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The hands of a mathematician

Posted by Richard on May 25, 2007

Researchers at Britain's University of Bath are bravely exploring the subject that cost Harvard President Larry Summers his job. Fortunately for them, the link they've discovered between math ability and sex is indirect, so they may be spared the full wrath of feminists.

It seems that prenatal hormone exposure helps determine whether you're more likely to be literate or numerate, and your hands give you away:

A quick look at the lengths of children's index and ring fingers can be used to predict how well students will perform on the SAT, new research claims.

Kids with longer ring fingers compared to index fingers are likely to have higher math scores than literacy or verbal scores on the college entrance exam, while children with the reverse finger-length ratio are likely to have higher reading and writing, or verbal, scores versus math scores.

Scientists have known that different levels of the hormones testosterone and estrogen in the womb account for the different finger lengths, which are a reflection of areas of the brain that are more highly developed than others, said psychologist Mark Brosnan of the University of Bath in England, who led the study.

Exposure to testosterone in the womb is said to promote development of areas of the brain often associated with spatial and mathematical skills, he said. That hormone makes the ring finger longer.

Estrogen exposure does the same for areas of the brain associated with verbal ability and tends to lengthen the index finger relative to the ring finger.

Clearly, hormone exposure correlates with the sex of the fetus. Boy fetuses are likely to be exposed to higher levels of testosterone than girl fetuses (their little testes start making it). But both are exposed to estrogen from the mother, and the amount seems to vary quite a bit from pregnancy to pregnancy. So, boys are more likely to end up with longer ring fingers (and more spatial/math aptitude), while girls are more likely to end up with shorter ring fingers (and more verbal aptitude).

But some boys have shorter ring fingers (because they were exposed to more estrogen) and some girls have longer ring fingers (because they were exposed to lower levels of estrogen and/or higher levels of testosterone).

And some kids with short ring fingers really like math and do well at it, while some with long ring fingers do poorly for one reason or another. Aptitude is part of the puzzle, but it's not the whole story.

In any case, whenever feminists bristle at discussions of these differences, I have to wonder at their insecurity and lack of perspective. Shouldn't they celebrate the evidence that women are naturally better communicators, more literate, and better at abstract thought?

Men and women are different, all the way to the tips of their fingers. Can you digit? 

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4 Responses to “The hands of a mathematician”

  1. Hathor said

    I usually bristle, too, when I see some mechanical task some male has botched up, especially if I have to fix it. Their thinking certain abilities come with the Y chromosome.

  2. RedPencil said

    Know what’s funny about this? It’s Palmistry 101.

    In my teenage years I had a brief stint as a “gypsy fortune teller” reading palms at a fund raiser (after spending a few hours reading a book); comparing the index and ring finger for personality traits was a significant percentage of the reading.

    Though given the reasons people go to palmists, it’s usually expressed in some pretty different terms. A long index finger is associated with Power and Leadership. Hmmm. Verbal skills and leadership MIGHT go together. A long ring finger is associated with creativity; but mathematics and creativity go together more often than cultural prejudices suggest.

    (The new scientific findings could make for better gypsy fortune tellers.)

  3. rgcombs said

    ”Their thinking certain abilities come with the Y chromosome.”

    The problem is that bullheadedness and reluctance to ask for help seem to come with the Y chromosome. πŸ˜‰

    ”The new scientific findings could make for better gypsy fortune tellers.”

    Amazing. Next, you’ll be telling me there’s a scientific basis for reading tea leaves and sheep’s entrails. πŸ™‚

  4. RedPencil said

    [i] Next, you’ll be telling me there’s a scientific basis for reading tea leaves and sheep’s entrails. πŸ™‚ [/i]

    Nah, but a FEW aspects of palmistry are based on observations of large numbers of people, much as science is. For example, you should be able to tell a victim/client their “handedness” immediately from comparing thumbs. (I learned it from a palmistry book but it works almost flawlessly even with newborn infants.) This impresses, and leaves them believing whatever other nonsense you spout. I could imagine using the mathematical/verbal aptitude bit to further pad out a reading. Which would make for a “better”, ie more successful palmist.

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