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Joe Herbert M.B, Ph.D.

Three Fallacies About the Brain and Gender

Does studying the brain contribute usefully to discussions of gender inequality?

It is universally agreed (at least by a very large majority) that women have been treated unequally by men in most contexts and in most societies. Women have been calling attention to this for centuries. Anne Finch, aristocratic but evidently enlightened, wrote a poem (see below) lamenting women’s secondary status in 1661 (and she wasn’t the first). There are clear signs that gender inequality is being recognized as not only prevalent but unacceptable.

There are also clear signs, in some parts of the world at least, of improvement. There have been female prime ministers, presidents, and CEOs in recent years in positions that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago. But everyone agrees that there is still a ways to go and that continued campaigning is needed until we arrive at a time when gender simply isn’t an issue.

The feminist argument is strong and incontestable, but it’s important it shouldn’t be spoiled by unsustainable claims. One of these arguments concerns gender differences in the brain and hence in behavior. Several feminist neuroscientists have insisted that there are no such differences, and any that may be apparent are the result of social conditioning or pressure. This has three major fallacies.

The first fallacy concerns the science. There have been numerous reports of gender differences in the brains of both animals and man. But these are denied because it is said that scans of the human brain show no gender differences.

The first problem with this is that scanning does not have the resolution to detect such differences. As scientists say: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In any case, important gender differences, which may well exist, are not those on the size of various parts of the brain (which is what scans show).

The second is that we do not know what differences to look for, and in any case, differences in the size of various parts of the brain have no interpretative value: That is, even if we saw some, we wouldn’t know what they meant.

This is illustrated by the brain of rats. Many years ago, clear gender differences were found in several areas, including a bunch of nerve cells in part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It was further established that these differences were testosterone-dependent: Treating little female rats with testosterone resulted in a male-type hypothalamus, and males developed a female type if testosterone was removed early in life. But we still don’t know exactly what this bunch of cells does, despite many years of research, and even though male and female rats behave differently.

Which brings me to the second fallacy. There are clear gender differences in behavior: For example, most men find women sexually attractive, whereas most women prefer men. As we all know, this is not absolute: There is overlap, such that some men prefer men, some both men and women, and some have no sexual interest at all; the same applies to women. Since this is a function of their brains, we ought to be able to relate differences in the brains of "average" males and females that reflect these behavioral differences. We can’t.

Examining a brain cannot give you any clue as to its gender. So even if we were to agree on definite gender differences in the brain (which we can’t), it would give us no clue about possible gender differences in behavior.

Such differences are, in any case, denied by some psychologists. They argue that any apparent differences are simply the result of social conditioning or restraints. One argument is about risk-taking. Many studies, as well as real-life, show that males like taking greater risks than females. So most skiing accidents, or surfing injuries, happen to men (particularly young men).

Men also tend to take greater financial risks than women, a point that was emphasized by feminists in the 2008 banking crisis (most bankers are still male). But there are situations in which females are more risk-prone: Social interactions are one, and defending a child is another. There are good biological reasons for these differences. Generalizations are not accurate, and attempts to relate any of these to gender differences in brain function are way ahead of what contemporary neuroscience can provide.

The third fallacy is that these supposed similarities or differences in either brain structure or behavior have anything to do with gender equality. Similarity is not the same as equality. Because some people have darker skin than others is not a legitimate reason for not according them equal social status. Men and women may be born equal, but they are not born the same. Neither is the trajectory of their lives necessarily similar.

No one accepts that true social equality exists, but it remains a noble target. Even if there were agreed gender differences in either the brain or behavior (the two must be connected in some way), this is no argument for the repression of women. After all, most men are stronger than most women (but not always). This might have been one reason for social inequality (prowess in hunting, for example, in times gone by), but the invention of machines shows how illogical this attitude is.

Let’s remember that it is the human brain that recognizes these arguments and is taking social and political action (in some parts of the world) to remove the stigma of gender inequality. But let us not spoil this movement by false claims and dubious debates: It can only damage the chances of what most of us want to see happen. We should treasure dissimilarity of all kinds, whether gender-related or not, as the basis for the variety and richness of humankind.

How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,

And Education’s more than Nature’s fools;

Debarred from all improvements of the mind,

And to be dull, expected and designed;

And if someone would soar above the rest,

With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,

So strong the opposing faction still appears,

The hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears.

—Anne Finch’s poem (c 1661)

(Quoted by Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own)

About the Author

Joe Herbert, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.