Apr 11, 2012

Sexing the Brain by Lesley Rogers

Sexing the Brain by Lesley Rogers

Lesley Rogers’ Sexing the Brain is – you guessed it – another debunking of what Cordelia Fine so aptly calls neurosexism. Rogers, a Professor of Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at the University of New England, addresses the unexamined social assumptions behind, and the political implications of, much of the past few decades’ research on neurological gender differences and sexual orientation:
Whether we consider nature (genes) or nurture (experience and learning) to be more important has great social, political and economic outcomes. In the recent past, people have tended to take up one or the other extreme position, some people believing that genes have the preeminent role, and others that social or environmental factors are overwhelmingly important. This action and reaction stirred heated exchanges and generated debate that challenged the very basis of society. At the same time, the nature-nurture debate stimulated a great deal of scientific research and demanded greater rigour in interpreting the results obtained, but did not always receive it.
My favourite thing about Sexing the Brain is the fact that Rogers highlights the political implications of gender essentialism and biological determinism in general. More often than not, it’s only the rejection of these stances that is ever framed in political terms. Do you believe that men and women are just ‘wired’ differently? Then you’re a brave harbinger of truth. But point out how little scientific evidence there actually is for the claim that there are innate neurological gender differences, and the conversation immediately becomes about how your politics must surely be blinding you to the facts. Yes, questioning the status quo is a political position, but so too is upholding, and it shouldn’t be assumed that those who do the latter are above the possibility of bias. However, because the current state of affairs when it comes to gender and power is perceived as “neutral”, this is exactly what ends up happening.

As Lesley Rogers puts its,
Although scientific methods are used in researching sex (or gender) differences, the decision to carry out his research in the first instance has little to do with science. From its inception, this research is never value free. We should remember this when the results of such research are interpreted and fed back to society to provide a framework for future social decisions. The findings do not just fulfil scientific curiosity but also serve social and political purposes far beyond the boundaries of science. This point is starkly apparent in the scientific research comparing the brain structure and functions of homosexuals and heterosexuals, or transsexuals and heterosexuals. The results of these studies have been used as basis for legal sanctions against the practice of homosexuality and transsexuality, and for the medical treatment of homosexuals and transsexuals.
I was also very interested in Rogers’ discussion of the process through which genes and biology are used to map out “normality”, in a way that forcibly narrows down the rich biological variability that can actually be found in the natural world. Research is often used to “construct a framework of ideas about what is natural and what is not”, but there is in fact nothing whatsoever about “biologically more common” that says “and therefore natural and ‘normal’ and better”. Framing things in such terms is entirely a sociopolitical decision.

Sexing the Brain also addresses the very common idea that any differences found in the brain are necessarily innate and immutable, rather than the result of experience:
Today, the [nature-nurture] debate no longer takes quite such flamboyant extremes, but it is essentially still with us and is still of considerable social importance. Although we know realize that all aspects of behaviour rely on both experience and genetic contributions interacting in complex ways, many people are still inclined to interpret evidence of biological differences between the sexes as meaning that the differences are hardwired and fixed by genetic inheritance. Our biology includes our genes and their influences, but it is shaped by experience. There is ample evidence showing that experience can change the biology of the brain (as well as other parts of the body).
Nevertheless, these points can to be overlooked, and differences in biology are often seen as part of the great plan of nature and to be quite immutable.
Sexing the Brain is a short, smart, and very readable book; Delusions of Gender will probably always be my favourite of all the books covering more or less this same terrain, but you know what? I’m going to stop comparing them and simply plug them all. As readers of this blog might have guessed by now, I’m on a quest to read and blog about every single debunking of gender essentialism in existence, and I’m not one bit sorry for it. At one point I might have felt that I was done with this subject, but the more time I spend thinking about gender essentialism and the impact it continues to have in the world of today, the more I realise we need these books – every last one of need them.

As you might also know, I’m pretty invested in this topic – my MA dissertation approached the gender reading gap from a non-essentialist position, and as part of my research I read a lot of books on the subject, from both side of the debate. This resulted in some exhaustion on my part, and for the past few months I’ve been sort hiding in a feminist book cocoon of my own making. But the thing is, I don’t want to read exclusively feminist non-fiction – both because I have other interests, and because I don’t want to lose perspective. And what has been happening lately is that when I step out of this cocoon and am hit in the head by dominant cultural assumptions about gender all over again, I remember just how necessary books like this really are.

They’re necessary because each of them will find different readers; because different people will respond better to different authors’ communication styles; because the more of them there are, the better the chances that the message will get through. And we need all the help we can get to counter the toxic cultural myth that there’s a scientific consensus about the existence of insurmountable biological differences between men and women, but the politically correct dominant cultural establishing keeps trying to silence this truth. One day, when I have a Proper Grownup Job, I’ll buy copies of these books and distribute them to friends and random passersby on the street. In the meantime, I’ll do the next best thing and continue to not shut up about them on this blog.

Reading the work of feminist neuroscientists such as Lesley Rogers is also a much needed reminder that we often concede far too much, and that by doing so we’re implicitly buying into the harmful myth of the poor lone brave scientist versus the censorious cultural establishment. Even when arguing against, say, gender essentialism in reader development policies, people will often preface it by saying, “Of course there are hardwired gender differences and differences in boys’ and girls’ learning styles; no one can deny that, but…”. Yet the fact is, we don’t know. And yes, not knowing doesn’t mean there are absolutely none, but you know what we also don’t know? That there are no pigs in outer space. And yet we don’t feel the need to preface every thought about pigs with, “Sure, there might be pigs in outer space, but…”. The burden of proof should not lie with those who challenge gender essentialism, but rather with those who are making the claims in the first place. And if you think you have come across proof, please take a moment to scrutinize it closely like Rogers and others have done. You might be surprised at what you find.

Conceding too much is something I’ve done myself in the past, but from now on, if someone asks me in a shocked tone, “Are you denying that there are innate brain differences between boys and girls?”, I’m going to simply say, “You know what? Yes, I am. I’m absolutely denying that we know that there are, and I don’t feel comfortable building policies that affect people’s lives around smoke and mirrors. And don’t you dare suggest that this makes me the equivalent to a sixteenth century monk insisting that the sun orbits the earth”.

Favourite bits:
Girls and boys are raised differently almost from the moment they are born. Social differences are often considered to result “naturally” from biological differences, but that need not be the case. In fact, it can be the other way around: many biological differences may result from the influence of being raised in different social environments. The environment first becomes different when baby girls are dressed in pink and baby boys in blue. This may continue by mothers speaking more to girls than to boys, and encouraging (or discouraging) girls and boys to play with different toys and to show different amounts of aggression. All too often, biologists studying sex differences ignore such effects of social experience in biology, or at least underplay it.

As we have seen, not all men have better spatial abilities than all women, and not all women have better language abilities than all men. In fact, the sharp division between women and men that has been constructed by society is much more polarized than any measured differences between the sexes. Society puts women and men, girls and boys, into separate categories and constructs absolutes. A person is said to be either one or the other. The similarities are ignored and the differences exaggerated.

Sociobiologists are not merely speculating about sex differences in genes. In so doing, they are also constructing a framework of ideas about what is natural and what is not. Women who enter professions that are typical of men are therefore seen as unnatural and going against their biology; so too are men who take a profession using abilities considered to be typical of women. These 'unnatural' women and men are considered to threaten the fabric of society, as seen and maintained by those (scientists, politicians, business leaders and the general public) who see genes as paramount in causing sex differences in behaviour. The notion that genes cause sex differences has more to do with social attitudes than scientific proof.

I would argue that the pervasiveness of genetic theories of human behaviour today is a reflection of conservative social values and forces, as genetic determinism implies that differences between groups are not only natural but should not and will not disappear. Genetic theories are not a reflection of new scientific facts. Despite the availability of new technologies of molecular genetics, we have no new and convincing evidence that links human behaviour to the direct expression of the genes alone, as is often stated by the general media and some scientists. These voices are the echoes of a society at pains to understand itself, and to do so in the most rigid and unflinching terms. They are an effort to recruit science into the social debate and use it to uphold the status quo.

Rather simplistic thinking tends to dominate much of the scientific research of sexual preference, as we saw in Chapter 3. In every theory in which hormones cause lesbianism or male homosexuality, there is an assumption that homosexual men are more like women than are heterosexual men, and that lesbians are more like men than are heterosexual women. This thinking is based on traditional notions about homosexuality and lesbianism that were shown long ago by psychosocial research to be incorrect. Inevitably, such simplistic thinking at the behavioural level leads to simplistic biological explanations.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Shouty? Oh, Ana, this isn't shouty at all! It's a good review capped with a thoughtful exploration of the feminist cocoon. As a student at a women's college, I feel like that a lot—that once I step off this campus and into the real world, I will have to fight ignorance and gender essentialism at every corner. But I'm gonna do it, because it's important.

  2. Clare: Thank you! To clarify, I definitely didn't mean that in a bad way, though I can see how something like "impassioned" would have been a better word. I don't want to buy into all the negative association surrounding women getting angry about things they have every right to be angry about. You saw me tweet about the book that caused some of these thoughts the other week, so I consider this review mere practice for THAT one ;)

  3. Another very interesting review of a book I'd like to read. I try to read my way through most of these books as well. I'm in the middle of Cordelia Fine. I think it's excellent but I think that there is still a lot of room for more books. I'm interested to read how different people write about the same and say it in slightly different ways.

  4. I just downloaded Cordelia Fine's book because of YOU! Looking forward to reading it and then maybe more after. Just as you get things in perspective when you read these books, I do when I read your posts. Wonderful!

  5. Wonderful review, as always. It's so frustrating the way we seem to be going backwards lately. Well, we do in the state in which I live, at any rate (Arizona). I suppose one can only hope that the saying holds of 2 steps forward, 1 back, rather than 1 forward, 2 back!

  6. A lot to think about here. There is nothing that makes me angrier than the stupid: you're a woman, your brain is just not as analytical (scientific, mathematical, sane, smart, tough) as a man's.

    It's interesting to me that feminism has become a dirty word again. I can't help but think that if women who are now in their mid-30s and 40s had been more vocal and less complacent then the horrible backlash we're seeing in the United States (and elsewhere) could never have happened.

    Why is it that women who are angry or vocal or adamant about their rights are thought of in a negative way ... even by other women?

    As usual, my long ranting comments on your blog have moved off into a tangent. :)) At least you make me think.

  7. This finally makes sense to me. And if I'm getting that just from what you say about the excerpts, I guess I should find the book!

  8. Great review, Ana, and I totally agree with you about why different books on the same subject are needed. I need to read these myself so I'm better informed. Thanks for continuing to always talk about them.

  9. "The burden of proof should not lie with those who challenge gender essentialism, but rather with those who are making the claims in the first place."

    It's funny how often those with the loudest voices are so busy demanding proof that they forget to offer their own; I'm waiting for the evidence too, and wholly enjoyed reading your post!

  10. "Yes, questioning the status quo is a political position, but so too is upholding, and it shouldn’t be assumed that those who do the latter are above the possibility of bias."

    Yes! Well said. Loved your whole post. The book sounds fantastic. I will have to add it to my science writing by women list. I also completely endorse your project debunking gender essentialism!

  11. Great post, Ana! And don't you dare shut up on these books on your blog! :) I don't have time to read much nonfiction at the moment, but reading your posts gives me great ideas on what nonfiction books I might want to read at some point & even if I don't end up reading the book you've written about, I always learn something. So, keep up the good work!

  12. This post makes me want to cheer! I still (boo) haven't read Delusions of Gender -- I keep forgetting about it when I'm at the library -- but I definitely definitely will. I love that you keep reading feminist science books and telling us about them. Never ever change.

  13. This is not an issue that I know a lot about, though I do have some opinions that might make the reading of this book very enlightening for me! Great review on this one today. I actually read it yesterday, and had to gather my thoughts before responding. Such conflicting messages in this one, and so very interesting!

  14. What you say about cocooning yourself, I so agree with. Leaving the bubble can be so painful right?? Realizing what the majority thinks is depressing some days.

  15. I still need to read Fine's book. I wonder where my copy is... So many books and not enough time!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.