(WOMENSENEWS)– The debate over whether separate–and quite different–"female" and "male" brains actually exist has been re-kindled as Caitlyn Jenner begins filming a new documentary on her transformation from man to woman.
It’s a topic that needs to be caught and addressed, especially at a time when female scientists must continue to defend their fitness for hard-science work.
Former Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner appeared on a recent cover of Vanity Fair magazine in her new female incarnation and is starring in a new eight-part series for E! television.
Many applaud her as a pioneer in the struggle for acceptance of transgender people, but some of her remarks raised eyebrows. She told Diane Sawyer in a network TV interview, "My brain is much more female than it is male," explaining the roots of her transgender identify.
What did the interview and photos show us about Jenner’s idea of a woman? "A cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup," wrote feminist critic Elinor Burkett in the New York Times.
But the real problem underlying the Jenner brouhaha is that it revives the well-worn notion that men and women have very different brains. In the social sciences, this idea is on its last legs–but not in the popular press.
Neuroscientist Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne calls much of popular brain- difference-theories "neurosexism." In her book, "Delusions of Gender," she writes, "The idea of hardwired sex differences is very confidently presented as ‘fact’ by many popular writers. Unfortunately, claims about [such] differences may be a particularly effective way of reinforcing the gender stereotypes that influence us in self-fulfilling ways."
Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist at Barnard College, looks askance at the idea that hormones create brains in pink and blue, affecting everything from our math aptitude to our ability to take risks to our emotional lives. In her critically praised book "Brainstorm," she writes that this notion "better resembles a hodge-podge pile than a solid structure . . . Once we have cleared the rubble, we can begin to build newer, more scientific stories about human development."
Adding to Rubble Heap
Unfortunately the coverage of Jenner is only adding to that rubble heap.
Jordan-Young also worries that the "sex differences" paradigm is no longer seen as an argument for female inferiority, but rather as a healthy embrace of diversity. "Isn’t it just great that we’re all so different–gay or straight black or white, male or female. Isn’t it wonderful that if women want different things than men, they should get them."
But do men and women really want different things? Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychologist, thinks so. He put forth the following theory of male and female brains in his often-cited book, "The Essential Difference."
Male brains: Ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hard-wired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles.
Female brains: Specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip and "reading" a partner. (Girls and women, it seems, are so focused on others that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.)
Baron-Cohen based his ideas on a study done in his laboratory of day-old infants, male and female. He claimed that boy babies looked at mobiles longer, while girl babies looked at faces longer. Based on this study, Parents magazine in 2007 informed its readers, "Girls prefer dolls [to blocks and toys] because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects."
But it was an "outlier" study, so flawed as to be almost meaningless. Indeed, no one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself.
Elizabeth Spelke, co-director of Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative, cites a long list of scientific literature flat-out contradicting Baron-Cohen’s theory. Male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects.
Neuroscientist Fine concurs, saying that there’s little support for the idea of a male brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world and a female brain hardwired to understand people.
Another popular belief is that male and female brains are different from the start, and they get increasingly different over time. This in nonsense.
Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science at the Chicago Medical School, examined the vast peer-reviewed literature on children from infants to high schoolers for her book "Pink Brain, Blue Brain." Expecting to find large disparities, she was shocked to find the data told a very different story. "What I found, after an exhaustive search, was surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains."
Eliot warns that despite the lack of evidence, "Even teachers are now preaching the gospel of sex differences goaded on by bad in-service seminars, [and] by so-called brain-based learning theories . . . This puts more of a burden on parents and teachers to treat each child as an individual and to avoid falling prey to people who peddle what amounts to scientific snake oil."
We can all take her warning to heart by supporting the movement of transgender people towards equal rights and social approval, minus the snake oil. We don’t want to put transgender people in the same old gender-difference binds that have caused so much harm in the past.
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