A LITTLE SEX STILL GOES A LONG WAY,
WHETHER WE KNOW IT OR NOT
Biological explanations have often been ignored in the social sciences, especially in those disciplines in which they might be expected to play a significant role, e.g., Women's Studies. To illustrate the influence of biological factors on human behavior, a core set of sex-related biological characteristics is used as background to expand an understanding of male-female communication.
One could easily get the impression that for the past few decades social scientists have been silently intoning the lyrics of a 1950's popular song which starts out with the words, "Don't know much about biology...." Perhaps in reaction to Freud's pronouncement that "biology is destiny" or maybe as a result of the widespread political abuses of perceived racial differences that have characterized the twentieth century, sociology in particular (at least until very recently) has tended to either ignore biology or to dismiss it as irrelevant. Even in disciplines where such knowledge would be thought inescapable --women's and feminist studies are the primary areas that come to mind--the baby of biological fact is still too often thrown out with the bath waters of deterministic theory.
This is somewhat surprising, since the avowed premise of these two infant disciplines in particular is that human societies are dramatically shaped and continually affected by matters of sex and gender--matters which are rooted in those differences between males and females which are connected to the specializations of a bisexually reproducing species. And even where the conclusion reigns that sex and gender distinctions are socially constructed, they are observed to occur not just randomly, but on a remarkably consistent biological substrate.
This may belabor the obvious. Yet much of the course work and literature found in women's and feminist studies (as well as much of sociology in general) seems to avoid many of the facts and implications of human biology. Where biological differences are not ignored, they are often minimized or dismissed. At the same time, the central thesis--the raison d'etre of these new disciplines is that people behave and are treated in significantly different ways by virtue of their biological sex and their social gender. If biology is eliminated as even a partial explanation, socio-cultural accounts are all that remain, and students are left to conclude that the behavioral differences between females and males result solely from the nurture side of the nature -nurture continuum.
This lopsidedness reminds us once again that science is never conducted in a vacuum, that ultimately all human behavior--including the behavior of social scientists--has political dimensions. This is, in fact, one of the major insights of the new critical scholarship associated with both women's and feminist studies. But the knife cuts both ways. Women's and feminist studies themselves are also likely to be to some degree political--in origin, by implication, or through design.1
However, this is not the place to argue that issue. Instead, I would like to offer an illustration of how it can be helpful to bring biology back in to the complex task of understanding human behavior.
The biology of sex is pertinent to an understanding of human behavior for at least two reasons. First, the human animal, physiologically relatively unchanged for the past 50,000 years or so, arrived at its current phenotype through a process of biological evolution. The current configuration of the human animal, including those differential characteristics associated with sex, is the result of this biological development.
Second, whether or not these biological differences always express themselves in ways that are socially visible, they are present, and they are significant enough to constitute a primary organizing principle for all human societies. To dismiss the universality of this pattern or to treat it as simply an expression of bigoted male chauvinism or scurrilous patriarchy is to ignore an important dynamic of social functioning.
One reason that we hesitate to recognize the differences that biology introduces into the human social equation, is that to do so confronts us with a very complicated question: What are the biological differences and what differences do they make in the behaviors of males and females? Since biology interacts with culture even before the moment of conception, the question is all the more difficult to answer.2
For over a decade, a colleague and I have been team-teaching a sex roles course. The biological core of this course rests on a set of sex-related characteristics. These characteristics have been central in shaping human societies across the vast expanse of time and culture, and we believe they continue to express themselves in the ordinary behavior of males and females today.
Let me state them in the form of the following generalizations:
1. Females exhibit lower levels of the sex hormone testosterone, and they display overall lesser amounts of physical aggression than males;
2. Males consistently demonstrate a greater vital capacity, higher metabolism, higher muscle to fat ratio, greater upper body strength, and the ability to put out higher bursts of energy for short periods than females;
3. Females are more biologically robust, subject to fewer genetic defects and developmental malfunctions, and have a lower death rate and a greater life expectancy at all ages than males;
4. Males and females experience the early stages of life quite differently: gestation, birth, lactation, nurturance and socialization are largely same-sex experiences for females and cross-sex experiences for males;
5. As biological organisms males and females have apparently evolved divergent strategies for reproduction--for males a strategy of widespread, promiscuous insemination, for females a strategy of limited, conservative conception;
6. Females and males experience the procreative act in opposite ways--the female is intruded upon, penetrated by the male, while the male extrudes, does the penetrating. So as not to unduly portray the female as passive and the male as active, one could also say that the female incorporates or envelopes the male, while the male is incorporated or enveloped. But however stated, the male still must actively establish and maintain an erection for procreation to occur.
7. Male sexuality appears to operate more prominently as a motivational factor in cross-sex relationships and it tends to be highly focused and localized, largely on the genitals.3
These statements are only true to a greater or lesser degree; they are certainly not true in every case. There is, as we all know, a large degree of overlap between the sexes. Biology overlaps, yet differences still persist. A knowledge of these differences can help us make sense of personal, everyday occurrences and improve our capacity to cope with them more effectively. In the process, we take one more step toward a more complete understanding of the many behavioral patterns and conflicts that occur between men and women.
The following is an example of this, motivated in part by a recently published book by linguist Deborah Tannen called You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Although Dr. Tannen includes such imaginatively titled chapters as "Different Words, Different Worlds" and "Asymmetries: Women and Men Talking at Cross Purposes", nowhere in this highly popular and well-received explanation of gender differences in conversational style is there a single reference to biology. Herewith is a partial remedy to this oversight, an illustration of how our understanding of behavior between the sexes can be expanded by incorporating what we do know about biology.
IS HE YELLING OR NOT?
Imagine a wife and husband talking about something with which they are not in agreement. As their differences become more apparent the intensity and fervor of their voices mount. When asked, he says they are having a conversation; she says it is an argument. As they continue, the loudness of their voices increases directly in proportion to the extent of their disagreement. Suddenly she says, "Stop yelling at me!" Quickly he responds, "I'm not yelling! Anyway, stick with the issue," he continues, "and stop getting us sidetracked!"
This is not an unusual interchange. In fact, men and women often report and can be observed having this kind of communication with one another. A recurring pattern such as this suggests that something more is going on than first meets the eye--or, in this case, the ear. We all know that communication is affected by individual styles and idiosyncrasies, and that couples also have their distinct characteristics. But these factors don't go far in explaining the frequency of this type of exchange. What is going in this imaginary vignette? Is he yelling or not? And is her focus on his loudness relevant to the substance of their discussion?
There are some important answers to these questions that illuminate more than just the way that married couples converse with one another. They turn, at least in part, on the fact that men and women communicate not only across different social experiences and disparate sub-cultural worlds, but through distinctive biological organisms as well.
Part of understanding the answers also involves a different understanding of ourselves. Just as each one of us is separate and unique, each one of us also mirrors the groups to which we belong. To a greater or lesser extent we embody and exhibit these collective characteristics as well. Recognizing that our personalities are socially embedded may be both difficult and disconcerting since we each feel we are rooted in our own particular set of individual experiences. But the fact is that we share many qualities--biological endowments, as well as cultural values and social behaviors--with others.
SOME BIOLOGICAL ANSWERS
To more fully understand this imaginary interaction between husband and wife, and between biology and behavior, let us begin the fact that adult men and women have important differences in their respective hearing capacities. Women not only are more sensitive to higher pitched sounds, but also hear sounds exponentially louder than men. Thus, on hearing the same sound, women will generally report it as louder than will men. As the sound increases in volume, the greater will be the difference in reported loudness. The result is that what is heard as loud by women will be heard as less loud by men not because of differences in what they mean by the word "loud" but because of differences in their auditory physiologies.
Men and women also exhibit a significant difference in vital capacity, i.e., the ability to metabolize energy, to oxygenate the blood, to activate the body. Men's vital capacity is, on average, 35% greater than that of women. In addition, both lungs and larynx are larger in adult males than in adult females, and these directly influence speaking. If nothing else, these differences make it easier--and therefore perhaps more "natural"--for men to speak loudly.
These biological differences are compounded further by the fact that men are, on average, larger than women--taller, heavier, bigger. Here biology and culture begin to interact. Western cultural values encourage couples to date and marry in a pattern that recapitulates this difference and therefore women usually marry men who are taller than they are. The natural differences in physical capacity already mentioned (e.g., energy and lung capacity) thus tend to be more exaggerated for each paired couple --and so the baseline sex differences in speaking loudness that already exist will become further exaggerated as well.
Two other biological differences may also come into play. Men tend to be generally stronger than women; although averaging only about 6% more in muscle mass, men average 40% more in overall strength. This difference, combined with their higher levels of testosterone, results is a greater propensity in males to express physically aggressive behaviors. Escalation in any of the indicators of threatening or violent behavior in a male is likely to be carefully attended to by a smaller and weaker person. As noted, in couples this person will most often be the female. An increase in the loudness of the male's voice might be a sign of potential danger that understandably would put a female on alert. Therefore, against the background of these physiological differences, she may register the loudness of a male's voice in a different way.
But men, on average, are not only bigger, stronger, and more aggressive, they are socially empowered to act on their inclinations more readily than women. Here biology moves into the cultural arena. As boys become men, they receive many more messages--both blatant and subtle--that encourage them to assume power and to exercise it. Girls on their way to womanhood, on the other hand, receive directives to moderate, even to minimize their claims to power and its overt expression. The result is that women are more likely to disvalue themselves and less likely to try to impose their will upon others. Because they are disadvantaged in physical power as well, women display many of the characteristics of subordinated groups. Tenuously situated in the social hierarchy and under constant potential threat of the use of physical power against them, members of subordinated groups tend to pay a great deal of attention to the subtleties of behavior of those who occupy positions above them. Survival often depends on having such accurate knowledge, and so members of subordinate groups usually know much more about their super-ordinates than the other way around. This may be another of the reasons why women generally attend to the more subtle indicators of social behavior. Even today, women are brought up to be more sensitive to and aware of the emotional and behavioral nuances of what other people say and do.4 One result is that women tend to emphasize their relationship skills and concern for others.5
As if these differences are not enough, men and women also display divergent tendencies in communication. Men tend to focus more on the cognitive aspects of language--the actual words used and how they are defined--while women are more attentive to the emotional dimensions of communication--tone of voice and facial expressions, for example. Studies show that the female brain has more neurological connections (via the corpus callosum) between the right hemisphere--where the emotional capacities tend to be located--and the left hemisphere--where the thought and language centers reside.6 Thus another reason that women are more responsive than men to the emotional dimensions of social interaction may lie in the fact that the two sides of their brains have a greater capacity to "talk" to each other.
Let us now return to our example. Is this husband yelling at his wife? No, he's not--and, yes, he is. For reasons of both physiological endowment and its amplification through social training and cultural values, even a simple verbal exchange between husband and wife is not experienced the same way by either. As much as she needs to understand that he doesn't think he is yelling, he needs to realize that she hears him as if he were.
And what about their divergent concerns regarding style and content? To her the non-cognitive aspects of his communication are not a side issue of their talk even though he may not be paying any attention to them himself. If you were intently watching a music video it would be very difficult to ignore the picture and listen only to the sound. This turns out to be an appropriate analogy, because talk between spouses is often very much like a music video--hopefully a little less cacophonous and jarring, but still a multi-layered, shifting kaleidoscopic interaction of flowing movements and sudden juxtapositions, constantly open to misunderstanding and reinterpretation.
The facts suggest that human behavior is neither all biological nor never biological, but rather that there is always some biological component in what we do and who we are. The extent to which this is so is likely to be forever beyond an exact determination. People move in accord with the rhythms of their individual, personal selves as they are articulated through a variety of social and cultural roles, while they continue to express the biology that is encapsulated in their bodies. We need to accept that our bodies are an essential part of our selves, to invite an understanding of biology so we can further flesh out our understanding of human behavior, and to appreciate that a little sex still goes a long way.
1 See, for example, Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986.2 For example, human groups have always observed rules regarding exogamy and endogamy (i.e., who can marry whom). More recently, science has revealed that the fetus is influenced en utero by such social and cultural factors as the mother's diet and exposure to stress, and even to outside sounds and music. 3 It is difficult to imagine a female analog to the infamous male boot camp ditty, "this is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun". 4 See, for example, Carol Gilligan's now famous study, In A Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. 5 This leads to a troubling paradox. Many students of human behavior, including many feminists, argue that it is the qualities of relational sensitivity and humane concern that women are particularly able to introduce into the public sector--the office, the factory, the boardroom. But these are the very qualities that are borne out of being in a subordinate status.
6 For example, see Christine de LaCoste-Utamsing and Ralph L. Holloway, "Sexual Dimorphism in the Human Corpus Callosum", Science, Vol. 216, 25 June 1982, pp. 1431-1432.