Summers Falls in Winter's Spring

It seems that Larry Summers, a timid man mysteriously president of Harvard, has suggested that men might be better than women at mathematics. He has been beset by the fanged mouselets of academe, and is now busily cringing like a puppy who has wet the rug. We must not mention what the correct do not want to hear.

Yet maybe we should. Let us reflect on differences between the sexes:

Men are taller, heavier, stronger, more durable, and more enduring. They have higher erythrocyte counts, greater cardiac volume, build muscle faster with exercise, and are more strongly constructed. All of this is perfectly well known scientifically, having been studied to death by exercise physiologists. It tracks with daily observation, with athletic records, with attempts by the military to train women as soldiers (they are much weaker and have many more injuries in training). It is why you don’t see women in the NFL, why the sexes have separate athletic teams. On the other hand, women live longer.

Intellectually the differences are more complex, but equally well known among people who study such things. Men are distinctly better in mean mathematical-logical-spatial reasoning, and either very slightly ahead or very slightly behind in mean verbal ability.

Crucial here is what in mathematics is called a “distribution.” In comparing two groups, the mean — “average” — tells only part of the story. To see this, consider an imaginary group of fifty women, all having an IQ of exactly 100. Their average IQ is 100. Now consider a group of fifty men, half of whom have IQs of zero, and half of whom have IQs of 200. The average IQ also is 100 — but you would expect very different performance.

The way the human distribution works is that as you move toward the extremes of intelligence, both high and low, men increasingly predominate. Again, this is well known. At the highest and lowest ranges of intelligence, you find almost entirely men. The effect is stark in math, less so but inescapable in verbal ability. It shows up on every known test of mental capacity. It is why there are almost no female Nobelists in the mathematical sciences, and no world champions in chess. It is the “glass ceiling.” It is also much of why the prisons are full of men: the stupid tend to end up as criminals, and there are many more truly stupid men than truly stupid women.

All of this is well known and heavily documented.

Psychologically the differences between the sexes are fuzzy and less easily quantified. On the other hand, they are obvious. Women are more emotional than men, less aggressive, more interested in people and less interested in abstractions and machinery.

This, plus the difference in mathematical ability, explains the paucity of women in engineering and physics, and their high numbers in professions that involve caring for or dealing with people. They are neither particularly good at physics, nor very interested. Why then would you expect to find them there?

The aggressiveness of men explains why they find war fascinating, quickly look for military solutions, love to study weaponry, glorify martial exploits, and have through all history fought war after war after war. It is biological. It is how men are.

A great deal of human behavior is biologically determined — or, if you prefer, the consequence of human nature. A combination of stupidity and aggressiveness is conducive to violent crime. What characteristically do you find in prisons? Stupid, aggressive men. Why are bar fights always between men? Why does a man going into a tough town get challenges from men and not women? Why do the challenges diminish when the interloper is too old to be a sexual competitor?

It is difficult to imagine that Larry Summers, president of Harvard, isn’t aware of all of this. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that anyone isn’t at least vaguely aware of it.

The intelligence of men at the high end, plus their assertiveness and their interest in machines and in building things, is responsible for most of civilization. The male desire to fight, as innate as a dog’s desire to pee on hydrants, is a most hideously destructive phenomenon. The question for civilization is how to harness the horsepower of men for useful purposes without letting them engage in their preferred sports: butchery, burning, the sacking of cities, and armed robbery.

This is tricky because testosterone has no moral component. Men are happy spending long hours designing a robotic surgical suite to save lives, or working together in groups to send men to the moon. They are equally happy designing a new and better tank, or in bombing cities. Building the Parthenon and burning Hamburg enchant them equally. How to encourage the one while discouraging the other?

Men can be civilized at the local or neighborhood level. Well-bred and preferably educated males, whether in Switzerland, Fukuoka, or the white suburbs of Washington, go to work, invent things, try to better the world, and only very occasionally kill each other. Boys, if raised to be gentlemen, usually will be. Of course this only works if women are ladies. It comes down to a society’s instilling, and insisting on, high standards of behavior. Dueling should be discouraged.

At the global level, things are more difficult. The male readiness to think in terms of abstractions makes the world a chess game. Combativeness easily trumps morality. It is men, not women, who fantasize about nuking China. Given that almost all countries raise armies and train them to fight, it is to be expected that they will want to. The unprincipled tend to rise to power. I suppose the best hope is that countries will become sufficiently integrated with each other, as Western Europe seems to have done, that fighting just doesn’t seem attractive. Probably a long shot.

Meanwhile we might all be happier if women stopped trying to be what they aren’t, and men tried to stop being what they are, if you get my drift. And is not a woman who tries to help a wounded puppy, whether she be a barmaid or astrophysicist, obviously a higher form of life than Agamemnon, Timurlane, Napoleon, the Bushlet, Hitler, Patton, or Pol Pot? If not, why not?

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.