Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds
“What a weak barrier is truth when it stands in the way of a hypothesis!”
As Gina Rippon gamely says in her Introduction “. . . so yes this is another book about sex differences in the brain” which she believes is still necessary on the grounds that the old myths and misconceptions that “you can describe a brain as ‘male ‘or ‘female’ and that you can attribute any differences between individuals in behaviour, abilities, achievements, personality, even hopes and expectations to the possession of one or the other type of brain” have great staying power and keep recurring. She mentions a number of books that continue to bat for the opposite side (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps etc.).
Rippon’s best known and most admired precursor is Cordelia Fine with her several incisive publications notably, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences and Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds. Rippon acknowledges Fine’s contribution in exposing neurotrash and neurosexism and her filleting of psychobabble.
However, Gender and Our Brains does add both breadth and depth to previous discussions and provides a little more ballast to the argument that nature and nurture are not so easily divisible but in dynamic interaction; and that we should be less attached to that other great divide, male vs. female.
One of Rippon’s most successful and amusing chapters is Brain Myths, Neurotrash and Neurosexism in which she reviews the attempts of scientists of various stripes (craniologists, phrenologists, evolutionary psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, etc.) to explain and justify existing societal differences and inequalities with reference to differences in the structure, size, and functioning of the brain.
She shows convincingly that research behind these justifications was often less than rigorous and/or conducted on non-human animals concluding that “pre-existing stereotypes proved to be quite a guiding force in the outcome of research.” She quotes approvingly pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759–1797) ironic comment “What a weak barrier is truth when it stands in the way of a hypothesis!” As Rippon further notes, popularizing media helpfully continues to amplify the type of scientific findings which reinforce our stereotypes.
Another very strong chapter concerns the formation of those stereotypes, including sex and gender stereotypes, by the dialogue between the brain with its “experience-dependent plasticity” and its external environment. She cites here the well-known work on the different brains of trainees, experienced and retired London black cab drivers who must pass (and eventually partially forget or do not use) “the Knowledge” test by memorizing the labyrinth of London streets to be navigated. Though she does not address any possible differences of gender between cab drivers here!
Rippon also shows in this chapter how stereotypes of who we are, and therefore what we can and should do in life—are we “empathizers” or “systematizers?” interested in people or things?—can affect professional choices and performance particularly in relation to the well-known gender disparities in relation to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. Interestingly, as she notes, in the 18th century science was often thought to be a safer topic for women than anything that might lead them to political activism . . . presumably, like Mary Wollstonecraft?
This reflection on the historical relativity of stereotypes could have helped to nourish her reflections on the ways to disrupt the “ brain-social context” stereotype loop in the closing chapters, which seem rather perfunctory and even to row back from the earlier more nuanced discussions, stating as she does that “culture-based problems need to be solved by fixing the culture;” and ”maybe social and cultural factors have a much greater role to play in what looks like biologically fixed differences.” This reads as if she has not quite convinced herself of the very convincing picture of interdependence she has presented. It is also surprising that she skates over the work of other scientists, which would have supported her case such as that dismissing the great stereotype XX and XY as no longer being the truth.
In the end, Rippon, as her predecessor Fine, balks at the “cultural” hurdle. Perhaps they could both enrich their next publications by finding themselves a social scientist to partner with?