Monday, 9 December 2013

The Venus and Mars Delusion

All articles about male and female human brains are required to have a picture like this. Sorry; it's just the law.

Another day another piece of science journalism 'proving' men and women's brains are 'hardwired' differently. Inevitable as Johnston's death and taxes. The manner in which these fresh claims, typically bereft of further studies, rocket to the top of the media (in a way quantum entanglement, say, doesn't) says more about our species's narcissism and neuroses than anything else.

The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, found women's brains typically had a greater connectivity between the left and right hemispheres, equipping their owners for social skills, intuition and memory while male brains showed greater connectivity betwixt front and rear of either hemisphere (specialized for map reading, shooter games and reciting entire sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus).

Well, I'm not going to deny these findings, but I'm skeptical of the interpretation. Certainly not while our culture is so close in time to the Victorian age and the legal ownership of wives by their husbands.

You see, here in the 21st century we talk a good equality fight but on some fundamental, subconscious level true equality terrifies us. All of us in the west, whatever gender, grasp for the comforting certainties of a regimented past and if we're too grown up nowadays to take it from the Old Testament we'll happily quaff it from a webpage with a computer generated illustration. Patriarchy is as much a comfort blanket as a cudgel.

A paragraph (tellingly) toward the end of the article had this to say:

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds.

Hmm. So not as 'hardwired' as we may have been told. A hormonal leveling-up at best. Yet by what quantity? If the study showed we were born a certain way I'd happily swig down the 100% proof bio-determinism. But with this difference of connectivity occurring so late in the day isn't it possible experience is in play here as much as hormones? Whichever way you cut it, there's space for a fat-assed reasonable doubt to sit itself down.

Imagine my smug delight to find science writer of the year Robin McKie agrees with me.

It is biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst. Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Males develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing. Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative, and so their verbal skills are emphasized by teachers and parents.
As the years pass, these different lifestyles produce variations in brain wiring – which is a lot more plastic than most biological determinists realize. This possibility was simply not addressed by Verma and her team.
(It's worth reading the entire article; far more knowledgeable than this one)

Another takeaway, this time McKie quoting (the presumably emotional and multi-tasking) Professor Dorothy Bishop:

They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain.

Layman though I am, it makes a lot of sense to me. Whenever faced with these men/women/mind hack jobs I always think 'Well, how different can our particular species genders afford to be?' I mean, a human child is an expensive and long term project in evolutionary terms.

 How many years must pass before they're mature enough to survive alone? Eight years? Ten? Thirty seven? In a prehistoric world of sabre-toothed predators and no hospitals neither parent could be guaranteed to see the whole run through. A tribe isn't guaranteed either and so mommie hominid should have a temperament to become daddy hominid in the event of the latter's death. And vice verse. In light of that, I'm tempted to think rigid social gender differences came into play much later, with the invention of agriculture and the excess population that allows. 

Oh, sod it, have another one

But, hey, enough of my just-so stories. The internet's full of 'em enough. What interests me more is taking the hard results of this latest study and interpreting it in a less deterministic, do-as-yer-told manner. Because, I feel, it leads to somewhere far more interesting and perhaps a lot more hopeful.

If we take the astounding plasticity of the brain as a starting point and accept the majority of the gendered mind is culturally imposed and learned, it still makes sense the 'average' woman's brain has more inter-hemispherical connections than a man's. Her brain would have adapted to the expectations of the civilization she lives in. Ditto men.

But--and here's the thing--cultures alter their shape as they flow, much like a river. I dearly wish we could take the scanning techniques used in the study back to the middle ages and run the same experiment every half-century thereon.

Would we discover the brains of our ancestors to be more gender divided than our own? Have the Enlightenment, women's suffrage, the Geneva convention and progress generally made our brains more androgynous? Is social media pushing us further in that direction? And is this a steady process or is it accelerating?

A different sort of evolution, I guess, where memes pool into hard neurobiology. And one, for once, where individuals are truly in control of the driving wheel.

Mary Wollstonecraft, yesterday

Consider Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman and mother of Mary Shelley. Perhaps her neurobiology was exceptionally 'male' for the 18th century (or, I'm tempted to think, male enough to get listened to and female enough to say something that actually mattered). Her philosophy dispersed amongst a readership who brought their daughters up just that little more equally. A century or so later, we have Pankhursts and Luxembourgs aplenty, and so on unto the modern working woman. The Wollstonecraft mind-state, once so rare, becomes the norm.

The same would apply to men here. George W Bush and Dick Cheney's brains, as assuredly vile and bullish as they are, probably lack the 'masculine' neurobiology of Genghis Khan or Alexander The Great. Extrapolating trends towards the future, then, we see a future of uni-gendered minds almost certainly less neurotic than our own.

Okay, I'm taking an idea for a walk here (or 'talking bollocks' to use the technical term) and not claiming any expertise or authority. But, to my map-reading, car-parking brain at least, it seems a shame that, now we can see gender (which is a different thing to sex of course)-- actually see it rendered in front of our eyes--we let such a discovery play into the hands of patriarchal regression.       


  1. There's a whole cocktail of stuff muddying the water on this one. For one thing, the way science is done and the conclusions you can draw are simplified and distorted by the time they reach the media even in well understood fields, and neuro science is far from well understood - many of these studies are probably tentative first looks hopelessly simplified for easy reading pop-articles.
    Another issue is our desire to put things in neat, easy to understand categories, something that doesn't really fly when you are dealing with a complex organ like the brain. It's fair to say from what we know about evolution that our brains may well be pre-disposed to certain qualities or attributes, just as the rest of our bodies are, but when you consider that one of the big advantages of a sophisticated brain is to allow an individual to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances that the process of evolution moves too slowly to keep up with, it casts doubt on the value of drawing conclusions on the difference between male and female brains in the same way you could, say, our typical muscle mass or reproductive organs.
    I personally look at this way, if the whole point of civilisation is to free us from the arbitrary roles and limitations set down by 'natural law' (a lazy phrase, but this post is getting long enough as it is), then we have to give every individual the opportunity to show what they can do. Even if it was true that 999 out of a 1000 women are dippy baby-making machines, we have to give everyone a level playing field for the sake of that one.
    One final point, gender politics is a piss-ridden paddling pool chock full of demagogues and sociopaths looking to drum up controversy in order to become rich and important without doing anything useful. Search for feminism or men's rights activists on youtube, strap yourself in, and you'll see what I mean.

    1. Can't argue with that final assessment. There's scope for the sociopath in the online douchebro community, what with its iron-walled mutually-reinforced culture of male backslapping. Whilst with feminism you can appropriate a moral high ground (one built--and continuing to be built--by more egalitarian minds) and rain shit down on people pseudonymously.
      The telling difference is one of degree; the mens movement is almost entirely psycho.