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Is ‘Essentialism’ Essential to Understand Men?

Posted Sep 18 2010 5:03am

Is ‘Essentialism’ Essential to Understand Men? I regularly post on topics that purport to link evolutionary theory and biology with the male psyche.  These arguments are sometimes called, often disparagingly, ‘essentialist’.  Put simply, essentialism is a generalization which states that certain characteristics possessed by a man (e.g. sex drive, reproductive strategies, emotional reasoning, etc.) are universal to all men, and not dependent on context or upbringing. For example an essentialist statement would be that “all men are driven by testosterone to climb dominance hierarchies”.

The point of interest here is philosophical.  First, are we entitled to make essentialist statement about men at all, and in particular, make essentialist statements that help to differentiate male psychology from female psychology?  Second, if the answer is yes, what logical status should we accord them in our understanding of male psychology more generally?

I remember as a young psychology lecturer, I gave lectures about the relative importance in shaping our behavior of our upbringing (nurture) and our biology (nature).  In those days I heavily weighed in on the side of nurture bringing about gender differences.  I would site studies which showed that if you told people a baby was a boy, they would ’see’ ’him’ as being tough and aggressive, whereas if you told people the baby was a girl they would ’see’ ’her’ as being gentle and emotional.  This was so irrespective of whether the baby was really a boy or a girl.  Studies like these convinced me that it was the adults who were bringing culturally available narratives of gender behavior to their interactions with the infants, and morally imposing them upon the infants.  In so doing the culturally available narratives of gender were reproduced in yet another generation.

I also remember having heated debates on the same subject with my sister, a headmistress in a nursery and infant school.  She would insist that boys and girls were different, and that they remained so however you treated them.  In my arrogance I assumed that if she only had my degree of ‘psychological sophistication’ she would come round to my way of thinking.  My sister was advancing an essentialist view of gender behavior, one I found not only inaccurate, but also morally reprehensible.

Indeed, morality is at the heart of this debate.  If men can be ‘shown’ to behaving due to their biology, then, so it might seem, they can be ‘excused’ from their behavior.

Many years on from these formative discussions with my students and my sister, I have come to change my view, and I will explain why.

First, biological sciences have advanced, and the evidence that there are in fact gender differences between boys and girls psychophysiology is becoming more compelling.  Of course this is still a controversial area.  Two new books “Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences” by Cordelia Fine and “Brain Storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences” by Rebecca Jordan-Young argue strongly that the science of gender differences is far from settled.  Jordon-Young states “the evidence for hormonal sex differentiation of the human brain better resembles a hodgepodge pile than a solid structure”.

I, of course, am trying to make sense of this as a men’s psychotherapist, rather than as a brain scientist, so I make no claims to be able to remedy the messy nature of the science.  Science is always in a state of transition and the claim ‘we could still do better’ could be equally leveled at quantum physics as human psychobiology. 

I am interested to know if male and female biology is actually different, and to what extent this is significant for the men I work with.  It seems to me that biology is starting to offer compelling evidence that there are ‘essential’ differences between the brains of men and women, and that some of these differences are there from birth.  The biology may not be complete or theoretically systematic, but it is starting to emerge.

To my first philosophical point then, my position is that we are, albeit with caution, entitled to make essentialist argument about male and female brains and the differences between them.  This, as you now know, has been a reversal of my own view, and has not been an easy conversion.

 The really interesting philosophical questions come next though, and might be encapsulated in the term ‘so what’?  I’ll try and spell out some of the implications as I see them.

First, there is a political challenge to the hegemony of feminism as the repository of truth about gender and gender relations.  For this reason people will continue to pour over the evidence and simply defend, rebut, and reproduce their own views.  As philosophy of science shows, often the facts just get in the way of human understanding.

Second, there will be a move to ’justify’ men’s bad behavior on the basis of the biological evidence.  This would be a mistake and is just another example of what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy .  In short, we cannot use our biology to justify our behavior.  Whatever else we are, we are creatures capable of moral thought and action, and cannot abdicate that responsibility to any scientific theory, however compelling the temptation might be. 

For example, there is some thought at the moment about men having two sexual selection strategy’s open to them.  One is to be faithful and invest heavily in offspring.  The second is to be promiscuous, father many children, and be minimally involved in raising them.  Both strategies’ make ‘evolutionary’ sense as ways of propagating the species.  There is also a tantalizing hypothesis that these differences may be underpinned by a genetic difference.  Men with the long version of the gene being monogamous, the men with the short version, promiscuous. 

Having a short version of the gene and being prone to promiscuity, even if this were an established scientific fact, does not imply that behaving promiscuously is acceptable.  As men we have a responsibility to ourselves, the women in our lives, and the children we create.  This is a moral matter and cannot be dodged.  For readers who want to explore this try “My Brain Made Me Do It: The rise of neuroscience and the threat to moral responsibility” by Eliezer Sternberg.

Third, understanding our biology can help inform the decisions we make as citizens and as therapists.  For example for many years Autism was considered a psychological problem, often accounted for by ‘therapists’ due to distant and unemotional parenting styles.  The consensus of respectable opinion now is that this is untrue and Autism has its roots in biology.  Therapists are removed from the search for a cure and, thankfully, parents are no longer held responsible.  Therapists are therefore free to help the family achieve the best adjustment they can under the established biological constraints. Knowing our biological heritage does not change our moral responsibility to act well, but it does change what acting well in any given situation might be.

Similarly if the hypothesis about short and long genes for promiscuity turns out to be true, therapists will be in a better position to help the short gene ‘promiscuous’ men make life choices that do not cause themselves or others harm.  We already work with such men of course, but we tend to call it poor sexual self control or sex addiction, and blame them for it.  If we can accept that for some men desire does not lead them to monogamy, we might be in a better position to help men accept and respond responsibly to their situation.

My final point is to remind you of the birth of psychotherapy in the work of Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century.  Freud was a neurologist, and his life’s work was to understand human neurotic suffering in the medical terms in which he was trained.  His first book, “the Project for a Scientific Psychology”, was an attempt at just such a endeavor.  Freud knew how hopeless his attempt was given the poor scientific knowledge about the brain at the time, and the work was only published posthumously.

Nevertheless the principle of grounding psychotherapeutic theories in lived biological processes was an ideal that struck to the core of Freud’s theoretical thinking.  My view is that advances in brain sciences provides an opportunity for the psychotherapeutic profession to work just as effectively with nature, as we have already learnt to do so skillfully with nurture. 

Increasingly our theories of human distress, and how best to respond to them, can and should be grounded in a biological understanding of the human condition.  This is not to remove psychoanalytic, humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, transpersonal or indeed any other narrative that offers leverage to our understanding of what it is to be human, merely to augment it.  If this makes my thinking essentialist in flavor, then I graciously, but cautiously, concede.



Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK.  He offers:

Dr Tyson is also regularly quoted in the printed media and as a guest on local and national broadcast media.



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