Ask the Atheist (round 5)

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 13, 2010 in Ask the Atheist

Because I know everything, obviously.

Because I know everything, obviously.

Earlier, I invited my readers to ask me anything. You may ask more questions here, but please read the instructions first. Here is my fifth round of responses.

Question 016

Steven Stark asks:

What makes something “natural” other than its predictability, reliability, and/or membership in a causal chain? And why would we judge the possibility of the “supernatural” by these criteria?

Philosophers have struggled to define naturalism. However, because supernaturalism is defined in terms of naturalism, this is just as big a problem for supernaturalists as it is for naturalists.

Generally, I think of something as “natural” if it has mechanical properties theoretically amenable to mathematical modeling and participates in causal relations with the physical things currently studied by the natural sciences.

But I’m not sure what you mean about judging the possibility of the supernatural in naturalist terms. I just haven’t been shown any good reasons to think the supernatural exists. So until you show me good evidence of the supernatural, it sits on my “no reason to accept” shelf next to unicorns and goblins.

Question 017

Ajay asks:

Why are some Christians so obsessed about abortions? I.e., the concept of baby killing for them, are they concerned about the baby’s moral consequences or the mother’s?

If it is about the baby, cant they leave it up to God as to whether the baby goes to Heaven or Hell or the limbo? If it is the mother, are they really concerned that she will go to Hell for killing her baby and are therefore really caring about her well being in the afterlife?

Why ask an atheist this question? Probably better to ask a Christian sociologist.

Christian thought on abortion, just like Christian thought on almost anything, is varied and has changed throughout history. The “obsession” over abortion is a recent phenomenon in the United States. Christian opposition to abortion will wane again one day and the church will focus on other issues.

Which is not to say that opposition to abortion will wane altogether. Even as Christianity begins to shrink back in America, especially among the youth, the pro-life position is growing, especially among the youth.

Question 018

Beelzebub asks:

Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?

Lol, no.

Question 019

Beelzebub asks:

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I first encountered the word “feminism” around age 10. I asked my mom what it meant, and she said “It’s the view that women should have the same rights as men do.”

I replied, “They have a word for that?

Put that way, feminism just seems obvious.

But that doesn’t mean I support all positions associated with the feminist movement. For example, I don’t defend a woman’s right to kill her baby after it has acquired desires (see here and here). Nor shall I fall prey to “feminist science,” which declared in the 1980s that men and women’s brains were essentially the same, when they clearly are not.

Women still have a long way to go to achieve equal rights, and I support them in that fight.

Question 020

BJ Marshall asks:

Because I maintain that the scientific method is the best and most reliable means we have to learn about objective reality, some of my friends accuse me of being just as dogmatic and arrogant as Christians are. What are three easy yet effective actions atheists can take to (try to) prevent others from seeing them as dogmatic and arrogant?

Hmmm. Try this:

  1. Study the best criticisms of your positions and bring them up in conversation on your opponent’s behalf. Say things like: “Of course, critics of scientific realism point out that scientific theories are underdetermined in that observational data can be explained by several theories that are mutually incompatible. I think that’s a legitimate objection, but I still think science has so far the best track record for giving us truth.”
  2. Talk about your doubts. To counter their claim that you are arrogant, remind them that you don’t claim to be certain about these things – only that they seem more reasonable than anything else, given the very limited information you currently have available to you.
  3. Talk about times you’ve changed your mind. To counter the claim that you are dogmatic, remind them of times you’ve changed your mind. This will show that you’re open to persuasion if the arguments are good.

I’ve been using these three tactics for at least a year, to good effect.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Zach February 13, 2010 at 8:55 am

In desire utilitarianism, how do you go about determining whether a desire is good or bad? I know that a desire is good when it tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts. But it seems like you could just keep making up desires to make the weight fall more in one direction than the other. It seems like it might just be a reinforcement of the pre-existing biases our society has.

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Molly February 13, 2010 at 9:00 am

Do you think that suffering is cumulative?
By suffering, I mean extremely debilitating physical and/or psychological harm. Is it more tragic for many to suffer than for one to suffer?

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Scott February 13, 2010 at 9:27 am

You talk a ton about science and philosophy, but not much about art. So what are your favorite works of art (literature, paintings, film, etc)?

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lukeprog February 13, 2010 at 9:38 am

Scott,

The ones with lots of pretty pictures. :)

By Phaidon, etc.

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Jeff H February 13, 2010 at 10:07 am

“Nor shall I fall prey to “feminist science,” which declared in the 1980s that men and women’s brains were essentially the same, when they clearly are not.”

I may be misinterpreting what you’re saying here, but psychology has shown over and over that there tends to be much more variation within each gender than between genders. Certainly there are differences between men and women in terms of how they think, but a) those tend to be stereotyped, and b) they tend to be culturally reinforced rather than some sort of inborn characteristics. Gender norms are some of the most powerful norms we have in our culture, and that is what leads to most of the differences. So they are there, but like I said, there is still way more difference between a man and another man on the opposite extreme than there is between the average man and the average woman.

Oh, and incidentally, research has also shown that people who are androgynous (here meaning that they tend not to be stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine”) tend to have longer-lasting and more satisfying relationships than those who are stereotypical. A really aggressive man and a really passive woman will get along much worse in the long run than two people who fall somewhere in the middle.

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Hermes February 13, 2010 at 11:41 am

Re: Feminism

I used to be all for it, till I dealt with hard core feminists and started to examine what was going on.

For a chunk of the 80s and 90s they were co-opted by the post-modern movement in an effort to avoid “male patterns”. If you have a modest imagination, you can see how quickly that can slide into relativism with a bias towards self-referential ‘womens issues’ to the exclusion of anything else. That effort to rebuild nearly everything around a ‘female perspecitve’ stagnated them as they reinvented what already existed; it was as useful a battle cry as the last scene in Thelma and Louise.

Unfortunately, it’s not over. Much of the same woo-woo and scattered thinking still plagues the feminist movement and is promoted in pop culture as ‘for women’ as well, helping nobody. Thankfully, the trend is now solidly with women who aren’t going for the BS of either misogyny or female-only relativism and will gladly take the best of what’s available regardless of the source.

I’m all for equal rights, and some preferential rights in narrow cases as well as equivalence programs like Title IX in the USA. Where they lose my sympathy is when they dwell in needless re-inventing already existing ideas or flatly reject equality when it is not in their favor, such as the legitimate Title IX claims brought by males.

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Steven Stark February 13, 2010 at 11:54 am

“So until you show me good evidence of the supernatural, it sits on my “no reason to accept” shelf next to unicorns and goblins.”

Luke, I think the crux of the question is what would constitute “good evidence”. Evidence is all about inference based on causal relationships, etc. etc. All evidence is based on naturalistic relationships -which presumably a supernatural entity would not be accountable to.

Say a supernatural entity is running the universe like a computer program. He would be able to change anything he wanted. Evidence could change, events in the past and future could change. Perhaps everything actually just started five minutes ago with memories and artifacts programmed in. Could anything in the program be evidence for the computer designer? I am not sure how it could.

Therefore, it makes more sense to me to say that whether there is anything truly supernatural or not is unknowable. It makes little sense to argue for or against it based on naturalistic evidence.

I completely agree with you that the terms “natural” and “supernatural” are very difficult to define. Can anything truly exist or even be imagined that is not, in some sense, natural? But that’s another interesting topic.

Thanks for your blog,

Steven

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Hermes February 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Re: Human brains.

What follows is a summary of what I’ve learned. Corrections, refinements, resources … by specialists are greatly appreciated.

I put them in a similar category to human muscle strength and stamina; there are many women who can out fight and out run the average male, but on average men are substantially stronger and more ruggedly built.

There is a wide curve of development in the brains of females and males. The core difference that I’m aware of is a tendency in males to have a smaller corpus callosum, leading to less integration between the two hemispheres than is typical in a female brain. This means that women can be very good at tasks that require a variety of mental skills working in consort. These tasks include ones that are not normally associated with women such as management and piloting aircraft.

That said, men tend to use their less integrated hemispheres and generally larger brains in more focused ways, allowing them to cover very narrow subjects with a great deal of intensity. This is part of the reason why geniuses are overrepresented by men; we call someone a genius usually for what specific things they can do and not how they pull in all aspects of their personality and knowledge. Even in this, there are exceptions where specific men and women show a wide range of skills backed by a great deal of intensity in each, and are able to draw from those skills.

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Rick February 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Hermes: …human muscle strength and stamina; there are many women who can out fight and out run the average male, but on average men are substantially stronger and more ruggedly built.

The core difference that I’m aware of is a tendency in males to have a smaller corpus callosum, leading to less integration between the two hemispheres than is typical in a female brain.

This is part of the reason why geniuses are overrepresented by men; we call someone a genius usually for what specific things they can do and not how they pull in all aspects of their personality and knowledge. Even in this, there are exceptions where specific men and women show a wide range of skills backed by a great deal of intensity in each, and are able to draw from those skills.  

While I recognize you’re being open-minded in a typical fashion, Hermes, I would really like to see studies that pinpoint brain differences down to a genetic basis, controlling for factors like expected gender roles, social expectations, and brain plasticity.

As far as I know, the gender similarities theory is a much more successful one scientifically (Hyde 2005), but the gender differences theory is nearly universally accepted because of the hegemonic nature of social structure and power (Lips 2006). What we often believe about sex linked traits – i.e. “on average men are substantially stronger and more ruggedly built” or “geniuses are overrepresented by men” – are more accurately ascribed to gender roles perpetuated and embodied by folks who believe them.

In a society that overvalues men’s accomplishments relative to women’s, of course there will be more male geniuses than female geniuses.

Furthermore, even though some sex differences seem to be evidential, the effect size is small with few exceptions (Hyde 2005). There is simply no scientific or rational basis to claim that women are essentially different from men, except for some physiological differences and some minor differences in cognitive function.

References:

Hyde, J. S. (2005). “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” American Psychologist, 60(6),581-592.
Lips, H. M. (2006). “A New Psychology of Women. – 3rd Ed.” McGraw-Hill, New York.

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Rick February 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

By the way, many feminists today refuse to call themselves feminists, because the word has been given a negative connotation – i.e. that feminists are ugly lesbian women who hate men because they were unable to find a man themselves. *An obvious stereotype which I don’t intend on debating.*

By and large this image has been created by opponents of feminism – witting and unwitting – that oppose a redefinition or even close examination of gender roles, sexuality, or hegemonic male-centric power structures.

I am a feminist.

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Lorkas February 13, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Rick: I would really like to see studies that pinpoint brain differences down to a genetic basis, controlling for factors like expected gender roles, social expectations, and brain plasticity.

Maybe your problem is that you’re looking for studies focused on genetic differences instead of the effects of hormones on brain development. Here are two studies I found in just a few minutes of searching. I have to go, so I’ll leave the rest of the work to you :P

Steroid hormones and brain development: some guidelines for understanding actions of pseudohormones and other toxic agents.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1474508/

Gonadal Hormones and Brain Development: Cellular Aspects of Sexual Differentiation
http://icb.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/18/3/553

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Rick February 13, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Lorkas:
Maybe your problem is that you’re looking for studies focused on genetic differences instead of the effects of hormones on brain development.

Lorkas,

Thanks for pointing out other factors in brain development. I did not mean to imply brain development, structure, and function were dichotomous, determined solely by behavior/learning and genetics. The studies you cite seem to point to cellular differentiation, but don’t address behavioral differences. The point I was trying to make is that so much of the behavior we believe is sex-linked has vastly more to do with gender than genetics or hormones.

Luke: I would like to challenge your claim that “women’s and men’s brains are essentially different.” What’s the evidence you can point to? I’m aware of evidence showing that although brains may differ, behavior – arguably what makes a person who they are – is not demonstrably different in all but a few areas.

Edit: fixed minor grammatical mistakes, added challenge to Luke above.

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Jeff H February 13, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Rick:
As far as I know, the gender similarities theory is a much more successful one scientifically (Hyde 2005), but the gender differences theory is nearly universally accepted because of the hegemonic nature of social structure and power (Lips 2006). What we often believe about sex linked traits – i.e. “on average men are substantially stronger and more ruggedly built” or “geniuses are overrepresented by men” – are more accurately ascribed to gender roles perpetuated and embodied by folks who believe them.

What I was trying to say, but said much better…thanks Rick.

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Hermes February 13, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Rick, feel free to provide any and all details to flesh out what you are aware of. I would appreciate it as I’m here to learn. If I’m mistaken entirely, then I consider a correction to be a ‘win’ for me as I can stop being wrong. If I’m not entirely mistaken but there are people who hold to roughly what I wrote, then I would like to know that as well.

I’ll emphasize that the sports analogy I used was not to ‘play nice’ but was sincere and that I did not make a hard judgement on how substantial the differences is only that they existed and that there is a tendency of the corpus callosum to be larger in females.

The word ‘hegemonic’, though, detracts significantly from your argument as it honestly sounds like you want to assert that someone is being unfair but want that sentiment to act as the argument instead of hard data.

FWIW, the comments I made earlier were from various sources (I’m an information hound) but did include both assigned texts and independent research I did for a course on developmental psychology a little over a year ago. I don’t have the books, so I was just relaying what I learned there and as such can’t provide handy references.

I await any and all neutral data that you can provide, plus any appropriate comments on the current consensus or potential trends in the consensus. If this is not satisfactory, then I’m at a loss as I’m not going to argue on this as there is no point. Facts are facts and if you have better resources, then I’d like to know what I currently do not.

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Hermes February 13, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Lorkas, thanks for the links. Much appreciated!

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Lorkas February 13, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Rick: The point I was trying to make is that so much of the behavior we believe is sex-linked has vastly more to do with gender than genetics or hormones.

That’s probably true, but let’s be careful not to back away from Luke’s claim so much that we err in the opposite direction. Luke is probably exaggerating when he says male and female brains are “vastly different”, but that doesn’t mean we should understate real anatomical differences, either.

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Kiwi Dave February 13, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Question 020 BJ Marshall

Since I don’t debate religion with anyone, apart from the sporadic online comment, I tentatively suggest this thought experiment for your acquaintances – perhaps the Templeton Foundation might sponsor it.

You stand behind a screen so that only your bare left arm is visible. 1000 adults of normal intelligence, but otherwise randomly chosen from around the world, look at the arm and independently report on what they see. Your prediction: all 1000 report a human left arm (or very good imitation); perhaps a few mix up left and right. No one reports the two back legs of an elephant etc.

The same 1000 people now spiritually see their god(s). Your prediction: huge disagreement as to the number, nature and identity of gods seen.

Your question: what does the difference in results tell us about the reliability and probable accuracy of empirical knowledge methods (of which science is a particularly refined and careful form)and spiritual knowledge?

As I’ve never tried this thought experiment on anyone, it might be quite defective. Doubtless, Ayer or other theists will explain why.

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lukeprog February 13, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Steven Stark,

You are correct that the crux of the question is what would constitute evidence – or rather, what constitutes a good explanation for observed phenomena. I write a lot about this, and will continue to do so.

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lukeprog February 13, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Rick,

Sure. Sex differences in the brain are mainstream science. See, for example:

Moir & Jessel, Brain Sex
Blum, Sex on the Brain
Hines, Brain Gender

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Haukur February 14, 2010 at 2:46 am

Lorkas: Maybe your problem is that you’re looking for studies focused on genetic differences instead of the effects of hormones on brain development.

Hormones do interesting stuff. I felt that reading accounts by transsexuals widened my perspective on male/female differences.

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lukeprog February 14, 2010 at 7:08 am

Exactly.

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Rick M February 14, 2010 at 7:15 am

“Nor shall I fall prey to “feminist science,” which declared in the 1980s that men and women’s brains were essentially the same, when they clearly are not.”

“fall prey”?, as in those big bad 1980′s feminists are out to emasculate you? “Fall prey” has the earmarks of a strawman, I mean, strawwomen, ok, a strawperson argument.

Can you cite a “feminist scientist” or even a mere scientist who is sympathetic with feminist issues who declared men and women’s brains are essentially the same? Feminist science studies deals with the social implications of broad statements such as, “men’s and women’s brains are clearly not the same.”

I think I can state truthfully that all human brains are essentially the same if I define essential to mean anatomy and function. The list of variations among human brains would be far shorter than the list of similarities and thus “essentially” the same.

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Rick B February 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

In order not to bogart the ‘Rick’ moniker, I’ve added an initial.

Hermes,

Thanks for taking my criticism graciously, even though it was heavy-handed. I, too, am interested in data and objective facts. Unfortunately these are quite difficult to come by, as the knowledge scientists and psychologists ask about gender is in large part guided by hegemonic views (see below for my explanation of what I mean by that term). If you can find a copy of Hyde’s article, it details a meta-meta-analysis of pertinent data.

Your sports analogy is interesting on several levels: for one, comparisons tend to focus on elite athletes. No one goes out and compares really good women athletes against mediocre male athletes. I’m not sure the comparison would mean much. More importantly, your analogy stresses the hegemonic stereotype that men are better at sports than women. But again, intrasex variability is much greater than intersex variability. Furthermore, judging athletic accomplishment necessarily elevates one or more aspects of fitness above others; it’s important to be physically flexible, both in life and for athletes. But no contest I know judges athletes primarily on their flexibility. Women might win such a contest.

Lorkas:
That’s probably true, but let’s be careful not to back away from Luke’s claim so much that we err in the opposite direction. Luke is probably exaggerating when he says male and female brains are “vastly different”, but that doesn’t mean we should understate real anatomical differences, either.  

I absolutely agree. I don’t want to go overboard and say that women and men are exactly alike – what a ridiculous statement! But I would like a more objective assessment of how sex, rather than gender, determines who a person is. That is, if there’s such a thing as objectivity, and if knowledge outside of a human-sexual framework has any relevant meaning.

Hegemony is “the political, economic, ideological or cultural power exerted by a dominant group over other groups, regardless of the explicit consent of the latter.” (Wikipedia). In this case, it is the cultural belief in gender: the number of genders, their roles and attributes. Because genders vary so widely across cultural boundaries, often in contradictory ways, it is a safe conclusion that gender is not an accurate indicator of sex-linked traits or the “true nature” of humans of any particular sex. The tendency to treat gender assumptions as ‘facts’ leads to errant theories, coloring knowledge for decades/centuries.
An inoffensive example would be the number of words spoken by men and women in the US. As we all know, women talk a lot more. A scientific study, however, showed a small effect size: women tended to talk more, but men had a greater individual variability in the number of words spoken per day (Mehl et al 2007). The hegemonic view is common knowledge, but inaccurate and misleading.

lukeprog: Rick,Sure. Sex differences in the brain are mainstream science. See, for example:
Moir & Jessel, Brain Sex
Blum, Sex on the Brain
Hines, Brain Gender  

The differences scientists have observed in brain development and structure do not point to fundamental behavioral differences or cognitive gaps between people of different sexes. In particular, the factoid that men are better at math than women has been soundly disproven; yet the hegemonic viewpoint is still accepted by Moir & Jessel as fact. Respectfully, I don’t place much stock in those sources or their conclusions. Can you reference recent primary sources?

What do you mean by ‘feminist science’? And why would feminists be naturally inclined to more bias and less sound science than a hegemonically sexist scientist? Imagine your claim this way:

Nor shall I fall prey to “keplerian science,” which declared in the 1620s that the planets’ orbits were perfect ellipses, which they clearly are not.

Reference:
Mehl, M. R., et al (2007). “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?” Science, 317(5834), 82-82.

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Boz February 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm

I like this series of posts, please keep doing them.

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Jeff H February 15, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Your sports analogy is interesting on several levels: for one, comparisons tend to focus on elite athletes. No one goes out and compares really good women athletes against mediocre male athletes. I’m not sure the comparison would mean much. More importantly, your analogy stresses the hegemonic stereotype that men are better at sports than women. But again, intrasex variability is much greater than intersex variability.

To add to what Rick B said here, there is also the issue of “self-fulfilling prophecies” when measuring these things. The idea that men are better at sports than women can have profound influences on whether women are interested in and get involved in sports. Thus, it’s very possible that there are many exceptionally talented women who simply take other routes instead. This decreases the variability for females, and so one can get significant results because of some male outliers that are bringing up the male average. I don’t think that will explain all differences, but it is a factor that must be taken into consideration as well.

And Luke, no offense, but I’m always skeptical of any books that one might find in the “psychology” section of a bookstore. I’m in psychology myself, and the ratio of stupid pop psychology books to real, good psychology books is, well, unflattering to say the least. I would be much more impressed to be shown some good journal articles that pointed out differences in the brain. And more importantly, differences that actually cause meaningful differences in function, skill, etc. There are obviously biological differences between men and women, but not all of them lead to differences in skills. My facial hair, for example, doesn’t make me better at sports. Silly example, I suppose, but even something like a larger corpus callosum doesn’t necessarily indicate different functionality.

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lukeprog February 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Jeff H,

Sure. That’s easy.

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Jeff H February 16, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Well, I should have been more specific: I’m interested in differences in the brain that are not caused by socialization in any way. It’s clear that our environment and life experiences can shape our brain and “rewire” it, so to speak. To give one example, in amputees, the portion of the sensorimotor cortex that normally dealt with the (now missing) limb often gets taken over by the adjacent areas. Which is why, depending on the case, you can stroke a person’s cheek and they will feel it in their phantom limb.

Taking a quick look at the link to the Google Scholar articles, it seems pretty easy to see that the vast majority of them are going to be discussing social factors. And no one is questioning that. Rick, however, was arguing that genetic differences play a minimal role compared to social factors. So, from what I can see in the list of articles, it looks like only the odd one actually deals with differences that cannot be accounted for my socialization and gender norms. So perhaps there are some inborn differences there…but it seems that the socialized differences are much more prominent and play a much larger role.

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