2 on bench
© Relationship Institute
Differences between Men and Women
As a depressive conservative who always sneered at the new atheist movement, I've enjoyed a certain, almost masochistic smugness about the way the sharp decline in American religious practice has led to a proliferation of wacky beliefs. I told you so, I laugh, as our boat heads for the rocks and certain doom for all of us. And every month I read something else in the media which makes me think, with the best will in the world and a sincere belief in improving our lot, that country's ruling class is losing its grip on reality.

To take one example, an article in the Atlantic recently made the case:
'Separating sport by sex doesn't make sense, because it 'reinforces the idea that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls in a competitive setting — a notion that's been challenged by scientists for years.'
The author stated that 'though sex differences in sports show advantages for men, researchers today still don't know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their highest potential.'

Quoting an academic who claims 'that sex differences aren't really clear at all' the author reported of some studies showing that 'the gap they did find between girls and boys was likely due to socialization, not biology.'

On a similar theme, a few weeks back the New York Times ran a piece arguing that 'maternal instinct is a myth that men created'. In the essay, published in the world's most influential newspaper, it was stated that
'The notion that the selflessness and tenderness babies require is uniquely ingrained in the biology of women, ready to go at the flip of a switch, is a relatively modern — and pernicious — one. It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science.'
Even the most prestigious science magazines increasingly make claims about sex that a decade ago would have seemed wacky. Just recently, Scientific American stated:
'Before the late 18th century, Western science recognized only one sex — the male — and considered the female body an inferior version of it. The shift historians call the "two-sex model" served mainly to reinforce gender and racial divisions by tying social status to the body.'
If you find any of these beliefs strange, then you might need to 'educate' yourself about 'the science' because this is the direction of travel now. This kind of stuff is everywhere, growing in popularity in all areas, but all ultimately having the same common inheritance — the blank slate.

Yet what is strange is that such ideas are triumphant, even as the scientific evidence against them mounts up, with the expanding understanding of genetics and the role of inheritance. The tabula rasa should by all rights be dead, indeed it should have been killed twenty years ago with the publication of one of the most important books of the century so far, Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.

With its subtitle 'the modern denial of human nature', Pinker's work looked at the various ideas that had emerged out of academia and into wider society:
Rape was not about sex, that hunter-gatherer societies were peaceful, that sex differences were learned, all of these beliefs having the common theme that humans are born with infinitely malleable minds and that life outcomes are entirely shaped by society.
Pinker felt, quite reasonably, that many of these comforting beliefs were on the way out. Of the idea that differences in intelligence were entirely environmental, he wrote that 'even in the 1970s the argument was tortuous, but by the 1980s it was desperate and today it is a historical curiosity'. And yet this historical curiosity continues to flourish, and 20 years after publication, the blank slate is stronger than ever. More so than in 2002, it's taboo to discuss the genetic components of human intelligence or the biological factors involved in differing male and female behaviour. The ground has shifted - towards the blank slate.

Pinker is an optimistic Whiggish liberal who has since produced books looking at the decline of violence and making the case that things are getting better — that's taken a wobble this decade, but I think he'll be proven right, even if I think the new atheist-aligned cognitive psychologist has a slight blind spot about religion. In The Blank Slate he argued that worthy progressive goals should not rest on untrue scientific assumptions about human nature. When those ideas are proven false, the political argument will crumble too — and yet this hasn't happened. Instead the taboos just grows stronger.

Among the ideas he took aim at was 'gender feminism', which differs from equity feminism in that the latter is 'a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology.'

In contrast 'Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive - power - and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups - in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.'

He warned that 'In embracing these doctrines, the genderists are handcuffing feminism to railroad tracks on which a train is bearing down.' Yet the train coming for them wasn't brutal hereditarian realism but a more extreme offshoot of gender feminism, taking its ideas to even stranger realms, so that men and women were 'constructions or representations... achieved through discourse, performance, and repetition - rather than "real" entities'.

Rather than blank slate-led ideas falling to mockery and obscurity, the opposite has happened — they've proliferated and spread. Pinker was obviously right, yet seems to have lost.

Back in 2002 there were few people denying the fact that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls. Likewise, most academics might have found it strange if maternal instinct — found in all mammalian species — did not appear in homo sapiens until advertising executives came along to foist it on women.

Today such blank slate ideas are widely held, out there among the highly-educated urban middle class, even if on one level people perhaps understand they are untrue; I know of top schools where guest speakers have come in and confidently stated that the sexual binary of men and women was invented by the Church — a completely crackpot idea. It would be like believing the laws of gravity are a patriarchal, heteronormative white supremacist concept and that gravity didn't even exist until men invented it in the 18th century to uphold racism.

Yet the nurture v nature debate sort of exists on two levels; among experts it's generally agreed that most things break down around 50/50, which is the 'hereditarian' view (no 'hereditarian' denies that culture also plays a big part). Pinker stated that 'when it comes to the question of what makes people within the mainstream of a society different from one another — whether they are smarter or duller, nicer or nastier, bolder or shyer — the nature-nurture debate, as it has been played out for millennia, really is over, or ought to be.'

He certainly wasn't alone in his optimism. Lawrence Wright, wrote in The New Yorker in 1997:
'The field of behavioral genetics has caused a revolution in the universities that has spilled into political life, reshaping the way our society views human nature and changing the terms of the debate about what government can and should do to improve the lives of its citizens.'
Back in 1991 a new book seemed to herald the return of nature. Yet while nature is always coming back, it only really floats around in the background, never changing the terms of debate — its implications becoming even more of a taboo.

Since Pinker's book was published, the vast area of twin studies has continued to confirm that variation in human intelligence is around 50 per cent heritable. Among the top 10 replicated findings from behavioural genetics are that
'all psychological traits show significant and substantial genetic influence' and 'the heritability of intelligence increases throughout development'.
On one level it is understood, and yet also shocking. In Britain, comments in recent years made by Chris Woodhead and Dominic Cummings about the role played by genetics in educational outcomes have been treated like outrageously dangerous and cranky ideas, rather than being true to the point of blandness (this is despite teachers themselves believing that genetics plays a major role). One study of 4,000 school pupils in England and Wales found that the type of school they attended had little impact on their relative performance, which was mainly determined by several hundred mutations. Meanwhile, twin studies suggest that 60 per cent 'of individual differences in school achievement' are down to genetics.' Likewise our ability to exercise self-control is largely determined by genes and our parents have little influence on it, while even criminality has a genetic component.

The same is true of our personalities; a meta-analysis published in Nature Genetics looked at 2,748 publications surveying 17,804 traits, and found that pretty much all variation in personality traits is about 50 per cent genetic. Even our political beliefs are to some extent hereditary. A Danish twin study of 12,000 participants showed that genetics account for about 60 per cent of the variation in political ideology.

The 'evidence for innate sex-linked personality differences in humans is overwhelmingly strong', as one paper put it, something found in nearly every species studied, including all our closest relatives, 'especially in traits like aggression, female choosiness, territoriality, grooming behaviour, and parental care'. This is perhaps why, the more equal a society, the more gender inequality you get, because people are free to choose the things that interest them.

Despite this, it would be incredibly surprising to hear a presenter or guest on Radio 4 suggesting that 50/50 gender splits in the boardroom might not be desirable or achievable, because of differences in average personalities. When Jordan Peterson told Cathy Newman in a Channel 4 interview in 2018 that men tend to be more disagreeable than women, I was quite surprised by how many people were scandalised, seeing it as horrifically provocative rather than something so obviously true it takes courage to say it. Yet as Pinker points out, people can still fight for liberal causes while acknowledging these facts, but many people choose not to.

The converse idea, that instead gender might have socially constructed, has only grown in recent years and today even the existence of sex is widely denied — even though the science behind 'gender ideology' seems pretty dubious.

It is odd that, as the evidence for genetic influences has stacked up, so the scientific community has come to be more enthralled to the blank slate. Strange ideas that Pinker confidently predicted were on the way out are stronger than ever, and the hereditarian view more, rather than less controversial — even such obvious facts as physical differences between the sexes are a matter of dispute. Steven Pinker won the argument — so how come he lost so badly?