A few months ago I had a discussion with Brian Joseph in the comments section of his blog, Babbling Books, about violence and gender. (I highly recommend checking out Brian’s blog. He always has lots of great discussions going on in the comments.) Essentially, the discussion was about whether men are inherently more violent than women or whether male violence is culturally driven. In that discussion, Brian recommended a book by Steven Pinker called The Blank Slate.
The Blank Slate is a long, dense book and since my stack of review books and TBR list seem to never stop growing, I decided to compromise. Instead of reading the whole book, I read the first few chapters–enough to get the gist Pinker’s thesis–and then skip to the chapter on gender to understand his reasoning on the issue. While the book did not lead me to any definitive answers to my myriad questions about the role of nature vs. nurture in male violence, it did make me think quite a lot and prompted me to write this post about why I think Pinker’s reasoning on gender and feminism is deeply flawed.
Biological Determinism vs. The Blank Slate
First of all, Pinker’s thesis in The Blank Slate is a straw man’s argument. He starts off the book by decrying how our culture and much of academia has bought into the idea of “the blank slate”–the idea that biology plays no role in human behavior and that culture and/or autonomous choice are the main drivers of how we think and act.
I grew up in a very religious environment, attending church and Christian schools until the age of thirteen, and I know very few people who actually believe in the blank slate, autonomous moral choice, or the so-called “ghost in the machine” to the exclusion of all biological influence, as Pinker depicts. In fact, the group that uses biological determinist arguments more than any other that I know of is the very conservative religious crowd, most of whom don’t even believe in evolution, who use evolutionary psychology to prop up their arguments for prescribed gender roles. It’s a mind-bender, let me tell you.
My point is that I don’t know of anyone, except maybe a few fringe academics, who actually argue that people are born as complete “blank slates.” Pinker says that he believes a mix of nature and nurture determines people’s behavior, but his posturing against a position hardly anyone actually holds gives me the strong impression that he is really more of a biological determinist who is willing to recognize culture’s role in human behavioral development only when it suites him. As I said, I didn’t read the entire book, so this may be something of snap judgment. Still, it is consistent with the parts I did read.
Equity Feminism vs. Gender Feminism: A False Dichotomy
Pinker outlines the two primary schools of thought in feminism: equity feminism and gender feminism. Equity feminism, Pinker writes, “opposes sex discrimination and other forms of unfairness to women.” Gender feminism “holds that women continue to be enslaved by a pervasive system of male dominance.” Perhaps, but then Pinker goes on to claim that gender feminism is “an empirical doctrine” committed to the claim that “the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety.” What?!
Pinker clearly identifies himself as an equity feminist and looks rather disparagingly on gender feminism because of its so-called “disdain for analytical rigor.” According to Pinker’s first definition, I am a gender feminist. I absolutely believe that there is a pervasive system of male dominance, consciously and unconsciously enforced, that prevents women from experiencing the same level of physical, sexual, and economic freedom that men enjoy. A comprehensive study of women’s lot across the globe makes this quite evident.
Pinker argues that “the idea that all men are engaged in brutal warfare against all women clashes with the elementary fact that men have mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, whom they care for more than they care for most other men.” Obviously, not all men are engaged in such “warfare,” but it should be fairly obvious from looking at certain highly patriarchal cultures in the Middle East, Africa, and antiquity that having and even “caring” for female relatives in no way precludes men from oppressing them. (For one practical example of this, read Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif.)Thoughts on Gender, Feminism, + The Blank SlateClick To Tweet
I cannot speak for all so-called gender feminists, but Pinker’s charge that we are committed to the claim that “the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety” is a gross misrepresentation of the position that I and most gender feminists I know hold. There are clearly many biological differences between men and women aside from the obvious matter of genitalia.
Some examples: women have stronger immune systems than men, while men enjoy the benefits of higher hemoglobin and circulating clotting factors, which allow them to heal faster. In terms of abilities, men and women have the same average IQ scores, but women tend to cluster in the middle, whereas men are more likely to have extremely high or extremely low scores. If Pinker is to be believed, the idea that these differences are caused by biology and not culture threatens gender feminists and our entire ideology, a claim that truly confounds me.
Evolutionary Psychology Is a Hard Science and Other Myths
Pinker makes a number of claims about the differences between men and women, most of which are pulled right out of the sociobiology playbook. Pinker obviously holds that field of study in high regard and he uses it to defend his position of equity feminism by pointing out that it is one of the most gender-inclusive fields of study. With so many women promoting the ideas of sociobiology, Pinker implies, it must be unbiased and compatible with true feminism.
I will present my scientific objections to the current state of the sociobiology field in a moment, but first I want to address the implication that women cannot or will not perpetuate patriarchal beliefs and systems. Women are the primary perpetrators of female genital mutilation. Does that make FGM any less misogynistic? Of course not. Women hurl sexist slurs at each other online at roughly the same rate men do. Does that make those slurs any less sexist? Of course not. Women can and do routinely buy into and prop up patriarchy. That doesn’t make patriarchy any less patriarchal.
Now, back to evolutionary psychology. Many before me have criticized this field of study for its untestable hypotheses, selective reasoning, and ethical implications. I am not going to rehash those arguments. I will say that I am less concerned with its ethical implications than I am with the way sociobiologists tend to cherrypick data to draw presupposed conclusions. I maintain that evolutionary psychology is little more than glorified storytelling that largely ignores how culture influences human thought and behavior. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the assumptions it makes about female sexuality. (For a brief and highly accessible introduction to this topic, read What Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner.)
Nature vs. Nurture: Asking the Right Questions
It is easy to ascribe characteristics and behaviors instilled by culture to biology. It is not so easy to do the opposite. Let me give you an example. In speed dating, women sit in the same seat, while the men rotate. That’s just how it’s done. Women, in this scenario, are more selective than men in choosing a date. This supports the sociobiological belief that women are inherently more selective when choosing a mate.
In an example of sociobiological research done right, a group of researchers wondered whether the standard model of speed dating, which is steeped in cultural assumptions about men being the sexual/romantic aggressors, might influence the participants’ behavior and they decided to test this hypothesis. They used two different scenarios: in one, the men changed seats during the speed dating ritual; in the other, the women changed seats. The conclusion: when the men changed seats (acting in the culturally correct aggressor role), the women were more selective. When the women changed seats, the men were just as selective as the women were when they stayed seated. It turns out culture does influence sexual selectivity more than we thought.
Here’s the lesson: if you are conducting a study and you fail to look beyond your cultural assumptions, you will miss things. Accounting for cultural influence when conducting research requires an extra step: thinking outside the box. You have to ask the right questions and to do that, you need to set aside everything you think you know and take nothing for granted. The field of sociobiology seems more determined than most not to do this lest its grand narrative be threatened. It also fails to account for the remarkable plasticity of the human brain, which is molded and shaped by environmental factors. This is not to say that all sociobiology studies are bunk or that all sociobiologists are sexist or biased, but there is a pervasive problem in that field of study.
I sincerely hope the rest of The Blank Slate is more intellectually rigorous than the chapters I read. Most of what I read was full of straw man arguments, blatantly illogical assumptions, and cherrypicked data. There were a few bright spots, but they were clouded over by these pervasive problems.
There is a lot in the chapter on gender that I haven’t covered in this post. There is a whole section on rape, which I think is just too much to dissect along with everything else I’ve written about here. And then there’s Pinker’s obvious admiration for Christina Hoff Sommers, Milo Yiannopoulos’s favorite “feminist”–don’t even get me started.
Finally, here are the two main points I want to drive home, summarized:
- Most so-called gender feminists, like myself, do not believe that all the psychological/cognitive/behavioral differences between men and woman are never caused by biology. We do believe that cultural influences are very easy to overlook and therefore great effort should be made to conclusively rule them out before determining a biological cause. This is rarely done.
- The field of evolutionary psychology has many, many problems. It will only be truly useful when sociobiologists determine to stop cherrypicking data and conduct more rigorous research that accounts for potential cultural causes of gender differences in cognition, sexual selection, etc.
Have you read The Blank Slate? What are your thoughts on the nature vs. nurture debate, particularly as it pertains to gender? Leave a comment below!