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.

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Neuroskeptic

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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