Nature vs. Nurture (AGAIN)

Voice Card  -  Volume 14  -  John Card Number 7  -  Sat, May 26, 1990 09:44 PM

This is a response to Vol 14 Larry 6 ("I don't know")...


You seem "close" to arguing that one instance of a man who "responds to women as a woman does rather than as man does" would prove that "men and women are wired identically." I see several problems with this.

First, the notion that men and women are wired differently is not a theory; it is an established fact. The only questions that remain in this area are A) How extensive are those differences? (The brain is still a dark, largely unexplored continent and scientists are finding new gender based wiring differences all the time) and B) Are these differences relevant? (This is a more difficult question!)

But the central problem with your "exception disproves the rule" approach is that your litmus test is hopelessly vague. What do you mean when you say "responds to a woman the way a woman does"? "Respond" can cover a thousand different behaviour patterns, all of them complex and subtle and open to varying interpretations. And how DOES a woman respond to a woman? Do all women respond to all women in the same way? And what about the context in which the response occurs? You cannot disprove a rule with a single exception unless all parties can agree on just what constitutes an exception. The litmus test must be clear and unequivocal.

Furthermore, even highly significant wiring differences do not necessarily lead to rigid, simple, unchanging behaviour differences. You know better than I how complex human behavior is. We would expect wiring differences to show up as TENDENCIES and we would also expect significant individual variations. And even fairly rigid differences might break down in certain special situations. All of this does not mean that wiring differences are unimportant; it just means they are hard to nail down.

You became quite emotional when dealing with the possibility of a man who might emerge from the womb wired "incorrectly." You actually asked me if we should "shoot him in the head and put him out of his misery or so he won't corrupt the other men in the world." Come on, Larry. You can't be serious!

We ALL come out of the womb wired incorrectly, if by incorrect you mean not identical. And although we tend to think of sex as falling absolutely into one of two possible categories, some people ARE born with birth defects that make them hard to classify. Such cases, while rare, are obvious "defects" because they involve differences in body hardware, differences on the "outside." Differences on the "inside" are harder to detect, but are just as inevitable.

I suspect that homosexuality may be an example of such a wiring difference and some (but not all!) of my gay friends agree. The gay men I've talked to describe their situation as something that struck during puberty with just as much force as the changes which occured in their heterosexual contemporaries. It never seems to be a whim or a faulty decision and it consistently persists against incredible social pressure. All of this suggests to me a biological influence at work.

This is a controversial stance and some people have been tarred and feathered for daring to suggest such a thing. The emotional response may stem from words like "defect" that imply a judgement of some sort. I do not view homosexuality as a defect, but merely as a wiring DIFFERENCE which may, in fact, have an evolotionary advantage of some sort.

Okay, you might say, but what about men who are clearly heterosexual and have all the necessary hardware installed correctly, but still don't enjoy Rambo movies? Is this a wiring defect? Should such men be "shot in the head?"

First of all, I consider myself to be such a man, so naturally I will vote against being shot in the head. And I have already revealed my distaste for the word "defect." When I say that there are biological reasons underlying the differences between males and females, I do not mean that there is a single gene with two positions: "I like machine guns" or "I like high heels." There are undoubtedly many genes which interact with each other (and with the environment!) with unimaginable complexity at a very basic level. Behavioral differences emerge at a much higher level and thus are influenced by genetics, but not strictly determined in a simple way.

But, you ask with growing impatience, does the fact that I dislike Rambo and enjoy talking about emotions reflect a wiring DIFFERENCE? Is my nervous system wired differently than Sylvester Stallone's? I think the answer is yes. In fact, I think there are a lot of men born with a tendency to develope what might be called female character traits, and vise versa.

Now here is where we have to be VERY careful. If a certain character trait, like "sensitivity," appears in most but not all women, and appears in some but not most men, we tend to think of that trait as being a feminine trait. This is simply a label that refers to a statistical distribution. It does not mean that women "should" be sensitive or that sensitive men are "defective." There is no need to shoot anyone in the head.

I will go even further. I believe that we are ALL born with a different mixture of behavioral tendencies, some mixtures more exotic than others. Some mixtures are unusual for a person of a given sex. And none of these inborn wiring tendencies mean that behavior is set in cement. Like all genetic tendencies, behavioral tendencies are modulated by the environment. I may be born with a combination of genes that will tend to make me tall, but the actual height I reach as an adult will depend on what I eat as a child.

And now hold on to your garters, Larry, because here is where our two great unwieldy debates on sex and creativity collide. I think creativity may arise in part from a mixture of genetically induced behavioral tendencies that can be described as being ANDROGYNOUS (and you can quote me on that).

Many great thinkers down through the ages have observed that creative people often seem to be androgynous, that is, having both male and female tendencies. This is obviously a very tricky business, because people disagree on whether a given tendency deserves to classified as male or female, and the tendencies always elude precise definitions, and human beings are not consistent in the way they express their tendencies, and so on. But there seems to be a grain of truth to it, nonetheless.

That's enough for now. I will close with a question. Why is it that people calmly accept that genetics can influence the shape of their nose, but fly into a blind rage at the thought that it might also influence the shape of their nervous system?