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What's in our genes?

This month's theme for the Scientiae Carnival is "Unleash", and I've been thinking about it in personal terms, not necessarily in FairerScience terms. But then I read, Boys like blue, girls like pink - it's in our genes and I decided that what I'd really like to do for the carnival is unleash some scorn.

Oh, sure, I know, there's no challenge in unleashing scorn on media coverage of this sort of thing, but, come on. How can I resist?

In this month's Current Biology, Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling's article, Biological components of sex differences in color preference.

Now, I don't even have to read beyond the titles of these pieces to know where some of the problems I'm going to have are. First, to say that there are biological components in color preferences is not to say, for example, that the only thing in play is genetics. Second, there's more to biology than genes. That is, my genes my predispose me to be a certain height, but the nutrition I receive as a child has a major influence on how tall I become. Is nutrition a matter of nature (it's how my biological makeup reacts to available resources) or nurture (because it's about my environment)? Maybe my genes predispose me to prefer colors for which I receive social encouragement in liking.

Of course, thanks to Annalee Newitz and her excellent AAAS presentation last February, we know that journalists are encouraged to read and report scientific results in the most attention-grabbing ways. And that's another thing about which I could unleash a certain amount of scorn.

I could go on into a critique of the article as a whole, or some of the questions the study raises, but I don't have that much space, so instead, I'll invite you to unleash your thoughts, either on this specific case of a study and the reporting about it, or on the phenomenon in general.


For an interesting discussion about what we know and don't know about sex differences in STEM, please see the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a publication of APS (volume 8, number 1, August 2007), "The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics." Written by a diverse, and often disagreeing, group of psychologists, the volume offers no easy answers or simple conclusions, as the editor, Susan Barnett, writes in the editorial preface. But given that the authors don't necessarily always agree, the volume itself represents not just a compromise, but a clear statement about what it is we actually do know that might serve as "a bedrock of knowledge upon which to build." Cognition, variations in ability within genders, evolution, brain structure, and socio-cultural influences are all discussed. I haven't read the entire volume yet, but it seems like an interesting and important primer for those of us wanting to speak about what we exactly do and do not know about sex differences.

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