Thursday, September 28, 2006

Does the mind have a sex?

In 1673 a Frenchman, Francois Poullain de la Barre, declared that "the mind has no sex".

He wrote on this theme that,

It is easy to realise that the difference between the sexes concerns only the body - being, correctly, only this part that serves for the production of men. Since the mind participates only by giving its assent (and giving it in all people in the same manner), we can conclude that it is sexless.

In simple terms, de la Barre believed that men and women differed only in their reproductive organs. He thought that men and women were, by nature, the same in all other respects, including everything to do with the mind.

De la Barre drew some very modern, feminist conclusions from this idea. He asserted that traditional gender roles had no basis in "natural law" but were maintained by prejudice and custom alone.

(For instance, he complained that "legal scholars, who also have their prejudices, have attributed to nature a distinction that derives from custom alone.")

De la Barre claimed that,

the mind, not functioning differently in one sex than in the other, is equally capable of the same things

and therefore concluded that women were as equally suited as men (or more so) to be priests, generals and monarchs.

The argument framed by de la Barre eventually came to have much influence. But it can now be seen to be mistaken in its first assumption. Science is now demonstrating that the mind does have a sex. After a period of more than 300 years we can now conclusively reject the theory pioneered by de la Barre.

It has now finally become accepted in the scientific mainstream that there are significant differences between the male and female brain. A new book, The Female Brain, written by an American neuro-psychiatrist Louann Brizendine is the latest, and undoubtedly not the last, work to be published in this area (see the review by Janet Albrechtsen aptly titled "Feminism begs to differ, but unisex brain is a fantasy").

The scientific research should give heart to conservatives who have long held that there are naturally occurring differences between men and women which are hardwired into human biology.

(In fact, I think many conservatives would tend to the view that there is an essential masculinity to men and femininity to women, which forms a core part of our identity and which is reflected in traditional gender roles within the family and society.)


  1. There is agreement from this social anarchist perspective, which although not a short read, is very interesting.

  2. I'm a conservative but there is a hidden premise in all of this, namely that the mind is identical to the brain. Sure, if the mind is identical to the brain then science has shown that there are some big difference between men and women. However, many conservativey, while they accept the fact that men and women are different, reject the reduction of mind to brain. Instead, the often endorse a spiritual view of the mind (Traditional Christians for example, say the mental part of us is spirit or soul and it survives the death of the body). For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century wrote: "the image of God belongs to both sexes, since it is in the mind, wherein there is no sexual distinction" (Summa theologiae, I, 93, 6, ad 2).

    So there you have it. Conservatives can have the best of both worlds: Aknowledgement of phsyical differences but also recognition of spiritual equality. Amen.