Re: Geary 0: Introduction

From: Bilak Alexandra (
Date: Wed Feb 11 1998 - 13:51:15 GMT

> 0. Introduction
> >The principles of sexual selection provide a useful theoretical
> >framework for understanding human sex differences in certain social
> >and sexual behaviours as well as sex differences in certain
> >cognitive domains.
> Sexual selection is used as a primary theoretical context to explain
> sex differences in mathematical abilities.
> >Sexual selection appears to have directly shaped the social and
> >cognitive styles of males and females.
> >Not by evolution.

WHY NOT? Sexual selection is precisely what evolution is: what this
is saying is that the effects of evolutionary pressures that have
existed throughout our evolutionary history can still be seen in a
lot of our behaviour, including social and cognitive skills like
mathematical abilities. Because these pressures have acted on males
and females in different ways, namely that males and females have had
to struggle for survival in conflicting ways (males having to be
stronger, fitter, wealthier, etc, to promote intrasexual competition
and woo women; women having to invest much more time and energy in
offspring, having to choose much more carefully a decent and
appropriate partner to bring up their child...), then it would indeed
be fair to say that this sexual selection has shaped in a specific
way the cognitive and social structures of males and females. Hence,
certain differences in mathematical abilities between males and

> >which, in turn, influence mathematical development and performance
> >and contribute to sex differences in certain mathematical domains.
> >children's mathematical development occurs primarily in school
> >settings, and, as a result, the assessment of mathematical
> >performance necessarily reflects some cultural influences i.e.
> >schooling and other sociocultural influences.
> This does not exclude primary biological influences.
> A framework for making inferences about forms of cognition
> Biologically influenced = biologically primary
> Culturally specific = biologically secondary

Our behaviour today can be seen as primarily determined by PROXIMAL
and DISTAL causes: distal causes represent these evolutionary
pressures that have acted on our ancestors throughout our
evolutionary history and that provide the basis for our behaviour
today. In this particular case, Geary is saying that our ancestors
have had to be good at navigating in three dimensional space, for
for example, and that this ability made the most able ones survive
and the least able ones die out. This seems to provide a good
explanation of our contemporary "biologically primary" ability to be
good at mathematics, more specifically to understand basic geometric
relations, or principles of numerosity, ordinality, and so on. And
because in ancestral environments it was the men who were more likely
to go out hunting and were more likely thus to "navigate in
three-dimensional space", males today seem to have the
upper-hand in cognitive abilities such as mathematics. Also, Geary
points out, it is interesting to see that males are object-orientated
whilst women are more person-orientated: this could result from
sexual selection in that, because females invest much more in their
offspring, they are more keen on finding long lasting relationships,
whereas males, by hunting, intrasexual competition, and intensive
sexual behaviour, are now more object orientated. This disparity once
again could account for the disparity found between males and females
for mathematical abilities.

> >On the basis of this framework, a systematic assessment of sex
> >differences in mathematical abilities requires a consideration of
> >whether the differences in question are evident for biologically-
> >primary or biologically-secondary mathematical domains

Biologically secondary abilities can be seen as "by-products" of
biologically primary ones, in that primary forms of cognition, such
as certain spatial abilities, are expressed in secondary forms of
cognition, such as more complex mathematics. We seem then to be able
today to adapt our natural tendencies (of being good at navigating in
space, for example), the ones inherited by our ancestors, to more
complex problems, ones that have emerged in evolutionary novel
contexts like our contemporary society, schools, institutions, or

In this sense, then, biologically secondary abilities can be seen as
being somewhat more culturally determined, like for example emerging
in children when they start going to school.
> >If sexual selection were directly related to sex differences in
> >mathematical abilities then any such sex difference should be most
> >evident for biologically-primary mathematical domains i.e. those
> >least affected by sociocultural influences (e.g schooling ). In
> >contrast, if there are no sex differences in biologically-primary
> >mathematical domains but consistent sex differences in secondary
> >mathematical domains, then there are two general potential sources
> >of these sex differences.
> 1) a difference in the schooling of boys and girls, given that school
> is the primary cultural context within which secondary mathematical
> abilities appear to emerge 2) the source of sex differences in
> secondary mathematical domains is the secondary effects of sexual
> selection on the cognitive and social styles of boys and girls
> >The present article is not the first to argue that cognitive sex
> >differences in general and sex differences in mathematics in
> >particular have biological origins.
> Other theories of sex differences
> >Benbow, for instance, presented evidence suggesting that the greater
> >number of males than females at the upper end of the distribution of
> >SAT scores reflects, at least in part, a sex difference in the
> >functional organization of the left- and right hemisphere. McGee
> >argued that a sex difference in certain forms of spatial cognition
> >has biological origins and contributes to sex differences in certain
> >mathematical areas. Sherman (1980, 1981), in contrast, presented
> >evidence suggesting that the sex difference in mathematics was
> >primarily related to the greater mathematical confidence of boys
> >than girls
> >In fact, the emergence of any complex cognitive skill almost
> >certainly reflects an >Interaction between biologically based
> >differences in the types of activities that boys >and girls prefer to
> >engage in and the environments made available to them by parents >and
> >by peers.
> >
> The present article builds on and extends previous theoretical
> treatments of the >source and nature of sex differences in
> mathematics in several ways.
> e.g. sexual selection has resulted in a sex difference in the social
> preferences of males and females and examines how evolved cognitive
> abilities might be manifested in evolutionarily novel contexts (such
> as schools ).

I have the impression that a lot of research that has been carried
out on mathematical abilities in general and sex differences in these
abilities in particular, has concentrated on social structures
mainly, like differential treatments of boys and girls at school or
at home, different expectations, career prospects, etc... OR has
looked at biological differences such as cortical size and so on.
This article tackles the problem by considering an evolutionary
approach that looks at the issue of sexual selection and how this has
been the major force in determining sex differences in specific
cognitive abilities. The issue here then is to look at this as
building blocks, and to understand their interaction with
evolutionary novel influences, like social and cultural effects, to
understand the main causes of sex differences in primary and
secondary mathematical abilities.

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