Saturday, February 12, 2005

Sociobiology: Genes and Memes

Sociobiology has gotten a bad rep among leftists of various sorts. It brings to mind all kinds of fears about social darwinism, eugenics, biological determinism and memories of nineteenth century scientists measuring skull size in an attempt to demonstrate racial differences in intelligence.

Recently sociobiology has begun to enjoy something of a renaissance - from 1994’s The Bell Curve to the emergence of the idea that “men and women are different” in popular discourse as a means to explain or justify a host of social gender differences. As an extension of that, last month, Harvard President Lawrence Summers stuck his ivy covered foot in his mouth by suggesting that the reason women are underrepresented among tenured professors in math and science at elite universities may stem, in part, from “innate” differences between men and women. More importantly, suggested Summers, is the choice many women make to balance career and family, thus not being as likely to put forth the sort of effort necessary to reach the upper echelons of their fields. Less importantly, suggested Summers, is discrimination in the workplace.

Before we examine these claims, let’s remember that sociobiology comes in three flavors. Two of them are perfectly legitimate fields of research.

There is the sociobiology of species. This is looking at how the biological makeup of a species can structure the behavior of its members. For example, humans and certain other primates have a special area in our brain called “mirror neurons.” While not completely understood, we seem to be hard-wired for empathy. These neurons behave the same whether we are walking or watching someone else walking. They are thought to play a role in the way we learn through imitation. They also seem to be connected to empathetic emotional responses. The mirror neurons of people with autism do not behave the same. And this may lead to a better understanding of the nature of autism.

There is the sociobiology of individual difference. This is looking at how the specific biology of the individual influences how they behave. For example, certain stimuli, such as riding a roller coaster, trigger the release in our brains of dopamine. Different people release different levels of dopamine. The more you release, the less likely you are to pursue powerful stimuli. Once on the roller coaster is enough for you. However, people with lower levels of response need higher levels of stimuli to get the same release. And people with a genetic difference causing them to not have dopamine-4 receptors are much more likely to seek out “extreme” thrills, such as sky diving and the like.

And then there is the sociobiology of social groups. This involves taking as a biological construct social groupings and attempting to discern differences between these groups – often in areas such as performance and ability. Separated out from its two legitimate cousins, the central flaw in this sort of inquiry becomes apparent. It attempts to ascribe biological explanations for social phenomenon based on socially constructed categories. That is, in the experimental design, there is no biological element. Race is a social and not a biological category. When one compares individuals in differing social categories and finds differing social outcomes, there is no basis for finding a biological root.

But wait a minute, one might counter, men and women are “different.” Actually we’re clearly the same, the same species that is – differing sex bits notwithstanding. Ascribing to our genes all of the various gendered differences that manifest themselves in our society places an awful lot of importance on that runty little Y chromosome – and with no particular justification. As a rule, this sort of argument is grounded in an ignorance of genetics and of the vast differences in gender roles across history, culture and individuals.

It also points to a secondary flaw in the sociobiology of social groups. The sociobiology of species does not try to make any predictions about individuals. It acknowledges that there is individual variability. And it acknowledges the complex interaction between culture and biology. The sociobiology of individuals does not try to make any generalizations about the species. And it too it acknowledges the complex interaction between culture and biology. In sociobiology one cannot extrapolate from the general to the specific or generalize from the specific to the general. The sociobiology of social groups attempts to both and yet can do neither. Even if one were to grant, for sake of argument, the validity of one of its claims, one could not determine anything meaningful about any individuals, nor anything about the human condition.

Unfortunately, the sociobiology of social groups is enjoying a sort of social acceptance derived from the legitimacy of its cousins and a generally scientifically illiterate public. Consider this defense of Summers by Washington Post writer Ruth Marcus, (emphasis added)

Is it so heretical, though, so irredeemably oafish, to consider whether gender differences also play some role? As the daughter of two scientists and the mother of two daughters, I think not. After all, scientists are reporting day by day about their breakthroughs in understanding the genetic basis of diseases or personality traits. Brain studies of men and women show that the two genders use different parts of their brain to process language. (Men tend to be left-siders, women both-lobers.)

It also doesn’t help that the way in which we talk, in public discourse, about the more legitimate forms of sociobiology is informed by social issues. For example, a recent headline in the gay news web site reads, “Gay DNA Found.” What threatens to be a question of the sociobiology of social groups is really part of the sociobiology of the species. The question isn’t what causes homosexuality, but rather, what determines sexual orientation. However our culture is so saturated with the idea that homosexuality is “caused” while heterosexuality just is, that even frames the question in this way. The researchers themselves, fell somewhat into this trap, but at least were careful to note: “There is no one ‘gay’ gene. Sexual orientation is a complex trait, so it's not surprising that we found several DNA regions involved in its expression. Our best guess is that multiple genes, potentially interacting with environmental influences, explain differences in sexual orientation.”

Returning, then to the irrepressible Mr. Summers, let us take up his contentions to discover if there is indeed any academic merit there.

Summers mentions, yet dismisses, the role of discrimination. He argues that this is not much of a factor since the marketplace of universities would snatch up any well-qualified women that another university was too prejudiced to employ. Apparently, Summers lives in a world where all people are perfectly mobile and in constant search of maximizing their financial well-being. This world is also apparently free of ubiquitous prejudice of any sort. I, myself, live on Earth, in the US. And being the irony-loving earthling that I am, I cannot help but note that Summers is an employer of academics. And he simultaneously dismissed the importance of gender discrimination while expressing his willingness to take seriously, without a shred of substantiation, the idea that women as a class are just not as good as men at math and science, or as dedicated to their careers. If I were a woman teaching mathematics or one of the sciences at Harvard, and my boss publicly declared his doubts about my “innate” abilities or work ethic, I’d be a bit upset too. This fact undermines his later contention that he was just innocently posing a question – in the interests of furthering debate and discussion. His role vis a vis women in the sciences and math is not neutral.

So it is also of no small importance that he places at the top of his suggested explanations the “choice” that women are more likely to make to forego the 80 hour work week in favor of raising families. Leaving aside the fact that Summers is once again using generalizations to explain the outcome for individuals, let us talk for a moment about choices. The dilemma Summers describes is not an unfamiliar one to any consumer of popular infotainment. Balancing work and family, how can a woman choose?

What about the men?

What about the choices men make – to abandon their families in the selfish pursuit of careers, to leave to women the preponderance of the domestic labor performed in our country? Had Summers framed his argument by saying that one reason why it is harder for women to advance in any career is that men choose to take advantage of a gendered distribution of labor which not only places a disproportionate burden for the “reproduction of labor power” on women, but also disproportionately rewards men for privileging career over family while penalizing women for the same, then it might not have been so easy to dismiss discrimination as a cause of gender disparity in university hiring practices. It might have become all the more obvious that this is in fact the root of it. (Disclaimer: All of the domestic labor in my household is performed by men. So there.)

Yet there is another choice I’d like to look at. This is a collective choice. In the US, we like to claim that we “value” families and children. And yet we have chosen to organize our economic life in such a way that the pursuit of achievement or advancement in work outside the home is at complete odds with caring for a family or raising children. Mr. Summers, perhaps you could choose to offer your employees free daycare. Perhaps you could choose to structure the work day at Harvard in such a way that excellence in academia is not antithetical to raising a family. Hey, I’m just asking a question.

The “suggestion” that Summers makes that perhaps women are just “innately” inferior to men in mathematical and scientific ability was later justified as being in the spirit of free and open inquiry. This justification might have been bolstered had his remarks been made to people whose field of inquiry is to examine such questions, instead of a gathering of economists. It might have been bolstered if Summers had then or since been able to offer any scientific justification for the hypothesis. As the president of one of America’s most prestigious universities, Summers should be well aware that scientific hypotheses are not grabbed out of the ether. A serious proposal for inquiry, if indeed that is what this was, is based on knowledge of the relevant literature and is backed by solid reasons for supposing it might be productive to investigate.

Since Summers seems to be lacking in this area, I offer my assistance, purely in the interests of free and open inquiry. One place Summers might start to review the work of Stanford University Professor Claude Steele, who as luck would have it has devoted a considerable amount of time studying just the questions that are apparently only just now occurring to Mr. Summers.

Prof. Steele has taken up the question what explains differences between races or genders in standardized tests or academic performance. He has found that social expectations derived from stereotypes have a profound effect on individual performance and that by manipulating conditions to eliminate the expectation of race or gender difference, the difference disappears in the result as well.

Click here to view in Windows Media format an online lecture by Prof. Steele on this topic. Or click here to go to the Princeton University site that offers this and other lectures, to opt to view in RealPlayer or at a lower bandwidth.

In the lecture Prof. Steele describes an experiment that is particularly on point. Here is a summary of that experiment:

In one study, Spencer, Steele and Quinn (1999) asked high-achieving male and female college students to take a portion of the advanced Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in mathematics. The participants were divided into two conditions. For half of the students, the negative stereotype was salient. That is, students were told that males tend to outperform females on the test. For the other half of students, the negative stereotype was minimized. That is, students were told that males and females tend to perform similarly on the test. Consistent with Steele's theory, when the negative stereotype was made salient, females performed worse than males. However, when the negative stereotype was minimized, females and males performed similarly. This research suggests that female students are aware of the negative stereotype and, when it is salient, their performance suffers.

Steele found the same result using a GRE-type verbal exam and a group of white and black students.

In this experiment White and Black Stanford University students took a difficult verbal GRE-type exam after completing a shorter verbal task that was designed to give the participant either a remarkable success or a clear failure. The idea was that performance on this first task would set performance expectations for the second task. Feedback was not provided, but this first task allowed students to immediately determine how well, or how badly, they had performed, implicitly setting expectations for the second GRE test, it was presumed. Just before beginning the second GRE test, students received one of two instructions that manipulated stereotype threat. In the standard stereotype threat condition they were told that the test was diagnostic of verbal ability, the same treatment used in earlier experiments. In the no stereotype threat condition, they were told this particular test, though ability-diagnostic, was, as a result of work by many researchers (including African American researchers), racially fair. This instruction was presumed to prevent stereotype threat by presenting the test as one that could be trusted by Black students: They could trust that their frustration would not be taken as confirmation of the racial stereotype since this test did not measure racial differences, only individual differences.

The results show that under stereotype threat, boosting expectancies by giving students a prior success was not enough to eliminate Black students' underperformance in comparison to equally skilled White students. The racial gap was still there on the second test when it was presented as diagnostic of ability even though all students, Black and White, had been given a powerful expectation boost on the first test. But importantly, the "race fair" conditions did eliminate the underperformance of Black students even when they had undergone an expectancy-damaging failure experience on the first test. These results suggest, then, that the critical mediator of stereotype threat's impairment of performance in this research has less to do with its lowering of performance-related expectancies than with the threat it poses to negatively stereotyped students that their performance may subject them to stereotype-based judgments of their abilities.

Mr. Summers wants to claim that he was just proposing a theory – for study. But it turns out that people have already taken up this hypothesis and proven it false. Who knew?

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