Category Archives: Sex Differences

Bernie Sanders’ Essay

Bernie Sanders’ famous essay is below. I will reserve comment but I’d like your opinion on it. I will say that the press is handling this rather badly, at least at present, taking quotes with zero context, not addressing the meaning of the essay as a whole. Sanders says it was poorly written. Is it?

Man and Woman

by Bernie Sanders

Mid-February, 1972

A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused.

A woman enjoys intercourse with her man – as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously.

The man and woman get dressed up on Sunday – and go to Church, or maybe to their “revolutionary” political meeting.

Have you ever looked at the Stag Man, Hero, Tough magazines on the shelf of your local bookstore? DO you know why the newspapers with the articles like “Girl 12 raped by 14 men” sell so well?

Women, for their own preservation, are trying to pull themselves together. And it’s necessary for all of humanity that they do so. Slavishness on one hand breeds pigness on the other hand. Pigness on one hand breeds slavishness on the other. Men and women – both are losers. Women adapt themselves to fill the needs of men, and men adapt themselves to fill the needs of women. In the beginning there were strong men who killed the animals and brought home the food – and the dependent women who cooked it. No more! Only the roles remain – waiting to be shaken off. There are no “human” oppressors. Oppressors have lost their humanity. On one hand “slavishness,” on the other hand “pigness.” Six of one, half dozen of the other. Who wins?

Many women seem to be walking a tightrope now. Their qualities of love, openness, and gentleness were too deeply enmeshed with qualities of dependency, subservience, and masochism. How do you love – without being dependent? How do you be gentle – without being subservient? How do you maintain a relationship without giving up your identity and without getting strung out? How do you reach out and give your heart to your lover, but maintain the soul which is you?

And Men. Men are in pain too. They are thinking, wondering. What is it they want from a woman? Are they at fault? Are they perpetrating this man-woman situation? Are they oppressors?

The man is bitter.

“You lied to me,” he said. (She did).

“You said they loved me, that you wanted me, that you needed me. Those are your words.” (They are).

“But in reality,” he said. “If you ever loved me, or wanted me, or needed me. (all of which I’m not certain was ever true), you also hated me. You hated me – just as you have hated every man in your entire life, but you didn’t have the guts to tell me that. You hated me before you ever saw me, even though I was not your father, or your teacher, or your sex friend when you were 13 years old, or your husband. You hated me not because of who I am, or what I was to you, but because I am a man. You did not deal with me as a person – as me. You lived a lie with me, used me and played games with me – and that’s a piggy thing to do.”

And she said, “You wanted me not as a woman, or a lover, or a friend, but as a submissive woman, or submissive friend, or submissive lover; and right now where my head is I balk at even the slightest suspicion of that kind of demand.

And she said, “You’re full of ___.”

And they never made love together (which they had each liked to do more than anything) or never saw each other one more time.

Do genes make you gay?

Of course they do. To the extent that genes make you anything in particular, though the role of genetics in human behavior is pretty limited.

You’ve probably heard about the newly reported research in which a genetic link was found to homosexuality in a study of gay brothers. Kelly Servick has a good writeup on it here. The study looked at 409 pairs of gay brothers, and found a region on the X chromosome that was similar across the sample. This sort of shotgun approach, comparing a trait (in this case, gayness) with a bunch of DNA (I oversimplify) is very likely to get results that look real but are the result of random association. But, it is also possible to find real links. I am agnostic as to whether or not this study found something interesting. But I do have a few remarks to make about how you get to be gay.

Consider the following list of things:

<li>Sexual attraction (to whom you are attracted)</li>

<li>Erotic response (what is erotic, including physically, to you)</li>

<li>Attachment (with whom to you seek attachment, and of what kind)</li>

<li>Sex drive (do you have it and where is it driving too?)</li>

<li>Society norms (especially for your subset of society)</li>

<li>The details of social norms, i.e., what categories of sexual orientation exist around you.</li>

<li>Your relationship to social norms (your comfort level ... do you seek "normalcy" or prefer something else?)</li>

<li>Whom you know or encounter and where they are with all of the above things.</li>

<li>And many more things that ultimately may relate to sexual orientation.</li>

This list can be written in many different ways, and every item on this list really represents a number of other sub items. These things are not mutually exclusive and the list is not exhaustive of that which relates to sexual orientation. Feel free to provide your own lists in the comments, if you like.

Many, most, maybe all of these things have individual ontogenies for any individual. The ontogenies may start before birth. We are bathed (or not) in various maternal hormones in utero. We are bathed in our own hormones in utero. The effects the hormones have depend on the relationship between the amount of hormone and the abundance and distribution of receptor sites, and on the timing. The abundance and distribution of receptor sites itself is probably influenced by the process. It is very complicated. Differences between one individual and another may related to external or non-genetic factors. In fact that may be very common.

Hormonal effects and interactions continue after birth. Again, timing, relationships between kinds and relative amounts of hormones, and receptor sites, still apply. Causes may be numerous.

The above only applies to that related to hormonal changes, which may affect a number of somatic (body related) features including brain features.

Then there are the non-hormonal factors, including cultural and social ones. Again there are complexities to the ontogeny of an individual with respect to these factors. And, these complexities are dynamic; culture and society can change right underneath you. And the non hormonal and hormonal factors may interact.

Much of this can be thought of as a process of negotiation. One negotiates internally, one negotiates with one’s social groups, one negotiates with society, culture, even the law.

Here is a simplified model linking the DNA identified in this study to homosexuality. Various switches are turned on or off, buttons pressed or not, during a person’s development. They do everything in some individuals to “make a person be gay.” But there is one element missing. If you have the DNA profile associated with the sample of 409 brothers, you get to be gay. If not, you probably won’t be. But, the “yes-no” value (reminder: oversimplifying here) found in this DNA actually has another purpose. It has to do with how many hairs you have on the back of your hand. The variation across men in hand hair is accounted for by variation in these genes. But in some individuals (but not all) it also happens to be the final ontogenetic link in the chain to a particular sexual orientation that in the sociocultural context that the 409 pairs of men live in results in gayosity. In another society, another culture, at another time, it results in being more likely to be a blacksmith than a farmer.

Note: That was a made up example. But in the absence of a biologically, developmentally, sensible link between some DNA and a trait, we can certainly carry out amusing and instructive thought experiments.

This complexity of links between causes and effects is probably true for the vast majority of variation found in human behavioral traits. Not this exactly, but something like this. The steps involved can be characterized in a certain way with respect to a trait under study, but all or most of those steps actually relate as well to other things. Also, some of those steps might have multiple causes. A particular manifestation of sexual or erotic attachment may arise in one person for one reason, in a different person for a different reason. In other words, the list I provide above can take many forms, not just because I’m being vague about what is in the list. The list can simply be different for different people who end up with the same “trait” as we happen to define the trait for the moment.

There is a reason for this vague connection, or in many cases, lack of connection, between inherited genes and behavior. A strong link between genetics and behavior has been shown to be very highly adaptive in some organisms. Here’s an old example. In a particular species of fruit fly, the larvae have a gene with two alleles. One allele causes the larvae to forage tightly in space, making a lot of turns in its search for food. The other allele causes the larvae to forage widely, to make few turns, and cover a larger area. Each allele is adaptive in a particular context and the fruit fly species has diversity at this locus. So, the fruit fly female mates with multiple males, produces a diverse batch of offspring, and the ones with a particular pattern of alleles at that locus have higher fitness. For now. In a different environment, maybe a few generations later (as the orange juice they are feeding on changes its characteristics as it rots in that glass you left on your desk) the genetic arrangement with the higher fitness changes.

But, humans are different. Humans are like the fruit fly, needing different traits at different times, but instead of those traits being programmed by genes, they are learned. Added on to the individual by enculturation.

This applies to some extent to all mammals because mammals have brains that matter to behavior. It applies very much so to primates, especially apes, and even more to humans. We have diversity in behavior, but we get it from our cultures. We learn to be a functioning adult; it is not pre-programmed. There probably are some pre-programmed behavioral features, but those are the features that would generally apply. But even those may be largely divorced from genetic inheritance on the grounds that behavior generally does not emerge from genes coding for neural structures. Genes in humans can’t code for neural structures at the level of the cerebrum, because of the way cerebrum develops, and that is where most of the relevant behaviors exist.

We can be pretty sure this is the case because of the huge cost we pay for it. Childhood. Childhood may be the most important human adaptation, and it may be the most costly. Human females can die in childbirth. That is nearly unheard of among mammals, outside of humans and our domestic stock. The babies can die in childbirth as well. That is because of our oversized brainy heads. Human babies are born helpless and spend several years nearly killing themselves at an alarmingly high frequency, and only survive childhood because of the adult humans taking care of them (or in some cases, wolves or ocelots, I suppose). This is costly to the adults. It limits reproductive output in the adults. Childhood also limits the reproductive output of the child, because it extend the time before reproduction, and decreases the chance of survival until reproduction.

Childhood, a brain that learns, the heavy reliance on the things the brain learns, and the long time it takes to make all this work demands a brain that is not overly programmed genetically, and results in a species with an extraordinary characteristic found in no other species: we are a multitude.

If you look at numerous species in most mammal families, you will find a wide range of behavioral and ecological repertoire. Measure body size, sexual dimorphism, typical system of mating, food getting, diet, defense, inter and intra species competition, etc. across all of the geomyids or voles, across all the species of dogs or all the species of cats, across the antelopes, across the African forest monkeys, etc. and you’ll find many features such as those mentioned that vary very little within species, but vary greatly across them within that taxonomic group.

Then look at humans. They look more like a taxonomic family than a species. Human cultures vary in these and other features as greatly as larger mammalian taxonomic groups.

But, when you capture an infant at birth from one human group and have it raised by another group, the infant grows up with behaviors typical of the adoptive group, not its natal group. That pretty much falsifies the idea that variation in our behavior is linked to variation in our genes.

By the way, if you move new born antelope, rodents, primates, etc. between species you may get some of the same effect. Cross species adoption does result in a bit of a behavioral chimera sometimes. But, it is only possible between some species and tends to work when the interactive parts of the system happen to be aligned. A parent bird will feed mouth-gaping carp for a while if they’ve lost their mouth-gaping baby birds. Within mammals, we’d expect a fair amount of post adoptive learning across species, because, as I noted above, learning how to be typical member of your species applies to some degree to mammals in general, more so to primates, more so to apes, and vastly more so to humans. Vastly.

Imma let you get back to finding links between genes and behavior. But first, remember, culture rules.

Final note. Part of the reaction to this new research, and this has happened with all prior research on homosexuality, is in reference to the sociopolitical outcome. If you are born gay, Conservatives can’t legislate against you, but if it is a choice, you might be a criminal. That sort of thing. This is balderdash. The Nazi’s killed all those people because of their genes. Many value free choice. Some will see being born gay as being born broken. People who are born a certain way, in many sociopolitical contexts, are vilified for it. You can’t win the sociopolitical game by claiming a certain human behavior or trait is built in or choice. You win that game on its own terms. And, lately, we mostly are winning.

The Fall Olympics #Sochi2014

Remember the Fall Olympics in Vancouver? That was the year that skaters … not the racing ones but the dancing ones … were falling all the time as if they had some kind of special extra slippery ice on the skating rink. Well, this year, at Sochi II, we are witnessing the Fall Olympics mainly on the snow slopes and half pipe, where lousy snow conditions, caused by warm conditions with some rain, have messed everything up.

But there is an interesting twist this year. According to a piece in the New York Times, women are being affected more than men:

…most of the injuries have been sustained by women.

Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The proportion of injuries to women is greater than it appears given that the men’s fields are generally larger.

Twenty-two falls, with 16 as women, is statistically significant (Chi squared = 4.545 with 1 degrees of freedom, two-tailed P=0.0330)

Why?

Generally, but not always, women and men have different rules or equipment when they play similar sports. In basketball, the rules seem about the same, and the court and the nets are the same, but for women’s basketball the ball is slightly smaller, I’m told. For hockey, as far as I know, the equipment is the same, but women are not allowed to body slam each other. But for many other sports, including a lot of summer and winter Olympic sports, there isn’t any difference as far as I know. Obviously, when there is no need for a different set of rules or alternate gear, there shouldn’t be any difference.

Women use a different downhill course than men, shorter and with, it appears, fewer jumps. That is a little hard to understand since there is no clear difference between what the two sexes are expected to do. On the other hand, I’m not a skier. Perhaps the body strength required to not buckle under the g-forces for so long is sufficiently different for men and women. On the other hand, isn’t this mostly lower body strength, and wouldn’t women have an offsetting advantage having less bulky upper body mass to work against? Any skiers out there want to comment on this?

It is interesting to watch the half pipe. The men and women have the same pipe, the same rules, the same judging, and in the end, produce the same array of spectacular gravity defying moves. In fact, given the standard half-pipe mode of attire, it is not easy to tell which gender is doing the deed. (That could just be me … maybe I need a bigger TV.) This applies to varying degrees across most of the fancy skiing events. But the suggestion has been made that this could be changed. From the same NYT piece:

“Most of the courses are built for the big show, for the men,” said Kim Lamarre of Canada, the bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, where the competition was delayed a few times by spectacular falls. “I think they could do more to make it safer for women.”

Think back to the afore mentioned Fall Olympics in Vancouver. As I recall, a very large proportion of the ice-dancy people fell during their performances. But in previous Olympics, and during the current Olympics, this has not been the case. Aside from some physical explanation, i.e., that Canadian Ice is extra slippery (unlikely!), I would attribute this to a behavioral syndrome. Some sort of demand for a certain kind of extra jumpy move that would lead to more slippage may have emerged in the sport, peaking at the time of the Vancouver games, and since then either all the skaters learned how to handle this with additional training and experience, or as a group, they’ve shifted their expectations.

Something similar may be happening with the Sochi snow sports. One of the downhill women’s races had several bad runs in a row, and the coaches were able to pass information on to the skiers so they could avoid one particularly bad spot on the run, a jump that was often followed by an out of control spinning off the mountain effect, so the latter half, roughly, of the runs did not abort. A similar cultural, or training related, effect may be at work at Sochi’s slopestyle event for women. Check this out:

J. F. Cusson, ski slopestyle coach for Canada and a former X Games gold medalist, said that his women’s team usually did not practice on jumps as large as the ones the men use, for fear of injury.

“But when they compete, they have to jump on the same jumps, so they get hurt,” he said. “It’s a big concern of mine.”

It seems reasonable to assume that if the women trained for the setting they would be competing in, they would not have as much trouble. This vaguely reminds me of the early days of the Olympics (early 20th century, not Ancient Greek) when women were for the first time allowed to engage in a foot race, a 100 meter dash or something along those lines. It was hot, they were untrained, they wore petticoats. They all fainted. That was not because they were women unable to run. It was because they were women set up for failure, and expected to faint. I’m sure a lot of guys found that to be as hot as the weather was that day.

In a way, the Olympics are a slow and ponderous thing, since they happen only every four years. I suspect that the sex difference in wipe-out and injury rates we saw today will be attenuated in future games due not to adjustments in context or gear but rather to changes in training and preparation.


Photo Credit: jsmezak via Compfight cc

Whitey Bulger Convicted, and the Trivers Willard Hypothesis

Whitey Bulger has finally been convicted of a small percentage of all the bad things he is said to have done. The Boston Globe has the details.

James J. “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who rampaged through the city’s underworld for decades before slipping away from authorities and eluding a worldwide manhunt for more than 16 years, was convicted today in federal court of charges that will likely keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

Don’t count on that. Whitey has slipped from the clutches of justice several times before. He’ll probably make a break for it between the court house and the jail, and if not, he’ll break out by pretending to be laundry or something in a few weeks.

Anyway, I started making references to Whitey Bulger back when he was just … retiring … and I live in the Boston Area, because he provided me with a good analogy in teaching about behavioral biology. So, whenever Uncle Whitey gets in the news I like to repost that. So …. from an earlier post (which still refers to him as a fugitive) we have this ….


Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of fugitive Whitey (James) Bulger of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. Most of you won’t know who Whitey Bulger is. He is actually on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. He may have been spotted in Italy last Spring, and the FBI is just now asking for assistance from anyone who knows where he might be. (That’s not gonna work.)

Whitey was top dog in Boston’s Winter Hill gang. His brother was a Senator for the Commwealth of Massachusetts, and served as Senate President for several years.

It is said that Whitey was an FBI informant, and that his handler, FBI Special Agent John Connolly, tipped Whitey off that he was about to be indicted on racketeering charges. No problem. Whitey had left stashes of cash in safe deposit boxes all around the world, in preparation for the day he had to go on the lam. So he took off in 1995, and the FBI has not been able to catch up. Special Agent Connolly is pulling a ten year vacation in the stir.

I remember when Whitey disappeared, and ever since then, I’ve used him almost annually in lecture material describing the Trivers-Willard hypothesis. It goes like this:

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of Robert Trivers, of the Trivers-Willard Hypothesis. The Trivers-Willard model (I prefer to call it a “model” rather than a “hypothesis” because it is not specific enough to really be a hypothesis … it’s a model that generates lots of hypotheses) states that selection should favor the ability to differentially bias investment in offspring by sex if the two sexes have differential variances in reproductive success, and if there is any way to predict offspring rank. That’s a bit thick, so it requires some examples and further explanation. Maybe a story about a mobster would help..

OK, so an example: Red deer (also known as Elk) give birth to one offspring (max) per year. Males compete for access to or to be chosen by females. So, only a small percentage of male red deer mate in a given year, a significant percentage may never mate at all, and a very small percentage sire many many little red deer. Male red deer have a high variance in reproductive success. If you tried to predict how many offspring a given randomly chosen male would have, knowing nothing at all, your best guess would be the average number of offspring red deer have in an average lifetime. But you would be wrong almost every time because the actual number is highly variable. Male red deer have high variance in RS.

Females, on the other hand, have a pretty standard number of offspring. There is not much competition among them, they can always find a male to mate with, etc. If you needed to guess how many offspring a particular randomly chosen female red deer would have in a life time, you could guess the average, and you would be right on or very close. Female red deer have low variance in RS.

So, male and female red deer have differential variance in RS. Males high, females low.

If a female red deer could somehow “predict” the likelihood of her offspring getting to mate, i.e., if she could tell if any offspring she had in the present year (male or female) would be average vs. high ranking, then selection should favor the evolution of a mechanism to actually give birth to the appropriate sex offspring (thus biasing investment in one sex or the other). It turns out that she can. A female red deer that is herself average or lower-quality (thin, ill, injured) is likely to give birth to an offspring that will be either low ranking or average. But if the mother-to-be red deer is high ranking, she is likely to give birth to an individual who will grow up to be high ranking.

Under these conditions, she should have a female offspring if she’s average or low ranking, but a male if she’s high ranking. And that, it turns out, is what red deer actually do.

That should be clear. But in case it isn’t, let’s take it down do real life, and bring in the gangsters.

You check the mail this afternoon, and there is a letter from a law firm you have never heard of. It says that your Great Aunt Tillie (whom you’ve also never heard of) just died, and left you with $1,000 in her will. The check is enclosed.

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of a male red deer. Holy crap. Found money! What are you going to do with it? So you and your close advisors (your roommates, your cat, etc.) discuss it and you narrow it down to two choices. Choice A and Choice B.

Choice A is to go to your broker and buy $1000 worth of a nice, relatively safe mutual fund. The fund will buy and sell reliable blue chip stocks, thus spreading the risk over several companies, and over time you can expect to get a return of 50 bucks a years, easy.

Choice B is to buy 1000 one dollar lottery tickets. Your chances of winning are slim, but if you do, you will win 87 million dollars.

So, what do you do? The obvious sane choice is to buy the mutual fund.

But what if your cousin is Whitey Bulger? Whitey Bulger, as head of the Winter Hill Gang, is said to have owned the director of the Commonwealth Lottery agency.The connection between Whitey Bulger and the Lottery has never been proven. They don’t have a shred of evidence. He was, however, indicted for 21 counts of RICO-Murder. It is said that one of the things that tipped off authorities about this is that some of his relatives were winning the lottery a little more often than they should have. So, say your cousin is Whitey Bulger, and last time you saw him (at a family wedding) he told you … “hey, if you ever want to take a “chance” on the lottery, let me know … I can make that work for you…”

So now, you have two choices.

Choice A: Invest in a mutual fund and gain a return of 50 bucks a year (that’s dollars, not elk); and

Choice B: Buy 1000 PowerBall tickets and have a great deal of certainty of winning 87 million dollars.

What would you do?

In case it isn’t already clear. the baby male elk is a lottery ticket, the baby female elk is a mutual fund, but the female can guess pretty accurately if the lotter ticket (male offspring) will pay off. Because the elk’s cousin is Whitey Bulger. See?

How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

Humans appear to have a great deal of variation in sexual orientation, in what is often referred to as “gender” and in adult behavior generally. When convenient, people will point to “genes” as the “cause” of any particular subset of this diversity (or all of it). When convenient, people will point to “culture” as the “cause” of … whatever. The “real” story is more complicated, less clear, and very interesting. And, starting now, I promise to stop using so many “scare” quotes.

Continue reading How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

Manspace

In an old colonial-looking restaurant that served ten kinds of steaks, I met up with an experienced explorer and a local farmer, to have dinner and discuss plans for an upcoming research project that would be managed by The Explorer and that would partly be on The Farmer’s land, which adjoined a rather extensive and remote wilderness area. I don’t remember a lot about the conversation, but one memory of the evening stands out: That was when The Farmer, rooting around in a bag for some cash to tip the waitress, pulled out this big-ass gun … a small cannon, really … that was in the way. For just a moment, the gun came out of the bag and went on the table, then back in the sack. I wondered if this was a random event or if it was a not too subtle way to let everyone around see that This Particular Farmer was packing Major Heat. I’d seen that move before in this part of South Africa, which is where, by the way, this dinner was being enjoyed.

Earlier that day, The Explorer, whom I had commissioned to be my field logistics manager, drove me out to a possible research site — an island centered in one of Southern Africa’s more significant rivers. The island had once been part of a farming project, now defunct, and at some point a levy was built there to divert water into an irrigation system. The now defunct and overgrown levy was about four kilometers long, flat topped, and exactly the width of a vehicle’s wheel-base plus 30 centimeters. There were numerous erosional cuts on both sides of it, so as The Explorer drove our truck along the top of the vegetation-covered berm, the wheels would take turns dropping into these open-ended Potholes-Of-Death. I wondered what would happen if we hit an erosional gully that was a bit bigger than the others, or two at once, and just as I was wondering about that, The Explorer uttered some words that made all that seem less important. Continue reading Manspace

Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

The title of this post is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods that I write about, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
Continue reading Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate

The Gender vs. Sex question…referring to the meaning of those two terms in relation to each other…is standard material for discussion in Anthropology and related fields, but is often left unattended to in day to day discourse. Both terms have internal complexity, with Gender meaning something about people’s identity as well as being a linguistic term, different but overlapping, and of course, Sex is a verby noun sometimes. But when we say “Gender vs. Sex” we are clearly talking about biological things such as chromosomes and genitalia, behavioral things such as attraction and orientation, self image, and so on, as well as the interaction among these things for a given person and for a given person’s interaction in the social matrix. Broadly speaking, “sex” is thought of as biological, “gender” as behavioral, however the last few decades of research and sociocultural maturation of our view of sex, gender and people have complexified this considerably, and the simple versions of these terms are inadequate and earlier, even “postmodern” feminist constructs tend to break easily. For instance, what sex is a person with a female-looking body, a vagina, breasts, all that stuff? Female, right? But what if the person has complete androgen insensitivity? This individual has testes. Wouldn’t that make them male? Such a situation, which is not particularly uncommon, does not mean that we can’t conceptualize complexity, it just means that the term “biological sex” is a bit limited. Continue reading Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate

Men = Testosterone Damaged Women!

One in three or four women in the United States will have been raped or seriously assaulted sexually by the time they reach a few decades in age. That will have been done by one or more men. Most people who are killed by another person are killed by a man. This is true whether the killing is legal or illegal. Very few people in Western society get through their entire lives without being affected either directly or nearly directly by some sort of violent crime of some kind or another, and that crime was almost always committed by a man. Wars are mostly fought by men, and are typically started by them.

Men fight over women, they fight over resources, they fight over nothing, they fight over everything. Men fight. Women fight too, and men occasionally bite dogs.

In non-Western societies, where it is harder to get statistics, there are societies where men are less violent and less dangerous. There are also societies where men are more violent and more dangerous. When we look at patterns across societies, we see a couple of relationships that are not perfect but that are fairly predictive. When a society relies on one or more resources that can be damaged by unfriendly neighbors, competitors, or enemies, men tend to get organized to defend those resources. To facilitate defense fierceness, fighting ability or other culturally shaped and modified traits may become very important. Some societies have words that are used as labels for men who kill other men and are thus of higher status. A few studies seem to indicate a relationship between a man’s fierceness, even the number of men he has killed “honorably,” and his likelihood of being polygynous and having more children than other men. But again, there are other societies where sharing and caring, rather than fighting and killing, raises one’s status.

It has been understood for years that male and female roles, attitudes, social skills, and so on vary greatly across cultures, so that the women of one culture may well be more “fierce” than the men of another culture. But it has also been observed that within a given culture, there is usually a relationship between men and women whereby the violence, nastiness, fierceness, bellicosity, and all that is greater in men than in women. Culture and biology, and I use the word “and” here only so you will see a familiar phrase (really, I mean biosocial factors) shape this relationship between men and women (and I use the terms “men” and “women” as shortcuts for two easily defined points on an uneven spectrum of -inities and -osities). And part of that relationship involves neural development and hormonal effects that interact with each other as well as external factors.

And no, it does not have to be this way. A culture can purposefully decide to have the differences between men and women attenuated, to have less violence and less difference in bellicosity between men and women. Some subcultures within an otherwise fairly bellicose Western society have done that. Over the last month I’ve been keeping track of how many times I hear (in person) or read in an email or an IM a person say something like “Imma kill that guy” or “I’ll kick his/her ass if he/she does this/that,” and noting the gender of the person who says it. (These are always meant rhetorically; no one paying attention would consider these statements to be actual threats.) On one occasion the person making the remark was a man. On 15 other occasions by my count the person making the remark was a woman. The object of the remark was male about half the time, female about half the time. In my subculture, it would seem that the women are fierce-ish.

The problem with men, as a group, as a type of organism, as a subset of humans, is that at various points along the way on their journey from the female template on which all humans are built biologically, they have been altered in ways that make them dangerous assholes. Even when we try to reduce the male-female difference as a society, men who do not willingly participate in that often end up being fairly nasty, dangerous beasts; they may be rapists, they may be batterers, they may be some other thing. They break our efforts to have an egalitarian peaceful world. In a way, they are broken. They are damaged, if you will. Some of that damage is facilitated by what you may know of as testosterone (a word that stands in for androgens).

But whatever you do, don’t mention this testosterone caused by damage thing because it will upset them.

I did that a while back; I made the remark that men were women damaged by testosterone. That statement was picked up on a video and broadcast across the Internet and people’s reaction to it have caused a Minor Sorting. Most of the negative reaction to it was from the usual suspects, people who already hated me because I am an openly feministic male. Or because someone in their clique told them to hate me. Or whatever. Other people were more thoughtful about it and objected to the statement because it is wrong. Well, that’s good, because it is in a way wrong, because it is an oversimplification. But it was not meant to be a description of the biological and cultural processes associated with the development of individual personality, culture, and society. I am a little surprised that people thought it was such a statement, because it is so obviously a remark designed to poke certain men in the eye. Some have described this remark as punching up. If you like, it could be interpreted that way, but it was really much much simpler than that. It was poking certain men in the eye. Some people said it was wrong because it was bad pedagogy. Actually, a statement like this can be good pedagogy. But what I was really doing was poking certain men in the eye.

One thing that people who have spent way too many electrons talking about this statement of mine don’t understand is the context. This is the third or fourth time I’ve done panels at the event where this statement was made. For a good number of the audience, this would have been about the 20th time they’ve bothered to show up in a room where I’m sitting at the table in front. Some of the people in the room were actually students who knew me even better than that. The panel itself (this panel and all the other panels, for the most part) are moments when an ongoing conversation is suddenly organized and directed more than usual and for 60 minutes is carried out a certain way, then the conversation continues at the table after the panel, at other panels, in hall ways, and for several hours each night in a party room. This is the first year that some of the panels at this event were videoed and widely disseminated on the Internet. If I do these panels next year, I’ll keep that in mind and make sure I do what I always WANT to do but only actually get around to doing a little: Produce a blog post to go with each panel, BEFORE the panel, then produce an update after the panel that reflects what really went on. That I did not do this for the present set of panels is my fault, but I’ll happily excuse myself from doing that because, as I’ve just explained, the SkepchiCON track really is more of a closed, insular, and small group event and conversations like the one that has been making its round on the Internet have not happened before.

I have found the ongoing conversation about “testosterone damaged brains” to be somewhat less than interesting, full of distraction, very often little more than troll fodder and a huge waste of time. I’ve been asked to explain, to apologize, to produce copious documentation to back up may amazing claims. There are, however, only two reactions to my comment that I’m interested in. One: You go “Ouch” and put your hand up to your eye because I just poked you there. Two: You go “heh, that was funny.” All other reactions are really your problem, not mine. Sorry.


The things I say above about culture, society, males, females, etc. is all pretty well established, nothing new. I put together this list of things to read for anyone who wants to get a basic background in the theory and understand some of the classic works. In addition, see the following:

Children of Six Cultures: A Psycho-Cultural Analysis, in collaboration with Richard Longabaugh

Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food Taming Our Primal Instincts