Boys Will Be Boys… Reflections on Gender Identity and Relations

The Kipputz experiment

One of the first large-scale social experiments based on the new theory of gender equality was the kibbutz scheme in Jewish-settled Palestine. This was founded in 1910 on the assumption, still eccentric in that time, that the emancipation of women can only be achieved when socialized gender roles are eliminated from the earliest stage of childhood.

The kibbutzim were collective farms in which maternal care was entirely eliminated. Instead of living with parents, children lived in special dormitories. To spare women the usual rounds of domestic drudgery, communal laundries and kitchens were provided. Both men and women were hence freed up to choose any activity or work they wished, and it was expected that both would participate equally in positions of power. To ensure the neutral socialization of children, toys were kept in large baskets, so that boys and girls could choose their own toys, rather than have gender-stereotyped toys and games pressed upon them.


The results, after ninety years of consistent and conscientious social engineering, have been disconcerting. The children, to the anger of their supervisors, unerringly choose gender-specific toys. Three-year-old boys pull guns and cars out of the baskets; the girls prefer dolls and tea-sets. Games organized by the children are competitive-among boys-and cooperative-among the girls.

In the kibbutz administration, quotas imposed to enforce female participation in leadership positions are rarely met. Dress codes which attempt to create uniformity are consistently flouted. In Israel today, thekibbutzim harbor sex-distinctions which are famous for being sharper than those observable in Israeli society at large. The experiment has not only failed, it seems to have backfired.

Most scientists and anthropologists who have documented the failure of such projects of social engineering today locate the gravitation of males and females to differing patterns of behavior in the context of evolutionary biology. Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are of course under attack now, particularly by philosophers and physicists, rather more seriously than at any other time over the past hundred years. And as Sheikh Nuh Keller has shown, a thoroughgoing commitment to the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Qur’anic account of the origins of humanity. We believe in a common ancestry for our kind; the neo-Darwinists insist in multiple and interactive development of hominids from simian ancestors.

This does not mean, however, that all the insights of modern biology are unacceptable. Keller notes that micro-evolution, that is to say, the perpetuation and reinforcement over time of genetically successful strategies for survival, is undeniable, and is affirmed also in the hadith. The breeding of horses, for instance, presupposes principles of natural selection in which human beings can intervene. Heredity is true, as a hadith affirms. Categories such as the “Israelites,” or the ahl al-bayt, have real significance.

Competition vs. collaboration

What do the biologists say? The view is that biological success amounts to one factor alone: the maximal propagation of an organism’s genetic material. A powerful predator which dominates its habitat is, however outwardly imposing, a biological failure if it fails to reproduce itself at least in sufficient numbers to ensure its own perpetuation.

Biologists point out that males and females have different reproductive strategies. The burden of what biologist Robert Trivers calls “parental investment” is massively higher in the case of females than of males. This has nothing to do with social conditioning: it is a genetic and biological given. The human female, for instance, makes a vast investment in a child: beginning with nine months of metabolic commitment, followed by a further period before weaning. The male’s “parental investment” is enormously less.

Trivers shows that “the sex providing the greater parental investment will become the limiting resource.” The sex which contributes less will then necessarily be in a social position involving competition, “because they can improve their reproductive success through having numerous partners in a way that members of the other sex cannot.” Hence, for modern biologists, the genetic and hormonal basis of male competition and aggression.

Competition and aggression are traits which may be found in females, but typically to a greatly reduced degree, simply because they are not traits vital to those females’ reproductive success. The aggression which is vital to male biological survival is directed primarily against other males (the vast, physiologically-demanding racks of antlers on stags, for instance); but aggression also serves to make the male more equipped for hunting. Male parental investment is hence physiological only indirectly, insofar as it is directed to providing food or defense for the young.

Biology also helps us understand why the female hormonal pattern, dominated by estrogen and oxytocin, generates strong nurturing instincts which are far less evident in the male androgens and in adrenaline, which is useful for huntsmen and warriors, but of considerably less value in the rearing of children.

Simply put, mothers have a far greater investment to lose if they neglect their children. A child that dies, through lack of care resulting from insufficient hormonal guidance, represents a greater potential failure for the mother than for the father. During gestation and lactation, the mother is infertile or nearly so; whereas during the same period the father may become a father again many times over.

Hence, again, the genetic programming which generates nurturing and convivial instincts in women far more than it does in men. Men have less of the ‘nurturing’ neurotransmitter oxytocin than do women. Androgens ensure that men choose mates for their youth and their apparent childbearing abilities, estrogens impel women to choose mates who are assertive and powerful, as more likely to provide the food and protection that their offspring will need.

Hence also the prevalence of polygyny in traditional societies, and the extreme rarity of polyandry. To have many wives is a genetically sensible strategy, to have many husbands is not.

The aggressive instincts fostered by the male physiology, flushed even before birth with androgens, served our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, and a few generations of very different lifestyles have not been sufficient to bring about any substantial alteration to the male hormonal balance. This is why ninety percent of prison inmates are men, in almost every society. Psychologists have shown that around the world, murderers and the murdered are usually young, unmarried men.

A further factor is that males are far more attracted to competitive forms of behavior. As Kingsley Browne notes, “While competition significantly increases the motivation of men, it does not do so for women. The more competitive an academic programme is perceived by women, for example, the poorer their performance, while the correlation is reversed for men.” Studies also show that men are more likely than women to opt for difficult tasks.

The origin of this gender differential is again to be sought in primordial patterns of survival. Aggressive, competitive males became “alpha males,” and maximized their chances of reproductive success. (Males have ten times more testosterone than women; and it produces aggression as well as the sex drive.) Weaker, more cooperative males were pushed to one side, and rarely if ever found a mate. Successful hunting brought status, and status brought greater opportunities for genetic transmission.

Biologists like Camilla Benbow have recently assessed the implications for modern social differentiation of our genetic inheritance. Her study shows that “boys are much more likely to choose careers in maths and science even though girls are fully aware of their own abilities in these areas.” Again, the conclusion is not that women are less intelligent than men-the new biology clearly rules that out-but that they prefer to exercise it in specific fields. At Harvard, for instance, there is a seven to one male preponderance in the science faculties, and a female preponderance, or equivalence, in arts subjects. Subjects like languages and art history are consistently oversubscribed by female students. And while there is no evidence that women are less intelligent than men-and in general they show themselves much more articulate-more than seventy percent of first-class degrees at Oxford are obtained by male students.

A variety of university committees have been set up to investigate this, initially with a view to eliminating it. However the differential is very stubborn. The reason may be partly to do with socialization, but an awareness is growing that heredity is also a factor that refuses to be ignored. The male endocrine system carries the memory of thousands of years of hunting, an activity which requires a kind of focused attention on a single quarry to the exclusion of all else, coupled with an adrenaline rush at the finish. Such a metabolism, it is now being argued, is better equipped to cope with university-style examinations (as distinct from secondary-school styles of assessment), than the female metabolism, which has historically flourished, that is, been reproductively successful, in nurturing and cooperative tasks.

The response at universities like Harvard and Oxford has been to question the primacy of the examination system. If the competitiveness and focus of males are unfairly served by examination assessment, then alternative modes of assessment must be sought. And so we see alternative assessment procedures: continual assessment of teamwork, and other schemes which enable women to work consultatively on projects and hence develop their full potential. Already the results are encouraging, and it may be that the male bias which seems to be inherent in the examination system will one day be eliminated.

This, however, raises a larger and more troubling question. The new science has established that men and women have comparable intelligence quotients, but that the nature of male and female intelligence, and the context in which it flourishes, can be quite different. Hence Capucine La Motte, another researcher, has documented how from the age of about three most children prefer to play with children of their own gender. They can accomplish their goals in their play activities more reliably in this way.

Boy’s games are competitive and often aggressive; girl’s games are collaborative and involve more sophisticated forms of discourse and conceptualization. Another child psychologist, Janet Lever, notes that 65% of boy’s games are formal games, while only 35% of games played by girls have rules. Boys, it seems, are more “rule-oriented” than girls. (This is why the contemporary Muslim interpretation of Shari`ah in ways which diminishhaqiqa is so often accompanied by a diminished respect for women. The sexes are only regarded with equivalent esteem when batin and zahir are spoken of with equal frequency by believers.)

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