I am, however, thankful for his acknowledgement that this conflict reduces to a question about empirical evidence which he, more than most, has been willing to discuss. We agree that his burden is to show that Harris’ original comments are, as all that upon which bigotry is ultimately founded, unwarranted or false. Today, I will again focus mainly, though not exclusively, on the seminal work of Janet S. Hyde, PhD, who coined the “gender similarities hypothesis” in her detailed meta-analysis of over 20 years of psychological studies that showed that the genders are much less different than we think. This is Hornbeck’s defiant position and he would have us believe that it is incompatible with Dr. Harris’ remarks.
But is that really the case?
There is a clear gender difference in (even non-physical) aggression
Hornbeck has been correct to point out that the gender difference related to physical aggression is greatest, but the problem for him is that it just doesn’t follow that there are no relevant differences in non-physical aggression.
Table 1 in Dr. Hyde’s study (reproduced in part above) provides information from 5 different meta-analyses of aggression between the genders. Every single one of those studies found that males were more verbally (or otherwise non-physically) aggressive than females, with the magnitude of that difference overwhelmingly ranging from small to moderate (values in the right column from 0.11-0.65)*. Hyde analyzed 6 studies concluding that males were moderately more verbally aggressive. Eagly and Steffen analyzed 20 studies concluding that males were mildly more psychologically (as opposed to physically) aggressive. Knight analyzed over 50 studies concluding that males showed moderately more verbal aggression and aggression in a variety of emotional arousal contexts. Bettencourt & Miller analyzed over 50 studies concluding that males were moderately more aggressive under both neutral and provocative conditions. Archer analyzed almost 100 studies concluding that verbal aggression had a mild to moderate male predominance.
Consider this data from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Hornbeck does not challenge Hyde’s finding of large and moderate sized gender differences in physical prowess and physical aggression. But ask yourself, why would evolution build males this costly way and not provide them with psychological inclinations (that can be amplified by sociocultural influences) towards aggressive conflict? We simply should not be surprised that small to moderate differences between the genders in non-physical aggression shine through reams of data.
Hornbeck equivocates that because this gender difference isn't large, non-physical aggression "doesn't have much of a gender divide"[emphasis is mine], but as numerous investigators have shown over and over, the notion that males are, on average, mild-moderately more aggressive, including more aggressive in non-physical ways than females, seems unopen to dispute. And if you think that small-to-moderate effect sizes just can't be relevant in the real world, I encourage you to read Dr. Hyde's discussion on that topic in her paper^.
But there is more with which Hornbeck must contend ...
What about nurturing?
Ironically, Hornbeck claims that I’m “equivocating between aggression and not nurturing”, but this is a red herring. I wonder if what he really meant was that I’ve been conflating being aggressive with being less nurturing. Doing so is not as inappropriate as it may at first seem because these two personality variables lie in contrast to each other. Aggression is about attack, and hence, is offensive in posture, while nurturing is more about fostering and protecting, which is more defensive. Just as evidence that men are taller is relevant if one believes that women are shorter, evidence that males are more aggressive is relevant if one believes that females are more nurturing. And besides, only the most uncharitable reading could lead one to conclude that Harris doesn't weave both concepts into his comments.
But if Hornbeck specifically wants evidence that females are, on average, moderately more nurturing, well, that exists, too. In 2011, Yanna Weisberg, PhD, and colleagues examined personality traits between the genders in a variety of cultural traditions. It is noteworthy that this work was written after Hyde's meta-analysis, so its conclusions regarding both the general state of the evidence and the particular findings of that investigation regarding nurturing are more contemporary. In their introduction, they wrote:
“Gender differences in personality traits are often characterized in terms of which gender has higher scores on that trait, on average. For example, women are often found to be more agreeable than men (Feingold, 1994; Costa et al., 2001). This means that women, on average, are more nurturing, tender-minded, and altruistic more often and to a greater extent than men.”
Weisberg found few surprises relating to nurturing:
“Replicating previous findings, there was a significant gender difference in Agreeableness [ie. being more nurturing, tender-minded, and altruistic] such that women tend to score higher than men, and this pattern was the same for the aspects, Compassion and Politeness, when measured in terms of raw scores or residualized scores. Compassion most clearly represents a tendency to invest in others emotionally and affiliate on an emotional level, encompassing traits such as warmth and empathy. Politeness describes the tendency to show respect to others and refrain from taking advantage of them, and is related to traits such as cooperation and compliance. Our findings that women score higher than men on both aspects are consistent with previous research showing women are more trusting and compliant than men (Costa et al., 2001)" - Weisberg et al 2011
But I found what came towards the end of Dr. Weisberg's paper most striking:
"We would caution against adopting such a dramatic interpretation of the pervasive gender differences in personality that we report in this study. All of the mean differences we found (and all of the differences that have been found in the past – e.g., Feingold, 1994; Costa et al., 2001) are small to moderate. This means that the distributions of traits for men and women are largely overlapping. To illustrate this fact, in Figure 10 [see graph below] we present the male and female distributions from our sample for the trait which showed the largest gender difference, Agreeableness. One can see that both men and women can be found across a similar range of Agreeableness scores, such that, despite the fact that women score higher than men on average, there are many men who are more agreeable than many women, and many women who are less agreeable than many men.” -Weisberg et al 2011
“My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former ... How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes?” – Sam Harris
Harris went out of his way to ensure that his message would not be received as an endorsement of the idea that large, purely innate, psychological gender differences are the only explanation for the entire apparent gender imbalance in question, but this is what his critics would have you believe. To have done so would be to have made sexist remarks, but Harris' suggestion is clearly, and, as usual, more nuanced and sophisticated than the straw men from which his critics have been making much hay of late. He really isn't the sexist pig they're looking for.
The glaring irony here is that it is those who distort Harris' message that spread false and unwarranted claims. His remarks and later his explanation over at his blog convey notions supported by a significant body of literature that, while generally highlighting gender similarities, nevertheless points directly at psychological gender differences related to aggression and nurturing. Accordingly, it is entirely reasonable for Dr. Harris to consider that these real, albeit small to moderate, specific differences may play a relevant role in explaining the apparent gender imbalance in active, North American atheism. Note that the magnitude of the trait differences in studied populations don't have to mimic the magnitude of the apparent male predominance in active atheism. The former must only be large enough that certain contexts may tend to attract more males than females, helping to explain the latter.
I hope that Hornbeck will use his voice on campus and in social media to help remove this ugly and penetrating stain on Dr. Harris' reputation, and encourage others to follow suit.
1. The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist 2005;60:581-92.
2. Gender differences in personality across the ten aspects of the big five. Frontiers in Psychology 2011; 2:178
*Archer found that females may have a greater propensity than men for indirect or relational aggression, which amounts to behaviour such as backbiting and gossiping to harm others by undermining their relationships, though the effect size crossed unity, indicating that in at least one study, males were more inclined towards this type of aggression.
^d values of 0.2-0.6, which seem to be the case for aggression, would be expected, based on Rosenthal's analogy, to result in absolute differences between men and women of 10-25%.