The Real Science Behind Sex Differences

Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine, is an extended critique of efforts to scientifically study differences between the sexes, and the efforts of many writers to apply alleged science in their writings about such differences. The book is rich in technical detail, which might bog down some readers, but most of those details are fascinating. Fine is a lucid and entertaining writer, especially in her more acerbic moments - of which there are plenty here. She finds a lot of shoddy science and shameless misuse of would-be science that would raise the hackles of any neuroscientist or feminist, let alone someone like her who happens to be both.

This is a book with an agenda, and political agendas tend not to sit comfortably with science - but to pretend that politics never seeps into science while nobody is looking would be disingenuous. In fact, Fine's agenda - to bring out the reasons to doubt science that supposedly demonstrates innate differences between sexes - is at least as much scientific as political, and I think it is legitimate. It is something to bear in mind while reading this book, though, and there are times she goes out of her way to present things in such a way as to minimise the possibility of interpretation in terms of innate differences. As far as I can see she always stops short of misrepresenting the science, though, and the whole approach needs to be seen in the context of discourse which routinely takes essential differences for granted, whether the evidence supports them or not.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is 'Half-changed World', Half-Changed Minds, which largely focuses on the interplay of cultural expectations and attempts to measure sex differences scientifically. This largely consists of accounts of experiments demonstrating the effects of cultural norms on things that people might be interested in measuring, and experiments which fail to take these factors into account. For example, she looks at experiments investigating the effect of telling the subjects what 'the latest science' has to say about the sorts of tests they are about to perform, to show that girls do significantly better on mathematical tasks if they think that science says they should. Even more subtly, females rate their mathematical ability as worse after they have just been reminded of their sex by having to tick a box at the beginning to say they are females. This gives us an interesting lens for looking at gender differences in maths tests which disregard the weight of cultural expectations, and indeed at systematic tendencies for females to choose less mathematical study and career paths.

Having established many profound and subtle ways that social expectations and structures shape behaviours and perfomance, the theme of the second part of the book is Neurosexism - premature efforts to explain differences in behaviour and performance with reference to the brain, rather than society. Fine's most basic point is that it is rather soon to be looking for explanations of most of these things in neuroscience, when societal explanations have not been ruled out, and the relationship between the mind and the brain is still so unclear. More than that, she shows time and again that many authors are disturbingly willing to go way beyond what neurology can tell us, while pretending that they are not. Perhaps the single worst offender here is Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, a serial abuser and inventor of neuroscience to back up her ideas about the differences between males and females - but she is one of many. Fine makes the point that people have been finding 'explanations' for sex differences in the brain for well over a century, from the observation that female brains tend to be a bit lighter than male ones through to modern notions of hardwiring. At the same time, people have routinely assumed that all kinds of observed differences between the sexes are natural and inevitable, when later experience has regularly shown them to be no such thing.

The final section is titled Re-Cycling Gender, and it concerns itself with the future of gender relations and the science of sex. Fine is worried about the cyclical nature of some kinds of self-fulfilling prophecy - about dodgy science being used to teach yet another generation of young men and women that there are certain natural roles that they ought to be filling, certain characteristics they should expect to have. She emphasises again how difficult it is to pick apart innate and culturally conditioned differences, and the importance of keeping an open mind about questions that science has not yet been able to settle. With a better scientific understanding of the role of society in forming the mind and the brain, and a sceptical eye on the interesting but inconclusive findings of neuroscience, we may approach true sexual equality yet. Without such circumspection, as Fine argues, we may find ourselves sliding back to ideas about the sexes which are both unhelpful and ill-founded.

This is an important book, because the trend towards explaining sex differences with impressive-sounding neurological findings has great potential to set back ideas about gender roles, on the basis of evidence which is far flimsier than it might look. Because we are shaped by our ideas, this has major practical, political ramifications - it is not just good science that is at stake here. There is no doubt that some will resist Fine's approach for its politicisation of science, but I would be inclined to see it more as exploring the role of pre-existing, unexamined political bias, rather than introducing politics to the debate. Delusions of Gender is compelling, informative and perhaps most impressively, funny. I recommend this highly to anyone with any interest in neuroscience or gender.