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Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen


Neurohormonal Wars, Part 2

Old questions and dubious debates in the psychology of gender.

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These studies illustrate what Fine calls the "now you see it, now you don't" quality of supposedly gender-typical behaviors. Other examples could be cited.[1] Cumulatively, they suggest that gender operates like a verb as much as a noun. It's not just something we have (like hormones); it's something that we do, with greater or lesser zeal, depending on situational demands. Or, to change the metaphor, gender (along with ethnicity, religion, class, and other aspects of our human identity) is like a rheostat that we turn up or down, depending on how much or little we are "primed" to do so. And gender—perhaps because it is more dichotomous than ethnicity, class, or religion—is a very fundamental and anxiety-provoking part of human identity, so it can often be primed more easily. Thus, if the items on a questionnaire—even an anonymous one—let us know we're being assessed for empathy, women and men will both tend to skew their responses to line up with expectations for their sex. It's like a gender placebo effect: We think, therefore we are. But the fact that this difference disappears when people don't know what they're being assessed for suggests that empathy is a more generically human trait than BOT popularizers would have us believe.

Of the books considered here, Lise Eliot's misleadingly titled Pink Brain, Blue Brain is the one most obviously aimed at a popular (but educated) audience. Though the title smacks of BOT orthodoxy, its subtitle—"How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It"—points to a more nuanced agenda. Eliot is a medical school professor of neuroscience who does research on neuroplasticity—that is, on ways that experience changes the brain. Even so, she began writing the book with a bias toward brain organization theory. Thinking that she could explain human behavioral differences by building mostly on animal research, she soon found herself accepting the more social constructionist arguments presented by developmental and social psychologists. Like Fine and Jordan-Young, she lists the flaws in the BOT paradigm, including some that the other authors missed. For example, Simon Baron-Cohen's version of BOT includes the hypothesis that autistic boys (who often display a compulsion to collect and organize) have brains that have been hyper-masculinized in utero. If so, you'd expect boys who are diagnosed with autism to have had higher prenatal testosterone levels than those who are not. But this turns out not to be the case—nor is there any correlation in girls between prenatal testosterone levels and their later levels of "empathizing" vs. "systematizing" behavior. Another dose-response embarrassment.

Eliot also reminds readers that gendered behavioral differences are far from absolute. A small average difference between the sexes (e.g., in spatial or verbal skills) is usually dwarfed by the amount of variability within each sex—hardly a ringing endorsement of gender essentialism. And even when average differences are found, this indicates nothing about their origins: correlation is not the same as causality.

Nevertheless, Eliot is inclined to give BOT some benefit of the doubt, and grant that small gender differences at birth may reflect the work of prenatal hormones or other biological forces. For example, even in countries with superior medical services, boys are more vulnerable than girls to miscarriage, to be born prematurely, and to die at birth. Those that survive are on average fussier than infant girls—perhaps because of their prior vulnerability. Eliot also lists some reliable but small neonatal differences in olfactory, auditory, and visual sensitivity, as well as in motor performance, and notes that through mid-adolescence girls' bodies (including their brains) mature earlier than boys'. But she argues that these minor differences are greatly inflated by the different social demands, expectations, and resources placed before girls and boys—rather like a snowball that begins tiny, but gathers size and momentum as it rolls down a hill.

The human brain, Eliot concludes, has much more plasticity than people give it credit for. This blind spot is especially significant in the United States, where people routinely attribute their own and others' achievements to innate ability rather than to hard work. By contrast, in the rising Asian nations and in many European ones, it is assumed that if children work hard enough and are well taught, they can all be competent in all subjects. Not coincidentally, both boys and girls in these nations routinely become bi- or multilingual, and on international mathematics tests their female students often leave American males (with their "innate" systematizing edge) in the dust. "Gender," Eliot asserts, "should never be an excuse for a child's low performance in a given area, whether it is reading or math, science or writing. Expectations are important, so we must hold them consistently high for all children."

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