Sex-y Brains and Selfish Genes

Do you want to build a straw man?

Posted Dec 18, 2013

Before I go further, let me be clear that I am not attacking the abilities of either author. I have long admired Mr. Dobbs work, and like many parts of his essay, and while I am less familiar with Mr. McKie’s writing, his work appears excellent as well. I am also not going to critique the validity of the scientific arguments presented in both pieces. That has been done elsewhere, especially regarding Mr. Dobbs article. What I am going to focus on is the use by both authors of straw men (or in the case of Mr. McKie an Aunt Sally) to validate their arguments, and the inherent dangers of this approach.

I'll start with Mr. Dobbs, who in his provocatively titled “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” described an “outmoded” “gene-centric view” as coming from, “…Gregor Mendel and the work he did with peas in the 1860s.” Mr. Dobbs asserts that, “Since then, and especially over the past 50 years, this notion has assumed the weight, solidity, and rootedness of an immovable object.” Mr. Dobbs then drew a very nice intellectual line from Mendel through Haldane and Wright, to Hamilton and Williams and finally to Dawkins, who turned the “selfish gene paradigm” into biological dogma with his skills as a communicator. Once the concept of the paradigm was in place, Mr. Dobbs turned the spotlight on Dr. Mary West-Eberhard, and a few others as the mavericks bold enough to challenge the oppressive regime. While Mr. Dobbs paints a compelling case, and I’m sure that Professor Dawkins appreciates the compliments and would readily accept an intellectual lineage that includes Haldane and Williams, the narrative is misleading.

First, the accumulation of knowledge in the biological sciences is not, and has never been a homogenous effort of a few individuals. Our understanding of evolution has increased through a combination of healthy cooperation and competition between researchers spread across the globe and focused on multiple areas within the discipline. Second, Dr. West-Eberhard, is not “David” to anyone’s “Goliath” as Mr. Dobbs would like us to believe. Many in evolutionary studies consider Dr. West-Eberhard a giant, and her book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution has been hugely influential, including impacting my own work.

While his technique paints a compelling picture, “The Selfish Gene Paradigm” does not exist, at least not in the way that Mr. Dobbs would like his readership to believe. The selfish gene is, as Dobbs correctly states in his subtitle, a highly successful metaphor used to explain a complex phenomenon. It is a metaphor, not a paradigm. While there are those who take the metaphor literally, most evolutionary biologists, including Professor Dawkins understand the importance of phenomena such as phenotypic plasticity in evolution, and have incorporated those ideas into their thinking. The result is not a dogmatic, monolithic paradigm that ignores or squashes ideas that do not adhere to predetermined criteria, but rather an intricate discipline that incorporates and strives to explain the complexities of biological evolution and all of the factors that impact it. If Mr. Dobbs had included that in his piece, it would have focused on how Dr. West-Eberhard and others are making significant contributions to an established, complex theory. Instead, Mr. Dobbs chose to write a piece about the “Goliath” that is the “Selfish Gene” and how it must die in a paradigm shift, that is occurring where there is no paradigm.

Robin McKie’s approach in “Why it's time for brain science to ditch the 'Venus and Mars' cliche” was similar to Mr. Dobbs in that he too constructed a false paradigm to rail against. However, there is an agenda in Mr. McKie’s work that appears to go beyond creating controversy. Take the first line of the essay, “As hardy perennials go, there is little to beat that science hacks' favourite: the hard-wiring of male and female brains.” After throwing down the gauntlet, Mr. McKie proceeded to attack new research out of the University of Penn that identified connectivity differences between male and female brains in 8-22 year old humans. Mr. McKie chose to focus on the dichotomy of male versus female and a false “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” paradigm, that he claimed neuroscientists use to guide their research.

The title “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” comes from a massively popular book by John Gray, that came out in the 1990’s. While Mr. Gray’s books were highly influential with the general public, and even used in some undergraduate courses at universities across the U.S., his premise was not, and is not influential among most researchers who study sex differences in humans. What is influential is biology. The simple reality of fertile humans in all societies falling into one of two genetically determined categories, male or female (just like all other sexually reproducing species) has guided research on behavioral, anatomical and hormonal studies on humans for decades. However, according to Mr. McKie neuroscientists everywhere use Mr. Gray’s book as their primary reference and default position for their work. Mr. McKie relied on the false “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” paradigm as a straw man to make, what appears to be a philosophical point in his piece.

As a science reporter, Mr. McKie should strive to accurately reflect the science he is reporting on, using the data available, not claim that a report in a top journal from a research group at a highly respected university is, “…biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst.” Ironically, in the very next sentence Mr. McKie conceeded that males and females, “…probably do have differently wired brains,” but he chalked those differences up to cultural influences, based on studies on gender and not sex. Herein lies the fatal flaw of Mr. McKie’s argument, and the simple reason the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” paradigm does not exist in studies of sex differences in human brains. Despite being labeled the “science writer of the year” by his own publication, Mr. McKie does not seem to understand a fundamental, and critical distinction: gender and sex are two different things.

Sex, in humans refers to a genetically determined biological state, typically male or female. Gender is a uniquely human concept and refers to socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a culture considers appropriate for men and women. This error is all too common in the popular literature, scientific reporting and even in peer reviewed publications, and it matters greatly. You simply cannot compare results of studies that focus on gender with those that focus on sex, and assume that they represent common states for the individuals involved. An individual’s “sex” does not always match their “gender” (for a longer discussion of this, look for my upcoming blog on Chelsea Manning). In other words, while for most humans sex is easily recognized by the presence of male or female genitalia, it takes more than a penis to be a man or a vagina to be a woman.

Both authors strove to sway their respective readerships to accept a particular view of biology and neuroscience, and both used a common tactic to accomplish their goals. However, by railing against false paradigms, they misrepresented the sciences they were reporting on to the public, and further confused the topics at hand. This is not merely carelessness on the part of two well-respected science writers, but it is potentially harmful. For many in the general public, writings such as these are the only exposure they have to the sciences. It is vital for them to see the sciences as clearly and objectively as possible, without the blurred lines of agendas, false paradigms and adversarial writing. Mr. Dobbs and Mr. McKie both failed to move the debates further down the row, and instead fed into the disconnect and resentment many in the sciences already feel toward science writers and reporters. Instead of making siginificant contributions to science communication or compelling cases for their positions, both Mr. Dobbs and Mr. McKie have instead inspired a question:

Why do you want to build a straw man?