Sex, the old-fashioned way

Why are men and women so different? Lewis Wolpert doesn’t have the answers
April 24, 2013

Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man? The Evolution of Sex and Gender

by Lewis Wolpert (Faber, £14.99)

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”, whined Professor Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady. Perhaps he was asking the wrong question, Lewis Wolpert wittily proclaims in his new book. Shouldn’t it be, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?” After all, men are “essentially biologically modified women”: we all start our embryonic lives as female, the default sex.

There are few subjects more likely to generate passion at dinner parties, debating societies and academic conferences than whether the two sexes have fundamentally different biological and psychological “natures” or whether these differences are socially constructed. Explaining why these differences exist constitutes a profound question in the sciences.

So it was with immense interest that I opened this slim and accessible book. Lewis Wolpert is a distinguished developmental biologist and his dedication to explaining evolutionary thought to wider audiences is commendable. I expected, therefore, something much better than familiar arguments along the lines of “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” or “why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps.”

Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man displays many of the problems with reductive science. Although Wolpert does allow that socialisation and cultural environments play a part in modifying biology (he points out, for example, that London taxi drivers have larger hippocampuses than London bus drivers because they use this part of the brain more intensely), his overwhelming message is that there are “significant biological factors that make women behave differently from men.”

No one seriously doubts that our biological bodies influence our social selves: humans have an evolutionary history, after all. Instead, debates about sex and gender focus on two questions: first, what are the relative weights that should be given to biology versus culture and, second, are innate biological differences sufficiently large to account for the vast disparities between male and female lives?

Wolpert gives extreme weight to biology in explaining sex-differentials and believes this is also a powerful influence on the lived experiences of men and women. Biological factors have made a formidable contribution to male domination over women in “all societies from the earliest known times,” he says. He suggests that girls have a preference for pink because an “evolved sensitivity to the colour pink may have helped women gather ripe fruit.” Sexual intercourse plays an important role in his book. Wolpert points out that the hormone oxytocin is released into the bloodstream during female as well as male orgasm, then speculates that this “leads to women lying still for a while afterwards and thereby increases the likelihood of conception.”

Wolpert is a scientist, so he is careful to acknowledge that much of what he is arguing is based on conjecture: explanations “may” be true; a person “could relate these differences to…”; some scientists have “suggested that…”; and “there is some evidence that…” In another section, he notes that “adolescent males may initiate sex without emotional involvement, whereas girls may require to be seduced—and it is possible that this divergence has a genetic basis.” Wolpert rightly observes that even small biological differences between men and women might lead to significant differences in their relative status, but then goes on to speculate that the section of the brain believed to contribute to mathematical ability is larger in men, which may explain the fact that there are significantly more outstanding male than female mathematicians.

Part of the problem with such arguments is that they are unfalsifiable. Why not a gene for train spotting or decorating cupcakes? Perhaps a region of the brain can be identified that predisposes a person to enjoy Rihanna over Richard Wagner? What does it actually mean to talk about “mathematical ability” and what is being used to measure this eminently complex cultural concept? Intelligence and political convictions (to take just two examples Wolpert discusses) are social, not natural kinds. As a result, this book will please the already converted, but sceptics will simply regard it as another “just so” story.

Wolpert does have a noble aim. He thinks that it would “help male-female relationships if the fundamental differences between men and women were more widely understood and appreciated.” However, in the last few sentences, he admits that prior to writing this book he “knew virtually nothing about empathy.” After a vast amount of research and thought, he claims that he now tries “to see if I really do lack empathy and make an effort to use it in relation to my family. But there is no good evidence that I am succeeding. I am a classic systemising male, after all.” It is a telling confession: men can shrug off their inadequacies by blaming their biological inheritance.