Sex and Race Might Not Be What You Think: Two Things You Need to Know About Human Nature

05/16/2012 11:13 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2012

Most starting running backs in the NFL are black and most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are white. Men dominate in the economic and political worlds and women excel at child rearing and caring for the home...

These and many other patterns of difference and inequality between sexes and races are just a part of human nature, right?


There are many myths about human nature. Luckily, we have data from across the social and biological sciences that bust some of the worst ones. Two of the most pernicious, and erroneous, myths are about race and sex:

Race: Humans are divided into biological races (black, white, Asian, etc.).

Sex: Men and women are truly different in behavior, desires, and internal wiring.

Why should we care that myths of race and sex are so resilient, in spite of their inaccuracy? Because they matter in our daily lives.

While race is not biology, racism can certainly affect our biology. Racial social structures, from access to health care to one's own racialized self-image, can impact the ways our bodies and immune systems develop. This means that race, while not a biological unit, can have important biological implications and significant societal impacts. So what do we know about human biological diversity?

There is substantial biological variation within and between the thousands of human populations on the planet, but population ≠ race. These patterns of variation are shaped by culture, language, ecology, history, and geography. The vast majority of social and biological scientists recognize that race is not an accurate or productive way to describe modern human biological variation. However, race in the USA is a cultural construct that affects our social realities, and racial inequality (racism) can affect individuals' biology.

There are no genetic sequences ("genes") unique to blacks or whites or Asians. There is more genetic variation in populations from the continent of Africa than exists in ALL populations from outside of Africa (the rest of the world) combined! There is no neurological patterning that distinguishes races from one another, nor are there patterns in muscle development and structure, digestive tracts, hand-eye coordination, or any other such measures. Dark or light skin tells us only about a person's amount of ancestry relative to the equator, not anything about the specific population(s) they might be descended from.

There is not a single biological element unique to any of the groups we call white, black, Asian, Latino, etc.... In fact, no matter how hard people try, there has never been a successful scientific way to justify any biological classification of human races. This is not to say that humans don't vary biologically, we do, a lot. But rather, that the variation is not distributed as "races."

There is no inherently biological reason that most starting running backs in the NFL are black or most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are white. Nor is there a "natural" explanation for why race relations are often difficult, but there are lots of interesting social, political, psychological, and historical ones. Solutions to racial inequalities and the problems of race relations in the USA are not going to emerge as long as a large percentage of the public holds on to the myth of biological races.

A similar case can be made for our emphasis on biological sex differences as the key to understanding gender. We all know that men and women do not always see eye to eye. We can have different goals, desires, ideas and actions... sometimes. Other times we are very much in synch. If you actually look at our biology it turns out that men and women are a lot more similar than most realize. Focusing on the similarities (or better put the "overlaps") between males and females can help us towards a better understanding of where behavioral differences (our genders) actually come from.

First, let's acknowledge that there are core differences in biology between males and females. These are important and they do matter... but there are extensive similarities as well. Our hormone systems are the same. They function the same ways and with the same hormones. There are no "male" or "female" hormones, but there is important variation in hormone levels and patterns. Our brains are the same. Aside from the slight size differences and the possibility of some differences in an area called the straight gyrus, there are no reliably and repeatedly demonstrated morphology brain differences between the sexes (but lots between individuals).

Even our genitals are not as different as most think: they emerge from the same mass of embryonic tissue at about 6-7 weeks in utero. This means that physiologically male and female genitals are made of the same stuff and work in similar ways.

Males AND females both have complex sexual lives. Humans form pair bonds, have a lot of sex, and have it in a variety of different ways. Overviews of sexual behavior show a few differences between males and females in sexuality, but men and women have more or less the same amount of sex in the same kinds of ways across the lifespan (remember it does take two to tango).

The strong similarities in male and female bodies and behavior do not mean that gender differences are not real and important, but they do help us understand where to look for explanations of difference. Gender is a powerful cultural construct and the perception and expectation of gender differences impacts individuals and society.

There is no biological or evolutionary mandate that only females can care for young and only males excel in economics and politics. Because they give birth and lactate females are centrally tied to reproduction, but males and females have the same hormonal, neurological, and behavioral ability to care for offspring. Similarities also make us look beyond biology to understand economic and political inequalities between men and women. Patterns of gender difference and the strength of the cultural assumptions about sex fool us into thinking that men and women are substantially more different by nature than they are.

Data and insights from the last century of investigation into what humans actually do and why they do it should not be shoved aside in favor of a myopic view of humanity. We need to make scientifically informed and enlightened decisions about our lives. Ignorance is not bliss, it is just ignorance.

Fuentes, A. (2012) Race, monogamy and other lies they told you: busting myth about human nature. University of California Press

Ian Tattersal and Rob DeSalle (2011) Race? Debunking a scientific myth. Texas A&M University Press

A. Fausto-Sterling (2012) Sex/Gender: biology in a social world. Routledge Press

R.M. Jordan-Young (2010) Brainstorm: the flaws in the science of sex differences. Harvard University Press

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