I’m not going to lie—I’m not an expert at biology and sex and I won’t pretend I am. That being said, I will at least try to interpret what I’ve heard in my biology class (“Biology and Evolution of Sex”) and researched in terms of the biological differences between men and women in hopes of better understanding the nature vs. nurture debate.
We’re taught that (human) males are born with both an X and Y chromosome while females have two X chromosomes, causing changes in reproductive parts: men have testes, women have ovaries, men have penises while women have vaginas, etc. Of course, we cannot say that these physical differences contribute to females being girls/women and males being boys/men; in other words, there are other biological reasons as to why these roles are formed.
This article, albeit almost 20 years old, points out some of the overlooked differences. For example, men are more adept at visualizing 3D objects in their heads while women are better at reading people’s emotions. Also, more men than women are left-handed. These trends show sex differences but don’t really explain the behavioral differences. However…
One obvious place to look for gender differences is in the hypothalamus, a lusty little organ perched over the brain stem that, when sufficiently provoked, consumes a person with rage, thirst, hunger or desire. In animals, a region at the front of the organ controls sexual function and is somewhat larger in males than in females….Many researchers suspect that, in humans too, sexual preferences are controlled by the hypothalamus. Based on a study of 41 autopsied brains, Simon LeVay of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies announced last summer that he had found a region in the hypothalamus that was on average twice as large in heterosexual men as in either women or homosexual men. LeVay’s findings support the idea that varying hormone levels before birth may immutably stamp the developing brain in one erotic direction or another.
Another study found that boys responded more aggressively to stressful situations than girls. Testosterone is commonly regarded as the cause for this aggressiveness, as it is the main male androgen, but there is no direct connection and it seems that status has a higher role in determining testosterone levels. When it comes to assumed roles, many tribes have been associated with having the men be the hunters and the women take care of the children, but the opposite is true in others.
All of this research seems to contradict itself: do we really think and act differently from men?
From what I’ve read, and despite finding evidence against some hormone myths, I say yes. We can disagree all we want as to what extent nature creates these differences and socialization steps in, but we cannot say that we are men and women either because of nature or nurture. It is a combination of both to which we understand the world.
Here’s how I see it: when we are born, mothers tend to spend more taking care of us because of natural things, such as the need for breast milk and the recognition/preference for the mother’s voice. When the baby grows older, society tells us that because the woman brought the baby into the world, she should be the one to continue nurturing it as the father takes the dominant role of protecting the family. Eventually, boys are blue, girls are pink; boys play with trucks, girls play with dolls; boys like sports, girls like makeup, and so on. I believe that, given the option of gender-neutral toys, boys would still be inclined to playing with more masculine things, but that does not confine them to it. It is socialization that causes this and what separates us into (socialized) genders rather than just (biological) sexes.
Does this mean we are destined to become socialized into boys and girls, men and women? Not necessarily. There are always cases of people changing their gender or sexual identity and others who simply do not choose to conform to what society expects from that gender. Ideally, children would not have to choose between gender-specific toys and could play with whichever ones they wanted. However, I think parents worry about their children being bullied on the playground for not liking what others from the same gender like, leading them to playing with the opposite gender, causing them so suddenly become homosexual, etc. From my experience, the last two stages are irrational, but I wouldn’t put it past some to believe in them.
Socialization is not the only reason why we are separated into genders, though it is significant. Both nature and nurture are strong forces to which we live our lives, but no two cases are the same in terms of the amount of influence. As much as we may want to, we shouldn’t call socialization a terrible thing, as many of us later choose how we see ourselves on the masculine-feminine spectrum, but we should be aware of it and understand how much it affects us.
In Part 1, I asked for your thoughts on socialization. For Part 2, I would like to know: do you agree/disagree to the effects of nature on sexes/genders? Also, what are some of your experiences with gender-specific and/or gender-neutral objects?
Until next time, have a great Spring Break!
(In case you want more information, here’s a link to more specific information on brain functions: http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n11/mente/eisntein/cerebro-homens.html )