Pharyngula

Ladybrains evolved in the Pleistocene

Dr Gijsbert Stoet thinks we should stop trying to correct gender disparities.

Speaking at the British Education Studies Association conference in Glasgow on Friday, he argued: "We need to have a national debate on why we find it so important to have equal numbers. Do we really care that only five per cent of the programmers are women?

"Well, actually, I don’t care who programmes my computers. A wealthy, democratic society can afford to let people do what they want.

"What is better? To have 50 per cent of female engineers who do not really like their work but say, ‘Yeah, well, I did it for the feminist cause.’ Or do you want three per cent or female engineers who say, ‘I really like my job’?"

I would say that if only 5% of programmers are women, we should ask why — that kind of difference represents an interesting problem. And if, while exploring the problem, we learn that many more women are interested in the profession, but find themselves actively discouraged by various elements of the field, then that means there are institutional roadblocks in the way, and we should remove them.

There is, after all, no actual known biological reason why having ovaries should interfere with the ability to program. If we can afford to let people do what they want, and it is in the interest of a democratic society to have its citizens occupied with rewarding, fulfilling work, then we should be trying to make it possible for people to do whatever they are good at, and finding evidence of extreme disparities suggests that there may be a problem that is interfering with that goal.

Dr Stoet seems to think it’s all about him — he’s happy when men program his computers, so he can ignore any injustices in the profession. But then, he’s not exactly consistent in this attitude.

The lack of women in science and technology was diverting attention from the real issue, he said, because it was boys who generally did worse at school.

He said: "Nobody seems to be that interested that boys have problems. We have, as human beings, a natural tendency to see woman as vulnerable and needing help. But if it’s a boy who needs help, he’s responsible for himself."

Oh, well then, do we really care? If women are succeeding at academics, then obviously they have a natural aptitude for it, and we shouldn’t be concerned if women naturally gravitate towards intellectual occupations. After all, what is better: to have 50% of the professoriate be men who do not really like their work but say ‘Yeah, well, I did it for Men’s Rights.’ Or do you want 3% male academics who say, ‘I really like my job’?

Clearly, men, with their testosterone-stimulated larger muscle mass, are better suited to manual labor. I actually don’t care who digs my ditches and totes my bales, so if they’re all men, I’m happy. And I’m sure they’d be happier doing the work Nature has best suited them to do.

Of course, Dr Stoet has an evolutionary argument for the difference…an evolutionary psychology argument. Prepare to cringe.

"In the face of limited resources, we should be cautious in spending money on interventions that will have no effect. Instead of focusing on equal numbers of male and female students in all subjects, I think we should strive to get boys and girls to at least perform equally good [Sic. See? Women would naturally understand grammar well; men should just shut up] in all subjects (which will be very hard in itself)," he added.

"People are often guided by their unconscious desires. In the stone age, it was useful for men to be hunters and women to look after babies, and nature has helped by encoding some of these skills in the hardware of our brain. That still influences how we think today.

Aaargh. The stupid…!

All right, let’s embrace this ‘reasoning’. In the stone age, women stayed in the cave or sought out tasty roots, and mashed things together to create flavorful food, while men went hunting and flung spears at things. Therefore, skill at chemistry is encoded in women’s brains, while ballistics is a natural male talent. Stone age men went on long walks to hunt game, so they’re better suited now to do field work in ecology, while women sat and did intricate weaving, therefore their brains are adapted to do data analysis.

I could do this all day, inventing pseudo-scientific evo-psych rationalizations for why particular stone age tasks shaped brains in a sex-specific manner, but at least I wouldn’t be doing it to somehow magically always fit 21st century Western cultural expectations. But I can’t, because it’s stupid.

Why do these people forget that stone age men had mothers and stone age women had fathers, both members of the same population and sharing the same genetics, and that novel adaptations aren’t likely to somehow be restricted to one sex or the other? I swear, these loons are always treating men and women as separate species evolving in parallel.

Comments

  1. […] By PZ Myers […]

  2. #2 Gijsbert Stoet
    July 14, 2014

    The Huffington Post had a terrible Headline. I believe that we need to encourage all children, of both genders, to study what they like, and I have a clarifying blog post about this. I am also a strong proponent of an equal and fair educational system for all children.

    http://sexcognitioneducation.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/gender-equality-in-schools/

    In my blog, I give links of academic papers that show that gender differences in vocational interests are observed around the world, which makes it likely that the seeds for those differences are built-in. That is not my theory, that is based on other people’s research (see my blog for links).

    My research talk was, partially, about the relative stability in gender differences in optional subject choices in the UK. Schools just haven’t managed in the UK, and my main point is that it is very hard to change gender differences in interests. Whether these gender differences in interests can be changed is ultimately an empirical question. So far, nobody has managed. This is also the case in very gender equal countries. This is known as the gender equality paradox. My blog has a link on the video, but I copy it here as well:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5LRdW8xw70

    Of course, it is terrible if people cannot study what they want, and if that is what is behind gender differences in study subjects, that would be terrible. But I do not think that such practises explain the patterns you see in subject choices. In fact, girls do better than boys in math in countries with low levels of gender equality, which is opposite of what you would predict if cultural attitudes towards women would play a major role. I have written about this in a PLOS paper:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057988

  3. #3 nancy brownlee
    July 15, 2014

    Having a little difficulty reconciling the implications of these two claims:

    ” girls do better than boys in math in countries with low levels of gender equality, which is opposite of what you would predict if cultural attitudes towards women would play a major role.”

    ” gender differences in vocational interests are observed around the world, which makes it likely that the seeds for those differences are built-in”

  4. #4 Ian Walsh
    Oregon, USA
    July 16, 2014

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the cultural tendency to give young boys Leg is, Kinex, Erector sets, and so on, and to give young girls dolls and kitchen toys? I’m not saying that’s necessarily why, but it seems more likely than that it’s due to divergent evolution.

  5. #5 Gijsbert Stoet
    July 16, 2014

    In response to some of the posts:

    Having a little difficulty reconciling the implications of these two claims: ”girls do better than boys in math in countries with low levels of gender equality, which is opposite of what you would predict if cultural attitudes towards women would play a major role.” vs ”gender differences in vocational interests are observed around the world, which makes it likely that the seeds for those differences are built-in”

    The first one is about performance levels (e.g., what grade you get) and the second is about the subjects people go into (e.g., more boys than girls choose optional subjects such as computing). These are two different issues, generally speaking.

    In regard of toys, it is difficult to find out whether gender specific toys play a big role. We know that boys and girls naturally follow different play patterns throughout childhood (with or without toys), so even if there are no toys, boys and girls will engage in different behavior during childhood. Evolutionary psychologists argue that children’s play patters reflect preparation for adulthood, similar to that observed in certain animals.

    In regard to the comment about evolutionary psychology, I think that the PZ Myers response to my paper is mislead by headlines, if you read my blog you can see my point, and I hope you are willing to read it, because it clarifies and answers many points of the blog:

    http://sexcognitioneducation.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/gender-equality-in-schools/

  6. #6 Craig Thomas
    July 21, 2014

    “There is, after all, no actual known biological reason why having ovaries should interfere with the ability to program.”

    Sexual differentiation in our species extends further than just the presence of ovaries.

  7. […] simulation of the brain’s neuronal connections will reveal less about AI and more about human stupidity. PZ Myers writes, “We aren’t even close to building such a thing for a fruit fly brain, and […]

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