Sunday, June 18, 2006

Thoughts for Father's Day

From Marianne J. Legato ("The Weaker Sex," The New York Times, June 17, 2006):

What emerges when one studies male biology in a truly evenhanded way is the realization that from the moment of conception on, men are less likely to survive than women. It's not just that men take on greater risks and pursue more hazardous vocations than women. There are poorly understood — and underappreciated — vulnerabilities inherent in men's genetic and hormonal makeup. This Father's Day, we need to rededicate ourselves to deepening our knowledge of male physiology. . . .

Thinking about how we might correct the comparative vulnerability of men instead of concentrating on how we have historically neglected women's biology will doubtless uncover new ways to improve men's health — and ultimately, every human's ability to survive.

From Bjorn Carey ("Men and Women Really Do Think Differently,", January 20, 2005):

The brain is made primarily of two different types of tissue, called gray matter and white matter. This new research reveals that men think more with their gray matter, and women think more with white. . . .

The results are detailed in the online version of the journal NeuroImage. [Main index here, related articles here: ED]

In human brains, gray matter represents information processing centers, whereas white matter works to network these processing centers. The results from this study may help explain why men and women excel at different types of tasks. . . . For example, men tend to do better with tasks requiring more localized processing, such as mathematics, . . . while women are better at integrating and assimilating information from distributed gray-matter regions of the brain, which aids language skills.

From Larry Cahill ("His Brain, Her Brain,", April 25, 2005):

. . . A generation of neuroscientists came to maturity believing that "sex differences in the brain" referred primarily to mating behaviors, sex hormones and the hypothalamus.

That view, however, has now been knocked aside by a surge of findings that highlight the influence of sex on many areas of cognition and behavior, including memory, emotion, vision, hearing, the processing of faces and the brain's response to stress hormones. This progress has been accelerated in the past five to 10 years by the growing use of sophisticated noninvasive imaging techniques such as positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can peer into the brains of living subjects.

These imaging experiments reveal that anatomical variations occur in an assortment of regions throughout the brain. Jill M. Goldstein of Harvard Medical School and her colleagues, for example, used MRI to measure the sizes of many cortical and subcortical areas. Among other things, these investigators found that parts of the frontal cortex, the seat of many higher cognitive functions, are bulkier in women than in men, as are parts of the limbic cortex, which is involved in emotional responses. In men, on the other hand, parts of the parietal cortex, which is involved in space perception, are bigger than in women, as is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that responds to emotionally arousing information--to anything that gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing. These size differences, as well as others mentioned throughout the article, are relative: they refer to the overall volume of the structure relative to the overall volume of the brain. . . .

In a comprehensive 2001 report on sex differences in human health, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences asserted that "sex matters. Sex, that is, being male or female, is an important basic human variable that should be considered when designing and analyzing studies in all areas and at all levels of biomedical and health-related research."

Neuroscientists are still far from putting all the pieces together--identifying all the sex-related variations in the brain and pinpointing their influences on cognition and propensity for brain-related disorders. Nevertheless, the research conducted to date certainly demonstrates that differences extend far beyond the hypothalamus and mating behavior. Researchers and clinicians are not always clear on the best way to go forward in deciphering the full influences of sex on the brain, behavior and responses to medications. But growing numbers now agree that going back to assuming we can evaluate one sex and learn equally about both is no longer an option.

Finally, John Kekes ("The Absurdity of Egalitarianism," TCS Daily, April 12, 2004), addresses inequalities of all kinds:

Here is a consequence of egalitarianism. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, men's life expectancy is on the average about 7 years less than women's. There is thus an inequality between men and women. If egalitarians mean it when they say that it would be a better state of affairs if everyone enjoyed the same level of social and economic benefits, or that how could it not be an evil that some people's prospects at birth are radically inferior to others, then they must find the inequality between the life expectancy of men and women unjust. . . .

Egalitarians, thus must see it as a requirement of justice to equalize the life expectancy of men and women. This can be done, for instance, by men having more and better health care than women; by employing fewer men and more women in stressful or hazardous jobs; and by men having shorter work days and longer vacations than women. . . .

Yet a further policy follows from the realization that since men have shorter lives than women, they are less likely to benefit after retirement from Social Security and Medicare. . . . There is thus much that egalitarian policies could do to reduce the unjust inequality in the life expectancy of men and women.

However much that is, it will affect only future generations. There remains the question of how to compensate the present generation of men for the injustice of having shorter lives than women. No compensation can undo the damage, but it may make it easier to bear. The obvious policy is to set up preferential treatment programs designed to provide for men at least some of the benefits they would have enjoyed had their life expectancy been equal to women's. . . .

These absurd policies follow from egalitarianism, and their absurdity casts doubt on the beliefs from which they follow. . . . One may actually come to suspect that the familiar egalitarian policies do not appear absurd only because they are made familiar by endlessly repeated mind-numbing rhetoric that disguise the lack of reasons for them.

Can egalitarians avoid these absurdities? They might claim that there is a significant difference between the unequal life expectancy of men and women, and the inequality of rich and poor, whites and blacks, or men and women in respects other than life expectancy. The difference, egalitarians might say, is that the poor, blacks, and women are unequal as a result of injustice, such as exploitation, discrimination, prejudice, and so forth, while this is not true of the life expectancy of men.

A moment of thought shows, however, that this claim is untenable. . . . It is but the crudest prejudice to think of men as Archie Bunkers, of women as great talents sentenced to housewifery, and of blacks as ghetto dwellers doomed by injustice to a life of poverty, crime, and addiction. Many men have been victims of injustice, and many women and blacks have not suffered from it.

It will be said against this that there still is a difference because the poor, blacks, and women are more likely to have been victims of injustice than men. Suppose this is true. What justice requires then, according to egalitarians, is to redistribute resources to them and to compensate them for their loss. But these policies will be just only if they benefit victims of injustice, and the victims cannot be identified simply as poor, blacks, or women because they, as individuals, may not have suffered any injustice. . . . This more precise identification requires asking and answering the question of why specific individuals are in a position of inequality.

Answering it, however, must include consideration of the possibility that people may cause or contribute to their own misfortune and that it is their lack of merit, effort, or responsibility, not injustice, that explains their position. Egalitarians, however, ignore this possibility. . . . If the policies of redistribution and compensation do take into account the degree to which people are responsible for being in a position of inequality, then the justification of these policies must go beyond what egalitarians can provide. For the justification must involve consideration of the choices people make, as well as their merit, effort, responsibility. To the extent to which this is done, the justification ceases to be egalitarian. . . .

Suppose that egalitarianism is seen for what it is: an absurd attempt to deny in the name of justice that people should be held responsible for their actions and treated as they deserve based on their merits or demerits. A nagging doubt remains. It is undeniable that there are in our society innocent victims of misfortune and injustice. Their inequality is not their fault, they are not responsible for it, and they do not deserve to be in a position of inequality. The emotional appeal of egalitarianism is that it recognizes the plight of these people and proposes ways of helping them. Counting on the compassion of decent people, egalitarians then charge their society with injustice for ignoring the suffering of innocent victims. . . .

[T]he relentless egalitarian propaganda eagerly parroted by the media would have us believe that our society is guilty of dooming people to a life of poverty. What this ignores is the unprecedented success of our society in having less than 13 percent of the population live below a very generously defined poverty level and 87 percent above it. The typical ratio in past societies is closer to the reverse. It is a cause for celebration, not condemnation, that for the first time in history a very large segment of the population has escaped poverty. If egalitarians had a historical perspective, they would be in favor of the political and economic system that has made this possible, rather than advocating absurd policies that undermine it.

(This is a partial response to Joe Miller's recent post. More later.)