Thursday, December 21, 2006

Science vs. Men vs. Women

I work at a popular science magazine that covers research into the roots of compassion, altruism, empathy, and other prosocial human behaviors and emotions. Last month we reviewed a study by Dutch neuroscientist Erno Jan Hermans (and colleagues) that set out to test whether testosterone can inhibit a person's ability to empathize with someone else.

To find out, the researchers dosed twenty women with either testosterone or a placebo, and then measured their ability to mimic facial expressions, which previous research has shown to be one marker of empathy. Their results showed that testosterone might indeed reduce empathic behavior.

I initially objected to publishing a brief about the study in the magazine. I'm automatically suspicious of the methodologies and conclusions of any study that suggests biology is behavioral destiny. Plus, even if the science is solid, I didn't think it would be useful to our readers. If testosterone really does limit empathy, so what? How does that knowledge help our readers, who are mostly educated lay people?

I talked it over with the other editors, including a psychologist who reviewed the methodologies. He felt they checked out. We agreed that reporting the study fell within the mission of the magazine. And so we turned to discussing ways to report the findings that would not play to social stereotypes about men and women. Looking back, I can see that I was learning something about how we can talk about science in popular forums.

It's first critical to begin with the fact that all human beings have the capacity for empathy; it's fundamental to our psychology, with a basis in evolution. Men are human beings and are therefore capable of empathy. That puts the findings in broad perspective. In addition, we need to keep individual variance in mind; I've met lots of men who are more empathetic than many women, and I'm sure you have, too.

Second, it's important to acknowledge the limits of the study. To get those, you first have to read the study and talk to the scientists themselves. Most scientists are extremely reluctant to speculate or make sweeping generalizations based on limited findings, for good reasons; they're also careful to acknowledge the limits of their methodologies and to suggest further areas of study. This doesn't stop journalists, politicians, and bloggers from seizing on findings and putting them at the service of their personal and political agendas; hell, I've done it plenty of times. (That's our job, but I think we can perform our jobs more responsibly.)

In the brief we are publishing in the magazine, we were careful to reflect the limitations of this methodology, noted by the researchers themselves. "While facial mimicry may be one component of empathic behavior, it is clearly not the defining feature," writes Mario Aceves, a fellow with the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, in the brief. "Before we conclude that testosterone leaves men at an emotional disadvantage, additional studies must show that testosterone affects the many other dimensions of empathy."

My colleague Jason Marsh asked Erno Jan Hermans for a comment. "[Testosterone] reduces empathetic behavior; we can't say it reduces empathy,” he said. His research also shows that while "testosterone is a regulating factor in gender-specific behavior... obviously you can never rule out that there are cultural differences in play."

Last and certainly not least, scientific findings of this type don't dictate some kind of automatic ethical or political response. They do not prove that men are by nature emotional dolts, and therefore not accountable for idiotic behavior. They do not suggest that women are in essence loving, nurturing, dove-like creatures of ethereal beauty. No woman who wants to live in a more empathetic, compassionate society should plan to launch all-female communes in South America--even if you were to screen out women with high levels of testosterone, you're still not going to achieve a feminine utopia like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. Human beings are too complex. Attacking complexity is not the path to a better world.

Science is an evolving dialogue, in which new conclusions are constantly modifying old ones. Newton wasn't wrong about how motion changes with time, but Einstein took his ideas to the next level when he showed how mass bends spacetime. When back in the Seventies, Irven DeVore and Robert Trivers launched the field of sociobiology--which sought to find biological bases for human behavior--critics quite rightly raised the specters of Social Darwinism and Nazi eugenics, both of which invoked biological science as justification for policies that ranged from abandonment of the poor, denying rights to women and many other people, forced sterilization, and systematic genocide.

But as sociobiology branched off into evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology, researchers discovered some things about human beings that directly contradicted the specious, self-serving assumptions of the Social Darwinists. Scientists like Johnathan Haidt, Leda Cosmides, Marc D. Hauser, and many others have found that human beings appear to be hardwired for compassion, altruism, cooperation, and so on. Biology might indeed be destiny, but it's a provisional, sanguine kind of destiny that doesn't automatically lead to pessimistic or destructive views of humanity. Above all, a great deal of new science is demonstrating the degree to which we humans are tough, adaptable little monkeys, defined right down to our neurons by a capacity for continuous growth and evolution.

Whenever we read about some new study about parents and children, men and women, we should remember how searching and tenuous the science is, and refrain from sweeping generalizations that might contradict our deepest moral instincts. We can't ever know where our questions will lead, but we can't be afraid to ask them.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Children and choice

By Chip -- Last week the website flagged an article and discussion in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper about their "Motherhood Manifesto," which argues for, among other things, quality childcare, universal health insurance for children, and other public policies to support children and their parents.

The article attracted an interesting discussion at the paper's website, including criticisms of the notion that society should provide anything to parents and children. The argument was that having kids is a choice: "Why should I have to pay for your choice?"

The most common response, including the main response from, was a kind of utilitarian logic, that kids are the future of our society, and these policies are "an investment" in the future:
Some Seattle PI readers are calling policies like healthcare for all kids, access to childcare, and paid family leave, "More special rights just for making a CHOICE...." The "choice" being to have children. This type of thinking glosses over an essential fact that children are an investment every society must make; otherwise there won't be a future at all for that society (we'd go extinct!).
But I don't think we should have to justify societal support for children by focusing on their future benefits to individuals or to society as a whole, because doing so opens up a bunch of questions along these lines: are those kids who are destined to go on to be more "productive" more worthy of support than others?

This kind of utilitarian calculation is a slippery slope, and ignores a much more basic and fundamental reason to support kids and their parents.

For me the more compelling argument is that children are human beings who did not themselves choose to come into this world. If we are a society that claims to be civilized, we owe these helpless humans some basic things.

We as a society don't say that disabled adults who are unable to contribute to the economy should just fend for themselves, and that if their families are unable or unwilling to do so, that's just tough luck.

So when it comes to children, I think the most convincing argument is just this: not that they are future economic producers, or that they are "the future of society," but that they are human beings, regardless of what their parents did or did not do, who their parents are, how "irresponsible" they are, which choices they made or did not make. These kids are not themselves responsible for their situation.

That's the most important reason to provide universal health care, quality day care, decent public education, and other "benefits" -- or rather, minimum basic standards -- to all children. That's why these things, far from being "benefits," should actually be seen as basic rights.

Looked at through this lense, those who are whining about "having to support other peoples' kids" should consider that this is about basic standards of decency: how a society treats its most vulnerable.

But even granted this, why should parents, people who "choose" to have children, get "benefits"?

Our society has decided that families are the main support group for children. Part of the way we assure these basic standards for children is therefore by providing support not just directly to the children, but to their families as well.

Through this lense, the question then becomes, what is the best way for us as a society to ensure basic standards of decency to all children? And part of the answer is to provide resources and support to their families.

I think that few people would whine and complain about the fact that parents of severely disabled adults are the beneficiaries of government programs to help them care for their adult child.

So I see it as a very sad commentary on the state of human decency in this country that anyone would be so grudging about providing minimum standards of decency to the most helpless members of our society, our children.

On Edit 12/20: A similar discussion is going on in reaction to two blog posts by Joan Blades of over at the Huffington Post: Should Societies Support Mothers Raising Children, and Indiscriminate Breeders!?!.

Cross-posted at Daddychip2

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Assumption vs. Assumption

Recently I was swapping emails with a group of feminist activists I've known for 15 years. We were talking about progressive family policy.

At some point in the dialogue, I realized that we were starting from two very different assumptions. Theirs was that progressives should fight first and foremost for daycare and preschool, so that mothers could go to work and pursue worldly ambitions.

I couldn't help but feel that my friends saw kids as a burden that public policy should strive to alleviate, shades of Linda Hirshman. And until, oh, about 29 months ago, I pretty much shared their assumption and priorities.

Before Liko was born, we figured that after six months my wife would go back to work and we'd engage some form of childcare. Wrong. Liko didn't want his parents to go to work. This might have been a problem, except that we agreed with him. We didn't want strangers to take care of our son. We didn't think it was best for him or for us.

And so we changed our lives, in various ways I have documented here at Daddy Dialectic. Since then I have thought a great deal about our caregiving impulse and its relationship to our values, and what it might mean for the family policies I'd support as a parent.

Just to be clear: Childcare and preschool are good. High-quality childcare should, like health care, be available to anyone who wants and needs it. Moreover, I believe that daycare and preschool should be guaranteed and heavily regulated by government. It's a matter of equity as well as economic development. More women (and men) in the workforce is good for the economy.

Good for the economy, but is it good for children? Is it necessarily a good thing for all mothers and all fathers to march off to work every morning? There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that answer no to these questions; taken together, they suggest that parents working outside the home too much, too early in a child's life is bad for the kid as well as the parents.

Numerous studies, writes Jane Waldfogel in her new book What Children Need, indicate that "Children whose mothers work long hours in the first year of life or children who spend long hours in child care in the first several years of life have more behavioral problems...Children do tend to do worse [in health, cognitive development and emotional well-being] if their mothers work full-time." The effects of paternal employment have hardly been studied; social science firmly places the burdens and joys of caregiving on moms.

Does this mean that conservatives are right? Are working moms guilty of neglect and responsible for America's social ills? Emphatically: no. First of all, we need more men to contribute more to taking care of kids: there's no evidence at all that dad can't do it just as well as mom.

We need to be careful in interpreting these results [writes Waldfogel], given that in nearly all cases studied the fathers were either working full-time themselves or were not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time or a lone mother working full-time. And so their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother.

Second, the studies also show that parental sensitivity and responsiveness "is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development--more important than parental employment."

Third, we need genuinely family-friendly policies that respect parents' choices and will allow parents of any gender to stay at home as much as possible with their kids for at least the first year. To my mind, this needs to be the progressive policy priority. The shape of such policies is well-known and widely implemented outside of the US, consisting of paid parental leave and wage replacement, job and legal protections, guaranteed health care, requiring employers to consider requests for part-time work, etc. As usual, the social democracies of Scandinavia set the standard. As usual, the United States looks like it watches too much Fox News.

It should be acknowledged that support for parents to stay home can help keep parents out of the workforce or inhibit career growth. There are solutions to this problem. Sweden combines support for parents to stay home with comprehensive daycare and preschool programs for when they go back to work, with good results. But I don't want to move to Sweden. It's too damn cold.