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Gender and Mathematical Ability

I summarize and polemicize the article from this month’s Monthly Review.

Two years ago, a political and media scandal erupted when Lawrence Summers, then-Harvard president and sometime champion of market liberalization, claimed that women’s lack of representation in the sciences and engineering was more due to “issues of intrinsic aptitude” than “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination” (1). In the resulting firestorm of opinions and counter-opinions, an odd sort of consensus developed among putatively educated people and researchers that, possibly, there might be something to Summers’ statements. Perhaps, the spirit of this consensus went, because of the pressures placed upon our Savannah ancestors, men just evolved to be better at some things and women at others. You couldn’t hold this against anyone, really, because it was just the way things were, and misplacing blame would be worse than trying to accept differences between the sexes for what they were, plain and natural like a rock, and getting on with life. We can thank E.O. Wilson for such formulations, which are based on truisms like “In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home” (2), and we can laugh at themlike we laugh at romantic primitivism; it is, after all, ridiculous.

But recently there have been attempts to dress up these skewed anthropological inductions with a veil of science. Few people are so good an example of this as as Stephen Pinker, as few people demonstrate his persistent mix of (reactionary) commonsensical intuition and lack of theoretical acumen. At a debate held on the subject of women in science and engineering occasioned by Summers’ comments (accessible here), Pinker put forth all manner of wildly inferential things, essentialized as sex-traits: males, according to Darwin, are more widely varied in traits than females, so there should be statistically more brilliant (and idiotic) men than women; women tend to place more interest in Family Activities, than men, as statistically verified (due, presumably, to our Savannah ancestors evolving social roles, of course!); men are just more likely to take risks, including stupid ones (Pinker actually cites the Darwin Awards to underscore his point on this one), and so are more likely to take an intellectual risk that leads to a major discovery; etc. These arguments, as anyone who has sat down and contemplated the meaning-conferring force of ideology will see, are an motley conglomeration oftruistic sentiment, folk psychology, and Pinker’s belief cognitive abilities can be unproblematically interpreted as results of evolution. I’ll suggest how they are flawed, briefly, before moving on to a consideration of more fundamental concerns that call into question the plausibility of making any sort of argument for biologically based variations in achievement. Looking to the notion that an interest in Family Activities, which Pinker repeatedly touts as evidence, reduces likelihood of success in the Hard Sciences, we see several problems: is an interest in, say, having 2.5 children and watching them play soccer (perhaps the sort of Family Activities Pinker assumes are of interest to Most Women) something that is biologically ingrained in the human psyche? How would one begin to establish this? Lacking a method for establishing it, why can Pinker use it as brace in his argumentation? A parallel concerns applies to the notion of men as risk takers: the link between biological traits and risk taking is tenuous at best, and even less so when ‘risk-taking’ is applied to achievements in the sciences.

These arguments though need not concern us, for there is a more fundamental error underlying the notion the biology dictates mathematical ability. It lies in the presumption of any traits unproblematically determined by biology. In creating studies to measure traits by gender, biologically, and circulating their results, proponents of biological determinism influence the actions of the very people the pretend to study; this is an effect something like the chairman of the Fed declaring and economic downturn and setting in motion the actions of millions of people which then contribute to its worsening. And so, by making sweeping declarations that naturalize the relatively fewer benefits women accrue in society, social scientists and pop-philosophers actually contribute to creating the correlations they purport to discover (3). What does this mean? That we have to stop pretending that there are bare biological determining factors for intelligence, that the genes win out, and that all’s well in society because we have received innate wisdom from our hunter-gatherer forebears. Instead, we should work to reveal the biological and the social as mediately related, as codeterminate, and seek to understand the interplay between the them.

1. “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce.”
2. “Human Decency is Animal.”
3. Several studies have shown this recently, like this, for instance.

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