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Myth-Busting the Innate Difference Debate
August 4, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
When it comes to science and math, discrimination explains more than differences in the brain; so watch out, women are also a lot more aggressive than once thought
When Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard was denounced for suggesting that innate differences accounted for the greater numbers of men than women in the sciences, his critics became ciphers in the press for everything fake about academia: the lip service given to free speech and inquiry by the political-correctness mob. A range of data was deployed to show that the protesting scientists were, in fact, politically rather than empirically motivated: there were simply more men of exceptional and dismal mathematical ability, while women were more likely to be bunched up en masse in the middle of the bell curve. Look at the test scores.

The problem with this supposedly empirical argument was that it didn’t actually account for the research into gender differences – or discrimination in the sciences. As Ben Barres a professor of neurobiology and of developmental biology and of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, pointed out in the journal Nature, making the argument for innate differences requires avoiding the amply-documented evidence that female scientists are held to different standards in academia (Barres, who happened to undergo female-to-male sex reassignment surgery, also provides some rather staggering anecdotes of his own experience of discrimination as a “she.”)

Given the plasticity of the brain, any snapshot of male versus female performance – or even a series of snapshots – is apt to mislead if used to infer innate abilities (for the sake of an analogy, imagine announcing in 1912 that a woman would be able to break the then world record for the 100 meter sprint (10.6 seconds), it would have been thought impossible based on observable performance measures, yet Florence Griffith Joyner achieved broke that record in 1988).

And the problem with inferring innate differences from the appearance of greater numbers of male math whizzes is that, as the Wall Street Journal noted in a profile of Barres, “Although more men than women in the U.S. score in the stratosphere on math tests, there is no such difference in Japan, and in Iceland the situation is flipped, with more women than men scoring at the very top.”

And as the Economist points out in a timely article on gender differences, “girls and boys are equally good at maths prior to puberty. Until recently, it was believed that males outperformed females in mathematics at all ages. Today, that picture has changed, and it appears that males and females of any age are equally good at computation and at understanding mathematical concepts. However, after their mid-teens, men are better at problem solving than women are.”

Still, these differences between men and women are much smaller than most people believe; they may amount to very little; and they shouldn’t be seen as immutable.

“These differences in structure and wiring do not appear to have any influence on intelligence as measured by IQ tests. It does, however, seem that the sexes carry out these tests in different ways. In one example, where men and women perform equally well in a test that asks them to work out whether nonsense words rhyme, brain scanning shows that women use areas on both the right and the left sides of the brain to accomplish the task. Men, by contrast, use only areas on the left side. There is also a correlation between mathematical reasoning and temporal-lobe activity in men—but none in women. More generally, men seem to rely more on their grey matter for their IQ, whereas women rely more on their white matter.

These examples show how tricky it is to find correlations between behaviour and differences in brain structure and brain activity. And even if a connection to brain structure is found, that does not mean it is innate. Most of these studies are done on adults, so it is not clear when differences start to arise. The brain is by no means immutable, even in adulthood. In the hippocampus, an area thought to be involved in spatial learning, new nerve cells can be born in an adult and hormones influence their birth and survival.

Men have an edge on spatial rotation, but not, surprisingly, on navigational skills. And women can be trained in spatial abilities to the point where the differences are minimal. The result of one spatial-training program was a significant increase in retention rates among women enrolled in engineering courses.

Women, it turns out, are just as aggressive as men – but only if they believe they can get away with it without being judged or suffering physical consequences. Which, come to think of it, suggests that they’re actually a lot smarter than men.