Nature vs Nurture

I always recommend this book to people trying to sort out nature vs. nuture where it comes to gendered behaviors and traits: Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

I wound up nonbinary, though I didn’t put a label on it until I was 40. In childhood play I often put myself in female roles – a tendency that wasn’t particularly encouraged by my parents (e.g. “you’re a boy, and mermaids are girls”), but I did it anyway, at least until I was old enough to socialize with other kids – which I think is what really has the most impact. (I returned to it later when computer RPGs were available.) My favorite toy when I was very young was a wheeled horse I could ride on, but as I outgrew that it was cars and spaceships and building toys. I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Into my teen years and beyond I was never into sports of any kind, but did enjoy offroading on a motorcycle or go-kart and still loved Lego.

Generally, I’m inclined to believe that nature gives a small push toward particular tendencies and nurture is the major factor – and that parenting is probably less influential than most people think, but media and peers and school are more so. But nothing really socializes you intentionally into a nonbinary gender identity.

In conclusion, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Can you tell us what makes one thing or another “male or female”? Why do girls “naturally” gravitate to dolls and kitchens? How are dolls and kitchens natural in any way?

This is not to say that there are not differences, but how can we understand something that is clearly historically new (in the grand scheme of things) “natural”?

I think that might sum things up quite accurately! Thanks! :wink:


On one level, there is some plausibility to the idea that there could be an instinct to care for infants that is stronger for women. It’s something you see in other animals, and we are animals with instincts. On the other hand, there is much less difference between the sexes in humans than many other species, and men are perfectly capable of caring for infants while some women don’t have a particularly strong instinct in that way. I think encouraging nurturing, socialising and empathetic behaviour is good for both genders, whether this is done with dolls, pets or in some other way. The same goes for encouraging creativity, ambition, critical thought etc. They aren’t mutually exclusive and reinforcing one kind while excluding others is unnecessary and harmful.

As for kitchens or other “female” interests, men have generally been fine with claiming that they are better at those things when there’s a salary and social status at stake!


And those differences are completely and utterly irrelevant once you factor in our individual differences and our ability/willingness to adapt to new roles.

I was a single dad at 21 and I shifted gears pretty quickly and it wasn’t even slightly difficult for me, while my ex was honestly a horrifying parent (otherwise I wouldn’t have had an 18 month old girl thrust in my arms by child services, there’s definitely still sexism from a ‘who should parent the kidlets’ standpoint)

Our individual natures can be worth discussing, but creating some broad gender based nature line is amazingly out of touch with reality


My gut reaction would be that it might have to do with the perception that one hobby is aggressive while another hobby is more nurturing. Probably explains why even vervet monkeys who have no such thing as “culture” or “society” gravitate towards certain objects. That same study I linked also refers to another study where 3 month old boys showed a greater preference for ball toys over any other type, and it had nothing to do with behavioral association (they didn’t see the balls as being linked with rough play or any other “masculine” traits).

The weird thing is, if I linked studies on digit ratios everyone here would probably be nodding their heads and going, “Oh yeah, sure. Nature is definitely at work there.” Lesbians tend to have lower digit ratios than heterosexual women, under the assumption that they were introduced to more androgens in the womb and thus have a higher chance of being gay once they reach sexual maturity. This information is openly received without the slightest bit of controversy, but suddenly when you talk about differences between the sexes, it’s received with skeptical squints.

I write a lot about videogames so I’ll use videogames as an example.

Adrian Chmielarz had a two-part series of articles about women in games. One of the big talking points about women in games is obviously representation, and for good reason. Things are a lot better now than 5 years ago but female and POC characters in games are severely lacking. However, one of the claims being made is that certain videogame genres don’t have a lot of female players because the representation is lacking.

Well, Bioware work their ass off to make Mass Effect as egalitarian as possible. They put a reversible FemShep cover for Mass Effect 3, completely unprecedented for customizable RPGs, and even made a FemShep version of the ME3 launch trailer. The latest Mass Effect: Andromeda trailer features FemShep’s voice and only FemShep’s voice, which suggests that FemShep might even be the canon version of Commander Shepherd.

All this and only 14% of ME’s players are women. An impressive percentage when compared to other titles in the genre, and no doubt thanks to its push for female representation, but still peanuts compared to the men playing.

And then there’s Professor Layton and the Curious Village for the Nintendo DS, which stars a male protagonist. 51% of Professor Layton players are women.

More women read literary fiction than men but more men read sci-fi than women. Why? I’d say the dominating factor isn’t the writers but rather the genres involved. Speaking from anecdotal experience, I knew way more dudes who read Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler than I knew girls who read those writers. I know way more women who read Junot Diaz and Chang-Rae Lee than I knew men who read those writers. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Chang-Rae Lee’s audience consists primarily of white women, even though he is writing specifically from a Korean American male perspective.

Is there social engineering involved here? Of course there is. You can’t escape culture and upbringing. However, when extremely well-made titles starring great female protagonists like Beyond Good and Evil and the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot still have overwhelming male fan bases, how much of that can you really ascribe to culture? Both those games heavily marketed three-dimensional female protagonists as selling points. Both of them also passed the Bechdel test with flying colors. They don’t even feature romances so the female stars of those games are never defined in comparison to the men they interact with.

But games like Professor Layton and Mystery Case Files, which do not spend any targeted advertising money on women, feature overwhelming female player bases. Why is that? Are there really parents out there who tell their little girls they can’t play anything but puzzle and mystery games?

And as I said before, none of this is to say that I believe X genre is strictly for men and Y genre is strictly for women. Nor does it mean that I don’t think there shouldn’t be more female characters in action games. I specifically used Beyond Good and Evil because it’s in my Top 5 of favorite all-time games and Tomb Raider was my personal GOTY in 2013.

Anyway, those’re my two cents.


Which is not what I was saying… Obviously, having a uterus means I can do different things with my body than a man can. That’s not nothing. But I’m in no way arguing for any kind of social gender sentimentalism. I pretty much reject that flat out.


Yup, I was agreeing with you, just adding a few components to the argument.

I also reject the concept flat out, there’s too much individual variance to make any of these lines anything other than silly.

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Err, most of it?

Tomb Raider is an action game about a hot chick who has tons of nude mods about her, has been put forth as a sex symbol, and has very little emotional complexity and nuance. Beyond Good and Evil is better, but it’s weird to expect it to appeal to a female audience based upon a marketing impetus about them being ‘3-D female protagonists’ or both ‘passing the Bechdel test with flying colors’.

The Bechdel test is only a test for when something failed horribly, not for success.


… which is why the 2013 reboot was booted specifically to subvert all those tropes. If you haven’t played the 2013 reboot, I highly suggest you do. It was actually praised for how well-written it was. Square Enix even handpicked Rhianna Pratchett for the job because she’s a great writer who has a solid track record of making excellent female protagonists.

Still, the game struggled to make sales with women, even though they were a key ad demographic. Same with Beyond Good and Evil, Mass Effect 3, and even Life is Strange.

Games like Mirror’s Edge, TR 2013, and the Mass Effect series were met with resoundingly positive reviews of women. Same with Dragon Age: Inquisition. In fact, the majority of major characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition are made up of women, yet another completely unprecedented feat in RPGs set by Bioware. This is because the game revolves around a religious organization called the Chantry, the dominant religion in the game’s universe. Chantry dogma decrees that only women can become priests and hold positions of leadership, so by the time Dragon Age: Inquisition rolled around, all the major figures were women.

And the characters are excellently written across a broad, humanizing spectrum. This was done with a very specific commitment to make the genre more appealing to women, as the senior writer David Gaider said. David himself is a gay man. However, despite this massive push, the majority of that audience still remains male.

But why is this? Women punch in at 52% of the gaming audience, meaning more women actually play games then men, and yet female gamers tend to gravitate towards certain genres. It’s most definitely not an access problem. 38% of console gamers and 43% of PC gamers are women, so why isn’t it reflected in action titles that are busting their asses trying to invite women in? The developers making action games with women front and center are actually taking a financial risk doing so.

Meanwhile, there are titles like Professor Layton with no emotional resonance, no real drama to speak of, and no particular emphasis on female characters have majority female fan bases, even though Level-5 didn’t spend a single dime of ad or market money on women. Those guys are probably still scratching their heads wondering why on Earth their game is more popular with women than men when the audience they were gunning for was young boys.

Take a look at the male-female ratio of popular game franchises in the past 15 years. You’ll notice a specific trend: the puzzle and adventure-oriented games have way more women playing them, and as the game franchises get more action-based, the disparity shifts to being male-dominated.

And I’ll make yet another return to literary fiction: why is it that most readers of literary fiction are women, even though it’s still a pretty male-dominated space? Sherman Alexie talks about this all the time. He’s an American Indian writer whose focuses on the harsh realities of reservation life and the relationships between sons and their fathers. His protagonists are all male. The dramatis personae of his books are overwhelmingly male. Yet at any given poetry or fiction reading, 70% or more of his audience will be white women.

This is true for every writer working in literary fiction whether they’re female, gay, Latino, straight, Asian, male, 30 years old, 50 years old, whatever. Junot Diaz writes about Dominicanos growing up in the hood and experiences the exact same thing: the bulk of his readership is women.

Why? I mean both men are self-proclaimed feminists but they don’t feature women that prominently in their books and their books don’t even deal with traditionally “female” themes so I don’t think the conditioning excuse of girls being pushed to like “girly” books doesn’t apply here.

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Well, yeah! Look at the free sample in @crashproof’s link – this is a topic with centuries of confident pronouncements, often given biological justification, that in retrospect were just mores of that time and place. It shows how easily people have mistaken those for universals, and knowing that very common pitfall here, it would be foolish to do anything but exercise special caution about it.

And in truth, such skepticism should and does apply to other supposed differences too. You say information about digit ratios is received without controversy, but there’s a reason the wikipedia article you link gives a full dozen citations to support it.


I don’t see why you’re thinking that a large corporate marketing effort somehow creates the expectation upon a subset of the population to purchase their product.

That’s weird.

It also doesn’t support any biological argument towards differences when people spend their entire lives in societies which are largely sexist by nature.

Again, our individual differences overwhelm our biological ones in the real world


Then we should be equally receptive to the ton of research that’s been done on engaging female gamers. King spent $115 million in 2013 alone on R&D, much of it devoted to finding out why their games have overwhelmingly female fan bases.

Here are some quotes from Adrian Chmielarz’s article, Women and Video Games:

Examiner: […] was there a conscious effort to make games that would interest women?

JH: It wasn’t a focus on female gamers as much as a focus on gamers who liked more puzzle solving and adventure. As the company evolved the style of game, the core audience just worked out to be more skewed toward females.

Interview with Jeff Haynie of Big Fish Games, whose audience is overwhelmingly female. There was zero concerted effort to reach out to women. It simply happened that way.

To share an example (but one that’s not a trade secret), we came across a study that explored how women and men differ in regards to finding objects in cluttered environments. This is the perennial example of a man standing in front of the fridge asking “where is the ketchup” while his wife at the kitchen counter can see it from six feet away. It is an interesting finding when we consider how it has impacted the games industry.

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch of Silicon Sisters.

Women also have the best sense of how other women want the product to look. Because the design and the general appearance of a game are the first things users notice, getting the look right is essential. Even though the number of men and women in the art department is roughly equal, Tatyana Bunda, the head of the department, gets the final say. “My word is always a deciding vote,” she says. “It means I can always insist on any idea, though it is always interesting to know how the men imagine the things that will seem lovely in the woman’s eyes.”

Valeriya Malleyeva of Absolutist.

Men generally prefer gameplay that involves direct competition and combat. Conversely, women seem to react much better to indirect competition or peer pressure. They don’t need to be the alpha of the pack, but they want to level-up to the same standing as their peers. These equations best illustrate the dynamics of men vs. women:
• Men > Men
• Women ≥ Women

It goes without saying that the casual female market is attracted to games that look, well, pretty. The retail industry knows this, and makes this a top priority. Publishers of games developed for this demographic must also remember that the “window shopping” mentality is very well ingrained with women, and making games look pretty is as important as making them fun to play.

Linny Cendana of Room Candy Games.

You’ll notice that most of the people chiming in there are female game developers.[quote=“William_Holz, post:32, topic:71091”]
I don’t see why you’re thinking that a large corporate marketing effort somehow creates the expectation upon a subset of the population to purchase their product.

That’s weird

Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point but that’s kind of the point of marketing, yeah? What would be the nurture explanation of why women gravitate towards certain genres of games while titles in traditionally male-dominated genres like action games struggle to gain inroads with female gamers?

Then by nurture, what is it about the individual differences in women that cause them to be the bulk of literary fiction readers, even of authors that don’t write about female themes at all?

Because we know a tremendous amount of our behavior is learned, including some gender differences that were previously assumed to be nature, nurture makes a good null hypothesis. I disagree that it’s so thoughtlessly prevalent, though. People casually assume otherwise all the time, and there are certainly enough researchers looking into what’s actually the case. The problem is that actual sex differences are usually hard to establish properly because there’s so much other variation.

No, seriously, because those are looking at video game sales. That’s not because they aren’t of interest, but because it’s a useless approach to this particular topic.

If anyone actually cares to investigate how much behavior is driven by underlying biology rather than learning, the first thing to do is to try to control for the effects of mores, culture, and shared heritage. A study about a specific medium of industrial cultures with very strong connections is a non-starter. You talk about what some very recent video games are starting to try, but the whole field has had less than a lifetime to diversify and for people to form new attitudes toward.

How is that supposed to tell us about anything broader than our society and generation? Without other work the only reason I can see for connecting video game preferences to biology rather than their particular milieu is if you assume they should reflect innate differences, and like I said, that kind of assumption has a poor track record.


The point of marketing is to sell to audiences, yes…but there’s no reason to assume that there’s some inherent non-nurture-based gender bias because those impetuses are unsuccessful for audiences that are old enough to have ‘nurture’ be a significant factor.

Given how completely different the attitudes of many non-western non-capitalistic cultures (here’s some examples for you) are and how different the roles of women and men are, it’s hard to see a reason to attribute a marketing issue to a genetic gender variance.

We can’t even begin to say right now with western society as complex and inherently unequal as it is. We don’t have a counter-example of a society that’s sexist in the opposite direction that also has a capitalistic system of distributing written works that requires a certain degree of success to be profitable in its own right.

I’m saying that without that it’s reckless to even pretend that ‘nature’ is more important than ‘nurture’ in any but very individual ways with the full scope of that individual’s context incorporated…and when you start incorporating other non-Western examples and their various gender differences, which often don’t exist in the same ways or even are reversed, it means that concept has the opposite of support.

Basically, we’re not bugs, and evidence says that ‘nurture’ is far more powerful than ‘nature’ when it comes to what a person actually is.


Though as I’m sure you know, nurture occasionally matters a lot in bugs too. :wink:

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True, sometimes they can develop a lot of personality!

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