The Sexual Paradox

The-Sexual-Paradox_Book-Cover--172x265Susan Pinker

The Sexual Paradox is one of those instantly-polarizing books, but one can only hope that, in the light of another five years of research, it has begun to lose some of the controversial character of its central claim that differences in gender characteristics are largely biological, intensified but not invented by culture.

After all, is there anyone whom we should take seriously who still claims that human nature in general, and gender characteristics in particular, are exclusively cultural? Surely everyone accepts that there is enough evidence of the existence of innate tendencies and trigger systems that the “blank slate” can be safely retired to the archives of once-dominant but now-discredited theories.

For some “hard” feminist reviewers, that concession certainly wasn’t the case when Pinker’s book was published five years ago. Indeed, Geraldine Bedell’s review in the Guardian concludes with this tart and total dismissal of Pinker’s thesis, in a sentence that amounts to little else than character assassination: “And the fact she doesn’t address the deterministic, regressive implications of her message makes me suspect that she must be complicit in them.” Let’s see. If I understand her correctly, Bedell believes that whether or not an idea has merit depends on how much, or how little, we welcome its implications. She writes, “The trouble with this evolutionary psychobabble is that while it may get us a little way along the road to understanding, it strands us miles from any useful destination.” I’m sure glad that I don’t have to defend that agenda-driven intellectual stance!

Pinker can be understood as a “difference” feminist, one who argues that women’s brains aren’t inferior, but different, from men’s. The partly-favourable New York Times review by Emily Bazelon sympathizes with this position, but it also describes Pinker’s “zeal” as “one-sided.”

We shouldn’t wish the role of sex differences away because they’re at odds with feminist dogma. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for the reductionist version of the relevant science, even if the complexity doesn’t make for as neat a package between hard covers.

Bazelon’s most telling criticism is that “Pinker also skips past an answer to the book’s central question that may have more explanatory power than her other arguments, even if it’s more prosaic and familiar to many a parent.”

Boys lag dramatically behind girls in terms of psychological development and physical resilience and then start to catch up as teenagers, as a long-running and wellknown study Pinker cites documented. Maybe after a few years as girls’ developmental equals, boys are ready to compete in the work force — and then zoom ahead as cultural norms and discrimination push women back. After all, why would girls’ hard-wired predilection against competition stay on ice while they blithely sweep all the academic honors and then kick in only at work?

While I have considerable sympathy for Pinker’s brain-based argument, I have to agree with Bazelon that The Sexual Paradox skips over too much of its subject to be really convincing. And despite her own shrill tone, Bedell is right that as a piece of prose Pinker’s book is too often a piece of “hectic, hectoring business-book prose.” Deep scholarship it isn’t.

It’s not surprising, even if perhaps not very relevant, that The Sexual Paradox echoes much of the evolutionary psychology stance promoted by the author’s more famous brother, Steven. Both Pinkers see much of our behaviour as the direct result of selected adaptations, with human nature generating culture as much as culture conditions our actions.

Susan Pinker is not so naive that she ignores the cultural side of gender differences, but she is quite quick to dismiss them as relatively-unimportant reinforcers. Perhaps a position somewhere nearer the middle is more appropriate. There are places in The Sexual Paradox where the author begins to address such things as the epigenetic influence of early parenting on brain development, but she too quickly returns to a more breathless, journalistic focus.

I’m also not a fan of the journalist’s too frequent reliance on anecdotes, personal histories, and other testimony. It’s not as if the stories of a few top female executives who’ve quit to find a more “fulfilling” life qualify as true research, but given how much space she gives to them, Pinker seems to believe that they do.

All in all, The Sexual Paradox is a book with an important subject — but it’s a subject that’s still in search of a worthy author.


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