If women can be made to believe that our brains are biologically inferior, then we will think twice about our encroachments into a world that used to be the sole province of men.
You know all the stereotypes about Guardian readers? How we’re all dope-smoking hippies or intellectual-types who spend our energy fretting and slathering our social networking pages with posts about the future of the planet or poverty in Africa or gender equality? Yep, all those stereotypes apply to me. That’s why this week I was delivered a breathtaking kick in the gut by my lefty broadsheet of choice when I saw this headline in its science section: “Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal.”
The study in question, from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, broke no new ground in its Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus conclusions—which fully backed John Gray’s blockbuster 1992 formulation, in all its profundity, of why it’s so gosh-durn hard for partners in heterosexual relationships to understand each other. What the PNAS study did have going for it was a rather sexy new methodology that mapped (and I may be oversimplifying the exact neurological mechanism here) our cognitive circuitry, or how our thoughts ping around our brains.
What did the authors find? Ding ding ding! You got it! That men are wired for motor skills and perception, and women for communication and empathy. (Oh, how I love it when science journos sling around the term “hard-wired,” as if our brains were car engines!)
I was very angered by this, of course, but also, somehow, very frightened. Even finding the wherewithal to write this piece gave a mini crisis of confidence, because I respect science, and writing a column that can in any way be construed as anti-empirical is an intellectual and even professional risk for me.
In my day job I am an editor of social science journal articles, and I have the great veneration of science typical of someone who’s read enough academic literature to recognize a good theory when she sees one, while still feeling perpetually hamstrung in producing her own Big Idea. I got as far as finishing an MSc in Comparative Politics in 2009, and since then have been putting off starting that PhD that I’m always half-thinking I will fail at so might as well just never do.
In short, I am exactly the right measures of intellectual inferiority complex and scientific awe to be left blushing, flustered, and cowed by a peer-reviewed study telling me that men’s logical perceptiveness is meant to complement my own knack for emotional politicking.
In fairness, my reaction was probably identical to that of most sensible, progressive women who don’t also happen to be neuroscientists. Now, nearly one week later, I am more angry than tongue-tied—livid, in fact, at the audacity of being asked yet again to consider, as a woman, my own biologically hard-wired inferiority. Of course, the study’s co-authors (three of whom are women) were not so brazen as to rank the sexes, instead framing their conclusions within a spiel about sex-based cognitive complementarity. We women should rejoice at being the multi-tasking empaths who balance out the “monomaniacal” tendencies of our male counterparts!
Predictably, though, within the first comment of the thread readers had morphed these conclusions into the following more heavy-handed but equally infuriating observations: “See! Nature wants you women in the home taking care of the babies and old people, where you should have been all along!” Oh, and also, “This is great! Now we can find out why gay and trans people’s brains are so messed up!” And just for good measure, “Has anyone ever thought to do a study like this at the racial level?”
You can see, I’m sure, how this sort of study will inevitably instigate some downright Hitlerian ideas about the natural order of the world. But that’s not even what upsets me so much. It’s that I believe that biological determinism—the idea that Mother Nature, via our brain wiring and our sex organs, decides what roles we play in life and how we play them—cannot be either true or ethical.
In terms of the science, my thinking here—acknowledging at all times that I’m of a social science, rather than neuroscience, bent—is that we are looking for an evolutionary answer to what is now a sociocultural question. Our brains are shaped by the physical, social, sexual, and cultural contexts we experience throughout our lifetimes, not over millions of years.
And I’m not pulling this idea out of thin air. Like probably every feminist, I went through a period when developing my own intellectual answers to these questions suddenly became urgent, and I devoured two books aimed at debunking the gender hard-wiring argument. In Delusions of Gender, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine offers a rather pop-sciency argument on gender and brain function and concludes that our brain wiring is “plastic”—i.e., that the way it functions is not preset into an XX and XY template, but is instead continually developing according to our different needs and contexts.
Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot offers a more rigorous and balanced look at similar material and comes to conclusions that are essentially the same. This plasticity basically means we develop cognitive capabilities as our context demands them of us. Say, for instance, a person loses her sight in a car accident. The same woman’s brain would show very different “cognitive hard-wiring” if scanned the day before her accident compared to 10 years after it. The PNAS study itself even acknowledges that the observed differences were not congenital, and only began to emerge during the participants’ adolescence, when social gender norms start to heavily impact the lives we choose (or are forced) to live.
But more importantly, there are the ethical implications of the biological determinism argument. If we women can be made to believe it, then we will think twice about our encroachments into a world that used to be the sole province of men. If the new public life of women is unnatural or somehow illogical from an evolutionary-psychology perspective, then we have become traitors to our species, guilty of that most selfish of social infractions: prioritizing our own humanity over our group evolution.
I say that any science that pits acknowledgement of human dignity as a threat to the well-being of the collective becomes science in the service of oppression. I lived my childhood in a Jane Austen–like world where girls’ destinies were literally decided by their fathers, who cared more about their own idiotic religious theories and Mt. Sinai–sized egos than about the well-being of their families. I still recall the incensed anger, the flaring internal rebellion, I felt the day a 13-year-old me discovered my father reading religious pamphlets by the fundamentalist American pastor Michael Pearl about how to arrange marriages for one’s daughters.
As a woman told for her entire childhood that her dreams of becoming an astronaut, a doctor, or a Senator would always be impossible because that was not what God intended for her as a girl, I can attest to the damage wreaked on my soul (yes, I did just use that loaded word: soul). I actually started to believe my intellect would always be told where it could and couldn’t go, that my life’s course was not my own to decide.
Across the world women still suffer every day from society’s attempt to ensure their fulfillment of their biologically ordained gender roles. Little girls from East London to Mogadishu are still getting their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn shut on kitchen tables so that they can prove they have not been “used” when it comes time to marry them off. Women in Colombia, the country where I live, are being told they deserve to be raped if they wear miniskirts. And in America, we have abandoned 4.1 million families headed by single mothers to poverty, because women who turn society upside down by daring to raise their children outside a nuclear family obviously deserve any lemons that get handed to them.
Studies like this one may try to salve our conscience, but it doesn’t mean that humanity is not culpable and collectively weaker for the violence, both psychological and physical, we have inflicted upon ourselves for thousands of years in our treatment of women as second-class citizens.
So I hope you’ll forgive me now if I instinctively react to any study telling me my brain is designed to relate instead of reason by wanting to punch a hole in my computer screen. It would contradict my existence to believe that my brain, which strained so ferociously and with so much angst against the strictures of my fundamentalist evangelical upbringing, must concede to others the capacity for “rational” cognition (including that tiny matter of deciding which gender is the rational one). And that, furthermore, I should content myself with the meaty little bone of having a relational specialization that at least complements the real work of discovering how the world works.
I say: Screw that. Biologically determined gender specialization will always be wrong because I deserve to be free. (So do all the men who are being told they are born emotionally and socially stunted compared to females.) I am a human with a will, an intellect, and a sense of agency. I am not an animal biologically destined to propagate my species. Believe whatever you want, but don’t peddle that nonsense to me.
I am a woman. And no, not even “science” can silence me.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.