Brain Wars

For over a decade now, we’ve been hearing that feminism got it wrong: differences between men and women are not about power or social arrangements, they’re just the inevitable consequences of the way our brains are wired. But this claim is challenged in two new feminist books about sex-difference science. Debbie Cameron has been reading them.

In 1997 I wrote an article for T&S called ‘Back to nature’, about the return of biology in debates on sex and gender. I had a feeling that this was not just a passing fad, and unfortunately, time has proved me right. The idea that men and women were eternally, innately different is now almost as much the prevailing common sense as it was in the pre-feminist dark ages. But the scientific approach I examined in 1997—evolutionary psychology, which connects male and female behaviour to the genes we inherit from our early human ancestors—is no longer its main support. Today it is more common for the sexists to turn to neuroscience, which supposedly proves that all kinds of male-female differences are ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

Even people whose sexual politics are reasonably progressive often argue that the evidence for this idea is too compelling to dismiss. Look at all those pretty pictures of brains lighting up: don’t they show that male and female brains work differently? If you demur, they ask if you have children, and nod sagely if the answer is no. Anyone who’s actually tried it can tell you that non-sexist parenting doesn’t work: little Emily and little Oliver just don’t have the same interests and aptitudes. In 1970 we could imagine this was all about their socialization, but today we know better: it’s the way their brains are wired.

But it seems the tide may at last be turning. In the last couple of months, two books have been published which set out to question not just the popular and/or politically motivated misuse of recent sex-difference science, but the actual scientific basis for its claims. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex-Differences belongs to the same, popular science genre which has done most to disseminate the ideas she wants to criticize; her aim is to give the non-specialist reader an accessible alternative to the ‘neurosexism’ (her term) that currently dominates this market. Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm: The Flaws in Sex Difference Science is a more academic book (the author teaches women’s studies). It takes a bit more effort to read, but Jordan-Young does a good job of making the science understandable.

Brainstorm: hormones gone haywire

Brainstorm does not actually deal with the whole of sex-difference science, but is rather a close examination of one influential contribution to it known as ‘brain organization theory’. Boiled down to basics, the theory says that our brains are organized to function in a male- or female-typical way by the hormones (more specifically, the levels of testosterone and oestrogen) to which they are exposed as we develop in the womb.

Adherents of this view regard brain-sex as in principle different from chromosomal sex: though in practice the two will usually coincide, the theory depends to a significant extent on research conducted with intersexed people in whom they diverge—for instance genetic females with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), a syndrome which causes the sufferer to produce high levels of testosterone, and genetic males with androgen insensitivity, whose bodies produce testosterone but do not respond to it, so that they appear to be, and are usually raised as, girls. There is also a small group of genetic males who have been raised as girls following accidental damage to their genitals which was judged by doctors to necessitate gender reassignment (among medics it seems to be a self-evident truth that if you haven’t got a fully-functioning penis then you can’t become a man.)  If brain organization theory is correct, then high levels of testosterone should masculinise the brains of CAH girls, non-responsiveness to testosterone should feminize the brains of CAIS (Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) boys, and the trauma cases should have male brains (since they were male foetuses) despite being socialized as girls. Various aspects of their behaviour, from the toys they play with as children to their eventual sexual preferences, are scrutinized to see if they support this theory.

An alternative approach is to begin by examining the behaviour of (non-intersexed) subjects and then look for evidence about their exposure to hormones in the womb. This approach has been used in attempts to explain homosexuality, the hypothesis being that gay and lesbian individuals will turn out to have been exposed to unusually low or high levels of testosterone at a crucial stage of brain development.

Rebecca-Jordan Young makes some incisive criticisms of the scientists’ assumptions and their methods. She points out, for instance, how insensitive they are to the actual experience of intersexed people—the painful and intrusive medical procedures they are subject to, the stigma they have to manage as they grow up, the expectations and anxieties which influence their caregivers’ treatment of them. It would be remarkable if these things did not affect the formation of their gender identity and sexuality, but the scientists go on as if it were all a question of their hormones. Meanwhile, the hormonal theory of homosexuality is sometimes pursued using such obviously unreliable methods as asking subjects’ mothers whether the pregnancy which produced a child who later became gay or lesbian was stressful or otherwise unusual. Mothers often think they must be responsible for their child’s homosexuality: questions which suggest stress during the pregnancy as a possible cause will motivate many mothers to recall it as stressful whether or not that is an accurate reflection of the facts.

But the argument made in Brainstorm is not only (though it is partly) that the scientists have used questionable methods or that they haven’t proved their point with hard evidence. More fundamentally, Jordan-Young suggests that they don’t agree on what their point actually is. On the face of it the argument is simple—hormones organize the brain along sex-differentiated lines, and the brain organizes behaviour along the same sex-differentiated lines. But what actually constitutes behaving in a ‘male’ or ‘female’ way? On that key issue, the researchers’ definitions have varied significantly and changed dramatically over time.

Perhaps the most striking examples are in the area of sex and sexuality. Early on, researchers took their cue from experiments investigating the effects of testosterone on sexual behaviour in rats, which was classified as male or female using measures such as the frequency of lordosis, an arching of the back which signals that one animal is prepared to be mounted by another. But in the human case such ‘objective’ measures are impossible to devise, and in practice the criteria the scientists used to classify behaviour reflected their common-sense assumptions about heterosexuality. As common sense in this area changed, so did the definitions used in studies. Female behaviours which early researchers had categorized without hesitation as ‘masculine’, such as initiating sex or willingly engaging in activities other than penetrative intercourse, were later redefined as part of the normal feminine repertoire. Whatever else we might think of this, it means that findings from studies done before the shift took place are simply not comparable with the findings from those conducted afterwards.

Homosexuality has also been approached using different and incompatible conceptual frameworks. One approach divides people up according to the gender of their preferred sexual partners (desiring men is ‘feminine’ while desiring women is ‘masculine’), while another classifies them as homo- or heterosexual on the basis of whether they desire partners of the same or the other sex. This second framework puts gay men and lesbians in the same category, whereas the first puts gay men together with straight women and lesbians with straight men.

Jordan-Young points out the obvious implication. Though brain organization theory is presented as a unified body of knowledge accumulated over several decades, it is actually not unified at all: because its definitions of key concepts have varied so much, it is full of inconsistencies and contradictions. You cannot maintain that two studies are ‘saying the same thing’ about X if they defined X in different and incompatible ways.

While inconsistent results are not unusual in science, in this case Jordan-Young argues that they are especially problematic. Brain organization researchers are not in a position to conduct real, controlled experiments: no ethics committee would let them deliberately vary the hormone exposures of 1000 foetuses just to see what would happen. Instead they depend on data from ‘quasi-experiments’, naturally-occurring cases where hormone exposure is atypical, but in ways which researchers do not control. In this situation it becomes more than usually important to assess how far studies taking different routes lead to similar conclusions. This is exactly what Brainstorm tries to do, analysing the constructs, methods and findings of more than 300 studies, as well as interviewing a number of the scientists involved. What it finds is that the studies do not support each other as they claim, and some of the studies presented as evidence for the theory are more logically interpreted as evidence against it. In short, brain organization theory is an unconvincing mess.

Delusions of gender: neurosexism and the myth of non-sexist parenting

Where Brainstorm delves deeply into a single theory, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is more wide-ranging. In line with the conventions of the popular science genre, Fine has gone for maximum readability, dividing her material into 21 short chapters in which accounts of various scientific studies are interspersed with personal anecdote and lightened with regular injections of humour. Though it is not a formula I particularly like, that is more an issue of personal taste than a principled objection, and I do think Fine is a skilled exponent of it.

One thing I remain ambivalent about is the title Delusions of Gender, which could equally well have graced the cover of a conventional brain-sex book (‘gender is a delusion, it’s all about biological sex’). This did make me wonder if Fine had made a strategic decision to maximize her audience by playing down the element of feminist politics. Happily, that suspicion was dispelled as soon as I started reading: the introduction begins with a scathing attack on neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine’s bestselling pop-book The Female Brain. (‘Was Evan [one of the men whose behaviour is ‘explained’ by Brizendine] raised by wolves until the age of thirteen? Not at all. He’s just a regular guy, with a regular guy-brain that’s wired all wrong for empathy’.) Within a few pages Fine has arrived at the political nub of the brain-sex argument—‘if you want the answer to persisting gender inequalities, stop peering suspiciously at society and take a look right over here, please, at this brain scan’—and signalled her intention to take it apart: ‘If only it were that simple’ (p.xviii).

The book has three main sections, of which the second, ‘Neurosexism’, explains why it is not that simple, with particular emphasis on the way popular representations of brain-research, particularly the kind that uses neuroimaging techniques (those pretty, lighty-uppy fMRI or PET scans), distort the scientific findings and make unwarranted claims about their implications. If you’ve ever found yourself embroiled in an argument with some sexist know-all who beats you about the head with the supposed evidence from brain-scans (usually gleaned from a selective trawl of the internet), this part of Fine’s book is full of useful ammunition. You could argue that she has given herself an easier target than Jordan-Young (who is more critical of the primary scientific research), but I think she is right to treat the popular stuff as a non-trivial problem. Often it is the popular versions of science which are applied in the real world in ways that do real damage. Fine herself provides a good illustration: ‘Three years ago’, she tells us, ‘I discovered my son’s kindergarten teacher reading a book that claimed that his brain was incapable of forging the connection between emotion and language. And so I decided to write this book’ (p.174).

Fine refers frequently to her own experience as a parent, and her most sustained argument, which is the main focus of her first and third sections, is an admirably direct attempt to refute one of the most powerful arguments used by the brain-sex lobby, that if several decades of non-sexist child-rearing have not eradicated the stark differences between little Oliver and little Emily, the only possible conclusion is that those differences must be innate and ineradicable. In reality, Fine suggests, parenting practices have not changed anything like as much as many western bourgeois liberals would like to think. What most self-proclaimed non- or anti-sexists have espoused over the last 40 years is an inconsistent, ambivalent approach that she calls ‘parenting with half-changed minds’. More stringent versions of the non-sexist experiment have only been attempted by a few intrepid souls whose efforts would strike most other parents as eccentric to the point of madness.

Along these lines, Fine describes the approach taken by the psychologists Darryl and Sandra Bem in the 1970s. The Bems told their children—one boy and one girl—that the only difference between the sexes is that men have penises and women vaginas. They went to great lengths to withhold all the usual cultural information about non-genital gender differences: as well as providing the same range of toys for both children, they systematically doctored their reading materials, deleting sex-stereotyped descriptions and even drawing breasts on illustrations of pilots and truck-drivers. Meanwhile, their real-life household was organized so that the children would not see any gendered division of roles between its adult members.

It worked, up to a point. In her autobiography, Sandra Bem recounts an incident involving their son Jeremy, who at the age of four went to pre-school wearing barrettes in his hair, and was told by a fellow pre-schooler that he must be a girl. True to his parents’ teaching, Jeremy pounced on the other child’s mistake, explaining that ‘being a boy means having a penis and testicles’ and underlining the point by pulling down his pants. But his adversary was not impressed, remarking that ‘everybody has a penis; only girls wear barrettes’. Fine’s re-telling of this story does not record what the pre-school staff thought, or did; but the point is clear enough. Though the Bems’ attempt at social engineering was unusually radical, they could only have achieved their objectives by keeping their kids in total isolation from the rest of the world. Non-sexist parenting is one of the biggest gender delusions of our time—an important point to make, and one which Fine makes convincingly.

Not just flawed science?

I would certainly recommend both the books reviewed here to feminists: they are well-informed, well- argued and (for science books, perhaps unusually) well-written interventions in what I would consider (though I hate having to) one of the most important debates in current sexual politics. And I have no doubt that the authors’ own sexual politics are feminist. But I did feel that both were slightly muted on what radical feminists might take to be the fundamental issue of power—whose interests are served, and how, by the ideas these books take issue with.

The reasons for this muting are different in the two books, and in both cases I am sympathetic to what I take to be behind it (too much explicit political radicalism might alienate the mainstream readership Cordelia Fine is hoping to persuade, while in Rebecca Jordan-Young’s case it would compromise the scientific credibility she needs to make her case). But the effect is to elide a pretty significant point about the brain-sex agenda: though what its supporters overtly claim to believe is that women and men are ‘different but equal’, covertly they are reasserting the intellectual inferiority of women.

Cordelia Fine at times comes close to spelling this out; but it is striking that she tends not to do it in her own words. At one point, for instance, she quotes the philosopher Neil Levy’s description of one influential brain-sex book, Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference, as ‘a masterpiece of condescension’. Levy summarizes its argument thus: ‘on average, women’s intelligence is best employed putting people at their ease, while the men get on with understanding the world and building and repairing the things we need in it’. I agree that this is highly quotable; but it’s as if Fine fears that such strong feminist criticism will look biased and unscientific coming from her—that it is somehow more credible if it comes from a man.

Perhaps I am over-interpreting here, but I noticed something similar recently when I took part in a public debate organized by Cambridge University and the Guardian newspaper. The question was what science had revealed about gendered behaviour; the thesis that what science had revealed was the extent of hard-wired male-female differences was advanced by two men, the aforementioned Simon Baron-Cohen and primatologist/evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, while their opponents were two women, me and the Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke. One of the first questions put to the panel—by a man—was why we thought the men had ended up on one side of the argument and the women on the other. And what was really interesting was that none of us wanted to answer. We all behaved as if we thought it was somehow vulgar even to mention the possibility that anyone had a political agenda as opposed to (or in addition to) an ‘objective’ scientific position.

Eventually I did respond. I suggested that the debate is one that women have more at stake in than men, because the implication of the ‘brain sex’ thesis, however its adherents try to disguise or deny it, is indeed that women are inferior to men on every measure of intellectual ability. This unpalatable conclusion is typically obscured by a relentless focus on male social ineptitude and emotional idiocy. No effort is spared in reassuring women that they are ‘different but equal’—not as good as men at some things, but far better than men at others. We are apparently not supposed to notice or care that the things we are said to excel in are not exactly major achievements: they are low-level things like considering others’ feelings and controlling the impulse to punch them in the face. A masterpiece of condescension, indeed.

Women scientists have a particular reason to care whether or not this stuff is true, since if it is, the implication is that they are frauds, either not good scientists or not proper women. Maybe that explains why they are more inclined than men to take a sceptical view—though having met Elizabeth Spelke, I am quite sure that if her research had supported the men’s position instead of contradicting it, she would have said so without hesitation. In my experience the women who work in this area are scrupulous to a fault. Scientifically speaking this is admirable; but politically it can be a problem, as I think is illustrated by Brainstorm and Delusions of Gender.

Both authors are scrupulous about playing by the scientific rules. Cordelia Fine explicitly says that there is nothing for feminists to fear from ‘real’ science, science which lives up to its own ideals. Her criticisms are directed not at Science as an institution, but at science which has strayed from what are meant to be its core values. For some purposes and audiences this is doubtless an effective argument; but its effectiveness comes at the cost of not being able to make a basic political point—that the sexism of sex-difference science is not so much an incidental ‘flaw’ as a precondition for the entire enterprise. Outside the context of sexual inequality, most of the questions would be irrelevant or senseless: inside it, their function is to come up with answers that justify the status quo. The problem, in other words, goes much deeper than the flawed assumptions, methods and conclusions which these two books identify. So while it’s good to see feminists challenging the science, in the end I think their criticisms do not go far enough.

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. Icon Books, £14.99

Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference. Harvard University Press, £25.95

2 comments to Brain Wars

  • Stephanie

    I have read both of the these books (not intentionally to compare them) and could not agree more with this review. Neither go deep enough into the premises behind these studies: that gender differences exist and need explaining. By assuming there is a difference to explain, scientists have to draw on their own socialized notions of gender difference. Unfortunately I found them both pretty depressing because they both suggest that gender equality is a long slog with no big win. Its pretty hard to explain (and maintain) vigilence over a multitude of tiny implicit gender sterotypes; whereas obvious stereotyping and protest seems more fullfilling, at least to me.

  • Liam

    While close examinations of the politics are important, the simple fact is we need “pure” scientific examinations as well. If our only argument is that the intentions of the researchers are questionable, we miss out on important dimension of the debate. The reasearchers might be sexist in terms of their motivations, but they might also happen to be right. And that requires looking at the evidence and discussing it. It’s not a matter of whether the authors go far enough; it’s that they’re dealing with a different level of the problem and one that is necessary to be addressed.

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