Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sexual Dimorphism and Feminism

Two months ago, there was a clash of the comic book titans between Scipio of Absorbacon and Ragnell of Written World when Absorbacon published a post arguing the implausibility of female superheroes and supervillains. Scipio wrote,

I will believe a man can fly. It is substantially more difficult for me to believe that women are as likely as men to put on a costume and fight crime... It's even more of a strain to unflinchingly accept woman villains. Men are more violent than women. Men are more likely to become criminals.
Scipio's argument boils down to advocating inherent biological differences between men and women resulting in different modes of thinking. Scipio extends this argument to say that because men and women are biologically different, one gender is naturally more apt (and thus more plausible) at playing certain social roles than the other (i.e. being a hero versus being a villain). Scipio backed up this claim in the comments section by linking to a Research at Penn article entitled "Possible Basis Found for the Cliché Depicting Men as More 'Hot-Headed' than Women", in which a University of Pennsylvania researcher used MRI to map the amygdala of adult humans and noted a sexual dimorphism in size of the amygdala of men compared to women. The PDF of the actual research article is here, if you're interested in reading about methods and actual results. Again, the turn of the conversation was not unexpected -- inevitably, those who argue biological differences between people, whether it be gender or race will cite a scientific article (or in this case, the lay-media's summary of a scientific finding) to support their claims, frequently with little concern regarding critical understanding of the results. In the comments section, I posted a lengthy response, addressing why one cannot jump to conclusions based on this result:
  1. Are the two control groups sufficiently representative of a random sampling of men and women such that the findings could be used to infer differences throughout the entire population?
  2. Is the difference signficant? In Figure 3 of the paper, the variability within gender seems to be just as large as the variability between genders.
  3. Is it reasonable to correlate larger size with greater function? We don't know how the larger size arises (more neurons? more dendrites? more glial cells?) and whether or not there is a functional difference in the amygdala conferred by this size?
Still, the possibility of a sexual dimorphism existing between the brains of men and women was an interesting question to me, so I chose to do a literature review of sexual dimorphism in the nervous system for my Neurophysiology summer class. I have to admit that despite the position of feminism when it comes to "natural differences between men and women", it had never really occurred to me to figure out the scientific position on sexual dimorphism in the human brain. It was certainly of political relevance: throughout history, the power structure have used "natural inequities" to justify disenfranchisement. For generations, White scientists used faulty scientific surveys to "conclude" that Blacks were more genetically pre-dispositioned to excel at manual labour over academic pursuits. White plantation owners believed themselves to be saving the African savage from himself by providing their slaves shelter and a "Christian" upbringing. Nazis published eugenics reports in which skull sizes were measured in order to defend statements of Aryan supremacy. Similarly, the patriarchy has used science to perpetuate gender roles that disenfranchise women, arguing that our supposed "emotionalism", "empathy", "sensitivity" and (according to the UPenn study) "unimpulsiveness" is reason enough to deny us equal professional opportunities or social standing. Women are still paid roughly $0.70 to the dollar compared to men, and women are still underrepresented in "traditionally male" jobs, particularly in the military where women are prevented from taking most positions. And some men even find it difficult to believe women are plausibly able to be superheroes or supervillains. Feminism is about advocating gender equality, which, as far as I'm concerned, demands that men and women be viewed as fundamentally identical both in physical ability and in mental capacity. With that in mind, I was certain that in my literature review of sexual dimorphism, I would be able to find an obvious reason to discount the research as a product of patriarchal conditioning or faulty science. However, the more I read, the more it seemed to make sense -- unlike race, in which there is no significant genetic difference between the races, the two genders are distinguishable down to the genetic level (men have an XY sex chromosome, women have an XX sex chromosome) and this difference results in necessary physiological and anatomical differences critical for reproduction. In the animal world, there are several examples of sexual dimorphism of the brain resulting in different sexual behaviours, and which arise from sexually dimorphic circuitry in the brain. One research article cites a difference in the behaviour of certain neurons of male and female rats arising at embryonic day 15. It came to seem less reasonable to me to argue that men and women did not have biological and anatomical differences in their brains that might result in functional differences. Although establishing a functional effect for anatomical differences in the brain is difficult in humans (and so my belief is that there isn't any current scientific evidence for a conclusion such as the one cited by the Absorbacon post), I came out of the research project with a revised opinion of the science: it seems less reasonable to me to blindly imagine that men and women would have reproductive differences and differences in hormone production and release in the brain, but not other differences in the initial hardwiring of the brain. However, the science still has not completely resolved this point when it comes to humans, and while it is likely that our different genetic makeups prescribe different neural circuitry in the brain, the nervous system is particularly plastic, and we have yet to distinguish between the effects of nature vs. nurture in the development of the human psyche. I think that while it is reasonable to believe that male and female children might start out with sexually dimorphic circuitry, as we develop post-natally, our brains are capable of converging. Either way, feminism must be able to adapt to the possibility that science will continue to uncover "evidence" suggesting differences between men and women that some might try to use to justify preferential treatment for men. I was wrong to try and blindly disregard the possibility that science might show a difference between the way men and women would think; by ignoring science, I wasn't spending my time trying to consider how to argue against these findings in a way that would still benefit women. Fundamentally, I and other feminists must adapt our philosophy to incorporate the findings of science, and vocalize the fact that science cannot and should not be used to justify unequal treatment. Rather than continue to argue that women will be found to be biologically equal to men, we just develop the argument that biological difference does not justify social oppression. So, maybe the Gurs paper is right, and my amygdala is smaller than a man's; but ask electroman and he will tell you that I can be just as hot-headed as he. And that's just the way I like it.


Anonymous Jodie said...

That guy who could not imagine a female superhero has not spent any time at all around a single mother, a kindergarten teacher, or a hospice nurse.

8/28/2006 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Tam said...

Very nicely put!

I'd also say that the guy who couldn't imagine a ruthless and scheming female super-villain needs to hie him to his history books, and read about the careers of such women as Livia of Rome, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Catherine de Medici.

8/29/2006 08:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

Who needs a history textbook to see the plausibility of both female superheroes and supervillains.

In light of the decision to become one or the other, nurture most definitely has more of a role than nature. Just having the powers won't predispose anyone toward heroism or villainy.

On the topic of inherent biological differences between men and women, it seems to be self-evident. Men and women are phenotypically different, arising from genetic differences. In general, men are physically stronger and faster than women. Does this make men superior, no, of course it doesn't. Is it a basis for a chauvinistic, patriarchal society where women are oppressed? No it certainly isn't.

And, as all men who've had romantic relationships with women, they can be plenty evil ;-)

8/29/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Loren said...

I remember reading Absorbascon's post and thinking "WHAT?!?!?" Generally, I love reading the guy, but that post came out from way out.

Strength and speed does not make a hero be. Whether there is a biological difference between men and women or not, women, socially, tend to be more caregivers. And, that, to me, makes up a great reason for being a superhero.

8/30/2006 01:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about you loren, but I've met just as many caregiving men, as I have caregiving women. Maybe traditionally, women have been in the caregiving role, but I think that feminism has precipitated a change in these gender roles that people are still getting used to.

Also, I would disagree that caregiving is a prime motivation for getting into superheroics.

8/31/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous RachelPhilPa said...

(men have an XY sex chromosome, women have an XX sex chromosome)

I don't think that you can very well use chromosomes to distinguish men / women.) What about people with intersex conditions? Women with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) have XY chromosomes along with their female bodies. And there's XXY, and XXXY, and XO, and mosaic (some XX and some XY) chromosomes.

8/31/2006 10:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

rachel, that is true, and perhaps we need to expand upon our dualistic definition of gender, however, the point of that statement was that, unlike race, gender is distinguishable on a genetic level. in other words, there is such a thing as a genetic sex of a cell, based upon its sex chromosome complement which, for the most part, translates to a distinguishable physical gender of a multicellular organism.

8/31/2006 11:48:00 PM  
Blogger Filby said...

The way I see it (and I admit I've done no research on the subject), the differences between men and women and the way they think might manifest as broad tendencies across vast groups, but shouldn't be taken into account when dealing with individuals (or characters, in fiction).

I mean, if I were, say, a farmer, and I was looking for someone to haul around sacks of grain all day, I figure that most of my applicants would be men since men are, on the whole, stronger than women; BUT, if a woman applied for the job, and proved that she was just as strong as the other applicants and the best qualified for the position, I'd hire her. After all, most women may be physically weaker than men, but there's plenty of women who are stronger than many men. (Since I'm neither a student of gender theory nor farming, and it's 3 AM on top of that, my example is probably pretty clunky and full of holes, but I think I got my point across.)

All of that is more or less to comment on the fact that, as you pointed out, Blacks were barred from higher education because Whites falsely thought that they were less disposed towards intellectualism. What I think is that even if that were the case (and it's not), they've still no right to deny a promising Black student the chance to TRY based on his race.

This topic came up in my sociology class about two years ago; my professor was a rich fatcat Republican who argued that because of physical differences women shouldn't even be allowed to TRY. For a long time I've regretted that I didn't think to put forward this argument until after class let out. :P

9/01/2006 03:05:00 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

the two genders are distinguishable down to the genetic level (men have an XY sex chromosome, women have an XX sex chromosome) and this difference results in necessary physiological and anatomical differences critical for reproduction

You'd be surprised - have a look at some of the intersex infomation on the web. There was a woman disqualified from the Olympics for being XY - she later gave birth (since then Olympics stopped testing). In fact, as far as I can tell there is no consensus on a who is male vs. who is female physically (what defines it- chromosomes, physical characteristics, visable genetials, internal genitals, hormones, ability to bear/father children, personal choice? )

10/10/2006 05:37:00 PM  
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Anonymous Notepad said...

Interesting article but ultimately frustrating. I'm glad that you didn't let your biases cloud your findings (that men and women really are different), but you've basically ignored everything you've found and reverted back to feminism and patriarchy theory, even posting the wage gap myth.

Here's a very simple breakdown that encompasses the differences between men and women. Women are biologically driven to find the best provider/protector since they can only get pregnant once every nine months and need to make it count. They are also have a smaller window if they want to reproduce.

Men are attracted to women. Pretty simple there.

So, to get women, men have to prove themselves worthy of filling that role of provider/protector. Women just have to be women to be worthy of men. Women control sex (how often do you hear women say they hope to "Get lucky" by having sex with someone who is meant to love them? How often do women get rejected? How often do you hear a guy say, "That's it, I'm not giving you any sex for a month" as a form of punishment?)

So, men end up working more hours and dedicating more time to work in general (hence the wage gape, seriously, look up the difference in work hours) because they need to fill the roles that women want.

Then feminists complain that men on average make more money (Did you know that women spend more money despite making less on average? They spend their partner's earnings, too), but men are only motivated to make money because of women. If women stopped being attracted to men with money, fancy suits, diamond rings and all of those other status symbols, the world would change over night.

Instead, feminism blames men (patriarchy!) instead of looking at the influence women have on men. And then many feminists go on to hate men when they should point their anger towards nature.

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