The sociological religion of no biological differences between the sexes

October 6, 2016 • 9:30 am

As a biologist, I’ve learned that there are two related issues that are taboo for academics to discuss openly. The first is the issue of “races”—or genetic differences between human populations. Cultural anthropologists tell us that races are “social constructs.” Well, there’s a bit of truth in that, insofar as there is no finite number of races that can be unambiguously demarcated from each other. But there are genetic differences between groups, and clustering algorithms can divide populations into five or six fairly distinguishable groups corresponding to their geographic localities. Those differences in marker genes undoubtedly evolved via either genetic drift or natural selection in early human populations that were geographically isolated.

But the issue of whether there are genetically-based differences in behavior, physiology, mentation, and other non-physical attributes of populations is simply off the table. It’s not just that we shouldn’t investigate them (for one can make a case that such research might itself have invidious social consequences), but that those differences don’t exist. I’ve even heard people called “racists” by cultural anthropologists—one of the worst fields for ideologically motivated scholarship— simply for suggesting that there might be behavioral genetic differences between human groups. You can discuss the issue, but there’s only one position considered acceptable.

My own take is that the separation of human subgroups has been so recent that there hasn’t been a lot of time for extensive genetic differences to evolve, though clearly there’s been time for marked physical differences to evolve. And it’s clear that human intermixing, facilitated by transportation and increased mobility, will tend to efface all of these differences. But we shouldn’t assert that any trait beyond the most obvious physical differences between groups shows complete equality among them.

When it comes to the sexes, though, it’s a different matter. In the hominin lineage males and females have been coevolving (either cooperatively or antagonistically) for 6 million years or so—ample time for differences in behavior, wants, thought patterns, and so on to evolve, just as morphological differences between men and women have clearly evolved. Do those genetic differences in thought and behavior exist? I suspect they do, at least for traits connected to sexuality and sexual behavior. Just as animals ranging from flies to mammals show consistent (though not universal) patterns of male/female differences in sexual behavior—differences explainable by sexual selection—so I expect the human lineage evolved similar patterns. After all, males are larger and stronger than females, and you have to explain that somehow. How do you do so without explaining evolved differences in behavior—probably based on sexual selection?

Yet the idea that males and females show evolutionary/genetic differences in behavior is also anathema in liberal academia, and for the same reason that population differences are anathema. Such differences, so the thinking goes, would support either racism (on the part of populations) or sexism (on the part of males and females). But of course that thinking is false: we can accept evolved differences without turning them into social policy. And it’s of interest to many evolutionists, including me, to know the extent to which groups and sexes have evolved along divergent pathways.

Still, many feminists, liberals, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists deny any such divergence. Yes, men and women differ in body size, strength, and structure, but there are, so they say, no such differences in the brain and behavior. In all other traits, so the trope goes, men and women are equal.  And given equal interests and talents, then the only thing enforcing anything other than a 50% representation of men and women in professions must be cultural pressures: viz., sexism. Thus, unequal representation in professions is prima facie evidence of sex discrimination. But as Jon Haidt mentioned in the lecture I posted the other day (watch the video; it’s good!), one first has to determine the cause of such unequal representation before one decides what to do about it.

At any rate, in the humanities and especially cultural anthropology, which in its ideological slant really counts as (sloppy) humanities rather than science, these attitudes are not only religious in nature, lacking empirical substantiation, but are also theological in enforcement. Authors (as I’ve pointed out recently) assume what they want to prove, and then go ahead and collect just those data that support their hypothesis. Confirmation bias is rife. This is what theologians do, not scientists.

The paper I’m highlighting today (link and free download below) is by Charlotta Stern, associate professor and deputy chair of the sociology department at Stockholm University. She is a brave woman, for her paper aims at calling out those sociologists who simply refuse to consider biology as an explanation of sex-distinguishing behaviors. As she says, not pulling her punches:

The present investigation is informed by my long and ongoing experience as a sociologist at Stockholm University. My teaching and research often touch on gender issues. I have served on about five thesis committees that addressed gender sociology or related matters, and I have participated in dozens of seminars that touch on gender sociology. My relationships with my colleagues and students are not heated. When I raise ideas that would challenge the sacred beliefs, I do so only at the edges. I have seen how people react when I or another suggests that maybe there is a difference in math skills between men and women, or that men and women have different preferences and motivations. In my experience, gender sociologists frown upon such remarks about innate differences in aptitude or motivations. I perceive deep and widespread taboo and insularity among gender sociologists. It saddens me. I feel impelled to make available some expression of my concern, hoping that students and others will hear it before sinking into the sacred beliefs and sacred causes addressed here.

Her method was simple, and somewhat subjective. She examined a set of 23 highly-cited articles in sociology journals, all of which cite a classic paper in the field, “Doing gender,” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987); reference and free link below).

West and Zimmer concluded (or decided in advance) that behavioral and non-physical differences between men and women were “constructed” based on their genitalia, so that all differences we observe in later life are the result of socialization. As Stern notes,

“Doing gender” is presented as part of a lamentable system of social control. The paper’s final para- graph reads:

“Gender is a powerful ideological device, which produces, reproduces, and legitimates the choices and limits that are predicated on sex category. An understanding of how gender is produced in social situations will afford clarification of the interactional scaffolding of social structure and the social control processes that sustain it. (West and Zimmerman 1987, 147).”

Stern examined 23 highly-cited sociology papers published between 2004 and 2014 (two per year) that themselves cited West and Zimmer’s influential paper. Then, developing a spreadsheet, she coded each of the articles as whether or not they took the hypothesis of biological differences between men and women as a serious possibility. Her classification was as follows:

  • Neutral.  Discussions of gender differnces but no discussion of their biological bases, nor dismissal of them. (4 articles).
  • Blinkered. These are the articles in which, according to Stern, biological differences are relevant hypotheses, but are either ignored or dismissed out of hand (15 articles).
  • Unblinkered.  Stern found only one article that considered biology as a possible explanation for sex differences in things like time spent with children, savings for education, and other “family processes.” Stern says the article has a “nuanced discussion of causality.”
  • Not rated. These articles “do not deal with matters for which biological difference ideas would clearly be relevant.” Four articles.

Here is Stern’s list of the articles and their ratings:


Now of course you can debate Stern’s methods and assessments, but what’s clear even without this analysis is that it’s taboo in much of academia to suggest that measurable differences between populations or sexes (excluding the most obvious physical differences) have any biological basis. But there should be no taboos in academics. One can debate the wisdom of investigating some questions (e.g., “Are Jews genetically acquisitive?”), but what one should not do is assume what’s true before investigating it. And, as Jon Haidt noted, if you don’t know the empirical basis for differences that are considered problematic (such as the underrepresentation of women in mathematics), you’re hampered from addressing them.

Stern’s conclusion is low key (my emphasis):

One cannot draw quantitative estimates on the basis of my investigation, but its findings are consistent with an image of gender sociology as a subfield that has insulated its sacred beliefs from important scientific challenges.

I have extensive first-hand experience with gender sociology’s insularity. But I also know of pervasive preference falsification (Kuran 1995), and I have seen students awaken with an ‘a-ha!’ moment when exposed to unorthodox thinkers such as Catherine Hakim (1995; 2000; 2008). I believe reform is possible. Whether people should ‘do gender’ less, and how they should ‘do gender,’ are questions worthy of personal reflection, scholarly exploration, and public discourse. More definite, to my mind, is that people should do less insularity.

Charlotta Stern

h/t: Grania


Stern, Charlotta. 2016. Undoing insularity: A small study of gender sociology’s big problem. Econ Journal Watch 13:452-466.

West, C. and D. H. Zimmerman. 1987. Doing gender. Gender and Society 1:32-57.

118 thoughts on “The sociological religion of no biological differences between the sexes

  1. I think that there may be some studies in linguistics. Female babies start talking sooner than males I think.

    Also women are more verbal than men.

  2. Still, many feminists, liberals, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists deny any such divergence. Yes, men and women differ in body size, strength, and structure, but there are, so they say, no such differences in the brain and behavior.


    I am not even sure about the “Yes, men and women differ” part here.

    I have seen plenty of published nonsense that denies that too and attributes it to social factors, i.e. women are not as strong as males because they are discouraged from training (never mind that frequently non-exercising males are stronger than female athletes or other such observations).

    1. The Patriarchy is to blame for strength differences!

      By the way, has anyone seen that new show on Fox, Pitch, about a woman pitching for the Padres? This is what blank slate ideology has wrought.

      1. I don’t watch TV so naturally I haven’t seen it.

        But I read the description and I am horrified.

        This is never happening in real life, plain and simple. Just as no woman is ever getting in the NBA.

        But it exists for ideological reasons…

    2. “never mind that frequently non-exercising males are stronger than female athletes or other such observations”

      Prove it. Most men who say this have not even tested it. People just love to judge the book by cover and make radical claims instead of actually trying things (not just one or two people or certain areas either). Apparently taking risks are too hard.

        1. It’s NOT an extreme claim. Not compared to what GM said.

          I am not denying that men are stronger than women, but the way he most others I’ve heard said it looked like he exaggerated men’s strength as if they are these “powerful super humans who can kill or incap a woman in one single swing to the face”, which is absolutely bogus (and what feminist may probably call a “power fantasy”). Some of us may be strong, but we’re not that powerful.

          This is especially considering I’ve been into many fights in my life and 40% of them were with females. My win/lose ratio was actually a fair balance (with just 1 win higher than my losses). But in those fights, many of these girls were not push-overs and maybe that was because these women were mostly black and Hispanic, but they definitely knew how to kick a man’s ass, especially with their lower body strength – also another thing people ignore.

          And most of the women I did punched and kicked – all they got were black-eyes, bloody noses, faces, scratches, and bruises. Only one had to be hospitalized. The similar scenario with the boys I fought (only 2 had to be hospitalized)

          As I said earlier, most boys are actually too afraid to even hit a female due to these irrational fears of massive injuries that society and media perpetuates. “You’re gonna give her a facial-reconstruction brah!”

          Unless you actually intend to kill or hospitalize them or you have Mike Tyson’s physique, men should not be afraid to physically defend himself against a violent woman – our US Constitution and Bill of Rights promotes it.

  3. Very interesting introduction. It makes me wonder, if ~6 billion people start mixing for several generations won’t we all start to look about the same?

    1. Yes, but that will take centuries. After all, mobility is by no means complete. If you’re born in China or Argentina, in all likelihood you’ll mate with someone from your own country and will stay there, as will your kids.

      1. On this general point, but maybe I’m being tangential,

        In a paper in the American Economic Review (the flagship journal in economics), Ashraf and Galor exploit variation in the timing of migrations out of Africa, to show that genetic diversity varies across nations and that this diversity has implications for economic development. In particular, countries with low levels of diversity exhibit lots of trust but few new ideas. Countries high on genetic diversity exhibit lots of new ideas, but little trust. Countries in the middle in terms of diversity are the richest, with some trust and some new ideas.

        I think anthropologists hate this paper, but I love to teach it. It really gets graduate students going (undergraduates are oddly quiet, as though they are afraid to comment)

      2. Black Caribbeans arrived in the UK in the 50’s and 60’s. An astonishingly rapid integration is taking place

        From the Economist 2014

        “As Britain’s mixed-race population swells, another group appears destined to shrink. The Labour Force Survey reveals that 48% of black Caribbean men and 34% of black Caribbean women in couples are with partners of a different ethnic group—with higher proportions still among younger cohorts. Black Caribbean children under ten years old are outnumbered two-to-one by children who are a mixture of white and black Caribbean.”

    2. No, I don’t think it’s true we’ll all look the same. Phenotypic diversity will still be present. It will just be harder (and probably pointless) to classify subgroups of people.

  4. In the UK, there’s an organisation called “Migration Watch” who monitor and publish figures for net migration. Their reports are purely factual and cannot be construed as xenophobic. But who would set up such an organisation if they didn’t have an axe to grind? I think the same can perhaps be said of people who choose to make a study of racial differences their career path.
    Having said that, since there are clearly physical differences between races (and between men and women), why should there not also be differences in their brains and behaviour? The brain is, after all, a physical attribute. So in short, I think these differences probably do exist but it’s not a topic I like to bring up at dinner parties.

    1. “who would set up such an organisation if they didn’t have an axe to grind?”

      Possibly someone who suspected that an awful lot of nonsense was being talked on the subject and felt the facts should be made available.

      (I hasten to add that I have no knowledge whatever of this organisation – it could be prejudiced, it might not be).

      As to racial differences, there may be very valid reasons for studying them, for example in medical diagnosis or the provision of medical care. For example an African is much more likely to have sickle-cell anaemia. Polynesians are more at risk from diabetes, and this is not just socio-economic. (I’m sure there are many more examples, but they’re the only ones I know – my knowledge is limited).


      1. In Sweden, children of Somali immigrants are much more likely to be autistic than either native Swedish children or children in Somalia; immigrants reportedly have dubbed autism “the Swedish disease”. Scientists speculate that shortage of vitamin D may predispose the fetus/infant to autism, but as far as I know, nothing definite has been found.

    2. “I think the same can perhaps be said of people who choose to make a study of racial differences their career path.” I think very few make the choice to study in this field. As JC says “But the issue of whether there are genetically-based differences in behavior, physiology, mentation, and other non-physical attributes of populations is simply off the table.”
      One good reason for studying this area would be “science”. An “off the table” approach to any field of inquiry seems anti-science.

  5. Eighteen years ago, as part of her PhD research, my wife looked at the correlation between gender and 3D visualization skills. Spoiler alert: there is indeed a correlation! I don’t think she would be able to publish her results nowadays!

    1. There *was* a correlation — before girls had increased access to sports. 3D visualization is essential in sports, and little girls didn’t play soccer or baseball in high numbers until recently. I’d love to see if the correlation is still as strong.

      1. Nonsense. Recent studies conducted on infants & toddlers — before either the boys or the girls were playing sports — showed significant variations in visualization abilities.

          1. Every “difference” discussed in this post applies (if it does) to populations, not individuals.

  6. Of course there are differences. Most women don’t think the Three Stooges are funny while most men think they are. Same thing for Laurel and Hardy (if you’re old enough). Now what this means biologically I have no idea but there has to be a reason as it doesn’t seem to be cultural.

        1. Laurel and Hardy had moments. A very few moments. For the life of me I can’t understand the appeal of the Stooges. Perhaps we men aren’t so monolithic in our comedy tastes after all!

      1. We too easily fall into dichotomous thinking. Let’s assume for sake of discussion that males have an evolved cognitive predisposition that leads them to find slapstick funny. Let’s also assume females lack this evolved predisposition. It could still be true that women could adapt culturally to find slapstick just as funny as men but by different means.

        To put this in the larger context of this post, it seems to me that social learning through cultural transmission likely bridges the gap (or has the potential to do so in many cases) between biological differences among sexes, races, or whatever.

        1. Perfectly true, but hardly satisfying to those who insist there can be no differences simply because they be believe there ought to be no differences. The likelihood of that argument being true can be illustrated by boiling down that point of view to this:

          “Isn’t it wonderful that, when we study different populations of people, evolution has adapted them for their environments in every way except for their brains, which have all remained exactly the same?”

          A remarkably unlikely proposition, yet one that is dogma in certain academic disciplines.

    1. In “Sleepless in Seattle”, a character referred to “An Affair to Remember” as a “female movie” or something of this sort; the same can be said about “Sleepless in Seattle” itself, and about many other movies and books focused on reproduction.

    1. While we are on the subject of differences … I demand an end to all this sexist nonsense about anisogamy! This “concept” is just a biased social construct. Across animals, sperm are always just as large as eggs, and anyone who says otherwise was indoctrinated by a matriarchal culture. And, of course, without looking at any evidence, we can be certain that male and female investment in offspring is equal in all animals!

  7. Thus, unequal representation in professions is prima facie evidence of sex discrimination.

    The ‘worst’ profession probably being that of garbage collector. All men, but for some mysterious reason I never hear anyone complain.

    Sex-related differences in general intelligenceg, brain size, and social status

    By examining personality at the level of the 10 aspects of the Big Five, we demonstrated that gender differences in personality traits are even more pervasive than has typically been reported. In every one of the 10 traits assessed, significant gender differences were evident.

    Gender Differences in Personality Are Larger than Previously Thought

    Greater male variance in IQ: Here or here

    High-Range I.Q. scores by Sex

    Sex Differences in Mathematical Aptitude
    (Correctly predicts CalTech’s % of female grad students)

    As for taboo (related) ideas, this article was quite interesting:
    Achievement Gap Politics

      1. I should add that we also have women foresters, climbing around in huge trees and swinging from limb to limb wielding chain saws.

        Not that the numbers of men and women are the same, of course.

    1. there are exactly the proportion of men at the highest end of IQ as at the lowest end of IQ. Female IQ band somewhat less extreme.

  8. (Some) feminists contradict themselves when they argue that brain sex does not exist. I see why they do it – because they are afraid of ‘biological determinism’ – that if women have ‘lady brains’ they will be perceived to be less competent than men and then forced into a 1950s Donna Reed lifestyle.

    However, they then go on and on about ‘toxic masculinity’ and how men are just oh so violent, whilst women are always kind, loving and virtuous. Of course they blame this on ‘male socialization’ but then they run into the issue of does the process of socialization alter the development of the brain, since they argue that men just cannot restrain themselves from raping and murdering, whereas women are full of self-control and love.

    At any rate, I am content with knowing that I can have a ‘ladybrain’ yet still 1) enjoy action movies 2) wield a chainsaw and collect my own firewood 3) play violent video games 4) wear flannel and pants 5) build my own computers

    It’s almost as if, having a brain that matches ones biological sex does not mean that one is forever trapped in behaving in any one specific way. A woman can have a female brain and engage in traditionally masculine pursuits, and a man can have a male brain and engage in traditionally feminine pursuits.

    Biology is not necessarily destiny.

    1. Agree with Cindy. I have no problem with the possibility of sexual differences in the brain. But that’s because I’m perfectly comfortable with my intelligence and capabilities; someone who isn’t, or feels more threatened by having their intelligence and capabilities questioned by society, will feel differently. The issue would have bugged me way more when I was young, for instance.

      It’s easy to see why both racial and sexual brain differences are touchy subjects: To the extent that any race or sex can be “proved” less intelligent or capable in any way, the people of that race or sex can *justifiably* worry that people of other races or the other sex may discriminate against them. That does concern me. You *know* how many sexist jerks remain just in this country, much less the world, who would love to jump on anything to prove that women should be forced to stay home and breed.

      But it’s obviously possible if not probable that there are differences across populations/sexes–even though the differences don’t apply to all individuals. If truth is paramount in research, and it is, you have to allow the research and deal with the results–that is, work to combat any discrimination that might be encouraged by the discovery of such differences.

      But there’s no doubt this will remain a tricky area for years to come. People will remain uncomfortable with such research as long as rampant sexism and racism remain in the world. And I don’t have much hope for either one going away any time soon. Still, there should be pushback by anyone who prizes truth.

      1. There is this one Youtuber that I generally like, until he goes off into crazy land. His argument is that blacks are genetically inferior because of low IQ. It is his *obsession*. (I was talking about MRAs and radfems on another thread – idealogues have these narratives that they just won’t let go of, it’s creepy)

        However, I would say that it is more likely that extreme poverty and malnutrition are to blame for these poor test scores rather than some sort of inherent genetic inferiority:

        The Lancet series says the first 24 months of life are the critical time for avoiding stunting. Under-nourished children living in extreme poverty end up small and their brain development is affected, so that they find it hard to learn. “Some catch-up is possible in height-for-age after 24 months, with uncertain cognitive gains,” says one of the papers.

        In sub-Saharan Africa, 66% of children are estimated to be at risk of poor development because of stunting and poverty. In south Asia, the figure is 65%, and 18% in the Caribbean and South America.

        1. Yes severe malnutrition of the child or pregnant mother can do that and the white supremacists aren’t going to take that into account.

          Something that confuses me a bit though, and not to do with race or gender is Steven Pinker mentions how in the late 19th/early 20th Century Russian peasants had no education and were isolated and had no notion of abstract concepts in ordinary conversation – and their IQs were very low. Is there some kind of feed back between exposure to logical reasoning via ideas in basic education – and being able to harness one’s genetic intelligence?

        2. His argument is that blacks are genetically inferior because of low IQ.

          The IQ of blacks in the West is much higher than that of people in Africa.

          I.e. we have empirical evidence that it is not genetics that is the reason for the low IQs in Africa. And they are indeed very low, the lowest in the world.

          It’s not just malnutrition though, although that is a big factor — chronic debilitating diseases plays a major role too. If you spend huge amounts of energy and nutrients fighting infections and feeding various parasites, that is energy and nutrients that do not go into brain development.

          1. I.e. we have empirical evidence that it is not genetics that is the reason for the low IQs in Africa.

            Or you have evidence of non-random migration, IOW better-off Africans can afford to migrate.

            And not all groups of Africans are the same, especially the Igbo. Here and here.

          2. Of course blacks in the West have significant European ancestry. Also the white-black IQ gap remains quite large even when matching for SES, etc.

    2. I agree, and I have to agree with the recent findings on types of intelligence between genders.

      Besides I suspect there are some things that don’t show in standard IQ tests. I believe that men tend to reduce complex social and political matters of whatever topic to a single factor or dichotomous factors, and don’t like non spatial complexity that much, and its an ingrained tribal/combativeness thing. Just my blowing for the thread.

      – men tend to originate different dichotomous or essentialising ideologies that SJWs and the right respectively draw on and even feminists utilise. We are so used to these philosophies we don’t challege them – Eg everything reduced to the Market vs communism, POMO, crit theory, Platonic influences etc. But I believe bigger social phenomena tend to have many causes never Just capitalism or labour value or whatever.

    3. “At any rate, I am content with knowing that I can have a ‘ladybrain’ yet still 1) enjoy action movies 2) wield a chainsaw and collect my own firewood 3) play violent video games 4) wear flannel and pants 5) build my own computers.”

      Obviously, you’re secretly a man.

      (Do I need to say – 😉

      Srsly, I quite agree with your last para.


  9. This is of great interest to me, and I have certainly come across this strange denialism that there are intrinsic biological differences in the behavior of men and women, or even that there are meaningful differences in the physical anatomy of male and female brains. One argument I come across is: ‘Isn’t it suspicious that the claimed differences happen to coincide with the most common stereotypes about men and women?’

    The brains and behaviors of rats and zebra fishes and other primates also show differences between males and females, and no one would bat an eye at the suggestion that these are at least grounded on intrinsic differences with a genetic basis.

    1. Meanwhile, a stereotype is usually a stereotype for a reason. Often blown out of proportion to the original true observations, but often based on some bit of truth (else why would there be a stereotype in the first place?)

      I think when people say “Isn’t it suspicious that the claimed differences happen to coincide with the most common stereotypes about men and women?”, they are guilty of some form of begging the question, although that’s not quite the right logical fallacy.

  10. I don’t think I understand the claims here. I don’t understand why you call it a “sociological religion” and why dismissing gender differences as explanation for *some* phenomena is a problem.

    Let me start with an example. It is fairly obvious that different nations or groups perform differently in different sporting competitions. To pick an extreme example, when it comes to some video games South Koreans basically kill everybody else and every other nation. When it comes to StarCraft for example, they are so good non-Koreans are often called “foreigners” and in 16 years or so only two foreigner have won any titles. These are facts. Now, everyone would agree that it is ridiculous to explain this performance gap between Koreans and the rest of the world by genetics. Performance in highly competitive video games is so complex and training and non-genetic factors can influence it so much that genetics can be easily dismissed there with no problem at all, i.e., we can assume non-genetic factors account for the all observed gap. Now, let’s add one more fact to the pile: All the known champions or top performers have also been male. So is it more reasonable to try to explain the gender performance gap with genetics? I don’t think so. The main reasons why genetics could be dismissed are still there: performance is a very complex phenomenon and non-genetics factors have such a massive influence that there is no need to pull genetics differences in there, specially if it is not even clear how one could tie genetics in there.

    Now, given this, let’s turn to Mathematics*. When it comes to high level performance in Mathematics (or even medium level), the same reasons could also be applied. We need massive amounts of non-genetic influence for people to be good in Math (e.g., many years of education, very good mentors, etc.) and it is not clear how genetics could influence performance at these level Math.

    Another important point, IMHO, is that we also have no other data point for species who can do Math. The examples of sexual dimorphism are not helpful here because while they show some behavioral differences between different sexes, they give us no clue when it comes to performance in highly abstract areas such as Mathematics.

    * By Mathematics, I don’t mean Arithmetics, and not just adding up numbers.

    1. In mathematics there have sometimes been geniuses with almost no education
      From Wikipedia

      “Srinivasa Ramanujan FRS (pronunciation: Listeni/ʃriːnivɑːsə rɑːmɑːnʊdʒən/) (22 December 1887 – 26 April 1920) was an Indian mathematician and autodidact. Though he had almost no formal training in pure mathematics, he made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation; it was quickly recognized by Indian mathematicians. When his skills became obvious and known to the wider mathematical community, centred in Europe at the time, he began a partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy. The Cambridge professor realized that Ramanujan had produced new theorems in addition to rediscovering previously known ones.”

      1. Start of Ramanujan’s first letter to Hardy:

        “Dear Sir,

        I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. . .”

    2. “Now, everyone would agree that it is ridiculous to explain this performance gap between Koreans and the rest of the world by genetics.”

      You can assume that everyone agrees with your premise but that doesn’t make it true. A good many of would respond, “I don’t know” and be perfectly comfortable.

      You are trapped in the old nature/nurture dichotomy. In fact, nearly everything in animal behavior (and we are animals, too) involves both of these in varying degrees. Lots and lots of gray area and very little black and white.

    3. Whoah – not everyone would agree South Korean dominance of Star Craft has no genetic component. It may be or it may not. The point is not to rule it out a priori, as you do.

      Star Craft is a trivial example, and I really don’t know anything about it. I can say your observations about mathematics are well known to be false. Many if not most true mathematical geniuses over the ages have asserted themselves at very young ages and with no mentoring. It is clear that people like Gauss and Ramanjuan were born that way.

    4. @somer:

      As someone who has read his biography, I can tell you that Ramanujan was a very exceptional case however, he had education in Mathematics, i.e., he had access to books. He did not have formal education and he in fact made plenty of mistakes because of it. Besides, I don’t see how these one in a billion examples are relevant to the discussion.


      The “explain by genetics” part means that it is ridiculous to propose that South Koreans have evolved to have better understanding of the game Star Craft but not League of Legends (because they are not dominant in that game).

      I am not ruling it out a priori as you say, I’m just dismissing it as a legitimate alternative to the perfectly good explanation that their dominance has everything to do with their environment, training, having access to better coaches, hard work, being supported financially so they can full time every day, confidence, enthusiasm, and so on. These same factors are also good enough reasons to explain the performance gap in many of the other areas so that there is no need to invoke “evolutionary histories”.

      And regarding the Mathematical geniuses, they all have had teachers, mentors and years of education before establishing themselves as Mathematical geniuses. Raise Guass in 4000 BC and it will not give you the same theorems. Nonetheless, the claim is not that Mathematical ability has no genetic factor. The claim is that we have perfectly good 1) explanations for performance gap 2) it is not even clear how one goes to explain e.g., the performance gap at the high level Mathematics between men and women through genetics, or evolutionary history etc.

      1. Just because they are diffently expert on these two games doesn’t mean there is no biological component involved. The games may be played differently (I don’t know, not being a gamer). Different games require different skills. Skills reflect capabilities that are partly nature and partly nurture. As I said before, you’re trapped in a false dichotomy.

        1. @GBJames:

          If it is not clear, the discussion is about this comment: “I have seen how people react when I or another suggests that maybe there is a difference in math skills between men and women.”

          Yes, there might be but such a hypothesis can be legitimately dismissed because of two reasons: 1) we have pretty good explanations for why there’s a performance gap and 2) it is not even clear how that particular solution is going to work.

          Frankly, this is not inherently different from dismissing a hypothesis that aliens have been visiting Earth: 1) We have pretty good explanations for UFOs or any other mystery that is supposed to be explained by alien visitors and 2) it is not clear how aliens can in fact visit Earth given the laws of physics that we know. This is of course an extreme example but it illustrates the point, if we dismiss some hypothesis, it does not mean that we have a priori.

          1. This is not at all like aliens visiting. We have zero evidence for aliens but there is considerable evidence for differences in skill levels between various groups. And there is considerable evidence that both nature and nurture influences game, and all, skills. It is preposterous to rule either component out.

      2. Rais Guass in 4000 BC in a settled urban civilisation (? were there any at that time) in a station in life where he would not be thrashed for regularly spending a bit of time working out maths problems and he still would have been a mathematical genius – on somewhat different problems. Yes some basic precepts are required – but very few kids who learn maths at school will be geniuses

      3. You can’t be a math genius without some environmental ingredients – I don’t think that anyone is disputing that. But to claim that 100% of the variance between a math genius and an average performer is due to the environment is absurd. Apologies is that is not what you are claiming.

      4. Anecdotal, but still: as a student I gave private lessons in maths and physics to secondary school children. I found it striking at the time that boys were predominantly having problems with algebra, while girls were struggling with geometry.
        If confirmed more formally, I’d think genetics would be somewhere high on the list of possible explanations.

      5. @GBJames:

        I don’t know what exactly do you mean by “no biological components involved”. Either way, that is not what I am saying. We are talking about trying to explain statistical performance gap between different gender using the specific biologies of each gender. I’m trying to compare that to trying to explain differences in performance when it comes to playing video games. I don’t know why you bring up “being trapped in a false dichotomy” and it seems you think I am arguing that I am not.

        Again, I don’t see why talking about exceptional cases is relevant to our argument. The main topic is gap in performance and trying to explain that using differences in gender.


        Again, nobody is arguing that math skills are 100% environment.

        1. I think most scientists though today argue its largely or perhaps mostly genes – whereas you seem to be arguing 80% or more is environment

      6. Having been around those circles for some time, it seems to me that by far the most important factor behind being a mathematical genius is early exposure to the subject plus dedication to it.

        Of course, no matter how early you start studying advanced math or how dedicated to it you are, if you were born with three copies of chr21, you’te not getting anywhere. I.e. there is a genetic ceiling.

        But the number of people that have the potential at birth is vastly higher than the number of people who do in fact go on to become great mathematicians.

        I am not sure if there will ever be any way to measure any possible difference in the “potential at birth” between the sexes. How do you even begin to address that…

        But there are plenty of behavioral and environmental factors that are associated with being a male or a female that contribute to the gender gap in outcome. Note that these are not social in nature/social constructions, they derive at least in part from the biological differences between males and females.

        Males seem to be a lot more inclined to spend their youth with their head buried in books and equations. Females not so much. And this difference exists both in advanced “enlightened” countries with very strong feminism and in more patriarchal “underdeveloped “cultures. This is exactly the thing you need to do in order to reach the very top (it’s not the case that it is a sufficient condition, but it is definitely a necessary one).

        There are good biological explanations for these behavioral differences stemming from the differential investment in raising the offspring in primates. Females need to secure access to the material resources needed to raise their offspring, males are a lot more risk taking, either because they can or because they are forced to.

        The point is that the gap in performance can be the product of genetic differences without those differences directly affecting intelligence. It’s a subtle point that I don’t see much discussion of.

        Note that intelligence has a fairly strong environmental component (which is why it has been rising in absolute terms with time and the tests need to regularly be readjusted to account for that and keep the same scale). Thus even the “differential variance in IQ” observation need not be explained purely by genetics beyond the presence of a Y chromosome difference.

      7. “Besides, I don’t see how these one in a billion examples are relevant to the discussion.” It is relevant because there are so few Mathematical geniuses of the first rank

      8. VRandom, are you arguing with the right training, nearly everyone (forget about sex differences) is capable of high level math? We would live in a paradise if this were true, but it’s not, and it’s cruel to think so. Personally, I was born lucky and through no advantage of education or mentoring, math was always easy for me. I’ve taught thousands of students, and the vast majority were not lucky as I was. Though many grew up in in much better environments and had all the advantages, they still struggled, even with entry level subjects like Calculus.

        Obviously, you are a Blank Slater of some stripe. You should study Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” where you will find mountains of evidence explaining why your view (if I’ve read you correctly) is both harmful and wrong – and about as respectable as intelligent design theory.

        1. are you arguing with the right training, nearly everyone (forget about sex differences) is capable of high level math?


          Obviously, you are a Blank Slater of some stripe.


  11. The arguments for not investigating are getting more sophisticated. Now the argument is that because we live in a unjust society, the findings will be used by bigots, albeit wrongly.

    Horrible, as far as argument goes, but even a good philosopher like Philip Kitcher seems to be making it. Or at least, the “allow those affected a veto” version, which is slightly weaker (though harder to do).

  12. Many of the same people who claim that there are no biological behavioral or cognitive differences between the sexes will also claim that a transgender woman has a biologically female brain. They take the word “gender”, which for some time they have defined as a reflection of culture and social roles, not biological, and use it for our intrinsic biological identity.

    People are confused, to say the least, but not willing to admit it. I think they are waiting for some theorist to come up with something that will synthesize their conflicting beliefs and terminology. And I have no doubt that someone will.

    1. I asked a regressive, straight up, if trans women had ‘lady brains’ and he ‘cis-splained’ to me that no, gender identity is simply innate and that it is possible to be trans while 1) not feeling any body/gender dysphoria at all 2) never transitioning 3) that if you don’t give a pre-teen puberty blockers immediately they will kill themselves, despite not actually feeling any dysphoria etc.

      What is most depressing about regressive thought is that they market themselves as *skeptics*. These are the people who used to call out creationists, yet they are behaving no differently, inventing fantasies to support their narrative.

      They also like to throw around the term ‘epigenetics’ a lot, to make their fantasies sound scientific.

  13. Many on the left are very selective as to when they are against biological determinism. I have a running argument with a cousin of mine (a liberal academic) around the fact that women are outperforming men in education, especially higher education. If there are no biological differences b/t the sexes, then this must be due to differences in socialization that are somehow more favorable to women.

    But my cousin, who normally would never accept differences in genes as an explanation for differential performance b/t the genders, cannot bring herself to entertain the notion that boys may be the targets of negative socialization. For her, sexism only operates in one direction – it is always to the benefit of men and to the detriment of women. So by default (even though I cannot get her to admit it), she tacitly accepts the notion that the reason that girls are currently doing better in academics than boys is because they have certain biological advantages.

    This cognitive dissonance b/t two conflicting ideas is reminiscent of the conflict that many regressive leftists have when they cannot bring themselves to criticize Islam.

    1. This cognitive dissonance b/t two conflicting ideas is reminiscent of the conflict that many regressive leftists have when they cannot bring themselves to criticize Islam.

      Yep. If you see race, you are racist, because ‘race is a social construct’. If you don’t see race, you are also racist, because then you are refusing to help the most oppressed in society.

      Now replace race with gender, disability, culture, and so on. Whatever you do, you’re racist, sexist, misogynist and transphobic. You are *always* oppressing someone, no matter what you do.

      1. You are *always* oppressing someone, no matter what you do.

        Yes, this is what seems to be the case in the minds of many on the left. My question is, are they aware that they have created a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation? When people point this out to them, what is the response?

        1. I have been through this many times before. They plug their ears and scream that you are a hateful bigot.

          It is in line with Kafka Trapping:

          The term “kafkatrapping” describes a logical fallacy that is popular within gender feminism, racial politics and other ideologies of victimhood. It occurs when you are accused of a thought crime such as sexism, racism or homophobia. You respond with an honest denial, which is then used as further confirmation of your guilt. You are now trapped in a circular and unfalsifiable argument; no one who is accused can be innocent because the structure of kafkatrapping precludes that possibility.

          A logical defense of your position, the use of Socratic questioning is merely proof of your inherent bigotry.

        1. Beatrix Potter was a 19thCentury childrens author and illustrator, but above that, she was a biologist. Obviously she was supposed to paint a SJW version of nature – which anyway should not be taken literally as the way human societies are or should or could be.

  14. I’ll sit back and wait for the inevitable “no platforming” that will overtake Charlotta Stern.

    I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t know how right she is (certainly not my field) but it sounds like a legitimate field of inquiry.

  15. Religion indeed. These sorts of people are what might be referred to as gender creationists. They’re certainly mind-body dualists, thinking that male and female brains are interchangable.

    Never mind that hormones have a non-negligible affect on brain development. Never mind that hormones have a non-negligible affect on behavior.

    What’s worse, is that “it’s a social construct” is teetering the edge of being unfalsifiable. You can respond with “it’s a social construct” to any and every psychological study done ever and it will make sense. Talk about a just-so story.

  16. Our human history can explain to my mind why we have this dichotomy with the sexes in the collective mind of today.
    The man plowed the field, that is tough work, the women ground the seed, that is tough work,
    oops! i just shot myself in the foot.
    In fact, the emergence of agriculture was tough on women, diet wise, the co operative rearing of children, socially isolating, tough!
    WW2 women stepped up and filled ‘the men’s’ role in factories and essential services, French women armed themselves and i know of one NZ women who was a spy, the White Mouse, who was fearless.
    What we socially construct is the nonsense and as the ISS, astronomy, hard science, fire fighters, truck drivers, police, high flying executives, politicians etc and the big leveler and perhaps neutralizer, power tools and technology has proven the physical weakness and tenderness loving qualities of women is going to mean and means fuck all in any future gender equality spitting contest, eh.. male alert!
    I do not doubt that the female/ male brain are different, All brains are different, like fingerprints, it is unique to the individual and that, preference behaviours by gender are unambiguous up too and of the present day and age. Our long and deep history has made sure of that. But the march forward is going to have a smoothing out process to me and the lines will be blurred even more and the gender sociology parlava hopefully will make itself irrelevant.
    It bothers me that we doodle (male alert!) with this issue when clearly neither would be here without the other. (no kidding batman)

  17. I used to say that liberals accept evolution as science but reject it as social policy, whereas conservatives accept it as social policy but reject it as science. But I eventually came to realize that while liberals do accept evolution generally, they reject it for humans — or more accurately, they reject the clear implications for human behavior, since if humans evolved they must surely have many behaviors that are dictated by their evolutionary heritage (just as all other animals do).

    This is just one aspect of that. You won’t find liberals arguing that there are no inherent behavioral differences between (say) peacocks and peahens, but suddenly when it comes to humans many won’t even consider arguing otherwise. When it comes to human behavior, they’re as anti-evolution as creationists.

  18. You have to wonder how the patriarchy emerged, ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL.
    The further we get from physical strength being the supreme attribute, the more equallity between genders. Exactly what we would expect in this situation is happening.
    When other ape species have such obvious gender differences, why wouldn’t humans?
    The fact that this discussion even needs to happen is a very sad indictment on our learning and research institutions.

  19. People seem to have difficulty accepting gender-based behavioural differences because they forget that masculinity and femininity are a continuum and don’t constitute two homogenous groups. I am always irritated when people tell me that ” women think this…” or “men behave like that” as if they are single categories and polar opposites. When the lesbian baseball team plays the gay baseball team – guess who wins? Clue: it’s not the men despite the assumption that men are better at sport.

  20. It’s not just evolved sex differences which cultural anthropologists ignore, it’s also female intrasexual competition in the fashionable discussion of the harrassment of women and girls online. They constantly discover it in their own surveys, but have no idea what to do with it. So continue to blame males (intersexual competition). See

  21. I’ve enjoyed this article and comments immensely.

    My take on peoples’ resistance to scientific facts in this and related areas is preservation of individual agency. If there are demonstrable behavioural differences between human biological demes, or genders, or cultures then (like the arguments over determinism and free will) people are not wholly the ‘rational masters’ of their own agency.

    If you accept that the brain is embodied (and that embodiment extends into external environment) then we are pretty much driven by events and our much vaunted ‘consciousness’ is not in the driving seat. More of a ‘back seat driver’. Perhaps much of our sense of agency is just a useful fiction?

  22. This article is the same sort of nonsense creationists/ID proponents endlessly publish. “Why won’t biologists entertain intelligent design as a cause of life? Darwinian evolution is pushed with a theological fervor! Take a look at this list of studies I’ve rated. See how many are ‘blinkered’ against ID?” etc. etc.

    1. The difference is that there are not and cannot be any data supporting ID, while there are plenty of data supporting the biological differences between sexes. To give a simple example, it is for a reason that farmers have for millenia castrated male animals (except those reserved for breeding).

  23. Thank you for this article. I look forward to the day when humans can accept biological differences between races and sexes, and still maintain equal treatment under law while dismantling whatever social constructs formed over the centuries that limit opportunities for any qualified individual for education and employment.

  24. There is a mountain of literature whih shows differences in the human brain correlated with sex, some detectable before birth!

    If nothing else the menstrual cycle and reproductive differences would be expected to have effects on behaviour and outlook.

    The situations is not just a refusal to allow challenges but flying in the face of the evidence that there are significant sex based differences in behaviour.

  25. I think many people resist scientific facts in this area because many other people are way too quick to treat hypotheses in the field as facts, and frequently use them to back political/civic ideas. It’s an understandable backlash, which raises the bar on results.

    That’s a good thing in any field prone to have its results abused. But, the bar shouldn’t be insurmountable…

    Anyways, as an example, take the IQ variability hypothesis (mentioned elsewhere in this thread)… findings differ in various races and countries. Right now, this does not seem to be well explained if the underlying issue in the original studies is genetic (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it’s far from certain). But, how many times do we see this hypothesis presented as fact already? I doubt this has no civic effect.

    Don’t know what the answer is… findings that may affect policy and status will always be misused. I guess the faster we have real answers the better, but it’s incredibly hard to get real answers.

    Eventually we’ll cat scan some dead fish and find out they are more intelligent than all of us anyways…

  26. To test oneself as to whether one truly has no taboos, ask yourself the onerous question: Would contemporary biologists viewing humans as if they were birds or butterflies argue there was only one human *species* presently?

    The old “fertile offspring” test is long gone nowadays, and we have concepts such as “reproductive isolation” and allowances for “intermediate forms where the ranges overlap.” I would say a majority of papers in a taboo-free world would list at least three human species while allowing for intermediate forms. And possibly many more, eg. Khoisan vs. Bantu Africans (200Kyrs of reproductive isolation).

    But bring this up and even those commonsensical enough to admit sex differences and other population variations will likely recoil. The suggestion may normalize bestiality, they’ll protest, not to mention the worst justifications for exploitation and genocide, and shaming perfectly healthy human miscegenation.

    Fine we don’t have to go there (and potentially disaster if we did) but let’s be clear to ourselves how we are all operating under antiscientific taboo, even if we are among those willing to admit there are average differences between identity groups. This is just as Western societies insist on covering their women even if not all the way to hijab. Ideological purity on either side may be overrated in practice. Maintaining a mutually productive stalemate, at least outwardly, is often better.

  27. IQ variability hypothesis …Right now, this does not seem to be well explained if the underlying issue in the original studies is genetic …

    These articles have some background on the genetic basis of the difference in variation, and attribute it partly to genes on the X-chromosome.

    “An analysis of mental test scores from six studies that used national probability samples provided evidence that although average sex differences have been generally small and stable over time, the test scores of males consistently have larger variance. Except in tests of reading comprehension, perceptual speed, and associative memory, males typically outnumber females substantially among high-scoring individuals.”

    X-linked genes and mental functioning

    Genes for Cognitive Function: Developments on the X [chromosome]

    But, how many times do we see this hypothesis presented as fact already?

    Probably until someone has data which falsifies it. As you imply, two problems with a lot of personality/cognition studies are
    – the WEIRD factor.
    – they’re often done on children rather than adults. The brain continues to develop into a person’s 20s and sex difference are likely to be greater for 25 year-olds than for 12 or 15 year-olds.

    Don’t know what the answer is… findings that may affect policy and status will always be misused.

    Hiding information is a better way.

  28. It occurs to me that the differences in the sexes didn’t begin 6 million years ago but back when sexes were “invented” by evolution long before humans emerged.

  29. To me the definitions of subspecies, races, demes seems more or less subjective. Are “Old Order” Amish a race, since they have recently started to practice breeding insulation? Or do we have to wait for physiological differences? This old paper seems to demolish the idea raised in this thread that medical differences easily appends to socially constructed races:

    “The finding that the demographic group called ‘African American’ has a higher prevalence of prostate cancer, obesity and hypertension is not to be denied. This does not mean, however, that this is a ‘racial’ phenomenon, as disease is probably due to gene-environment interaction and not linked to the physical traits assumed to covary with this population. This group has heterogeneous ancestral continental origins, predominantly West African and West Central African. They are heterogeneous in their African origins also. Continental African immigrants to the US, including some suprasaharan Africans (e.g., Tunisians and Egyptians) sometimes call themselves ‘African Americans’, which is true as an epithet but false as a marker of the bioethnic history of those whose ancestors share the experiences of the Middle Passage and slavery. It is this history, and its constituent elements, that are specific to the group. The Middle Passage African descendants, whether in North America or South America, do have a particular biocultural history34. It may be necessary to craft specific group identifiers to facilitate good research design2.

    [ ; my bold]

    And there is the larger problem of related populations that were isolated far longer than the fairly recent Out Of Africa migration. There is a recent paper that claims that if there were any subspecies differences between Moderns and Neanderthals they don’t show up in breeding reluctance. Apparently alleles in today’s humans can be predicted solely based on population sizes and the observed lower fitness of the alleles of more severely bottlenecked Neanderthals. If anything these apparent geologically isolated subspecies (Moderns, neanderthals, denisovans, perhaps even fossil H. erectus as the 4th ghost lineage seen) would be taxonomic races of humans, I guess.

    That trend in less diversity in the human lineage is mirrored in the sex differences. So if there ever were parts of behavioral differences caused by differences in genetics in both these cases, how large are they now? At a guess still roughly 50 % biological/50 % cultural as so often for complex behaviors,

    So, good for Stern.

  30. “My own take is that the separation of human subgroups has been so recent that there hasn’t been a lot of time for extensive genetic differences to evolve, though clearly there’s been time for marked physical differences to evolve. ”

    That’s silly: behavioral traits have substantial heritability, so don’t take longer than physical traits to respond to selective pressures. They could have changed substantially over recorded history – of course, some human populations have been separated far longer than that.

    Most modern breeds of dogs are quite recent (last couple of centuries) and they exhibit lots of baked-in behavioral differences. Watch a border collie herd people at a cocktail party.

    Babies from different ethnic groups (races) act differently the day they’re born:
    see Dan Freedman’s babies.

    1. You have a point, but response equals heritability times selection differential, and my feeling is that divergent selection for mental or behavioral traits among populations wasn’t as strong as for physical traits causing direct adaptation towards climate, or perhaps for sexually selected differences in appearance.

      By the way, read the Roolz. You can make your point without calling your host “silly.”

  31. Hello,

    Gender differences in intelligence and behavior are both real and mostly biological in origin. Even babies seem to have innate toy preferences. There has been plenty of research which demonstrates that this is true, and it is hard to understand how these humanities departments can keep getting away with the willful ignorance of supporting the social construct belief. For a complete overview of the research relating to sex differences in intelligence, and how those come about biologically, I suggest the book “smart and sexy” by Roderick Kaine.

  32. Sometimes I wonder if this is an outgrowth of hammer-centric thinking. Social scientists analyze human behavior and society, and their tools are all oriented towards explaining social topics. Throw in ideological predisposition and academic territoriality (see also: complaints about ‘economics imperialism’)and you get a field ill-equipped to admit e.g. biological explanations* for social phenomena.

    *which, it should be noted, need not be genetic. I vaguely recall a developmental economist talking about how distributing multivitamins to African children had a far more dramatic impact on outcomes than a number of substantially more expensive social interventions

  33. Sam Harris recently had this conversation on his podcast with Gad Saad. They both seem to agree that yes, of course, genetic differences between the sexes must exist, but Sam seems to be sympathetic with the view that people who devote their entire lives to finding them may have ulterior motives.

    It was a great discussion involving many other topics, including Islam and immigration. I highly recommend it.

  34. FYI. At least some of the literature Stern is citing investigated gender/sex differences in time spent performing routine housework. These differences range considerably across countries, over time, and they also vary within countries based on, for example, the educational composition of the couple. Biological differences between men and women may explain some portion of the division of household labor between married heterosexual couples, but surely cultural/social/economic/structural/historical context is shaping housework behavior more so.

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