Gendered behavior

by Rob Horning

9 August 2006


Last week The Economist had a roundup on recent findings in evolutionary psychology, biology, and neuroscience concerning the innate difference between men and women and how these affect behavior. I find myself extremely resistant to the idea of in-born, hormonally produced, gendered behavior, in part because it becomes an all-purpose excuse for lazy stereotyping and rationalizing various inequalities. (“I can’t help it; my testosterone made me do it. I’m from Mars.”) It casts the pall of determinism over behavior we’ve been trained to see as expressive of our innermost soul, the behavior in which we exhibit desire, sexual or otherwise. But I think I also resist it out of a misguided wish to move to a realm where we can transcend gender altogether, which in practice means continuing the status quo where I’m allowed to ignore gender issues. Since maleness basically serves as the template for post-genderedness, I tend to smugly assume I’m not hung up on gender issues; all my male prerogatives remain the public sphere’s default for what is expected, rendering the issues invisible to me unless I make a concentrated conscious effort to learn otherwise.

Anyway, one reason for gendered behavior is the flood of testosterone that hits a male brain in the womb seems to predispose it toward recognizing motion and mechanics; one study suggests testosterone-laden babies show far less interest in things like eye contact. Studies in which monkeys were given human toys showed that even in the simian world, male monkeys tended to play with trucks and female monkeys with dolls. Researchers conclude that this shows a female predisposition toward toys that permit nurturing behavior to be expressed, a predilection that makes sense from a Darwininan standpoint. Males prefer “toys that can be used actively or propelled in space, and which afford greater opportunities for rough play.” The idea lurking behind that is males inherently need a forum in which to express their innate aggression. This implies also that men are inherently more “active”, women more passive. One way around this dichotomy is to redefine the commonsense notion of “active” to avoid consigning female behavior to a subordinate class. But this bias would be hard to overcome when our culture’s fundamental assumption about rational action (grounded in the prevailing principle of our economic system) is that it is rooted in selfish utility maximization, not nurturing support. This seems to invite the question of whether there is something inherently male about capitalism itself, territory I’m hesitiant to venture into without brushing up on Shulamith Firestone.


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