In the 21st century, it has become taboo to say that men and women differ with respects to their skill-set and mental functioning; and hence, the types of work and activities they’re best suited for. At least that’s the case in some “highly developed nations”, such as in Norway, where I live.
Nobody denies that men and women differ with respect to their muscular strength and body composition. That’s clearly visible to the naked eye, and not really up for discussion. I think a lot of people also know deep down that gender differences extend far beyond those directly related to our physical appearance; however, not many are prepared to say so out loud, in part because it’s against social customs to do so.
We’ve been fed this idea that physical disparities aside, men and women don’t really differ much. Political figures, as well as some loud-spoken activists, try to squeeze everyone, irrespective of sex, into one box. As I see it, that’s a big problem, as it goes against Darwinian logic and could undermine our productiveness and ability to excel as a species, as well as potentially our health and well-being.
Recent events bring up questions related to the workings of the male brain vs. the female one
Yesterday, Magnus Carlsen – a Norwegian who’s long held the title as the best chess player in the world – won this year’s world championship in blitz chess – a type of chess in which each player is only allowed a couple of minutes thinking time in each game. Carlsen has been the highest rated player in the world for many years and has a total of 10 world championship titles in the box, counting titles in rapid and blitz chess.
I’ve personally played quite a bit of chess (I actually played Carlsen once when I was younger), which is part of the reason why I think it’s interesting to follow such tournaments. I haven’t put that much work into the game; consequently, I’m not a particularly strong player. I’m certainly not awful though.
One question that’s often brought up in light of such events is the question of why all of the top chess players in the world are male. There’s never been a female world champion. Not only that, but only a very small number of women have ever made it into the top field of players. With the exception of Judit Polgar and a couple of others, women have been at a level below the men. The gender gap is highlighted in tournaments such as the recently finished World Blitz Chess Championship, which had two main groups: one open group in which both men and women were allowed to participate, and one group exclusively for women. Not surprisingly, the former group was dominated by males.
The politically correct answer as to why men have long been at the top in the game of chess is simply that a lot more men than women play chess. There’s undeniably a lot of truth to this explanation. There’s no doubt that part of the reason why all of the very best chess players in the world are men is that it’s a lot more common for men than women to play chess. If the ratio of men to women in a sport is let’s say 30 to 1 (I don’t know what the actual number is in chess), then it goes without saying that the sport is likely to be ruled by men.
As for why more males than females take up the game of chess to begin with, cultural reasons are typically invoked: «it’s simply tradition that more men than women play chess». Again, there’s some truth to such a statement. With that being said, we also need to take into account that men and women differ biologically.
Biological considerations are often left unvoiced, either unintentionally, or deliberately, because it goes against social customs to bring it up. The chess players who have brought up the idea that men are better suited for chess than women, biologically speaking, including Bobby Fischer and more recently the chess player and commentator Nigel Short, have been strongly criticized (at least by some) for their views. In particular Fischer didn’t express himself in the nicest of ways; hence, it could be argued that he deserves to be knocked down. With that being said, I’m not sure if it’s wise to try to squash the argument, as doing so would keep us from getting to the truth.
The hard reality is that the brains of men and women are wired differently. I don’t find it the least bit surprising that the top field of the game of chess has always been dominated by men, nor that more men than women take up the game.
Even if the ratio of men to women in chess had been 1 to 1, chances are most of the top players in the world would be male. More women would undoubtedly be fighting closer to the top, but as I see it, it’s highly unlikely that the ratio of male to female top players would be 1 to 1, or even close to it. The reason I make such an “outrageous” statement is that the principle traits and qualities that are critical in the game of chess are more important in the types of activities that men have historically engaged in than in those that have occupied women’s time and resources.
Given that this is the case, it follows that there’s been more of an impetus on natural selection to provide and enhance the relevant traits in men than in women. I’m particularly thinking about traits related to strategic and creative thinking. It’s not by coincidence that all strategic sports and games, ranking from chess to World of Warcraft to poker, are dominated by individuals who are built on the basis of genes contained within both X and Y chromosomes. Nor that more males are inclined to take up such activities.
I have quite a bit of experience working with children. One of the things that’s readily apparent to anyone who regularly observes groups of kids is that boys and girls differ with respects to the types of activities they’re drawn to. Soccer and chess, for example, are a lot more popular among boys than among girls, who tend to be more drawn to and be better at activities such as drawing. There’s obviously some overlap; however, nobody who’s worked with children can deny that gender differences exist. That’s certainly not just a consequence of cultural influences.
Men and women have historically engaged in different activities and had different responsibilities; hence, it follows that natural selection has equipped us with different traits
It’s important to remember that humans are no different from other organisms in that we were shaped via Darwinian selection over eons of evolutionary time. Men and women have historically engaged in different activities and had different roles and responsibilities. The primary reason why that is the case is that women are capable of manufacturing offspring and giving birth, whereas men are not. Natural selection has obviously “taken this into account” as it has shaped our bodies and brains.
Basic evolutionary logic dictates that organisms are equipped with a suite of features that allow them to conduct the types of tasks that they need to be able to perform in order to survive and reproduce in a specific milieu. Those that have the features that work best under the existing environmental conditions have an advantage and are more likely to pass on their genes to future generations than organisms that are not as well suited to the current environment. As a result, the beneficial features will become more common over time.
The features that are under selection obviously don’t just include traits that have to do with muscular strength and body composition, but also characteristics that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye, such as traits related to metabolism, libido, and the workings of the brain. These inherent, genetically encoded characteristics greatly contribute to shaping how organisms function and behave.
The notion that there are sex-related differences in brain morphology and functionality and that men and women differ with respects to their behavior and performance of certain tasks is supported by a number of scientific studies (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
What’s important to point out though is that it doesn’t really make sense, in an evolutionary sense, to say that one thing is better than the other. The fact that there’s variation in nature merely reflects the fact that nature is an ever-changing, variable place. It doesn’t really make any sense to say that a tiger is better than a frog or that a rose is better than a petunia. Nor does it make Darwinian sense to say that women are better than men or that men are better than women. We’re inherently suited for different tasks and activities, but that’s just because evolution made us that way.
It makes sense to look to our hunter-gatherer past for clues as to how we’re wired, as that past makes up more than 99.5% of our genus’ evolutionary history
Most of human evolution took place in a natural environment largely unperturbed by human activities; hence, it makes obvious sense to look to hunter-gatherer societies for clues about what makes each gender unique. In hunter-gatherer societies, there’s a division of labor. Whereas the women generally stay close to camp, typically caring for children and foraging for plant foods and small animals such as insects, it’s common for men to go out on long hunts.
It’s important to point out that the process of producing, nourishing, and raising children involved a lot more work in the past than it does now. Females of the past didn’t have the option of hiring a nanny, giving their kids infant formula instead of breast milk, or sending their children to a kindergarten. Moreover, they didn’t have access to contraceptives and hence, typically gave birth to many children and spent a large portion of their lives being pregnant. Men were also involved in the care and raising of children, but not in the same way or to the same extent as women, in part because they were occupied with other activities. This is important to recognize, as it has major implications for our understanding of the human psyche, as well as the workings of both men and women.
The insights gained from an examination of the customs of ancestral human societies would lead one to predict that women are generally better at multi-tasking than men (there’s probably some truth to the statement that men have trouble doing more than one thing at the time), seeing as women of the past likely had to juggle several different things at once (e.g., simultaneous child-care and food procurement), and are more caring and in-tune with the feelings of others (in particular the feelings and needs of children). They probably also have a knack for dealing with issues related to the daily maintenance and organization of a camp or household.
Men, on the other hand, probably think in a more analytic and strategic way, and may be better at handling certain types of stress. They are probably also more innovative and take bigger risks than women.
Furthermore, it’s reasonable to assume that both men and women seek out activities and professions that bear resemblance to the types of activities that they’ve historically engaged in, seeing as it makes sense for Darwinian selection to shape organisms in such a way that they derive satisfaction from doing things that enhance their fitness. At the very least, they wouldn’t be disinclined to conduct activities that they need to conduct in order to successfully pass on their genes.
This is consistent with what one can observe, in the sense that it’s reflected in our society. From a Darwinian point of view, it’s not surprising that there are more women than men in professions that involve the care of other people, or that girls tend to have an easier time than boys conforming to the modern school system. Nor is it surprising that the vast majority of entrepreneurs, hunters, chess players, and stock brokers are men.
What about our ability to learn new things and enhance our skills?
Perhaps needless to say, our genetic heritage isn’t the end-all, be-all with respects to how we conduct ourselves. What we do and learn during our lifetime obviously matters as well. It matters a lot. It’s certainly possible to get pretty good at something even if one isn’t “genetically well-prepped” for that activity.
That said, to some extent, we’re all slaves to our biology. It forms the foundation upon which we live and nudges us in a specific direction in life. This is something that’s often overlooked in discussions about gender roles, and something a lot of people, including many politicians and authoritative figures, fail to account for when they plan how our society is to work.
I’d argue that it’s much better to face and try to deal with the truth, which is that men and women inherently differ somewhat with respects to their instincts, proclivities, and skill set, than to live in denial.
Final words and concluding remarks
The purpose with this article is not to try to enlarge the gap between the sexes. Rather, the purpose is to locate and highlight truths. The reason I feel the things I’ve discussed are relevant to Darwinian medicine is that they have to do with evolution. Moreover, they arguably also have to do with human health and well-being. By overlooking our evolutionary history/Darwinian insights and trying to force men and women into the same box, we may actually be undermining our health and well-being, in the sense that we may imprint false illusions and conceptions into people’s minds and push some individuals to take up roles or positions that they aren’t suited for or don’t get satisfaction from. There’s little doubt in my mind that part of the reason why many modern humans are stressed and/or depressed is that we’ve largely overlooked our evolutionary brain legacy as we’ve planned our society and framed the public discussion.