The Succession of Orthodoxies about Sexual Difference:

A Review of Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality, by Kingsley R. Browne


Howard S. Schwartz

Oakland University


Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books

June, 2004:  pp. 327-29



In his book Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality, Kingsley R. Browne observes that “The familiar story that many of us grew up with is that the sex differences that we observe are purely social creations.” A familiar story it has been, and many of us have certainly grown up with it, but that does not include me. I grew up with the opposite story: that there are innate differences between men and women, which represent their natural, biological endowments. I grew up with that story and so did just about everybody else of my generation. Every previous generation did so as well, in every place of which we know and probably the rest besides. Yet it is certainly correct to say that, under the influence of the feminist movement, the idea of social causality is now the orthodoxy in our society.


That orthodoxy has its derivative orthodoxies. In the workplace, which is the focus of Browne’s concern, the corollary is that differences in employment patterns, income levels, and so on, must themselves be the result of social causation and indeed of discrimination. This view provides the backing for a political argument in favor of altering social arrangements.


The purpose of Browne’s book is to criticize the social creation orthodoxy by making a case for the traditional one. His claim is that the differences between men and women that manifest themselves in the workplace are innate and rooted in biology. The proximal cause for these differences is hormonal, but ultimately they arise from differing, environmentally selected mating strategies.


Men’s reproductive strategy, according to this view, is based on increasing the number of females with whom they can mate. Women, whose capacity to mate successfully with a large number of partners is limited by the restrictions imposed by the biology of gestation and nursing, have developed a strategy based on enhancing the survival of the relatively small number of offspring they can produce. Out of this comes the female concern with their children and with attracting and maintaining the interest of mates who can provide resources. From these arise the complementary male preoccupation with gaining status as a way of enhancing one’s attractiveness to the female. Further on down the line, these lead to the behavioral and cognitive differences that are and always have been familiar. For example, men are more aggressive and competitive than women and more prone to take risks. Women are more nurturing and empathetic. With regard to cognition, men are more adept at spatial rotation and mathematical reasoning, while women are more verbal. 


As a comprehensive explanation, the argument from mating strategy goes a bit far for my taste. Men’s advantage at spatial rotation, for example, supposedly arises from their need, as big game hunters, to find their way home to the camp from far afield. Their advantage in mathematical reasoning supposedly follows from that. Maybe so, but grounding the causal root in a conjecture about the nature of prehistoric social life does not generate much conviction.  It takes the few things we can reasonably conjecture about prehistoric life and makes them the primary determinants of their social patterns. But that leaves the possibility that our explanations do not reflect their circumstances so much as they refract our own limitations. If spatial rotation and mathematical reasoning represent the same mental faculty, perhaps their joint cause lies in a more abstract aspect of the male function; perhaps, indeed, in a greater capacity for abstraction. That would call for a different form of explanation. Moreover, an explanation based on prehistory can explain only what we have in common with our prehistoric ancestors. For everything that we do not have in common, and there would seem to be plenty of that, other explanations would be required. Yet knowing when to explain by reference to prehistory, and when to explain by reference to other determinants of social arrangements, can never be done in a way that guarantees much certainty. That leaves the way clear for the development of other interpretations.


Still, if locating the ultimate cause of sex differences in the social roles of cave life takes us beyond where we can solidly stand, explaining them by reference to innate characteristics rather than to social construction does not.


Sex-typical behavioral differences in childhood and adulthood have been found to be determined by the levels of sex hormones encountered during pregnancy, even among animals. Female rhesus monkeys injected with androgens during a critical period later display typically masculine sexual and non-sexual behavior. Male rats are generally better than females on a test that measures spatial ability. Female rats given androgens during critical periods of development perform as well as males and better than males castrated prior to the critical period. It’s hard to imagine socialization explanations for findings like these.


After birth, sexual differentiations take place long before one can imagine children being socialized into them. Infants tend to pay more attention to same-sex others, even though they cannot identify their own sex until much later. By the time they are one year old, girls seem more reluctant to separate from their mothers and more desirous of returning to her. Boys by this age are more independent, exploratory, and active.


Do parents treat children of different sexes differently? Less than you might expect, as it turns out, and when they do it can easily be explained as a reaction to the fact that children of different sexes are different and call out different responses. Experimental subjects blind to the sex of newborns rated females more “cuddly” than males. Parents are often found to engage in rougher physical activity with boy infants than with girls, but boys appear to be more receptive to that sort of thing. When parents buy toys for their children that they have not been asked to buy, they are as likely to buy non-sex-typed toys as sex-typed ones. When they buy toys that have been requested by their children, they generally follow sex-type.


The socialization theory does not necessarily have an easier time of it during the period in which social conditioning would be expected to have an effect. Do boys do better than girls at math because they are expected to do so? Browne reports a study in which mothers and children were asked whether boys or girls were better at math. Almost two-thirds of the mothers thought they were equal, while the remainder were equally divided.  If there were any differential expectations, they didn’t appear to stick. Most of the children thought the sexes were equal; those that did not, girls as well as boys, thought their own sex is better. Again, it is hard to square the idea of differential expectations with the fact that girls do better than boys at some aspects of math, such as arithmetical calculation, and get better grades.



The focus of Browne’s concern is, of course, the workplace. For this purpose, he parlays solidly established research findings concerning the difference in the sexes into differentiations involving temperament, cognitive capacities, values, and interests. Given these differences, he asserts, it should come as no surprise that men would, for example, be more highly represented in top corporate positions, whose pursuit requires, among other things, a lust for competition, a strong desire for status, a willingness to sacrifice leisure time and to take risks, and an interest in things rather than people. Women, by contrast, are more likely to be found in positions where there is less stress, fewer time demands, and more possibility for social interaction, hence offering a greater possibility of “having a life.”


This, of course, is the point at which a position like Browne’s typically encounters the most intense fury, especially from those who see such discrepancies as proof of discrimination. But Browne is alert here as well. If occupational differences had been accomplished by discrimination, going against the inclination of women, one would expect them to register their disinclination through distaste for the work they do. Yet surveys find that they are as satisfied with their work as men, and often more so. One could go on, but it will suffice to say that Browne has anticipated the full range of objections to his view, at least all of those with which I am acquainted, and done nicely at providing solid answers.


Is Browne’s case conclusive? One could make a case for that. Imagine, for the sake of argument that a strong case for the importance of social construction is made. Even so, the facts Browne adduces would still be facts. An argument for social constructionism could argue only that it is more important than biology. Yet, if that is the position, Browne prevails, since he explicitly grants the influence of society. The point is that Browne holds the middle ground. The argument for social constructionism as an absolute and exclusive determinant of sex differences is simply untenable.


But in a sense, Browne’s case would succeed even if it were not conclusive. For what is absolutely beyond doubt is that it is a strong case and impossible to dismiss, as it has been dismissed in the movement to social constructionist orthodoxy. And this opens up a question that, to me, is almost as intriguing as the question of the difference between the sexes. It is how social constructionism overcame the old orthodoxy and became the new one. How did it happen that the theory of inherent differences, which has hitherto never been seriously questioned, which grew out of thousands of years of the most extensive experience, which is confirmed by our own experience every day, and which we now know to be based on rock-solid ground, was displaced without even a serious intellectual contestation? Social scientists of the future will be grateful to us for that inheritance.


For that purpose I offer my own hypothesis. It is that social constructionism is not and never was a scientific position, but a moral one. And it did not arise from a serious intellectual attempt to understand the outside world, since such an attempt would surely have resulted in an intellectual clash with the old orthodoxy, but rather from a belief that had its cause, like an article of religious faith, within the psyche. Specifically, I would say, it emerged from the fantasy of maternal perfection (Schwartz: 2001) and an attempt to remake the world in that image. The passion for this program of salvation was the force that caused the succession of orthodoxies. It proceeded by accusing those who represented the theory of inherent differences of opposing this process of moral exaltation. The charge, then, was not that they were intellectually wrong, but that they were bad. What is the charge of “sexism,” after all, aside from a moral imputation? 

Such accusations might have been lightly dismissed, but when they were made by people’s wives, their mothers, their friends, and their daughters, who felt enhanced by this project, they could not be.


Ironically, it was this moral zealotry that led to the abandonment of the middle ground.  By treating the very mention of a biological component as an abomination, the social constructionists made it impossible to give it the serious consideration it certainly deserves, and to develop a more balanced and reasonable position in the light of that. You can have political correctness or scientific development, it appears, but you cannot have both.


From this it would follow that the succession of orthodoxies will be only the first of the issues of interest to future social scientists. They will also be concerned to explore the consequences of the subordination of experience to fantasy and of thought and reasoned discourse to ideology and self-righteous rage. I think it is also possible to predict that when they come to this enterprise, they will find Kingsley Browne’s excellent book to be a rich and indispensable guide to, and perhaps itself a major element in, the intellectual and emotional dynamics of our extraordinary times.




Schwartz, Howard S. (2003) The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness, (paperback edition). Piscataway NJ: Transaction Publishers.