Blogs > Liberty and Power > It's Only Natural

Feb 1, 2005 2:28 am


It's Only Natural



Ready for a challenge to your preconceptions? Try this one.
I’m a cartoonist, so naturally I pay attention to comics. So I know from long experience, it’s hard to have a discussion of why the overwhelming majority of comic book readers are boys without someone suggesting that boys are biologically more visually-oriented. Since girls are language-oriented, it’s only natural that girls prefer reading prose, and boys like comic books more. It’s often suggested that folks who think that social factors are why so few girls read comic books are ignoring science in the name of feminist ideology.

Stop here. Before you continue, ask yourself if the biological explanation for why (on average) boys and not girls read comics rings true to you.

Because the truth is, I should have put the paragraph about comics in the past tense. Today, the majority of young comic book readers are girls - by far the best-selling comic books in the USA are manga (translated Japanese comics), which are read mostly by girls.
Go read the whole thing. I don't doubt that there are innate differences between the sexes in many areas, but it troubles me that so many are so eager to claim that they do so much, particularly when the actual science runs far behind their speculations. (See P Z Meyers on this one, and while you're at it, read his take on the Iraq elections.)

I am reminded of two episodes in the history of science.

First, the philosopher René Descartes saw vortices in everything, including stars, wind, and even the then-puzzling phenomenon of continuous motion through space."Shouldn't stuff just stop when a force isn't acting on it?" asked the leading philosophical lights of the day. In response, Descartes declared that his vortices held fired projectiles, and planets, aloft.

While the mathematics behind the vortex actually was quite cutting-edge at the time, the vortices themselves ended up doing a great deal less than Descartes imagined. It's actually painful to read some of his treatises on science today, particularly when he talks about the circulation of blood and tries, weakly, to relate it to his theory of vortices.

DNA may well be the Cartesian vortex of our time: It is appealing precisely because we do not quite understand it; our incomprehension allows us to write whatever we wish upon the poorly-understood but probably legitimate phenomenon, and call it science. Unfortunately, these examples are best seen in hindsight, leaving us to guess at the limits of our prejudices today.

Because this is a history blog, let me share another example, this one a lot more dubious--and closer to home..

In the eighteenth century, it was believed (for a time, anyway) that women were more susceptible than men to the subtle influences of animal magnetism. Women's bodies more easily picked up peculiar emanations of subtle magnetic fluid because their emotions were more finely tuned than those of men.

Hey, it made perfect sense to Parisians in the 1780s.

The trouble was of course that animal magnetism was perfectly false and likely fraudulent. No, nothing that transpired at Harvard--or even in the manga industry--seems at all fraudulent. We should beware, though, when an idea fits our preconceived notions a little too perfectly, or when a scientific theory seems to explain too much.

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