Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

To be an effective critical theorist of science, it helps to understand science

Posted 23 Nov 2015 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher EducationAn Unevolved View of Gender Evolution

Although I am sympathetic to a number of the critiques of traditional sexual selection theory, I have to agree with the overall thrust of this book review: if you are going to shine a critical light on scientific understandings of sex differences in humans, you should start by actually understanding what the science has to say. I particularly agree that it is absurd to rail against science that uncovers different average behaviors in men and women: if on average men and women display different behaviors (and the science discovering those differences is sound), then why argue against this reality?

It pays to remember two things when confronted with these sort of realities:

  1. An average is just an average, particularly if the difference between two population averages is not dramatic (in other words, the effect size is small). If variation is great within populations (as is likely the case for many behavioral characteristics of men and women), then the average does little to predict the actual behavior of a given man or woman. What’s scientifically interesting (that men and women may have evolved different behavioral tendencies on average) may not be all that useful in everyday life (don’t assume that you can meaningfully predict the behavior of the men and women you encounter based on knowledge of the average behavior of their population). This understanding of averages and distributions is basic science.
  2. Discovering a scientific reality creates no obligation to react to that reality in any particular way. Whatever is prescribes no particular ought. I find it so strange when critics of science, many of whom come from the very social sciences that brought us the valuable is-ought distinction, fight against what is. Presumably they fear that they cannot prevent certain oughts from being falsely derived from what is, but personally I like to keep my reality and my norms separated: we can respond to what we learn about sex differences with whatever culture points us in the direction of what we think ought  to be. Specifically in this situation we could decide — if we think we ought to strive for an egalitarian society (which I do!) — that we want to emphasize educational experiences that reduce and/or augment behavioral tendencies that are stronger or weaker in one sex.

I have not read Mari Ruti’s book, so admittedly I am relying on Melvin Konner’s review to be fair and accurate, but if it is my decision to not bother with these sorts of “critiques of science” is sound.

A Minor Post, Articles, Ethics, MSCI-362, The Evolution of Sex, Sex and Reproduction, Sexual Conflict, Sexual Selection

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