In last weekend’s post about arguments from innate differences, I suggested that I might be willing to illustrate my position with adorable toddler pictures. On thinking more about it, I’m a little hesitant to write about this at length, because it could easily topple over into arrogant-physicist territory. But then, it’s an excuse to post adorable toddler pictures, so…
So, let me put a short disclaimer up front: I’m not attempting to claim that I have suddenly uncovered a unique and obvious flaw in innate-difference arguments, by virtue of my Big Physicist Brain. I am well aware that the issues I’ll mention are known within the community of people who study these kinds of things. I also know just enough to know that there’s still some controversy around this kind of stuff, so I feel somewhat justified in picking one side of the questions at issue.
Anyway, the article I was arguing with last week is, as I said, making a scientific claim that women and men operate in different ways, and that these differences are innate and biological in origin. Of course, the big confounding factor here is socialization– namely, teasing out which elements of the differences between the sexes are really innate, and which are just byproducts of the culture we live in, which tends to push the two sexes in different directions. A common way around this (in theory) is to use young children as the test subjects, on the theory that they have not had time to be thoroughly indoctrinated in one manner of behavior.
I’m a little skeptical of this approach, because I think there’s good evidence that socialization starts really early, and unconsciously. To illustrate this, consider the following movie of SteelyKid treating one of her many stuffed animals as a baby:
The extreme gender-essentialist view of this would be that this is evidence of the nurturing tendencies of the female brain, SteelyKid being female. The early-socialization counterargument would be that SteelyKid by that time had already been in day care for around a year, and thus spent a lot of time watching adults change the diapers on other babies. So of course, when she started imitating adult behavior, it took the form of treating some toy as a baby.
I am, obviously, inclined toward this second view of things, and as plural anecdotes in support of my view, I offer the following two pictures:
The first of these has previously appeared on the blog, and shows SteelyKid sitting in the big read recliner in the living room with a Jeremiah Healy paperback she picked up off the bookshelves in the bedroom. This was at a point where we didn’t really read to her, but she saw us reading all the time.
The second is SteelyKid on the floor of the library, playing with a discarded keyboard that we gave her in an attempt to keep her from pounding on Kate’s keyboard. This is a room which is bookended by computers– I sit at the front of the room, with my desk right in front of the windows, and Kate sits at the back of the room, next to the kitchen. It’s fairly common, then, for all three of us to be banging on keyboards at the same time, in the same room.
Do these imply the existence of some genetic predisposition to reading and blogging? No, of course not. They just show that she tends to imitate the adults around her. This isn’t conscious, either– we certainly haven’t made any concerted effort to teach her to enjoy poking at computer keyboards.
(If you want further confounding evidence, while it’s true that some of SteelyKid’s first play patterns were sorta-kinda stereotypically female (treating the stuffed duck and the Lorax as “babies”), another of her earliest phrases was “Truck! VROOM VROOM!” and she continues to have a fascination with transportation machinery that doesn’t come from either of her parents.)
Anyway, that’s why I’m highly skeptical of the notion that men and women are really innately predisposed to working in ways that just happen to align with the predominant cultural roles of the two sexes. Even small kids have had plenty of time to be socialized into certain ways of behaving, and that has the potential to badly skew all the results suggesting innate differences in behavior.
Again, I am not claiming to have come up with anything incredibly novel here– I’m well aware that this is a Known Problem in the field. I also have the impression that the whole business is still unsettled enough that it’s reasonable to choose either side, and this is the position that my anecdotal experience pushes me toward.