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January 14, 2005

The essential difference

I read The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen on the plane recently. Weighting in at under 200 pages of relatively large font text, it's a quick read. Additionally, Baron-Cohen's narrative is skewed toward description and broad models rather than theoretical details, so there is a gentle learning curve when it comes to psycho-jargon.

According to the The Essential Difference there is an empathizing-systematizing spectrum in the human population. Baron-Cohen argues that males tend to be shifted toward systematizing, while females tend to be shifted toward empathizing. This is not a ground-shaking observation, and much of Baron-Cohen's argument seems to be formalizing and fleshing out what many would assume was "common sense."

One point that I did find interesting though: Baron-Cohen asserts that males are more adept at maintaining and scaling up dominance hierarchies. He makes this assertion based partially on a case study of a summer camp, though I have personally observed the same sort of tendency in secondary schools. Perhaps this is one reason that in general, there has been a shift toward more extreme patriarchy with the development of complex societies. "Complexity" is generally correlated with a profusion of the number of layers of formalized hierarchy that characterize a polity, social structures which males are better able to utilize. In contrast, females would likely flourish in a smaller scale society (the EEA), where interpersonal interactions loom large. This might explain the contrast in some modern societies like Japan, where the public domain is overwhelmingly male, but within the family women have a substantial amount of power and authority (stereotypically, I do not know if things have changed since the relative decline of Japan Inc.). When it comes to interpersonal dynamics, women often have the advantage, but when you scale up in numbers, female "empathizing" can not keep up with social complexity and the more narrow-focused and input insensitive male instincts are more effective. I would suggest that the drive toward feminism is partly an outgrowth of the democratization of Western society as established dominance hierarchies were overturned and rendered obsolete (I have argued before that "modern" liberal democracies might resemble the EEA more than the aristocratic or oligarchic societies that have been the norm for the past 5,000 years, in particular with the expansion of information technology which can transmit the faces, ergo, emotional states, of political leaders with high fidelity).

Two general predictions I will make based on this hypothetical model:


  • Larger secondary schools will tend to have a more androcentric social atmosphere, while smaller secondary schools will be typified by more parity.
  • Feminists who believe that centralized government power can be permanently leveraged to equalize relations between the sexes will be disappointed because of the nature of political organization and bureaucracy in these systems. Rather, the ultimate aims of feminists are likely more easily attained in the context of smaller political units, where the personal touch is more relevant because of a closer relationship between the leaders and their constituents.

Posted by razib at 01:20 PM