I own two books by developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert: How We Live & Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells and Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. I enjoyed the former for its simplicity, but I found the latter simplistic, presenting too narrow a claim and too selective a data set in exploring an otherwise intriguing topic.
Consequently, when I encountered an article in The Telegraph promoting Wolpert’s latest book, I wondered on which side of that precarious line (between simple and simplistic) this work would fall. The headline was not promising—“Yes, it’s official, men are from Mars and women from Venus, and here’s the science to prove it”—and despite the playfulness of its literary heritage, the title of the book itself, Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man?, also invokes a terrible (and terribly long) history of women being regarded as the inferior, half-formed, child-like sex.
Obviously, however, there are biological differences between male-sexed and female-sexed persons, and I am more than happy to entertain new information therein, so I read on. I just also know, as a doctoral candidate studying the rhetoric of science writing, that the veil of empiricism has long been used to forward poorly evidenced claims that also conveniently affirm pre-existing (and often oppressive) world views.
In the era I study, Francis Galton, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin are all guilty of this charge to varying degrees, but the nineteenth century by no means has a monopoly on the scientifically-shielded rhetoric of sexual and racial superiority. Just last month, for instance, there was outcry over A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, wherein science journalist Nicholas Wade argued for a genetic basis behind the (stereotyped and historically skewed) behaviours and societal outcomes of the “three major races” (Caucasian, African, Asian). In a New York Times letter-to-the-editor responding to David Dobbs’ book review, 140 human population geneticists expressed disagreement with the conclusions Wade drew from their work. Wade, in turn, claims such disagreement is “driven by politics, not science”—though, again, it is the lack of concrete scientific background in Wade’s work to which these researchers overwhelmingly object.
The Case at Hand
As it turns out, similar missteps emerge in The Telegraph article, authored by Wolpert himself. Though he makes it clear he understands the controversial nature of his topic, he does little to demonstrate that his book is capable of rising above such cultural bias. Certainly, he asserts an intention to focus on the science alone, writing:
In recent years the politically correct argument has emphasised social causes to such an extent that it has sometimes virtually ignored our genetic inheritance and the role of genes. I have set out to look at the important biological evidence we may have been ignoring.
The trouble is, if this article is any indication, Wolpert has difficulty identifying and ruling out possibly mitigating factors in behavioural studies. Let’s take a look at the rhetoric in these two paragraphs, for instance:
Children have sexual feelings at a young age. Small boys often get erections after the age of about seven, and by puberty more than half of all males will have tried to masturbate. It is only when girls reach puberty that they may begin to do so. There are strong biological and also some social influences determining homosexuality. A surprising finding is that the odds of a boy being gay increase by one-third for each elder brother he has.
About half of men think about sex every day or several times a day, which fits with my own experience, while only 20 per cent of women think about sex equally often. Men are far more likely to be sexually promiscuous, a throwback to evolution where procreation was all-important. The need for a more emotional attachment found in women must also have an evolutionary basis.
I had to laugh at the first paragraph; parents of young female children will absolutely arch their brows at the claim that girls do not explore their genitals until puberty. But I am not going to scrounge around for studies to “prove” this because the data in question is not biological: It amounts to self-reporting, a form of research heavily influenced by social factors.
(In my first year at university, for instance, I discovered that many women from more religious/conservative backgrounds had coded the term “masturbate” as a male activity, and thus something they intrinsically could not do. When explained that masturbation meant touching one’s erogenous zones—any erogenous zones—for pleasure, a conversation about the sexual exploration these women had, in fact, been doing could finally emerge. Our choice of language goes a long way to informing our research results.)
Morever, Wolpert himself notes the higher incidence of gay male persons in families with older brothers (a social influence), and then makes more claims that are wholly based on self-reporting. Unless Wolpert’s book shows some neurological basis for the claim that men think about sex more than women, he is simply responding to sociological research skewed by the cultural factors that frame male and female sexual self-disclosure.
Indeed, a good example of this disconnect between self-reporting and actual biological response even emerges in a study he later alludes to—a study which itself attests to the wide reach of female arousal. When he writes, “In contrast, both male and female erotica cause sexual arousal in women, whether heterosexual or lesbian,” I recalled the research reviewed in the New York Magazine article, “What Do Women Want?” This study involved both self-reporting and biological monitoring of male and female persons (straight, gay, and bisexual alike) in response to a range of visual stimuli. The results were remarkable: Women showed patterns of arousal so indiscriminate that even pictures of bonobo coitus got their “engines” running—but do you imagine for one second that these women self-reported the same, full range of response? (It’s a good article—well worth the read.)
More trouble emerges in the assertion that “[m]en are far more likely to be sexually promiscuous, a throwback to evolution where procreation was all-important.” Putting aside the same cultural issue with self-reporting, there are two problems with this claim:
1) We live in an age of genetic testing, which has offered a striking fact of non-paternity: Averaging between different population totals, 1 in 10 children are not biologically spawned by their fathers. This figure is as low as 1% in some populations, and as high as 30% in others, which itself attests to a strong cultural influence in patterns of non-monogamy. Keep in mind, too, that not every act of infidelity will culminate in a child, and these figures offer a level of environmental complexity that this article does not even entertain as a possible source for divergent sex-based outcomes.
2) We also live in an age of re-testing and retraction, which as of late included a resounding challenge to the classic fruit fly study used to argue that males benefit more, evolutionarily, from promiscuity. Bateman’s 1948 research is a perfect example of a study with findings that went unquestioned because they reinforced pre-existing cultural beliefs. However, when recent researchers attempted to replicate his findings, they found serious problems with the construction of his data set, and an underlying bias towards using progeny to identify fathers alone (as if a spawned fly does not need both mother and father to exist). Suffice it to say, then, such research is “showing its age”, and at present the verdict is still out on whether males disproportionately benefit from non-monogamy.
Finally, as rhetoric goes, the last sentence in the above excerpt is the sloppiest: “The need for more emotional attachment found in women must also have an evolutionary basis.” The first issue I have with this sentence is the vagueness of its conclusion: Wolpert initially claims “biological evidence” to be the focus of his book, but “evolutionary basis” can mean a couple things. We might be looking at this issue genetically, or we might be looking at it in relation to cultural memes. Wolpert is not clear in this regard, allowing him to shuffle this comment about female emotional attachment in with the rest of his “biological” claims as if they were one and the same: As it stands in relation to the “evidence” he forwards here, they are not.
My second issue is with the word “must”. Really? Well, that was a fiendishly quick, non-scientific way of dispensing with alternatives. It may well be that there are concrete, genetically-moored differences underlying these relationship behaviours, but in the absence of clear genetic evidence to this end, one must at the very least eliminate cultural factors first.
For instance, in the Mosuo culture of Southern China, where women hold the bulk of social power and are entirely in control of their sexual encounters, an entirely different set of relationships exists between the sexes, both when it comes to sexual solicitation and to childrearing. This would be a perfect example of different cultural memes informing different sexual behaviours, but such communities are thus also a thorn in the side of anyone attempting to mark disproportionate female “emotional attachment” as having a definitively biological origin.
Why does any of this matter?
Simply put, it is disingenuous and counterproductive to present a binary between a “politically correct” version of scientific research and a “just-the-facts” version that appeals to objectivity, but ultimately hides behind the “common sense” argument of dominant cultural beliefs. If we assume that the pursuit of scientific knowledge stands to benefit human beings by providing us with the most accurate understanding of our world and our interactions within it, every effort should be made to ensure that accuracy, not personal affirmation, is the ultimate aim of all research.
What makes this aim difficult, granted, is that we are all human, and as such, liable to jump to conclusions that confirm pre-existing biases. This has to be forgiven, to some extent, but we commit an additional, wholly avoidable mistake in pretending that any data we gather can exist outside this cultural lens. Mistakes like this only serve to uphold that initial bias.
To use an example within Wolpert’s sphere of inquiry, consider the well-known fact that female persons (on average) perform poorer on spatial reasoning tests than male persons (on average). The jury is still out on whether this, too, is cultural (for instance, consider the study comparing puzzle completion times in matrilineal and patrilineal societies), but let us imagine for a moment that it is entirely biological. In the context of our culture, with its long history of regarding female persons as intellectually inferior, such data is often read in lockstep with the conclusion that female persons simply do not have the aptitude for, say, careers in STEM subjects.
Now, putting aside that there are many detail-oriented skills for which female persons (on average) outperform male persons (on average), imagine if the same determinist conclusions were drawn from the equally well-known fact that male persons (on average) lag significantly behind female persons (on average) in reading comprehension. Even if we similarly discovered a fundamentally biological origin for this gap, could you imagine anyone then seriously concluding that male persons do not have the aptitude for, say, careers in law, literature, policy-making, or academia?
Of course not. But precisely because such sloppy conclusions are routinely drawn around facts that seem to fit a pre-existing cultural narrative, science writers have a responsibility to ensure that, if they are going to arrive at conclusions that will reinforce already-oppressive cultural narratives, their evidence- and argument-based paths to these conclusions are impeccable.
Both gaps, by the way, can be bridged to some extent, as evidenced by a range education strategies implemented in response to the observed existence of such gaps in the first place. In social transformations like these, we thus see the tremendous, real-world benefit of knowing as much as we can about actual human beings and their environments.
The trouble simply arises when science writing touted as empirically rigorous seems to be neither, as in the case of most of the examples Wolpert presents in this Telegraph article. I am not advocating for a “politically correct” science by any measure; I simply expect that, in the absence of definitive biological evidence for specific gender stereotypes, a seasoned science writer will a) recognize his cultural context, up to and including personal biases, and b) take better care in addressing and excluding other possible explanations for the sex-based divergence of specific human behaviours before claiming a fundamentally biological causation.
Wolpert might do all this in the book itself, granted. He might painstakingly review recent challenges to old, status quo research on male/female aptitudes and sexual proclivities. He might likewise acknowledge the dangers of a scientific over-reliance on self-reporting, and more openly concede that there is an important difference between the evolution of “memes” and genes. And if he does all this in Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?, his argument might very well hold together on a strictly empirical accord.
I’ll never know, though, because this promotional piece of his does little to inspire reading on—and the literary world is filled with so much more.