Male and Female Brains… Again: Why Scientists Should Read Feminist Theory by Ángela Lavilla Cañedo

Another scientific explanation that “confirms” that men are better at reading maps and women at multitasking… I had had enough of this a long time ago. In this case it was a study covered in the article ‘Male and female brains wired differently, scan reveals’ published by The Guardian. After reading it I was left with a mixture of rage and despair.

Knitted Brain

Everything looks so terribly familiar: in the never-ending and fruitless discussion on nature vs nurture another “scientific study” has scored a point for the ‘nature team’, by “confirming” gender stereotypes such as women’s social skills and memory abilities, and men’s perception and co-ordination through research into the brain’s wirings by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania conducted with people from 8 to 22.

There’s no doubt that journalists simplified the information, but in this case there is also a lack of critique. The research itself – or the way it has been presented – is terribly essentialist and tendentious, and shows the minimal or non-existent input from other areas of knowledge such as, for example, feminism, psychology, sociology and history.

I have been reading Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body very recently and there’s no better and more relevant example than this latest case in the news to discuss some of her ideas.

One of the aims of Sexing is to show the relationship between medical and scientific knowledge and the historical context of production, particularly the different ideas around gender that were in circulation in each case. She uses an array of examples to show the rich variety of bodies, taking into account different features, from genitals, hormones and brains, to sexualities, in an anti-essentialist way.

One of Fausto’s main ideas is that ‘Our conceptions of the nature of gender difference […] also shape and reflect our understanding of our physical bodies.’ [1] In order words, biological facts are interpreted within certain suppositions of gender difference. In this case, scientists base their opinions on a two-gender system loaded with cultural stereotypes and interpret the facts on those premises. Fausto-Sterling explains this very clearly: ‘scientists do not simply read nature to find truths to apply in the social world. Instead, they use truths taken from our social relationships to structure, read, and interpret the natural.’ [2]

I am not saying that there are not differences between brains. But what happened to the role of socialisation? Our bodies are not blank canvases, from the precise moment a baby (or foetus) is identified as a girl or boy we define a path for the individual. As Butler implies in Bodies that Matter: ‘These words [“It’s a girl/boy!”] do not merely describe the infant, but they constitute the subject in the act of naming it.’ [3] Differences are due to the gendered ways we have been brought up and socialized in an environment where female-male dichotomies are constantly marked, and not because of an intrinsic and “natural” basis.

The brain is well-known for its plasticity and so it seems ridiculous to not take into account the role of society in shaping the brain’s wirings. The article states that: “Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds.” This information is stated as if by magic things happen like that and nothing is explained or nuanced. What happens between 14- and 17-years-olds? It does look that experiences matter. And it’s not as if hormones existed in a biological vacuum, away from any influence of our actions, experiences and contexts.

The ideas in this study are not new and will probably not be the last. In fact, it is an idea that seems to periodically resurface.  The way in which this kind of information (such as, confirming stereotypes) is incessantly highlighted and presented undermines the enormous amount of research done on the construction of identities, and this process of undermining is facilitated because of the privileged status of the medical sciences in society.

If interdisciplinarity is the future, wouldn’t be nice if medical-scientific researchers had a good read of some feminist theory?

[1] Fausto-Sterling, Anne, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 43

[2] Fausto-Sterling, Sexing, pp. 115-116

[3] Salih, Sara, ed., The Judith Butler Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 7


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7 Responses to Male and Female Brains… Again: Why Scientists Should Read Feminist Theory by Ángela Lavilla Cañedo

  1. This is the science Vs religion debate all over again with feminism being the new dogma.

    What the science find is an “IS”. It states facts that are true, demonstrably true and reproducibly true. What your complaining about is that the dumbed down journalism reporting on the study focused on the study, focused on the “IS”. You want the focus on the “why” and “how” to minimize and trivialize a very true “is”. With all of your disdain for gender essentialism, have you ever even bothered to consider that there is some true essentialism to gender?

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m not quite sure what you mean in terms of science vs religion, as this is about understanding the world in which we live in (which sounds closer to science to me than blind faith) – I’d say it’s closer to the long and historical nature vs nurture debate.

      I’m not saying that differences don’t exist but the issue is the interpretation derived from the data. Science does not exist outside language or outside society. Scientists interpret the information they come across on the basis of cultural categories and beliefs. We only have to go back to the theory of the four humours, Hippocratic medicine, hysteria etc… And this point was implicitly raised the other day on the radio: an academic who researches the neuronal patterns of serial killers discovered (to his horror) that he had exactly the same patterns. If everything was determined by biology, he too would be a serial killer. What it shows is that due to factors such as the nature of his job, environment, development… he had developed in a similar way.

      • This would be a nature vs nurture debate if the study was claiming “Why” or “How” there are differences, not simply observing the fact that there are differences. We can very reasonably look to feminism and sociology for the “How” and “Why”. We teach women and men different things in different ways. This teaching plays a vital role in brain development. This teaching is a real component in HOW the difference occur, but is irrelevant to identified that there are differences.

        Religion also claims to be trying to understand the world we live in. Both Evangelical Christians and Feminists grab their favored book of magical dogma and claim that it’s the only truth that is needed for perfect understanding. The fact that an author claims that gender differences are a social construct has no bearing at all on a different author discovering that gender differences are correlated with biological differences.

        You are up in arms against identifying a correlation because you are assuming causation that would disprove your faith.

  2. Ruthie says:

    It makes you wonder who is funding this kind of research? What are the motivations for putting out these kinds of findings into the world?

  3. pjg says:

    Hormones is what happens. Back to your books and social theories.

  4. pjg says:

    Its called truth Ruthie. Its what real science is about. As opposed to making it up as you go along. Its ehy ee dont live in caves

    • Ruthie says:

      I’ll have to disagree with you there, pjg. Truth is subjective and open to interpretation. Why are there so many factions of different religions that disagree over passages of the Koran or the Bible? Because each person reads the same material with a different personal and cultural reasoning. That is why I question who has funded the research. Within modern academia, research, and particularly scientific research, is not generally funded by an impartial and philanthropic body that wants to attain your somewhat naive concept of ‘truth’. There are often pecuniary motivations that push certain companies to fund pieces of research, and the findings are sometimes selectively represented to discover what the people funding it want to discover. Another layer of interpretation comes in when this research is then put into the hands of the media. What are the motivations of many newspapers and journalists when they publish a story? Simply to inform the general public? Or to sell newspapers with attention-grabbing headlines? That is why I don’t believe in your concept of ‘truth’, which cannot exist unless in a moral and cultural vacuum.

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