Saturday, December 11, 2010

Are Boys and Girls Really That Different (Part II)?

Same Upbringing, Different Outcomes?

Kids in Gender Specific Costumes, by
Several friends have told me that boys and girls are inherently different from each other. Their evidence was that their own boys and girls came out so differently despite being raised in the same environment and in the same manner.

Even when the same parents raise two children in the “same” house and in the “same” manner, there are always slight differences in both. The furniture, decorations and toys change over time. Parents may be more stressed, confused, or overwhelmed early on, thus influencing how they interact with their first child. Grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, kids at daycare, television, videos, billboards, all broadcast gender images that babies start to pick up almost immediately.

My three-year old son recently explained to me that certain colors were for boys, and others were for girls, despite our best efforts to raise him in a gender neutral manner. Even if no one actually told him that certain colors were for girls or for boys, he certainly could have developed this hypothesis himself from observing people on television, at day care, and in the community. When I asked him what would happen if a child wore the wrong color, he very astutely answered that their feelings might get hurt.

Biological Gender Differences Are Actually Quite Small

Many people believe that girls and boys are innately or genetically different. They
accept the sociobiological assumption that biology or DNA is destiny, that traits as complex as gender could have an entirely (or primarily) genetic basis.

This simply is not true.

Numerous factors influence a child’s development, and the role of genetics is actually quite small. There is really only one significant genetic difference between girls and boys (the presence or absence of a Y chromosome), and even this can be ambiguous. For example, a person born with XY chromosomes, but with a damaged SRY gene, will develop female genitalia and grow into a woman.

XY Females, from Wiki Commons
The SRY gene is what confers maleness, turning on the appropriate genes at the appropriate times during development to tell the body to start producing male hormones, testicles or facial hair. Lack of an SRY gene is what causes femaleness. Everyone, therefore, starts out as a female by default until an SRY gene turns on and starts producing male hormones and developing testicles and a penis. In addition to SRY mutations on the Y chromosome, there are over 400 known androgen receptor mutations that can occur on the X chromosome and cause XY individuals to grow into females due to insensitivity to male sex hormones.

Klinefelter's Male from Wiki Commons
There are numerous other genetic conditions that can result in ambiguous sexual differentiation. For example, someone who is born XXY has a condition known as Klinefelter’s syndrome and will usually have male genitalia, but may have some feminine secondary characteristics.

Even environmental factors, like pesticides and cosmetics can influence sexual differentiation.
Gynecomastia (breast development in males) has been linked to tea tree and lavender oils. There are also numerous anti-androgenic pesticides and industrial chemicals (e.g., phthalates) that may cause gynecomastia, or alter the onset and progression of puberty.

So What Makes Girls and Boys Different?

Genetic factors (XX vs XY) contribute to primary sexual differentiation (development of testes or ovaries) as well as secondary sexual differentiation (development of body hair, voice, breasts and hip size) and play an important role in gender. Sexual differentiation is what most people think about when considering whether a person is male or female.

However, gender is more than what you have between your legs. Gender is the combined effects of sexual differentiation, behavior, social expectations and self-identity. The most obvious illustration of this is transgendered people who feel that they were born into the wrong body. Their gender does not match their biology.

While there is some variability in sexual differentiation (as discussed above), the non-biological influences on gender have considerably more variability. Many of our expectations and assumptions about gender are socially constructed. For example, in our society, it is unusual for men to wear gowns or to walk platonically hand in hand, yet in Morocco these behaviors are both common. Likewise, there is no rule that girls should play only with dolls and boys only with footballs, yet this is how most children are raised in our society, thus reinforcing gender stereotypes and the impression that gender is biologically predetermined.

The Baby X Experiment

The original Baby X experiment was conducted by Dr. Phylis Katz, et al, at the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1975, with a single baby girl, dressed in a yellow jumpsuit. There were three toys in the room: a football, a doll, and a teething ring. She was introduced to some adults as a girl. Others were told she was a boy. Some were not given any clues about her actual gender.

The experiment was repeated in 1980 using infants of both genders. Both studies had similar results. When told that the baby was a girl, adults tended to give the baby a doll to play with. When told the baby was a boy, they were more likely to give the baby a football to play with. When the baby’s gender was not specified, the adults tried to guess, using stereotypes like “She is friendly, and female infants smile more,” or “she is a girl because girls are more satisfied and accepting.”

Gender and Sociobiology

The popularity of sociobiological thinking is understandable with all the hype about the Human Genome project and shows like CSI, which have made DNA and Genetics seem sexy and hot. Sociobiology has also been intellectually legitimized and self-promoted by prominent and well-respected scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. However, it is also a scientifically flawed oversimplification of social phenomena that has been abused throughout history by eugenicists, Nazis and other racists and supremacists.

The basic idea goes like this: All phenotypes (traits) are caused by proteins, which are synthesized based on genetic instructions. This is also known as the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Over the past ten years, mounting evidence has shown the central dogma to be a gross overgeneralization. As educators, we know that the phenotype of academic success is not based solely on a child’s intelligence, but also on socioeconomic factors that can influence cognitive and social development, health, resilience and motivation. Even intelligence is not based entirely on genetics. No gene for intelligence has been identified. Malnutrition, exposure to certain drugs and chemicals in utero and pollution can all play a role in cognitive development.

Despite the protestations of the sociobiologists, children’s color preferences in clothing are influenced by social factors, and cannot be reduced to purely biological or genetic causes. This is true for many of their likes and dislikes, communication patterns, what they want to be when they grow up, and numerous other behaviors that typify maleness and femaleness.

Many parents agonize over whether to allow their little boy to experiment with feminine clothing and cooking, or their little girl to be tough and play sports, out of fear that they will be bullied (or because of their own homophobia). However, a more fundamental issue is whether or not we teach our children to be resilient, self-confident, and accepting of others, especially those who do not fit our stereotypes.

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