Monday, August 16, 2010

Delusions of gender?

Are there any hard-wired differences between men and women? An article in the Daily Mail today suggests not:

It's official, men and women ARE from the same planet

Scientists would have us believe that men and women are so different they could hail from different planets.

But a new book claims the difference between the genders is down to the way we are brought up.

It says the idea we are hard-wired at birth, as promoted by 1992 bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, is outdated...

Instead, we are steered towards gender-defined skills by parents and teachers. According to the book, Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine, a Melbourne University psychologist, there are no major neurological differences.

It seems most unlikely. Our daily experience suggests that there are some sex distinctions which run deep. Earlier this year, for example, I announced to a Year 8 class (14-year-olds) that I had some baby photos and asked if they'd like to see them. An enthusiastic chorus of "yes" came spontaneously from the girls, but the boys just looked at me blankly. It's difficult to believe that such an immediate, unrehearsed response could arise just from intellectual conditioning.

So why would Cordelia Fine assert that there are no major hard-wired differences between the sexes? One of the glories of the internet age is that you can easily do some research of your own on such matters. I looked up Cordelia Fine and discovered an article she wrote setting out her ideas.

It turns out that she is a feminist with standard, orthodox ideas about autonomy. Like most liberal moderns, she believes that autonomy is the aim of life. She rejects the traditional maternal role of women as being non-autonomous and therefore (in her eyes) low status. She wants to transform traditional roles so that women are careerist and men participate equally in the "inferior" domestic and maternal tasks. This shift toward a single unisex role for men and women represents gender equality for her.

So she worries about trends in science which are revealing neurological differences between men and women. She thinks that these scientific findings might lead people to accept sex distinctions as natural and inevitable. Such an attitude she labels "neurosexism".

She wants to continue to believe that sex distinctions are social constructs which can be entirely overcome. This puts her at odds with scientific research showing that there are differences in the functioning of the male and female brain.

But do people accept the unisex ideal? In her article, Cordelia Fine admits that research shows that people drop the unisex ideal once they've had children. Why would women in particular do this? According to Cordelia Fine, it's because a belief in innate differences makes it easier for women to accept their "inferior," non-autonomous motherhood role:

If a frazzled mother can tell herself that her hard-wired powers of female empathy uniquely position her to intuit that the red-faced, cross-patch baby wants to get down from the highchair, then there’s no need to feel cross that she’s the only one who ever seems to notice. If she can take seriously Brizendine’s claim that it is only when the children leave home that “the mommy brain circuits are finally free to be applied to new ambitions, new thoughts, new ideas” she may feel less resentful that the autonomy to pursue a career unhindered, a freedom still taken for granted by her partner, is now no longer extended to her.

And what if women feel torn trying to combine career ambitions with motherhood? The answer, asserts Fine, is not to accept limitations, but to change social arrangements - by which she means loading more work onto the shoulders of men (whom she treats with some contempt). For instance, in response to one (female) neurobiologist she writes:

Brizendine promises her female readers that “understanding our innate biology empowers us to better plan our future.” It may startle some readers to learn that family friendly workplace policies are not the solution to reduced maternal stress and anxiety, and that fathers who do the kindergarten pick-ups, pack the lunch-boxes, stay home when the kids are sick, get up in the night when the baby wakes up, and buy the birthday presents and ring the paediatrician in their lunch hour are not the obvious solution to enhanced maternal ‘brainpower’.

(Predictably, Brizendine never even hints that the overwired working mother consider the simplest antidote to the ill-effects of going against her ‘natural wiring’: namely, giving her partner a giant kick up the neurological backside.)

She seems to think that aggressively placing extra demands on hard-working family men is a viable way forward.

I don't believe that sex distinctions are entirely due to hormones, genes or brain structure. Our behaviour as men and women is also influenced by the culture of relationships (i.e. by what is selected for in relationships) and by ideals of masculinity and femininity promoted within a society.

But I wouldn't want to be taking Cordelia Fine's position that there are no significant neurological distinctions between men and women. I doubt if that will be borne out by further scientific research.

Nor would I want to share her politics. Feminists sometimes claim that they are all for choice for women. But Cordelia Fine is yet another feminist who ends up pushing one option alone. Because she sees autonomy as the great prize, and careers as the way to get autonomy, she treats the motherhood option as an inferior, low-status pursuit associated negatively with oppression and inequality.

In the Cordelia Fine version of life, women get to have children but they don't get to identify positively with the motherhood role. Motherhood becomes something dangerous to women, a potential hindrance to the important things. It therefore loses its standing as a legitimate choice.

Is it any wonder that so many women drop their belief in Cordelia's version of "egalitarianism" once they have children?


  1. Thank you for pointing out yet another modern fallacy Keep up the good work.

  2. The point has been made many times, but most working women have jobs, not careers; and all jobs (and most "careers") are a matter of selling one's autonomy for money. I have what many today would call a career (university professor); my wife stays home and raises our three children. This morning over breakfast she told me of her plans for the day, and of some of the ways that she and the kids might spend the remaining days of summer vacation. I on the other hand told her what I expected would happen at work. Roger Scruton somewhere made a distinction between people who describe their future in terms of plans, and people who describe their future in terms of predictions. Maybe it's a matter of temperament, but I'd say my wife, the stay-at-home mom, leads a more "intentional" life than her working husband.

    Not only does she have considerable freedom to choose what she will do, but also to choose how long she will do it and to what degree of perfection. There is nothing in her life remotely comparable to a boss, customers, or an annual performance review.

    I'm not saying that her work is easy, or that it is without drudgery--only that she has a good deal of what we might call quotidian autonomy. The radical autonomy Mark discusses on this blog is different than this, I know; but surly no one ever became radically autonomous by going to work! The working women I know have lost the quotidian autonomy of the housewife, but never had the slightest likelihood of obtaining radical autonomy.

    Keep up the good work, Mark.

  3. Some years ago Scientific American had an article on the different brain functions of men and women. They showed pictures in detail. For the same task different parts of the male and female brain are involved.

    The scientists specifically commented rather negatively on the totally unscientific idea that the only difference comes from culture.

    This is another textbook case of repeat the lie often enough and people will believe you.

    Anonymous age 68

  4. It needs to be remembered that the kind of "radical autonomy" that feminists have in mind is specifically this: financial and lifestyle independence from *specific* men (i.e., the men around them, in their lives). That is the main thrust of it. Women remain dependent on men as a *class*, of course, both financially (as being disproportionate beneficiaries of state spending, financed largely by taxes on higher male wages -- basically a large male to female wealth transfer operation) and socially (white knights, male feminists, male legal and police systems and so on which largely exist to protect women and so on), but the idea is that they are not to be dependent on *specific* men -- that is, boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers. That is the bugbear.

    It's in that way that a woman who is working sees herself as embracing her autonomy -- she is not "tied to a specific man" in terms of being dependent on him. That's the kind of freedom they wanted, and that's the kind of freedom they've largely gotten, thanks to the state stepping in and playing the role of daddy/hubby/brother, financed by men as a class. It allows women to get the benefits of financial and social support from men as a group without women owing any specific responsibilities to specific men in return for this. It's a great deal for women, from that perspective, even if it doesn't make that many of them fulfilled in the long run.

  5. Novaseeker,
    I'm sure you are right. What I called quotidian autonomy is all mixed up with quotidian compromising and acquiescence. In my experience this mix produces healthy, happy, delightful people. On the other hand, the folks who insist on radical autonomy are a relatively sour bunch. They also become radical automatons under the right conditions. I think that was how Christopher Lasch described narcissism.

  6. I would add to Novaseeker's comment that women have been and still are completely dependent on men's technical innovation for the comforts of life.

    One of the iron laws of gender seems to be that women are not innovators. Men still invent and patent nearly everything.

    Do feminists thank men for this? Of course not.

    David Collard

  7. As a female with a science degree, it hurts to hear that men invent everything.....BUT!!! BUTTT!!!!!


    In fact, I got this thing in the mail to fill out for women in engineering and I wanted to write "Stop focusing on diversity and women and focus your efforts on the people who historically invent stuff..WHITE MEN!"

    Anyways, back to the sicko Fine....

    In her biography it says she is married with 2 kids.

    I think this is a form of class warfare Mark. These upper-crusty people say "oooh we're going to write books about destroying the family, feminism, make movies about gay marriage" Muahahah "Then the people who fall for it will raise their kids in single-parent homes and their kids will be stupid with pschological problems...In Other Words...No One TO Compete With MY KIDS" Muahahaha Muahahaahahahaha

    I swear that's whats going on.

    I have arguments with people in real life and that is the only explanation.

  8. "If a frazzled mother can tell herself that her hard-wired powers of female empathy uniquely position her to intuit that the red-faced, cross-patch baby wants to get down from the highchair, then there’s no need to feel cross that she’s the only one who ever seems to notice."

    Oh, I notice that the kid wants to get down from the high chair. But he's not going to get down from the damn high chair until he finishes his food, and, just as importantly, until I have finished my food. Until both of those are true, he can scream all he wants.

  9. """oooh we're going to write books about destroying the family, feminism, make movies about gay marriage" Muahahah "Then the people who fall for it will raise their kids in single-parent homes and their kids will be stupid with pschological problems...In Other Words...No One TO Compete With MY KIDS" Muahahaha Muahahaahahahaha""

    That sounds scarily plausible!

  10. Hey Mark, an old blog post that you may like about why American lower classes have failed better than the British...basically just more backing up of the stuff you write about with a country music spin :)

  11. Why then would universities institute classes of "Gender Studies" if gender is mere delusion?

    Granted it is an impertinent reference, but the philistines on Mr Bolt's blog, those who have appointed Zionism, aggressive wars, democracy and Medicare as fundamental tenets of conservatism, are furiously imputing Plato as the source of Bolshevism and the National Socialists.
    Finally, the Neocon Right have become a parody unto themselves.

  12. I find it amusing how newspapers always latch on to but one study and declare things "official".

    This woman is going to bring her findings into a world of disputation with a larger body of fisndings going to opposite way.

    Methinks is that her findings will be overturned.

  13. "Why then would universities institute classes of "Gender Studies" if gender is mere delusion?"

    Oh, gender is "socially constructed" - it results from how we are brought up - but there is always room for academics to study how wicked, wicked men have socially constructed an oppressive patriarchal system to exert power over women. Since men and women are really just the same, as soon as we get rid of that patriarchal system, we'll have a wonderful utopia of love and equality... or something.

  14. I'm amazed by the ignorance of most commenters, obviously they never have or ever will read scientific explanations that go against their ingrained stereotypes. And if the writer of this blog had bothered to actually read the book in question, instead of relying on the Daily Mail, he might have found the answers to his questions. But why risk having your views challenged by science?

  15. TC Coyle,

    Do you think that type of comment really works? You haven't displayed any knowledge of your own, you've just insinuated that your position is the knowledgeable, scientific one.

    Are we meant to take your claim to being expert as true as a matter of faith? Are we meant to think, well, this commenter TC Coyle nakedly asserts that he is knowledgeable and others are ignorant, so therefore I should just accept his position on things?

    Wouldn't it be wiser for us to think, this TC Coyle guy is just another liberal with nothing deeper to say on the issue than that his non-liberal opponents must be ignorant (because that's just what liberals do)?

  16. Not sure why you need to label her as a feminist or whatever. Herr book goes through all the studies that support her conclusions. Find other studies that support an opposite conclusion rather than resort to labeling (weak). Her point is that the science supporting significant differences in the sexes is weak; and any way, it's how you're brought up that has the greatest affect.

    If you want to continue saying men and women are from different planets, consider this.

    Think of the range of different types within the male side of the human species. From flaming gay to macho truck driver. That is enormous. Now think of the wide range of types within the female side: from dainty prissy types to the tough girls. Think of how wide that range is. How much difference there is within each sex.

    Now compare the sexes. Men and women have far far more in common with each other (humanity, love of children and family, work, learning, and others) - they are more similar - compared to the so-called differences between the sexes.

    This whole battle of the sexes and Mars and Venus will be seen eventually as outmoded as treating blacks as inferior. As with racism, it may take centuries to play out.

  17. Anonymous, I couldn't disagree with you more. The sense of there being distinct masculine and feminine principles and identities is central to the human experience. It's not going anywhere.

  18. Forgive me; this is just a passing comment, as I'm trying to find a variety of reviews for the book, which is how I ended up here.

    Forgoing all the political implications of such a text, what I'm interested in is if the science bears itself out. All you've really said here is she has an opinion on gender differences, and that in your personal opinion you feel her findings are unlikely.

    Look, I guess I'm trying to say I can't work with what you've written, because you really haven't told me anything about the book itself.

  19. Most of the comments left here seem bizarre. It is always a good idea to read a book before critiquing it. If you wish to critique a person, it is also a good idea to do more than read a brief biography or a journal article that they have written.

    Cordelia Fine's book is well researched and well written. She is careful with her claims and backs them up with evidence. Her referencing is sufficiently thorough that anyone who doubts the force or validity of her arguments can easily check the source material.

  20. Anon, the point of my post was to demonstrate that Cordelia Fine has political commitments which tie her to a particular position on this issue.

    For me to be wrong on this, it would have to be demonstrated that she does not have the political bias that I claim that she has.

  21. Anon - aka 'read the book' here again :)

    Most people have political commitments of one kind or another. Acknowledging the commitments that you have before you undertake research and when you report on research is considered best practice in a number of fields. (It interests me that some experiments show that the people who claim to be objective are often worse at providing an accurate account of their observations than those who accept that they are biased!) Thus, I take the title of your blog to indicate certain commitments that should inform those who read your blog, but not be taken to undermine your arguments. To reject Cordelia Fine's research in Delusions of Gender because she has certain political views is to commit an ad hominem fallacy.

    Almost incidentally, I have not seen any place in her book where Cordelia Fine says that biology has no effect on gender differences. In fact, in one place she proposes that biological differences do lie behind one particular gender difference. I haven't finished the book yet - only half way through - so maybe I have missed the relevant comment. But, if she does say anywhere that biology has no effect in gender differences, then I either misread the earlier section of the book or she contradicts herself. (The Daily Mail is, perhaps, not the most accurate source for reviews. I should acknowledge here that I have never read it, so I am only going on the quote with which you begin your post!)

  22. Not going to read it all, but will just say this about the first para: If I, male, was in a mixed group, when young, and there were baby pictures to be looked at, there is absolutely NO WAY I would have admitted that I wanted to see them.