October 20, 2006

More than Genes

Filed under: criticism, science — ted @ 4:52 pm

This brief report from today’s Seed has me pretty excited: How to Make Women Flunk Math. As the article notes, research on “gender differences” in the brains of men and women has been a hot topic of late, particularly last year in the wake of Harvard president Larry Summer’s comments concerning the dearth of women in prominent math and science research positions.

Basically, the study shows that women perform worse on math tests after reading fake “research papers” arguing that men were better than women at math:

New research shows that when women believe they are genetically bad at math, the belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

When it comes to mathematics, the divide between men’s and women’s talents may be due to misinformation more than genetic destiny, new research in this western Canadian city suggests.

A report published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science showed that women exposed to theories saying females are genetically bad at math performed far worse on math tests than women who had not been exposed to such beliefs.

To me, this is yet another demonstration of the fact that information, and how we interpret it, is just as essential to our understanding and mental performance as the wiring of our brains. It’s only one study, and genetics is a brand-new field. I have little doubt that in fifty years geneticists will have proved things about our minds that now seem impossible. But I have to believe that, although there are plenty of tendencies instilled in us as a result of chemistry and upbringing, our minds are capable of rising above them.

This seems like an obvious, and even perhaps trite, observation, and I know that I am oversimplifying and that scientific data always wins. But determinism, as a philosophy, is far from dead, especially as genetics and neuroscience become more adept at explaining human behavior. Determinism will always be a tempting trap — but we must fight consistently, as Saul Bellow reminds us, to “emerge intact from the grip of those would-be dominators.” In Bellow’s work, the dominators were of the old-school variety: class, race, and sense of oneself. Chemistry, or in this case our understanding of it, is a more powerful foe — but, as this study shows, it is often our perception of our mind, rather than our mind itself, which defeats us.



  1. I love this post.

    Comment by sniv — October 21, 2006 @ 12:41 am

  2. Aw, shucks…

    Comment by edwardhenry — October 21, 2006 @ 5:58 pm

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