Do men and women have fundamentally different brains? Cordelia Fine’s new book, Delusions of Gender, has stoked controversy by claiming the differences have been hugely overstated.
If you scan the pop science section of any bookshop, you’ll find what looks like a consensus. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. Why Gender Matters. The Essential Difference. Running the gamut from self-help schlock to sombre psychology, these are just a few of the titles to insist on a biological basis for gender roles.
Fine, however, paints an altogether more nuanced picture. As she argues in this dense yet engaging polemic, biological essentialism has its basis in the worst kind of bad science.
Indeed, the ‘neurosexism’ that Fine takes on is transparently unscientific, having long been used to justify inequality. Take, for example, the seventeenth century philosopher, Malebranche, who blamed women’s mental inferiority on the ‘delicacy of the brain fibres’. Take the Victorians who attributed this same inferiority to women’s ‘missing five ounces’ of brain.
Now take the Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who claims that while ‘the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for building systems’. At the time of writing, he has refused to pass comment on Fine’s book.
Fine has many more examples up her sleeve, and while they lend her argument rhetorical weight, we might ask whether it is fair to compare today’s gender-difference champions to their seventeenth-century forebears. Current researchers, after all, have access to the latest neuroimaging techniques, besides which ‘weighing the brain’ looks laughably primitive.
Still, if Delusions of Gender opens the reader’s eyes to anything, it is to how messy and inconclusive the field of neuroscience remains. As Fine shows, the field is muddied by bad methodologies and vested interests, with many purported ‘facts’ falling apart on closer inspection.
One major target of Fine’s ire is Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. Published in 2007, The Female Brain cites many neuroscience studies – but misinterprets the findings colossally according to Fine. Making claims such as “only when the children leave home [are] the mommy brain circuits… free to be applied to new ambitions, new thoughts, new ideas”, Brizendine’s shtick, as Fine sees it, seems to be couching ideology in the language of hard fact.
Educational consultants too receive a healthy dose of vitriol. One even goes so far as to invent a brain region, the crockus, which is supposedly four times bigger in girls. Because these issues are such a political hot potato, with scientists’ words affecting social and educational policy, Fine is anxious that no piece of ‘expertise’ be taken at face value.
Fine does not claim that male and female brains are the same, but that the small sexual differences in babies’ neural circuitry will only tell us so much. Unable to account for the gender roles we grow into, these ‘innate’ differences do not even explain why children overwhelmingly prefer gender-typed toys, let alone why ‘men don’t listen and women can’t read maps’.
The actual reasons proffered by Fine are far subtler and more interesting. Babies, she points out, are born with a profound sensitivity to the environment and receptivity to the information they receive. It makes no sense to say that male and female brains are hard-wired to differ, when ‘hard-wiring’ is itself a spurious concept. In fact, our neural processes interrelate in ways which are yet to be fully understood.
Fine, however, is resoundingly clear about her argument: gender stereotypes do not so much describe sexual differences as help create them. There is a fine line between what masquerades as science and simple social stereotype.
Elegantly written, compellingly readable and passionately polemical, Delusions of Gender peels away the assumptions and lazy thinking that masquerade as neuroscience.
This article appears at www.elements-science.co.uk/