At last: some good news for those of us who have despaired at the impact of neuroscience on popular and political thinking about gender. In her new book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, experimental psychologist Cordelia Fine argues that there is no convincing evidence that our brains are hardwired according to gender, and that therefore there is no such thing as ‘biological destiny’.
Fine takes issue with neuroscientists such as Simon Baron-Cohen, who has argued that ‘the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.’ Fine doesn’t deny that there are sex differences in the brain, but she warns against making straightforward connections between these and ‘who does what and who achieves what’:
It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are. But when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies and leaps of faith.
Fine deplores, as I do, the sub-genre of popular non-fiction spawned by simplified versions of neuroscience:
Avid readers of popular science books and articles about gender may well have formed the impression that science has shown that the path to a male or a female brain is set in utero, and that these differently structured brains create essentially different minds.
These cultural lores, which in popular hands can become nothing short of monstrous fiction, are standing in the way of greater sex equality – just as measures of skull volume, brain weight and neuron delicacy did in the past.
I’m not an expert in the field, but it seems to me that part of the problem has been a tendency for some scientists to adopt a reductive approach which simplifies the link between innate propensities and social behaviour, and also overlooks the complex influences of culture and socialisation. At the same time, the popular media, and some politicians, have been seized by a new spirit of positivism, which prefers the supposed findings of quantifiable, ‘hard’ science to the once-fashionable social sciences. Professor Robert Winston’s recent TV programmes on child development, which have been shot through with a decontextualised, culture-free developmentalism, would be another example of this.
In the print edition of the Guardian article about Cordelia Fine’s book, there’s a sidebar with a survey of some of the bestsellers infected with the ‘Venus and Mars’ bug, inspired by the neuroscience that Fine criticises. I’m surprised they don’t include the best, popular refutation of such thinking: Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus: do men and women really speak different languages? Deborah is an engaging and accessible writer: she wrote a chapter on the rhetoric of ‘communication skills’ for the Open University course K309 Communication in health and social care, which I chaired.
You can read more about Cordelia Fine’s new book, and an interview with author, at salon.com