Friday, April 29, 2005

Scientists Discover: Boys and Girls are Different!

From Scientific American (I'll let it stand on its own):
Several intriguing behavioral studies add to the evidence that some sex differences in the brain arise before a baby draws its first breath. Through the years, many researchers have demonstrated that when selecting toys, young boys and girls part ways. Boys tend to gravitate toward balls or toy cars, whereas girls more typically reach for a doll. But no one could really say whether those preferences are dictated by culture or by innate brain biology.

To address this question, Melissa Hines of City University London and Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University turned to monkeys, one of our closest animal cousins. The researchers presented a group of vervet monkeys with a selection of toys, including rag dolls, trucks and some gender-neutral items such as picture books. They found that male monkeys spent more time playing with the "masculine" toys than their female counterparts did, and female monkeys spent more time interacting with the playthings typically preferred by girls. Both sexes spent equal time monkeying with the picture books and other gender-neutral toys.

Because vervet monkeys are unlikely to be swayed by the social pressures of human culture, the results imply that toy preferences in children result at least in part from innate biological differences. This divergence, and indeed all the anatomical sex differences in the brain, presumably arose as a result of selective pressures during evolution. In the case of the toy study, males--both human and primate--prefer toys that can be propelled through space and that promote rough-and-tumble play. These qualities, it seems reasonable to speculate, might relate to the behaviors useful for hunting and for securing a mate. Similarly, one might also hypothesize that females, on the other hand, select toys that allow them to hone the skills they will one day need to nurture their young.

Simon Baron-Cohen and his associates at the University of Cambridge took a different but equally creative approach to addressing the influence of nature versus nurture regarding sex differences. Many researchers have described disparities in how "people-centered" male and female infants are. For example, Baron-Cohen and his student Svetlana Lutchmaya found that one-year-old girls spend more time looking at their mothers than boys of the same age do. And when these babies are presented with a choice of films to watch, the girls look longer at a film of a face, whereas boys lean toward a film featuring cars.

Of course, these preferences might be attributable to differences in the way adults handle or play with boys and girls. To eliminate this possibility, Baron-Cohen and his students went a step further. They took their video camera to a maternity ward to examine the preferences of babies that were only one day old. The infants saw either the friendly face of a live female student or a mobile that matched the color, size and shape of the student's face and included a scrambled mix of her facial features. To avoid any bias, the experimenters were unaware of each baby's sex during testing. When they watched the tapes, they found that the girls spent more time looking at the student, whereas the boys spent more time looking at the mechanical object. This difference in social interest was evident on day one of life--implying again that we come out of the womb with some cognitive sex differences built in.


Staying in the world of science, Spiked has asked scientists what one thing they would teach the world if they could. A lot of stuff to get through over there!

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