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Sunday, July 17, 2005


Vive la difference

Tonight's BBC1 show Secrets of the Sexes has attracted hostility from the left before it has even been broadcast.

As one would expect, a pop science programme on BBC1 in prime time is likely to oversimplify scientific knowledge. Further, the argument between nature and nurture is not new and much of the existing science remains highly contentious. However, I fear some commentators protest too much.

Natasha Walter, writing in yesterday's Guardian, clearly holds to the feminist dogma that all gender differences can be attributed to nurture rather than nature. Meanwhile, a report in today's Observer seemed equally keen to pooh-pooh the science used in the programme.

One should treat all scientific claims with scepticism - indeed, that is what all reputable scientists, as professional sceptics, do. However, a knee-jerk reaction against any suggestion that some gender differences might be due to nature rather than nurture places the left on very dangerous ground.

Scientific knowledge regarding genetics, the brain and psychology is advancing all the time. These advances are uncovering some innate differences between people, whether we like it or not. If left-wingers and liberals automatically and stubbornly reject such science, the intellectual field will be left clear to conservatives to frame the debate and thus define the political consequences.

This would mean the political interpretation of scientific discoveries to justify discriminatory policies. This might apply not only to gender and racial differences, but also, for example, to the potential use of DNA tests to discriminate against people with a genetic predisposition to a particular disease.

Essentially, the Liberal response to such science is that the discovery of innate differences between people does not alter our moral belief that all human beings are entitled to the same degree of dignity. Far from fearing the science, we should be celebrating difference instead of using it as a means to rank people.

Scientific discovery will only be a barrier to social justice if we allow our opponents to define the issues.

I couldn't agree more. Simon Baron-Cohen's research is of especial interest to us, as we have an autistic son and his conclusions about sexual difference come from his work on autism and aspergers syndrome, a point not made on the programme last night. The fact that autism and aspergers are between 4 and 8 to 1 predominantly male conditions in itself raises questions.

In fact to imply, as Natasha Walter does, that gender differences are all socially conditioned is to return families with autistic children to the dark ages where mothers were blamed for being cold, or not loving enough.

A recognition that there are inbuilt differences in people and yet we still all have inherent equal value as human beings is a prerequisite in civilised societies.

What perhaps does need looking at is why jobs that need what are traditionally called feminine values like empathy are not as well rewarded as those that need traditional male characteristics.

Also, we have to be very careful about using phrases such as 'women are empathetic' as the programme did last night. It is like saying 'men are taller than women.' on the whole they are, but there are tall women and short men.
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