Jan 31, 2011

About Monkeys, Children and Toys

A highly debatable topic and extremely common in all settings is whether there are differences between men and women. While there are notable differences, such as height and facial features, the issue becomes controversial when discussing whether the discrepancies are cognitive, and in practice, if one gender is "better" than the other. A wide range of study areas offer many answers but, in general, there are two opposing sides in the dilemma about the sexes. 

On one hand, is common among anthropologists and other scientists to claim that biological differences do not exist, and that any variation in performance between the sexes is the result of social pressure. There is sufficient evidence to claim that the differences in children behavior  respond to strong social influence, that although may not be completely  evident, it is always present. In terms of preference for children play, for example, many parents would argue that their kid's toys are neutral, such as blocks, books, and musical instruments; however, it is contested that the way of playing with these objects modify the children's preference for them. Thus, a father would move the blocks as if they were cars, or a mother would buy princesses' books. Additionally, at about two years of age the basic sexual identification (feeling male or female)
develops; and as a result, babies tend to imitate the adult with whom they identify the most. In this way, girls mimic the delicacy of the mother and play with cups while boys prefer " to shave" and play rough with fathers. That is, from an early age children identify themselves as part of a sexual group that begins to shape their preferences and behavior. 

On the other hand, there are many who think that there are clear biological differences and that they are responsible for shaping a sexual identity and behavior. Numerous studies have evaluated children's play before two years of age, and have found a significant difference in the time that infants interact with gender linked toys. Similarly, any father of a boy would testify that his kid likes trains, cars, bouncing balls, and all this, without being pressed. Although there are girls who like the same types of toys, usually they prefer dolls and pots. However, because virtually all human babies grow in society, it is impossible to determine how large are its effects on children preferences and to what extend, the influence is purely biological. 

After numerous psychological studies in human infants, in 2002 Drs.  Melissa Hines and
Gerianne Alexander at the University of California, Los Angeles, investigated whether the preference in toys was associated with factors different than social and cognitive ones. They did this by observing a non-human primate, the vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus sp.), in which the influence of social and epistemological prejudices do not exist. Surprisingly, vervet monkeys showed preference for toys typical of each gender in an identical manner to human babies. These results are quite controversial, and even aroused the skepticism of the authors. However, other studies in macaques monkeys have shown the same results. The toys chosen for the first study were a ball, a police car, a doll, a cooking pot, a book of photos and a stuffed dog. The choice of these objects responded to the categorization as masculine, feminine or neutral by children in a previous research. Even more surprising was the way the animals interacted with the toys. In the attached picture it is evident that while the female is inspecting the doll like a baby monkey, the male moves the car on the road to move the wheels. The monkeys in this study had no previous experience with the objects so the differences can not be attributed to learning or imitation from humans.
The importance of this study is that if the preference for toys is not due to social pressure or cognitive performance, then there must be features on the objects that are perceived by the
primates brain exclusively for each sex. That is, the characteristics of the objects provide an opportunity for the monkeys to "practice" situations for which they have adapted evolutionarily. It could be argued that the dolls are "useful" for learning to care for, while cars and balls incite movement and the development of tools that are adaptive to fight. By contrast, the book or the stuffed animal were not preferred by any monkey, in particular. 

The preferences of nonhuman primates and monkeys for certain stereotypical objects of both genders indicate that the brain perceives certain characteristics that make them more attractive and that this bias does not respond to external pressures. This means that the brains of both sexes is different, but what exactly is the difference? Morphologically there are marked inequalities. For example, while Broca and Wernicke areas that are related to the ability to modulate and understanding language are significantly larger in women, the regions in the temporal lobe related to
travel in space are more developed in men. At the cellular level, the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the hypothalamus, which is related to sexual behavior in mammals, shows a marked difference between men and women, and interestingly also in transsexual people. Now, it is not clear which of these variations are responsible for gender-typical behaviors, including toy preference in babies, but it is clear that these changes should have a specific function. And, in combination, may be responsible for the areas of diversification in humans such as the ability to estimate the time and speed, visualize objects in three dimensions, recognize emotional tones and perform multiple tasks. 

Based on the many results showing that certain behaviors reflect innate differences between men and women, it would be stubborn to deny it, and to continue to blame any pattern only to social models. On the other hand, it would be absurd to expect that boys and girls be confined to fill in the roles that seem to agree with the evolutionary history of their brain. If the ancestor of homo-male in the Pleistocene needed to navigate in large spaces in search of game, and the homo-female developed methods to socialize through language, this does not mean that men today have no empathy or verbal skills, or that women can not handle space orientation, and both sexes do it outstandingly. What it does mean is that there are innate characteristics that change not only the behavior of humans during childhood and adulthood, but also those differences may help explain the preference of people for different tasks and their performance in them. Accepting our differences and use them for everybody's advantage is the most sensible recommendation, bearing in mind that evolution never ends, and social and environmental pressures today will be reflected in the future.

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