When I entered my small liberal arts college as a philosophy major, I joined just three other girls in a sea of philosophically-minded boys. In my experience, the gender gap was partly due to the popular but unacknowledged idea that girls weren’t “wired” for the discipline of philosophy; they were, however, wired for elementary education. This same threatening stereotype that caused girls to underperform in math and science seemed to be alive and well in other areas of academia. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the book Lean In comments on the phenomenon:
“Stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore girls don’t do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off ‘M’ or ‘F’ for male or female, she does worse on that test.”
What makes these stereotypes grip us so tightly? Why are women (and men) so quick to believe the generalizations others make about them? There are no easy answers to these questions, but I think examining our metaphors is a place to start.
Throughout history, we’ve used metaphors from technology to make sense of the human mind. Metaphors derived from telegraphs, typewriters, telephones, and batteries helped us describe the ways our minds work. More recently, the word “hardwired” has grown in popularity. According to my Amazon book list, we’re hardwired for fitness, love, faith, hope, success, relationships, and God. Discussions about human relationships are peppered with similar language, reminding us that men and women are wired differently. However, a dismissal of the use of this metaphor as just another technological descriptor transferred to everyday language would be a mistake. Ultimately, the metaphor conceals some of the most complex and interesting elements of human personhood.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives us a good idea of when we first used the word “hardwired” to describe our minds. In 1969, a November issue of Mechanized Accounting used “hardwired” in reference to computers. In 1971, the New Scientist describes the cells of a cat as hardwired. Just six years later, Carl Sagan wrote in Dragons of Eden, “The brain is completely hard-wired: specific cognitive functions are localized in particular places in the brain.”
The popularity of the metaphor is hard to deny. A Google search of “brains are hardwired” returns over two million results, including articles from Psychology Today, Dartmouth University, and numerous books and blogs. The metaphor is so entrenched in our understanding of human physiology that it creeps unacknowledged and un-scrutinized into our everyday language and thought.
In his book The Mind and the Machine, computer science professor Matthew Dickerson analyzes the repercussions of characterizing the human mind as a pre-programmed (or hardwired) machine. Dickerson worries that “a physicalist view of humanity, that we are complex biochemical computers, not only denies free will but, by denying human free will, also denies any real possibility of human creativity or human heroism.” In the physicalist world, according to Dickerson, any sense of self-determination and any chance of real change become nothing more than an illusion. Dickerson also argues that seeing ourselves as machines leads to generalization and dismissal of the individual. The “hardwired” metaphor tends toward grouping of types—men are one way, women are another way, children are yet another.
The danger, here, is missing the individual tree for the forest. Some girls are great at math, science, physics, philosophy and the like. Other girls aren’t. In reality, girls are not wired solely with relational expertise, nor men for engineering. To make these kinds of generalizations ignores the incredible human capacity for growth, change, and simple diversity within a spectrum.
Wendell Berry wrote a series of “Mad Farmer” poems as a move of activism against the dehumanization of the modern world. Berry’s poem “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” provides the climax to the series and develops a picture of a distinctly un-programmed person. “Manifesto” begins with a description of modern man who wants vacation with pay, is afraid of death, and doesn’t know his neighbors. In the second stanza, Berry calls the reader to something more. The stanza begins:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it
As if in response to the physicalist who argues that everything man does and can do is determined by a pre-programmed biology, Berry calls the reader to act in opposition to this sentiment. He asks readers to love the unlovable, to give away what is rightfully theirs, and to act against the way of the world and the desire for selfish gain. Berry’s third and fourth stanzas continue his list of actions that “won’t compute:”
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Every task Berry outlines requires a humanity that evades the hardwired metaphor, a humanity with a willingness to trust, cultivate, and create—and even to fight against natural tendencies. Can the pre-programmed man consider all the facts of the world and stay joyful? When the propositions of life do not compute, can the hardwired man still laugh? Berry’s poetry speaks not to a programmed algorithm of emotions, but to a human reader. The idea of a hardwired person doesn’t come close to explaining laughter in the face of utter destruction.
Berry’s “Manifesto” calls to the image of God within man and pleads for a change of heart and mind—a change toward sanctification. The kind of real change Berry calls for is only possible if the human mind can change. Berry’s work and commitment to the reality of human transformation reveal the gross limitations of the hardwired metaphor.
The most insidious element of the metaphor is not its philosophical limitations or lack of descriptive power; the worst thing about the metaphor is that we believe it. We believe we are wired for X and not Y. We believe we are incapable of change. We buy the lie that our circumstances, biological makeup, gender, and age fully define us. We accept the stereotypes placed on our social groups without question or caveat.
Berry’s poem ends with one final exhortation: “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.” Berry asks us to be like a fox—to make mistakes in one direction, turn around, and find our way again. The meandering journey of human life is full of growth and change that the hardwired metaphor ignores. The pre-programmed man does not grow or change or choose to alter his course. To be like the fox, we need to be more than hardwired—we need to be human.