What Does the Biological Approach Say About Gender Differences?
As is obvious from the name, the biological approach focuses its efforts on explaining what biological differences between men and women result in their differing behaviours.
Of course, the biological approach is not necessarily the only approach to wield a convincing argument for how gender differences arise.
The following approaches all provide their own interesting ideas:
- Cognitive Psychology
- Psychodynamic Psychology
- Social Learning Psychology
Read on to find out about the biological theory of gender!
Key Assumptions of the Biological Approach to Gender Differences
- Hormones play a huge role in gender differences, and it is our DNA that dictates our behaviour as men and women.
- Men and women have different brain structures.
- Women have evolved to be the carers of children, whilst men have evolved to be the providers for their families.
- Women have predetermined characteristics like being more caring, protective, and loyal than men.
- Men have predetermined characteristics like being more aggressive, competitive, and dominant than women.
- The fundamental cause of our gender differences is our genetic makeup, more specifically, the DNA found in our two 23rd chromosomes—the chromosomes that dictate which sex we are.
The Hormone System May Explain Gender Differences
Other Brain Differences
Gender differences have also been found in the cerebral hemispheres of the brain. Scientists suggest that these differences cause the difference in the abilities of men and women:
Women excel in:
- Language skills
- Fine motor skills (using smaller muscles)
- Emotional control
Men excel in:
- Spatial skills
- Logical reasoning
Chromosomes Cause Our Genetic (and so Gender) Differences
Hormones: The Biological Cause of Gender Differences
- Hormones are chemicals in the body that regulate changes in our cells. This includes growth and is, as a result, very important in explaining our gender differences.
- You may have heard of the largely male hormone testosterone, and the largely female hormone oestrogen, and know that they have effects in our bodies that lead men and women to act more like, well, men and women.
- It is well documented that there are differences between the brain structures of men and women.
- For example, men have a larger hypothalamus—both the BSTc and the SDN-POA, with the BSTc being twice as large.
- Furthermore, brain differences have been confirmed by studying very young children's brains so as to eliminate the question of whether the brain differences result from social influences and upbringing.
- For the same reason, many studies have been conducted on young children to see whether they and their brains act differently based on their sex.
- Research conducted by Connellan et al. (2000) showed that newborn girls were far more interested in faces (suggesting superior social skills), whilst newborn boys were more excited by mechanical items (suggesting superior spatial and logical thinking).
Chromosomes: The Fundamental Cause of Gender Differences
Humans typically have 23 pairs of chromosomes (totaling 46); on the two 23rd chromosomes, the DNA that decides whether a newly fertilised ovum (egg) becomes a male or female is found.
- If the sperm that fertilised the ovum carries a Y chromosome, then the zygote (the name given to an egg that has just been fertilised) will contain both an X and a Y chromosome, and the resulting baby will be a boy.
- If the sperm carries an X chromosome, the zygote will have two X chromosomes (XX) and become a girl.
- The above statements are empirical facts, and so we know that at its very core, the cause of most physical differences in men and women is due to biological differences in DNA.
At first, the embryo (the name given to a zygote that has started to develop) has the same sex organs whether or not it has XY or XX chromosomes. However, six weeks after conception, the Y chromosome in males results in changes that lead to the gonads becoming testicles. If the Y chromosome isn't present (and the zygote has XX chromosomes), the gonads become ovaries.
This fact that both males and females start with the same sex organs is where the common idea that 'all men were once women' comes from.
The formation of testicles and ovaries is very important because, as you may already know, they are the key producers of the sex hormones androgens (including testosterone) and oestrogens which, as mentioned in the above section, result in many gender differences.
Andrenogenital syndrome can be acquired by both embryos containing the normal XX chromosomes and embryos containing the normal XY chromosomes.
In females, the XX chromosomes for female development in the embryo result in normal female genitalia. However, in andrenogenital syndrome, the genitals are exposed to abnormally high levels of male sex hormones (androgens). This is due to a malfunction of the embryo's adrenal glands.
The result is that the females' genitalia look like that of a male's despite functioning normally (genital ambiguity), and many secondary male characteristics (deeper voice, facial hair) are also present in these females.
In a study by Money and Ehrhardt (1972), many of these females were found to identify themselves as tomboys - adopting the typical behavioural characteristics of men.
Females with andrenogenital syndrome, therefore, are used as evidence for the biological approach since their self-identification as 'more manly than other women' suggests that the hormones resulted in structural changes in their brains to make them more like that of their male counterparts, whose brains resulted from the very same hormones.
Studies Supporting the Biological Approach to Gender Differences
The following are four notable studies spanning a 20-year period that support the biological approach to gender differences:
- Waber (1976)
This study found that late-maturing boys were better at verbal ability than boys who were early developers. The implication is that these late-maturing boys were exposed to less male sex hormones and thus were granted some of the biological benefits typically associated with being a female.
- Hampson and Kimura (1988)
Women were tested at different times of the month. At the times when their oestrogen and progesterone (female sex hormones) were highest, they performed best at fine motor skills but worst in their visual-spatial tasks compared to other times when the levels of these hormones were lower.
- Van Goozen et al. (1995)
Found that transsexuals who underwent three months of hormone therapy adopted increased intelligence in the areas that the sex hormones were associated with: female hormone takers gained skills in verbal fluency and became worse at visual-spatial skills and less aggressive. Those that took the male hormones showed the opposite effects.
- Galligani et al. (1996)
Found that athletes who had taken steroids (which increases levels of testosterone) were more aggressive (a male quality) than those who hadn't.
Tricker et al. conducted an intriguing counter-study to the above studies, which took place in 1996. Here is a brief rundown of the methods and findings:
- Tested the effect of testosterone (and a placebo) on aggression.
- 43 males of age 19-40 were used.
- They were given either 600mg of testosterone a week or a placebo containing no testosterone.
- It was a double-blind experiment: neither participant nor researcher knew who had taken the testosterone or who had taken the placebo.
- The experiment lasted ten weeks.
- No significant difference was found in aggression between the control group and the supplement takers.
- This suggests no biological causation between testosterone and levels of aggression (at least at this dosage), contrary to other studies!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 DK
sphie gumede on February 26, 2018:
a good write up...keep it up.however there are some issues that you still need to do a thourough research
sarah on May 12, 2017:
wow i agree
Enes on February 24, 2017:
Absolutely an excellent article. All the behaviors, culture and the other gender norms has based on these biological truths. It may hard to accept, but there are exact differences between males and females.
DK (author) from London on April 25, 2015:
Hi Naiomi! Thank you for posting!
You bring up some very good points, but also some bad ones that I shall take the time to address.
It goes without saying that none of the studies listed in this article (or any other, scientific journal or not) should be considered as conclusive proof of anything; competent scientists are typically very humble and will admit publicly the many faults and different hypotheses surrounding their work.
With that said, it is still very important that these sorts of studies are made and the significance of their results considered. The question of whether any gender differences exist, and if they do what we should do about this, is one that affects us all.
I shall now address specific points that you made concerning the studies.
[Assuming that “women have evolved to be the carers of children whilst men have evolved to be the providers for their families” is pretty much all you need to do to guarantee that all of your data will be undoubtedly biased and inaccurate.]
With respect, this point makes no sense. The belief that women have evolved to be the carers of children comes as a result of interpreting data already made. That 'assumption' is simply a way of explaining the results, it follows that it cannot make the data 'biased' or 'inaccurate' because it played no part in gathering the data. Perhaps what you mean is that during the process of interpreting the data it is dangerous to have predesigned notions of what men and women are as *this* will likely result in *your* conclusions being biased. This I can agree with.
[newborn girls are more interested in faces which implies better social skills, and that newborn boys are more excited by mechanical items.] [First of all, how can you scientifically, objectively determine when a newborn baby is interested in something?]
Time is how. The assumption is that looking at things shows interest (whether it's because you like it, are scared of it, hate it, or are curious about it) and if you look at one thing instead of another, you are more interested in it: you are literally showing more interest in it by giving it more of your attention. Of course, things can skew this assumption in adults: some people spend less time looking at things that interest them (a cute person you don't want to know about your affections towards, a dangerous person whose attention you do not want to draw) but in young babies it can be assumed these sorts of tactics will not be present.
[And what scientific information tells you that apparent interest in faces implies superior social skills]
Well there are three possible conclusions we can make. A) Being interested in faces has a negative impact on social skills B) Being more interested in faces has a neutral impact on social skills and C) Being interested in faces has a positive effect on social skills.
Now, a substantial amount of experiments have been devoted to the importance of faces in socialisation. Research has yielded very important results, especially for those very unfortunate people who have a disease wherein they cannot recognised faces at all, not even their own in a mirror. It has been found that most of us will readily see faces in inanimate objects: trees, clouds, wall patterns; even though there are hundreds of other objects you could make out in the pattern, it is faces that we see first. Another example of the importance out brains place on faces can be seen in our ability to read emotions in faces. Once again, there are many people (notably psychopaths) that cannot do this easily or at all.
I understand, then, why some scientists will assume that children who spend more time staring at faces will be better at reading them as they grow up. In turn, they will be able to respond adequately in social situations, i.e. will not be left in situations where their failure to pay attention to another person's face has resulted negatively (upsetting someone upon not realising they are showing sadness, not realising they're happy and thus what they have said was done jokingly, not understanding sarcasm etc.)
To me on the evidence this seems like the most likely conclusion from being more interested in faces. I cannot think of reasons to suggest that being interested in faces will have no effect on reading and responding to them because I'm working off the seemingly obvious view that when you practice something you tend to get better at it!
Given the above, then, I cannot accept that 'this theory is so random and exact that there’s no way it can be untainted by the scientists’ pre-existing ideas about what boys and girls are interested in'. As the old saying goes: time tells. Exactly what the experiment is based on.
["and anyway, I’m a woman and I have crappy social skills. And I get crazy excited around mechanical items"]
Well I personally (without further detail) would explain this result on the basis of experience. Just because men are less interested in faces as children compared to women, and thus are worse at social interaction, does not mean that they can't spend their teen or adult years practising the skill. The same goes for women and applies to *every* skill. It's important not to forget that humans are above all else learners and adapters. And that's all sexes, and at all ages.
[As for your research on differing brain sizes, you can just add that to the hundreds of other false studies on brains attempting to validate the inferior state of women through so-called objective science.]
Let's be clear here, I did not conduct any of these experiments. Had I done so I would be conducting more groundbreaking work instead of writing on HubPages! Let's also be clear that the study cited talks about the different sizes of *parts* of the brain. When it comes to certain parts of the brain it has been *conclusively proven* that size DOES matter. Musicians have had their brains scanned and consistently have had larger parts of the brain associated with being musically talented. People who are trained in many languages have larger associated brain parts consistently. There is no room for doubt that analogously to a muscle (though of course through a different mechanism altogether) parts of the brain grow according to training you put them through.
What has been shown is that the *overall size* of the brain does not usually have any significance on intelligence. I am aware of the shameful studies you are referring to, those where scientists found that white men have larger brains than women and 'blacks' and (after sometimes even 100% fabricated their results) spread the idea that women were intellectually inferior to men and black to white people. This was done purely out of preconceived views held by the scientists and this sort of behaviour is heavily punished (£££) in the modern day. Nevertheless, it has no bearing on the fact that larger brain parts do correlate to a higher degree of skill respective to those brain parts. That also means that we should not be afraid of exploring them.
In the end this is not a dangerous subject, any natural propensities are far out-weighed by our environments.
[Science is similar to religion in that both are put up on pedestals by those who are faithful to them.]
I would not say science is put on a pedestal because in order for the results of a study to be published in a journal (the only place it can be published) it must be rigorously scrutinised by scientific peers who are out for blood. This is such a phenomenon that many of my scientific friends are extremely anxious about publishing. Both good and bad, I suppose.
Anyway, I hope this helped understand the mentality that I used both in this hub and in life generally. Have a good day!
Naomi on April 22, 2015:
I agree with @teresapelka. The main issue with this article is that it is based upon false assumptions. The problem is clear starting with the very first sentence, which explains that the research is seeking out biological reasons for differing behaviors between men and women. Already, we are assuming that differences are even caused by biology, which blinds the research from countless other factors that must be considered in order to get more legitimate results. Of course, some core assumptions must be made to do almost anything, but many of the ones that are listed are completely unwarranted. Assuming that “women have evolved to be the carers of children whilst men have evolved to be the providers for their families” is pretty much all you need to do to guarantee that all of your data will be undoubtedly biased and inaccurate.
Another claim you make is that research shows that newborn girls are more interested in faces which implies better social skills, and that newborn boys are more excited by mechanical items. I guess these are interesting theories, but I can’t imagine that they’re true… First of all, how can you scientifically, objectively determine when a newborn baby is interested in something? How do you even measure that? And what scientific information tells you that apparent interest in faces implies superior social skills…? This theory is so random and exact that there’s no way it can be untainted by the scientists’ pre-existing ideas about what boys and girls are interested in… and anyway, I’m a woman and I have crappy social skills. And I get crazy excited around mechanical items, so maybe your science should try explaining that. As for your research on differing brain sizes, you can just add that to the hundreds of other false studies on brains attempting to validate the inferior state of women through so-called objective science.
I think it’s important to recognize the consequences that could come from some of the studies you present. Science is similar to religion in that both are put up on pedestals by those who are faithful to them. Scientific observations can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways depending on the intention and beliefs of the scientist, in the same way that religious texts can be interpreted differently. Both have the potential to be useful, but can also be dangerous and detrimental when misunderstood and viewed as the absolute, undebatable, capital T truth.
Leah Kennedy-Jangraw from Massachusetts on January 17, 2013:
Interesting article, definitely an area of research that will always cause controversy and mixed opinions about whether the results are the end-all-be-all. I'm always fascinated with research involving gender differences and I think one thing that makes it so tough is the effect our outward environment plays. Nature vs. Nuture always complicates things!
Teresa Pelka from Dublin, Ireland on December 09, 2012:
Child Psychology would be lack of choice some supra-category...
I disagree. A kid might read this - parental controls might allow this - and get unnecessary impressions.
Like the picture. Would you mean women have hearts some other place: men being obvious?
DK (author) from London on December 09, 2012:
I wouldn't be able to say that women haven't got adaptations that make them better mothering figures than men like you have, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that all women are destined to be mothers - as obvious in the poll questions: I think people should do what they want regardless of their biological 'destiny'
And Child Psychology seemed the most appropriate - if you look in the psychology sub-categories you'll see that there isn't anything on gender differences or the biological approach!
If you have a suggestion please let me know,
Teresa Pelka from Dublin, Ireland on December 09, 2012:
Naturally, I wouldn't agree that women's brains have been made for looking after children.
Why would you have this article with Child Psychology?