Science of the Sexes

Science of the SexesSynopsis: These specials dissect what makes men and women who they are. From the embryonic effects of testosterone and estrogen, to the second hormone wave in puberty, they use state-of-the-art computer graphics and lively real-world vignettes to follow sex differences through childhood. “Growing up” explores the issue of nature versus nurture through a cross-cultural study of two teenagers on different continents. “Different by design” episode explores the physical and mental aspects of human sexuality from adulthood to old age.


Science of the Sexes 7.75

eyelights: its scientific overview and explanations.
eyesores: its limited scope of likely bias.

For decades people have been talking about nature vs. nurture, with some believing that nature is supreme, whereas others like to think that nurture is more influential. The Discovery Channel’s 2002 documentary ‘Science of the Sexes’ purports to explore these claims and lay them to rest.

The big question is why does gender still matter at a time when we’re trying to make the genders equal? Shouldn’t gender be irrelevant in this day and age? Shouldn’t they both be measured by the same metrics? Well, the producers of ‘Science of the Sexes’ like to think that they have the answer.

However, the fix is in: From the onset, one gets the impression that all the producers wanted to do was to convince us that men and women are diametrically opposed and that all the stereotypes are true. And while that may be the case, their presentation left quite a few gaping holes to fill.

First they explain some key physiological differences between men and women: for instance, men have bigger brains, but women’s brains are more firmly packed with neurons, men have better sight, but women have a better sense of smell, women live much longer and men are more prone to suicide.

And that’s the least of it.

  • Then they compared a boy and a girl who were born at exactly the same time, but in different countries. The show spends a lot of time showing how different they are, without considering cultural heritage, how the countries they’re in may influence their development on a physical and psychological level.

Right from the start, this made me skeptical: you could tell that the parents had biases, and likely raised their kids with gender stereotypes. For instance, the boy’s mom told the story of crying when she got pregnant, and how her partner her husband didn’t understand. “So like a man”, she quipped.


Further discrediting her was her assertion that she felt it in her guts that she was pregnant with a boy. And guess what? It was a boy! Man, what are the odds? One out of two? A whole 50/50 chance? I am really, wholly impressed. Truthfully. Not. Sheesh… what are we dealing with here?

Meanwhile, the girl’s mom claims that she tried to avoid gender-biased toys for her daughter, but that she eventually gravitated towards so-called girls toys. The thing is, her daughter was raised in the United States, where we’re inundated with media influences – which is all gender-biased.

If that didn’t influence her daughter, then her friends did.

Or maybe not. This wasn’t at all discussed.

The documentary does discuss conception, however (ex: the differences between chromosomes, and how female and males also develop/grow differently). Except that they couldn’t explain why that is. Yes, they actually admitted it. To me, this raised alarms, because everything derives from conception.

Interesting fact: Male fetuses are more vulnerable than females; more are born, but more die. At birth, boys are four weeks behind girls developmentally.

They briefly talk about a “Gender X” experiment where parents were given kids dressed as boys and girls, but without telling them the children’s actual genders to see how they’d treat them. This is not explored much, as though it didn’t support their thesis. So here’s another example.

Can you say gender bias? I think we give nurture far too little significance.

One anthropologist suggests that bias makes a difference but you can’t make a girl from a boy and vice versa. Michael Lewis, another scientist, suggests that it’s a combination of nature and nurture. But his experiments suggest that there are already clear differences at ages 1 and 3.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, believes that our specialization comes from Africa, having examined a hunter/gatherer tribe, one of the last, to compare genders. She found that even they divided along gender lines for evolutionary reasons and claims that language comes from women.

  • They give the example of a girl with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, whose testosterone level was wonky and is more like a boy, behaviourly. The proof? Her parents comment that she wouldn’t wear a dress. Um, yeah. The doc claims it had a biological impact on her interests and playmates.

Um, it could also have something to do with the way people behave around her, given that there’s no way that she’s treated the same as all the other girls. Perhaps that drives her in certain areas she wouldn’t be otherwise. But this is not at all explored in any fashion; we just have to buy their theory.

  • Another experiment shows a group of boys being able to draw a bicycle better on a technical level than the girls. But it doesn’t ask if the boys ride bikes more or even if those boys are more likely to draw, to have that interest stimulated in them. And they certainly don’t have them draw other things.

Like… ahem… dolls.

  • Girls’ brains are better connected, so they can multitask better, focus less, apparently. Riiiight. I can multitask like it’s nobody’s business, and my focus depends on the activity. And if women can’t focus, then why are women more likely to meditate than men? That requires a fair bit of focus, right?

Later they do an experiment with young adults to see how well they can multitask. Naturally, the girls did better and the boys didn’t. But, again, couldn’t this simply be social conditioning? At least this time, one of the scientists considered that socialization may have a part to play.

For once.

Hilariously, they also say that puberty makes girls more social and boys more likely to take risks. The reverse is true for me, and I’m not effeminate, gay, or whatever. They also claim that males become less communicative. Again, totally false: I spend my days on the phone, chatting.

Oh, and I love this one: girls’ relationships are more deep. Also false: I tend to be a more probing type; I’m no great fan of surface level connections. So I’ve had extremely connected friendships in my life. Yes, with boys. And platonic, before you ask. So what the hell are they talking about?

Having said this, I was raised by a single mom who liked to question these types of biases, who didn’t neatly box people in, so I was probably raised a bit differently. It doesn’t mean that I’m not a traditional guy on many levels, but it just goes to show the power of nurture over nature.

  • In another case, they get five men and five women who have never driven before to parallel park a car. The women took three times more time than the men. But they’re adults, who have all (likely) been raised with traditional upbringing (i.e. the guys were raised to do more physical activities and women less so). This was not considered, nor was the drivers’ emotional state at the time.

A scientist called John Manning came up with a controversial theory about the length of the ring finger in comparison with the forefinger to determine how physically skilled a person is. It’s relatively effective, but the experiment they showed only use male candidates. So, again, bias abounds.

Interesting fact: Women have sex cells right from conception, whereas men don’t have any until puberty.

  • In their experiment on pheromones, they sent identical twins in a bar, one with pheromones and the other without, taking turns so that people wouldn’t know that they were different. Naturally, the one with pheromones was approached quite a lot, whereas the other was only approached once.

But here’s the thing: the girls knew ahead of time who had the pheromones: there was no placebo. This alone could affect their confidence, and confidence attracts. And they never did the experiments with the girls without this agent; perhaps one is already more likely to draw people than the other.

Interesting fact: Our bodies are in a constant state of arousal, but the brain interferes. That explains me.

  • They show an MRI of a couple having sex. But, given how unsexy the situation (they’re cramped in this big machine and can’t partake in foreplay/loveplay – it’s merely intercourse in the missionary position), I can’t even fathom how they can give any credence to the results.

Surely the average couple has sex in a more sexy, and more arousing, circumstance.

Or maybe not.

Interesting fact: It’s possible to make a man temporarily impotent by bathing his testicles in water heated at 40 degrees Celsius daily for three week. The effects lasts 10 days.

  • They do alcohol drinking tests. Obviously the men absorbed the alcohol more, but they didn’t actually consider their usual alcohol consumption. They made the group do exercises to compare them, but never did those tests sober to see how they fared beforehand. Again, the results are flawed.
  • They compared the sense of direction of two cadets – one male and one female. Ahem… great sample size. And they only did the test once. The male had a better sense of direction but was disqualified for not doing it properly, whereas the woman completed the exercise despite an early setback.

They claim that children raised by both a mother and grandmother develop better and that this may explain the reason why women live longer and go through menopause. Of course, they don’t compare with children raised by a mother and a grandfather. Or a father and grandfather.

Their experiments are often with preteens, where early development is already ingrained. They don’t start training girls at a young age to see if there’ a difference. I mean, we used to like to say that girls couldn’t do well in school and sucked at sports – and we all know now that this false.

And most of their experiments don’t consider cultural bias. Children raised in North American “culture” are simple not going to be the same on some levels as they are in other cultures. Parental bias also makes a difference. But these notions are simply not explored in any real fashion here.

The only way we could really test genders would be to raise them without any gender differences from day one. To have them dressed, groomed and treated asexually, educated and trained all in the same way by people who consciously avoid bias – in a bubble where societal influence is nill.

It’s the only way to truly see if there are significant difference between females and males. But that would potentially be considered be harsh, so it’s not an experiment that could ever be sanctioned. We could do it with animals, I suppose, but that wouldn’t be quite the same, would it?

Ultimately, ‘Science of the Sexes’ is a terribly flawed documentary. It makes a lot of claims, many of which may be substantiated. You ALWAYS have to provide counter arguments to support your claims. Except that these producers were content reinforcing their theory, not proving it.

“Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls. Maybe it’s best to celebrate what nature provides and accept the differences.”, they say, in closing.

!@#$ you.

It’s shows like ‘Science of the Sexes’ that continue to entrench gender differences and biases – under the guise of science. When I read online comments from people who passively accepted that assessment and used it to explain away why their partner is different, it made me sick to my stomach.

Look, it’s a fascinating show and there’s some interesting data in it – there really is. But its approach is a joke.

Watch with caution.

Date of viewing: February 21, 2016

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