Nature and Nurture

In 1976 a clever American Jew wrote a short but important book which had the effect of several car loads of Semtex exploding at the heart of the debate about sexuality. The book The Inevitability of Patriarchy so incensed the right-on sisters that they lobbied its New York publisher, and it was withdrawn. Only later was it republished in more tolerant England.

Steven Goldberg’s thesis in the book which brought him such grief was that men (for biological reasons wholly beyond their control) are genetically programmed to be more aggressive and self-assertive than women. This has resulted in an observable sociological phenomenon: all recorded societies have been patriarchal. (Goldberg defines a patriarchy as a society in which the principal positions of power and authority are predominantly occupied by males.)

Goldberg hedged around his theory with all sorts of provisos: that the ‘male’ roles for which men compete are not necessarily the most important or the most conducive to human happiness; that female roles of nurture and affirmation may well be more influential in the development of a particular culture. But it was all to no avail. In the Seventies, to suggest that the differences between men and women were innate, and that they resulted in appropriate social structures was so politically incorrect that it had to be silenced. The thought police got Goldberg.

One of the problems about his book, despite the accolades heaped on it by big names like Margaret Meade, was, I have always thought, its style. Variously described by reviewers as ‘tight’, ‘precise’ and ‘forensic’, Goldberg wrote in a taut, academic way, hard on syllogistic argument which brooked no contradiction. The style itself was an offence at the time it was written, when the rhetoric of social theory demanded something softer and more consensual.

Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, there has emerged another book – also by a very clever Jew – which, in essence, repeats Goldberg’s argument of the Seventies. But the new book is reticent in the extreme. Its author, Simon Baron-Cohen (is he the brother of Ali G, I wonder?) is a Cambridge professor of psychology and psychiatry. And he has learned his lesson.

The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (Allen Lane, London 2003, hbk, 264pp, £16.99, ISBN 0 713 99671 4) is abjectly apologetic for even introducing a theory which might upset the ladies:

Discussing sex differences of course drops you straight into the heart of the political correctness debate. Some people say that even looking for sex differences reveals a sexist mind that is looking for ways to perpetuate the historical inequities women have suffered. There is no doubt at all about the reality of the oppression of women, and the last thing I want is to perpetuate this. Nor for that matter do I want to oppress men, which has been the aim of some authors. Questions about sex differences can still be asked without aiming to oppress either sex.

I have spent more than five years writing this book. This is because the topic was just too politically sensitive to complete in the 1990s. I postponed finishing this book because I was unsure whether a discussion of psychological sex differences could proceed dispassionately. Fortunately there are now growing numbers of people, feminists included, who recognize that asking such questions need not lead to the perpetuation of sexual inequalities. In fact, the opposite can be true. It is by acquiring and using knowledge responsibly that sexism can be eliminated. My women friends, most of whom consider themselves feminists, have persuaded me that the time is ripe for such a discussion. My male friends are also beginning to recognize this (p11).

Baron-Cohen’s thesis, if it is disentangled from his theories about autism around which it has developed, is simple to state; men are systematizers, women are empathizers.

Put like that, of course, it seems no more sophisticated than ‘Men are from Mars; women are from Venus’. But ‘one of the most brilliant research psychologists of his generation’ (so Stephen Pinker) is not content with platitudes and commonplaces. His book develops with inexorable but gentle logic, until we are given a final insight into the workings of ‘A Beautiful Mind’. Baron-Cohen, ever attentive to the current popular climate in these things, ends with a short section entitled (perhaps as a compliment to his younger brother?) ‘Respect’. It begins:

When we find someone with the extreme female brain, my guess is that we will also find that society has made it easy for them to find a niche and a value, without that person having to feel that they must in some way hide their system-blindness. I hope that at least one benefit of this book is that society might become more accepting of essential sex differences in the mind, and make it easier for someone with the extreme male brain to find their niche and for us to acknowledge their value. They should not feel the need to hide their mind-blindness (as many currently do).

So there it is. Poor Goldberg! Baron-Cohen helps us to see why his (very similar) book of the Seventies was so ill-received. It was because our society is so conditioned by the presuppositions of the empathizers, that systematic analysis is immediately suspect!

The world has been so feminized that brute logic has been categorized as terminally brutish. Men are the victims. Women, to adapt Shelley’s famous phrase, ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ We are all empathizers now. Baron-Cohen puts it like this:

Furthermore, empathy provides a framework for the development of a moral code. Despite what the Old Testament tells us, moral codes are not found mysteriously carved on tablets of stone up windswept mountains in the Sinai Desert. People build moral codes from natural empathy, fellow feeling and compassion. And although some people believe that legal systems determine how we should act (you may have met some lawyers or traffic wardens like this), such systems are simply an attempt to regulate behaviour. The legal system underpins a moral code. It would be marvellous if systemising, the pure process of logic, could give us a sense of justice and injustice, but, as history has shown us, logic and legal systems can be used to defend autocratic, even genocidal, regimes. Nazism is one of the clearest recent examples of this. (p.27)

So farewell, YHWH! Farewell, Torah! Welcome back, Situation Ethics. The only remaining ethical imperative is to ‘feel the pain’ of the rejected! It is all very familiar.

In the most feminised of all contemporary institutions, the Protestant churches, Baron-Cohen’s assumptions have long prevailed. But his thesis has largely been ignored. ‘His evidence … is magisterial,’ says Helena Cronin in her review of the book. ‘This book is a must for everyone who believes that male and female are social constructs. And it’s a tonic for everyone who doesn’t.’ But will anyone take any notice in the Anglican gender wars, which still rage unabated across the continents?

The campaigns for women in the priesthood and the episcopate were generally inclined to adopt a position described in a lapidary phrase of Bishop Michael Marshall: that ‘men and women are the same thing with different fittings’. But the biological, psychological, psychiatric, sociological and anthropological evidence all now points to this not being the case.

Come back Goldberg, all is forgiven!

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.