Monday, August 25, 2008
Men or Women: Who’s More Intelligent?
The other day, having my evening tea with friends in the university’s fast food restaurant, one of my well-read friends claimed women to be intellectually inferior to men. Though calling himself a feminist, he went on to assert that women were simply unable to create good literature or make some groundbreaking scientific or intellectual achievement. ‘Why’, said he, ‘are there so few women’s names on the historical records of human intellect? They were, in the 20th century, given complete freedom to pursue education and have other rights.’ I readily came to the defense of the opposite sex by mentioning names of great women writers and scientists, reminding him that a mere half-century of freedom (if really given) should be considered as a factor in contrast to thousands of years of slavery and confinement of women in all human societies.
However, my friend weaseled himself out of the discussion by claiming that the brain characteristics of men have evolved for more intelligent and creative thinking. After the session, I searched the internet and failed to find any study that would definitely prove my friend’s claims. However, I thought of this issue as interesting and important enough to be brought to contemporary writers/readers’ attention. I would love to get everyone’s opinion on it. Please send your brief opinion (up to 300 words) via e-mail (to me at firstname.lastname@example.org) on the question: Are Men more Intelligent than Women? I’ll include the responses in our next issue of The Audience Review. Please include the following information with your opinion: Name, Age, Sex, Profession, Location (City and Country)
At his request, here is my own reply:
Ernest, I pretty much agree with your assessment.
Science has proven there are differences in male and female cognition. See the September 1992 special issue of Scientific American, for example. And a lot has been done even since then, e.g. see Marianne Legato's 2005 book Why Men Remember and Women Never Forget, and the 2006 APA report Why Aren't More Women in Science?. But I'm pretty sure the studies show that overall intelligence averages the same. Even when races were compared (as argued in the infamous Bell Curve) an actual variance of no more than five points in IQ could honestly be maintained (similarly for gender variances according to wikipedia), and though even that has been challenged, one should sooner note that the margin of error for IQ tests is actually greater than five points. For example, when my wife took a bunch of IQ tests she got a variety of scores ranging from 132 to 156, with most landing around 146. Any of those scores, BTW, is quite high. I myself took a smaller raft of IQ tests once upon a time and scored between 136 and 142, so unless I am stupid, women are not. But the point is, if a single test-taker can get a 132 one day and a 156 the next, obviously IQ tests are a very blurry instrument.
But even when broken down by areas of proficiency (e.g. men show greater spacial reasoning, women better verbal reasoning), gender-based differences only exist on an average. The situation is the same for strength: it is misleading to say "women are physically weaker than men," since although that is true on average, it is not an effective predictor of ability, since it is not the case that every man is stronger than every woman.
Although the strongest humans on earth will invariably be men, there are still many women who are extraordinarily strong. And almost any woman can become as strong as an average man with training, even if it's biochemically more difficult for some (e.g. I grow muscle without even trying, while Jen has to work at it). But there are plenty of women who can easily carry me out of a burning building, plus eighty pounds of gear besides (worldclass weightlifter Jill Remiticado, above, weighs only 120 Ibs. but easily lifts twice that). Thus, even when men exceed women at specific forms of cognition (and, BTW, vice versa), there are still plenty of women who do better than the average man, and plenty of men who do worse than the average woman. So you can't make blanket statements based on averages.
The analogy to strength works again to make this point: since female strength breaks down differently when measured anatomically. When at optimal fitness women tend to be stronger than men in their lower body and weaker than men in their upper body (and yet Jill can outlift me by far, so averages hardly matter). Women also on average have greater endurance than men but a lower pain threshold than men. But again, on average does not mean always. And so on. So there is no simple answer to whether men are stronger than women. So, too, for intelligence. But no matter what, just as any fit woman can kick the average man's ass (even Lucy Lawless, famous ass-kicking actress and devoted mother, shown left, used to be an industrial gold miner), any smart girl can out think the average guy. And just as there are plenty of female weightlifters, there are plenty of female geniuses. In fact, I'm pretty sure differences in strength are actually greater by gender than differences in intelligence.
I suspect the reason the genius of women has not become as notable in the records of fame is in part as you say: it is only recently that equal opportunities became available to women. This is directly confirmable from studies of promotion and advancement in academic fields, where only now are prominent positions filling with women and yet are still not at parity (in some cases quite far from it), whereas in lower ranking positions (and in the production of Ph.D.'s) parity has almost been achieved (or even exceeded). Which suggests in a generation or two that parity will spill over into the upper echelons of academics, as this flood of graduates and career achievers becomes the new pool of candidates for elite grants and positions.
Motivation is also a factor, given different learning styles and cultural influences. For example, women do better at math (and get more excited about math) when it is taught differently. This was recently proved, I believe, in a study of teaching styles (if mathematical problems are associated with a story, for example). Likewise, women tend to drop out of career tracks more often than men, due to (among other things) the expectation that they should undertake most of the burden of child rearing (which may be physically unavoidable--paid maternity leave is of no use when that absentee time can only delay advancement and hinder one's ability to keep up with developments in the field). There could be other factors, though they would have to be tested. For example, I would suspect men are innately more likely to have poorer social skills than women, and when you lack social proficiency you will compensate with intellectual proficiency, thus men are disproportionately driven toward the latter, and the more so where compensating with a proficiency in violence and domination (another avenue available to socially inept men) is strongly discouraged or impeded. But again, all of this will have only a statistical effect, not an absolute one. Both men and women defy the averages all the time.
But in the end, I strongly suspect there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here as well: men like Ernest's "well-read friend" are essentially biasing their observations by choosing to praise or notice only men rather than women. In philosophy, if he hasn't heard of Patricia Churchland, Susan Haack, or Philippa Foot, he hasn't been paying attention. You can even be a renowned philosopher and look like a fashion model (Naomi Wolf, right). Likewise, as I've said on my blog before, in my experience the greatest authors of fiction of late are women, by a wide margin IMO. Donna Tartt's Secret History could well be one of the most brilliant literary achievements of the 20th century. Scarlett Thomas and Susanna Clarke also come to mind as authors of fiction the equal of any genius that ever wrote. But it's not like this is new. Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen wrote books that have remained influential best sellers for over a hundred years now.
One could also build quite a list of great women scientists of our own generation, although I suspect that it isn't possible to be a famous scientist anymore, even for men, since the era of great landmark theory discovery is over. After all, who can name any man born after 1950 who is actually famous for discovering something? Nevertheless, if you actually try to sort the signal from the noise you'll see great discoveries being made all the time. I find Linda Buck's work on the olfactory system quite ground-breaking, Elizabeth Loftus on memory and cognition has been incredibly influential, Lene Vestergaard Hau has led the field on Bose-Einstein condensates, and Janet Conrad is one of the world's leading experts in particle physics (and so on: in physics alone there are many other top women scientists profiled at MSNBC, where one can also see that genius does not exist in inverse proportion to hotness: take a gander at leading theoretical physicist Marcela Carena, left).
But sticking to what I know best, some of the greatest historians of our generation are women. Just in my own field (ancient science and technology) I myself aspire to be as superb a writer and historical analyst as Tracy Rihll, whose The Catapult: A History is without doubt the most decisive and influential work in the field ever written and will likely remain the lead text on the subject for centuries. Even apart from the subject field, but just as a writer and a historian, I challenge anyone to find any man who beats her work on any measure. Indeed, I would ask the same for Serafina Cuomo, whose work on ancient mathematics and technological culture is simply superb (for my review of the most recent books by Rihll and Cuomo see my blog From Catapults to Cosmology).
As I further noted on my blog about Books on Ancient Science, almost on par with them in ability and achievement are Marianne Stern (on ancient glassmaking), Karin Tybjerg (Roman mechanics and philosophy of technology), Sylvia Berryman (ancient physics and mechanics), Astrid Schürmann (Roman mechanics and engineering), Liba Taub (astronomy and meteorology), Tamsyn Barton (astrology and rhetoric), Georgia Irby-Massie (alchemy and natural history, shown at right), Adrienne Mayor (ancient geology and paleontology), and Joyce Reynolds and Mary Beagon (Roman natural history). And that's just in one tiny specialized field, and only because it's the one I know well. If there are that many brilliant female historians in that single field, surely there are as many in others as well. Even from my list, I must call attention to the fact that not only are these women excellent historians, but they are masters of science and mathematics and mechanics and technology as subjects of study, in defiance of all stereotypes. In many cases these women are the world's leading experts on their specific subjects of study, an honor once only occupied by men.
So there is no doubt women are producing products of genius matching those of men. So could it be that the problem isn't with them, but with crypto-sexists who fail to notice them or give them the praise they are due?