Cordelia Fine is a Research Associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics . The blurb of the influential book Why Gender Matters by. Phoca PDF Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex laugh-out-loud witty book, Cordelia Fine shows these arguments for what. PDF | On Sep 1, , J. Tosh and others published Book Review - Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. Cordelia Fine ().
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So you thought sexism was a thing of the past? Not so much, says Cordelia Fine. A growing number of Americans believe there's an. "Delusions of Gender": The bad science of brain sexism. Some studies claim that women are innately bad at math, and men are bad at empathy. as a philosophical discussion with a point of departure in experimental psychologist Cordelia Fine's book 'Delusions of Gender', with theoretical notions of.
Based on my experiences as a neurobiologist and as a transgendered person, I have previously argued that innate sex differences in the brain are not relevant to real-world accomplishments  , . Without question, male and female brains have different circuits that help to control their different reproductive behaviors. So it has long seemed an easy step to believe that such anatomic changes also underlie supposed gender differences in cognitive abilities.
Rather, in a theme that Fine elegantly expands on, it is the idea itself that women are innately less capable that may be the primary cause of differences in accomplishment. Fine is an academic psychologist who previously authored A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives . She decided to write Delusions of Gender after she discovered that her young son was taught at school that boys were not as good at empathizing as girls.
Stunned by this experience, Fine critically scoured the relevant scientific literature. Her analysis of this data should be required reading for every neurobiology student, if not every human being. I wonder if Norton Press might be so good as to send Larry Summers a free copy?
The main theme of Fine's new book is that current widespread beliefs about gender—that is, we needn't worry about social or cultural factors leading to sex inequality because hardwired differences between the sexes are to blame—just don't bear up to scrutiny.
For instance, many studies have found that developmental differences in testosterone level result in permanent differences in brain hard-wiring. Are these differences relevant to cognitive abilities? Simon Baron-Cohen thinks so, reporting that developmental hormonal differences cause men to be more systematic thinkers, better at analyzing and exploring, while making women more empathetic .
His findings have been used by many, including Steven Pinker  and Peter Lawrence  to argue that men are innately more likely to succeed in science. But Fine raises devastating questions about Baron-Cohen's methodology, raising serious concerns about poorly defined and socially biased questions used in his questionnaires in some of these studies.
In a highly influential study, for instance, he and a student reported that newborn boys prefer to look at mobiles, whereas newborn girls prefer to look at faces. But the study's design did not prevent the possibility that the experimenter might inadvertently give different cues to the boys and girls. Her critique raises significant doubt about whether Baron-Cohen's conclusions about sex differences are correct.
Even if his measurements were correct, it is not clear that differences observed in newborns are relevant to adult behavior. Lastly, the differences observed were not particularly large, a problem that, Fine points out, applies to many other reported cognitive differences as well. Such differences are often small enough that social experiences can often easily remove them. For instance, the small gender differences observed in spatial abilities can largely be obliterated by practicing mechanical tasks.
Fine raises many points that are often neglected in interpreting the results of studies on cognitive sex differences. For instance, she points out that only studies that find a difference are published whereas negative results, which may be more common, are not reported.
She points out the many interpretation abuses of modern neuroimaging studies. For instance, the brain's well-documented plasticity means that one cannot interpret the mere presence of an imaging difference as evidence of innate disparity. Fine also discusses abuses of statistical analyses. Often the studies that report sex differences have surprisingly small sample sizes. It is refreshing to read such a critical analysis of this literature, which is lacking in so many of the previous writings on gender differences.
Readers of this book may also enjoy another recently published book by Rebecca Jordan-Young called Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Sciences of Sex Differences  , which also critically examines the evidence that cognitive sex differences are hardwired into the brain.
Importantly, Fine points out how much writing about sex differences consists of just-so stories that can be easily constructed because the relationship between brain structure and cognitive function is still poorly understood.
Such just-so stories are also the bread and butter of a field known as evolutionary psychology. Darwin, Pinker  , and others have long argued that men have evolved different neural circuits that imbue them with different superior cognitive abilities that favor more competitive and risk-taking behaviors.
That this situation is complex is not new news, even in the popular press. Melissa Hines's Brain Gender [ 3 ] is about as balanced a view as possible on the current status of the understanding of both cultural and biological influences on sex differences in brain and behavior. Biological Theories About Women and Men [ 15 ], relentlessly brings us back to center to remind us how little we really know about the vexingly complex human brain, but she herself shifted from arguing that there is no biological basis for sex differences in the brain to acknowledging there is a complex and as yet poorly understood interaction between biology and society see Sexing the Body: Gender, Politics and the Construction of Sexuality [ 16 ].
We fear that books such as the ones by Fine and Jordan-Young will not hasten the pace of discovery, but instead threaten to severely hamper or even reverse the progress that is being made in this field.
There is good reason to be irritated with some of what has been written about the neural basis of sex differences in the brain, but the field is a lively and active one in which scientists police each other on a regular basis. There are strong foundations upon which exciting, new and sometimes even startling discoveries are being made.
Unilaterally condemning all research on sex differences in the brain because of a few bad players' trying to appeal to a general audience seems akin to claiming that all research on cancer is bogus because some people believe that research suggests cancer can be cured by the power of prayer.
In both books, there is a "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" phenomenon in which the entire field is condemned by a combination of setting up straw men to knock down and an overemphasis on criticism of a few errant studies or errant interpretations.
What is particularly frustrating to those of us who actively engage in the study of sex differences in the brain is how hard we are continuing to fight for sex or gender as a critical biological variable that must be considered in any study that purports to advance our understanding of the brain.
The preference of most neuroscientists is to study only one sex, usually males, and then assume that any findings generalize to females.
But time and time again, we have seen this is not the case. This bias is not limited to neuroscience, as a recent analysis demonstrates an overwhelming tendency to exclude females from studies across a wide range of biological disciplines [ 17 ]. Moreover, several novel aspects of brain function have been discovered only because males and females were compared, highlighting the tremendous exploratory power of studying sex differences in the brain.
These include novel mechanisms of pain regulation, synaptogenesis, neuro- and gliogenesis, cell death, genetic imprinting and surely many more yet to come. Two of the most promising areas for exploitation are 1 gender biases in the relative vulnerability to and the severity of mental health disorders and 2 sex differences in the functional impact of brain damage.
By comparing and contrasting the mechanistic basis of sex differences, as well as the therapeutic benefits of various approaches, both sexes stand to benefit. But the useful side of research on sex differences appears to be entirely lost on Fine and, to some extent, on Jordan-Young. Delusions of Gender concludes with a depressing final admonition that the cycle of repression of girls is unlikely to change, because it is a self-perpetuating system in which parents teach their children to live along narrow gender lines and those children in turn become parents who then teach the same thing to their children.
Fine acknowledges that large numbers of women are taking on hard science and math majors in school, becoming physicians and scientists, but nonetheless she seems to see little hope for change.
Nothing short of stopping research on the topic would seem to satisfy her. Jordan-Young, on the other hand, does not go nearly as far as Fine, but rather provides her view of how such research should be conducted and interpreted. Her views again are certainly welcome and valuable. However, she presents them as if they are unknown to scientists studying sex differences. Her observations that "sex" steroids are misnamed because androgens can be converted to estrogens and that these steroids do many other things besides regulating sexuality are not news to those of us in the field who have been inculcated since the s about the significance of the aromatization hypothesis [ 18 ].
Again, such concerns are not put in a broader context. The fact that natural substances are often misnamed and inadequately categorized when they are first discovered is a widespread problem not limited to work on sex steroids. One need only think about what happened during the neuropeptide revolution, when endogenous messengers with names such as vasoactive intestinal polypeptide were found to be widespread and active within the brain. The idea that experience effects interact with hormonal effects in fascinating ways is also not a new observation and has often come out of research trying to discern the context in which hormones act.
One cannot help but think that Jordan-Young's focus on human studies, which, as she states, cannot involve detailed experimental analyses, led her to assume an overly deterministic view of hormone action on behavior that is not indicative of the broader field.
She points to the value of adopting a broader biological context by considering sex differences as a particular type of reaction norm which addresses the variability in phenotypes that a single genotype can generate in different environments.
This is a valuable concept that is in widespread use by researchers, especially evolutionary ecologists, who are trying to understand the causes of intraspecific phenotypic variation. Sex differences are indeed just another example of intraspecific variation, albeit one that is perhaps better demarcated than some other dimensions.
An exciting development in the behavioral field is to consider personalities in animals and humans in the context of reaction norms, and it makes sense to include sex as another variable in this context. The challenge, of course, is ascertaining the full response range of a trait specified by a particular reaction norm and testing this response range in a variety of environments. Such a thorough analysis is not going to happen in humans for the obvious reasons mentioned in Jordan-Young's book, though it would be a valuable research strategy to pursue in nonhuman animals.
However, it is a bit disappointing to be told that studies in plants and animals are essential to understanding sex differences in a broader biological context when she is prescribing a future research strategy after ignoring or even denigrating such studies for example, the guinea pigs studied by Phoenix et al.
But popular books are written to appeal to a broader audience, and in that respect both Jordan-Young and Fine have succeeded. Prompting laypeople to adopt a more critical view of overly simplistic views of complex data sets is a goal any scientist can support, and for that we applaud their efforts. Pendulums tend to swing widely before the inexorable progression to the center.
Where that center will ultimately be is the critical issue, and ensuring that it is appropriately balanced is in large part the responsibility of scientists who must continue to do innovative and useful research into the topic of sex differences in brain and behavior.
National Center for Biotechnology Information , U.
Journal List Biol Sex Differ v. Biol Sex Differ. Published online Apr Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Corresponding author. Margaret M McCarthy: Received Jan 19; Accepted Apr Retrieved August 24, The Guardian.
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