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By Timandra Harkness

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For a while, around the 1970s and 1980s, it went right out of fashion to say men and women were naturally different. In a society that had such different expectations of the two sexes, it was not surprising that boys and girls diverged so visibly in their habits, tastes, and abilities. In an equal world, the women’s liberation movement asserted both genders would feel free to range across the wide prairies of human possibility, while the averages would converge on one unisex human nature.

Now, in 2011, it is unremarkable to read about ‘hard-wired’ differences between the male and female brain. Not just in pop-psychology works like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, either. Cambridge scientists and educational psychologists are also ready to ‘say the unsayable’ and assert that genetics and pre-birth hormonal influences shape our minds along one or other path as surely as they do our reproductive organs, our height, or the distribution of our bodily hair. It shows up in the brain scans, so it must be true.

And this is making psychologist and researcher Cordelia Fine very angry indeed: ‘Three years ago, 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.’

She does a thorough job of debunking the scientific evidence cited in support of male brain/female brain theories. Studies of newborns’ interest in the human face versus a mobile phone turn out to have omitted a basic ‘double-blind’ step: taking away visual clues to the baby’s gender that might subconsciously influence the researcher. Correlations between exposure to testosterone in the womb and various behavioural traits are contradictory or inconclusive. Animal studies are over-interpreted. One group of brain imaging researchers found statistically significant activity in the brain of a salmon performing an ‘empathising task’ looking at human faces expressing emotion. The salmon was dead at the time.

Placed next to historical quotes asserting earlier beliefs in women’s natural inaptitude for politics, mathematics, and other manly pursuits, these contemporary studies look more and more like attempts to find scientific foundations for our society’s own prejudices. And Fine starts by quoting John Stuart Mill, who wrote in 1869, ‘Whatever any portion of the human species now are, or seem to be, such, it is supposed, they have a natural tendency to be: even when the most elementary knowledge of the circumstances in which they have been placed, clearly points out the causes that made them what they are’.

Indeed, before even starting in on the weakness of the science invoked to explain women’s continuing tendency to choose different professions to men, or to prefer childcare to full-time work, or to wear pink, Fine spends eight chapters outlining the inequalities of opportunity and expectation that persist in supposedly egalitarian societies. By the time she is finished her furious denunciation of the worst examples of discrimination, unconscious and deliberate, still in action, it does seem ludicrous to look for causes of inequality in girls’ larger corpus callosum, or in boys’ testosterone-bathed parietal lobes.

The evidence for innate differences is rizla-thin by the time Fine has finished with it. Worse, she then invokes some scientific evidence of her own, studies that suggest merely being aware of such theories can influence performance and behaviour, especially under pressure: ‘…women who had just read an essay arguing that there are genetically caused sex differences in mathematical ability performed substantially worse on a [maths] test, compared with women who read that experiential factors explain sex differences in maths ability’.

This suggests such theories can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Move into the territory of teaching boys and girls differently in deference to the supposed differences in their brains, and it is easy to imagine a rapidly diverging educational experience producing rapidly diverging people. Which leaves the book in a slightly bleak place. True, the social influences that shape human brain development are, unlike genetics, open to change. But with so much emphasis on infants’ readiness to shape themselves in response to the world they live in, what room for changing those influences? There is a danger of kicking out the iron hand of biological determinism only to replace it with the subtler tyranny of the social environment.

Nevertheless, there is some room for optimism in Fine’s thesis. As she says herself, the rigidity of children’s gender awareness peaks by the age of seven. Older children and adults are capable of conscious reflection, and of recognising that existing realities are not necessarily immutable. Which raises a more interesting question, and one to which Fine does not have a satisfactory answer. Why, in a world with less and less empirical evidence for significant essential differences between men and women in everyday life, is the idea of a natural gender divide making a comeback? Her suggestion that it is an expression of reaction against social progress, an attempt to find grounds for resisting women’s encroachment on male territory, is not entirely convincing.

After all, many aspects of supposedly innate ‘male nature’ are as diminishing of men as ‘female nature’ is of women. Both sexes are limited by a perspective that sees us all as determined by our brain architecture. And some feminist theorists are willing to embrace the new essentialism as a way of claiming equal status for traditional feminine qualities like co-operation and emotional intelligence with traditionally male ones like competition and independent thinking. Moreover, sex differences are not the only social phenomena for which explanations are being sought in the lab or in the MRI scanner. Though respectable science still shies away from looking for racial characteristics in the brain, differences in inherited intelligence have been cited as a cause for generations of poverty and unemployment on council estates.

So Fine’s excellent book not only demolishes the scientific evidence invoked by the new essentialism, it opens up some larger questions. If not genetic factors, how much does the social environment determine what we can become in adulthood? Should we worry about persisting cultural and social differences between the sexes, if the economic and political playing fields are becoming gradually more equal? And what is driving scientists and intellectuals towards a largely speculative search for human nature in our biological heritage?


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