the two sexes  ...they remain resolutely ignorant."
     -- Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. (p 315)

Per the quotes above, Williams and Dempsey are not experts in the field of sex differences.  But Robert Trivers most definitely is.  But, how can you tell who is an expert from who isn't?

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Imagine you were having a conversation with someone who claimed to be an expert on how tall mountain ranges were formed.    Say that this person made some claims about mountain range genesis, e.g., that the gravitational pull of the moon eventually causes some parts of the Earth's surface to rise.  But, after listening patiently to this expert, you finally asked:

"But what about plate tectonics and continental drift?"

"What?"

"You don't know about plate tectonics and continental drift?"

"No.  What's that?"

At this point you might raise your eye brows, smile faintly, and wonder about this "expert's" actual degree of geological knowledge.  Certainly without a foundational knowledge about how the Earth's mantle is formed, and a realization that the continents move, you might now be skeptical of any explanations offered by this "expert" about the genesis of mountain ranges.

It is amazing to me that many who present themselves, either explicitly or implicitly, as "experts" in the area of sex differences, actually are not.   They too lack the foundational knowledge of the discipline.   Many often presume that their sense of "folk psychology" (their personal intuitions about why people behave as they do) give them some expertise.  Or, they erroneously believe that sex differences are purely "socially constructed" because, well, that is what they have heard, were once taught, or read somewhere.  They are often entirely innocent of the evolutionary, developmental and neuronal genesis of sex differences, as Robert Trivers noted above.   This is required foundational knowledge needed for an accurate understanding.

So, how can you tell if you should take someone seriously when they are talking or writing about sex differences?  Here is a little test that I developed.  Ask the "expert" these questions, and see how many they can even begin to answer. 


  TEST:  Is This Person Really a Sex Differences Expert?

Instructions:  Ask the purported expert the following questions. 

1. Why did sexual reproduction evolve?

2. Why are there two sexes?   

3. Why is the sex ratio 50/50?

4. What is the most fundamental sex difference that identifies an individual as either male or female?

5. In humans, at what stage of life is the brain first differentiated into a "male  brain" or "female brain," and, what hormone is most associated with this process?

6. Which areas of the brain show evidence of structural/functional sexual dimorphism?

And, finally:

7. What implications do the above have for understanding sex differences in contemporary human cultures?

Passing score:  5 out of 7.

If the expert's response to these questions is a puzzled look, or: "What?" let me suggest that you might question their actual degree of expertise.  Let's say that they get a "fail" if they miss more than two items.   (Note: Stay tuned. I will give the actual answers to these questions soon in a future post.  The answers are really quite interesting; some are surprising.)  The reason why many purported experts (and most folks) cannot answer these questions correctly is that they actually require some real scientific background in the subject matter!  

In addition, the following facts, relevant to the above questions, are either surprising or counter-intuitive to many, and so similarly confound many self-purported experts.

  • Asexual reproduction (cloning) is far less costly than sexual reproduction, so why sexual reproduction evolved is something of a biological puzzle. (Athough the Red Queen theory is probably one likely answer.)
  • In order to reproduce sexually, you don't need to have two sexes (male and female) first. Really, no kidding.
  • A sex ratio wherein there are more females than males will generally be advantageous to maximize the population of the next generation. This might be relevant if evolution occurred for the "good of the species." (Hint: it doesn't.)

As the research psychologist Kurt Lewin once said: "There is nothing quite so practical as a good theory."  Indeed.  A theory that accurately models how the real world works helps us to identify which hypotheses or assertions are likely to be implausible (e.g., "mountain ranges are gradually pulled up by the gravitational pull of the moon.").  Bottom line:  if someone can't answer even the foundational questions accurately, don't give what they have to say about the topic too much credence.

So when Williams and Dempsey assert confidently in their Psychology Today post that "Gender differences aren't born - they're made," perhaps we should see how they score on our little test first.   I don't think they would score too well.

Here is another example from their blog post where their lack of foundational knowledge leads them astray:

"(One sex differences researcher)  ...was quoted on the Huffington Post saying the results show men and women might as well be "different species." (Not only is that statement irresponsible, it also does nothing to increase the scientists' credibility. Neither Rachel nor Joan is a scientist by any means, but we both took ninth-grade biology, and that's enough to know that the definition of a species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding. Which usually involves both a male and a female.)"

That is a good point.   However, again, a bit of foundational knowledge can be helpful.  Although males and females are not different species, in a metaphorical sense they are indeed rather like different "sub-species" within a species. More accurately, they are different biological morphs;   each has a different reproductive strategy and a different reproductive life history.   Another example of such within-species morphs are the three different castes in the social insects.  In Pacific salmon, there are two different subtypes of males: one morph is large and goes out to sea; the other is small and never leaves its natal stream.   Each morph represents a different life-history strategy.

But perhaps we should cut Williams and Dempsey  some slack. They are not experts - they just have an opinion about something about which they have little scientific knowledge.  And, to their credit, they admitted as much in their blog post: "Neither Rachel nor Joan is a scientist by any means..." 

And, I am not a lawyer.  So I would not be so presumptuous to think that I have an adequate understanding of the law to represent myself in court.   You know what they say about folks who do that.  

It is also hazardous to venture beyond one's own area of expertise, especially when one lacks a foundational theoretical knowledge, to make claims about sex differences.  But far too many people do.

At least now in the area of sex differences you have a little test to use to separate the self-identified expert chaff from the wheat.  Go ahead and ask some of the questions.  You will be surprised at the number of puzzled expressions.  

And, don't forget to ask any purported geological expert about continental drift, too. :-)


Related post:

Sex Difference vs. Gender Difference? Oh, I'm So Confused!

 

Copyright © Michael Mills. All rights reserved.

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Michael Mills, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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