I just finished Cordelia Fine’s new book Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. It was a fun read and I consumed it in a few days. I must say, however, that I found her over-the-top snarkiness and sarcasm to be a little annoying at times. Which isn’t to say I disagreed with her main thesis. I found the book’s overall argument to be solid, although I’m biased because I was largely sympathetic with “neuroconstructivism” going into the book. Fine does a remarkable job of showing the extent to which society can influence the brain/mind, both implicitly and explicitly, and thus have effects on the genderfication of children. What is genderfication? It’s the process of learning to categorize the social world in terms of boys and girls as well as coming to understand “I am a girl” or “I am a boy”. Learning how to apply the categories correctly is made easy with the widespread gender norms enforcing everything from which color clothes to wear, what toys are appropriate to play with, or even what “essential differences” there are between boys and girls in terms of personality, behavior, and natural ability.
Fine spends a lot of time in the book debunking the “sexual differences” science literature that has grown over the years, along with the popular “folk psychology” of the Men are from Mars type found in most pop psychology magazines. Most people are familiar with these popular conceptions, and Fine does an admirable job of showing just how widespread and implicitly ingrained they are in our society. If I showed you two lists: (A) strong, ambitious, courageous, logical (B) tender, loving, empathic, nurturing, which would you associate with females and which with males? (A) is male and (B) is female, right? But why? If you asked a nativist or an essentialist, they would tell you that (A) and (B) make sense as categories because females really are more empathic than men, and men really do think more logically as a result of their innate essence. And sure enough, when we run questionnaires on males and females, the females tend to self-identity as being more empathic than males. But one of Fine’s major points throughout the book is that these types of tests don’t prove the nativist conclusion since it’s possible that females aren’t actually any more empathic than males, but rather, only think they are more empathic, which then has actual effects on the use of empathy. And likewise, most men are under the assumption that they are less empathic or “tender minded” than women, and thus could actually be less empathic, not because it’s “in their genes”, but because their brains have been molded by a society with widespread and powerful gender norms.
But what happens when you actually test for differences in empathy in simulated tasks of empathy? You can often point to a slight tendency for females to do better. But why? Is this because they actually are more empathic than males or is it because they have social expectations to the effect that they are better, and this gives them more confidence such that they are better in testing situations (often under the explicit assumption that they are expected to perform better on the test)? If the difference arose from empathy skills being “hard wired” into female brains, then we wouldn’t expect that manipulations of the social context would be able to circumvent the difference in empathy skills shown between men and women. Fine does a great job describing a multitude of experiments in which the manipulation of social context and expectation is able to turn the “hard wired” empathy skills of women into something a little more plastic. It turns out that if you control for the social expectations in empathy tasks, the differences in empathy between the men and women become remarkably hard to find. There are many ways to manipulate the outcomes for these “differences” tasks. This indicates that the things scientists thought was hardwired, is actually “softwired” and variable in response to context, both neural and social.
This idea of “essential differences” found between the abilities and personality characteristics of men and women once having been thought “hard wired”, and then found out to be malleable, is the general motif of Delusions of Gender. At this point the skeptical reader is probably thinking, “But science has overwhelmingly shown there to be differences between males and females!” Naturally, Fine acknowledges this. Of course there are some anatomical differences. However, the task of showing that anatomical differences lead to important psychological differences is steeped with difficulties. It is one thing to point out that the male brain is statistically different in some way from the female brain, it is quite another to provide evidence that this difference actually leads to differences in behavior that actually matter for success in modern living. Fine doesn’t deny that there are differences in the brain between men and women, and that these differences might actually lead to nontrivial differences in psychology. It’s just that Fine wants to raise the standard of evidence needed to actually demonstrate that having “whatever it is that makes males physically different from females” leads to an inability to be successful at traditional male vocations or male skills e.g. math, science, leadership. Fine goes out of her way to make fun of the rampant circular logic involved in these types of arguments (“Women are worse at spatial reasoning because women are worse at spatial reasoning”). And likewise, the standard of evidence needs to be raised for demonstrating that “whatever makes males different from females” renders males excusable for not being a nurturing father, showing empathy to people, or helping with housework and childrearing. It isn’t enough to speculate that “the male brain has feature X and the female brain doesnt, therefore males are logical and nonempathic and females are illogical and empathic”.
Before such statements can confidently be made, one would need a working theory of how the brain functioned. Think of the simplicity of the tasks studied in neuroscience. Studies often involve massive simplifications of real world behavior, for good heuristic reasons. But complex, nested behaviors like “being a scientist” or “being a good caregiver”, just don’t easily reduce to lacking a “female” gene, or having this tiny difference in volume in some particular module or region of the brain. Fine reminds us that it isn’t easy to predict largescale behaviors from raw anatomical data. We aren’t really sure what anatomical features correlate with such broad characteristics as “aptitude for science and analytic thinking”. We would first have to have a working theory of how philosophy and math are actually performed by the brain. Given that scientists are still working on how the brain perceives colors and shapes, I think we are a long way before we can confidently assert that female brains are essentially unfit for productive careers in science and analytic thinking. Without a working theory of how the brain makes math and science even possible, how can we assert with confidence that female brains are essentially unfit for such fields by virtue of some vague anatomical difference?
But given everything we already know about how brains work, I am confident that we can now throw away the very idea that there is an “essence” to the male or female brain. The only way of testing what the male and female brains are really capable of would be to raise them in a gender-neutral society. But that is an impossibility. Gender saturates our social world and it likely isn’t going away anytime soon. Until that time, we really don’t know what male or female brains are capable of. Maybe 1000 years in the future there will be an equal amount of male and female physicists, philosophers, and computer scientists, or maybe, for some reason, more females in traditional male-led fields. The well-documented plasticity of the brain and the human specialization for long gestation periods, sensitivity to environmental conditions, and staggering amounts of social learning make the future of human psychology impossible to predict. One thing is for sure though: gender norms have been changing, are changing, and will continue to change in response to new developments both biological and cultural. The only thing “essential” about the female and male brain is the essential tendency to change, adapt, and robustly respond to varying environmental conditions.