Geoffrey Kirk notes the continuing research on male-female difference, and suggest that the jury is still out on a definitive conclusion

You cannot, as John Hunwicke has cogently and wittily pointed out (Consecrated Women? : A Comparison, FiF, £2·50) have it both ways. Either the ancient world was so debilitatingly patriarchal that even the incarnate Son of God dare not challenge its prejudices, or the early Church was so open to the Spirit of Jesus that it was awash with women ministers. Either/or: both is not an option.

The same, of course, is true in the sphere of anthropology. Either there is no essential difference between women and men (so there can be no objection to women being priests); or there are essential and important differences (which will allow women to bring new and valuable gifts to the priesthood, and which demand that women be admitted to Holy Orders). But you cannot have both.

As this column has repeatedly pointed out, like the historical record, the biological facts are the object of constant research. We can expect, in due time, an irrefutable conclusion about both. They cannot remain, in a louche, post-modernist sort of way, mere matters of opinion.

At the moment all the evidence seems to be going against those who (in Bishop Michael Marshall’s lapidary phrase) think that men and women are ‘simply the same thing with different fittings.’ Steven Goldberg’s eloquent book ‘The Inevitability of Patriarchy’ [William Morrow, & Company, New York. 1973] began the trend. Numbers of studies bearing out Goldberg’s thesis in interesting and related ways have followed – most recently, as cited in this column, Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference [Allen Lane, 2003] and Steven Rhoads’s Taking Sex Differences Seriously [Encounter Books, 2004]. Latest on the scene is Leonard Sax’s Why Gender Matters [Random House 2005].

Sax, an educational psychologist, takes issue with the modern tendency toward gender-neutral child-rearing. According to this theory boys and girls behave differently because of the way they are educated, or because of cultural factors. Sax describes how in the mid-1990s he began to see more and more young boys arrive at his office with requests for medication, due to their supposed attention-deficit disorder.

This experience sparked off Sax’s interest in the subject of sex-based differences. His research showed that behavioural differences are not just caused by cultural factors. Research into men and women who have suffered strokes reveals that in men the left and right hemispheres of the brain are strongly compartmentalized, with the former dedicated to verbal skills and the latter to spatial functions. This division does not exist in women, who use both hemispheres of the brain for language.

And analysis of human brain tissue shows that there is a difference in its composition, at the level of the proteins. This difference is not due to hormonal changes that occur at puberty, but is something innate and is present even in children.

Notable differences also exist in how emotions are handled. Children are generally not capable of analyzing their emotions, because this area of their brain has not yet developed. In adolescence, emotions are increasingly dealt with by the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions.

But this change is far more pronounced in girls’ brains than in those of boys. So, if at school adolescents are asked by their teachers to write or talk about their emotions this places boys at a disadvantage.

Another area with marked differences between males and females is in the willingness to accept risk. Most boys enjoy taking risks, and are also impressed by other boys who take risks. This is not the same for girls, who generally are less likely to seek out risky situations just for the sake of it. Boys are also more likely to disobey their parents when told not do something risky.

Sax explained that while boys enjoy doing risky things, they also systematically overestimate their own ability, whereas girls are likely to underestimate it. Researchers at Boston University noted that, for example, almost all drowning victims are male. They concluded that a major contributing factor to this was that males consistently overestimated their swimming ability.

Learning methods between the sexes vary greatly too. Most girls, Sax explained, naturally tend to seek out a teacher’s help, are more likely to follow instructions, and to do their homework. Boys, by contrast, will generally only consult a teacher as a last resort and are less likely to study if they find a subject uninteresting.

Sax is careful to point out that every child is unique and, also, that not all boys or all girls are the same. At the same time, he writes, this ‘should not blind us to the fact that gender is one of the two great organizing principles in child development – the other principle being age.’

Girls and boys, he explains, differ substantially in the speed with which their brains mature. The various regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared to boys. Therefore, rather than saying that boys develop more slowly than girls, it is more accurate to affirm that girls and boys develop at a different pace. Language skills develop earlier in girls, for example, while spatial memory matures earlier in boys.

In fact, Sax argued, these differences in cerebral capacities between the sexes are larger and more important during childhood and adolescence than the differences between adults, when both males and females have reached full maturity.

Of course, none of this answers the question of exactly how boys and girls should be educated, or even whether or not they should be educated separately. Nor does it have any immediate relevance to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. What it does suggest is that the jury is still out on matters which some have supposed to be settled beyond peradventure, and on the strength of which they have made changes which it may be very difficult to reverse.

If, as is rumoured, the last Pope, close to death, replied to a question about his opposition to women’s ordination with the single phrase, ‘It’s all in the anthropology’, then he was probably, in this as in much else, showing that he was ahead of the game.