There is nothing a science journalist likes more than research which seems to prove an unexamined cultural prejudice. Today’s big story on the ‘proof’ of the difference between observable connexions in male and female brains is a case in point. After studying over 1,000 brains from people covering a range of ages, scientists have discovered, as the Guardian reports it, ‘what many had surely concluded long ago: that stark differences exist in the wiring of male and female brains’.
Two things should immediately give pause here. First, there are no wires in human brains. The centuries-old popular reliance on the metaphor of the machine, now more usually imagined specifically as a computer, is no doubt heuristically useful, but it produces an intellectually sloppy short circuit (to keep the metaphor going): if the brain is wired, then it’s fixed, it has an essential form aligned to its function – it is, in short, natural. (The wiring metaphor is not the Guardian columnist’s invention, incidentally: one of the study’s authors is quoted talking about the ‘hardwiring’ of women’s brains. And it’s an extremely common metaphor in scientific discourse.)
Second, when science ‘proves’ something that ‘many had surely concluded long ago’, it is fair to ask whether this is because the scientists have proceeded on the basis of an untested assumption, which their badly constructed experiment and fallacious inferences then ‘prove’. That is a central argument of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, and it is easy to see how the present study could be open to similar criticisms. In this case, as so often, the prejudice follows this syllogistic pattern:
- Men and women are essentially different
- Men and women are natural
- Therefore the differences between men and women must be natural
The conclusion of the present bit of research – that male and female brains are ‘wired’ differently – circularly establishes (1) above. But it is a contention of a differently motivated body of knowledge, which questions prejudices rather than trying to find proof for them (namely gender studies), that while there are unquestionably differences in the behaviour and patterns of thought, etc., in adult men and women, those differences are not natural but constructed by highly complex and largely invisible social pressures. The gender-studies syllogism is something more like this:
- Men and women appear to be different
- Men and women are a product of their experience as well as of their genetic inheritance; they are the products of a culture acting on nature
- Therefore the apparent difference between men and women must be constructed
The most significant line in the Guardian report is one which is not picked up, in the report, by the authors of the study:
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.
That really is very interesting, to anyone willing to pause for thought. Let us allow that the observed differences in adult brains are significant, and that brain science is capable of communicating details of value (though there is considerable scientific scepticism on this point). Those differences are not manifested until the age of 14–17. It follows that the assumption that girls and boys below that age are ‘essentially’ different, ‘because their brains are wired differently’ is unsupported by the evidence. It is wrong to suggest that boys and girls have a ‘natural’ difference, which can be traced to brain design, because the study does not support such a claim. On the contrary, if we think that gendered difference is explicable only by brain design, we ought to conclude from this study that there should be no difference, at least no difference occasioned by brain design, between boys and girls. We should expect boys and girls up to the age of 14–17 to behave the same way as each other, want to wear the same clothes and do the same activities, etc. – i.e. not to exhibit stereotypical gendered behaviours. Those stereotyped behaviours (‘logical thinking’ for boys, ‘intuitive thinking’ for girls, in the words of the study’s authors) simply should not manifest themselves until puberty. So let’s end talk about boys and girls being differently gendered at all.
But it is also necessary to ask why the difference observable in adult brains starts to manifest in the 14–17 age bracket. One answer is that the hormonal changes of puberty ‘must influence it’. That ‘must’ is quite a considerable assumption, and without extensive evidence, it cannot be sustained. The gender-studies assumption would be that it is only by the age of 14–17 that the cultural pressures to conform to certain gendered behaviours can start to have their effect – maybe in profitable interaction with the hormonal changes of puberty. Perhaps the state of puberty enables the brain to refashion itself in order to fix these observable adult differences. But there is no reason to suppose that it is the biological experience of puberty alone which causes those changes to take place. But of course for a scientist desperate to show that gendered differences are ‘natural’, a purely natural explanation of this change will be sought. And yet their own study is fighting against them.
If – as I am sure is the case – the scientists believe that boys and girls exhibit different gender behaviours, they can find no explanation for this in the brain science in their study. That is to say that the brain science of this study does not explain the difference they observe, and that anyone can observe, in the gendered behaviours of boys and girls. Let us generalize that statement just a little bit: the brain science of this study does not explain the observable difference between gendered behaviours at all. Boys and girls do exhibit differences in gendered behaviour, after a while (certainly by the age of 13 it is pronounced), but the brain science does not have an explanation for that. And yet the scientists assume that their brain science does explain the difference between the gendered behaviours of adult men and women. Reports on this study therefore hold, unwittingly, to two irreconcilable claims, which can only be explained by a refusal to acknowledge the prejudice that is absolutely driving the inferences from the study: first, that the brain science doesn’t prove gendered difference, and second that the brain science does prove gendered difference.
The majority of reports on scientific studies of human behaviour and culture suggest that science has ‘proven’ an orthodox cultural assumption. This provides good copy because it’s nice for the layperson, who shares these orthodox cultural assumptions, to feel that someone clever has spent a few million quid investigating the matter with expensive machines and a research team of other very clever people. It allows people to say ‘Well I could have told you that!’ in the pub, and feel very contented. Good public ‘impact’, no doubt. But when the assumptions underlying the study in general, the specifics of its design, and the science’s blindness to its own internal contradictions are so patently dubious, there is no reason at all to be persuaded by its claims. Yet again, I’m left feeling that, brushing aside the collegial pieties about humanities scholars respecting scientific research (when there is no expectation that this respect should be returned), the old ‘two cultures’ argument has some legs left. A major part of humanities research and teaching continues to depend on a thoughtful critique of the cultural assumptions, hugely invidious, which science of this sort unquestioningly bolsters.