Hormones for toy choice

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2008

From “an otherwise serious article”:http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/its-official-men-really-are-the-weaker-sex-1055688.html about the effects of pollution on males of all species:

bq. … a study at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University showed that boys whose mothers had been exposed to PCBs grew up wanting to play with dolls and tea sets rather than with traditionally male toys.



V 12.10.08 at 9:57 pm

The effect of hormones on reproductive behavior in nonhuman species has been extensively demonstrated (ie giving testosterone in utero to females during the aptly named “critical period” results in some pretty unsurprising results in mice, etc.) so I don’t see why it is unserious to believe that hormonal effects on human reproductive behavior exist. From there to toys and other gendered play patterns is really not that dramatic a step despite the snark…Moreover being a creationist on sexual identity is hardly a progressive stance either given its association with converting gays, etc…


Helen 12.10.08 at 10:28 pm

If toy choice is biologically determined, someone should tell the toy companies, who seem to spend billions annually strenuously separating the girl-toys and boy-toys into separately shelved and coloured apartheid. Seems they could save a lot of money.

(And if anyone’s going to tell me it’s “traditional”, Someone On The Internet very astutely pointed out the other day that in the olden days, toy shops had toys pretty much jumbled together and not so meaningfully colour coded – you didn’t have Girl Aisles where everything was shocking pink and Boy Aisles where everything’s khaki and camo.)


Shane 12.10.08 at 11:20 pm

Apparently, gender-specific behaviour is entirely socially determined.


Dan S. 12.10.08 at 11:35 pm

Moreover being a creationist on sexual identity . . .

Stop. Right. There. This despicable little meme – often pushed by pseudoscience-humpin’ racists, as well as folks wedded to notions of extremely strict gender roles, rationalized at best by the slimmest of pop-evo-psych just-so stories – is just stupid. Please throw it away. Thank you. Or else I will be forced to whack at you with a blank slate.


Cheryl 12.10.08 at 11:59 pm

Oh, I wouldn’t put this down to any complex philosophy of gender identity on the part of Mr. Bertram. It is just the usual misogyny of thinking that a boy wanting to do girly things is laughable on the grounds that “feminine = inferior”.


Colin Danby 12.11.08 at 12:27 am

What, you reproduce with toy trucks? Guess I’ve been doing it wrong.

Here’s the thing http://www.jstor.org/stable/3455812?seq=1 if anyone wants to kill a few minutes. The fits are not exactly tight.


harry b 12.11.08 at 12:51 am

Confession time. My little lad (2 and 2 months) is a complete alpha male, who can smell out fear in other children and dominates kids 3 and more years older than him. Biting, fighting, pulling, pushing, and generally terrorising. Its horrific. BUT at home….he pushes a stroller around with a baby in ti, changes its daipers, kisses and puts it to bed; he plays almost exclusively with girls toys (despite having been ample numbers of boys toys.


tom s. 12.11.08 at 1:21 am

Someone in the b household is going to be displeased if this comment thread is still here in 16 years. Let’s hope for harry’s sake he has grown out of the biting and terrorising.


richard 12.11.08 at 3:52 am

I agree with Chris this time, it’s a ludicrous leap that takes culture for granted. What gender are coffee sets? Does pollution explain Judith Butler?

There’s a vaguely comic thread running through the article, though, that’s at odds with the serious environmental message:
baby boys born to women exposed to widespread chemicals in pregnancy are born with smaller penises and feminised genitals.
“This research shows that the basic male tool kit is under threat,”

– that’s pure Spike Milligan.


Dan S. 12.11.08 at 4:57 am

What, you reproduce with toy trucks?

Do we have to bring up Larry Summers again?

(But seriously – all it takes are a few mistranslations in a badly edited copy of the Kama Sutra to cause all manner of interesting situations . . .


Nat 12.11.08 at 5:57 am

This guy has been studying this issue for a very long time, and is famous for the quote before Congress quite a while ago: ‘Every man in this room is half the man his grandfather was.’


Its a seriously significant story and anyone who does not think testosterone (or lack thereof) does not influence behavior is more than a bit delusional. I have watched this story for years and it seems to get very little play in the news. I find that amazing.


Colin Danby 12.11.08 at 6:42 am

Are we not men?


Chris Bertram 12.11.08 at 6:56 am

…we are Devo!

Seriously folks, I’m a bit concerned that Cheryl takes my post to be a bit of casual misogyny. Of course there’s nothing wrong with boys playing with tea sets, what I think bizarre is the idea – implicit in the article – that, normally, girls are hard-wired to do so!


Nat 12.11.08 at 7:08 am

FWIW, here is a link of a PBS interview with Theo Colborn from 1998 on the topic.


I am not sure playing with tea sets is the signifier I would focus on, but behavioral changes are part of the suite of effects of endocrine disruption. Interestingly, Ms. Colborn cites the involvement of the breast cancer awareness groups as having a significant impact on this subject getting attention. It seems what’s bad for the boys can be bad for the girls.

I consider this a hair on fire issue akin to global warming but it gets little to no attention.


Cheryl 12.11.08 at 7:13 am


In that case you have missed the point. They toy thing is just a symptom. What the research is asking, and the article stumbling around, is whether exposure to certain chemicals increases the likelihood that boys will grow up transgender. (It doesn’t ask the same question about girls because that would probably involve different chemicals.) If you think that’s not “serious”, well, you won’t be alone. There are plenty of Sun readers who will agree with you. But I can assure you that if this is a real phenomenon then it is very serious for the people affected.


Chris Bertram 12.11.08 at 7:42 am

Cheryl: I wrote “in an otherwise serious article”. That’s because I thought that the article is serious apart from its assertion of the essentially gendered nature of tea-sets.


Cheryl 12.11.08 at 8:19 am


You are just digging a deeper and deeper hole. However, it is gone midnight in California so I think I’ll leave it to others to try to explain.


Dru 12.11.08 at 8:40 am

Talking about dolls, Julie Bindel, in a debate (well, exchange of ideas) with Susan Stryker at MMU last week, mentioned that she’d been writing about Barbie in anticipation of her 40th birthday. Julie had previously said

“As someone who spurned dolls and make-up as a child, I find it deeply troubling that, had I gone to one of the specialist psychiatrists while growing up and explained how I did not feel like a ‘real girl’ (which I did not, because I wanted to be a lesbian), I could be writing this as a trans man.”


…having mentioned the Barbie article to her mum, she said, she was told that actually she’d been very keen on her Barbie doll when she was a little girl…


Mark 12.11.08 at 8:57 am

Could some others step in and explain Cheryl’s point? From my perspective Chris hasn’t dug any sort of hole. And even if he is underplaying the very serious issue of increased incidences of boys becoming transgendered (which in and of itself is significant but not in any clearcut sense a bad thing), how does that make him a misogynist?

Seems to me that Sun readers would be among the most concerned about their little boys not wanting to be boys anymore.


Mrs Tilton 12.11.08 at 2:35 pm

Nat @11,

‘Every man in this room is half the man his grandfather was’

Surely he’s half the man his father was, and only a quarter of the man his grandfather was?

Mark @19,

Could some others step in and explain Cheryl’s point?

She doesn’t really have one. But exposure to chemicals has given her that hypersensitivity that, in nature, is found only in Jeff Godlstein, the manliest of all manly men.


Picador 12.11.08 at 2:53 pm

I’m not sure I’d characterize the article as “otherwise serious”. All this stuff about evolution being “disrupted” by these chemicals in the environment… sort of like talking about the surface of the ocean being “disrupted” by waves, right? The ecosystem exhibiting biological shifts following changes in the environment IS evolution.


Chris Bertram 12.11.08 at 2:57 pm

#20 I’m sure she does have a point – I just can’t work out exactly which of the several it might be that it is. But even if she didn’t, there’s be no excuse for the offensive snark of your final para.


Neil 12.11.08 at 3:11 pm

I love the research that aims to demonstate that gendered toy choice is innate based on monkey preferences (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-12/tau-tca121002.php). Apparently in the environment of evolutionary adaptation girl monkeys liked pots. Cheryl, Chris was not saying that gender discimination is not serious. He was saying that we can’t take research like this seriously; ie, take its conclusions as prima facie sound. Of course there are other grounds for taking it seriously: its a symptom of a serious problem.


engels 12.11.08 at 3:28 pm

Perhaps the quoted sentence is carelessly worded but I assume the claim is that boys who have been exposed to such chemicals are more likely than those who have not to exhibit these behaviours (which are, in fact, in 21st century Britain, common among girls but not among boys). Where is the determinism or essentialism here? Am I missing the point?


engels 12.11.08 at 3:48 pm

(I’m not trying to make the standard internet slam-dunk “Who cares if claim X which you quote is absurd there is a similar-sounding claim Y which I can defend” but I don’t really see the absurdity in the sentence you quote although I don’t think it is very clearly written.)


Kaveh Hemmat 12.11.08 at 4:18 pm

@ #20,

Clearly, every man is 1/squareroot(2) x the man his father was.


sg 12.11.08 at 4:51 pm

I’m not. Just ask the milkman!


ajay 12.11.08 at 5:08 pm

In fact, thanks to rising levels of obesity, each man is more likely to be between 1.2 and 1.6 times the man his father was.


Righteous Bubba 12.11.08 at 5:56 pm

Where is the determinism or essentialism here?

In the assumption that teaset play is worrisome?


Cheryl 12.11.08 at 6:01 pm

Morning Chris. engels appears to get it, but let’s give it another try.

Firstly, while the whole question of biological origins for gender identity is deeply controversial, dismissing it out of hand is probably unwise. Humans are very complex animals, and either/or debates ought to be suspect.

However, there’s no need to assume that this is all about a genetic predisposition to liking Barbie. Kids pick up clues to “correct” gendered behavior from all over the place, perhaps most importantly from their peers. While the news report might be sloppily worded, what the research should be about is whether these kids showed a persistent preference for “non-normative” gender behavior despite parental and peer pressure to do otherwise.

Why toys? Well toys (and clothing) are things that are generally accessible to kids that society (whether we like it or not) sees are strongly gendered. The kids themselves may be afraid to articulate actual transgender feelings, or they may simply not know enough to explain their problem, so their behavior is studied instead.

The news report, of course, puts things in very simplistic terms. That may be because the journalist doesn’t take the issue of gender identity seriously, or it could simply be avoiding complex explanations. But while the average CT reader may not be too perturbed about his or her son playing with dolls, that’s not true of the public at large. There are psychologists who base their business on preying on the fears of parents that their little boy might “grow up gay”. It is no longer just a question of sending the kid to summer camp to toughen him up. There days there are whole lifestyle programs aimed at disciplining gender non-conformative kids until they drop any behavior that mummy and daddy find socially embarrassing. (There are also, of course, programs for parents who are happy to allow their kids to work out their gender issues in peace. Both sides accuse the other of “ruining the lives” of their children.)

So sure, the idea of little boys playing with Barbie is so embarrassing to the adult male sense of self that people tend to laugh it off, and a great deal of nonsense is talked about biological origins of this, that and the other. However, these studies are trying to measure something real that has potentially serious consequences. That the chemicals in question have physical effects is beyond doubt (including, as someone mentioned above, exposing males to risk of breast cancer). That they might have psychological effects in complex animals such as humans should not be surprising, and certainly isn’t non-serious.


Colin Danby 12.11.08 at 6:13 pm

Resisting peer pressure is explained by chemical imbalances?


engels 12.11.08 at 6:24 pm

In the assumption that teaset play is worrisome?

Where do you see an assumption that it is worrisome?


Righteous Bubba 12.11.08 at 6:30 pm

Where do you see an assumption that it is worrisome?

In the article where it’s part of a long catalogue of events which are meant to be paired with phrases like “Even more ominously for humanity”.


engels 12.11.08 at 6:39 pm

So just to be clear, we’re not objecting to the claim quoted, only to it being mentioned within in article which is about the health risks from pollution?


roy belmont 12.11.08 at 6:40 pm

Hearing this from way outside the academy, it sounds like it’s happening in a social context that’s about biology and something like a spontaneous culture. A culture that exists on its own terms, rising out of something like an organic human social progression.
But it isn’t is it? It’s a borg-culture now, caught up in feedback loops of artificial values that originate in mercantile intention, anxieties developed to stimulate demand.
Create a need, fill it.
The common folk have a scienceless attitude toward bacteria that’s similarly false and artificially created, baseless fears teased up then quieted down by “antibacterial” household cleaning products.
Gender i.d. fear is artificially induced, then the gender i.d. affirmations are marketed.
That the anxiety existed before there was anything like the cultural dominance of artificially-induced commodified values we have now just means the same scam was being run all along, only before it wasn’t about Barbie, it was about serving the patriarchy. Now it’s both.


engels 12.11.08 at 6:50 pm

If it were suggested that exposure such-and-such a chemical caused children’s height to be smaller (or greater) than otherwise would it be wrong for anyone to be concerned about that? Would this be evidence of bigotry against short (or tall) kids?


engels 12.11.08 at 6:52 pm

(I’m not trying to suggest that sexual identity is in anyway similar to a height. Perhaps I should have chosen extroversion/introversion.)


Righteous Bubba 12.11.08 at 7:01 pm

So just to be clear, we’re not objecting to the claim quoted, only to it being mentioned within in article which is about the health risks from pollution?

Speaking for me and not we, yes.


tps12 12.11.08 at 7:15 pm

On the savannah, cavemen did the hunting, while caveladies were responsible for fixing the cavetea.


Nat 12.11.08 at 7:30 pm

Lou Guillette is the ‘half a man’ testifier and he is the original researcher on alligators at Lake Apopka in Florida. His quote before Congress was a reference to declining human sperm counts and was made in 1995. Elizabeth Guillette’s area of study has been the impact of these chemicals on humans. Theo Colborn wrote the book ‘Our Stolen Future’. All 3 are at the University of Florida.

Much of this gets lost in sniggers over alligator phalluses and conflicts over the very touchy subject of gender and behavior, but this issue deserve a place next to global warming in importance. Elsewhere on the web Guillette discusses the worldwide levels of PCBs and the huge numbers of chemicals that need to be evaluated. 70k is a start. Interestingly (and sadly), isolated Greenlanders are at the greatest risk for PCB contamination. What a sad world we have made for ourselves.

Cheryl: nicely explained.

Again, here is a good summary:


lemuel pitkin 12.11.08 at 7:34 pm

The full text of the paper is here.

Note that the description of the results in terms of tea-sets is false: There was no effect of PCB exposure on the frequency of feminine play (presumably including tea parties), only on masculine play.

More importantly, the effects are extremely weak. Look at the scatterplots on page 3: If, like Cheryl, you feel that there is a major public interest in ensuring that boys continue to engage in correctly masculine play, PCBs are not the main thing you should be worrying about.


lemuel pitkin 12.11.08 at 7:48 pm

Note also that the kids’ play was based on responses to a survey of parents, not direct observation of the kids. When you realize that what’s being measured here is actually the correlation of parents’ PCB exposure with their view of the gender-appropriateness of their kids’ play, it’s easy to imagine how these results could reflect the class background of the family rather than anything to do with hormones. But “people working in heavy industry are more likely to worry about their sons’ masculinity” is not as attractive a story as one that affirms the biological innateness of sex roles.


engels 12.11.08 at 8:05 pm

Okay, I’m baffled. Why would establishing that chemical exposure can influence children’s tendency to engage in gendered play ‘affirm the biological innateness of sex roles’? Consider the hypothetical case above where the factor under study was extroversion/introversion. Would a parallel result be evidence that these characteristics are (entirely? mostly?) genetically determined? I don’t think so.


lemuel pitkin 12.11.08 at 8:05 pm

From Alan Kaufman’s critique of the paper:

reported no studies to validate the parents’ perceptions–they did not actually observe children’s play activities, an essential aspect of test validity

interpreted the PSAI composite score (male items minus female items); however, PSAI psychometric data are provided only for the total score. Consequently, the reliability and validity data do not even apply to the “difference” score used by the authors; indeed, difference scores are notoriously unreliable. … Vreugdenhil et al. (2002) presented no rationale for analyzing data for the so-called masculine and feminine scales. … and inappropriately used the interaction term “sex x exposure” in their regression analysis. This analysis involves combined groups of boys and girls, a serious problem because bimodal distributions spuriously inflate correlations; that includes coefficients involving the sex x exposure interaction, conceivably explaining the “significant” PCB results.

The PSAI is likely not valid for school-age children. The average age of the Dutch children was 7.5 years, whereas the PSAI was developed and designed for preschool children; its oldest norms group is 60-71 months, much younger than the average age of the Dutch children.

The authors related parents’ perceptions of their young children’s behaviors to sex steroid hormones but offered no direct evidence that PSAI scores are in any way related to sex steroid hormones–nor have Golombok and Rust made such claims for their test.

Overall, Vreugdenhil et al. (2002) used a flawed instrument and made other methodological errors that should cause them and other researchers to question their significant findings and their conclusions.

Looks pretty damning to me.


Nat 12.11.08 at 8:08 pm

Actually, I am worried about birth defects, lower levels of intelligence and the impairment of our ability to reproduce. PCBs (and a host of other chemicals) do terrible things to pretty much all living things, including the human in utero. Behavioral changes are just part of the spectrum of damage and are noted in other species.

People working in heavy industry (or crappy parts of the city or in agricultural areas with heavy concentrations of pesticide use) are disadvantaged environmentally, economically and politically. There should be a strong public interest in knowing the full extent of what chemicals are doing to their (and our) children.


lemuel pitkin 12.11.08 at 8:13 pm

Kaufman link.


Biological does not equal genetic. The study that you described would certainly suggest a biological basis for introversion/extroversion. The problem with any such study is that it implies a direct link between a simple biological input and a complex social behavior, obscuring all the complex mediation that happens in between.

What we have here is a correlation between parental exposure to a chemical, on the one hand, and a somewhat lower lieklihood for those parents to describe their sons as fighting, playing with guns, etc., on the other hand. That’s all they’ve shown. To assume, as they do, that the mechanism behind that correlation is PCB -> hormone -> sex-specific behavior, has nothing to do with science.


engels 12.11.08 at 8:44 pm

Lemuel, if you believe the study is flawed, fine. Likewise, you are right to say that all they have (purported to have) demonstrated is a correlation. But that is all the sentence quoted in this post says, right?

Yes, ‘biological does not equal genetic’, but why does this affect my point? You said that this study ‘affirms the biological innateness of sex roles’. Others have used phrases like ‘hard-wired’ and ‘biologically determined’. Would the study I have described affirm the biological innateness of extroversion, show that extroversion is hard-wired, or that it is biologically determined? As I said, I don’t think it would. All I think it would show is that extroversion can be influenced by exposure to chemicals.


engels 12.11.08 at 8:49 pm

All I think it would show is that extroversion can be influenced by exposure to chemicals.

And I should add, isn’t this something that people might reasonably be concerned about, regardless of whether or not they wish their children to grow up to be extroverted?


Cheryl 12.11.08 at 8:50 pm


Thanks for taking the time to find and read the paper. Sloppy experiment design and sloppy interpretation of the results are always good reasons to be skeptical of a piece of research. And if it turns out that these chemicals have no effect on humans then I for one will be greatly relieved. (The effects on other species are much clearer, but I think we are all agreed on that.)

And you are absolutely right that these mechanisms are incredibly complex. No one (I hope) is suggesting that exposure to particular chemicals automatically produces specific behaviors. What you might be able to show is that the incidence of transgender children is (statistically) significantly higher if the mother has been exposed to the chemical, and if that was the case then a whole lot more science would need to be done to establish a mechanism. But in the meantime that might be sufficient evidence to worry about the chemical.


engels 12.11.08 at 8:59 pm

Another example: suppose it were claimed that exposure to a chemical was associated with a decline in religiosity. Would I be concerned about this? Yes. Is this evidence of any negative attitude towards atheists on my part? I don’t think so (I am an atheist).


Mrs Tilton 12.11.08 at 9:05 pm

Chris @22,

my snark wasn’t meant to be offensive (at least, not towards Cheryl). It was meant to tweak her a bit for being, well, hypersensitive, insofar as she characterised the mere observation that PCB exposure makes boys more inclined to do things more often expected of girls as ‘the usual misogyny of thinking that a boy wanting to do girly things is laughable on the grounds that “feminine = inferior”.’

It doesn’t matter, from this perspective, whether the reported observation is factually correct, nor whether toy preferences more common in girls than boys are determined biologically, culturally or through some mixture of both. You just can’t fairly read ‘we note that increased levels of certain chemicals correlate with a greater likelihood of boys doing things otherwise more common in girls’ as ‘things that girls do are inferior’. (And the reference to Godlstein was meant to turn Cheryl’s accusation that the observation is tantamount to saying ‘feminine = inferior’ on its head, as the indisputably hypersensitive Godlstein is indisputably the most masculine man who ever bestrode this planet like a Colossus.)

So apologies, Cheryl, if you took offence at my snark; and if you didn’t, apologies in any event to Chris, for taking offence on your behalf. If it’s any recompense, I certainly agree with you that too many parents would worry about their son if he played with a doll; and I agree that it is a pity they’d do so. (Indeed, I think there are not one but two reasons why they are wrong.)


John Protevi 12.11.08 at 9:45 pm

Lemuel Pitkin, I really like the way you think. You performed a real service on this thread and an excellent model of critical and well-informed thought. Thanks!


Cheryl 12.11.08 at 9:51 pm

Mrs Tilton:

The evidence is circumstantial rather than direct. If you look at the negative attitudes towards transgender people, and in particular the huge imbalance of emphasis on male-to-female transitions rather than female-to-male, then you’ll quickly realize that much of this is based on the idea that a woman wanting to be more like a man is only natural, but a man wanting to be more like a woman is weird, icky and demeaning. Go read Julia Serano for detailed analysis.

So as with the biology I claim proof by probability rather than a direct causal factor. But if you want to ping me for choosing a fairly extreme explanation for Chris’s attitude in order to get him to think about the issue then I may well confess.

And no, I wasn’t offended, but thanks for apologizing anyway.


Hogan 12.11.08 at 9:52 pm

Much of this gets lost in sniggers over alligator phalluses and conflicts over the very touchy subject of gender and behavior,

Which is not at all the fault of the guy with the soundbite equating manhood with sperm count.


engels 12.12.08 at 1:47 am

If gender identities are socially constructed (in our culture boys tend to play with guns and girls tend to play with tea sets but it could just as well be the other way around) then there is a process of socialisation by which individuals with biological sex M are conditioned to take on gender behaviour G and this happens with probability p (high but less than one). What is crazy or otherwise objectionable in thinking that exposure to some chemical could interfere with this process, thus lowering the probability that the socially conditioned behaviour G gets adopted? And, especially, why would someone who thinks this be committed to the view that gender identies are biologically determined? It seems clear that they wouldn’t be.


Cheryl 12.12.08 at 6:06 am


It is just another case of binary thinking. The “acceptable” view is that biology can never, ever have any part to play. Anyone who suggests that it might even have a very tiny role is automatically The Enemy and Must Be Destroyed.

Needless to say, this is not good science, but it is the way politics is often done these days.


Dave 12.12.08 at 9:03 am

As usual, it’s confusing the curve for a single point. We see this grievously and gratuitously in any and all discussions of the infamous ‘bell curve’ assertions about race and intelligence. Any scientific value such studies might have is negated by the practice of both opponents and advocates of such measures implicitly and explicitly suggesting that a shifted peak in a curve equates to a uniform superiority/inferiority – which is, according to taste, either natural and right or abhorrent and wrong. It seems that any study which touches on any connection between biology, behaviour and either gender or race is doomed from the start to be swamped by people who can’t separate data from desired outcomes. It’s happening with global warming, too, obviously. One is sometimes tempted to think that public comment on any science with policy implications ought to be banned. But then I don’t trust the scientists either…


Chris Bertram 12.12.08 at 10:34 am

Cheryl, engels: fair enough.


MarkUp 12.12.08 at 2:59 pm

Unreleased data on the benefits of Enzyte being proportionally enhanced to the amount of perchlorate in the water supply may leak out soon. Expect a stiff upper lip to new regulations aimed at it’s reduction.


Paul 12.12.08 at 3:27 pm

Academic poppycock ??


Adam 12.12.08 at 5:37 pm

Cheryl, Engels

How do I even approach this?

Do I start with the science: pointing out the measurable cognitive differences are small and variances are large? And don’t give me any fMRI bullshit. The mind is what the brain does and the brain is amazing plastic. Here is a beautiful example of that plasticity: http://individual.utoronto.ca/jingfeng1107/FengSpencePratt2007.pdf

That’s an example of the supposedly “innate” male advantage in spatial skills being significantly reduced by a couple of hours playing a FPS.

What bugs me the most about this stuff is that the “innate” gender role people keep revising their assessment of the proper gender roles so that they always just hover on the edge of anachronism. For the past 100 years the “natural” gender roles have always been those in force 40 years prior.

And its so easy to see why. It’s all politics: people yammering on about gender roles being innate slip so easily from minor differences to normative statements (ie “what women want”).

So frustrating.


lemuel pitkin 12.12.08 at 6:47 pm


It could be, I suppose, that some unspecified people have deemed your beliefs unacceptable, declared you the enemy and are determined to destroy you. Or it could just be we disagree.


magistra 12.12.08 at 7:12 pm

If gender identities are socially constructed… then there is a process of socialisation by which individuals with biological sex M are conditioned to take on gender behaviour G and this happens with probability p (high but less than one). What is crazy or otherwise objectionable in thinking that exposure to some chemical could interfere with this process, thus lowering the probability that the socially conditioned behaviour G gets adopted?

Because there are lots of other socialisation processes going on with children as well. Why should this specific form of socialisation be affected and not others? I could understand hypothetically why some neurochemical effects on the brain might make all socialisation/conditioning more difficult e.g. by damaging IQ/concentration span, but it’s harder to see a mechanism by which only this very specific form of conditioning could be affected.


Barbar 12.12.08 at 7:37 pm

So I see Lemuel Pitkin dug up the relevant paper and a response to it, and found that it was rather flawed. For some reason I am completely unsurprised. It’s interesting how findings that derive their plausibility from “theoretically possible” but completely unspecified mechanisms tend not to be particularly robust.


lemuel pitkin 12.12.08 at 8:24 pm

It’s well-established empirically that children born in autumn are overrepresented in school sports teams, while children born in summer are underrepresented. This effect can be found all the way through high school and beyond.

Now, you could spin out all sorts of biological explanations for this correlation — about, say, the dependence of pregnant women’s diet and activity elvel on the time of year — and ask, like Engels like if is “crazy or otherwise objectionable” to imagine that seasons could effect prenatal development in some way relevant to sports performance. But of course, no one does this, because we have a much better explanation for the effect: autumn born kids are the usually the oldest in their grade, so the biggest and most physically capable; coaches and other adults therefore give them more attention and encoruagement, and this early advantage cumulates over time.

In other words, the correlation is real, and it is biological — it’s a biological fact that a 6 year old is likely to be bigger and faster than a 5 year old — but it is entirely mediated by the social insitution of grouping kids into annual classes that start school in the fall. So efforts to think about (and shape policy around) a supposed direct link between season of birth and athletic ability would be a dead end.

As it happens, our society has no real investment in dividing people based on birthdates — there’s no one who’s social status or security or sense of self-worth depends on the date they were born, and we don’t have a division of labor based on certain roles of “Springs” and otehrs for “Winters” — so so there’s no strong attachment to a story that directly links season of birth with athletic success.

Gender, obviously, is a different story. There is a very strong tendency to ignore or overlook the specific social mediations that produce observed gender differences and imagine a channel that runs directly from gene to hormone to brain structure to behavior. This study is a perfect example: There is zero effort to investigate whther the presumed hormonal differences are the, or a, channel through which the correlation operates. (This is leaving aside the question of whether their dependent variable can be accurately described as “sex differences in play behavior”.) It is simply assumed.


MarkUp 12.12.08 at 10:24 pm

Just remember to ferment your tofu, at any age.


Cheryl 12.13.08 at 8:11 am


I don’t think that there is much disagreement here. The central point is that research should stand or fall on the quality of the work, not on whether the conclusions are deemed politically correct, or whether people find the subject matter disturbing.

In this particular case there is a follow-on point that even dodgy science becomes a serious matter if people start peddling “cures” based on it.

The comment in engels in #56 was all about the way people tend to argue on the Internet. You know, saying things like “if input A cannot be proved to be 100% responsible for effect X then A cannot possibly have any influence on X whatsoever.” We wouldn’t say things like that here now, would we?


Adam 12.13.08 at 2:49 pm


I started out writing something rather angry – but here’s my more considered take on your posts.

You believe that attempts to make transgendered children conform to gender roles are wrong. Biological determinism of gender roles provides a justification for that belief – forcing gender roles on transgender kids becomes forcing something unnatural on them. This is basically an extension of the argument against trying to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals.

But this argument (applied to gender roles) has lots of nasty consequences. Assuming that gender roles are biologically determined protects transgendered kids – but justifying the particular gender roles prevalent in contemporary society in biological term screws over everyone else.

You end up in Lawrence Summers land – where inequities are justified by reference to “obvious” essential differences.

Now, you might respond by claiming this is all about The Science – but lemuel pretty much destroyed that study. And the majority of The Science shows that cognitive differences are pretty minor and the variances in aptitude large. What that study really showed was how easy it is to publish crap if that crap conveniently supports our prejudices.


Adam 12.13.08 at 2:54 pm

BTW lemuel – thanks for the children born in autumn argument. I’d heard that result before, but never noticed how applicable it was.


roy belmont 12.13.08 at 6:34 pm

In the earliest of early days of the internet there was a site called Honeyguide.
The author of that site seems to have been born what’s now called intrasexual, a gender state still called bymany hermaphrodite. Sexual outliers bar none.
Transgender doesn’t apply there, except that for people far enough away from anything like it it’s all abnormal sex weirdness. And the brutality with which they, the intrasexual as opposed to transgendered, were “treated” by the so-called medical community, and still are some places.
The author of the site more than once made reference to a diamond-patterned diagram of gender expression as biological reality.
The important part to me was that it wasn’t linear. So at one node there was the full or whatever masculine, opposite that the feminine, but, at the other two points of the diamond a combined gender expression, one intensely masculine and feminine, both expressed prominently, and at the other point a kind of asexual or non-sexual gender indeterminacy.
That seemed then and still seems now a very healthy and far more accurate way of looking at the totality of human gender.
As far as anthropogenic chemicals in the environment shaping humans, I wish someone would examine the effect that weight-gain stimulants like hormones etc. applied to factory meat animals has been having on consumers. The epidemic of obesity in the common folk of the US seems to parallel the Reaganoid unshackling of industry viz. profit-boosting application of said chemistry.
But that could just be me and my odd ideas.


Cheryl 12.14.08 at 9:51 pm


I’m saying nothing of the sort. I think that most of the research on gender issues is complete crap, and as I said to lemuel above I’ll be very pleased if this study is also nonsense because it means we are not creating more transgender people. The only dog I have int his fight this this we should not dismiss a piece of research as “non-serious” simply because it is about boys doing girly things.

As for this:

Assuming that gender roles are biologically determined protects transgendered kids – but justifying the particular gender roles prevalent in contemporary society in biological term screws over everyone else.

Well, that’s a fine example of what I was talking to engels about. What you are saying here is that if we allow any biological component as an explanation of trangenderism then all gender must be a result of biology, which is ludicrous. The world does not have to be black and white.

And even if it was, so what? Are you saying that if science proved a biological origin for gender then we should ignore that result because you find it politically inconvenient? (And note here that I’m not saying that any such thing has been proved, not that I want it to be proved.)


sg 12.14.08 at 11:18 pm

I certainly didn’t think Chris was dismissing the issue of boys doing girly things because girly things are completely unimportant. In fact, I think Cheryl would have criticised him either way. Had he taken this part seriously, he would have been accused of sexism for worrying about boys doing girly things, as if girly things were inferior and so boys shouldn’t do them.

It’s nice that Cheryl thinks girly things are no less important than boyish things. But it seems like a threadjack had to happen for her to say this, when everyone else was assuming it anyway…


engels 12.15.08 at 5:29 pm

Lemuel, yes, but in the made-up case you describe the social candidate explanation for the observed phenomena is obvious and well-known. In the one we are discussing, with all due respect to your conjectures about the homophobia of the Dutch working class, it is not. (The cases also aren’t parallel because in your hypothetical you accept that there is a genuine causal mechanism, albeit a socially mediated one, whereas in this case here the presence of causation is precisely what you are denying.) That’s not to say it isn’t true, but that it is not so obviously more plausible than the alternatives that thinking otherwise is ridiculous or morally suspect.

Magistra, so you think that gender identity and its associated patterns of behaviour have to be acquired solely by means of some generalised learning mechanism and specific biological/neural processes can not be involved? That may be true, but I don’t think it so obviously true as to warrant ruling out contrary views as crazy or objectionable.

I note that no-one has responded to my main point which was simply that whatever one’s position on these issues it is simply not correct to suggest that accepting the the existence of the correlation referred to in the post commits anyone to the view that gender roles are biologically determined, as Chris and Lemuel originally claimed.


engels 12.15.08 at 7:07 pm

Also, I have to say I don’t find this kind of arguing by analogy to be very persuasive. Everyone here is well aware that there are often competing social and biological explanations for various phenomena. (I’d even venture that most of us sympathise with your feeling that there is a tendency in many places to unfairly neglect the social side of the issue.) So you relate, at some length, a known case where the social explanation is the right one and how in this case people “like me” are wrong for even doubting this. Well, great. And what is this supposed to prove exactly?


Adam 12.15.08 at 8:48 pm


I am saying that if you justify existing gender roles in biological terms you are playing with fire. Once that meme is out there you don’t get to decide how those roles are defined. It will be you versus Dobson and Limbaugh…


You’re demanding that Lemuel prove a negative. So I have a question for you:
Do you believe in UFOs? No? Can you prove they don’t exist?


engels 12.15.08 at 8:55 pm

Adam: I have no idea what you are talking about.


Righteous Bubba 12.15.08 at 8:59 pm

I don’t see the “prove a negative” either.


SusanC 12.15.08 at 9:19 pm

It’s often unintentionally humorous when you have a list of really serious things, and then one trivial one. (I think “bathos” is the term for it). So if you start with a list of serious medical conditions, and end up by talking about tea-sets, readers will laugh. This article is a good example of bad writing.

Mary Douglas has argued that a society’s fears of pollution are influenced by anxieties about other threats to their way of life, not just the actual danger posed by the alleged threat. For example, the belief among the cattle herding Hima people that cattle are made ill by contact with women is not because women actually cause cattle disease. (See “Purity and Danger” and “Risk and Culture”). When this article moves on the tea-sets, I get the distinct feeling that the anxieties it is appealing to are not just about the actual danger from industrial chemicals, but are also about social changes in gender roles that most likely have nothing to do with PCBs.

But having said all that, I still think Chris’ snark was a bit uncalled for. As Cheryl says, the toy choice is jsut a symptom. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that toxins that cause major bodily changes in high doses will cause more subtle brain developmental changes in lower doses, and to try to measure these. Of course, if you do this, you need to allow for the absolutely massive confounding variable that socially permitted gender behaviour has changed radically over the twentieth century. (e.g. Middle class academics who write for Crooked Timber may be more likely to let their male children play with dolls, for reasons that have nothing to do with their levels of PCB exposure). I agree with Lemuel Pitkin that the actual paper isn’t convincing; but I wouldn’t be so eager to laugh off the whole idea that there are biochemical influences on human behaviour. (Hey, we have a massive Pharma industry based on the belief that we can influence peoples behaviour with drugs).


MarkUp 12.15.08 at 11:11 pm

“…on the belief that we can influence peoples behaviour with drugs”

I would say they proof of influence; just not reliable outcome, esp when factoring in “absolutely massive [often] confounding variable[s].”


Helen 12.16.08 at 3:07 am

It is just another case of binary thinking. The “acceptable” view is that biology can never, ever have any part to play. Anyone who suggests that it might even have a very tiny role is automatically The Enemy and Must Be Destroyed.

Who says that, Cheryl? It must be a great many people for you to see it as the “acceptable” view. The feminists I read don’t say that at all. The opinion of most reasonable people seems to be that biological and social influences interact (and there is no evidence for a biological basis for such things as, for instance, preferring pink, as opposed to giving birth or having testicles.)

Can you give examples?


Adam 12.16.08 at 4:43 am

@Righteous Bubba

Engels is saying that to condemn the assertion of a link between gender identity and chemicals in the absence of evidence supporting that link Lemuel must prove the link does not exist.

If that shit flew I’d have walking into a committee meeting years ago, asserted my model was valid, and challenged my committee prove me wrong or give me my PhD.


Righteous Bubba 12.16.08 at 5:18 am

Engels is saying that to condemn the assertion of a link between gender identity and chemicals in the absence of evidence supporting that link Lemuel must prove the link does not exist.

I don’t think so. I think Engels is saying that conjecture is conjecture. Assertion of social causes in this case has no evidence behind it, while the chemical assertion has flaky evidence. Ditching either conjecture is silly at this point as “Everyone here is well aware that there are often competing social and biological explanations for various phenomena.”

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