I liked this book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini; it is not, perhaps, the most sophisticated or conceptual review of sexual differences focused on the brain but she exercises due diligence in seeking out the scientists who are studying the matter and writes well about the historical development of the field. Her self-set goal is to explore the scientific basis first for saying male and female brains are different and second that one (yes, you know it is the female one) is inferior in some respect, thus the title of the book.
Some time ago around a dinner table with a diverse group of people discussing the art and artefacts we had seen on our tour of southern France, I made what I thought was a pretty non-controversial subject, that male and female brains are different. Whoa, several young ladies who were undergraduates objected, I think, on social justice grounds. I have no problem with that, but I do think our brains are different. The difficulty, which Ms. Saini documents very well, is that the cultural biases about and against females is very strong. Orthodoxy is not just conservative but its biases are also insidiously pervasive, so that even our basic conceptualization can be distorted. I would add that we have this rather stupid proclivity for quantifying and comparing, thus saying something is more or less than another thing, when there is not a valid basis for doing so. We talk about not comparing oranges and apples and then do just that all the time. It’s ugly, really.
So I think male and female brains are different, an apple and oranges sort of thing. Ms. Saini actually cites one clear difference but does not make enough of it. When comparing male and female IQs there is little difference manifest at the top of the scale; men and women are both very intelligent and talented. The difference comes at the bottom of the scale where more males have lower IQs and this is because of increased developmental disabilities. That is a key difference because it reflects the heightened vulnerability of male brains especially as our brains are shaped early on by higher testosterone levels. This I learned from Norman Geschwind long ago and that result has held up.
Now Ms. Saini cites Dr. Geschwind also reaching a rather stupid conclusion (or at least trying out a stupid hypothesis) from this data when he argued that because testosterone slows the cortical maturation of the left hemisphere in particular, males would have a stronger right hemisphere. No, males have a weaker left hemisphere and many of their developmental disabilities are language based. Correlated with this, remember that a higher percentage of males are left-handed than females; this is not a sign of stronger right sided functions but of compensatory adjustment for that left sided delay. So at my dinner conversation a few years back I was talking mainly about the hormonal influence on brain maturation that results in a statistically significant level of cortical disorganization more in males than females; the increased incidence of learning difficulties in males is a reflection of this.
Ms. Saini also reports another finding that fits with this line of thinking. Research into the connectome using ever increasingly sophisticated technology shows a small male-female difference in connectedness. Males show slightly greater connectedness within each hemisphere and less between hemispheres while females show more connectedness between hemispheres. I think this manifests in a couple of ways but this is only my thinking; to be frank our ignorance of brain functioning makes any statement a tenuous hypothesis. Nonetheless, my understanding is that the right hemisphere is dominant for processing information derived from the current moment, especially for the kinesic communication and empathic functions supporting social skills (Theory of Mind stuff or as I prefer, Empathy Central), while the left is dominant for displaced, verbally abstracted information (both sides do both so please remember that dominance is quite relative and also quite variable in the population both male and female). Females from a very young age show more engagement in social interactions of various sorts, and I think they are more engaged because their brains function in a more integrated manner between immediate Empathy Central and displaced abstractions. Along with this consider that females are more resilient in recovering from brain trauma, e.g., areas in the other non-damaged hemisphere are better able to compensate for the loss because of the inter-hemispheric connections.
Anyway, I think male-female brains are different in some significant but subtle ways. Much of what the scientists told Ms. Saini reflects this, i.e., any differences are mostly hidden by the great variability among individuals of both sexes, variability increased by the plasticity of the brain over a life-span. The signal of significant differences is difficult to separate from the background noise due to traditionally very low statistical power, a criticism made powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. What Ms. Saini reports on very well is how society and scientists have misused these results to confirm biases against women, e.g., that they are less intellectual, less talented, less sexual, less whatever. She documents how popular science writing often misrepresents what a study actually finds, blowing it up to hype the drama. She also documents how these misconceptions and misrepresentations underlay horrendous practices such as female genital mutilation. I had no idea of its prevalence, wow.
Inferior is a good read. I had an early quibble when Ms. Saini says that studying human infants is difficult, almost “like working with animals.” Oops! Then a few days later I saw an article by David Premack, a preeminent pioneer of simian research, entitled, “Human and Animal Cognition: Continuity and Discontinuity”. As I was saying, some categorical errors are embedded in the habitus in an insidious pervasive manner. So while still a quibble, it seems a small one indeed.
I realized at the very end why I liked this book. Ms. Saini is following, probably without knowing it, Monod’s prescription for an ethic of knowledge leading to a knowledge of ethics. To quote her last sentences, “The facts are what will empower us to transform society for the better, into one that treats us [females] as equals. Not just because this makes us civilized but because as the evidence already shows, this makes us human”. Well said.
I despair for my country. I think America last election jumped into the toilet and pushed the lever down and that shows, I think, our culture’s intellectual integrity is cracked, perhaps fatally, but time will tell whether my pessimism is justified. I am encouraged about my species, however, as we begin somehow to treat females with equality and respect. Thus, from the past women’s suffrage and the right to own property and not to be property and now, Malala Yousafzai’s efforts for female education, recognition of women who contributed mightily to major scientific efforts without adequate credit before now, even Saudi women driving cars (please see movie Wadja) and most recently, the light of day shining so strongly on male sexual harassment and assault showing that it is unacceptable, give me some hope. Maybe someday soon women will be paid equally for equal work and all cultures will value female babies enough not to kill them and refuse to treat girls and women as chattel even lower than cattle. Ms. Saini’s book helps us along this path and I am happy there to travel on.