Friday, 3 December 2010

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

This is an interesting book in the mould of The Myth of Mars and Venus, which I reviewed on this blog a couple of months ago.  It seeks to challenge the fashionable belief that there are deep and clear-cut differences between male and female psychology which are rooted in biology and can be detected by scientific research.

I have a depressing feeling that this is a fool's errand.  Any well-argued attack on the Mars-and-Venus worldview is welcome, but in the final analysis that worldview derives its power not from its objective validity but from its psychological appeal.  Gender is an immensely important part of personal and social identity.  For most of us - though not all - affirming our identity as male or female feels good.  It gives us a sense of grounding and certainty, which are scarce commodities in human life.  It allows us to feel part of a wider social group, and if done in the presence of someone of the opposite sex it can set up a pleasantly flirty dynamic.  (I'd say that the foregoing is self-evident, but it has empirical support too: Fine refers to a study in which men who were told that gender differences are biologically predetermined reported feeling happier about things than men who were told, more accurately, that the evidence is unclear.)

From this standpoint, it is no surprise that people are receptive to the idea that the sexes are essentially separate and distinct tribes.  What's more, at a time of enormous social change, when traditional gender roles are constantly being challenged and deconstructed, a lot of people find it comforting to be un-PC and reassure themselves that men are still men and women are still women.  It must be appealing to be told that one's prejudices are confirmed by the latest scientific research, but the sources of those prejudices may be too deep for them to be shaken by a book like this.  As with the scientific and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God, most people have made their minds up before they start.


Underlying the Mars-and-Venus myth is the idea that the human mind is a kind of machine, with the male mind having very different parts and processes from the female version.  Sometimes this is made explicit, with writers referring to certain things - a man's sexual aggressiveness, a woman's hankering for children - as being "hardwired", a technical term taken from the vocabulary of electronics.  Fine, who is an expert in cognitive neuroscience, explains that this model of human psychology is inadequate and misleading.  The mind is not an identifiable, self-contained piece of hardware.  The way in which we think is variable, flexible, inconsistent, and flooded with influences from both our immediate circumstances and our wider culture. Mechanical and electrical analogies are inapt.

A large part of the problem is that the thought processes in our brains are not simply preprogrammed by our genetic makeup: they are shaped to a large extent by external influences too.  Far from being an engine or even a computer, the brain is a living organism.  Our genes put certain constraints on how we think and behave, but there is a lot more flexibility than most of us realise.  As Fine notes, "[w]hat we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain, either directly or through changes in gene expression".  When you think about it, the fact that our neural pathways are not biologically fixed should be no more than common sense.  If this was not the case, people's personalities would be effectively frozen.  People would not experience bouts of depression, or periods of confusion about their sexuality.  Distinct subcultures and attitudes would not grow up in different professions, churches and workplaces, in rural and urban areas, or in different countries, and newcomers to such "corporate cultures" would not go native as often as they do (or indeed ever).

The idea that we unconsciously take on the prejudices around us is too obvious to require much elaboration.  To take a fairly banal example, American students who attend female-only colleges show an increased propensity to associate women with leadership roles.  Perhaps more surprisingly, girls who attend co-ed colleges end up being less ready to make that association than they had been previously. Moreover, we unconsciously align ourselves with gender roles.  French high school students were asked to rate their abilities at particular subjects.  Those who were reminded of the stereotypical view that girls are better at arts subjects and boys are better at maths were influenced by that view in the answers they gave as compared against a control group and their actual exam results.  Even asking subjects to tick a male/female box at the start of a test may affect the way that they answer the questions on it.

The other side of this coin is that most of us tend to avoid identifying with the opposite sex.  Men generally do better than women at exercises in which they are asked to visualise rotating objects.  But this advantage melts away when male test subjects are told that this skill is associated with fashion design and flower arranging.  Something similar happens in tests for emotional intelligence when male subjects are aware what they are being assessed for.  We don't want to come out looking like faggots, right?  Having said this, sometimes a hostile gender environment forces us to go native.  In one study, female science students at Stanford appeared to be less inclined towards wearing makeup and other traditionally feminine forms of behaviour (and this de-feminisation was observed kicking in, so it can't simply have been a matter of naturally unfeminine women choosing to study the sciences).

It hardly seems necessary to add that some well-worn gender stereotypes are quite culturally specific.  The notion that men are naturally inclined to their careers rather than towards childcare presupposes a modern dichotomy between career and kids that only arose during the nineteenth century as a result of social and economic changes.  In the early days of computer science, programming (a task which requires much patience and attention to detail) was seen as being a female domain: the image of the male computer nerd was only manufactured in the 1980s, with the help of Bill Gates et al.


Our best hope of circumventing the effects of social conditioning is perhaps to look at the behaviour of very young children (though we should not underestimate how socially aware and responsive human beings are even as babies).  Several studies have looked at toddlers' play preferences, and they tend to suggest that gender differences at that age are quite blurred and fluid.  In one study, one-year-old boys showed a preference for "boys'" toys over "girls'" toys - but only by an distinctly underwhelming margin of 46% to 37%.  In another study of one-year-olds, boys again showed a preference for "boys'" toys - but both sexes seemed equally interested in "girls'" toys, and were equally happy to be presented with a ball, a doll or a car by the assessor.

We may even be able to identify the point at which gender differentiation kicks in.  One study looked at the development of a group of children between ages 17 months and 21 months.  At 17 months, the boys and girls played undiscriminatingly with a doll, a tea set, a brush and comb set and blocks (though the girls were less interested in the final toy, a truck).  At 21 months, by which time the children had started to become aware of sex distinctions, the boys had grown less fond of the doll and the girls more fond of it.  Interestingly, the peak period in childhood for gender chauvinism seems to be 5 to 7 years, after which it tends to sink in that such distinctions are not absolute - though, as Fine acidly notes, some people seem to remain stuck in the earlier stage well into adult life.

One early childhood study has gained some currency among Mars-and-Venus theorists.  Newborn babies with an average age of a day and a half were invited to look in turn at the face of the postgrad conducting the experiment and at a mobile (interest in people versus interest in machines, see).  Fine points out that this study had serious methodological flaws, and it is far from certain how much it would prove in any event.  Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning the results, because they are taken to support the Mars-and-Venus line.  It seems that male and female babies spent on average equal amounts of time looking at the face.  Boys looked longer at the mobile than girls, but the difference in looking time is unimpressive (51% to 41%).  Likewise, girls looked at the face for longer, but only by a small margin (49% to 41%).  This, remember, is a study triumphantly held up by biological determinists as providing scientific proof of their case.

You can take it back further if you want.  Some researchers have looked for a correlation between gender behaviour and levels of testosterone in the womb.  To be fair, there is evidence that girls exposed to unusually high levels of testosterone have more tomboyish qualities, but even this is not clear-cut.  More generally, the evidence to link prenatal hormones to masculinity and femininity is lacking.  Less testosterone, for example, should mean higher levels of empathy and social intelligence, according to the stereotype.  "So, does amniotic testosterone negatively correlate, in boys and girls separately, with frequency of eye contact at twelve months old with a parent during play, quality of social relationships at four years old... propensity to use mental-state terms, scores on the child version of the Empathy Quotient... and performance on a child's version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test?  The answers are, respectively: no; not really; not really; no; and yes."  Even that final "yes" turns out to be significantly qualified.  If you want to make a case for biological determinism, it turns out that the womb and the nursery are not the places to look.

The animal kingdom might provide an alternative source of data, but again it fails to provide much support for determinists.  Gender roles are clearly in evidence among other primates, but they vary between different species, and even (perhaps surprisingly) within the same species.  It appears that male macaques in Takasakiyama, Japan have an enlightened, New Chimp attitude towards childcare, whereas their brethren in Katuyama are more traditionally minded, presumably preferring to focus on their careers.  In another species of macaque, there are similar differences in infant rearing between males in Gibraltar and their friends across the Med in Morocco.


I am living proof that at least one popular gender stereotype is false: despite being a man, I regard the realm of science with an uninterest bordering on contempt.  This is not because I have a female brain, if such a thing exists.  Rather, it is a culturally specific attitude which has evolved for historical reasons in British culture among privately educated humanities graduates.  Nonetheless, when I am told that scientists have discovered that women like shopping more than men because their corpus callosum has more neurons than their cerebral cortex (or whatever), I am inclined to take it more or less at face value.  It sounds hard and objective, and I am very unlikely to question it.  For this reason, I found what Fine had to say about Mars-and-Venus neuroscience to be very enlightening.

Neuroscience is a discipline that needs to be handled with care.  It is a young science, and the technology needed to answer the questions that we want to ask is simply not there yet.  Neuroimaging is a somewhat unreliable technique, and its results need to be treated with caution.  This is partially down to the inherent complexity of thinking and feeling.   We can't just take brain scans of (say) a man watching a football match or a woman ironing a shirt and decide that this area or that area of the brain is linked with gendered behaviour.  "It's simply not the case", says Fine, "that people use one particular lobe, or a circumscribed area of the brain, to read a novel, or write an essay, or solve an equation or calculate the angle of a triangle".

Even more importantly, as already intimated, differences in brain structure and functioning are not necessarily inborn, but may be acquired.  As Fine rightly asks, "where else but in the brain would we see the effects of socialisation or experience?".  The best known example of environmental influences affecting brain structure is the larger than average hippocampus size of London cabbies, who are renowned for their encyclopaedic memory of the city's street and byways.  (A diehard biological determinist might argue that people with large hippocampuses gravitate towards taxi driving - aside from being inherently implausible, this would not explain why hippocampus size increases the longer the cabbie has been on the job.)

Some claims of Mars-and-Venus theorists are so silly that even I can spot the overinterpretation: the notion, for example, that the use of smaller brain areas and shorter neural circuits mean a narrower focus of the mind.  In some cases, the fallacies require expert analysis and familiarity with notions such as brain lateralisation.  Fine is helpful here.  For example, on the subject of male and female language use, a particular hobby horse of biological determinists, she explains the facts with this trenchant conclusion: "Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralisation, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills".  (For more about the nonexistence of innate differences in language use, see Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus, which I referred to at the start of this review.)

Not many people go to the trouble of following the scientific footnotes of Mars-and-Venus theorists.  Fine does, and the results are not edifying.  One prolific writer and speaker, Dr Leonard Sax, argues that men have difficulty talking about their feelings (I suspect that my girlfriend would laugh hollowly at this) because emotions are processed in the amygdala, which has few direct connections with the cerebral cortex, whereas girls' emotions are processed in the cerebral cortex itself.  Fine points out that (1) the amygdala is in fact richly connected with the cerebral cortex and (2) Sax's theory is based on a small neuroimaging study in which children were passively shown pictures of fearful faces - brain activity was not even measured in most of the areas associated with language and emotion.  Elsewhere, Sax expounds a theory about why girls need to be taught maths differently based on one neuroimaging study relating to maze navigation.

Dr Sax is not alone here.  Among the most popular Mars-and-Venus writers are Allan and Barbara Pease.  In their book Why Men Don't Listen And Women Can't Read Maps, they have a diagram showing the locations of emotion in men and women's brains.  The male picture shows neatly segregated blobs, while the blobs are scattered indiscriminately through the woman's brain.  This is laughable on the face of it - the sort of thing that a couple of blokes in a pub might draw as a joke - but the Peases assure their readers that it is backed up by neuroscientific research.  Fine tracks down the relevant paper, and it turns out that they are seriously misrepresenting its findings.  Put simply, it seems that the women had two left blobs and one right blob, while the men had either two left blobs or two right blobs (an important intra-male difference).  Lest it be thought that this still reveals some profound truth about the sexes, Fine goes on to point out that the lack of a blob does not indicate a lack of brain activity, that the sample size was very small (16 people), and that the criteria for registering a blob are probably faulty, since one test registered apparently meaningful blobs in brain scans of a dead fish.  This, of course, is on top of the inherent problem with relating specific parts of the brain to particular, complex thoughts and feelings.

One could go on, but this is the sort of "evidence" from which the myth of Mars and Venus is constructed.  A further point suggested by the book is that, even if brain structure did correlate with psychology and social behaviour, the true distinction may not be between men and women, but between larger and smaller sized brains, which in turn indirectly correlates with the male/female division.

It comes as little surprise to learn that we have been here before.  Pseudoscience never goes out of fashion.  In the nineteenth century, it was thought that intellect was associated with the frontal lobes, which were observed to be better developed in men, rather than the parietal lobes, which were better developed in women.  When scientists were led to reassign the location of intellect to the parietal lobes, they also arrived at the conclusion that, on fuller examination, the parietal lobes actually appeared to be better developed in men.  It's easy to laugh at this sort of thing and to assume that the scientists of today would never subconsciously move the goalposts in this way, but this requires quite a leap of faith.  Remember, Mars-and-Venus theories were once used to justify denying women the vote and a role in public life (and let's not even get into biological determinist views about race).  Scientists are only human too, and they do not lay down their prejudices when they put on their white coats.


The fundamental problem with it's-all-in-the-genes views of gender is that physical sex is binary but psychological attributes aren't.  A human being can be either physically male or physically female.  Leaving aside the uncommon phenomenon of intersexuality, there is no compromise, overlap or third option.  You either have one thing or you have the other.  The fallacy that underlies Mars-and-Venus thinking is the assumption that this blunt physical dichotomy is replicated in the human mind, so that you either have a male brain and emotions or you have their quite different female equivalents.

Put this starkly, the limitations of the Mars-and-Venus worldview are fairly clear.  The idea that psychological differences between men and women are as clear and binary as the difference between a penis and a vagina is untenable.  Even the high priest of biological determinism, Simon Baron-Cohen, reports that less than 50% of women (along with 17% of men) have what he defines as a "female brain".

This isn't to say that there are no innate psychological differences between men and women - but then there aren't many people who would make such a claim (and Fine doesn't appear to be one of them).  The notion that the mind is a blank slate is to a large extent a straw man, a kind of caricature of 1970s feminism.  One might mention here the tragic case of David Reimer, a Canadian boy born in 1965 who was raised as a girl without his knowledge or consent after suffering genital injuries as a young child.  He ended up readopting his male gender as an adolescent, and committed suicide in 2004.  Few people in the mainstream, including those who identify as feminists, would claim that either nature or nurture allows us to make free with gender in such a cavalier way.  The point is rather that on top of any genetic sex differences there is layer upon layer of strong environmental and cultural influences - and, in any event, any innate average differences between the sexes are dwarfed by the enormous innate variations within them, between different men and different women.

The result is that saying that women are inherently A or men are inherently B is likely to be a fatuous over-generalisation of the black-people-are-good-at-sports variety.  You start with a well-worn social prejudice, simplify it, exaggerate and generalise, add a footnote to a scientific study that doesn't prove what you think it does, and you end up with something like Baron-Cohen's infamous statement in The Essential Difference that men are good at being scientists, bankers and programmers, but don't worry, girls, you're going to make great nurses and primary teachers.  Homo sapiens has limited mental powers, and stereotypes can be helpful shortcuts.  But when they lead to misunderstanding, prejudice and injustice, their cost is surely too high.