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G ender politics and science have never gotten along very well. The patriarchal system was—and in some cultures still is—based on the premise that women are more mercurial, less deliberative and physically less sturdy than men. Those are perfectly easy beliefs to hold—at least until you subject them to the least bit of intellectual scrutiny or real-world testing, at which point they fall apart completely.

In the s, the script flipped, with the fashionable thinking being that gender differences are artificial constructs.

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But this too was mostly rubbish, as any parent who has raised both a boy and a girl can tell you—and as scientists confirm. The more closely they study brain structure, prenatal hormone exposure and more, the more they confirm that boys and girls are born fundamentally, behaviorally different. The question gets a little murkier when it comes to one of the great dividing lines between the sexes: sports. On the one hand, both interest and participation in organized sports is still a predominantly male thing.

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On the other hand, when any culture makes the effort to level the playing field of opportunity, female participation rises dramatically. Still, according to a thoughtful new study published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciencesthe hard hand of evolution plays at least as much of a role in sports interest and participation as policy does—and quite possibly a greater one. And that, like it or not, tips the balance in favor of males. The research, led by psychologist Robert Deaner of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, was more of a deep analysis of decades worth of other research, which is often the best way to get a high-altitude view of any social science.

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Deaner and his colleagues began by looking at the basic s. One survey of 37 countries, for example, found that in every one, men were likelier to play some kind of sport than women. In a few countries, the difference was not statistically ificant, but when the question was narrowed to specify competitive sports like basketball and exclude non-competitive ones like running, Sporty chicks only men blew the doors off the s, besting women by nearly four-fold. A study conducted by Deaner and a colleague not involved in the current work found that males were twice as likely as females to be involved or interested in sports across 50 different countries or cultures.

The non-evolutionary explanations for the imbalance are familiar and numerous. Homemakers, goes one argument, who are still predominantly female, have less free time for sports than men do. There is also the argument that even in a Title IX world, there still fewer well-organized sports leagues for girls than there are for boys.

That may be true, but if the innate interest in sports were really the same across genders, the great leveler of sports in childhood—pick-up games that kids organize themselves—would be played more or less equally by all. But here the boys hold a ten-to-one edge. And what in the world could be the advantage of simply sitting around and watching other people play.

Much of the answer is based on the phenomenon known as the spectator lek. Principally found in birds, but also in some species of insect and mammal, a lek involves males gathering in a single place and displaying their plumage, size or overall fitness, sometimes by engaging in mock—or not-so-mock—combat, while other members of the species observe.

For females, the value of watching the displays is straightforward, since it helps them select the mates who have the Sporty chicks only genes and can best compete for resources. The precise nature of athletic activities is important too, since so many of them—running, tackling, throwing projectiles, advancing across terrain or even around a diamond —are useful in warfare. This all serves to refine skills, reinforce alliances and intimidate potential rivals.

Social status matters too, and sports reliably confers it, enhancing both power and mating options for the participant. The function of sports as a kind of mortal combat for men is evident even in the way they approach a less directly competitive sport like marathon running, in which all but a tiny handful of participants are not actually contending to win. None of this means that socialization, gender bias and all of the other cultural variables are not at work in the largely male world of sport.

Play has always been a big part of the life of all humans, and sports can be a big part of play. Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey. By Jeffrey Kluger. Related Stories.

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