Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nature vs Nurture, or "Wanna Fight?"

Just a word of warning, this is a more serious "op-ed" entry, not a "the world sure is goofy" entry.

The other day I got into a pretty heated discussion on the role of "nature vs. nurture" as it relates to gender roles; "male vs female". The person I was having the discussion with felt that "nature" accounts for no more than 10% of how we view our gender roles, and that Sociologists have demonstrated on numerous occasions that society decides how males and females are "supposed" to behave from an early age (little girls being given dolls, little boys being given toy trucks, etc.). This person pointed out, factually, that gender roles have changed over the last hundred years, and that women who were once thought to have no ability to conduct the types of activities are clearly demonstrating them today. This person also stated that, aside from reproductive paraphernalia, there is really no difference between men and women.

I felt that "nature" has a greater role in gender identification. I did not dismiss the role that culture plays in gender role identification, but I felt that physiological factors, what I referred to as "wiring", had more to do with gender roles that the other person wanted to admit to. I pointed out that children, raised in similar circumstances, will often display vastly different personality traits, often in opposition to what is perceived to be the "traditional" gender roles (e.g. boys who like cooking, girls who like to work with tools, etc.----just as an aside, I don't think this exists as much as it used to, so defining what is a "traditional" gender role is much more difficult nowadays). I also thought there were more significant physiological differences between males and females than just their "equipment" (effects of hormones, genes, chromosomes, even brain size; females average 1130cc brains, males into THAT what you will!!).

The fact of the matter is, science doesn't really know what extent each of nature and nurture plays in gender roles (at least according to Wikipedia it doesn't!!). We know they are both very important, but the line or lines are hugely based on individual circumstances related to family, culture and biology. (Hey, this is starting to sound like my favorite Grad paper conclusion..."more research must be done". I loved that one, as it implicitly justified my profs going for more grant money :)

Now I have to admit right now that I didn't offer some of these comments during the discussion. The other person appeared to be getting quite furious that I wasn't seeing their position, and even challenged me to state "typical male or female behaviors". I didn't answer right then, partially because I don't think that quickly (I'm the kind of person who thinks of snappy comebacks 12 hours after the fact), and partially because I needed to give the matter some more thought and research (hence this posting).

What struck me was the fervor that the other person argued their point. Looking back I think if I had pressed on, I might have been struck with a basket of holiday mints, or the other person might have stormed out of the room. That's when I started to realize that we weren't in a scientific arguement, we were in a political one.

Heres' the op-ed part-brace yourself!! Discussion of gender roles is a hugely politicaly charged issue. Almost every day, it seems like the newspapers report conflicts over equality rights, access to resources and acceptance related to gender. I have to admit I was pretty ignorant not to see the emotional impact this was having on the other person until their eyes blazed and their voice became shakey. I think I am also ignorant about the social implications of research into this area. Being a comfortable white strait male gives me societal advantages I'm not even aware of. I can see now how discussion of this topic can appear threatening to people who want to enact social change in this area. After all, if opponents can simply say that gender roles and societal status is related to biology (which it has), it potentially diffuses the chance to make meaningful change.

What I am suggesting is that the scientific truth, whatever it is, doesn't have to impact our ability to change ourselves and our societies. It seems like this arguement is analagous to Copernicus discovering the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. The establishment of the Roman Catholic Church was horrified by this discovery, and tried to get Copernicus to recant his findings. They thought it threatened the structure of the Church. Well of course it didn't-the beliefs of the Church are deeper than "what planet orbits where". I think it's the same with the "nature vs nurture" discussion. If social justice can be demonstrated, the degree to which our gender roles are determined by society or biology should cease to be an issue. I also think we need to keep in mind that people are able to go against their "programming" (societal or biological) when they need to . Think of all the men who have served in combat roles in past wars. Most of them had no deep seated "desire" to take another human life, but the horrible circumstances they were in forced them to go against their previous training. If people can change their training in such a negative situation, they can certainly do it to make a positive change. And it can be done without being afraid of the truth.

OK, heavy and contriversial posting. Let's wrap up with something more seasonal. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. Let's get programming ourselves for some hope, and de-program aourselves from fear.


Nat said...

I'm in the middle on this debate. Yes, there are some biological differences but I also think that men and women have much more in common than we do differences. I hate that we live in a society that pits one against the other so often. Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus. We're both from Earth. We don't have to be so different.

Anonymous said...; You saved my day again.