[Paleopsych] NYT: Charles Murray: Sex Ed at Harvard (and more)

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Sex Ed at Harvard
New York Times Op-Ed, 5.1.23.

[Two more items beneath.]


FORTY-SIX years ago, in "The Two Cultures," C. P. Snow
famously warned of the dangers when communication breaks
down between the sciences and the humanities. The reaction
to remarks by Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard,
about the differences between men and women was yet another
sign of a breakdown that takes Snow's worries to a new
level: the wholesale denial that certain bodies of
scientific knowledge exist.

Mr. Summers's comments, at a supposedly off-the-record
gathering, were mild. He offered, as an interesting though
unproved possibility, that innate sex differences might
explain why so few women are on science and engineering
faculties, and he told a story about how nature seemed to
trump nurture in his own daughter.

To judge from the subsequent furor, one might conclude that
Mr. Summers was advancing a radical idea backed only by
personal anecdotes and a fringe of cranks. In truth, it's
the other way around. If you were to query all the scholars
who deal professionally with data about the cognitive
repertoires of men and women, all but a fringe would accept
that the sexes are different, and that genes are clearly

How our genetic makeup is implicated remains largely
unknown, but our geneticists and neuroscientists are doing
a great deal of work to unravel the story. When David C.
Geary's landmark book "Male, Female: The Evolution of Human
Sex Differences" was published in 1998, the bibliography of
technical articles ran to 52 pages - and that was seven
years ago. Hundreds if not thousands of articles have been
published since.

This scholarship shows a notable imbalance, however:
scholarship on the environmental sources of male-female
differences tends to be stale (wade through a recent
assessment of 172 studies of gender differences in
parenting involving 28,000 children, and you will discover
that two-thirds of the boys were discouraged from playing
with dolls - but were nurtured pretty much the same as
girls in every other way); but scholarship about innate
male-female differences has the vibrancy and excitement of
an important new field gaining momentum. A recent notable
example is "The Essential Difference," published in 2003 by
Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, which presents a
grand unified theory of male and female cognition that may
well be a historic breakthrough.

"Exciting" is the right word for this work, not
"threatening" or "scary." We may not know the answers yet,
but we can be confident that they will be more interesting
than, say, a discrete gene for science that clicks on for
men differently than it does for women. Rather, it will be
a story of the interaction of many male and female genetic
differences, and the way a person's environment affects
those differences. Hardly any of the answers will lend
themselves to simplistic verdicts of "males are better" or
vice versa. For every time there is such a finding favoring
males, there will be another favoring females.

Some people will find the results threatening - because
some people find any group differences threatening - but
such fears will be misplaced. We may find that innate
differences give men, as a group, an edge over women, as a
group, in producing, say, terrific mathematicians. But
knowing that fact about the group difference will not
change another fact: that some women are terrific
mathematicians. The proportions of men and women
mathematicians may never be equal, but who cares? What's
important is that all women with the potential to become
terrific mathematicians have full opportunity to do so.

Of course, new knowledge will not be without costs. Perhaps
knowing that there is a group difference will discourage
some women from even trying to become mathematicians or
engineers or circus clowns. We - scientists, parents,
educators, employers - must do everything we can to prevent
such unwarranted reactions. And the best way to do that is
to put the individual's abilities, not group membership, at
the center of our attention.

Against the cost of the new knowledge is the far greater
cost of obliviousness, which can lead us to pursue policies
that try to make society conform to expectations that
conflict with what human beings really are. In the study of
gender, large and growing bodies of good science are
helping us understand the sources of human abilities and
limitations. It is time to accept their existence, their
seriousness and their legitimacy.

Charles Murray is a fellow at the American Enterprise



Different but (Probably) Equal
New York Times Op-Ed, 5.1.23

London - HYPOTHESIS: males and females are typically
indistinguishable on the basis of their behaviors and
intellectual abilities.

This is not true for elephants. Females have big
vocabularies and hang out in herds; males tend to live in
solitary splendor, and insofar as they speak at all, their
conversation appears mostly to consist of elephant for "I'm
in the mood, I'm in the mood..."

The hypothesis is not true for zebra finches. Males sing
elaborate songs. Females can't sing at all. A zebra finch
opera would have to have males in all the singing roles.

And it's not true for green spoon worms. This animal, which
lives on the sea floor, has one of the largest known size
differences between male and female: the male is 200,000
times smaller. He spends his whole life in her reproductive
tract, fertilizing eggs by regurgitating sperm through his
mouth. He's so different from his mate that when he was
first discovered by science, he was not recognized as being
a green spoon worm; instead, he was thought to be a

Is it ridiculous to suppose that the hypothesis might not
be true for humans either?

No. But it is not fashionable - as Lawrence Summers,
president of Harvard University, discovered when he
suggested this month that greater intrinsic ability might
be one reason that men are overrepresented at the top
levels of fields involving math, science and engineering.

There are - as the maladroit Mr. Summers should have known
- good reasons it's not fashionable. Beliefs that men are
intrinsically better at this or that have repeatedly led to
discrimination and prejudice, and then they've been proved
to be nonsense. Women were thought not to be world-class
musicians. But when American symphony orchestras introduced
blind auditions in the 1970's - the musician plays behind a
screen so that his or her gender is invisible to those
listening - the number of women offered jobs in
professional orchestras increased.

Similarly, in science, studies of the ways that grant
applications are evaluated have shown that women are more
likely to get financing when those reading the applications
do not know the sex of the applicant. In other words,
there's still plenty of work to do to level the playing
field; there's no reason to suppose there's something
inevitable about the status quo.

All the same, it seems a shame if we can't even voice the
question. Sex differences are fascinating - and entirely
unlike the other biological differences that distinguish
other groups of living things (like populations and
species). Sex differences never arise in isolation, with
females evolving on a mountaintop, say, and males evolving
in a cave. Instead, most genes - and in some species, all
genes - spend equal time in each sex. Many sex differences
are not, therefore, the result of his having one gene while
she has another. Rather, they are attributable to the way
particular genes behave when they find themselves in him
instead of her.

The magnificent difference between male and female green
spoon worms, for example, has nothing to do with their
having different genes: each green spoon worm larva could
go either way. Which sex it becomes depends on whether it
meets a female during its first three weeks of life. If it
meets a female, it becomes male and prepares to
regurgitate; if it doesn't, it becomes female and settles
into a crack on the sea floor.

What's more, the fact that most genes occur in both males
and females can generate interesting sexual tensions. In
male fruit flies, for instance, variants of genes that
confer particular success - which on Mother Nature's abacus
is the number of descendants you have - tend to be
detrimental when they occur in females, and vice versa.
Worse: the bigger the advantage in one sex, the more
detrimental those genes are in the other. This means that,
at least for fruit flies, the same genes that make a male a
Don Juan would also turn a female into a wallflower;
conversely, the genes that make a female a knockout babe
would produce a clumsy fellow with the sex appeal of a cake

But why do sex differences appear at all? They appear when
the secret of success differs for males and females: the
more divergent the paths to success, the more extreme the
physiological differences. Peacocks have huge tails and
strut about because peahens prefer males with big tails.
Bull elephant seals grow to five times the mass of females
because big males are better at monopolizing the beaches
where the females haul out to have sex and give birth.

Meanwhile, the crow-like jackdaw has (as far as we can
tell) no obvious sex differences and appears to lead a life
of devoted monogamy. Here, what works for him also seems to
work for her, though the female is more likely to sit on
the eggs. So by studying the differences - and similarities
- among men and women, we can potentially learn about the
forces that have shaped us in the past.

And I think the news is good. We're not like green spoon
worms or elephant seals, with males and females so
different that aspiring to an egalitarian society would be
ludicrous. And though we may not be jackdaws either - men
and women tend to look different, though even here there's
overlap - it's obvious that where there are intellectual
differences, they are so slight they cannot be prejudged.

The interesting questions are, is there an average
intrinsic difference? And how extensive is the variation? I
would love to know if the averages are the same but the
underlying variation is different - with members of one sex
tending to be either superb or dreadful at particular sorts
of thinking while members of the other are pretty good but
rarely exceptional.

Curiously, such a result could arise even if the forces
shaping men and women have been identical. In some animals
- humans and fruit flies come to mind - males have an X
chromosome and a Y chromosome while females have two X's.
In females, then, extreme effects of genes on one X
chromosome can be offset by the genes on the other. But in
males, there's no hiding your X. In birds and butterflies,
though, it's the other way around: females have a Z
chromosome and a W chromosome, and males snooze along with
two Z's.

The science of sex differences, even in fruit flies and
toads, is a ferociously complex subject. It's also famously
fraught, given its malignant history. In fact, there was a
time not so long ago when I would have balked at the whole
enterprise: the idea there might be intrinsic cognitive
differences between men and women was one I found
insulting. But science is a great persuader. The jackdaws
and spoon worms have forced me to change my mind. Now I'm
keen to know what sets men and women apart - and no longer
afraid of what we may find.

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial
College in London, is the author of "Dr. Tatiana's Sex
Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the
Evolutionary Biology of Sex."



Lawrence Summers, Provocateur
NYT January 23, 2005

LAWRENCE SUMMERS is at it again. Three years had passed
since the blithely tactless president of Harvard University
and former Treasury Secretary said something that grossly
offended one of his institution's core constituencies, and
the academic world generally. (In 2001, he said that
"serious and thoughtful people" - including Harvard
professors - "are advocating and taking actions that are
anti-Semitic in effect if not their intent" and that too
many people - including Harvard professors - "when they
think of police, think too quickly of Chicago in 1968.")

Mr. Summers appeared to have locked himself in whatever
padded room universities presidents normally occupy. And
then, this month, he escaped: He suggested at an economics
conference that the low representation of women scientists
at universities might stem from, among other causes, innate
differences between the sexes.

Mr. Summers's provocative yodel set off a worldwide
avalanche of commentary and condemnation. One of the most
prominent female scientists at M.I.T. walked out in the
middle of the talk; a Harvard faculty committee on women
wrote the president a letter saying he had done grave
damage to the university's reputation.

Mr. Summers was forced to don the hairshirt. He personally
apologized to Harvard's standing committee on women. He
was, he said, only trying to "stimulate various kinds of
statistical research" and was dedicated to increasing the
number of female scientists at Harvard. It may be another
three years at least before Mr. Summers slips out of the
padded room for another talk on the wild side.

And what should we think of that? That is, what are the
obligations of the leaders of the great universities, if
any, toward provoking debate? Are they a species of public
intellectual, or a species of chief executive, responsive
to only their internal constituencies - students, faculty,
alumni donors?

Mr. Summers is an exceedingly rare bird. University
presidents are among the most timorous and emollient of
public speakers. Many of them are undoubtedly sharp-witted
and sharp-tongued in private; but most are so concerned
about offending any constituency that they confine
themselves to stately and orotund utterances. Richard
Freeman, the Harvard economist who organized the
conference, held on Jan. 14, said he asked Mr. Summers to
speak in his capacity as world-class economist, not
institutional leader; otherwise, "he would have given us
the same type of babble that university presidents give."

Some academic leaders do take a stand on public issues, but
most who do align themselves with the forces of
right-thinking opinion. Twenty years ago, A. Bartlett
Giamatti, then the president of Yale, was much admired for
taking on Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. But Mr.
Falwell had few admirers at Yale; a truly courageous
president would have defended him. Much the same is true of
today's many champions of diversity and affirmative action.

It was not always so. In the first half of the 20th
century, there was no bigger bully pulpit than the
presidency of Harvard. Charles Eliot, a vinegary character
who believed that his chief qualification for the job was
"the capacity to inflict pain," played the role of public
seer in the last half of the 19th century. James Bryant
Conant, a champion of the emerging meritocracy of the 30's
and 40's, had the effrontery to propose "wielding the ax
against the root of inherited privilege" through a program
"to confiscate (by constitutional methods) all property
once a generation." A quarter-century later, Kingman
Brewster of Yale, a WASP of antediluvian lineage, committed
class betrayal by suggesting that the Black Panthers could
not get a fair trial in the United States.

Mr. Summers has not achieved, and perhaps has not sought,
this leadership role. Though he has become a hero among
cultural conservatives - a very poor source of street cred,
by the way, in the Ivy League - he has won few converts,
including at Harvard. Perhaps this is because he seems
almost perversely committed to speaking against the grain
of his institution and of academic culture generally.

I spent dozens of hours with Mr. Summers while writing
about him two years ago, and he insisted more than once
that he had no ambition to serve as academia's in-house
neoconservative gadfly. But he did feel that in a time of
suffocating propriety, tact-free speech was a cause as
worthy as laying the ax to inherited privilege had once
been. He talked about the need for tough-mindedness and for
a willingness to challenge orthodoxies.

Mr. Summers may have felt that biological cognitive
difference was just the kind of taboo that demanded
scrutiny; or perhaps he just thought, in his economist's
way, that it was an intriguing speculation worthy of
further research. When Steven Pinker, the Harvard
psychologist who argues that significant innate differences
exist between men and women, was asked by The Harvard
Crimson whether Mr. Summers's remarks were within the pale
of legitimate academic discourse, he said, "Good grief,
shouldn't everything be within the pale of legitimate
academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some
degree of academic rigor?"

But claims of intellectual superiority or inferiority are
not only wounding; they call into question the university's
self-understanding. Nancy Hopkins, the M.I.T. professor who
walked out on Mr. Summers, remarked that Harvard should be
amending its admissions policy if it really believes that
women suffer from an inherent cognitive deficit in the
sciences. After all, if Mr. Summers had made the same
speculation about African-Americans, his comments would
have seemed beyond the pale.

Perhaps Mr. Summers inadvertently bumped up against the
limits of his campaign to anatomize the pieties of academic
culture. But it may be better for Harvard if he doesn't
spend too much time in his padded woodshed.


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