150-year-old explanation for male success doesn’t hold water

A meta-analysis of animal personality studies has highlighted the widespread belief that males are naturally more diverse than females. In so doing, it greatly undermines the last biological explanation for the predominance of men at the highest levels of science, business, and politics.

Since Darwin, biologists believe that male animals exhibit more variation than females, attributing this to sexual selection. By extrapolation, it is claimed that men are naturally more likely to occupy the ends of the IQ spectrum. This provides a convenient explanation for male dominance in many areas without admitting a glass ceiling.

However, if greater variation in males is a consequence of biology, rather than societal sexism, then it should be found across a range of animals. Professor Michael Jennions of the Australian National University led a project to analyze variation in animal personality measures. In Biological Reviews, Jennions and her coauthors report that the data just isn’t there to support the idea.

As Jennions told IFLScience, “Darwin is hardly ever wrong.” Even in recent years, several of Darwin’s conclusions that remained controversial for a century have been confirmed. However, he seems to have erred in asserting in 1871 that the variation among males of a species is consistently greater than among females, which he attributed to the effects of sexual selection. It has since been assumed to be true. Oddly enough, before Darwin, it was believed that females were the most variable.

“The idea that biology determines a greater diversity of behavior in male animals than in females is often used to explain why more men than women are considered geniuses or become CEOs,” said the first author. Lauren Harrison in a statement.

However, Jennions told IFLScience that “most of the characteristics Darwin was talking about were those that are only really expressed in males, like the peacock’s tail, which makes it very difficult to compare the variability.” For a fairer comparison, Jennions and Harrison looked at traits that occur in both men and women, such as boldness, aggression, and sociability.

There have been hundreds of studies on the variability of animal personalities using measures such as concealment time (daring) or number of interactions (sociability). The authors found 204 articles testing comparable traits for 220 species.

Contrary to their expectations, the authors found no evidence that male animals are more varied in their personalities, even for measures such as aggression where sexual selection often increases the baseline of males. The results were consistent, whether in mammals, fish or invertebrates.

Jennions admitted to IFLScience that humans could be the exception, but said in a statement that if so, “it is likely caused by uniquely human factors,” which would be more culturally believable than biological.

Havelock Ellis was the first to apply Darwin’s assertion of variability to intelligence, proposing that men have a wider range of brain sizes and therefore of thinking ability. In Ellis’ day, it was a breakthrough in the view that men are on average smarter than women. As women’s access to education has improved, it has become more difficult to maintain – most people have met enough men who are clearly not superior to anyone.

Ellis’ hypothesis filled the void. Men can win most Nobel Prizes, the story goes, because they dominate both the smartest and dumbest 1%. Nothing to do with sex discrimination. The idea is particularly appealing to some men who are convinced that they are not at the bottom of the ladder and therefore think that they must be among the men superior to almost all women. Jennions warns against Naturalistic Sophism this equates to natural with bon, but men who want to claim superiority have to look further.

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