[This is the 5th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]
In this post we get to what, for me, turned out to be the most interesting and exciting part of the whole book: a discussion of the science that has tried to explain childhood gender differences in terms of biology – particularly, prenatal hormone environments.
Firstly, Cordelia Fine looks critically at a couple of studies that have been widely cited to show that males are innately more interested in ‘systemising’, while females are more interested in ’empathising’ or ‘nurturing’. The first was a study which claimed to find that female newborn babies gazed for longer at a human face, while male babies looked longer at a mobile. The second study claimed that young rhesus monkeys prefer to play with either stuffed animals or trucks, depending on their sex.
I won’t take up space here summarising the critiques; I would encourage anyone interested to read the book and see what they think. Suffice it to say that the main thrust of the story here is that the evidence, both for very early sex-specific behaviours / preferences and for any kind of correlation with the prenatal hormone environment, is actually pretty underwhelming.
So how does gender work, then? Well, how about this for an idea:
“Thirty years ago, primatologist Frances Burton put forward an intriguing suggestion… She proposed that the effect of foetal hormones in primates is to predispose them to be receptive to whatever behaviours happen to go with their own sex in the particular society into which they are born.”
In other words, gender is a language that is learned in early childhood, and gender identity is the thing that is perhaps conditioned by hormones and ultimately expressed through that language, and the personality shaped accordingly. Weirdly very similar to my own recent speculations around this!
Frances Burton’s reasoning on this came from her observation of ‘culture’ variation in primates, with large variations in gender roles between groups:
“… primate societies have norms regarding which sex does what: who gets food, rears the young, moves the troop, protects the troop and maintains group cohesion. But, these norms are different across, or even within, primate species. Male involvement in infant rearing, for instance, ranges from the hands-off to the intimate.”
Variation like this within a species is difficult to explain in terms of anything hard-wired! There is also an argument that it would make more sense anyway from an evolutionary perspective for gender roles to be malleable:
“As Melissa Hines points out, this would provide a very ‘flexible design’, enabling ‘new members of the species to develop sex-appropriate behaviors despite changes in what those behaviors might be. This hormonal mechanism would liberate the species from a “hard-wired” masculinity or femininity that would be unable to adapt to changes in the environment that make it advantageous for males and females to modify their niche in society.’”
A hard-wired instinct to learn about gender from cultural cues would also make sense of a few other observations: the fact that young children go through a phase of wanting to genderise everything (to be discussed in a future post); the way adults insist curiously heavily on genderising newborns with pink and blue – and monkeys, perhaps similarly, “take great interest in the genitalia of newborns”:
“Is this interest in genitalia purely academic? To suggest that nonhuman primates have socially constructed gender roles seems more or less akin to pinning a notice to one’s back that says, MOCK ME. But does the registration of sex – of others and perhaps of self – play an important role in maintaining traditional sex-division of labour in primate societies? When Burton studied troops of macaque monkeys in Gibraltar, she observed that the head male was intimately involved in neonate care: sniffing, licking, caressing, patting, holding and chattering to it, as well as encouraging it to walk. Interestingly, when the head male was in charge of the infant, he would be followed and imitated by subadults – but only males. The male subadults then themselves became involved in caring for the infant.
As we’ll see in the third part of the book, human children have a powerful drive to self-socialise into gender roles. That is, even in the absence of any encouragement by parents, they are attracted to things and behaviours associated with their sex. Although children from the age of about two have the advantage of an explicit, reportable knowledge of their own sex, is it possible that some primitive sense of sex identity brings about self-socialisation in nonhuman primates? As Hines and Alexander recently asked, ‘if some animals of one sex could be trained to use a particular object, would others of that sex model them?’ If more researchers interested in human gender differences start to investigate questions like this, which acknowledge that nonhuman primates, like us, have social norms that need to be learned, perhaps the answers will surprise us.”