Some thoughts on nature vs. nurture

The other day Biffle and I were watching a video that was posted on my brother Trey's Tumblog. I would have ignored it, as I do most things on Trey's Tumblog*, but my other brother, Aaron, emailed and recommended it. It was actually really good--it was this guy talking about, among other things, how we educate the creativity out of kids because our whole education system is built on the notion that the end goal is for us to be academics, people who see their bodies as transport mechanisms to get their heads to meetings.

He makes a pretty good point there, although I'd contend these days we're much less interested in educating kids to be academics and much more interested in making them in to little pod people to sit in Dilbert-style business cubicles.

But that's not the point of this post. The point of the post is that, as we were watching the video, the guy made a joke (he was very jokey) about the fact that women are built to multitask, while men are built to do one thing at a time. He talked about how his wife can cook dinner, talk on the phone, monitor the kids' homework, and surf the internet all at the same time, while when he cooks dinner, he shuts the kitchen door and barks at anyone who tries to talk to him.

The audience laughed. I snorted dismissively.

"Can't stand anything biological," Biffle diagnosed grumpily in my general direction. "God forbid anybody say anything is based on biology!"

It's true. I make that same dismissive snort virtually anytime someone claims that complex gender roles are based on some sort of biological imperative. People love to claim that things are biologically based because that lets them off the hook for society's inequitable arrangements of status and power. If it's just biological that women do jobs that make less money, then there's really no reason to fuss about the (still hanging in there!) wage gap. If women are biologically not as strong as men, then of course men need to be the protectors and women need to not walk around at night by themselves. And if women are biologically better at multitasking, then we can't blame men for not being as much help around the house, can we?

All that stuff is bullshit. Biffle is just as good at multitasking as I am. In fact, I have encountered very few things in my life that strike me as fundamentally grounded in biology rather than in societal constructions.

Even pregnancy, which is loaded with biological components, is something that I'm always experiencing through this very complex set of societal lenses. More about that later--now we have to leave for an appointment with our midwife.

*Joke! That was a joke! I read the Tumblog every day (even though I'm still not quite sure what a Tumblog is.)


Quiche said...

Exceptions. There are always exceptions, even in nature.

James is an excellent multi-tasker too. I think we all have things we multi-task better at than other things, but to say that women are built to multi-task as opposed to men who are single-taskers is a gross exaggeration. Humans are far more complex than the dictates of biology or stereotypes and generalizations, and paradigms of society.

Creativity and imagination is what keeps people from turning into boring "Brave New World" pod people, is how humankind evolves into something greater and truly exceptional, but that requires thinking outside the box, colouring outside the lines, writing your own story, etc., which is scary and threating to most of society.

Elizabeth said...

Being a scientist, I suppose that I look more at the biological basis for many things. Recent research suggests female brains mature sooner than male brains. And the last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex which may not fully develop until the mid-20s.

That part of the brain controls decision-making, judgment and impulse control, all of which are involved in multitasking. However, that being said, there is no scientific evidence to indicate that one sex can multi-task better than the other.

Other scientific evidence has been used to suggest that women are more efficient at multitasking. Dr. Christina Williams, the chair of the Psychology Department at Duke University, has done studies with rats, where the male rats have exhibited more “tunnel vision” than female rats (Williams & Meck, 1990). Williams study discovered that female rats use multiple cues, including examining landmarks of the maze and geometry to navigate a maze, while male rats just used geometry. This implies that women use their minds to synthesize multiple cues from the environment, while men would rather use single cues.

There is a biological difference in the brains of men and women that has been touted as an explanation for multi-tasking differences. According to MRIs performed, women have a larger corpus callosum (Halpern, 2000). The corpus callosum is the area of the brain that handles communication between the two hemispheres. It is responsible for synthesizing the information from the left and right side of the brain. In women, the corpus callosum is wider than that of men’s brains, which might enable the two sides to communicate better with each other. This is a theory as to why women might multitask more efficiently. However, in 1997, Jancke and associates reported that individuals with larger cerebral volume had smaller corpora callosa, regardless of sex. So, the corpus callosa explanation does not appear viable.

So there are biological differences (as we already know) but whether they relate to multi-tasking is another matter.

Keith said...

I also find myself irritated every time I read an article that (a) establishes some sort of correlation between sex and an observable phenomena, (b) tries to explain this in terms of an evolutionary/ biological imperative, and (c) labels this as "science". The correlation is science, perhaps, but the explanation is mere speculation.

And like you, I suspect that part of the reason people concoct "scientific" explanations of the differences between male and female, is that it lets them find justification for their (socially conditioned) preconceptions about gender roles. But I also see a broader pattern of pseudo-scientific justifications for other prejudices - straight vs. gay, black vs. white, anti-religious vs. religious.

The thing that bothers me most is that these statements are labeled in the popular media as "science" - thus misleading the public about the nature of science and making science less useful as a tool to inform public dialog and policy. Though on reflection, I suppose that there's nothing new about people trying to justify their prejudices and preconceptions with any support that they can find.