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Men and Women

I was once confident that men and women were but mirrors of each other, the flip side of the same species. After all, do we not share the same biology, the same environment? I knew that we were totally equal, and any differences were mere quirks of societal expressions that could be straightened out.

Years of mixed flatting and marriage have gradually forced me into the view that we may well be the same species, but we are by no means the same animal. Increasing awareness of the fine-tuning of molecular genetics and evolutionary biochemistry makes it obvious that men and women will never truly mirror each other -- and that that is the way it is supposed to be.

Much of this is the stuff of stand-up comedy -- women are natural food gatherers, which is why they can find things in the pantry that elude their mates despite detailed directions; men are the territorial aggressors, hence their instinctively antagonistic behaviour in cars and over boundary fences.

Some of it is not so funny. There appear to be sound biological reasons why men are more likely to murder, more likely to form gangs, why they are less likely to be socialised. Books like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan) and the unfortunately named Demonic Males (Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson) provide sobering food for thought regarding how our social structures hang lightly on top of our evolutionary biology.

Add to that the implications of imprinted genes which demonstrate that not even the same genes are necessarily equal -- these are pairs of genes which operate differently depending on which parent they came from. We are learning about how such genes make us different people, not just individually, but also as females and males.

I don't think that these discoveries should plunge us into a deterministic despair, be used for inflammatory purposes (such as advocating removing all male humans from the face of the planet), or make us give up the idea of social equality and justice for all regardless of sex or gender. But we do have to take this knowledge into account when we make well-meaning attempts at trying to mold each other in our own image.

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.