Delusions of Gender

By Neuroskeptic | December 7, 2010 9:50 pm

Note: This book quotes me approvingly, so this is not quite a disinterested review.

Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is an engaging, entertaining and powerfully argued reply to the many authors – who range from the scientifically respectable to the less so – who’ve recently claimed to have shown biological sex differences in brain, mind and behaviour.

Fine makes a strong case that the sex differences we see, in everything from behaviour to school achievements in mathematics, could be caused by the society in which we live, rather than by biology. Modern culture, she says, while obviously less sexist than in the past, still contains deeply entrenched assumptions about how boys and girls ought to behave, what they ought to do and what they’re good at, and these – consciously or unconsciously – shape the way we are.

Some of the Fine’s targets are obviously bonkers, like Vicky Tuck, but for me, the most interesting chapters were those dealing in detail with experiments which have been held up as the strongest examples of sex differences, such as the Cambridge study claiming that newborn boys and girls differ in how much they prefer looking at faces as opposed to mechanical mobiles.

But Delusions is not, in Steven Pinker’s phrase, saying we ought to return to “Blank Slatism”, and it doesn’t try to convince you that every single sex difference definately is purely cultural. It’s more modest, and hence, much more believable: simply a reminder that the debate is still an open one.

Fine makes a convincing case (well, it convinced me) that the various scientific findings, mostly from the past 10 years, that seem to prove biological differences, are not, on the whole, very strong, and that even if we do accept their validity, they don’t rule out a role for culture as well.

This latter point is, I think, especially important. Take, for example, the fact that in every country on record, men roughly between the ages of 16-30 are responsible for the vast majority of violent crimes. This surely reflects biology somehow; whether it’s the fact that young men are physically the strongest people, or whether it’s more psychological, is by the by.

But this doesn’t mean that young men are always violent. In some countries, like Japan, violent crime is extremely rare; in other countries, it’s tens of times more common; and during wars or other periods of disorder, it becomes the norm. Young men are always, relatively speaking, the most violent but the absolute rate of violence varies hugely, and that has nothing to do with gender. It’s not that violent places have more men than peaceful ones.

Gender, in other words, doesn’t explain violence in any useful way – even though there surely are gender differences. The same goes for everything else: men and women may well have, for biological reasons, certain tendencies or advantages, but that doesn’t automatically explain (and it doesn’t justify) all of the sex differences we see today; it’s only ever a partial explanation, with culture being the other part.

  • Paul

    If I may signpost you to an ABC RN All In The Mind interview with the author of the book. 4th episode down:

  • veri

    Perhaps men and women look anatomically different. The empirical observations for that seem strong. So maybe funding for such research isn't that popular.

    Politically, the Japanese are considered one of the most violent 'races' in the world. Look at history e.g. Nanking rape and the horrific strategies they deployed.

    Suffrage movements, feminism, access, rights, industrial revolution, conscripted wars, shifting, shaping stereotypes. e.g. when the men went to war, the women ran the country. The cultural thing makes sense to me.

    It looks like a cool book, probably not for my conservative bookshelf.. don't wanna frighten the family. Stop pretending you can't find the milk you cow! Outta ma way I crank the engine, GO cook! Now!

  • Anonymous

    PERHAPS men and women look different anatomically? LOL. I think that's a certainty! And I am glad the cultural thing makes sense to you because by the fourth paragraph of your post I had no idea what you were talking about!

  • bsci

    It sounds like this book covers a lot of similar ground to “Pink Brain Blue Brain” by Lise Eliot. I haven't read “Delusions of Gender,” but Eliot's book is a masterwork summary of all the literature from basic neuroscience to sociology. Her writing quality is good, but far from great.

    One of my favorite aspects of “Pink Brain Blue Brain” is that she calls out bad researchers or popularizers by name (i.e. Brizendine and Leonard Sax) Baron-Cohen gets some more respectful criticism.

    For what it's worth, Lise Eliot also looks at the the faces/mobiles studies. If I remember correctly, her main critiques are that the gender differences are very small (i.e. boys are something like 48% mobiles & 45% faces while girls are 48% faces and 40% mobiles). She also notes that the people who were smiling at the babies knew the babies' sexes and there's a real literature showing people tend to smile at girl babies more.

    If there's any difference between the two books, it looks like Fine is more from a psychology background and Eliot is from neurophysiology (PhD with Eric Kandel). Eliot tries to bring as much as possible to as low a neuroscience level as possible.

  • Neuroskeptic

    bsci: I haven't read that book, but it does sound like it covers similar ground.

    e.g. Fine makes essentially the same points about the faces/mobiles study.

    However Fine also goes into quite a lot of detail examining the psychology literature on how culture could produce sex differences in behaviour, e.g. she covers various studies on how expectations shape behaviour, “stereotype threat”, Implicit Association Tests, and so on. She doesn't just criticize.

  • bsci

    The books probably are similar. One of the guiding principles of Eliot's book is that if we can trace a plausible path from sex-based hormone differences to trait, it's a sex difference. If we can't, then there are probably culture differences, which she digs into the literature to explain.

    One of the examples that ended up in some reviews is the study that shows mothers think baby boys can crawl down steeper slopes than girls even those they're the same when the mothers aren't aware of the angle.

    She also fearlessly talks about animal research (i.e. rodent hormone studies), which is rare is a public book, and delves into various human hormone disorders.

    She hits a lot of evolutionary psychology fairly hard when they claim sex differences in animals, like voles, without explaining the source of the sex-selective pressure and with the corresponding differences in humans being non-existant.

    Eliot also tries to point to things people do or don't do that shape sex-specific behavior and she gives recommendations for nurturers of boys and girls.

  • veri

    Anon.. Neo mentioned biological differences between men and women not being very strong, that's why I suggested anatomy.

    My sibling thinks autism is a mole. So if I had that book sitting on the coffee table it just wouldn't work. Cool gift to a gay friend though.

  • Jayarava

    I enjoyed Cordelia's earlier book A Mind of it's Own and look forward to reading this one.

  • petrossa

    In view of the quite distinct gender behavioral differences in other primates the idea that's it's more psychological/cultural seems quite absurd.

    At the very best there can be a reenforcement of preexisting biological factors although given the rather oppressive gender equality dogma one would expect culture to diminish the effect. Sofar no fundamental lasting effect has ever been shown outside of the 'it's nurture' camp.

    Whittling down gender differences to minute details such as faces/mobiles can only serve to obfuscate rather then illuminate.

  • veri

    Maybe the aim of the book is not so much to make an academic assessment of the existing literature, but to keep an open mind about cultural stereotypes when pinning down on gender disparities. When I first read the title I thought it was a slogan for a gay rights movement, and in a way the book does sounds like it’s advocating for gender neutrality.

    Advocating for dialogue, like dispelling the myths surrounding the two sexes seems noble. If you think about it, there is difference between how men and women conduct themselves particularly in the corporate spheres, but that don’t give you the right to pin it down on biology. The assessment should be in the context of culture, pressure or stereotypes.

  • petrossa

    The last few decades men have been culturally programmed (at least in the west) to behave more like women in social life. Women otoh have taken to behave more like men in the workenvironment in order to reach for the glass ceiling.

    Both genders don't seem to have benefited much from this, quite the inverse. Pressured into a role not naturally yours is doomed to cause stress.

    The brain is constructed different for each sexe, behaves different, is wired different. No amount of political correct thinking is changing that.

    It were more advisable how to integrate the gender differences rather then try to equalize/attenuate/suppress them.

    • SlimAndSlippery

      Read the book. It’d help you.

      And for being wired different: Two computers may be wired differently, but they could both run the same operating system and thus behave the same way. What are your proposed differences in the ways the genders act?

  • veri

    True. Definitely at the primal level of interaction there is of course a noticeable difference between the two genders. When it comes to higher order processing I don't think the difference is as noticeable. Sure chemical influxes, synaptic transmissions and what what differ somewhat between every brain, but it seems wishy washy to attribute that to gender. It probably does boil down to programming and cultural influences shaping higher order processes. E.g. I’m assuming nuns are happy serving the LORD irrespective of primal urges. An enlightened entity is supposed to be genderless, or at least be impartial, not necessarily neutral, towards gender disparities. If civilisation is to shift higher, it wouldn’t hurt to keep an open mind about fostering cultures which unify the sexes as opposed to stereotyping them.

  • petrossa

    We agree to differ. I see more in accepting the difference and getting the most benefit from each genders strengths by using the potential they each have to the fullest, rather then to generalize them and get some kind of lowest common denominator for the sake of political correctness

  • Neuroskeptic

    petrossa: But isn't is a good thing that men and women are now able to do what they want to, whether or not it's traditionally “male” or “female”?

    For example, I like cooking. 50 years ago I don't think many men (except professional chefs) knew how to cook so much as an egg because it was “woman's work”.

  • petrossa

    Sure. But that's personal choice, not enforced gender neutralization. You don't cook because you're being indoctrinated that being a man is bad and you should be more feminine be cooking. (Which in itself is the ultimate contradiction btw. But that's another story.)

  • veri

    Petrossa, I think we're on the same page but interpreting it from different angles. By unifying I mean looking beyond the differences and finding avenues which promote unity. However, I do think political 'correctness' is important because it shapes the moral framework in societies. If we didn't establish political correctness, women still wouldn't be allowed to vote, or have access to education.

    Neo, a scientist holding a ladle spoon seems devilishly charismatic :)

  • petrossa


    Whilst the feminist movement undoubtedly did worlds of good for the status of women, political correctness only stifles. It's a repressive instrument. No progress ever came from suppression.

    Dogmatically imposing gender equality is just as bad as imposing gender inequality.

    You can't capture the multitude of unique qualities of both genders in a single concept.

    • Dave Joubert

      That is why Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate should be read. There are two kinds of feminism he argues.

  • veri

    Perhap, but I guess I'm a bit of a romantic. The concept of soulmate, you complete me, I complete you, the differences seem so beautifully blurred to me.

  • Anonymous

    The post is well taken. I do have a pretty serious criticism of the assumption that there is any kind of division between biology and culture however. The brain is a cultural organ- culture changes are brains. So any argument that relies on differentiating biology from culture is relying on an innaccurate metaphor.

  • Brad

    If culture is separate from biology, who created the arbitrary gender roles in the first place? What was his/her motivation?

    Were men and women behaviorally monomorphic before this evil genius decided that girls should wear pink and boys should play with guns?

    And why are the particular roles we've been “taught” so closely aligned with our biology, the behavior of other animals, and the predictions of evolutionary psychology?

    • SlimAndSlippery

      Gender roles were created based on physical, not mental, differences. No one is saying men are not physically stronger, in fact, it’s that difference that can account for most of the arbitrary gender roles.

      Also, is/ought on your third paragraph.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Brad: Well, I generally agree with you but playing devil's advocate:

    There are biologically differences between men and women, in terms of anatomy. The most obvious are then men are physically stronger, and that women get pregnant and breastfeed while men don't. The combination of these two could lead to a primitive division of labour in which men do the hunting and fighting, while women do the child-rearing, even if there were no “psychological” differences between them at all. This division of labour might have made sense 10,000 years ago, but thanks to technology it's out of date today – which is exactly what many feminists argue.

  • bsci

    I wasn't going to wade back into this thread, but the evil genius who decided girls should wear pink wasn't that old:
    n Western culture, the practice of assigning pink to an individual gender began in the 1920s[13] or earlier[14]. From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary.[15][16][17] Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.[18]

    Just because it has been true during your life doesn't make it eternally true.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Also purple, which is now a “girly” color, was associated with power and wealth in Rome, because purple dye was so rare.

  • Anonymous

    it's interesting how your writing here kowtows to political correctness: gender differences, it seems, are ok, as long as they make women look better. hence, men are violent (and that must be biological) and women have potential advantages (multitasking!).

    sex differences, unsurprisingly, are greatest with respect to sexual preference and sexual behavior. in short: men prefer beauty, women prefer power. this is where we need to look for the deeper causes of observed differences of societal roles. the reason why men have made greater contributions than women in science, technology, art, and literature (ooops, can't mention this, right?) is not that they are smarter or that women are discriminated against. it is that men *need to lead* in order to be valued, loved, and allowed to reproduce. women are valued and loved in less stressful roles as well — a choice that men don't have. this also explains why killing is a man's job. and it is not only killing, but also dying. the cost of the supposedly privileged male role is substantial: greater lifelong stress, >5 years lower life expectancy and 4 times the suicide rate. who is better off in the final analysis?

    check out warren farrell's “the myth of male power”.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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