06/28/2016 Malcolm James

Nature versus nurture: is male achievement really due simply to social conditioning?

Countdown is a British daytime television game show which was the first programme to be broadcast on Channel 4 in November 1982.  32 years and nearly 6,000 episodes later it has developed a devoted cult following, as evidenced by these links (see here and here), which give you more information on the programme than you could possibly want or need.

Boy, do some people have far too much time on their hands!  However, even a fairly cursory look through the archive of statistics clearly reveals one thing: the vast majority of the strongest contestants have been male.  For many years, until changes in guidelines about working with children forced the programme to introduce a minimum age for contestants of 16, the programme was well-known for having no lower age limit.  The youngest contestants to appear were aged 8, in the early days a 10-year old was a losing finalist and the youngest ever series champion was aged 14.  Virtually all the under 16s, and all of the most successful ones, were boys.

Countdown is far from unique in respect of this gender imbalance, but is a good example, not only because the games have been extensively documented on the web, but also because it cannot be dismissed as a statistical fluke.  Other examples include the National Geographic Bee in the US, in which children answer geographical trivia question such as ‘what is the longest river in Vietnam?’  Of the 54 state and dependent territories winners only a handful are girls and only a couple of girls have won the national title since it started roughly 20 years ago.

Both Countdown and the National Geographic Bee offer modest prizes and are inconsequential diversions in the grand scheme of things.  If you extend your search to activities which might have the potential for longer-term careers you find the same phenomenon.  Lists of the 100 best all-time chess players will vary considerably, but in any of them the sole female representative, anywhere between the 20s and 60s depending on the list, will be the Hungarian Judit Polgar.

And then we get to the old saw about the under-representation of women in STEM subjects, about which much has been written on many websites, including this one, and elsewhere.

Society’s reaction to this phenomenon has been mixed.  The male domination of Countdown has, so far, escaped adverse comment, but, in the US, a (male) feminist professor named Eric Clausen of the Minot State University was so concerned about male dominance in the National Geographic Bee that he lodged a Title IX complaint with the North Dakota state court, which was fortunately having none of this nonsense.

Differences in male and female performances in games such as chess are largely obscured by the fact that there are separate women’s and open games and that men and women therefore rarely compete against each other.  In contrast, the male domination of STEM subjects has been the source of extensive comment and there have been a number of threats to force institutions to hire more women in these subjects, by legislation if necessary.

How do we explain this imbalance in achievement between the genders?  More importantly, can we appear to have it both ways by arguing that the dominance of boys at the top is due to natural ability, whilst the dominance of girls as a whole is due to social factors?

Feminists have no doubt that the former is due to social factors.  I am not just talking about radical feminists, because a few years ago I put the above points to a former colleague, an African lady not known for her feminist views, and she attributed the difference to ‘social factors’.   In 2010 Cordelia Fine published a book entitled Delusions of Gender, in which she exposed the bad science behind research supporting the existence of innate differences between male and female brains and maintained that all differences between male and female aptitude and achievement are due to social conditioning.

Very recently, the BBC featured a discussion between the scientists Michael Mosley and Alice Roberts, in which they took different sides in this debate.  Cordelia Fine is certainly correct in highlighting that there has been a lot of dubious research in this area, some of it motivated by suspect agendas and some of it simply shoddy.

However, can the above differences in performance at the top end be explained by social factors alone, when, for the past 30 years or more, educators have been trying to encourage girls to widen their horizons, with great success in areas such as medicine and the law?  Why has society been successful in encouraging girls in these areas, but not STEM subjects?  Does society really send powerful, but subliminal, encouraging messages to boys, but the opposite signals to girls?

The simple truth is that, at the very top end of the ability scale, social pressures are much less important than in the population as a whole.  If a girl has an aptitude for maths, no-one is going to be able to tell her that ‘little girls can’t do maths’.  She will just laugh at the suggestion.

However, if a girl struggles at maths (and plenty of girls and boys do struggle), this becomes a justification for not trying.  Talented individuals tend to be driven.  For example, if a boy is an avid reader and has great aptitude for English, he will not be put off by being asked to read ‘girly’ books in class, but will seek out books he enjoys reading from the local library.

However, if he is just average, he will be much more likely to conform to peer pressure and say that ‘reading is boring’.  Similarly, if required to learn a musical instrument, children without a particular musical aptitude might tend to be influenced by societal pressure in their choice of instrument, e.g. flute for girls or trombone or drums for boys.  However, if a boy is a future solo flautist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra he will believe that he was put on this Earth to play the flute and will allow nothing, but nothing, to stand in his way.

When boys, or girls, have an aptitude for literature, music or maths (or, indeed, sport) and spend a lot of time developing it through practise they are described as dedicated.  ‘Dedicated’ is a word which society uses to describe individuals who spend a lot of time engaged in activities which it deems worthy of such efforts.  Words used to describe a similar level of engagement in activities which it does not consider worthy are ‘obsessive’ or ‘geeky’.

Such individuals, be they male or female, tend to be the subject of mild social disapproval through ridicule.  However, it’s a free society and these individuals are not generally causing any harm, so no-one actually stands in their way.

Are we to suppose that the male domination of Countdown is explained by society ridiculing girls in this way, but not boys?  In the last 6 or 7 years a Countdown devotee has developed a programme which allows individuals to play games online against real opponents, who are often some of the strongest players of the recent past.  This is, of course, a wonderful tool for potential contestants to hone their skills before applying to appear on the show, but I can imagine many parents saying to their kids ‘are you off upstairs to play with your [cue slight sneer] Countdown friends?’ as they go upstairs to their room.

For such individuals such ridicule is like water off a duck’s back.  If society thinks they’re a bit odd, so be it, and they think the rest of society is a bit odd.  As the Yorkshire saying has it; ‘All the world’s queer except for me and thee, and even thee’s a little odd’.

Maybe boys and girls react differently to this mild ridicule, but, there again I hear from feminists, maybe this difference is socially constructed.  Do we really say to boys ‘OK, we’re making fun of you, but we really support you doing this’, while with girls we really mean it?  I’m beginning to feel as though I need to go away and wrap my head in a wet towel!

Not only are talented, driven individuals resistant to societal pressures, but attitudes can change when someone demonstrates their ability and gains approval for it.  The sneering of parents when their offspring goes upstairs to play Countdown online will usually change to a proud ‘did you see my boy [or girl] or television?’ when they appear on the show and beat all their opponents in impressive style.

Moving further up the geek scale you reach the lad of around 13 who, a couple of years ago was featured on Antiques Roadshow.  This is a BBC programme in which members of the public take antiques they have acquired by various means along to a team of experts, who discuss them and assess their value. He collected, I kid you not, antique lawnmowers and had a collection of around 30 of them.

You can just imagine the ribbing he got from friends and family, not least from his parents, who had to find somewhere to store his collection.  However, I imagine that this ribbing became tinged with an element of appreciation, and even envy, after he appeared on the show and impressed the experts with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

Having dismissed the idea that talented, driven individuals will be deflected from what they want to do by societal pressures, brings me to the questions whether male dominance might possibly be due to biological factors.  I am well aware that I am entering dangerous waters and that raising this point, even in a measured and academic manner, was sufficient to cost Larry Summers his job as president of Harvard in 2005.  I am confident that the same fate will not befall me, not least because I think it unlikely that my colleagues who would have a conniption from reading the heresy which is about to follow will come across this site.

I am also aware that I could be accused of having it both ways by claiming that male domination at the top end is due to biological factors, whilst male under-achievement amongst the population as a whole is due to social factors.  However, the two are fundamentally different phenomena.  First, we cannot argue that deficits demonstrated by boys in education are necessarily entirely the product of social factors.  In certain skills, particularly reading and verbal skills, we may well have to accept that, even after correcting for social factors girls have a residual advantage attributable to biology.

However, the argument is that the difference in performance between genders is far larger than can be explained by biology alone.  Second, a yawning chasm in achievement at the top end of the ability range might suggest that there must be a large difference in abilities, but this need not be, and almost certainly is not, the case, and can be explained (note my careful choice of words!) by only very small biological differences.

I am not a scientist, so I do not pretend to offer definitive answers, but merely seek to ask some pertinent questions.  It is interesting that in a TV news article when her book first appeared Cordelia Fine did not claim that male and female brains were identical, but merely that they were ‘essentially’ the same and Alice Roberts makes a similar claim in the other article linked.  ‘Essentially’ is a weasel word which means that male and female brains are largely the same, but does not reject the possibility of slight differences out of hand.

The problem with any research in the area of brain differences is that it can only be carried out by taking a representative sample of the population and studying their reactions to various stimuli.  The variation in aptitude within males and females is far greater than any possible differences between the genders, which means that, however hard you try, any results are inevitably affected by sampling error, i.e. the sample is not entirely representative of the population as a whole.

In any experiment you formulate a null hypothesis and an alternative hypothesis.  The former is the default hypothesis and the aim of the experiment is to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to reject it and accept the alternative hypothesis instead.  However, the null hypothesis will only be rejected if there is less than a 5% chance that the findings are due to random chance, i.e. sampling error.

If the null hypothesis states that there are no brain differences and the alternative hypothesis that brain differences do exist, it is highly unlikely that any observed differences will be insufficient to meet the standard of proof, if biological brain differences are very small.  The null hypothesis will therefore not be rejected.  However, failure to reject the null hypothesis is likely to simply mean that the results are inconclusive and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  We cannot therefore discount the possibility of slight differences, which is presumably why both Cordelia Fine and Alice Roberts are careful in their choice of words.

Can we argue that these very small differences account for male dominance at the very top end of the ability scale?  At first sight it might seem implausible, but deeper consideration suggests that it is quite possible.  Since the variability in aptitude within each gender is vastly greater than any difference between the genders, the effect of any innate brain differences in the population as a whole will be small, possibly verging on the imperceptible.

However, whether we are talking about Nobel prizes and Harvard professorships, being a world champion chess player or winning Countdown or the National Geographic Bee, these individuals come from the very top end of the ability distribution in their field, and at these extremes of the distributions the effect of such tiny differences is magnified many times.  These extremes will predominantly consist of groups which have a natural advantage.

As Larry Summers said, these individuals are not simply one or even two standard deviations above the mean, but some four and a half to five above; a 1 in 50,000 genius.  They are exceedingly rare, but, if males have even the tiniest of natural advantages, they will overwhelmingly be men.

Marathon running provides a good example of this phenomenon.  Men and women are both equally capable of putting one foot in front of the other for 26-odd miles, and both can do it in roughly the same time.  If you watch the vast bulk of the finishers in the New York or London marathons, gender is far less important than age and running ability, and men and women finish in no particular order. However, at the elite end of things it is a very different story.  There is roughly a 12 minute difference between the best male time and female times.  If the 30 best men and 30 best women were to compete together, the winner would be a man every single time, and even the best woman would finish well down the field.

Even Martina Navratilova, a feminist to her bootstraps, recognised this.  Some years ago, when she was the top female tennis player, a journalist apparently asked her which male player she would compare herself with.  He journalist clearly expected her to give the name of one of the top male players of the day, such as McEnroe, Lendl or Edberg, but she instead pointed to a man practising on the next court who was ranked around 150 in the world.

She knew that any of the top 150 male players were closely enough matched in skill to make their extra natural speed and power pay.  To put it the other way round, Navratilova was good enough to beat all but the top handful of men in the world, but the men she could not beat made up the majority of the men’s tour and, if men and women competed together, even the best women would come nowhere.  Nobel prizes, Harvard professorships, Countdown or the National Geographic Bee are extremely competitive, and it is often a case of ‘first is first and second is nowhere’.

It is not that women are not frequently very good in these areas, but can be that there is nearly always a man who is just that tiny fraction better.  The margins between the winners and the nearly men and women are often wafer-thin and, if men have even the tiniest of advantages, they will predominantly be those who prevail.  The extent of this domination will be out of all proportion to any natural advantage, which therefore creates a misleading impression.

Alice Roberts expressed the fear that, if we accept biological brain differences as a reality, this might discourage girls from taking up science.  Feminists maintain that ascribing male domination to biological factors is part of the social construct designed to oppress women.  As I have argued, this will not put off those with a real aptitude for science, but might admittedly put off those less talented.

In principle, we must be fearless with the truth, but must also be careful with it.  What we have here is not hard evidence, the smoking gun, but merely circumstantial evidence which provides a plausible explanation.  Biology is not destiny, and there have many outstanding female scientists, such as Marie Curie and Dorothy Hodgkin, many of whom may not have received their due (but that is another story). In 2014 the Fields medal for outstanding discoveries in mathematics was, for the first time, awarded to a woman, the Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani, and there is no suspicion that this was awarded on anything other than merit.

We must be responsible with the truth, because I have put forward what I hope is a nuanced argument.  We must not lose sight of the fact that the main reason why a girl is unlikely to become a top scientist is because the odds against are very high for both males and females.  This argument should not become over-simplified into ‘little girls can’t do maths’, either by those with an agenda or those who simply do not understand nuances.

Unfortunately, once an argument is out there, we lose the ability to control the way it is used.

Share and rate this post: