Innate, my arse
‘Innate’ maths ability is essentially the sum of mathematical skills that those untouched tribes people in the Amazon have. They won’t have a concept of zero, probably can’t multiply, and may well not be able to count over a few dozen. The maths ability you and I have (and the ability being measured by this team) is about as far from innate as it is possible to be, and is the product of a decade or more of strict and intensive training.
So, what this team has actually done is repackage information we already knew, namely that girls are better at boys when it comes to passing Western style maths exams when educated by a Western education system. In non-Western systems, boys are better than girls. There are two possible reasons for this; the first is that girls are better at maths than boys, and that the link between sexism in society and girl’s results proves this. The second is that the two factors are actually a correlation rather than cause and effect, and that societies that have greater equality of the sexes also tend to have the type of school education system that favours girls over boys.
The trick is distinguishing between the two. Studies of the way boys and girls learn support the latter idea. Boys generally like competitive, fun, hands-on lessons where experimenting and playing are more important than getting grades, whilst girls tend to do better with high-pressured, but less competitive environment where learning is more passive, more highly structured and requires dedication and conscientiousness. However, when we get to university the culture of education flips. Suddenly macho posturing, risk taking and hierarchical rather than co-operative behaviour are desirable, and so boys race ahead of girls.
This is really a reflection of the society our politicians want. The bulk of learning should be like the bulk of the population it is designed for: passive, obedient and attentive, soaking up lessons and being hand-fed ideas without challenging them. However, the top end of society should be like stereotypically male University maths students: thrusting, competitive, egotistic, arrogant, challenging, and striving to screw over the competition. Following this model, we should expect women to dominate the majority mainstream, with a small number of men dominating the top echelons… which is pretty much where society is headed.
The real issue is to work out how much of this detail is down to social training and how much is down to evolved behavioural patterns. If girls are better in our current school system because they are predestined to be mature and conscientious, and vice versa for University, then you could say that girls have an innate ability for maths at school, whilst boys have an innate ability for maths at Uni. Then maths ability does depend on society – but depends on the type of culture society deliberately chooses rather than as an unplanned consequence of a traditionally paternalistic society.