Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

One-line summary: A dense but accessible examination of the nature vs. nurture debate as it pertains to neuroscience.


Goodreads: Average: 4.26. Mode: 5 stars (44%)
Amazon: Average: 4.2 Mode: 5 stars (70%)

Sex-based discrimination is supposedly a relic of the distant past. Yet popular books, magazines, and even scientific articles increasingly defend continuing inequalities between the sexes by calling on immutable biological differences between the male and the female brain. Why are there so few women in science and engineering, so few men in the laundry room? Well, they say, it’s our brains. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and education, Delusions of Gender rebuts these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, help perpetuate the status quo. This book reveals the brain’s remarkable plasticity, shows the substantial influence of culture on identity, and, ultimately, exposes just how much of what we consider “hardwired” is actually malleable, empowering us to break free of the supposed predestination of our sex chromosomes.

Warning: Long review is long and opinionated.

One of the problems of arguing with people who hold slack-jawed anti-scientific views of the world -- creationists, anti-vaccinationists, global warming denialists, etc. -- is that while it only takes a little bit of understanding of science to know that most of these people are nucking futs and/or marching to a reality-denying ideological beat, you need to be an expert in the field yourself to argue the deeper issues or be able to refute every seemingly-plausible argument an experienced denialist might throw at you. For example, there are a few creationists who are sufficiently well-versed in biology, geology, and other disciplines that they can sound quite convincingly scientific to those unversed in the literature. Throw a lot of chaff about the meaning of the word "theory" and misrepresent scientific disputes over extremely fine details in academic circles, and it's easy to fool the general public into believing that science is some kind of consensual reality game and you can vote on whether or not the Theory of General Relativity is true.

Which brings me to evolutionary psychology and brain science. It's all tied into the "nature vs. nurture" debate that's been going on since as long as it first started occurring to people that maybe women aren't actually born with a predilection for playing with dolls in pink dresses.

Evolutionary psychology is the spiffy new science of why girl brains are different from boy brains, all dressed up in SCIENCE! so it's totally not sexist to use a 6% difference in a dubious study of six people without a control group to argue that men simply can't handle the detail-oriented complexity of doing laundry the way women can. Look, girls are hardwired to be more emotional and sensitive and boys are hardwired to be more logical, it says so right there on the MRI scan! And objective test scores (which we totally made sure had no gender biases) prove it! You're just being all Politically Correct and denying reality!

Well, really, not so much, and Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender goes into great and exhausting detail on just how all these studies work and the source of modern scientific claims purporting to show proof of hardwired behavioral differences in the sexes.

It starts by talking about how socialization affects many results when measuring gender differences, and also just how unreliable intuition (or "what everyone just knows") is. In other words, your anecdotal experience pretty much counts for shit. (Fine doesn't put it that way; she's more objective and science-y.) She starts with one of the favorite examples particularly used by those arguing for hardwired gender differences: the well-meaning parents who are determined not to force gender roles on their children and thus try to raise them free of such influences. Yet despite their best efforts, it turns out that Johnny likes to play with trucks and Jane likes to play with dolls. "See?" they say. "We didn't encourage or discourage them to play a certain way -- they're just naturally different!" Everyone has heard this argument, possibly even experienced it themselves.

Fine, however, shows how in many varied and subtle ways, socialization actually begins before birth, and children soak up messages about gender no matter how hard you try to prevent it. This is one of the things that makes research in the field so difficult: a true double-blind study that filters out socializing factors is pretty much impossible, since raising a control group of babies on an uninhabited island without human contact would have trouble passing most ethics review boards.

Fine then goes on to demonstrate how socialization can have significant effects even with very subtle cues. For example, when testing relative math ability between men and women, it's repeatedly been shown that if you tell the groups beforehand that "Women tend to do more poorly than men on this test," women will indeed perform more poorly than those women who were not told that before taking the test. The same thing happens when you administer tests of empathy or reading emotional cues -- on tests where no "gender priming" is given, men perform about the same as women, but if you tell them beforehand that "men usually aren't very good at this," the men's scores fall dramatically.

But you don't have to be that overt about it -- Fine cites several studies in which just checking a box indicating gender before taking such tests was sufficient to remind the test-takers of what society expects when it comes to women doing math or men empathizing, and resulted in significant differences in scores from those who didn't have to check the box. This says some pretty profound things about just how much influence pervasive social messages about how men and women think/act/learn differently can have on their performance.

I can't do justice to all the evidence presented in Delusions of Gender -- you really need to actually read the book -- but to forestall some of the more predictable objections, let's be clear: Fine's thesis is not (and at no point in her book does she say this): "Innate sex differences do not exist." It is the somewhat more complex and nuanced and hard-to-fit-in-a-soundbite argument: "To the extent that innate sex differences may exist: (1) we have very few ways of actually measuring them and none of them are very reliable; (2) we don't yet have any way of knowing what the measurements we can take actually mean; and (3) This doesn't prevent popular science articles (and in too many cases, the scientists themselves) from making dramatically exaggerated claims based on small differences observed in a study."

Regarding point 1: there are lots of ways researchers try to measure sex-based differences in behavior, ranging from observing how long newborn babies look at different types of faces and objects (since presumably a baby can't yet have been socialized in any way to exhibit gendered behavior -- though it turns out even this is questionable) to studying PET and MRI scans of male and female brains while being exposed to various types of stimuli.

Fine describes a lot of these studies (and the general methodology) in detail, and what emerges is that many of them have some fundamental flaws (failing to exclude observer effects, for example, such as allowing the tester to know the sex of the baby being tested), are very small in scale (ten people or less), and most shockingly, some of the most widely-reported results used by big names in the field only measured the results of one gender.

With regard to point 2: let's say you find that female brains do indeed light up differently than male brains on an MRI scan while the males and females under observation are being told a sad story. What does this demonstrate?

Short answer: we don't know. We really have no idea. It seems obvious and intuitive that it says something about male and female brains being differently wired, but contrary to the many extravagant claims that have been made by some popular books, neuroscience is simply not advanced enough for us to be able to correlate some region of the brain with specific behaviors. Yes, we know generally some of the areas of the brain responsible for speech and emotion and spatial perception and so on, but (again, going into more detail than I can adequately summarize here), there are some very solid reasons why "The 'emotional' part of women's brains shows more activity" cannot reliably be interpreted as "Women respond more emotionally." More importantly, even when and if we do have the ability to measure what these phenomena mean, such studies do nothing to answer the nature vs. nurture question. Neurological activity indicates what the brain is doing, but not why. So if girl brains fire a different set of neurons than boy brains under the same conditions, does this mean the sexes are hardwired to respond differently to the same stimulus? Or does it mean that the sexes are socialized to respond differently, and you can observe these different responses in their brain activity? Popular magazine articles show pictures of brain scans with a woman's brain glowing like it's radioactive in response to a baby crying while the man's brain is slumbering in dim peaceability -- "See?" they say. "Women are totally hardwired to respond to crying babies!" Really? Or have men just learned that they can ignore a crying baby because mommy will take care of it? We don't know. Fine does not assert that this purported hardwiring absolutely does not exist, but she gives ample reason to be skeptical of it.

There are chapters covering alleged brain differences in a lot of detail: the whole "boys are left-brained and girls are right-brained" issue (false, for the most part), differences in white matter, and connectivity in the cerebral cortex, etc. Fine doesn't ignore what brain research has discovered, but she does an excellent job of explaining how very little data it has actually produced when it comes to actually proving anything. So when you read a book by a prominent "brain scientist" with charts showing that women have "seven times as many language-processing nodes in their brains as men do," you'll realize why this is a bullshit statement.

Lastly, point 3 is the one I think is most important. Fine does describe some studies that do appear to show small differences between men and women in certain areas of thinking and perception. They're often contradicted by other studies, but there is just enough evidence to make the case that, however bad we may be at analyzing it, there is probably some biological difference in how the sexes think and learn and behave.

Emphasis on the word "some." You can find similar differences in a few racial studies, and we know how badly those studies have gone when the results were exaggerated and misinterpreted. What's abundantly clear is that even taking the most credulous and generous view of every one of these studies alleging a biological/genetic variation, the differences are always slight -- rarely even close to 10%. So, let's say -- for the sake of argument -- that we could prove that female math ability is a few percentile points lower than male math ability. What would that mean?

Well, what it would not mean is that girls are bad at math. It would mean that even in a theoretically egalitarian society with completely equal education, you'd see a statistical difference in average male and female scores. Such statistical differences would be pretty much useless in terms of predicting the performance of individuals, and unless that difference was quite large (and even the most ardent advocates of sex differences in ability rarely argue nowadays that it's useless to teach girls math because they just suck at it too much), it wouldn't be a sound basis for, say, imposing a quota on female math majors or refusing to hire female rocket scientists. Would it be worthwhile to study and understand this phenomenon and possibly even figure out how a small disadvantage might be compensated for? Sure -- but the way a 3%-5% gender difference is usually represented is as a justification for segregated schools or worse, giving up on striving for equal education. An average variance is an average -- so you stick all the girls in classrooms that supposedly cater to the way their "girl-brains" work, but what about the significant percentage of them who don't have "girl-brains"? Or the significant percentage of boys who skew more in the other direction?

Contrary to the old saying, statistics don't lie, but they can certainly be misunderstood. Fine doesn't go deeply into statistical arguments, though she does talk about percentiles and probabilities enough that you should have at least a general idea of how it works. She addresses the popular "Greater Male Variability" theory (the one that says that women are more "average" in ability, more centered around the middle of the bell curve, while men are more often outliers, at the bottom and top ends, which explains why there are so few female Nobel Prize winners and chess grand masters and why more males are autistic), and talks about why this is both socially and statistically unsound.

In short, this book will give you a healthy degree of skepticism the next time you read an article explaining why men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and give you something to say other than "Dude, you're a fucking idiot" the next time somebody springs an evpsych argument or some random factoid about neurochemistry on you to justify a sexist assumption.

What the negative reviewers say

There are two kinds of negative reviews. The less interesting ones are the ones complaining that this is basically an academic book, meaning it's thick, full of footnotes and references, and not terribly entertaining.

Then there are the ones who go ape-shit at Fine's presumably denying that there is any such thing as sex differences. For example:

Cultural determinism dies a slow, agonizing death.

Fine is stunningly sophomoric in her understanding of the nature vs. nurture debate. It is over. Asking "is it nature or nurture?" is asking the wrong question, and it leads Fine down a dead-end path. It is always a very complex interweaving of both.

What then is the right question? Try this: "Is the trait under examination an evolved psychological adaptation, a byproduct of an adaptation, or random variation?"

And, if it is a psychological adaptation, is it generally obligate (relatively robust in the face of typical environmental variation) or facultative (sensitive to typical environmental variation)? What are the neurological substrates of the psychological adaptation? If it is generally facultative, what specific types of environmental inputs influence it?

The particularly relevant question for this book is this: "Which psychological adaptations are sexually dimorphic?" We know Fine's position on this one -- she desperately wishes that the answer is "none."

However, sexual selection theory and a vast body of both animal and human empirical evidence suggest otherwise. Non-human animals have no culture, but, of course, most species do show evidence of sex differences in behavior that derive from evolved, sexually dimorphic neurological adaptations. In humans, culture itself is built on a foundation of psychological adaptations, some of which are sexually dimorphic.

Fine erroneously believes that a few research critiques will dispatch even the notion of evolved human sexually dimorphic psychological adaptations, leaving culture free reign on a sexually monomorphic blank slate.

Simon Baron-Cohen, whose work is critiqued in Fine's book, unfortunately had to spend a little time writing a rebuttal titled "Delusions of gender - 'neurosexism,' biology and politics." It is worth a Google search to read his response. Fine's book would actually provide better material for Simon's cousin, Sasha.

This reviewer is pretty much wrong in every detail. Fine doesn't present nature and nurture as binary choices. Repeatedly, she avoids doing so. She does not at any point indicate a wish for there to be no such thing as sexually dimorphic psychological adaptations, or claim that they do not or cannot exist. (She does indicate a wish for any such adaptations not to be used as a justification for men not helping with the dishes.)

Fine really does rip Simon Baron-Cohen up in her book. I read Baron-Cohen's reply, in which among a few relevant defenses of his studies, he basically argues that Fine's book is nothing but political polemic and that she claims that all sex differences are culturally-determined. (Fine's response is here.)

So, if you are convinced that sex differences are innate and immutable and anyone who says differently is just a cultural determinist feminist crank, you're likely to read that into any book suggesting otherwise. This is the problem with trying to present science to the general public: it very rarely produces binary "either/or" conclusions. (Even Baron-Cohen, one of the foremost gender essentialist researchers, doesn't claim that no sex differences are culturally determined.) But I read quite a few reviews (both by readers and by other scientists and science magazines) of Delusions of Gender, and while Baron-Cohen isn't the only one who accused her of having an agenda and sometimes appearing to dismiss a few studies on weak grounds, the majority found her arguments solid and well-founded, and nobody, to my knowledge, has found her guilty of any actual errors of fact or misrepresentations.

Verdict: This isn't aimed at the casual reader, but it's not a textbook either; you don't need a degree in psychology or biology to understand it. If you are deeply invested in either end of the nature-vs-nurture debate -- you firmly believe that God Made Men and Women Different and that's Just the Way It Is, or conversely, gender is 100% socially constructed, then this book isn't likely to change your mind. But it will allow you to discuss the issue intelligently, with more than a hand-waving understanding of what "science" supposedly says on the topic.
Tags: books, highly recommended, non-fiction, reviews, science

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