Delusions of gender

A dispatch from the gender wars: are there”male“ and “female” brains?
Denyse O'Leary | Nov 18 2010 | comment  

The gender wars take no prisoners. In 2005, suggesting that there might indeed be innate differences between men and women derailed the career of Harvard president Larry Summers. He reemerged, years later, as President Obama’s sometime finance guru). Meanwhile, a host of neuroscientists report differences between the brains of men and women that, they say, account for different abilities and career choices.

Psychologist and author Cordelia Fine disagrees with the neuroscientists. In Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, she has no time for the “special powers” that pop brain science currently imputes to the female brain, reminding us that such claims were made long before the magnetic resonance imaging machine was invented.

She takes aim at books such as What Could He Be Thinking? where we hear that images of male and female brains were “marriage saving” for author Michael Gurian and his wife, to say nothing of Gurian’s Leadership and the Sexes which “links the actual science of male/female brain differences to every aspect of business.”

And if that doesn’t make you feel like Employee Double X or XY clocking in, what will?

“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems,” says Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron Cohen. But is that true? And is it why right-brainers (= mostly women) will rule the future?

Fine’s work is distinguished by the absence of shrill feminist rhetoric. Thank heaven, because we’ve all heard enough of that. Put another way: Men could be smarter than women. That might not seem fair to the rest of us. But what doesn’t seem fair to the rest of us could still be true, and we would still have to live with it. Unless, of course, we prefer Potemkin Villages of mandatory half-female classes in all subjects, so we can demonstrate that bureaucracy trumps reality.

However, Fine’s main point - massively documented throughout the book - is that so many of the findings in this area are flawed that it would be best not to base any judgment on them. She assembles a pretty good case by looking, not primarily at the distortions of pop psychology, but at flaws in the primary literature. There she found much evidence of “gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith.”

For one thing, much of the primary literature is based on determinism - in an indeterminate world. Whether due to “neural or hormonal roots” (The Sexual Paradox) or the surge of fetal testosterone which will decide “the very nature of the mind” (Brain Sex), the fix is in, we are told. Fine argues, by contrast, that the mind is a cluster of psychological processes that cannot be understood apart from the culture with which it interacts.

Most of the way, I am with her. It’s refreshing (and significant!) that - at last - a careful psychologist takes aim at the pop culture science that degrades both pop culture and science. For example, her book is blessedly free of the evolutionary psychology nonsense about what Neolithic man or woman “would have done” and so, the argument runs, it’s in our genes to do it too.

But then, at page 4, something changed: I was asked (hypothetically) to write down what I thought males and females are like. My ideas did not match the approved research findings of rampant sexism, and by page 5, I was informed that my mind harbours stereotypes (big, beefy vs. pink, frilly) without “the encumbrances of awareness, intention, and control.” So, after all this time, I still don’t know what I think, but the researchers do? Many readers, I suspect, would share my restlessness at that point ...

That said, Fine does an exhaustive job of critiquing neuroscience and psychology research that seems to have begun with its own premise - that men and women have different brain structures or styles - and tries to find evidence to match. The brain is like an ocean, so no surprise they found something. She introduces much research that contradicts the Difference model, and anyone writing on such a sensitive subject should definitely look into it. That sort of caution might have saved Larry Summers’s career.

Still, in the end, I find myself asking: If there are no significant differences between men and women, why did women get the short end of the stick - or so we are told - for thousands of years? And why did we eventually need a women’s rights movement, not a men’s rights movement (or not till recently anyway)? And why are so many Muslim women supporters of what seems like oppression to non-Muslim Westerners, in spite of the women’s rights movement?

One possible clue is offered by a traditional religious source: The curse on Eve after she ate the infamous apple was that “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16b) Many people have assumed that “he will rule over you” is a legal prescription, but that is far from clear. What’s predicted there is that Eve will desire a relationship with Adam and accept his domination in consequence.

Is it true? I’ve seen many women suppress competitive instincts if they sense that the man they desire doesn’t find such instincts attractive. In their case, brain-based theories, pro or con, are just so much whistling down the wind. The answer is much simpler: The women made a choice of relationship over achievement, irrespective of their testable abilities.

But hats off to Cordelia Fine for providing enough balancing information to give us cultural freedom to discuss these questions without losing our jobs.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain

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