Sex on the brain


Sex differences really do exist. Men and women, boys and girls, really do behave differently. The question – and difficultly – lies in establishing where these differences come from. Are the sexes wired differently? Or does culture explain observed behavioural differences? The answers are yes and yes; but, unfortunately, biological and cultural explanations are so often seen as mutually exclusive that a middle ground can be hard to discern. Instead, the debate about the origins of sex differences tends to get polarised into extreme positions, with straw persons being erected and toppled by each camp, while epithets of ‘neurosexism’ and ‘sex-difference denier’ are lobbed across the divide.

The debate is especially contentious at the moment, with proponents of nature or nurture each claiming that the latest brain science proves their position. Results from neuroimaging studies are pointed to as ‘proof at last’ that the brains of men and women really are innately different, and that these differences explain the differences we see in behaviour. Yet the very same results are held up as evidence that there really is no such thing as a ‘male brain’ or ‘female brain’, and that any observable differences between the sexes are not innate in origin, but owe to the effects of growing up in a gendered environment. Either way, important implications for social policy are drawn, based on the favoured interpretation of the evidence.

In her recent book, The Gendered Brain (2019), the English neuroscientist Gina Rippon argues against the ‘myth’ of innate biological differences and claims that brain and behavioural differences arise instead from cultural forces. She provides compelling evidence that much of the historical research in this area has been (and, in some cases, continues to be) driven by an overtly or implicitly sexist agenda, intent on finding scientific proof of female inferiority.

In the other corner, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson contends on Twitter that: ‘Sex differences are large and biological/innate. The science is clear. The opposing sociology is delusional.’ In a now-infamous memo, the Google employee James Damore argued in 2017 that innate sex differences in interests and aptitudes partly explain observed differences in occupational choices, especially the relative lack of women in STEM fields (and at Google). Damore was promptly fired for his intemperate comments, and roundly excoriated by many commentators. Yet in other quarters, he was celebrated as a brave proponent of free speech and scientific truth.

Both sides can end up arguing for rather blinkered positions. Peterson, for example, maintains that the pay gap can be explained by women scoring higher, on average, in the personality trait of agreeableness: training women to be less agreeable, he contends, would improve their financial success in the workplace. Meanwhile, the Canadian cognitive scientist Steven Pinker recently decried an article in The New York Times – which looked at why women do more than their share of the housework – for not considering biological sex differences as a possible factor. Even if he had a point, his apparent disregard for entrenched patriarchal norms scotched any sympathy he might have found on social media.

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