Many of the differences in behaviour between men and women that are passed down the generations aren't passed on through genetics, researchers have said. As a result, we can't rule out that behavioural differences between men and women are almost entirely learned.
Textbook arguments on gender and biology often assume that masculine and feminine behavioural traits evolved by natural selection as adaptations to help men and women have more babies. For example, some might argue that men are innately much more interested in casual sex and violence than women, and that such traits are also a more or less inevitable fact of modern life because they are genetic.
Scientists and philosophers are now questioning the tenet that sex-linked behaviours such as these are written in our genes. Researchers at the universities of Melbourne, Exeter and Tel Aviv argue that in humans and other animals, environmental and cultural transmission might account for most of the behavioural differences between men and women. The findings are published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
"There's a strong tradition in evolutionary psychology where people take it as obvious that all these traits are genetic," study author John Dupré of the University of Exeter told IBTimes UK.
It's too simplistic to try to estimate how much of gender is nature, or genes, and how much is nurture, or culture, Dupré said, but nurture probably does play a much greater role than scientists give credit for.
"Certainly we should consider the possibility that culture is the dominant role. We're arguing that it's a very credible account of what happens in interngenerational transmission of these behaviours."
If true, this would have implications for gender equality efforts. A greater role for environmental factors in the nature-nurture debate could make interventions to promote equality seem more achievable.
"If it's a matter of identifying cultural factors and institutions that have an identifiable or highly plausible role in transmitting gendered asusmptions, then we have plausible ways of going about changing those. I think it really does matter," Dupré said.
"If we really thought that in the end it's all in the genes, then we would be very limited in our serious aspirations to aim for equality. Once you see that at least the cultural factors are crucial elements of the transmission, you can start thinking about how you'd prevent the cultural transmission of stereotypes, if you think it's right to do so."