Thursday, March 17, 2005


Yes. Fiona Mactaggart really is the Fascist-sounding "Minister for race equality and community cohesion". Hmmmm... "Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuehrer?"

"We've heard a lot from the Lords recently about protecting our country's traditions of justice and fairness. Today, as the Lords debate the government's proposals on incitement to religious hatred, I want to challenge them to deliver justice and fairness to members of minority faiths.....

The offence we propose will not prevent people from debating or ridiculing religions and beliefs as robustly as happens today. Evangelical Christians will still be free to preach the gospel and warn of the evils they perceive in other religions. We are not banning critical and offensive remarks or extending the law of blasphemy. The bill focuses on something very specific, namely the conduct of those who try to propagate hatred of people and communities because of their religion or belief. Surely we can all accept that this is not what we want to happen in our society....

Today is a crucial test of the society we want to create. By supporting the government's proposals, the Lords would send a clear message to stop people who are currently beyond reach of the law from promoting hatred of others because of their faith. This behaviour has no place in modern Britain, and there can be no more excuses for not taking action."

Now let me see if I have got this straight: "debating or ridiculing religions and beliefs" will be legal but "to propagate hatred of people and communities because of their religion or belief" will be illegal. But if I ridicule Islam is that not likely to promote hatred of those who adhere to it? It would certainly be open for public prosecutors and learned judges to conclude so. Fiona seems to be proposing a distinction without a difference. And given the capricious way judges interpret law, I doubt that any critic of Islam would be safe from this law. A pastor making criticisms of Islam in his own church was convicted of an offence under a similar law in the Australian State of Victoria.

More of Fiona's article here


Maybe Britsish feminists are less hysterical

I often feel as if I'm in a Bateman cartoon: "The Feminist Who Said She Was a Darwinian". Gasps of horror and disbelief. After all, it's well known that Darwinism spells reductionism, essentialism and genetic determinism (whatever they mean) and is an agent of the male conspiracy to chain women to kitchen sinks.

This caricature has been much on my mind since the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, dared to get biological about women in the natural sciences, engineering and maths. Talking at a closed conference about why so few women occupy top academic jobs in these disciplines, he attempted to probe beyond such familiar issues as childcare, role models, confidence (lack of) and prejudice (lots of). Summers made the modest claim that evolved sex differences, though not the sole reason for this male predominance, are among the reasons that should be considered. Outrage ensued. Not least, would-be feminists got the vapours, exacted apologies, mooted no-confidence motions, demanded resignation, and told the world of their hurt and humiliation.

But, as evolutionary science shows, Summers was right - for three reasons.

First, men, on average, have an advantage in certain quantitative and spatial abilities - particularly intuitive mechanics and "3-D thinking" (mental rotation of three-dimensional objects) - that are key for engineering and maths.

Second, there are, on average, sex differences in dispositions, interests, values. Men are far more competitive, ambitious, status-conscious and single-minded; and they'd rather work with abstract ideas or objects than with humans. Women are more focused on family and other relationships; they have wider interests and prefer not to work in people-free zones. When women leave high-powered jobs to "spend more time with the family", it's truth, not euphemism. In the US, even in the top 1% of mathematical ability, only one woman to eight men makes a career in maths, engineering or science; the other seven choose medicine, biology, law or even the humanities - typically, to work with, and help, people.

Third, sex differences exhibit greater male than female variance. Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But among males, the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst, can be vast. So, when it comes to science, more men than women will be dunces but more will be geniuses - although the means are close. The maths averages of American teenage boys and girls are not dramatically different; but among the most mathematically gifted there are 13 boys for every girl. Sex differences are crucially about variance as well as means.

Now combine these three factors. Isn't it unlikely that the distribution of men and women working in science will be identical? And the higher the echelon, the greater will be the preponderance of men - with obvious outcomes for elite institutions such as Harvard.

These differences are not recent or artificial or arbitrary. They have deep evolutionary reasons, which are well understood. Sexual reproduction as we know it began with one sex specialising slightly more in competing for mates and the other slightly more in caring for offspring. This divergence became self-reinforcing, widening over evolutionary time, with natural selection proliferating and amplifying variations on the differences, down the generations, in every sexually reproducing species that has ever existed. Thus, from this slight but fundamental initial asymmetry, flow all the characteristic differences between males and females throughout the living world. Now, 800 million years later, in our species as in all others, these differences pervade what constitutes being male or female, from brains to bodies to behaviour.

A wealth of evidence backs up this view of our evolutionary endowment, ranging from newborns (even at one day old, girls prefer a human face, boys a mechanical mobile) to pathology (females exposed to "male" hormones in the womb are typically "tomboyish" and surpass the female average in spatial skills - and vice versa for males) and children's play (boys' games are competitive, big on rules and establishing a winner, girls' are more cooperative and end in consensus). These and other predictable sex differences are robust across cultures, and throughout history.

So much for Darwinism. What about feminism? Well, how could one be a feminist and not a Darwinian? If feminists want to change the world, they need first to understand it. And, when it comes to sex differences, Darwinian science provides the authoritative understanding.

Indeed, Darwinian insights open up promising avenues for policy. Consider the assumption that women academics are under-represented in science and maths - and the conclusion that prejudice must be to blame. Given what we know from evolutionary biology, that can't be the whole story. Shouldn't that knowledge influence feminist demands? If, for instance, fairness can no longer be identified with 50:50 representation, why the mission to equalise numbers - and what sex ratios should we aim for? And if the main evidence for discrimination was an imbalance, what should now be considered as evidence? Indeed, should discrimination occupy so much of the feminist agenda?

Or consider the cognitive differences that disadvantage girls in maths. Shouldn't we be drawing more - not less - attention to them? How else will interventions be devised that don't treat girls as default males? Bear in mind that mathematical ability itself is not an evolved ability; maths is far too recent for that. Rather, mathematical talent borrows eclectically from abilities evolved for other purposes. Much of the mathematical advantage of boys lies in spatial abilities for navigation - an area in which females are notoriously weaker; in particular, boys are better than girls at using these innate capacities to turn quantitative relations into diagrams. So why not help girls improve their skills? When males and females (both adults and children) are helped with translating word problems into diagrams, the performance of females improves more than that of males - thus closing some of the gap between the sexes. By contrast, self-confidence in maths, which also favours boys, makes some impact; but it is relatively small. So forget classes in "self-esteem" or "empowerment". Go for evolutionarily informed teaching in maths classes. Admittedly, more female-friendly maths won't guarantee more female Nobel prize-winners. But it should enable more girls to realise their potential. And isn't that what fairness is about?

So it is not Darwinian feminists but the anti-Darwinians that should feature in the Bateman cartoon. I nominate those Harvard protesters. It is scandalous that educated women should be so profoundly ignorant of scientific and statistical thinking; even more scandalous that, rather than learn, they slam the door and sneak to the media; and more scandalous still that they do this in the name of feminism. It is not sex differences but sexism that is iniquitous. And it is not science but injustice that should be opposed. For how can we forge a fairer world if we lack a proper understanding of how the sexes differ?


No comments: