Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Embracing Inequality to Achieve Equality of Opportunity

And again we have more research results demonstrating differing brain operations between men and women. UC Irvine researchers have reported findings that show the amygdala, a part of the brain "involved in processing emotionally influenced memories," behaves differently in men and women. And this specific finding may shed light on the understanding and treatment of various psychiatric disorders that appear to vary by sex/gender.

As an anthropologist, particularly one that makes heavy use of evolutionary theory, the fact that there are very real differences in the brains of males vs. females, and that these differences influence how each sex perceives and experiences the world around them, is to be expected. By far, the majority of human and pre-human history was spent in relatively small groups with many of the daily tasks for survival and propagation of the species subdivided along the line between the two sexes. Not the least of which would have been childbirth itself.

It would be inevitable that evolution over the long term would have modified the male and female brain differently to adapt to and perform these differing tasks more efficiently and effectively. So it would seem logical that in our modern world we should try to account for these differences in everything from medical treatments, to the design of space, to the structuring of learning environments and teaching methods.

Unfortunately politics and ideology often get in the way of this. The far left (including many feminists) often decries such research and its applications as perpetuating white male dominance or other power imbalances. The far right (including many religious conservatives) sometimes uses this type of research to justify its own various male/female dichotomies (including male "superiority").

And such findings also conflict with the popular "myth" in the US that all people are created equal. The fact is we're not created equal - we differ in various forms of physical prowess, various forms of intelligence, various likes/dislikes, the amount of resources available to the families we're born into, etc. The differences in the male/female brain are just another example of how we're not created equal.

Another US ideal - the goal of providing everyone with equal opportunities for success - is also typically not "true" in the sense that it's often not realized. However this is an ideal that we can strive for, but to do so we have to recognize the fact that we're not all created equal - including men and women. If we proceed on the erroneous assumption that we all have the same potential to succeed in any given situation, there will always be individuals playing with the deck stacked against them.

In the case of treating certain psychiatric disorders, by not recognizing the difference between men and women, certain treatments may be placing one gender or the other at a disadvantage in terms of being a success (or both genders may be placed at a disadvantage because the treatment targets neither brain type very well). A somewhat more controversial case is the structuring of education environments and teaching methods to maximize the differences in the mental wiring between males and females. But again, one or the other (or both) may be placed at a disadvantage by not recognizing the mental differences.

Science, in its purest form, doesn't care about politics or ideology. It cares about what the experimental evidence is saying. And its telling us that there are very real differences in how the brain works between males and females. We must acknowledge these differences, these inherent inequalities, if we ever truly want to achieve equality of opportunity.

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