On the Science of Changing Sex

Gender Revelations

Posted in Book Reviews by Kay Brown on March 19, 2016

9780393340242_198Book Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

I have to admit, as I began reading this book, I was ready to grit my teeth to plow through it, notebook and pen at the ready, to note every jot and tittle Fine got wrong, given the popularity of this book among those who identify as “gender critical” (Let’s be honest, that’s often a euphemism for “transgender belittle”).  But I was wrong.  Far from disseminating disinformation and disapprobation of transsexual folk, Fine is very respectful of transfolk and includes anecdotes by transfolk in support of her thesis.  What I found instead was a delightfully accurate, and at times bitingly humorous, take-down of all of the (distressingly all too common) false stereotypes of men and women and their supposed differences and of the people who promote them.  Fine is an intellectual after my own heart, one that I would love to have in my social circle.

Reading Fine’s book did bring up questions as to why ‘gender critical’ bloggers are so adamant that the book directly debunks any and all discussion of sexual dimorphism in the human brain, which many derisively call “LadyBrain” theories, when in fact, Fine clearly and correctly acknowledges that the human brain does exhibit recognizably sexually dimophoric features.

“It’s not, by the way, my intention to present myself as a neuroscience sceptic. Not only are some of my best friends, as well as family members, neuroimagers, but I also think that neuroscience is an extremely exciting and promising field, and can be usefully employed in combination with other techniques. I also understand that speculation is an important part of the scientific process. Nor is the topic of gender difference by any means the only area in which overinterpretation can occur. And I certainly don’t think that research into sex differences in the brain is wrong or pointless. There are sex differences in the brain (although, as we’ve seen, agreeing on what these are is harder than you might think); there are sex differences in vulnerabilities to certain psychological disorders, and hopefully greater understanding of the former might help to illuminate the latter. My point is simply this: that neither structural nor functional imaging can currently tell us much about differences between male and female minds. As Rutgers University psychologist Deena Skolnick Weisberg has recently argued, we should ‘remember that neuroscience, as a method for studying the mind, is still in its infancy. It shows much promise to be someday what many people want to make it into now: a powerful tool for diagnosis and research. We should remember that it has this promise, and give it the time it needs to achieve its potential – without making too much of it in the meantime.”

Fine’s thesis is not that sexually dimorphic features don’t exist, but that these features, whatever they represent, do not correlate with a putative difference in men’s and women’s minds.  Fine doesn’t explicitely define what she means by ‘mind’, but one can infer from the material she covers that she is refering to cognitive and emotional functions ranging from general intelligence, mathematical aptitude, ‘mind-reading’ (emotional expression recognition), empathy, parenting skills, and caregiving.  All of these areas are rife with false gender stereotypes that one sex is better at them than the other.  Fine demolishes them one by one, showing how they arise and that they are demonstrably false.

Having demonstrated that these common stereotypes are bunkum, she then turns her attention to what she calls, “neuro-sexism”, the inappropriate use of neuroscience to uphold sexist stereotypes and beliefs.  Here she really won my heart, as she rips popular authors who misinterpret, sometimes even just making stuff up about, the scientific literature on sexual dimorphism in the human brain.  (A careful reader of my blog here will, I hope, find where I have done the same.)  She also shows that this isn’t just harmless repeating of minor prejudices, but actually creating harmful changes in educational policy that undermines both boys and girls by creating a self-fullfilling prophesy regarding differential higher order cognitive skills (e.g. boys are better at math, but bad at language arts, and visa versa for girls).

Fine finishes the book by exploring how ubiquitous gender stereotypes are and how they effect the social and play life of even the youngest children.  She carefully documents how even non-sexist parenting can’t protect children from being introduced to both stereotypes and to gendered play expectations.  It is here that she tangentially refers back to an earlier comment that far from rejecting the notion that sexually dimorphic neural pathways in the brain may lead to sexually dimorphic behavior and even to gender atypical behavior in some individuals, she briefly mentions research that supports this hypothesis.

There exists female bodied people who were exposed to fairly high doses of masculinizing hormones due to Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH).  These girls vary from conventionally gender typical to quite gender atypical in their play behavior.  Given that the play behavior one is talking about is highly socially defined, such as playing with trucks, one is left wondering how and why this behavior comes about.  One hypothises is that toys become gendered because of some inate property of them.  This seems rather a stretch, given that toy trucks didn’t exist before real trucks were developed only a bit over a century ago.

“But another possibility is that girls with CAH are drawn to what is culturally ascribed to males. Thirty years ago, primatologist Frances Burton put forward an intriguing suggestion that casts the data from females with CAH in an entirely new light. She proposed that the effect of foetal hormones in primates is to predispose them to be receptive to whatever behaviours happen to go with their own sex in the particular society into which they are born”

Did you catch that?  Fine is presenting, and never disputes, the idea that sexually dimorphic neuropathways may predispose one to identify, at least implicitly, as one sex or the other!  Shades of “Gender Identity”!!!  But please note, this is NOT the same concept of “gender identity” that is so oft described by autogynephilic transsexuals, but of an implicit identification with one’s sex, or in the case of gender atypical children, with the opposite sex.  Sadly, Fine fails to follow up very far in this direction, because she is interested not in what we know from research also strongly correlates with such sexually dimporphic play behavior in young children, that of later sexual orientation in adults, but only in egregiously false stereotypes.  Fine simply does not discuss sexual orientation, which is strange, given that sexual orientation is the single most sexually dimporphic behavior in humans and correlates with many of the sexually dimorphic structures in the human brain, far more so than any putative differences in higher cognitive functions.  It is quite likely the reason that Fine doesn’t explore this realm of inquiry is because sexual orientation simply isn’t in dispute as sexually dimorphic.  Let’s face it.  Most people are heterosexual, attracted to the opposite sex.  In the end, we might say that it is not so much that one has “male” vs. “female” brains, but “androphilic” vs. “gynephilic”… its just that there is a VERY high correlation between them.

Further Reading:

Essay on implicit gender identification in gender atypical/dysphoric children

Essay on the differential origins of cross gender identity in transsexuals

Essay on paper/letter regarding an algorithm to classify human brains by sex

Book Review: Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine (Reviewed by Stewart Richie)

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