What If There Are Sex Differences But Biology Is Not Destiny? by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ photo michael bakasTheories about sex differences have been used to keep women in the home and to justify male domination. Because of this, many feminists run as fast as they can from any discussion of them. Last week while thinking again about this question, I realized that the debate about essentialism often turns a flawed syllogism that goes like this:

• If there are sex differences,

• then, biology is destiny.

In fact the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The syllogism assumes that there if there are sex differences they must inevitably determine behavior.

What if there are sex differences, but we have a choice as individuals and societies as to how to negotiate them? This suggests another possible syllogism:

• If there are sex differences,

• we can choose how to respond to them as individuals and societies,

• because biology is not destiny.

Primatologist Franz de Waal concluded that mammals are hard-wired for empathy in ways that reptiles are not, because mammals give birth to helpless infants who must be nursed and cared for by their mothers if they are to survive. In contrast, reptile babies are not nursed, and though they are sometimes also cared for by their mothers, the bond is not as strong. De Waal says that the capacity for empathy is highly developed in our primate ancestors because their infants require long periods of care and nurture.

De Waal’s research revealed that that while both males and females are hard-wired for empathy, males seem to be more likely than females to override empathy in favor of aggression when threatened. This may be because females not only experience empathy with their mothers but continue to practice it with their children.

Though de Waal based his conclusions on observation of behavior, it is likely that testosterone, which is found in higher levels in adult males than in females or in younger or older males, plays a role in the aggressive behavior of adult males.

What conclusions should we draw from this sort of evidence? If it is true that females are more likely to be consistently empathetic and males are more likely to become aggressive, does this mean that male dominance is inevitable? Or that there is no hope of ending war?


Bonobos make love not war.

Frans De Waal’s work shows that it is possible to discuss sex differences without assuming that they inevitably determine behavior. De Waal studied two primate groups, both genetically similar to human beings, that negotiate what de Waal indentified as the male tendency toward aggression differently. Chimpanzee culture is male dominant; in it male aggression is used to create and enforce systems of dominance over females and among males. Bonobos, on the other hand, have created matriarchal cultures in which all tendencies toward aggression are neutralized through sex play. Bonobos make love not war.

In the case of the chimpanzees, culture reinforces nature, and male aggression wins the day. In contrast, in bonobo groups, culture trumps nature, and male tendencies toward aggression are overcome. De Wall suggests that human societies can choose to follow the chimpanzee model or the bonobo model. New research on egalitarian matriarchal societies past and present suggests that cultures can make the bonobo choice. These societies do not reward aggression, and in them both males and females are encouraged to be as loving, kind, and generous as their own mothers and grandmothers.

I think our feminist conversations would be richer if we could find ways to talk about sex differences without immediately jumping to the conclusion that it is regressive or anti-feminist to do so. If females are more consistently empathetic and less aggressive than males, could we see this as positive, without raising the red flags of female or male dominance? If males are more likely to become aggressive, and we don’t want a violent society, maybe we should be thinking about how families, schools, and society in general can correct for this biological tendency.

Sex differences are tendencies and they are on a continuum. Some women are more aggressive than some men. Some women have more testosterone than some men. Some people are intersex. We are all human. We all have the capacity to be empathetic and the capacity to be aggressive. If women are hard-wired for empathy, that does not mean women have to be mothers or only mothers. If men are more likely to react with aggression when threatened, that does not mean they must do so. Sex differences do not have to determine behavior.

We must be careful what conclusions we draw from discussions of sex difference.

Still when a subject becomes taboo, and energy is expended on suppressing discussion of it, I think we should ask what is going on beneath the surface of what is being said. Maybe it is time to retire the essentialist label and to reopen the feminist discussion of sex differences.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.


Categories: animals, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

21 replies

  1. Brilliant article. ‘Back to the future’ has to be one of the mantras of 3rd wave feminism. Cultural transformation is the key to gender equality, and we have much to learn from our chimp/bonobo cousins!


  2. Biology is not destiny, for sure, thanks Carol.

    Further, to me, individuality trumps gender. Men are very different from women, I suppose, and then again I’ve never met two women who were anything like each other. I’ve never met two men who were anything like each other either. And when I think of the pets I’ve cared for, each and every one was unique. Let’s take each other on courageously, one at a time, and let go of all classifying.


    • I actually think classifying can be useful. All flowers are flowers. All roses are roses. Every rose is unique. Classifying is one of the ways we cope with the world. Recognizing that it has been harmful does not necessarily mean it is not useful if we are careful with the conclusions we draw.

      I do agree with you that we are all unique and that we all are free.


  3. Even females can be aggressive toward other females and female animals can be very aggressive when their offspring are threatened. Evolutionary biologists also study altruism in a group. Men are also caring toward their offspring. None of that means women shouldn’t be able to develop their other skills and gifts.


  4. Thank you so much for this, Carol. I was SO excited when I first learned about bonobos. It gave me hope that another way was possible for humans, too. I do think that some of our issues with “difference” comes from the tendency to split things into “either/or” categories. Maybe it’s inherent in our language (her/him, black/white, good/bad, etc.), and the habit of labeling people/behavior into restrictive boxes. I remember being pleased to read Carol Gilligan’s book, “In a Different Voice” years ago, where she pointed out that it’s possible to think of moral or ethical behavior as “depending on the situation” rather than labeling behaviors as good/bad according to a set of rules. She suggested that women and girls tend to value relationships more than rules, and men and boys tend to focus more on the rules. The Ten Commandments do, then, sound like something that men would have devised. Women may have added, “it depends…”


    • Exactly and if there is no sex difference but only individual difference in thinking about ethics, then by my book we erode part of the ground we can stand in in criticizing rule-based ethics. Of course we would not want to say men cannot think situationally, we should be (my view) encouraging in every way we can think of to do so.

      Though there may not be universal rules, there are touchstones or guidelines, which are not universal rules, such as take only what you need or love others as you love yourself (or ought to love yourself). In that regard rule-based ethics did not get it all wrong.


  5. another great one! thanks for engaging us in this tricky place. and big agreement – individualism and biological determinism co-exist in ways we need to address more heartily to find our way into and through these days. paradox seems to be one of the deepest foundations of our world.


  6. I think it would be useful if we could put something in the world’s water system that would reduce testosterone in every creature on the planet by, say, at least 25%. Feminist author Sheri S.Tepper wrote a novel in which this happens. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996). Many of her books are set on other worlds. This one is set in the United States in an especially misogynistic period. Like now.


  7. Beautiful! It would be so wonderful if I could describe a friend as “a bright red rose tinged with a soft pink halo”, and leave out male/female entirely. Sadly, that male/female label is the first thing to hit us, straight out of the womb. Jeannette Winterson’s magnificent love story “The Passion” never once identifies the sex of its protagonist, and it is one of the sexiest, most passionate books I’ve ever read.


  8. Carol, I love this post. I wrote a related post almost 5 years ago for Tikkun Daily entitled “Chimps Make War, Bonobos Make Love, and Human?” http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2010/06/24/chimps-make-war-bonobos-make-love-and-humans/


  9. We now know that even genetics isn’t a matter of determinism, as gene regulation is an intrinsic part of our biology – some genes may never be turned on (or off) even if we have them. Combine that with the new understandings of neural plasticity and how we are able to “re-learn” things, and even the so called “hard” scientific areas of biological determinism become much more subtle and complex, and yes, less deterministic! (And this before we even encounter culture.) And yes, understanding that difference does not equate to destiny, I would also welcome a discussion about the differences between girls and boys – particularly as a mother, observing the way general behavioural differences do seem apparent, and what seeking the best ways to approach tendencies we wish to encourage or compensate for. On another note, the insidious nature of cultural sexism is already creeping into my 3 year old, who after looking at picture books and the odd DVD has already “learned” that girls have long eyelashes and wear flowers (though happily his favourite colours are “pink, blue and all sorts of other colours)…Even as aware and careful mothers, we have a difficult job in trying to counter this “heavy and subtle” influence of culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Lots to think about Carol. I believe one of our “stumbling blocks”, especially in the West, is to consider things as “black and white”. What I’m seeing from this discussion is a whole rainbow of colours.


  11. There has been a lot of interesting feminist research about gender-based biological differences – I’m thinking of The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine and Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf. I believe that neurological and biological differences are significant, but they don’t have to signify that ‘females’ or ‘males’ as a category are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in a generalised way. I agree with you that it is time for feminists to move beyond old ideas of essentialism and revisit the topic with an open mind. Thanks for starting up the conversation!


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