Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jesse Prinz's Contradictions in His Account of Sex Differences

Two contradictions run throughout Jesse Prinz's argument for going "beyond human nature."

The first contradiction is that he begins his book by saying that biological determinism is a straw man, because almost none of the naturists defend biological determinism; but then throughout the book, he criticizes the naturists as biological determinists.

The second contradiction is that he insists that he never denies the importance of biology, because explaining human traits always requires that we see the interaction between biology and culture; but then he says that culture can eliminate biology.

Both of these contradictions arise in his account of gender differences.  First, even though he has said that naturists are not biological determinists (6), he declares: "Naturists tend to be biological determinists.  They tend to think that gender differences are indelibly etched in our genetic building blocks" (232).

He also shows the second contradiction.  He insists: "An adequate theory of gender differences in cognition must implicate both biology and socialization" (236).  But then two paragraphs later, he declares: "Culture can also erase biological differences" (237).

To explain how culture could do this, he asks us to imagine a culture in which musical skills would be important for everyone.  In such a "musical utopia," where everyone is trained in music, those without any natural musical talent will have the same musical ability as those with natural talent.  Apparently, in such a society, everyone would be a Mozart (237-38).

By implication, he is suggesting that in a "sexual utopia," all people would be unisex or androgynous:  men and women would be absolutely the same in their behavior.

Surprisingly, Prinz is completely silent about the utopian communities that have attempted to do this--such as the kibbutzim in Israel.  This silence about the kibbutzim is especially surprising, because while Prinz presents his whole account of gender differences as a refutation of Larry Summers famous speech about sex differences at Harvard in 2005 (213-14), Prinz says nothing about Summers' reference to the kibbutzim as showing the natural differences between men and women.  There was not supposed to be any distinction between the jobs taken by men and those taken by women.  Men should often work in the nurseries, and women should often work repairing the tractors.  But over time, the women preferred to work in the nurseries, and the mothers wanted more time with their children.

I have written about the kibbutzim in Darwinian Natural Right (95-101) as showing how a utopian attempt to abolish the natural differences between men and women and the bond between parents and children failed.  In some of the early journals of the kibbutzim, the "burden of rearing children" was said to be the root of what was called "the biological tragedy of women."  In 1950, one kibbutz journal proclaimed the achievement of sexual equality:  "We have given her [the woman] equal rights; we have emancipated her from the economic yoke [of domestic service]; we have emancipated her from the burden of rearing children; we have emancipated her from dependency on the husband, her provider and commander; we have given her a new society; we have broken the shackles that chained her hands."  But by the end of the 1950s, it was apparent that most women were resisting this attempt at an androgynous society and asserting their natural desire for taking a nurturing role in the rearing of children.

Presumably, Prinz must believe that the kibbutzim should have continued in their utopian project for creating an androgynous society.  But given his silence about this, I can't be sure.

If sexual identity as male or female is purely a cultural construction through socialization, as Prinz often suggests, then it should be possible for a genetic male (that is, a boy with a Y chromosome) to be turned into a girl by being socialized as a girl.  In fact, such an experiment has been conducted.  The most famous case is that of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer--the Canadian boy who was reared as a girl by his parents.  For many years, this case was reported in psychology textbooks as proof that socialization is so powerful in constructing sexual identity that socialization can turn a boy into a girl.  But then the disastrous consequences of this experiment were revealed, and now the case is no longer mentioned in the textbooks.  I have written about this in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism.  Oddly, Prinz is silent about this case.

I should point out that the contradictions in Prinz's writing are similar to the contradictions that can be found in the writing of Louann Brizendine, who argues for the naturist claim that the brains of men and women are innately different.  So both sides in this debate are guilty of similar contradictions.  My posts on Brizendine can be found here, here, and here.

There is another contradiction in Prinz's writing that one does not find in Brizendine's writing.  Since Brizendine is a feminist naturalist, she can appeal to women's nature--their natural desires--as a standard for judging cultural practices as better or worse in how they conform to those natural desires, and thus she can condemn patriarchal prejudices that frustrate women's natural desires.  But Prinz cannot do this.  As a culturalist relativist who believes that sexual identity is a cultural construction, he has no natural standard for judging the culture of sexual identity. 

And yet he does exactly that.  He quotes some crude statements of patriarchal attitudes from the 19th and early 20th century--statements about women being inferior to men.  He then identifies this as "prejudice" and indicates the need to support "the struggle for equal treatment" (214-16).  This contradicts his cultural relativism.  If there is no standard of human nature beyond culture--if our sexual identity is determined by our cultural socialization--then it's impossible to have any natural standard for judging a cultural tradition to be mere "prejudice."

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