Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Captain Caveman is responsible for boring sex differences talk

Ah, gender differences - the gift that keeps on dividing. Is there a single conversation, newspaper article or point-scoring argument that can’t be enriched and enlivened by a bit of boys vs. girls blah? We’re each of us seemingly obsessed and, let’s face it, a bit of an expert. All it takes is the mere mention of map reading and the rush of being unequivocally right is too good to miss - next thing you know we feel like we’re positively log fluming our way through the entire debate, hurtling towards inevitable glory.

Well done you. Yes, YOU. Because we’ve all done it. Brushing aside the fact that it’s been studied since forever (inconclusively - so must therefore be proper complicated) we congratulate ourselves on getting it in a nutshell. Unfortunately a nutshell that contains a load of media bullshit, everyday bullshit and pseudoscience. Here’s three examples that I particularly hate:

  • Men are from Mars (by which I think is meant they are odd looking, icy, and feature sticky out bits) and of course women are from Venus (bright, beautiful, vague about what it really looks like beneath the outer cover).
  • Women are like milk (contents clearly marked by one of 3 different colours on the top) and men are like fine wine (not as good a selection in Tesco as you might have hoped).
  • It all goes back to when we were cavemen.
It’s the last one that baffles me the most. Since when did your average Jo/Joe become so knowledgeable about prehistoric life on earth? Are they hiding huge, great anthropology sections in their book collections at home? How did pubman get to be caveman’s spokesman for the modern era?

Generally I find the rich and complex caveman/modern gender differences argument goes like this:

"People" as they are today…

…are near identical to

…"people" as they were 3 million years ago.

…and by crikey, I’m sure you can see the astonishing similarities. We’d just have so much to talk about wouldn’t we? (Actually prehistoric man might like The X Factor - my choice of picture may well have been ill-advised.)

The main thrust of the “when we were cavemen” argument is this: when we were evolving to be who we are now our environment was tough and unyielding and successful behaviours were rewarded by survival and shagging. Gender roles developed because they had to. It worked then, therefore it should work now. Political correctness has been sent to destroy us, blah blah blah.

However, goes my response, why fixate on this period of time as an especially important benchmark of human development? And why have so much faith in a time that none of us have ever seen or can produce much in the way of proof of over what we see with our own eyes right here, right now? Why assign so much meaning to behaviour that may have developed purely by accident? And when the hell are our capital traits of language and rational thought going to crop up in this argument? (Answer: not long after I’ve buggered them by using long-winded sentences.)

It’s not that much of a stretch of the imagination to guess that it’s become received opinion masquerading as fact. It has an irresistible combination of both science and history so it seems positively dripping in academia. However, virtually none of us has any real knowledge on the matter and so it’s speculation. Using cartoon cavemen.

It often sounds like proof in its no-nonsense harshness. Lacking sentimentality, it excuses all manner of terrible behaviour. And this really is its main purpose isn’t it? It’s used to justify aggression, cheating, lying, gold-digging, porn, shopping addictions, all manner of emotional dysfunction and Top Gear to name but a few.

Here’s a conversation I’ve never heard - “Let’s talk about it as, when were cavemen, communication was an essential element of survival so we’re practically made for it.” Nor have I heard, “I’m just off to check up on the old lady next door in a way that suggests I’m a tribal, social creature with great capacity for altruism. Must be the caveman tendencies coming out again.” (Although to be fair, who in their right mind would say such a stupid thing.) These behaviours are much more readily ascribed to the taming of the beast and social civilisation. How so - isn’t that just cherry picking?

Now before you round on me, I fully understand that there is plenty of research indicating real differences between the sexes and that it‘s perfectly reasonable to mention this. I am also aware that there is plenty of research to indicate that we are more different to those within our own gender group than our “opposites” and that this is routinely ignored. Not even the most experty expert knows all the answers in other words. So I think I’m just narked by people adopting a fake scientific opinion without any awareness of how little they've bothered to find out. They just don a metaphorical white lab coat and specs but then start free-styling the sciency bits.

I think this is a shame as it’s a fascinating subject when you look at real evidence. Likely there are differences between the sexes because it makes good sense. We are pickled in different chemicals for starters. Equally, I’m sure that we do carry similar behaviours to those of our ancestors, prehistoric or otherwise. But I fall short of saying undoubtedly because I don’t have the necessary knowledge to do so. I don’t see enough consistency in the little scientific research that I have read and also note that it’s ever-changing. If we are a mystery to ourselves, it’s because we fail to understand who and what we are in our current form - caveman can’t save us from that.

Alas it’s become society’s obsession to compare and contrast the sexes - embedded in our brains like a flint axe. Maybe that’s what we are biologically predisposed to do. Or ‘hardwired’ like those who think computers are our closest genetic cousins like to say.


  1. I must say, I do enjoy reading your writing.

    I've read up to page 240 of Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" (and you should too) so it is with some authority that I say it's all bell curves. Bell curves everywhere. Silly people will continue these silly debates until they realise that the characteristics of girls and chaps aren't fixed across the whole population...and after this realisation we can look forward to equally silly debates about who's got the fattest bell curve.

  2. Why thank you, I'm flattered! You wouldn't say the same about my company.

    Recommendation noted.

    Silly debates I love. Silly debates with no basis in reality I love. But I do prefer the silly debate being with someone who realises that's what it is.

    There is nothing you can add to the term 'bell curve' to make it any funnier than it is already.