The biology of sex differences: Harnessing the power of different

One of the episodes of my life that is deeply imprinted on my mind, like a cow’s brand, concerns an important job interview in the middle of a scorching August. Now, secretly, I harbour a certain aversion to interviews –events where you are judged ahead of schedule – so, when the panel’s psychologist asked me to describe myself in five phrases, my reactions, first, to freeze, then to reply, “I am Woman” (definitely with a capital ‘W’) might have been defensible.

One of the trademarks of Steve Jobs, the visionary leader and entrepreneur, was his ‘Think Different’ campaign, a concept that captured his business agenda, to dare to think different, and work to be better. Perhaps Jobs would not mind if we were to borrow his philosophy and apply it the sexes, with the hope that if we can dare to be different, then we can live better. End of story, right? Maybe not so fast.

Dangerous things to say

When in 2017, James Damore, a young software engineer at Google circulated his document ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’, in which he argued that psychological gender differences, for example, women’s “higher levels of neuroticism” could explain why 80% of Google’s engineers, and most of the company’s leaders, are men, he was fired for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes”. Similarly, when during one of his courses, Swedish professor of neurophysiology Germund Hesslow at Lund University cited research that supports the idea that differences between men and women are “biologically founded”, he was investigated for anti-feminism because he was conflicting with the Swedish value of equality of the sexes.

One of the ‘hot buttons’ that cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker touches in his book ‘The Blank Slate’ is gender. With rare scientific care, Pinker deconstructs the fear behind the notion that, if the minds of men and women are not identical (different), then they are unequal, and that, if such is the case, it goes without saying that men are better, more dominant, and entitled to all the fun. Pinker is not discounting inequities: if you hold all other variables except from sex constant, it is true that there are differences, and that when it comes to measuring how people fare in life based on their relative income, likelihood of promotion, leisure time, participation in political life, public recognition of achievement, etc., men travel farther.

Towards a genetic equality of the sexes

To help us make sense of sex differences, because the alternative, ignoring them, might be more psychologically harmful, Pinker points us in the direction of biological thinking. Gently, he reminds us that, from a gene’s point of view, being in the body of a male or a female are equally good strategies, and that natural selection is disposed towards an equal investment in the two sexes: equal complexity and equally effective designs. The only difference comes with respect to problems: it is better to be a male equipped with male adaptations to deal with male problems and vice versa.

It transpires then, that rather than originating from Mars and Venus, men and women came from Africa, where they evolved together as a single species, with quite the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome. Anatomically, the brains of men and women are immeasurably similar; their average levels of general intelligence are the same, they feel the same basic emotions, use language and think about the physical world in the same general way, and have surprisingly similar pursuits in life.

Where did the differences go?

The minds of men and women are not identical. Anne Campbell’s book ‘A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’, is all about mapping some of the ways in which women’s lives are characteristically different from men’s. Campbell, a highly-esteemed academic and author specialising in evolutionary psychology, challenged the traditional Darwinian view that the sole role of women in shaping evolution was to vet male genes by choosing the fittest male partners (‘passive quality controllers’), and introduced a freshly original and fairly revolutionary balance in evolutionary theory by retelling the story of how natural selection has shaped the female mind to produce a unique set of performances on the stages of parental investment, aggression, status, fear, friendship, mate competition, culture, and many other themes. 

Retelling the story

The solution to the battle of the sexes is homegrown, on the basis of our biology. If we accept that, in our efforts to cope with ancestral problems made modern it does not make sense for a man and a woman to be the same, and that, in nature, it pays to have sex differences, we can imagine a society that allows individuals the freedom to make the choices they want, according to their nature. Speaking about women (allow me the bias), I affectionately recall what anthropologist Helen Fisher calls the natural talents for advantage (The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World, 2000). Rather than cancelling out sex differences, what we should be doing is to drop the competition, end the battle and create a new narrative of collaboration built on individual strengths.  

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