Is gender difference innate?

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 09.36.45Earlier this week there was a fascinating Horizon on BBC2 exploring whether there are basic differences between male and female brains. Horizon is sometimes a little thin on content and big on special effects, but this one was different—it was packed with fascinating and compelling information, and presented in a fascinating format. Michael Mosley, of ‘Fast Diet’ fame, presented the evidence that gender difference was biological in origin, whilst Alice Roberts of ‘Coast’ and numerous archaeology programmes, presented the evidence that differences were the result of conditioning and environment. And the fascinating thing was that both cases seem fairly robust.

Mosley first offered a series examples which both confirmed traditional understandings of difference, and showed that these differences were evident very early in life. Men are, on average, better at spatial tasks, whilst women are, on average, better at recognising and understanding emotion in others. But is this about ‘hard-wired’ brain differences, or are these behaviours learned? Mosley made the prima facie case that the significant differences in the levels of hormones in men and women must surely affect brain development, and we heard the ‘intuitive’ testimony from parents of young children that boys clearly preferred trucks and girls clearly preferred dolls. This was supported by a remarkable experiment with barbary macaque monkeys. When ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys were distributed in their territory, the male monkeys picked up the trucks and the female monkeys picked up the dolls. No chance of environment or conditioning affecting that choice!

Mosley then met Simon Baron-Cohen, who is Professor of Developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, and a leading authority on autism. Baron-Cohen’s research has demonstrated that exposure to higher levels of testosterone in the womb leads, on the one hand, to the development of greater abilities in what he calls ‘systematising’ kinds of thinking, and, on the other, lower social skills. It has been demonstrated, for example, that boys develop social skills more slowly than girls—at one year old, boys make less eye contact with others than girls do.

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The transition point in the programme came with the study of Ragini Verma from the University of Pennsylvania, looking at the different forms of connectivity in male and female brains. The differences are quite startling, and support many popular characterisations of differences between men and women.

[They] found greater neural connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in males, suggesting their brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action. In contrast, in females, the wiring goes between the left and right hemispheres, suggesting that they facilitate communication between the analytical and intuition.

“These maps show us a stark difference–and complementarity–in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others,” said Verma.

For instance, on average, men are more likely better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women have superior memory and social cognition skills, making them more equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.

But these ‘connectivity’ differences are only present after the teenage years; they are not present in children. So the question is still open: are these biological, or are they the response of the ‘plastic brain‘ to environmental conditioning?

Alice Roberts then went on to present the evidence for the shaping of gender roles by the environment. Parents conform to stereotypes when offering babies toys, and systematically assume baby boys will be better at physical challenges than baby girls. Teenagers demonstrate how much their perceptions about careers and gender roles are shaped by expectations of society and their peers. And research by Gina Rippon at Aston suggests that gender differences are not as big as people often think, nor consistent across cultures.

3034895-inline-performance-reviews-graphicSo where does all this get us? There is no doubt that environment and cultural factors affect men’s and women’s behaviours, expectations, and roles in society. There is also no doubt that, in many contexts, women are treated in a worse way than men are. Research on language used in the workplace shows a shocking disparity between how men and women are treated in performance review. So far, so feminist.

But there is also little doubt that whatever differences are emphasised by culture or nurture, such differences already have a well-established biological basis. This comes back to Mosley’s opening argument: it is just implausible that differences in hormone levels do not have a significant impact on brain formation, and therefore on cognitive function. I think the most plausible explanation for the differences in wiring in adult brains is that it is the result of the surge of hormone levels during the teenage years—which brain development also explains teenagers’ need to sleep more.

This raises the question: why is there such reluctance in parts of our society to allow that men and women might be different? One of Alice Roberts’ opening statements gives us a clue:

“We live in a country where fewer than three out of ten physics A levels are taken by girls, where just 7% of engineers are women” she points out, before adding “and where men still earn on average nearly 20% more than their female colleagues.”

This statement conflates three things: difference; equality; and power. Roberts highlights differences in choice of subject, which leads to the possibility of difference in equal access to professions, which then leads to unequal distribution of power (measured here in earning power) between men and women. You only have to look at the gender mix of politicians in most Western countries to see evidence of this.

usmenandwomenheightI think this presents us with two challenges. The first is whether we can accept and live with difference. I am constantly amazed, in discussions of gender difference, how often people make basic errors in understanding what ‘difference’ implies. To say ‘men are different from women’ does not mean that all men have one characteristic and all women have another. Even Gina Rippon made this basic mistake when she says to Alice Roberts ‘If I gave you a brain, you could not tell whether it was the brain of a man or the brain of a woman.’ Of course not—that is not what brain difference means. Let’s take the relatively uncontroversial question of height. Is it true that men are taller than women? Yes. Does that mean that all men are taller than all women? No, of course not, because there is a ‘bell curve’ spread of heights. If you told me someone’s height, could I identify whether that person was male or female? No! For the same reason, equal recognition of women’s leadership in the church does not imply we should see equal numbers of women in leadership roles.

It is possible to acknowledge gender difference without suggesting that all men and women conform to a narrow stereotype—and I think we need to recognise this. Is it necessarily a problem that 93% of engineers are men? They might well be better at it, because of male brain connectivity.

But here is the second challenge: how do we value the roles which women might excel in? One of the most striking things about the Apostle Paul’s discussion of life in the ‘body of Christ’ in 1 Cor 12 is the fact that it appears to be gender-blind. All who are in Christ have received the Spirit. And the Spirit equips all, regardless of gender, with gifts that contribute to the life of the whole. There is no requirement here for ‘sameness’—in fact, that other major theme is differentiation. Each has a different gift—but the Spirit enables all to contribute, and we need to value each contribution regardless.

This has real consequences for how we respond to gender differences. When faced with the possibility that men dominate certain roles in society, and these roles are paid more (our society’s way of giving value), why is the next assumption ‘We need equal numbers of women in that role’? Although that sounds, at first, like the ‘feminist’ response arguing for gender justice, it actually buys in to contemporary culture’s evaluation of different roles. Running a bank is ‘more important’ than nursing the sick, or than raising a family.

Here’s the other possible response: ‘We need to value the roles that women predominate as much as the roles that men predominate.’ I can’t help wondering that this—at present unarticulated view—needs to have a more prominent place in the discussion.

(If you would like an entertaining and, for some people, highly offensive take on gender differences, do watch The Tale of Two Brains!)

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39 thoughts on “Is gender difference innate?”

  1. I think that this cultural debate is incredibly vexed by poor thinking. Before we can hope to make any progress in understanding these issues, we need to ask better questions and give more thought to the way in which we frame things.

    Is your brain male or female (‘my brain is male, but my spleen isn’t so sure…’)? If I have a male brain and someone else has a female brain, perhaps our two brains could get together and have little brain babies. This strikes me as a very severe case of spurious localization. Persons are male or female, brains not so much. The problem is exacerbated when this question is directly related to the question of whether gender difference is innate, which is not the same question at all. This is not a claim that possible brain differences between the sexes aren’t worthy of scientific research, but that reductionist neuroscientism (the popularity of which seems already to have peaked, I think) has distorted the way that we ask certain questions and the weight that we give to particular lines of research.

    Our framing of the question of gender difference in this manner owes a great deal to the fact that we tend to hold the following basic beliefs about human persons: 1. The fundamental unit of analysis is the individual; 2. The individual is a detached and autonomous agent; 3. Any differences between individuals must be treated as matters of indifference; 4. There are no natural ends, just the individual end of the pursuit of happiness, primarily through consumption; 5. Choice is paramount; 6. The human individual is realized primarily in the realm of chosen exchange; 7. This takes the shape of a unisex workforce, economy, and political realm; 8. To be universal, differences must either materially register in the constitution of every individual, analysed in detachment from others, or must be a universal behavioural tendency.

    Scripture presents us with gender difference as a more universal reality and also presents us with reasons for rejecting most of the beliefs that frame the current conversation. Gender difference is primarily relational and symbolic. This is because humans are primarily relational and symbolic beings, rather than detached and autonomous agents. I’ve reflected a bit on the subject here.

    • Thanks for the comment Alastair—but I am not sure your critique bites in quite the way you think.

      The question is *not* asking whether men and women are defined by their brain differences, either as humans or as gendered. It is asking whether there is any biological basis for the idea that men and women should be engaged in different roles in society because of innate differences in cognition and ability. I think it is a fair question to ask—and I think the programme offers some good methods in exploring it.

      There was plenty of allowance in the programme for generalisations which did not apply to all equally—at least at its best points.

      I do think that part of Alice’s motive arose from her humanist convictions. I suspect she resents the way that religion has unfairly pigeon-holed women into roles in society and marginalised them. From a historical point of view, I think she would have a point.

    • Saying ” all those hormones must make a difference” is fine but to then jump to saying they make intellectual and emotional differences is just opinion, not supported by any evidence. Those hormones affect hair, muscle etc but no evidence of anything else. Also what is the driving need behind such research? It would show a tendency, but the median does not tell you anything about a particular individual. So even if evidence was available to support his leap of logic ( ?), it would make no difference as you don’t know if a specific woman is average or at either extreme of any particular quality. The purpose of anti- discrimination laws has always been to give us all the right to be treated as individuals with differing strengths & weaknesses. How does this research change that? Confirmation bias is strong in this article.

  2. This gender debate/speculation is also all premised on a western model. It is interesting to look at different cultures. I was recently reading about Sharyn Graham Davies, an Australian anthropologist, who spent nearly two years living in South Sulawesi, a small region of Indonesia, among the Bugis ethnic group.She immersed herself in the everyday lives of men, women, calalai, calabai and bissu (the five gender categories in their society.

    • Rachel, you raise a crucial point in highlighting cultural difference. Much of what we believe to be “male” or “female” attributes are culturally based. In the West, display of emotion has, in recent times, been viewed as a “female” attribute. Yet in other cultures, weeping in public is considered the height of masculinity!

      I’m willing to accept that there are inherent gender differences if that’s where the evidence leads, but the evidence is, as yet, far from conclusive, and is still framed by cultural assumptions. Given the dark history these alleged differences have been put to — denying women the vote and access to education and the professions; brutally crushing those of either gender who stray from the supposed norm — this is an area that must be handled with the greatest of care.

      If there are biological gender differences, we can guarantee that they’ll be a lot more nuanced, and a lot more diverse, than the binary gender roles our culture’s too long taken as given.

      • James, I think the programme offered really good evidence that there *are* biological gender differences. In the contemporary scene, the real reluctance is to accept this, as Alice’s response showed. I am sure, as you suggest, part of this is because of the misuse of this reality in pushing people into sharply demarcated roles.

        • By “really good evidence,” are you referring to the Penn. study?

          If so, that’s just one paper, with a small sample (949), and was focused on mental health. There’ll be all kinds of issues around selection, and whether other factors (be it mental illness, environment, or demographics) skew the results. Until its conclusions are replicated by other studies, and a scientific consensus emerges, we’re jumping the gun if we view the issue as being in any way settled.

    • Thanks Rachel. At one level I would agree with you—and there is a reason for that. The programme was being made in a Western context, so took widespread assumptions in the West about gender as its starting point.

      However, at another level I am not sure this is quite so. Western binary understanding of sex (as opposed to gender) is of male and female because there is a good biological basis for this.

      I am curious about the Bugis’ five genders. Do they correspond to five sexes, and if not, how do they relate to sex? And what physical categories do they correspond to?

  3. I tend to oversimplify things, and I am aware of it. 🙂 That said, I am the mother of a rather large family. My husband and I have nine children from our 25 years of marriage, and we have begun praying about the possibilities of adoption. I’ve given my life to raising and educating my children. I’ve never envied any man (nor woman, for that matter,) who holds power or political clout, although I won’t lie and say that I don’t sometimes wish for their paycheck. (I could make it go so far and do so much good for so many with it!) 🙂 Perhaps I think too highly of what I have done with my life, but I feel that raising children well is a gift to this world. Mothering, specifically, is different from fathering, although both are certainly indispensable to growing a healthy individual. My legacy will be continued and my influence felt because of daily love and sacrifices made. Not too many politicians or CEOs can say the same. Men and women *are* different (but that doesn’t mean that we are locked into rigid little boxes; I like to do many masculine types of things, including discussing theology) and the older I get the more I realize it.

    • Thanks, Holly, that’s really interesting. I am intrigued at your characterising theology as something men do. As a University subject it is dominated by women—at undergrad level at least!

  4. Whether gender differences are innate or learned is irrelevant. What matters is that we should all have equal access to educational and professional opportunities, and that nobody should ever be excluded from a job just because of their gender.

    I would be horrified to see a return to a world in which children are streamed according to gender. OK, maybe most girls will end up making professional choices based on a tendency to excel in jobs that require emotional and intuitive talents. But a significant number will not. It’s a bell curve, after all. Not ALL girls are “girly” girls and they shouldn’t be made to feel bad about themselves because they display traits not commonly associated with their gender. If a girl is good at maths and has analytical rather than emotional talents, should she be streamed towards nursing school or trained as a nursery attendant just because she’s a girl? What a waste of talent if that were to happen.

    If gender differences do turn out to be innate then women will probably always be a minority in the traditionally male professions. But that doesn’t mean they should be subjected to ridicule and intolerance because they excel at things their gender normally doesn’t excel at. A woman engineer or physicist should be judged on her professional record and nothing else. Same for a male florist or primary school teacher. But the danger is that if we make too much of gender differences and start talking about “men are better at this” and “women are better at that” then we’ll discourage children from using their talents and steer them into unfulfilling jobs where their full potential just isn’t realized.

    • I agree that opportunity should be equal Etienne but, in the West, they are. What is often mooted is positive discrimination to artificially “equalise” the gender balance in boardrooms, within certain professions etc. which is an entirely different kettle of fish, not to mention highly unequal! (I don’t see any petitions for positive discrimination to enroll more female road sweepers, nor do I see a drive to employ more male midwives). The idea that “equality” looks like a 50/50 gender split in every profession is fatally flawed.

      But to comment on the broader issue, one of my concerns is how equality is so often couched in negative and combative terms. Yes, the government could enforce crude “gender equality” with regard to work (and is increasingly trying to do so). But at what cost to social cohesion? Ian asks whether we need to value the roles often performed by women more. What person is more valued by a child than its mother? In terms of tangible social markers of “value”, the only obvious one is money – so are we to pay mothers for looking after their own children? Are we so shallow as to suggest that because a mother doesn’t earn money, she is “worth less”?

      • You can’t compare mothers to managing directors because mothers are not producing a monetized product.

        It makes sense to reward managing directors on a sliding scale according to profits realized. But how would you reward a mother on that basis? Should each child be judged and the better the outcome, the more money the mother receives? Would society be willing to pay more for “superior” children? It’s an interesting theoretical question, but one I hope we never get a real answer to in the real world.

        There have been campaigns to draw more men into traditionally female jobs. I can think of several countries that are actively seeking to recruit more male primary teachers, for instance. In some places there just aren’t any and a generation of children, especially those with no father at home, is growing up without any direct contact with male role models. This is perceived as a bad thing and I would have to agree. You only have to look at countries like Saudi Arabia to understand what happens when things are totally skewed in favour of one gender. We should do our best to avoid that, I think.

        You could also argue that some representative fields, such as member of Parliament, ministers, television presenters, etc, should strive for gender balance as an expression of the full participation of women in society, however in most other professions I tend to think the gender split will fall where it falls and there isn’t much that you can, or need, to do about it. The fact that 50% of engineers aren’t women and 50% of operatic sopranos aren’t men is not something I lose sleep over. I would think it odd if I turned on the television to watch a parliamentary session (if such an unlikely event were ever to happen…) and my screen was filled with male faces only. I might start to subconsciously associate political power with masculinity, which would leave half of society without a voice. I might lose sleep over that, if only because I grew up in such a society and can personally vouch for the appallingness of it all…

    • Etienne, I am fascinated that on this subject we appear to entirely agree!

      ‘If gender differences do turn out to be innate then women will probably always be a minority in the traditionally male professions.’ Yes, quite—but I think Alice Roberts would take issue with this, if the evidence from the programme is anything to go by.

      • The current state of the science doesn’t really let us say with any firm conviction that gender differences are innate or learned. I suspect there’s an element of both at play, but in what proportion and at what stage of development, I have no idea.

        If you take a girl and bring her up as a rugby-playing tomboy, when puberty kicks in and oestrogen floods her system, will she suddenly turn into a pink princess? A few might. Some definitely won’t. And others might just add an element or two of pink princess-ness to an overall androgyny or even butchness. I personally know a woman who could quite easily play prop forward for France, who’s routinely mistaken for a man, and who delights in monster trucks and Hello Kitty in about equal measures. Gender just isn’t simple.

  5. I think the reason that articles like these worry me is that these sorts of arguments can be used to justify and support lazy and inaccurate stereotypes. I think it is quite likely that there are some biological factors in general gender trends, but this doesn’t mean that we can ignore the societal effects. Perhaps the reasons that both cases seem so robust is that they both contribute to the same results. If “the significant differences in the levels of hormones in men and women must surely affect brain development” then surely the significant differences in the way male and female children are treated as they grow up must also affect brain development? So it seems likely that social conditioning and preconceived gender roles must also be considered and if these exist they are external to ourselves and would seem to be a negative impact (in my opinion.

    This is where I come to what I find most problematic in your article – where you talk about the second challenge – “how do we value the roles which women might excel in?” You seem to be falling foul of your own point (that you make in your ‘first challenge’ section) when you link gender and roles. Surely the question should be ‘how do we value the roles which are more suited to the talents/abilities which have been stereotypically linked to women?’ Admittedly more clunky but it avoids linking a set of roles with women which feels proscriptive. To borrow the analogy of height which you use, it feels like looking at a tall shelf and saying ‘women can’t reach this’ rather than saying ‘short people can’t reach this’ – i.e. unnecessarily using gender as an identifier rather than a more relevant property.

    Basically, I worry that arguing that hormonal differences can account for some correlations between gender and other properties is used to absolve us of the responsibility to address any other factors and this results in pigeon-holing people and unnecessarily reducing their options.

    • Thanks, Jon. I think that I want to stick with my phraseology, ‘how do we value the roles which women might excel in?’ because I think there are roles in which, by and large, they do.

      To extend your analogy, I agree that if there is a high shelf we should say ‘Only tall people can reach this.’ But I want additionally to say ‘And therefore many more women than men will not be able to.’

      This means that putting valuable things on a lower shelf *not only* affirms short people, but in addition it will particularly affirm more women than men.

      I would therefore (to pick an obvious example) want to affirm the importance of staying at home to raise children, not just because it affirms women who do this, but also because it makes us see the role as valuable. I would see that as a win/win…

      • But staying at home to raise children is not valuable in and of itself. It’s only valuable when a very specific set of other criteria are met too. Such as an income that allows you to meet the material needs of your family with only one parent working. And a stay-at-home parent in good mental health, who is well trained in caring for young children, and actually wants to do it.

        Lock up a psychotic single mother on income support in a house full of toddlers and see how great the outcomes are then. Don’t you think those children might not do better in daycare?

        The problem with the stay-at-home parent (although let’s be honest and say “mom” when that’s who gets saddled with the role 9 times out of 10) paradigm is that it’s just that: a paradigm. Everything else being equal, it seems to provide good outcomes for children. But when are all things ever equal in this world?

        I would say that out of the 10 or so families with stay-at-home moms that comprised the early 60s generational cohort in my small home town, precisely zero of them produced kids with no issues, no deep-seated grievances against their parents and no problems in their own relationships as adults. Oddly enough, the two or three families where both parents worked did significantly better.

        Of course the community I grew up in was so tiny and so isolated that its value as a statistical sample is probably quite limited. But I still think it proves that the Christian obsession with dad-at-work and mom-and-the-kids-at-home produces perfection about as often as strict adherence to biblical principles does. Which is to say, almost never … and I’m being generous with the “almost”!

      • But in the case of the shelf there’s no need to bring gender into it (for the most part). My contention is that (again for the most part) there’s little reason to bring gender into discussions of roles/jobs. If we accept for the moment that there are male/female type brains (or some scale between two extremes – obviously I’d prefer to avoid the gendered terminology but it works for this discussion) and that those are more suited to certain jobs then surely all that matters is what ‘type’ of brain you have – not what gender you actually are – so bringing gender into the conversation doesn’t seem to do much beyond trying to fit people into boxes…

        The stay at home example is interesting because that’s an example which seems so obviously governed by societal and traditional effects and not necessarily wholly biological (girls being given dolls and the like to play with and boys being given work related toys for example). As Etienne says below, there doesn’t seem to be much significant evidence to say that dad-at-work+mum-at-home is better than other familial structures. There isn’t much evidence on either side of the debate – no doubt we could both find anecdotal evidence to support our own sides if we looked but there are precious few studies and most of those that there are can be open to debate…
        An interesting side point to this debate is that this also opens into the discussion around same-sex parenting. There was a program about this on Radio 4 recently (it’s still on iPlayer – called Same-Sex Parents). One of the people on it was (I think) a child psychologist who’d said, in her professional experience, that the children of same-sex parents were indistinguishable from those of opposite-sex parents in terms of mental health. This seems to suggest that, if two parents of the same gender are as effective as two parents of opposite gender, then gender is fairly uncoupled from parenting ability.
        Bit of a sideline but interesting nonetheless.

  6. There have been some interesting broadcasts around this subject recently. Today the BBC news website had a brief look at the complexity of gender with respect to athletic performance. It’s not just as simple as XY chromosonally male, or testosterone levels.

    Another broadcast followed an XX female who thought she should always have been a male. In the course of her gender reassignment, by hormone therapy, her brain was recorded with scans as she did different tasks. Her brain function changed as she became more physically male with beard growth.

    So it looks like hormone levels through development do make a difference – but there is such complexity, that we are left with the vast majority being male or female, with a small percentage having cross over values of for example testosterone (some having less than some females) but still being physically male. Then a smaller percentage of various Intersex people.

    There is within the largest group even, such variety, that I think it comes down to what an individual’s traits and capabilities are – rather than putting a person in a gender shaped box for societal roles.

  7. I think there is a third challenge here particularly for evangelicals regarding gender difference and same sex attraction. If Moseley is correct in asserting that hormonal influences from before birth and in adolescence are responsible for the way that are brains are wired in male and female modes by the same token, is it not possible that hormonal imbalances to gender dysphoria?

    There is one thing that is fairly consistent among homosexual communities and that is that the way they perceive and think in terms of their sexual identity. In Moseley’s scenarios for heterosexuals then it is natural for them to be attracted to the opposite sex since they are wired that way due to hormonal influences -it is their identity.

    A complaint that homosexuals often make about heterosexuals is that the latter are unable to conceive what to a homosexual seems as perfectly natural to them. As a heterosexual I have no difficulty in feeling opposite sex attraction. I cannot conceive of being attracted to the same sex. A homosexual would argue precisely the opposite.

    Now I do think that culture and conditioning play a part but if Moseley’s thesis is true then it is hard to see how homosexuals can be held responsible for their sexuality if it is innate due to hormonal factors over which they have no control.

    The question then moves as to whether such sexual behaviours are moral and should be encouraged. Hormones do not affect volition-we still have the capacity to choose. But if a homosexual has sexual longing to the same sex which they are unable to express and is in some sense innate, then this is likely to produce( particularly for christians) an internal conflict which must either be suppressed or given in to. I suspect that this is the sort of situation that Vicky Beeching has been struggling with for a long time. In general I think that celibacy is a gift – the default is non-celibacy in the main.

    So if Moseley is correct this has to have implications for traditional pastoral praxis for homosexual Christians does it not? What should it be?

    David Instone-Brewer has explored this to a certain extent in an online sermon which is worth reading see

    He also has an interesting take on Rom 1.26-27 and the proper context in which ‘unnatural’ is used in this passage.

  8. The pastoral response that I’ve seen from traditionalist is that even if homosexuality really is innate, gay sex is still a sin therefore gays must still be celibate.

    So much for a loving God. He knitted me together in my mother’s womb and as part of that process, bathed me in hormones that ensured I’d only ever be attracted to members of my own sex. He then gave me a relational character with a deep-seated need for intimate relationship, placed me in a family where my father was largely absent and not particularly pleasant to be around when he was there, and then finally, when I hit puberty, topped it all off with a highly charged libido and a body type and looks that older gay men (you know, the kind I was attracted to because of all my father issues…) found quite irresistable.

    Then he told me, by proxy of the Church of course, “Oh, and by the way, you can never marry or have sex, ever! Just cross your legs and spend the rest of your life telling me how wonderful I am while you care for widows and orphans and feed the poor. That’s my plan for you! Obey it or burn.”

    And people wonder why, if he really does exist (which I don’t believe he does, but I’m human and fallible and could therefore be wrong), why the idea of Christ as expressed in the Bible and presented by the Church, seems like the incarnation of arbitrary, partial, demanding and selfish cruelty to me.

    I’m not surprised conservatives don’t want to believe in the idea of people being born gay. It casts God in the cruelest of lights, so they try their hardest to discredit the science that points in that direction.

    But what they don’t have the courage to believe, I don’t have any choice but to confront on a daily basis. Or at least, I would have to confront it if I thought that such a foul entity could actually exist. But God as a pantomime villain seems even less likely than God as Aslan with a beard. So the only reasonable choice is to dismiss the idea of God altogether.

  9. If you don’t mind me observing, there appears to be some confusion in the discussion here.

    Men and women are not differentiated in their sex by whether they think or behave differently from one another, or share cognitive characteristics with others of the same sex. Sex is determined biologically.

    Whether there are corporate markers distinct to each sex is a question of gender, which is socially or culturally constructed.

    The gay question is located in between these two ideas. It has been argued that gay men are male in sex, but share social characteristics with women i.e. manifest aspects of female gender.

    (Interesting how yet another discussion is morphing into a gay debate…!)

    • “(Interesting how yet another discussion is morphing into a gay debate…!)”

      Not my fault this time. Just responding to someone else’s post.

      In any case, it shouldn’t be that “interesting”. If behaviour based on sexual differentiation can be innate, it follows that sexual attractions may also be. If hormones can affect communications pathways in the brain to the extent that they determine our basic talents and capacities as men and women, why wouldn’t they also affect our sexual orientation?

      What I find interesting is that conservatives such as yourself want to insist that sexual differences are innate but that sexual orientation is not. Is this because there’s no sin attached to acting out your talent for analysing or intuiting, whereas there is sin attached to acting out your attraction to your own sex? Therefore it must be the result of human intervention because God wouldn’t make a baby gay? I wonder, have they never considered that God sometimes creates intersex babies of indeterminate sex who cannot be slotted into the male/female paradigm. Can adults with both a penis and a vagina marry men or women, or must they remain single and celibate all their lives too? You can’t deny they were knitted together that way in the womb. So why not gay people too?

      I also find it interesting that liberals do exactly what conservatives do, but the other way round. They say that we’re born straight or gay, but that we learn male and female behaviours. Is this because they refuse to accept that God would create women specifically to undertake tasks that place them in a subservient role to men? I wonder, have they never considered differences in male and female morphology? You can’t deny that the average male is physically stronger than the average female, and that this gives us the advantage in the leadership stakes. So if our bodies, which are clearly knitted together in the womb, are so different, why would our capacities and talents be identical and only be differentiated by learned behaviour?

      Seems to me that each side is demonizing what it doesn’t like, i.e. homosexuality on the part of conservatives and sexual difference on the part of liberals, and assigning a learned origin to it in order to deny that it comes from God. But a dispassionate look at the evidence suggests that God is responsible for it all. He does make gay babies and intersex babies and he does make men and women physically different and endow them with different capacities. So he is reponsible for forcing women into unequal and often unhappy relationships with men and for creating gay people for the express purpose of leading unhappy celibate lives. The buck stops with God. I just wish Christians would deal with that fact instead of trying to disculpate him by pretending that what they don’t like is all Man’s fault.

      • ‘Is this because there’s no sin attached to acting out your talent for analysing or intuiting, whereas there is sin attached to acting out your attraction to your own sex?’

        Er, yes, potentially! Sexual activity has some pretty obvious moral implications. Analysing things might too—but the act of analysing itself does not.

        I would have thought that distinction fairly obvious…??

      • Besides all, the concept of “born straight or gay” is scientifically demonstrably wrong. Science has taken a large sample identical twins so they are genetically same and born the same. The finding where at least part of the couple is either lesbian or homosexual was that in 88% of the cases the other genetically identical twin was neither lesbian nor homosexual.

        All of the science shows that being lesbian or homosexual is either something other than genetic or it is a lot more than just the birth.

  10. Ian,

    It is not my intention to move this discussion into a gay debate but Moseley’s ideas of gender differences being innate and hormonally influenced, clearly have a wider remit. I am surprised the Horizon program did not really address this in our present climate of gender politics, and I think this was a weakness of the programme. While I agree that sex is biological, gender is a more tricky concept.

    BTW if you want another (perhaps less offensive) example of how men and women think take a look at

  11. Fascinating discussion. Etienne seems to be implying that all creation is how it is because that’s how God must have made it, which makes him diabolical. I don’t see it like that – the world is imperfect and that includes people as well as flora and fauna.( I don’t see how God is responsible for the ‘imperfections’ if he is only good.) The argument is about what some people consider to be ‘imperfect’ and others consider to be ‘normal’. It’s clear that there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘the norm’ – even, that there is no such thing.

    That being the case, all debate on this subject is largely a waste of time.

    Also, I think you’re right, Ian, to try and disentangle some of the ideas and concepts that seem to be bundled together, creating big assumptions which in turn are shaky foundations for forming opinions. It is utterly obvious that men and women are ‘different’, for heavens’ sake – why are we making such heavy weather of this in our society? Surely it’s because the argument gets mired in assumptions and opinions about power and influence. Then the argument goes that women must be included in influential and powerful positions just because we’re equal. What we’re really doing is reinforcing male stereotypes which many women feel they can only challenge by behaving like ‘men do’ in order to enter ‘their’ world.

    Real equality doesn’t look like this to me.

  12. ‘…equal recognition of women’s leadership in the church does not imply we should see equal numbers of women in leadership roles.’

    This is the bit on your interesting post that really bothers me! If there is ‘equal recognition’, that is, we have a theology which does not debar women from leadership at any level of church life (from Paul’s teaching on Spirit led gifting in Corinthians) and yet we do not see women at every level, and in fact the women themselves say they’ve been passed over, ignored or debarred, then surely we ask ‘what is going on? Is leadership per se gender neutral? I would argue yes.

    • I don’t think I agree that ‘leadership per se is gender neutral’ for several reasons. For one, brain science (as noted above) suggests that men find making decisions less stressful, and leadership demands this. For another, simply taking evolutionary reality suggests that men will be biologically equipped for leadership, where women will be better equipped for more nurturing roles. And church leadership will always be influenced by cultural expectations, and leadership in our culture is framed in male ways (though I agree it need not stay that way.)

      But I would like to turn the question inside out and ask: why should any particular role be equally suited to both genders? Why are we bothered about difference in numbers? The answer in secular leadership is that leaders exercise power. But should this be the case in the church?

  13. ‘Brain science…suggests that men find making decisions less stressful’. This is unworthy of your blog! Especially It’s a massive essentialist leap from anything presented on Horizon even. Can you even begin to unpack how that comment might be read and received by a woman leader in the Church, and how it sounds so dissonant with your espoused theology?

    I’m with Alasdair Roberts: ‘reductionist neuroscientism’ – not worthy of a theologian!

    We are bothered by difference in numbers because it might be evidence of prejudice. We are not all equally psychologically affected by the history of males holding power in the Church. Though the body of Christ should have acted in the radical ways of Christ (not lording it over each other), it often did not. As in Liberation theology, where there is a bias towards the perspective of the poor, there is a gender bias to the history of women and church leadership which has traditionally handicapped women, though times are changing – in some places fast. Your comments reveal to my mind a certain amount of gender blindness, which, despite apparent ‘correct theology’ about women and leading, seeps through in unthinking adoption of essentialism, whether harking back to cavemen, or to the 21st Century equivalent. Can you actually imagine a lecturer in an Ordination Training College getting up and saying to a group of Ordinands, ‘Science suggests that men generally find decision making easier than women, so in your various parishes as you go off after Ordination to love and serve the Lord, well, all I can say is…good luck girls…’

    I recommend Cordelia Fine’s answer to Baron-Cohen (‘Delusions of Gender’, 2010)!

    • Claire, hang on a minute!

      First, my comment was not much more than a paraphrasing of the comment of the scientific researcher in this part of the programme:

      ‘These maps show us a stark difference–and complementarity–in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others,” said Verma.

      For instance, on average, men are more likely better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women have superior memory and social cognition skills, making them more equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.’

      If you want to take issue with this observation, you need to address the research!

      Second, I would be interested to know how much you are really ‘with Alasdair Roberts’. Do you agree with him that men are created by God with an outward focus, women with an inward, and therefore priesthood must be male?

      Third, why shouldn’t I say to ordinands ‘Science suggests that men generally find decision making easier than women…’ if that is what the science says? What I would not do is follow your example in overlaying that with the idea that ministry is all about decision-making rather than facilitation or relating to people, as if running a church was the same as running a business!

      Can you sum up Fine’s disagreement with Baron-Cohen? Is it on the basis of research, or of ideology, or of the social impact? As I say above, why is the idea that men and women a not interchangeable a threat, unless this means men exercise power over women?

  14. I think you shouldn’t say that to Ordinands because the ‘science’ is much disputed.

    (Okay, I’m only with Alastair’s comment on the blog…not that other thing)

    Fine’s book suggests very strongly that brains are malleable and that though they do show different patterns of neural connections, we should ask why is this?

    She suggests that social conditioning puts men and women into different grooves very early on and I think she’s probably right.

    If the debate between nature and nurture is still ongoing, with different people (and this’ll include Christians) on diff. sides, you’re not really in a position to say ‘science says…’ especially if you risk sapping female confidence in doing so. It’s a question of sensitivity I suppose (see, I’m acting according to stereotype!)

    • First, I was quoting the science, not making a judgement. Second, I don’t think the science is disputed in regard to what *is*, but it is disputed on what *could* be and what perhaps *ought* to be. Men and women are different.

      But I think you are missing a central point here: women do not have to be like men to be effective Christian leaders, and we need to say that loud and clear. My observation at the moment is that, as with elsewhere in society, the women who are getting on are often doing so by being like the men they are competing with. I don’t think that is liberating for anyone.

      As I comment above on the programme, yes, there is undoubted conditioning going on, but it appears to be reinforcing what is already there and not simply imposing something unrelated.

      In my experience, women in ministry lack confidence as leaders not so much because of stereotyping, but because of specific biblical and theological arguments, ones that I have explored and teach about in a positive way.

  15. Research shows quite clearly that male and female brains brains are different in their hard-wiring, especially as regards perception, speech and (physical) orientation.
    Personal observation of young children (my 4 boys, my 5 nephews and 2 neices, and our close friends’ three daughters who played regularly twice-weekly with our boys) confirms this.
    It is also clear that nurture and surroundings may affect and influence nature, and that within the broad parameters of male and female individuals differ and are placed at different points along a spectrum (me, my wife, my 4 boys, my 3 sisters and their children show this).
    Also that male and female brains may be carried in both men and women’s bodies.

    The most helpful book I have read is: “Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps” ISBN-10: 0752846191 is really useful

  16. “it is just implausible that differences in hormone levels do not have a significant impact on brain formation”

    Not very scientific. A preconceived assumption. Like an early physicist saying, “it is just implausible that the Earth revolves around the sun”

    Must hold off assumptions.

    There were tests done with men and women doing exams. The exams were about social skills and math skills. There were two groups of examinations where a mixed group took both exams. Both exam papers were identical accept in one the social skills and maths skills were labelled as such. The other exam paper didn’t specify that the tests were for testing someone’s maths or social skills. Same tests just not obviously labelled.

    When men did the social skills test paper, labelled as a social skills test, they didn’t do that well. Women doing the maths tests that were labelled as maths also didn’t do as well.

    The unlabelled papers showed men and women to be equal at both social skills and maths! The conclusion is that their belief in their abilities effected the results, and that their beliefs were aligned with gender conditioning.

    In the Middle East there are far higher numbers of women than men going in to technology fields.

    Sadly these completely disprove the genetic belief. It’s all conditioning. It sounds like the programme didn’t bother with proper science or research papers.

  17. The context in which I have most often encountered discussion of this question has been as follows.

    Somebody observes that (for example) about 50% of voters are female, but only a smaller proportion of those elected to serve as MPs, far less than 50%, are female. This is said to be evidence of a problem, a “gender injustice”, that needs to be fixed. I ask on what basis the person doing the complaining asserts that under-representation of women in the House of Commons (or another field of work) is evidence of a problem or a gender injustice. The complainer has no answer to that challenge of his or her unwarranted assumption.

    Having no argument to refute, the insecure sceptic goes frantic trying to anticipate what argument the complainer has, which sceptic might one day need to refute. Brainstorming all over and around the whole subject matter of different behaviours of men and women that are observed (for example the difference in behaviour whereby fewer women than men want to become MPs in the first place, so that even though a women who wants to become and MP stands a better chance of becoming an MP than a man who wants to become an MP, fewer women than men do become MPs), the sceptic considers the possibility that biological science might *predict* the differences in behaviour observed. He gets distracted by his own thoughts. He writes blog posts like this one, intellectual shadow boxing so-to-speak.

    We can talk until the cows come home about how it might be possible to refute a case for this or that observed difference in the average behaviours of men and women amounting to evidence of a gender injustice. But until those who assert that observed differences in male and female behaviour are evidence of gender injustice, make a case for that assumption of theirs, we are wasting our breath talking about how to refute their case.

    John Allman


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