Geary Commentators: Hammer, Kimball, Kornbrot

From: Elliott Mark (
Date: Wed Feb 11 1998 - 13:34:25 GMT


>Among the literature which Geary uses for his justification of
>claims concerning the biological factors in the superior performance
>of boys in mathematics is that of human evolutionary scenarios. He
>claims that superior geometric skills in males are due to
>evolutionary selection for spatial orientation during foraging. In
>order for this claim to be valid, it must be that females did not
>forage away from the base camp. The evidence is poor for the
>relative sedentariness of hominid females. The older justification
>of this was the "Man the hunter" hypothesis. However, big game
>hunting (in which males are conceded to play a preeminent role) is a
>feature of only certain phases of later human evolution. Early
>hominids likely hunted small game or scavenged, and females would be
>quite capable of this.

I agree that mathematical ability would be superior in males if the
"Man the Hunter" hypothesis is adhered to. If indeed mathematical
ability is greater in males then this theory would be better at
explaining why than the alternative which is that in earlier
evolution both males and females hunted small game, since it may be
the later evolutionary factors which are more influential in
mathametical ability today. The implications of this is clear in
that if females are poorer at math than males then teachers should
spend more time concentrating on female students. However why
should males and females be different? Surely females would inherit
genes from their father as well as their mother and thus may inherit
the dominant gene for math. Similarly males would inherit genes
from their mother and thus maybe the "gene which makes mathematical
ability crap". this would stem back through the generations thus
balancing out ability in males and females.

>Insisting that there is no math gene does little to erase the
>feelings and attitudes of educators -- mainly unconscious and
>reinforced by social stereotypes -- that girls just are not as good
>at math as boys. Gender stereotypes are reinforced from the day we
>are born, as many studies have shown, according to the hundreds of
>such studies over the last twenty years synthesized by the AAUW
>report, How Schools Shortchange Girls.

I do not agree that their is no gene for math. I believe everyone
has a gene which determines the potential for math (and other)
abilities. However how well math ability develops depends on social
influences such as learning and experience. These influences cannot
be ignored. They must represent a substantial amount of our
capabilities today. For example if a clone were made of a new born
baby (making them identical in every way) evolutionary psychology
would argue that they would grow to be the same because they are
dominated by their genes. Thus both would have the same math
ability. However the different social influences that they are
exposed to would alter their behavioural tendencies and abilities.
If one has been given encouraging support to develop their math
skills and the other has not, the one that has been exposed to the
encouraging environment would have better skill.
Also the claim that gender stereotypes are reinforced since the day
we are born influence the feelings and attitudes of educators would
make no difference to how boys and girls are treated in school
policies. Social stereotypes are not a fixed entity and are subject
to change over the years with changes in social norms. Therefore in
current day society, with the awareness of equal rights, social
stereotypes would not influence teachers to believe that boys are
better than girls. Therefore the next quote is rubbish.

>teachers of both sexes pay more positive as well as negative
>attention to boys than girls in class, and encourage higher-order
>thinking skills in boys more than girls.
>High achieving girls get the least attention of any group, even less
>than low-achieving girls, while high-achieving boys get the most
>teacher attention. This is an environmental variable which must be
>considered in claims as to greater biological superiority in solving
>mathematical word problems.

Maybe older teachers would behave this way but younger ones are less

in general I totally agree with the next comment because it accounts
for changes in social norms.

>The gender gap in advanced
>mathematics courses in high school and college still exists but has
>rapidly decreased in the last twenty years due to gender equity
>efforts. Surely, if true brain differences existed they would tend
>to remain stable and unchangeable.


>the pattern of girls' higher classroom grades in mathematics which
>occurs from grade school to university for North American and
>European students from both representative and precocious samples
>(Benbow & Arjmand, 1990; Burton, 1994; Kimball, 1989) may have
>considerably more practical significance than any particular
>relationship between three dimensional spatial skills and a subset
>of geometry and problem solving skills. Girls are very capable of
>competing successfully in the mathematics classroom. Programs to
>improve girls' math skills may be less useful than changes in the
>mathematics curriculum (Barnes, 1994) which encourage them to take
>more courses.

I agree that math skill may be in some way related to 3D spatial
skill problem solving skills etc. Again thuogh why should these be
different in males and females?
I also agree that if girls take more courses they will be as good as
males at maths. But I think that this is the case now- definitely
at secondary scholl and college and I do not know or quite frankly
care about the case at university. Also the national curriculum
says that all students must do math in school so their should
be no real difference there in general. Also in single sex secondary
schools their will be no teaching bias to boys (as argued by that
other git) so both sexes will get equal treatment and have the
opportunity to develop to their full potential at that stage.


>Failure to find the apple tree is no picnic for women
>either, ask Eve.

>Even developed countries have substantial sex imbalances in
>graduate schools and professional numbers. An Bachelors in English
>literature can lead directly to a career in writing, a Bachelors in
>physics barely scratches the surface. Such 'facts of life', may
>explain why mathematically gifted girls dont chose maths, especially
>if they are equally talented at other things (Chipman & Thomas,

Granted, but the author has seemed to overlook the fact that maths
gifted males may also not choose maths for the same reason.


>Geary uses "sexual selection" as a theoretical framework to explain
>such differences, but we feel that they can be explained by totally
>different factors. The fact that our study was conducted in a
>conservative and catholic school in Belgium is a bias : in such a
>school, the students mostly come from a fairly traditional
>background, where sexual roles tend to be stressed from a very early
>age, with possible influences in school performances, especially in
>what is usually considered as a "male topic". The same might be true
>of any fairly conservative school and the author does not mention
>researches in other schools.

I agree with this argument in that math may be seen as a male topic
and thus females will be less likely to choose it and will therefore
be not as good as males. But I think that this is only so in certain
"traditional" societies. In some cultures as argued earlier males
and females will be given the same treatment and with changing social
noms through time math is seen as no longer such a predominantly male
topic as it was. In time this may continue so that it is seen as an
equal male and femal topic and who knows, a reversal of the situation
may occur.

>This does not mean that sexual selection is irrelevant for those
>trying to explain sexual differences in mathematics, but it implies
>that we must also look at other possible organizing frameworks.

to some degree I believe that sexual selection is relevant to explain
sexual differences in mathematics. however I believe that all
factors in our society today have resulted from that society and
changes in it over time. Social influence is so powerful - for
example why do people follow the current trendy thing but in a few
months it all changes and something else is followed. Sort of like
a group of girls adoring a boy band but when a new one comes out they
abandon the original in favour of the new one. Therefore the
origonal feeling must have been almost comletely based on social
influences such as conformity or group affiliation. Therefore social
learning and encouragement is just as important if not more so to sex
differences (eg how a person is brought up) Also the attitude of the
individual is important. If a girl is brought up to be a tom boy she
may be more likely to want to do maths and therefore stands just as
much chance as males in doing well and getting a good job in the
field of math or science. The differences in the genetic make-up of
males and females which have developed through evolution can only
have a limited effect on mathematical ability, if indeed there is a

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:19 GMT