Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 3-August-2014.
Years ago I mentioned to a group of female friends that I didn’t think men and women were really that different (well, besides the obvious ones). This caused quite the kerfuffle and led to the conclusion that I was an idiot. Yet, while it seems self-evident that men & women think differently this doesn’t mean that it is true . After all, it wasn’t too long ago were it was “obvious” that race was biology, that the sun circled the earth, and that jorts were a good idea.
A paper published last January caused quite the hubbub when it claimed to find significant differences between male and female brains (Ingalhalikar et al. 2014). Not tested in the paper, however, was whether those differences were cultural (in fact, the differences between sexes increased as the age of the children studied increased, which may suggest that something other than biology was at play). A new study by Daniela Weber and colleagues (2014) investigates the role cultural factors may play in these apparent differences. They do so by examining cognitive task results from surveys of “nonindustrialized” men & women over 50 living in Europe, merging 13 countries into three regional groups and then comparing within and between these populations. The main results are shown in Figure 1.
For episodic memory (how well someone recalls a list of previously read words), women in Northern Europe have a higher average score than men, but the situation is more complex in other regions. Results differed in numeracy & category fluency categories based upon region as well. If you thought male/female difference were hard-wired, this shouldn’t be the case.
What causes these geographic differences? The Nick Wade’s of the world would probably suggest genetic differences are at the heart of the matter, but that does not seem to be the case. Instead access to education, along with other social factors, may be at the root of much of this.
This isn’t the clearest of figures. On the Y-axis is the average level of education for women minus that of men. When the number is negative, men on average spend a longer time in school than women do. On the X-Axis, is women’s cognitive performance minus men’s cognitive performance. I added colored lines at ‘0’ for each axis. Points to the right of the red line represent cohorts where women outperform men, while points above the blue line are when women have higher levels of education than men. As can be seen, in almost all cases men have reached higher education levels. It is interesting that, for episodic memory, as the mean years of differences in education years decreases, the difference between the sexes also decreases. Or as they put it: “These findings suggest that if women and men had equal levels of education, we should expect a female advantage in episodic memory, a male advantage in numeracy, and no gender differences in category fluency” (Weber et al. 2014:3).
In other words, reducing differences in access to education should lessen the differences in test scores. Trying to discover sex-based differences without acknowledging the role cultural plays is always going to cause anthropologists to be wary so it is nice to see this acknowledged. As noted in the paper, there are many confounding variables that cannot be tested here and it is difficult to rule out decline in mental acumen due to age-related cognitive decline. Further, I wonder about the geographic populations they define. What patterns would emerge if you didn’t group the 13 countries together in the same way as is done in this paper? Also interesting, though not really discussed, is that Northern Europeans (here represented by Denmark & Sweden) did better on all the cognitive assessments.
But it is always nice to see approaches that note that differences may be cultural rather than biological. Oh, and don’t get me started on the blue = boys and girls = pink nonsense.
Ingalhalikar, Madhura, et al. “Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.2 (2014): 823-828.
Weber, Daniela, et al. “The changing face of cognitive gender differences in Europe.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2014): 201319538.
Marc Kissel (Ph.D, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a native New Yorker transplanted into the wilds of the Midwest. His dissertation examined genetic models that try to explain why humans are so inbred compared to the living apes and asks if these models conform to anthropological reality (spoiler alert: they don’t!). He is interested in human evolution and likes to apply mathematical models, genetic data, and anthropology to questions about our evolutionary history (especially Neandertals). Currently he is a postdoc at Notre Dame studying the evolution of wisdom. You can find him him on Twitter @MarcKissel
© 2014 Marc Kissel. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.