By my count, Harvard president Lawrence Summers has now apologized about a half dozen times for his remarks at a conference in January on the expansion of the role of women in science and engineering. According to the accounts of witnesses (there is no available transcript), Summers suggested that innate genetic difference between men and women might be among the factors that have led to heavy female underrepresentation in these fields — though we know for sure that he considered social constraints on mothers and discrimination in universities to be important factors as well.
The suggestion that innate genetic variation at least ought to be examined is apparently so reprehensible a proposal that Summers himself won’t defend it, which is a pity, since it turns out to be eminently defensible. The objections to it have had scarcely anything to do with the empirical proposition Summers offered. Rather, Summers’ critics seem to be flatly rejecting the idea that innate genetic difference between the sexes is a permissible subject of study at all, as if truth were subordinate to political correctness rather than the other way around.
Have I mischaracterized the views of Summers’ invigilators? I have not, if MIT professor Nancy Hopkins’ reaction is at all representative: “When [Summers] started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill. Let’s not forget that people used to say that women couldn’t drive an automobile.”
The irony at Hopkins’ expense is that she is presenting herself as a caricature of the helpless, constantly-fainting Victorian “woman of the house.” If feminism is to have any point at all, it must presume, as I hope most of us do, that women are in fact tough enough to withstand the onslaught of mere words. Despite Hopkins’ alleged physical illness, the concept of sex-based genetic variation is both a rapidly expanding sphere of biological research and a mundane assumption that (almost) all of us make without any hyper-awareness of it.
For an example of the latter, consider the fact that a huge majority of violent offenders in prison are men. Perhaps there are cutting-edge gender theorists capable of explaining why this disparity, too, is nothing but a social construction. But until their arguments are properly ventilated, it might be reasonable to conclude that biology — specifically, the biological fact that men produce testosterone, a powerful hormone proven to increase one’s tendency towards physical aggression, at 10 to 20 times the average rate of women — is part of the story behind the over-representation of men in penitentiaries.
Indeed, there is no greater single indicator of genetic variation between any two people than sex. Whereas ethnicity and race, to take the two most pertinent analogues, account for almost zero variation between individual genomes, the average genomic difference between a human male and female is between 1 and 2 percent. That, as Hopkins’ MIT colleague, biologist David Page, puts it, is “the same as the difference between a man and a male chimpanzee or between a woman and a female chimpanzee.” Clearly, the genes involved in variation across sex are very different from the genes involved in variation across species. But the persistent attempt to deny that such a level of variation can produce real, biological, non-socially invented asymmetries in the distributions of various vices and virtues between the sexes is simply not scientifically plausible.
In fact, advancements in cognitive science have made us aware that boys and girls learn according to distinct neurological patterns and respond very differently to various approaches to teaching. Pedagogy theorists and teachers have the option of ignoring what science can do to illuminate their field. But I’d like to think that a decent and fair society can do better in educating its children — even if it means acknowledging that men and women, while equally protected under the law, equal in civil rights and privileges, and if there is one, equal before God as well, are nevertheless (surprise!) not biologically identical.
If that conclusion is the worst that can be drawn from Larry Summers’ remarks, they might not have been so bad after all. Everything that Summers said pertained to statistical averages, which by their very definition entail outliers. Nothing at all concerning the capabilities of any individual woman follows from that statement that genetic variation is responsible for an uneven distribution of a particular set of skills in favor of men — or an uneven distribution in favor of women, which is equally likely. Even in the worst case, in which empirical biology does conclude that genetics favors one sex over the other in some skill set, what follows is that every individual person is still capable of succeeding at the absolute highest levels of his or her chosen field.
Perhaps, however, sex-based genetic difference plays no role at all in accounting for male domination of science, mathematics and engineering. If so, the disparity is then a function of social imposition on women and academic discrimination, the abolition of which Summers specifically endorsed. Gender equality, which we rightfully strive for, is not the same thing as gender identity, which is impossible. Recognition of that fact is not sexism and not misogyny. Though it might not have occurred to them yet, the actual enemy of Summers’ shocked accusers is reality.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.