An IEET poll result:
It’s a big question: Are the apparent mental and emotional differences between men and women mainly from biology? Or are they primarily from societal conditioning?
Almost half (46%) of respondents to our recently concluded poll answered “Both” while the other half split evenly between “Mostly from society” (24%) and “Mostly from biology” (24%) with the remaining 6% answering “I’m not sure.”
I have a lot of qualms with this poll. I know it was done in good faith, but the IEET’s take on gender has always been slightly, mmm… irksome. They write an essay on postgenderism on one hand and then, in reference to the poll question “If you could have a personal robot that did just one thing, what would it be?” post an image like this:
I just kind of shake my head at this sort of stuff now; I know it isn’t malicious and it isn’t worth the effort to work myself into the tizzy necessary to really get upset.
This poll on what IEET readers say about gender is really worth some further analysis, mostly because it’s split in such an interesting and, well, even way. If you round the numbers, you get a quarter of respondents going full bio, a quarter going full society, and half saying a mix, even if they don’t know what the mix is. Given the materialist critique underpinning Dvorsky and Hughes white paper Postgenderism, I would have guessed at least half of the poll takers would have gone with “mostly from biology.”
Anywho, the poll seemed as good excuse as any to put my thoughts on the matter out there. I’d love to sit down and just deconstruct the hell out of the question – which begs so many questions of its own I wouldn’t even know where to start – but instead I’ll just take it at face value and address the “spirit” of the question: how closely related are biological sex and performed gender? If one is born female/male, how much does that influence one’s feminine/masculine behavior?
In short: I have no idea. There is almost no way to test this concept empirically and, if there is, it hasn’t been done on a large enough scale or with enough rigor to merit serious scholarly attention. There are simply too many variables and a control sample is damn near impossible. All we have are anthropological comparisons of cultures and those provide tenuous connections at best. My intuition, however, is that all of biological influences combined (from actual genetic code up through average phenotypic expression), account for less than a third of male/female behavior as such.
In particular, the question is focused on mental processes (the specific, redundant mention of “emotions” is odd, given that emotions are a mental process, but I digress) so in that consideration, I would argue less than 5% biological influence. Again, I have zero evidence to back this up, besides lived experience. Then again, that’s better than some crap science you see out there, so I’ll trust my instincts. The thing is, I have met so many people with so many varied ways of behaving, that to say “females generally act X way and males generally act Y way” would actually be more difficult and more confusing. The less influence biological sex one grants over people’s behavior, the more actual, observed behavior makes sense.
Mental processes are so heavily influenced by environment, life experience, and nuanced fluctuations in genetics that even identical twins have very different mental lives and behaviors, despite growing up with similar parents and the same genome. On the other side of the coin, opposite sex siblings, tend to have lots of similar behaviors and personality dispositions that are reflective of their parents’ behavior and personality. In both examples, the influence of genetics, both in general and the possession of an X or Y chromosome, seem to have far less influence than the social and environmental factors in a person’s life.
In that sense, I’d say the answer to the question is that the “apparent mental differences” between males and females are the result of observer error. As much as we are conditioned to perform within social norms, we are conditioned to observe based upon them, hence the tenacity of norms and their powerful influence. Sex is one of so many variables that it becomes largely inconsequential in a survey of genetic influences on conscious personality.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
popbioethics [at] gmail [dot] com
Long Form ArticlesWhy Mass Effect is the most Important Science Fiction Universe of our Generation