30 August, 2009

Nature Vs. Nurture

Caution, pseudo-scientific ramblings ahead.

I've seen this argument come up a lot. Generally, when a feminist or whatever mentions inequality (such as the gender pay gap), someone brings up the argument that
"The most likely cause of these gender-based psychological differentials is the structure and function of the male brain. Which in turn can be traced back to our genetic hard-wiring."
Yup, we're all just wired that way. Girls are hard-wired to like pink and ponies and babies and cooking. Boys are hard-wired to like race cars and combat boots and running into each other at high speeds.

Of course, I call bullshit.

I present you with some anecdata:
As a lot of you already know, I work in the childcare industry. I know, I know, a woman working in a female-dominated industry, how feminist of me ;) Anyway, I have the amazing opportunity to observe many children growing up. I won't pretend to be an expert on this, because, after all, I'm new in the industry, but there are some trends I have noticed.

Let's take the child I will refer to as G. When I started work at the centre, G was in the toddler room. G was a very sweet little toddler. He would talk to me a lot (he was a big talker) and would often play tea-party with me. He made me imaginary tea and cakes, and had great fun caring for baby dolls or pretending to vacuuming the floor, or telling me how much he loved corn while eating it kernel by kernel.

Now? Well, now G is in the kindy room. He rarely talks to me, won't accept hugs anymore, won't go near the dolls because they are "girly", thinks tea parties are stupid.
And so I wonder, what precisely is it that made him change so much? If it was simply a matter of nature, why wasn't he aggressive earlier? There were plenty of aggressive children, both male and female, that he could have chosen to play with but didn't.

Throughout the centre, gender differences become more obvious the higher the age of the children. The children in the babies room don't have the same segregation as far as interests and activities are concerned. That's not to say that they don't all have distinct personalities. Even the youngest baby will have its own personality. But they don't seem to notice the gender differences.

The toddler room? Also not segregated. the toddlers don't seem to notice gender differences, and they certainly don't act differently be they male or female. The same number of boys and girls are playing with the prams as are sitting in a corner with cars as are constantly asking me to read to them or swing them around or chase them.

But when we reach the kindy room, suddenly everything is different. Suddenly girls are playing in the home corner and boys are playing with the trains. G and T, two boys who have moved to the kindy room since I began, occasionally played with the dolls, but slowly gave it up.
This leads me to believe that Nurture, not Nature, is the reason for a lot of gender discrepancies we see in adults.

Secondly, the theory that our brains are "hard-wired" is just ludicrous! Haven't you heard? The Brain Is Plastic!
As Marguerite Holloway says in Scientific American:
"It is as if the brain is a vast floodplain. One year the water might run eastward in a series of small channels; the next it might cut a river deep through the center. A year later, and a map of the floodplain looks completely different: streams are meandering to the west. It is the same with a brain, the argument goes. Change the input--be it a behavior, a mental exercise, such as calculating a tip or playing a new board game, or a physical skill--and the brain changes accordingly."
So don't you think it's worth considering that a lot of these "scientific differences" described in books such as Why Men Want Sex & Women Need Love (Alan and Barbara Peace) can be explained by socialisation? Perhaps it is socialisation causing these differences, and not innate gender differences?


dinana said...

My male cousin loved playing with dolls when he was younger, as well as wearing dresses and make-up, because his older sister and myself did those things. His mum actually had to talk him out of wearing a dress, or make-up, or both to his first day of school, because she didn't want him to get bullied. Not long after starting school, he realised that skirts,make-up and dolls were girl things and rapidly lost interest.

hmphh said...

If you are interested into getting into the theoretical side of this, there are some excellent books out there by academics who are interested in deconstructing gender identity in the early years. A book called "playing it straight" by Mindy Blaise examines a preshool in America and looks at how children in the 4-6 (I think) age range monitor and reinforce other children's gender performances. Not just gender, but also the way that heterosexuality is reinforced. (Disclaimer, Mindy was my supervisor for my thesis, so of course I think her work is fabuluous!)