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Arise E-Newsletter


Male-Female Complementarity? (Part 1)

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Gender & Grace, My Brother's Keeper, and A Sword Between the Sexes?

This column is an excerpt from her paper, "What Do We Mean by 'Male-Female Complementarity'?" given at the 2004 Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting. The column is published with permission and will appear in three parts over the next few weeks.


Egalitarians are often accused of sliding down the slippery slope of "soft androgyny"—the view that claims virtually no differences exist (or should exist) between males and females other than the most obvious anatomical and physiological ones. But, what do we mean by male and female complementarity? From a theological standpoint, like all other human activities, gender relations reflect a mix of good creation and tragic fallenness. It is challenging to sort out what’s creational and good from what’s fallen. Moreover, if gender complementarity somehow mirrors the relationship of members of the Trinity as they work together in creation and redemption (a point on which both sides in the debate seem to agree), then it is probably not going to be any easier to fully describe than the Trinity itself.

However, as unwitting children of the Enlightenment, we seem to have a Tower of Babel-like craving for absolute certainty. And so both sides in the debate recruit biologists and social scientists as latter-day natural theologians who are supposed to help close the theological gaps by telling us, from a "scientific" perspective, what gender complementarity "really is." Thus, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) has chapters on biology, psychology and sociology, and Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) has chapters written or co-written by therapists, a sociologist, and an academic psychologist. But as an academic psychologist and gender studies scholar who did not contribute to either volume, I am now going to try to explain (not for the first time) why this is a misguided exercise. My basic points are these:

1) Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature/nurture debate regarding gendered psychological traits or behaviors in humans, let alone pronounce on whether any of these should be retained or rejected. In a fallen world—however good it remains creationally—we cannot move from "is" to "ought" on the basis of science alone.

2) There are very few consistent sex differences in psychological traits and behaviors. When these are found, they are always average—not absolute—differences, and for the vast majority of them the small, average—and often decreasing—difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the "bell curves" for women and men (graphing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naïve at best—and deceptive at worst—to make essentialist (or even generalist) pronouncements about the psychology of either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on most of the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.

3) To adapt one of Freud’s famous dictums, we cannot assume that anatomy is destiny until we have controlled for opportunity. Thus, even when appeals are made to large cross-cultural studies that have found "consistent" behavioral and/or attitudinal sex differences, we cannot assume universality for those conclusions until we have controlled for the existence of differing opportunities by gender across the various cultures.

This week, I will address the first of these three points in more detail.

Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature/nurture controversy regarding gendered psychological traits and behaviors in humans:

The crucial terms here are the words "human" and "psychological traits and behaviors." First of all, we should not be surprised that, given our creational overlap with all other living organisms (strikingly shown in the various genome projects that are underway) much can be learned about the structure, function, and healing of the human body from animal research models. But without doubt the most salient biological feature of human beings is the plasticity of their brains. The legacy of a large cerebral cortex puts us on a much looser behavioral leash than other animals, with the result that, more than any other species, we are created for continuous learning—for passing on what we have produced culturally, not just what we have been programmed to do genetically. We are, as it were, hard-wired for behavioral flexibility.

Indeed, how could we carry out the cultural mandate to “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28) as God’s accountable regents if this were not so? And at the other end of the biblical drama, how could we “bring the honor and glory of nations”—however suitably cleansed—before God (Rev. 21:26) if all the people of all the nations had no more freedom within their common biological form than that which exists in even our closest primate neighbors? And in between, what would be the point of reading and taking to heart Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-20)?

Ah yes, some will say, but the biological and social sciences have shown us that men and women have clearly different talents, and that these are rooted in biology. Really? Well, let us ask what we have to be able to do in order to conclude that biological sex clearly causes even a small, average behavioral or psychological difference between human males and females. First, we would have to be able to manipulate sex as an independent, experimental variable—that is, randomly assign people to be born with an XX or an XY pair of chromosomes apart from all the other genetic baggage they come with. Clearly we cannot do this: babies come to us as genetic "package deals"—who, we should remember, have also had non-random environments for nine months prior to birth.

Well then, perhaps we could take advantage of that marvelous natural experiment known as identical twins, each pair of whom have the same genes, have shared the same uterus, and have been shown to stay pretty similar on many behavioral and psychological measures even when raised in different environments. Surely that says something about the power of biology? Yes, it does—although not as much as you might think—but it explains nothing about the origins of gender differences, because identical twins are always of the same sex.

Well then, perhaps we could randomly assign members of a mixed-sex group of infants to be raised as boys or as girls after they’re born, and see just how much they remain stubbornly "masculine" or "feminine" despite being raised as members of the other sex. But aside from the fact that this comes close to the sort of science that was done in Nazi Germany, but repudiated in our own society, it wouldn’t even begin to approximate a double-blind experiment—of the sort we use, for example, to test the effectiveness of new medicines—because the cat would be out of the bag (so to speak) as soon as the babies’ caretakers began changing their diapers. And even if we could unambiguously ascertain that boys (for example) are hard-wired to be aggressive, or girls are hard-wired to gossip a lot, this would tell us nothing about the desirability of either state of affairs. In a fallen world, we cannot automatically assume that what seems "natural" is thereby desirable by the standards of God’s kingdom. This is a point repeatedly and cogently made by psychologist Cynthia Neal Kimble in chapter 27 of DBE.

So it is impossible to disentangle biological sex from the other genetic and environmental forces in which it always remains embedded, and with which it constantly interacts. This means that the two essential conditions for inferring cause and effect—the manipulation of one factor (sex) and the control of other (biological and environmental) factors—cannot be met. Consequently, “all data on sex differences, no matter what research method is used, are correlational data,” and as every introductory social science student learns, you cannot draw conclusions about causality from merely correlational data. “[I]n that sense, it is more accurate to speak of ‘sex-related’ differences than of sex [caused] differences.” So let us be very clear: when we read about a study—experimental or correlational—that describes an obtained, average sex difference of such-and-such a magnitude, that’s all it is: a description of the results of a study done in one particular place and time with a particular sample of persons, but unable (even experimentally) to disentangle nature from nurture. It is a description—not an explanation about the origins of any obtained sex differences.

Don't forget to check out Part 2 and Part 3 of Mary’s column.