Saturday, November 13, 2010

All in the Mind - Girls & boys . . . The battle over sex, science and your head!

This is another outstanding episode from Natasha Mitchell's All in the Mind podcast from ABC Radio National (Australia). This week she focuses on neuroscience, sexuality, and gender - and two recent books that dispel some of the myths we have about the differences between boys & girls, men & women.

Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference is an outstanding book, a must read for anyone interested in sexuality, gender, and who we are as human beings. Rebecca Jordan-Young's Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference is new to me, but it also seems to be a great book. Another book not featured is Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps - And What We Can Do About It by Lise Eliot, which is a little geekier, but also very cool.

Simon Baron-Cohen (author of The Essential Difference) is also mentioned in this discussion, and Cordelia Fine has done a good job of discrediting some of his faulty generalizations about the differences between male and female brains. Baron-Cohen is responsible for some of the nonsense that says men are less capable of emotion, language, and being communal than women; and that women are less rational, agentic, and systematic than men - both of which are false. Unfortunately, the folks who think they are integral around gender issues have adopted many of his false premises.

Anyway, here is Natasha Mitchell's blog post for this week's show, followed by the show itself. This if good stuff.

Girls & boys... the battle over sex, science and your head!

Delusions_of_gender_uk_web 9780674057302-lg

Pink brain or blue brain? Girl or boy? Is the dichotomy as absolute in the fleshy folds of our brains?

My guests this week are psychologist Dr Cordelia Fine and sociomedical researcher Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, and we're discussing a scientific hot potato. Hot, hot, hot! Climate change eat your heart out.

What does science tell us about how male and female brains differ? What conclusions can we and do we draw from any differences about capacity, capability, behaviour, choices, skills, communication styles...from map reading to numerical skills, systematizing to empathising, talking to listening, mothering to fathering?

As ever, gender ignites agendas.

Dr Fine and Professor Jordan-Young have painstakingly raked over the details of many of the key scientific studies into sex differences. They've looked at the methodologies used, assumptions made, conclusions drawn, and the way in which results often explode into the popular media like an incendiary device, frequently misconstrued as they land.

Their two new books have generated a lot of heat, and I'm sure you'd agree, it's a heat that matters.

We barely scratch the surface of their analyses in the discussion, so I encourage you to read them (along with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference). What they've unearthed is interesting, important and thought provoking and I'm sure it'll generate lots of rich conversation amongst you.

I look forward to reading that here on the blog or directly over on the All in the Mind website here (click on 'Add Your Comment').

Catch the show on air, online or as downloadable mp3 here.

Here's some extra audio from the discussion exclusive to the blog (which will make more sense when you hear the show):





So...women, men, boys, girls... or whoever you identify as...over to you.




Now, on with the podcast.

Battlelines: science, sex, brains and gender

Boy or girl? Blue brain or pink brain? Dr Cordelia Fine's new book, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, and Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young's latest, Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, have raked over research data and mined the controversies on how male and female brains differ -- no holds barred.

Show Transcript


Dr Cordelia Fine
Senior Research Associate
Centre for Values Agency and Ethics
Macquarie University

Honorary Research Fellow
Department of Psychological Sciences
University of Melbourne

Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young
Barnard College
Columbia University

Further Information

All in the Mind blog with Natasha Mitchell
Blog post for this week, includes EXTRA audio from this week's discussion with Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young.

Presenter Natasha Mitchell's Audioboo page
Audioboo is an audio blogging site. You can record and upload your own "audioboos" using your phone or the web. All in the Mind is experimenting with Audioboo to invite your responses and stories to program themes.

Interview with Simon Baron-Cohen, ABC Radio National's Science Show, 2003


Title: Delusions of Gender - The Real Science Behind Sex Differences
Author: Dr Cordelia Fine
Publisher: Icon Books Ltd (2010). ISBN - 978-184831-201-2

Title: Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Author: Professor Rebecca M. Jordan-Young
Publisher: Harvard University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-674-05730-2.

Title: A Mind of Its Own
Author: Cordelia Fine
Publisher: Icon, 2006

Title: The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism
Author: Simon Baron-Cohen
Publisher: Basic Books (August 18, 2004)

Title: The Female Brain
Author: Louann Brizendine
Publisher: 2006, Broadway

Title: Why Gender Matters
Author: Leonard Sax
Publisher: Broadway (2006). ISBN: 978-0767916257

Title: What's in a Name?: The Controversy over Disorders of Sex Development
Author: Feder, E., and K. Karkazis.
Publisher: Hastings Center Report, 38(5): 33-36, (2008).

Title: Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience
Author: Katrina Karkazis
Publisher: Duke University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0822343189

Title: From scanner to soundbite: Issues in interpreting and reporting sex differences in the brain
Author: Cordelia Fine
Publisher: Current Directions in Psychological Science 19: 280-283 , 2010

Title: Will working mothers' brains explode? The popular new genre of neurosexism.
Author: Cordelia Fine
Publisher: Neuroethics 1 (1): 69-72, 2008.


Natasha Mitchell


Natasha Mitchell/Corinne Podger

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Wolf Pascoe said...

I thought Professor Roy Baumeister's "Is There Anything Good About Men" is also an important book in this area and wanted to mention it.

stumblingmystic said...

Thanks for this post, Bill. These are important books. There is also another one by neurobiologist Donald W. Pfaff that is worth looking into:

"Man & Woman: An Inside Story"

The book description reads:

"The saga of sex differences in brain and behavior begins with a tiny sperm swimming toward a huge egg, to contribute its tiny Y chromosome plus its copies of the other chromosomes. Genetic, anatomic and physiologic alterations in the male ensue, making his brain and behavior different in specific respects from his sister. Brain-wise, specific cell groups develop differently in males compared to females, in some cases right after birth and in other cases at puberty. But genetics and neuroanatomy do not dominate the scene. Prenatal stress, postnatal stress and lousy treatment at puberty all can affect males and females in different ways. The upshot of all these genetic and environmental factors produces small sex differences in certain abilities and huge sex differences in feelings, in pain and in suffering. Put this all together and the reader will see that biological and cultural influences on gender roles operate at so many different levels to influence behavioral mechanisms that gender role choices are flexible, reversible and non-dichotomous, especially in modern societies."

Roy Baumeister's book is more of a polemic/essay than a scholarly work, by his own testimony, and it got a pretty negative review in the Globe and Mail by Wendy McElroy for cherrypicked data, who can hardly be said to be a radical feminist.

Anonymous said...

While I think that there's indeed faulty research and simplistic assumptions on innateness of gendered traits, the likes of Cordelia Fine will also be nearly equivalents on the other side. She's pretty much dismissive of things like the boy or boys who had their penises accidentally mutilated and were raised as girls, or even differences in gradients of hormones in behavior and so on.

I find kind of curious that this sort of denial is eerely similar to the politically incorrect conservative view that transexuals are just "deviants", that they just chose to deviate from gender norms "just because".

I don't think the strong notion of a brain sexual dimorphism or hermaphroditism would be the cause for gender identity disorder, anyway. I guess it's more along the lines of a process of identification that usually "gets it right", failing at it. That in turn could drive further genderization of the brain by behavioral mimicry.