Men Are Not Hardwired for Infidelity: Why Does Pop Culture Insist on Biological Differences Between the Sexes?

Grasping after certainty about gender roles has fostered some bad science and stereotyping that harms both sexes.

Type "men" and "hardwired" into Google and you tap into a wonderfully absurd catalogue of assertions about male behaviour. Men are "hardwired" to cheat, ignore their wives, suspect infidelity, overspend, fail, love money, pursue women and achieve supremacy in the workplace. Meanwhile, women are "hardwired" to worry about their weight and dump cheaters. All include the magic phrase "scientific studies show". It's a snapshot of how science is being used and abused to legitimise gender stereotypes. It would be laughable if it didn't signify how a form of biological determinism -- the claim that differences between men and women have a basis in innate biological characteristics -- has re-emerged and acquired an astonishing popular currency.

This fascination in differences between the sexes is a staple of the self-help industry. John Gray's thesis about planetary confusion (Men Are From Mars and Women are From Venus) has spawned nearly two decades of publishing with guides on everything from communication to food, and all still enjoy warm Amazon reviews and healthy sales.

What's changed in recent years is that the idea of innate biological differences -- for instance in cognitive abilities or communication skills -- has gained academic credibility and powerful champions in widely admired researchers such as Simon Baron Cohen (author of The Essential Difference) and Steven Pinker. In their wake has followed this boom in scientific studies claiming to find hardwiring for sex differences, and every time they do so, they are guaranteed to accumulate column inches of free publicity. The argument is that breakthroughs in neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary psychology are proving false the feminist consensus of the last 30-odd years that gender is entirely a social construct. The claim is that there are innate differences, and they go part of the way in explaining why men and women have such different lives.

Nonsense, retort a number of prominent women academics who have been trying to fight back in the US and the UK. A new book, Brainstorm, by Rebecca Jordan-Young exhaustively analyses every relevant study on hormonal sex differentiation of the human brain, and argues that they are riddled with weaknesses, inconsistencies and ambiguity. It's a clarion call for better science on the subject.

Jordan-Young's call is echoed in the UK by Deborah Cameron, an Oxford professor of language and communication. She takes issue with one of the central claims that women have superior verbal abilities; some speculate that this is linked to brain structure, others that it has an evolutionary explanation. Cameron sees both as purely speculative, and insists that explanations of difference must take account of three much more prosaic factors.

First, that verbal behaviour is linked to "activity type" -- what someone usually spends much of their time doing. If that activity type is looking after small children or repairing drains, it will affect how they use language. Second, verbal differences reflect differences in power and status. Contrary to the commonplace assumption that women speak more, there is now mountains of evidence, claims Cameron, that where status is not a factor there is no difference between men and women; where status does matter -- such as office meetings -- men talk much more than women.

Finally, Cameron argues that we use language to project our identity -- much like our choice of clothing -- to distinguish our sense of who we are in terms of class, life role as well as gender, and all of these identities are socially constructed. Factor out these variables, and you're left with no clearcut differences in how men and women use language.

Or take another central pillar of the new biological determinism which asserts that men and women have different cognitive capabilities. Professor Elizabeth Spelke has spent her academic career looking at cognitive development in infants, and concludes: "All this research supports the startlingly boring conclusion that there are no significant differences between men and women's cognitive abilities."

A tiny number of tests show sex differences. One of these (famously used to argue that men are better at engineering and other sciences) is a test comparing two shapes. Men are slightly more likely to use a method known as mental rotation, despite it being rather less efficient. Overall, in 45 items in the test, only three show sex difference, two of them favour girls and only this aspect of mental rotation favours boys. Spelke is astonished as to why this slight difference favouring boys has attracted such disproportionate attention.

But if the evidence for biologically innate differences is so flimsy and full of conjecture, why does it continue to have such a hold on the imagination -- in bestselling self-help books and among brilliant, respected scientists? Cameron suggests that this grasping after certainty about gender roles is a response to anxiety. There has been, and still is, rapid social change around the roles and opportunities of men and women.

Cameron adds that a lot of the debate around differing communication skills seems rooted in a rise in conflict between the sexes. "My parents never had an argument about whose career came first or who should do the washing up, but now everything is up for grabs." Without clearly differentiated roles, men and women are competing over the same things: job status, time with the children, who's going to do the housework -- which makes harmonious communication difficult, so people look around for explanations.

Spelke adds another intriguing dimension to the sustained popularity of forms of biological determinism. Her most recent research devised tests which showed that children as young as three begin to categorise the world by gender. Work she is doing indicates this could begin to develop even earlier -- at 10 months. Interestingly, the same process of categorisation in infants is not evident when it comes to race. "We are predisposed to see the social landscape in terms of gender," says Spelke.

She thinks it's possible that it served some adaptive purpose in our evolution, but that actually gender is a very bad indicator of behaviour because there is so much variability within each sex. For instance, if one man likes bananas, that is no reason to assume another does. To Spelke, this predisposition means the debate about the differences between men and women will never reach a settled conclusion. We keep on looking for differences because that is one of the basic ways we order our experience of the world. That doesn't mean change isn't possible, just that the argument will carry on getting sidetracked to focus on tiny differences rather than the much greater similarities.

Good science will challenge the tendency to stereotype. The danger though is what Cameron refers to as "stereotype threat". If you tell women that women do less well in a maths test, they will do less well, confirming the claim. Don't tell them, and they do better. Stereotypes are dangerous; they become self-fulfilling and can generate discrimination. Cameron points to interviews with call-centre managers who were discriminating against hiring men on their assumption that women were better at empathising. So beware a popular mythology of hardwiring that can result in some very concrete -- and pernicious -- outcomes.

Madeleine Bunting is a Guardian columnist and associate editor. She writes on a wide range of subjects including politics, work, Islam, science and ethics, development, women's issues and social change.