The truth about the female brain


Are boys and girls born different, or do they learn to be different? PHOTO/Artyom GeodakyanTASS via Getty Images

Modern controversies often manifest in a peculiar style of debate, in which a public figure confronts an ideologue, delivering a lengthy polemic that disputes every illogical statement they have made. Every false statistic, every questionable claim, every misspoken word is dissected, and the argument is utterly dismantled, until the ideologue is apparently exposed as the dogmatist they truly are.

Hundreds of video clips on YouTube highlight this phenomenon, where “Ben Shapiro destroys transgender arguments”, “Jordan Peterson Debunks White Privilege”, and “Sam Harris demolishes Christianity”. Underneath each one, hundreds of gleeful comments from viewers cheer the orators on. Finally, someone has taken down the arguments they don’t want to believe.

This genre of debate involves unthinkingly disputing every argument made by an opponent, no matter how sensible they are, and, worryingly, it isn’t confined to social media.

Gina Rippon’s study The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain – which featured on The Guardian‘s ‘Summer reading’ list – is the latest example of this unfortunate genre. The book is concerned with the question of whether the brain exhibits sex differences, and whether they are caused by nature or nurture.

Rippon’s argument is blunt. The idea that “you can describe a brain a ‘male’ or ‘female,’” she declares, “is characterised by bizarre claims which can be readily dismissed, only to pop up again in another form”. She contends that scientists who have studied sex differences in the brain have historically been sexist and have hunted down differences that did not really exist, in an attempt to prove the inferiority of women.

“The so-called ‘female’ brain,” says Rippon, “has suffered centuries of being described as undersized, underdeveloped, evolutionarily inferior, poorly organised and generally defective.” Such assertions were, and still are, so widespread that Rippon admits feeling as though she’s playing “Whac-a-Mole”. She has barely disproved the newest study professing to demonstrate how men and women’s brains differ, when another is published.

Rippon’s opponents, whom she calls biological determinists, argue that we know sex differences in the brain are innate because they are evident even in young infants, before socialisation has had the opportunity to exert its influence. But according to Rippon, “the general consensus appears to be that, once variables such as birth weight and head size have been taken into account, there are very few, if any, structural sex differences in the brain at birth”.

She claims that the emergence of sex differences between boys and girls’ brains as they age is evidence for the role of brain plasticity and socialisation in shaping these differences – that is, if and when sex differences exist at all. If there is “a genuine sex difference, indeed an ‘essential’ sex difference, and hard-wired to boot, you might expect it to be present at birth or certainly to emerge pretty early thereafter”.

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