What Sam Harris Said

Lately I've been working on the gender chapter of my book about parenthood. Because I've been knee deep in the literature about gender differences, I've been intrigued by the recent Sam Harris dust up in the blogosphere.  Michelle Boorstein, a Washington Post reporter, gives this account of an interview she did with Harris at a Center for Inquiry event in DC:
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.
It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
So, angry criticism of bad ideas: intrinsically male.  Nurturing and coherence-building: intrinsically female.  Plus, a tentative explanatory claim: the gender difference "may be" the cause of Harris having more male readers and atheism having more male adherents.

Many feminists in the atheist community think what Harris said was sexist and contemptible. If you look around, you'll see people accusing him of "gender essentialism,"  seeing women as "biologically inferior," and all manner of other screw ups.  One person's response is a simple "fuck you."  The demonizing of Harris says a lot about why feminism has become such a divisive topic among atheists, skeptics, and such. A certain kind of feminist does regard any assertion of intrinsic gender differences as anathema, taboo, sexist, and grounds for dismissal.  But that kind of feminism just isn't compatible with reasoned, science-based inquiry.  The scientific literature does not, just does not, support the idea that all assertions of intrinsic gender differences are beyond the pale, signs of sexism, or taboo.

To see this, you might want to start with the book Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves, by the philosopher Patricia Churchland.  A whole chapter of the book is devoted to arguing that males are more aggressive than females, because of brain differences.  She sums up at the end:
To a first approximation, human males and females display differences in aggressive behavior that are linked to male and female hormones, though these behavioral dispositions can be modulated by the cultural matrix.

Churchland relies heavily on Man and Woman: An Inside Story, by Donald Pfaff, for her account of how hormones create innate differences.  This is a rather technical book that covers a vast amount of research about hormones and fetal development.  Aside from being tough going, it's also quite focused on rat and mouse models.  A more digestible and people-centered book is Brain Gender, by Melissa Hines.  Hines strikes me as a model of restraint, yet she does assert that there are innate brain differences. Again, the claim is that hormones make the difference, causing boys to be (among other things) more inclined to rough and tumble play than girls.  She says the research backing up her picture of brain gender amounts to over a thousand studies.

All that at least shows one respectable position is to assert innate differences, but if you're still not convinced, there's Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, who argues that there are very small but real innate differences between boys and girls.  Note: she's not at all a Louann Brizendine,  one of these "vive la difference" authors who seize upon and exaggerate every difference they can get their hands on. This is cautious, restrained science that finds small differences and only small differences.  Another author of the same character is Janet Hyde, who's very critical of authors like Brizendine, but still does find small differences--as she explains in this talk.  Even an outright feminist and gender social constructionist like Anne Fausto-Sterling acknowledges small innate differences and cites Hyde with approval.  See, for example, her book Sex/Gender.

No discussion of this literature would be complete without a mention of critics like Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of GenderThe subtitle sums up her attitude:  "How our minds, society, and neurosexism create differences."  She does appear to take the ultimate social constructionist position--that all apparent gender differences are created, not found.  By all means, she does an effective job of dismantling "vive la difference" authors like Brizendine and Simon Baron-Cohen (author of The Essential Difference).  Her book includes a very illuminating chapter on how non-innate factors like stereotype threat can create significant differences.  This is definitely a book worth reading, but for my money, it does not undermine all of the research on innate gender differences.  And neither does a second book of the same sort--Brain Storm, by Rebecca Jordan-Young, which does have some compelling chapters and sections.  Both Fine and Jordan-Young are worth reading, but effectively criticized in this review.

All in all, I think people could read the gender differences literature and come away with different conclusions, which is why the science of gender is lively and interesting.  What is really clear, though, is that there's nothing taboo or shocking or offensive or sexist about thinking there are some innate gender differences.  And that brings us back to Sam Harris. As a neuroscience PhD, I imagine he's familiar with some of this literature.  He's right to protest (here) against being accused of sexism for thinking (along with the likes of Patricia Churchland!) that there are some innate differences between men and women.

But let's cut to the chase. Do I entirely agree with what Sam Harris said?  I agree that men are innately a bit more aggressive (on average) and women innately a bit more affiliative (on average).  I'm less sure about Harris's tentative explanatory hypothesis.  It's tricky to say how a set of inborn differences must manifest themselves in the real world.  Supposing women are less aggressive, are we really to believe that they're aggressive enough to be half of law school students, but not aggressive enough to be half of Sam Harris's readers?  That's not all that plausible.  To me it seems as if something else is going on here, something more complicated.  Women can be aggressive enough for doing philosophy and debating religion, but have less room on their "mattering maps" for those activities (to use Rebecca Goldstein's phrase).   But why?  Is it for innate reasons or because culture steers them in certain directions and not others?  I really don't think we know.


s. wallerstein said...

I wouldn't characterize the new atheists just as being "critical" of bad ideas. Lots of people, men and women, are critical of bad ideas, in lots of ways.

What strikes me about the new atheists is their will to domination, their need to crush others in debate, their lack of the principle of charity when debating, their aggressiveness towards those who disagree with them, their need to be "on top", their need to win every point.

Yes, all those characteristics seem definitely male, whether because of culture or for innate reasons.

However, women are be and often are as critical of bad ideas as men are: they do seem to have less "killer instinct" than the overwhelmingly male new atheists.

Tom said...

Ugh, I can't believe that I'm almost defending Sam Harris. But actually, I guess I'm not really. When he says that a certain kind of aggression is "intrinsically" male, I suspect he means what you (and others) take him to mean: something innate, an essential difference between the sexes. On the other hand, maybe he's not good at making fine distinctions (you think?) and he doesn't mean to assert innateness anymore than he does "culturally inculcated." And that might, in fact, be while self-identified atheist groups are so filled with men: they tend to be aggressive and ridiculing, and those characteristics are more treasured by men than by women (at least in our culture). And, as you suggest, this might also partially explain why analytic philosophy has such a hard time getting gender balance.

Jean Kazez said...

I have wondered why he said "intrinsically"--if that means "innately"--since I agree with you that it isn't critical to his point. He could have said women are brought up to be less aggressive and thus feel less attracted to the atheist community. But he did say "intrinsically" and even talked about estrogen...so I think he's alluding to brain differences.

My half-baked mini-theory is that women can be aggressive, but prefer to be aggressive in the service of a collaborative cause. So a female lawyer will aggressively go to bat for a client--no problem! In the philosophy business, we use aggression to shore up our individually preferred theories about obscure things. Aggression in that particular context may be less appealing to women and to men.

Well, maybe!

s. wallerstein said...

Women can be very aggressive if there is a perceived threat or insult to their children or if they're scorned in a love relationship.

However, women in general don't play rugby or American football or box or wrestle. They don't generally seek out combat as sport.

My take on the new atheists is that first of all, they looked for an easy cause to be aggresive about. Religion is great because it's easy to feel both intellectually and morally superior to religion. I can't think of any other cause in which one can instantly feel both intellectually and morally superior.

Being intellectuals, they weren't going to play rugby, after all. The fact that religion, taken as a belief system, tends to be hard to defend in intellectual terms, means that they could win a lot of easy victories and feel like the champions of the world.

What's more, the new atheists not only attacked ideas, but people. Most philosophers attack ideas or philosophies, in theory at least, but the new atheists liked to hit on other people more than on other ideas because, I said, above, religious ideas aren't all that interesting, even to attack and because, for the real aggression-freak, the thrill is greater if you see another person bleeding on the side-walk.

Jean Kazez said...

I think some of this interpersonal aggression is just an internet, groupish phenomenon, and not particularly about atheists. I find Cass Sunstein's book Going to Extremes very revealing--

s. wallerstein said...

Some of the aggression may be due to internet, but I've avoided new atheist sites for about 4 or 5 years now and have wandered into lots of other online territories, philosophy blogs, feminist blogs and stuff on political theory.

The new atheists are simply the most aggressive. I have never again felt that sensation of physical fright, of no one listening to what I have to say, of people being out to crush me, to annihilate me, that I did in the new atheist blogs.

For example, lately, I've been following a blog about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the political theorist, Corey Robin (CUNY). One can suppose that in intellectual terms Robin's blog attracts more or less the same educational level of people as do the new atheist blogs and the subject of the Middle East is very controversial. However, I have never witnessed such vicious aggression as I did in some new atheist blogs. The pro-Zionist and pro-Palestinian people (I simplify the two sides) can be snarky with one another, but those that participate in the blog never seem out to annihilate the other as I felt with the new atheists. There seems to be a certain respect for the other or at least for the other's arguments that I never witnessed among the new atheists.

Of course, maybe I've become more hardened to internet. The first cut is the deepest, they say, and I was a relative novice in internet when I ran into the new atheists. Still, there does seem to be a feeling, among many people, that the new atheists are especially aggressive.

Tom said...

The only blog that I've experienced that has contained the viciousness and blind allegiance to a cause that I've seen with New Atheists is a blog/Facebook page of a certain evangelical Christian apologist. It's kind of remarkable how similar these folks with diametrically opposing views are in spirit and tone.

Jean Kazez said...

The viciousness among online atheists certainly is remarkable, whether it's singular or not.

s. wallerstein said...

There is a certain moment in most conversations or debates, even online ones, in which participants recognize the other, perhaps explicitly, saying things like "I see where you're coming from but..." or more generally implicitly, through a fairly subtle cues in tone or style, in which each party signals that they see the other and recognize their common human rationality, that it's not a chess game between two computers.

That moment never happens with the new atheists online.

It seems to be a lack of emotional intelligence, which is more common in males than in females, although lots of males are very gifted with emotional intelligence, whether through upbringing or genes, I don't know.

It's easier to be vicious when you don't see the other as someone like you, maybe someone with wrong ideas, but as a computer with a defective software.

This is especially striking because most of the very vicious campaigns I witnessed in the new atheist blogs were not directed against religious fundamentalists or anti-liberal fascists, but against progressives and liberal non-believers, for example, Chris Mooney, who were less drunken with self-righteousness than they were.

Dave Ricks said...

Jean, as you wrote about women in philosophy,

It's not true that women are underrepresented because of either (1) "innate and unchangeable psychological differences between women and men" or (2) "barriers to women in philosophy."  They could be underrepresented because of (3) culturally transmitted differences between men and women.  Or because of (2) and (3). Or because of (1), (2), and (3).

In the Washington Post article, Harris answered (1), excluding your (2) and (3). Harris was criticized for that.

Jean Kazez said...

He wasn't just criticized in the normal manner of debate, he was accused of sexism, seeing women as biologically inferior, etc. He was treated as if he'd said something absolutely atrocious. Plus, I don't think his brief answer to the journalist's question excluded (2) and (3) from playing some part in a complete explanation of why more atheists and Harris-readers are men.

s. wallerstein said...


Are more atheists men or more people who are active in new atheist blogs (and possibly circles) men?

Anonymous said...

I don't think the issue is whether Harris is correct or incorrect in what he said. He was asked to speculate about a topic and he did so. He didn't make any claim that his answer was irrefutably right.

I think there are two questions here:

1. Is what he said so unreasonable that it doesn't bear talking about or thinking about?

2. Did he have a right to say it without being attacked as a sexist?

In my mind the answers are clearly: No and Yes.

Unknown said...

Wonderful, informative discussion. Thanks!

There is a bit of additional context to Harris's remarks, however. Over the last several years, many people have been trying to point out ways in which the activist atheist movement has been and continues to be unwelcoming or even hostile to women. And, usually, people who point this out are reacted to with indifference or more hostility.

I agree that Harris's conjecture was neither beyond the pale nor ipso facto sexism, but it also wasn't a very good answer. For people who have been trying to make a more welcoming atheism movement, Harris's comments come across as defensive. He's not literally saying "And that's why we don't need to make atheism more welcoming to women", but that's how he comes across. And that's a problem, because atheism does need to be more welcoming to women.

Perhaps intrinsic gender differences do play some role here, but a greater role than a culture that tolerates an atmosphere of constant harassment? I doubt it.

I'll take Harris at his word that he is not a sexist (though, frankly, he doesn't make a strong case for himself). However, the movement of which he is a prominent leader most certainly is. And, as a leader, he is in a position to do something about that. Time and time again, when he's given an opportunity to do something about that, he declines. That's what he did in this instance, both in the initial interview and subsequently.

Jean Kazez said...

Drew, I wonder if Harris is tuned into all that conflict, though. It seems like he lives in a separate realm, as a super-successful author and speaker--and someone who writes on other topics besides atheism. He was mainly thinking "Why is it that my readers are predominantly male?" That's the main question I construed him as trying to answer.

Deepak Shetty said...

a. No one disagrees, not even the most ardent feminist that there are some brain differences - we are not biologically the same in many ways, it is obvious that the brain will not be the same
b. The question really is does this work out to anything in the real world? Can you make any comment on average , about the intelligence, emotionality or I dont know just about anything as "intrinsic differences?"
Again, the claim is that hormones make the difference, causing boys to be (among other things) more inclined to rough and tumble play than girls.
I have heard anecdotally - Girls are easier to potty train than boys (and get trained earlier). Girls talk earlier than boys , boys walk earlier than girls.
Lets assume this is true(intrinsic brain differences , on average). So what? almost Everyone eventually does get potty trained , does walk , does talk.

c. Is it really so hard for prominent faces in the Atheist movement to answer such questions as Neil DeGrasse Tyson ? Paraphrasing (Before we talk about gender differences we must eliminate other variables, Once we have done so, then we can have this talk)
d. When your gut, off the cuff reaction to such questions , is to not answer like Neil , but to talk about intrinsic differences, When you have a chance to think and explain in a longer post and still not answer like Neil , its a fair conclusion to say that you do hold a sexist view.

e. The demonizing of critics by calling them demonizers is stupid.
F**k you is hardly "demonizing" Harris. It is dismissive , Ophelia already said she doesnt want to be the teacher of sexism 101 class. There are other who have patiently explained.

f. comments for e.g. from s. wallerstein about New Atheists are hilarious. Previously We are so tribal , that we attack anyone who isn't a new Atheist. At the same time we are so aggressive , we have this burning desire to crush anyone in debate - including founding members of the movement like Harris and Dawkins (but wait weren't we tribal? werent we supposed to follow these new atheists blindly , irrespective of the arguments?). All these characteristics are male - yet the main posts against Harris have been , from as far as I know, women. And then I thought , men loved this aggressive , angry arguments. They should have been lining up , courting Ophelia.

Jean Kazez said...

Obviously you haven't read the literature on sex differences. So "sigh" yourself.

Deepak Shetty said...

I would love to see the literature that eliminates all the variables for adult men/women and concludes that psychological differences are the reason why women are under-represented in all areas that need a good deal of rational thinking - like you know, philosophy.

The only time we can truly study this is when we are kids and almost everyone will admit, abusive feminists even, that there are biological differences.

And the sigh was for a mis-representation of the other side - something that atleast you used to do better (irrespective of your conclusions). it must, must be your anti- new atheist groupism.

Colin said...

I find the talk of innateness frustrating and puzzling, and the Churchland citation only puzzles and frustrates me more. What does innate mean? Does innate mean unable to be altered, i.e., fixed? Clearly the Churchland quotation doesn't mean that. Maybe innate means biological versus cultural. But Churchland explicitly claims that "behavioral dispositions can be modulated by the cultural matrix." Does innate mean biological as opposed to environmental? I'm not aware of any organisms that don't require both relatively constant environments and relatively constant biological states for their survival. And maybe more importantly, I'm not aware of any organisms that don't change.

In other words, the Churchland quotation seems to presuppose that there is a biological fact of aggressiveness independent of any environmental fact; that there is some REAL level of aggressiveness, but that it can be hidden by the environment. But this seems to require that we have some kind of way of measuring people who somehow lack an environment. Another way of putting this, is that Churchland's claim presupposes that the real level of aggressiveness is not what someone exhibits, but what their biology exhibits. The biology tells us how aggressive someone would be, if their environment hadn't altered their behavior. But this ignores that all people/organisms are always already in an environment. The environment is as crucial to the the existence of an organism or a species as their biology. They are engaged in one causal chain. All sorts of claims made in biology about what the genes do, are made with the caveat of "given normal conditions." But then one wonders if the genes "did it" or if they are just another link in a dynamic system.

I'm not denying that there are differences between males and females. I'm suggesting that the nature/nurture divide is confused. Both the critics of Harris and the defenders of Harris presuppose this distinction: either differences are just environmental or they're biological. As if it would be better if differences were environmental. The alternatives seem to be: either I'm more aggressive because my genes made me or I'm more aggressive because my environment made me. This seems to immediately toss out autonomy.

My preferred alternative is to view nature as a product of nurture. Organism and environment form a unitary system. Development (i.e., nurture) is the process whereby organisms realize their natures (i.e., their phenotypes). Some aspects of the system change easily, others don't. But we don't fall into the error of assuming that just because a lot of people have a trait, it means that the trait is caused by our genes or somehow unalterable. On the developmental systems approach, we can say that the same hormone is expressed differently in different environments, but we are not justified in saying that one expression is more real than another.

Basically, this is all (poorly) regurgitating stuff Susan Oyama says about gender essentialism in Evolution's Eye. That is a great book. Highly recommended, and, in my opinion, a must read before endorsing the nature/nurture divide.