Biology Is Not Faith-Based

There’s an awful lot of fairly crass sexism and misogyny going on in my corner of the Internet these days, and equally a lot of very capable people debunking it. I’ve largely stayed out of it because other people are doing a perfectly good job without me. Anyway, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to debunk the “women are naturally inferior” argument. Where I do want to stick my oar in is to caution against using the same type of faith-based biology to argue that men and women are in fact identical. Specifically I saw someone tweet that if you did brain scans of men and women you would not be able to tell the difference. Tweets are, of necessity, devoid of subtlety, so I don’t want to call anyone out, but I do want to explain why that sort of argument worries me.

Firstly I think it is probably factually wrong. I’m not a neuroscientist myself, but do take an interest in brain science and I’m pretty sure that a trained professional in that field would stand a good chance of telling a scan of a male brain from a scan of a female one, in much the same way as a trained medical professional can tell a male skeleton from a female skeleton.

Secondly, medical science is slowly coming to the realization that there are important differences in the way that male and female bodies respond to treatment. It is crucially important for women’s health that these differences are recognized and studied. Insisting that we are “all the same” will tend to result in medical treatment defaulting to the current social norm, which means favoring males over females (see here for some of the issues).

And finally, this is the sort of thing that leads to transphobia. The idea that men and women are identical in all respects except possession or not of ovaries was a major factor in causing second wave feminists to insist that trans people could not possibly exist.

When people attack the idea of gender-based brain difference they often quote Cordelia Fine. But Fine doesn’t say that there are no physical differences. Some of the studies that purport to identify differences are highly dodgy, but much more importantly the arguments that extrapolate from real or supposed differences in brain structure to differences is abilities and behavior are, at best, bad science, and at worst pure snake oil.

The thing about human beings is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Some of us are better at some things than others. Some of this is biological, and some of it down to cultural influences. What isn’t true is that all of Group X are naturally better than all of Group Y because of their characteristic, Z. People are people, and no one should be assumed inferior because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality and so on.

Besides, most of you, dear readers, also read science fiction. Even if we never encounter sentient aliens, it seems increasingly likely that we will soon be able to make people that are, in biological terms, a different species from us. Those people will still be people, and our understanding of “human” rights will have to evolve to cope with that.

13 thoughts on “Biology Is Not Faith-Based

  1. One of the interesting things scientists have found is that the brain itself is not only ‘wired’ by experience, but ‘rewired’ by experience. Our activities, our studies, the parts of the brain we use and the part of the brain we ignore change our brains. Stereotypes of boys being good in one set of skills and behaviors vs. girls being good at another set of skills and behaviors are reenforced from an early age. Of course encouraging kids to live up to those stereotypes has a strong influence on the structure of the brain.

    (I’m entirely skipping over hormonal influences here, I know, but I haven’t seen agreement on what those are. They also vary from person to person.)

    Regardless of any of that, quite a few people treat a strongly overlapping bell curve of abilities, personality, and even brain structure as though they were two disjoint sets. And then they shape their expectations of people entirely on how well those people fit one of those disjoint sets.

    Our society loves a binary, and if the options are ‘not different’ or ‘disjoint sets’, I’ll go with ‘not different’ every time. Being limited by gender expectations — those of a culture, those internalized — is even more hobbling than high heels. 🙂

    1. The technical term is “neural plasticity”. And not only is it well-comunicated to girls and boys how they are supposed to appear, skill-wise, being encouraged to participate in different activities will wire the brain differently.

      So there is no inherent gender difference at birth that modern neuroscience can find, but gender differences will inevitably develop if girls’ and boys’ brains are trained differently. This is where the argument gets confused.

      The good news is that, again due to neural plasticity, there’s no inherent barrier to your brain getting better at some task your culture discourages your gender from being trained in.

    2. Joni: The argument that moving away from a binary view of gender is too complicated for most people to understand is regularly used to deny me human rights. You’ll hopefully forgive me if I have little time for it.

      1. Cheryl: I didn’t say it was a good basis for anything. If you read anything in my comment that implied that to you, we are not really engaged in communication.

        1. I’m just explaining how these things go. You are quite right that human are addicted to binaries. So when trans activists take their case to government often the best they can hope for is that people will wring their hands, say how awful the situation is, but claim that they can’t do anything because the issue is too complicated for “ordinary people” to understand.

          And if I get a little snippy about it, that’s because I’ve seen far too much of feminists and LG activists saying, “the gender binary works for us, and gets us what we want; if it screws trans people over, well we don’t care.”

    3. Petréa: If there is no inherent difference between male and female brains at birth then transsexuals, as the RadFems insist, are a result of defective upbringing and should be put through “re-education” to enable them to conform to their biology.

      1. I think it leaves plenty of room for nature-based explanations. For instance:

        1. Gender identity resides in the brain, but takes up a very small part of it, and improved future tools will allow neuroscientists to locate it.

        2. Gender identity resides in the brain, but develops over time and so is really hard to untangle from other readings.

        3. Gender identity resides in the brain, but doesn’t produce any kind of physical difference that will show up on a scan.

        4. Gender identity isn’t actually produced in the brain. (A million sub-possibilities: Hormones! Chimerism! Body system of your choice!)

        5. Some other explanation which doesn’t spring to mind right now, but will be eye-rollingly obvious to people of the future.

        1. Oh, there are definitely possibilities. I just think that stating categorically that there are no differences is a hostage to fortune. Because, as you note, differences may be discovered. Also it provides an excuse for the RadFems to pursue their discriminatory policies.

          1. I think I would prefer something like, “even if gender proves to have some biological basis, there is no evidence that it, or sex, there is no evidence that such biological factors cause differences in mental abilities.” Though I’d be slightly dubious about that because there’s some evidence that testosterone may impair risk assessment.

    1. As several of the people quoted in that article say, I remain skeptical of the interpretations that get applied to these studies. But I do know that biology is wildly inventive. Trying to maintain that differences don’t exist is just as foolish as leaping to conclusions as to what those differences mean.

  2. I have a male brain. Always have. I’ve also taught it to be female. That happens – you can teach your brain anything.

    But I still always fail the ‘female’ tests.

    We need better tests. 😉

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