More “Battle of the Sexes” BS

Genetic tests prove the ‘fairer sex’ is kinder too, according to today’s Independent.*

Women have a stronger genetic predisposition to help other people compared with men, according to a study that has found a significant link between genes and the tendency to be “nice”.

Funnily enough, the study in question (“A common heritable factor influences prosocial obligations across multiple domains“, Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates, Biology Letters) didn’t find that women were genetically kinder than men at all. In fact, it wasn’t really looking at men and women at all.

The researchers were looking at whether different types of “prosocial behaviour” (i.e., behaviour that helps society as a whole, rather than just helping the individual) were inherited and what roles nature and nurture played. There were three factors they looked at – civic duty, commitment to work and concern for other people’s welfare – and to check whether they were inherited they looked at identical and nonidentical twins; the idea being that if it’s mostly genetic, identical twins should be more similar in their “kindness” than non-identical twins, while if it’s caused by your environment growing up there should be little difference between the two.

In general for females, there appeared to be a clear genetic variance – in other words, those who were “kind” tended to have kinder twins – while for males the water was a bit muddier; the sample wasn’t large enough to tell conclusively one way or the other whether kind males had kind twins. This doesn’t mean that women were all kind however, or that there is a gene which means women are kinder than men!

Instead, it just means that the difference in kindness between different women is fairly likely to be affected by their genes (they found that around 48% of the difference in kindness between women could be caused by genetic difference, with the rest being caused by upbringing), while in men it’s not quite as clear just how much of an effect their genes have, which is why they’re holding onto the data to analyse it more thoroughly.

Just to add to the confusion, there was a significant genetic effect in males when looking specifically at concern for people’s welfare, though again, this doesn’t mean that men are any more empathetic than women are, just that genes play a big role in deciding precisely how empathetic each particular man is.

In short, this research says very little about the differences between men and women, and what it does say isn’t massively important to anyone who’s not a geneticist, and yet that still hasn’t stopped The Independent turning it into another “battle of the sexes” piece. Funnily enough, they actually quote the researcher behind the piece quite extensively – I wonder if he knew what they were twisting the study into.

* The comments are… about what you’d expect, really.

Edit: Thanks to Press Not Sorry, for pointing out that The Mail has spun the research into “Why women are nice by nature… but for men it’s more of an effort“. The research doesn’t show that men have to make an effort to be nice – or that women don’t – it just shows that “niceness” in women is more likely to be genetic than it is in men (although upbringing causes the majority of the variation in everyone, male and female). This doesn’t mean that it takes effort to be nice just because it’s not genetic, by the way, any more than it takes effort to speak your first language or to be scared of spiders; it means that the tendency to feel empathetic towards people (or not) is ingrained into your personality at the deepest level.

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