Monday, October 13, 2003

have expertise, will trade for gossip

This week I'm back to reading some evolutionary psychology. I'm reading The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain by the British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. The title is a little misleading, because the book is really about two differences, although part of the argument is also that they tend to be inversely correlated with one another, leading to the common Men Are Better At X, Women are Better at Y. In this case, X is "systemizing" and Y is "empathizing." The most intriguing part of the argument is the idea that autism might be an instance of what he calls the "extreme male brain," or a brain that is very poor at empathizing relative to systemizing.

Anyway, the book gets a weblog post because it falls into the same logic as many popular (and, for that matter, academic) evolutionary psychological discussions of sex differences. Sensitive to the political hostility that claims of innate sex differences draw, the book starts out with a series of lengthy, presumably sincere, disclaimers about how the last aspiration of the book is to serve as a justification for gender inequality, etc.. And also the substantive claim, which not just serves political purposes but also the more fundamental statistical issue of what one can infer from a mean difference, that a between-sex difference does not imply considerable overlap in the distributions of men and women for either "systemizing" or "empathizing."

But, then, except when it explicitly repeats this disclaimer later, the book proceeds to talk about the subject as if men are basically one way and women are basically another way. So the second chapter of the book is a presentation of an extended example of a Boy and Girl (siblings, no less) who are basically like Mars and Venus. This leads into chapters called "The Female Brain as Empathizer" and "The Male Brain as Systemizer." It amazes me that psychologists who do work on sex differences can think that you can refer to The Male Brain and The Female Brain without losing the nuance you get from saying that all you basically have is a difference in the average between men and women for two psychological traits.

Beyond this, why might the book annoy women? It has the increasingly-obligatory-in-pop-science-books evolution chapter where the author gauges in freewheeling and largely science-free attempts to explain why the particular psychological phenomenon discussed in the book could have arisen as the result of natural selection. Why might an increased capacity for "systemizing" be good for men? The first six section headings for the potential advantages are "Using and Making Tools," "Hunting and Tracking," "Trading," "Power," "Social Dominance," and "Expertise." Meanwhile, why might an increased capacity for "empathizing" be good for women? Here, we have headings for "Making Friends," "Mothering," "Gossip," "Social Mobility," and "Reading Your Partner." I was confused by "Social Mobility" here, until I read the section and it turns out what he is talking about is not social mobility as social scientists use the term, but basically the idea that greater empathizing may make it easier to get along with new groups of people (like when women would go and join their mate's group back in the Pleistocene).

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