In the most intelligent races there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognise today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilised male. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Gustave Le Bon, French social psychologist (7 May 1841 – 13 December 1931)
Humorists, philosophers and scientists have been writing about sex differences for millennia, differences which were believed to be immutable. Only in the twentieth century did the idea that society creates its own gender roles challenge this view. And the debate continues today. There have been a number of books published over the last twenty years so: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps and The Essential Difference. This last book was written by Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of Sacha, and a world authority on autism. Baron-Cohen argues that, in general, men are better at systematizing (analysing and exploring systems and rules) while women are better at empathizing (identifying with other people’s feelings). In 2010 two books railing against these ideas have come out: Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, and Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young’s, Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference.
Fine and Jordan-Young attack the scientific basis of many of the studies which purport to show differences in our brains. The fundamental question that divides the two camps is whether the mind is shaped in distinctly male or female ways, by testosterone or estrogen. In their counterblasts Fine and Jordan-Young attack many of the experiments designed to prove these innate differences. One problem they identify is the size of the experiments, which are often carried out with only 20 participants. They also criticise the actual design of the experiments. People’s self-perception can be influenced by gender stereotypes. Many of these experiments involve questionnaires where participants assess their own abilities – not a very reliable way of gathering evidence. Their ultimate point is that this science is being used to justify the status quo – the discrimination against women. The opening quote from Gustave Le Bon shows how prejudices can be converted into science. I am no fan of postmodernism but I will concede that there is some element of social construction in science. There is an objective truth but it can be difficult to get at. The beauty of the scientific method, though, is that it is self-correcting.
I don’t belong to the Men are from Mars Women are from Venus school; we actually both come from Africa, where we evolved together as a species. We should apply a healthy dose of scepticism when we read or hear reports of sex differences in the brain. There is still much to be learned and it is important to retain an open mind. However, I find it hard to believe that there are no differences in male and female brains. It strikes me as counterintuitive. If we belong to the animal kingdom, how can our emotions and intelligence be completely separate from this? The claim that all differences are socially constructed just seems implausible.
The limits of the idea that gender is a cultural phenomenon are shown in a dramatic case from Canada. The story was told by John Colapinto in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. Bruce Reimer was born a normal healthy boy on August 22nd 1965. However eight months later he had a botched circumcision. On to the scene came one John Money. Reimer was just what Money had been longing for: a chance to prove that his theory of the primacy of nurture over nature. His advice was to castrate Reimer. His mother thought, with his injury, it would be easier for Bruce to be raised as a girl. Money, an expert in self-promotion, sold the idea that the gender reassignment had been a great success. He was the star speaker the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 and he published a book, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl.
The reality was very different. Right from the start, Brenda resisted feminizing; she felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Money even tried to build an artificial vagina for Brenda but she refused. Her brother Brian described her childhood:
“She’d get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we’d use that for was to tie people up, whip people with it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat.”
In March 1980 Brenda became David. Alas there was no happy ending. Financial problems, severe depression and a marriage on the rocks led to suicide in 2004. He was just 38. One key lesson from this sad episode is that the politicisation of science can run both ways; Money’s work lent an aura of science to the radical feminist ideas that were all the rage in those days
The debate about gender and differences is never-ending. Perhaps neurobiology will be able to unlock some of these secrets. The new brain science is just beginning a very exciting journey, which is going to tell us a lot about what it means to be human.
But there is also a deeper moral principle here. To believe in equality you do not have to believe that men and women are exactly equal in everything. The point is that nobody should be judged by the average properties of their group. There is no known gender difference that applies to every single man or woman. Discrimination is wrong. We really don’t need science to tell us that.