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The Psychology of Sex

Glenn Wilson on Male Genius

I shall begin this discussion of sex differences in ability and achievement in the place where the most striking and controversial gender differences are observed. Virtually all the people throughout history whose achievements are acknowledged as products of undisputed genius have one thing in common. They come from a great variety of geographical, national, social and religious backgrounds, but they are all male. Starting with names like Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, Galton, Shakespeare, Edison, Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Picasso, we might have to fill many pages before the first comparable woman would appear. When we consider the claims of women for inclusion in the list of outstanding accomplishments, their contributions can be seen mostly in the fields of literature (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf), humanitarianism (Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa) or politics (Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir), rather than science, technology music or fine art.

The supremacy of men in the field of scientific achievement can also be seen in the record of Nobel prizes awarded for physics, chemistry and medicine/physiology. Reviewing the background of the 164 recipients of these prizes between 1900 and 1950, Moulin (1955) noted that only three were women and they had all shared prizes with their husbands. The only exception was Madame Curie, who after sharing a prize with husband Pierre was later awarded another one independently. In a follow-up study by Berry (1981), the sex of the recipients was not mentioned at all. Berry describes the national origin, race, personality and social background of prize-winners, even the age at which their father died, but he does not mention whether any were female. When I contacted him for further information he explained there were so few women in his sample he didn’t think them worth mentioning. Apparently there has been no appreciable increase in the number of women receiving Nobel prizes for science in recent years.

In a recently published book on scientific genius, Simonton (1988) discusses every imaginable demographic and personality factor that might be related to scientific brilliance, including such things as age, birth order and persistence, but sex or gender do not appear in his index. Is this because the gender issue is too hot to handle, or are we supposed to assume without inquiry that genius is a purely male phenomenon? Certainly, raising this question in public today is no way to make female friends, but it is surely intellectual cowardice to side-step it in a book specifically about the topic.

Few social learning theorists or feminists, if pressed, would deny the preponderance of male genius, but would proffer an explanation in terms of the limited educational opportunities for women throughout history and general discouragement to achieve outside the realm of motherhood and the home. This explanation seems to be unsatisfactory on a number of counts.

  1. Variations in the social position of women do not seem to be accompanied by any change in the sex ratio of geniuses. For example, despite the increased number of women in science laboratories in the last three or four decades, the outstanding discoveries are still mostly made by men.
  2. Many male geniuses have to override considerable disadvantage in their educational or social background and considerable social or religious opposition before their contributions are recognized. Galileo, despite being old, feeble, and virtually blind, was imprisoned by the Vatican for his heretical support of the heliocentric theory. Michael Faraday was the son of an itinerant tinker, had practically no schooling and could not afford any books. Isaac Newton came from a family of small farmers, was a premature child so puny and weak that he was not expected to live and received a poor education at the local village school. Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin both came from backgrounds of working-class poverty that they capitalized upon in their art. Charles Darwin defied his religious training and risked social ostracism by advocating evolution theory. George Washington Carver emerged from a background of civil war and slavery in Missouri to become one of America’s greatest biological scientists, despite constant hunger, poverty and ill-health and having been denied education because of his colour. Social and educational advantages cannot be held accountable for the achievements of men such as these, so why should disadvantage be invoked to account for the absence of female achievement?
  3. Social learning theory does not adequately explain why a proportion of women do occasionally achieve quite well in certain areas (e.g. literature and politics) but not in others (e.g. science and architecture). Music composition is an interesting case in point, since it is a male-dominated profession despite the fact that girls are given more than equal encouragement to learn music at school and there are many accomplished women performers. British composer Peter Maxwell Davies recalls asking to study music at high school in Manchester and was told very firmly by the headmaster, ‘This is not a girls’ school!’ For hundreds of years European ladies have been expected to sing and play an instrument such as the piano as a social grace, and yet the great composers have without exception been men.

Glenn Wilson, The Great Sex Divide, pp. 97-99. Peter Owen (London) 1989; Scott-Townsend (Washington D.C.) 1992.

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