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.