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Differences between sexes: an evolutionary perspective

December 4, 2011

‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ stated the evolutionary biologist and Russian orthodox Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Evolution has precisely been the main subject at the 3rd Congress of the Spanish Society of Evolutionary Biology, which took place in Madrid from 21st-25th November. This topic is applicable to very different areas of science, such as Genetics, Medicine or Psychology. And although I would love to talk about evolutionary genetics, which is my main area of research (“You have to love what you do…” as Steve Jobs said once, remember?), I would like to make a review of a more common and widely understandable topic that had also got some room left as a plenary session in the congress.

Helena Croonin, a Darwinian philosopher and writer working at the Department of Philosophy of Natural and Social Science of The London School of Economics and Political Science, was the guest speaker to talk about differences between sexes, which have always been a matter of discussion. She stated that she used to think that sex differences resulted mainly from average differences in innate talents (males are more mathematical and females more verbal), tastes (men are more keen on things while women are on people) and temperaments (men are more competitive, risk-taking, ambitious, single-minded, etc., while women like to plan things without taking risks).

The image below expresses perfectly her point of view about men and women’s minds capabilities.

However,  she has recently changed her mind and published that it is a matter of extremes instead of averages (what she thinks as different tails of a statistical distribution). Specifically, she thinks that males are always between the best or the worst, what she refers to as that there are ‘more dumbbells but more Nobels‘ among men, while we can find more variance in women’s behaviors.

To emphasize her evolutionary point of view, she gave some examples about studies in which both male and female children who had not been previously influenced by anybody about social traditions between sexes had been given toy cars and dolls equally. Boys finally ended up with cars and girls with dolls. So it is not just a matter of society and education, the same evolution that makes the seasonal flu  mutate and thus evolve each year, is (at a much slower scale, of course) marking the difference between men and women. Men find it easier to visualize a rotating 3D figure in their minds while women are definitely more able to find a higher number of words beginning with ‘B’ in a single minute. However, girls can be taught to do what boys do intuitively and vice versa, so she doesn’t reject an adaptationist view of human behavior.

Finally, just posting the sentence she ended up the talk with and that I completely agree with:

If we want to change the world we need first to understand it‘.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2011 12:52 pm

    Wow !! That was an amazing post.

    I couldn’t agree more with the description about men temperament being competitive, but I think it could be referred to women as well.

    If you’re not competitive, then what’s the point? If you consider yourself good enough at doing something, I’m positive you’ll try to do those things at least as well as your “competitors” do. For example, if you’re working as a researcher, your main objectives are, apart from doing the research, try to do it faster and better than other groups that are working on the same field, and be the first one in publishing a paper about what you’ve discovered. For me, that’s competition and most of the times is really useful for the mankind and what makes us people awesome.

    Apart from that, I’d like to add that the post demonstrates that women are more verbal than men. I could never be able to write a post like that, neither in English nor in Spanish. I really liked it. Congrats !!

  2. December 4, 2011 6:49 pm

    I really liked your post, but I have a question: how did scientists manage to test children without no social tradition influences? Don’t you think it’s quite impossible? were they forbidden to watch tv, were they avoided to keep contact with other children who could be socially influenced? I hope they didn’t watch Walt Disney…..

  3. franeoivlc permalink
    December 4, 2011 7:17 pm

    Interesting post. It’s curious because I saw the same experiment with male and female monkeys. Male monkeys preferred boy toys while female liked to play with dolls. You can read it here: and the video:

  4. Leonor permalink
    December 4, 2011 9:26 pm

    Hi!! Thanks for your comments 😉

    First of all, don’t exaggerate Pedro! hahaha, you’re able to do something like this and more, for sure. You’re completely right about competition, woman are also competitive, but I think you boys are further more competitive than us… 😉 About research, currently when doing a PhD for example, you need to publish just as much as you can in order to assure a good CV that could help you to get funding when finishing your thesis. And that happens for both man and woman, so there’s no place for discrimination here xD.

    Thanks Dante, I really appreciate your interest! Actually, she didn’t mentioned the methods in detail… just that both boys and girls were given dolls and car toys and, well, you know the rest. I suppose these kind of research can only be performed with couples (or single-parents) which are going to have a child and are asked to participate into the project, but I also find completely difficult (if not impossible) to totally isolate children from TV, friends, the way they’re treated at school…

    Thanks both again for your replies, I’m glad you enjoyed it^^

  5. xelo permalink
    December 5, 2011 12:53 pm

    Congratulations for your post Leo¡¡. It’s very interesting, but I have the same doubt than Dante. In my opinion, it is very complicated to isolate children from cultural traditions. For example, in their families, who drove the car? Who took care of them? Who usually cooked? It is not necessary to watch TV to realize that women and men play different role in society despite being in XXI century.

  6. marisadedios permalink*
    December 5, 2011 7:10 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your post too Leo. Congratulations!

  7. Leonor permalink
    December 5, 2011 10:15 pm

    Thanks everybody 😉 You’re all right, maybe she was referring to monkeys (children monkeys haha) xDD but as I’ve said before she didn’t specified the methods, neither scientific references, so maybe I misunderstood, it was quite adventurous to make reference to (human) children directly…
    Thanks again^^

  8. December 5, 2011 11:11 pm

    I agree with the last sentence of your post …. but life is too short for men to understand women. Remember, we think in binary mode: on-of-on…..

  9. jesarqit permalink
    December 10, 2011 6:07 am

    Another video that suits this entry. Lots of fun and quite accurate. A tale of two brains –

  10. December 10, 2011 1:33 pm

    I agree with your post. Generally speaking I have always thought that men and women have different skills and interests. For that reason, in my opinion the role which they play in the family and in the society is different.
    So, I prefer to be seen/ treated by a woman doctor or nurse because women are gentler and more empathetic and comprehensible than men.
    On the other hand, taking into account my experience, in critical and stressful situations men usually take clear decisions without being influenced by their feelings or by biased and wrong opinions of other people. Therefore I think men have more logical mind than women.
    Finally, I have found an interesting article on the internet: “The case for more women in business” ( which shows that I may be right and that women could currently be more successful than men in business.

  11. Leonor permalink
    December 11, 2011 12:05 am

    Thanks everybody for your interests and contribution!!!

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