Friday, August 04, 2006

The mismeasure of woman

Update: Louann Brizendine, a rather attractive author and researcher, has just released her new book

that has made it to top 50 and maybe top 10 of books. See also

Also, The Economist has had a relatively interesting article called

that discusses the biological origin of the differences between the behavior of men and women. The biological explanations experienced a comeback as a generation of utopian sociological ideologues is retiring and experiments show that their speculations about the environmental origin of the differences can't stand an observational scrutiny.

More non-trivially, they also explain that it is the female brain that is the "default" state of a human being. It may be transformed into a male brain (or the extreme male, autistic brain) by the action of testosterone. The different behavior between boys and girls can be observed during the first day of their life. During the first year, different choices of toys may be observed, too. Denial of these differences is a genuine mismeasure of woman.

Some other facts are repeated: grey matter has a higher percentage in the female brains and white matter dominates the male brains. The connection between the two hemispheres is considerably weaker in male brains than it is in female brains. These anatomical differences imply behavioral differences although the causal chain is indirect and hard to analyze.

Some new research indicates that the boys start to outperform girls in math and especially problem solving when they're around 15, rejecting some old beliefs that the boys are better at all ages. The male vs. female difference between the spatial abilities is about 1/3 of the difference of their heights, if measured in units of the overall standard deviations.

At the end of the article, they argue that "innate" does not mean "immutable". I would have some doubts about the validity of such a theory at a timescale of centuries or less. Sometimes it is said that the behavioral differences between the men and the women are the results of evolutionary pressures from the last couple of thousands of years. In some sense, this theory is a variation of the theory that the primordial reasons are social after all although these social pressures have been imprinted into genes.

I don't think these theories are quite correct. The most general differences between the male mammals and the female mammals have played a role at least for tens of millions of years before the humans were created - or before they evolved, if you wish. ;-) The primary difference - the initial asymmetry - between the rate of the production of eggs and sperms makes females much more stable and regular.

The female elements always give life the things that are always needed and that don't fluctuate much. The male factor is what gives life its experimental spirit and large fluctuations in a wide variety of quantities. It is always the sperm that determines the sex of the child because the child can pick either X or Y from XY while you must always pick X from mother's XX. Many famous men have extremely important wives - but the most typical role of these wives is to give their husbands something rather elementary that they're missing.

These differences that indirectly cause differences in activities as complex as research of mathematics are innate in origin - and these basic innate mechanisms are not thousands of years old but tens of millions of years old if not more. Similar behavioral differences have been observed in chimps and beyond.

Finally, I don't quite believe that someone who has been interested in these questions for decades could honestly reach a different conclusion. In my life, I have had about 200 classmates; many other peers outside school whom I have known well could be added into this ensemble. The figure 200 includes three basic schools, a high school, college in Prague, and the Rutgers graduate school. The differences between the distributions of boys' and girls' attitudes towards learning significantly exceeds random noise.

With a bit of oversimplification, girls usually built on memorizing, belief in authorities, verbal patterns of knowledge, egalitarian treatment of competing structures, and the two-dimensional design of objects. Boys often preferred problem solving, rejection of authorities, functional patterns of structures, emotional and contrasting attitude to good vs. bad structures, and three-dimensional design of objects.

Everyone knows that men normally produce high levels of testosterone while women don't. It is not just about one compound. The presence of this hormone causes many other things. The production of various proteins is affected by the presence or the absence of testosterone. The details of this reaction of protein production on the testosterone concentration are encoded in our genes. They are encoded in the DNA code of males as well as females. Each of us - or at least each of us with XY - carries a DNA code that effectively describes both programs - how a girl can be created and live, and how a boy can be created and live. Parts of this DNA code or a program if you wish remain passive but they are still there.

It is analogous to a printer that can also act as a copying machine or a fax. Such a printer also has many lines of its code that are only used if the device is used as a fax, and other routines that are only activated when it becomes a copying machine.

The women in research are very different from "generic" women and of course, they think just like the men - and sometimes they think even more technically than their male colleagues. Of course you could be given many examples. In this sense, women after the graduate school - plus many women in the graduate school - fail to confirm any of the general observations above because they have been selected by a very selective filter.

On the other hand, I must say that Bee seems to be confirming almost every single one. At, she described a book in such a way that the term "female physics" is inevitably appearing in my mouth. Certain "big five problems" have been associated with five animals. This is a typically female way of memorizing things. Sabine does not ask the question whether the list of "big five problems" makes any sense or whether the five groups are equally important.

For example, the second problem - the foundational questions of quantum mechanics - have not been among the big open questions in physics for 25 if not 80 years. But these "critical" questions are rarely asked in female physics. Instead, Sabine offers us cute two-dimensional icons of animals to memorize these "big five questions" as proposed by the author of book, together with far-reaching statements such as

  • We are scientists. We should not loose [sic] the big five out of sight because we are searching for big foot's footprints in the landscape.

Well, I think that because we are scientists, we should first of all ask what the big five questions are and whether the Big Foot really exists before we start to uncritically parrot nonsense in the same way as Sabine did.

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