Richard York and Brett Clark’s cogent essay “Gender and Mathematical Ability: The Toll of Biological Determinism” (MR, November 2007) brings to mind the extreme complexities and biases entangled in separating genetic from environmental factors. I suggest the following example to illustrate the point.
Suppose we are confronted with the hypothesis that there exists a sex-linked genetic defect located somewhere along the Y chromosome. We will call it MMG — “Male Moron Gene” — the unfortunate bearer of which suffers from the delusion that males possess superior mathematical analytical capacities over females.
How would we test the hypothesis that Lawrence Summers‘ eccentric statements are a result of bearing this Male Moron Gene? Extensive assessments would be required of a large sample of the male population, attempting to correlate the bizarre belief in male analytical superiority with aberrations on the Y chromosome. Requiring a combination of methods from sociology, statistics and sophisticated microbiology, such research would require significant funding — which, if available, would itself suggest at least some societal or institutional bias in favor of the hypothesis. In addition, each researcher would bring her own unconscious or conscious bias to the project, which would require further detailed analysis as to possible influence on the results.
I should state my own strong bias against the MMG hypothesis. Like York and Clark as well as Lewontin and Levins, I feel that environmental and cultural factors are much more likely to be decisive. In the case of Lawrence Summers and others of that ilk, I believe that his consciousness and possibly brain structure have been conditioned by many years in the executive suites, cafeterias, locker rooms and lounges in places like the World Bank — where highly privileged males hang out together comparing the relative sizes of their analytical capacities.
But that’s just my own supposition. It would be very difficult to absolutely prove it. Nor do I know for sure whether Summers’ problems at Harvard resulted from another, possibly related genetic defect FMG — Foot in Mouth Gene — although here again I would tend to be skeptical.