Thursday, January 20, 2005

Are there biological differences between men and women?

Seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? I mean, to the layman, it’s obvious enough. But the suggestion that biological differences may exist, made at an academic conference last week by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, has once again caused a firestorm of controversy in the hallowed halls of academia.

As I understand it, Summers was basically asking why, now that women have all the academic advantages once enjoyed more or less exclusively by men, women don’t seem to be using them to the fullest? Now, a cynical observer might see a taunt in this: OK, ladies, we called your bluff. Over nearly half a century we’ve made a concerted effort to empower girls in grades K-12 (often at the expense of their threateningly rambunctious male classmates, who could not properly respond to this empowering new dynamic). The men’s clubs have been eliminated. Universities now extend the same opportunities to female scholars as to their male counterparts. Enrollment of women has nearly doubled in the past quarter century. The number of women in college now exceeds the number of men. This has not been an easy transition, but here we are at last on a level playing field. So, all things being equal, why aren’t there more women in math and engineering? That’s what Summers was asking. And he proposed a number of possible answers, one of which was: maybe it’s biological.

We are understandably wary of the idea that gender differences might extend beyond the genital, to include intellectual abilities, or even inclinations. But to argue a vast conspiracy barring girls from following an acquired interest in Euclidian geometry doesn’t sound right, either. Has evolution had a hand in this? I think it’s an interesting question.

But if Summers’ critics have their way, we’ll never know. His comments have sparked a classic academic feud, in classic academic style, not so much about neurobiology and gender difference, but about the indelicacy of the comments themselves, and his impropriety in uttering them. One angry academic warned that because of them, women would avoid applying to Harvard, which is nonsense with knobs on. Another offered a more ominous threat, worthy of Medea: Summers should watch himself, as half of the student body is female.

Summers’ comments may have been indelicate—he admits he meant to provoke—but since when did we become so effete and easily offended? The tradition of free, informed and open debate that has made this country a magnet for iconoclasts and innovators is threatened daily by ideologues on the right and left offended by a good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred mano-a-mano on the issues of the day. New science and technology are revealing all sorts of wonderfully unsavory things about us all the time. It’s not always the way we’d have it, but it’s the way it is.

Ideology, in full armor, hides behind its shield of propriety, while the Truth stands naked, like a big, ugly ape. Laughing.


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