The biology of sex differences in human brains and behaviors: a new book on “neurosexism”

March 31, 2019 • 9:00 am

For a while now I’ve written the occasional post about claims that there are no evolved and genetically based differences between male and female behaviors, brains, or hormones. This claim is based not on science but on ideology, stemming from the fear that if you show differences between men and women in these respects, you will somehow justify a biologically based sexism: that women are inferior to men in some ways and thus can be treated as subordinates.

This “blank-slateism” has also been applied to differences between ethnic groups and is often used to dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology—for the same reasons. The ideological denialism of differences between any groups rests on the premise that difference equals inferiority and justifies unequal treatment and bigotry.

Well, leaving aside the possibility that genetically based trait differences may reveal better rather than worse performance of marginalized groups, the ideological dismissal of evolutionarily-based sex differences in brains and behavior is misguided. First, it’s based on the deeply problematic assumption that although differences between male and female bodies may well have evolved (most likely via some form of sexual selection), that cannot be true of the brain.

Yet there’s been equal time for divergent selection on both bodies and brains of males and females, so why did one (bodies) evolve sex differences and the other not (brains)? There’s no a priori reason to assume that brains are immune to divergent evolution, for sexual selection is based on female preference and male behavior, both of which presumably act through the brain. If bodily differences evolved by sexual selection, how can we rule out brain differences, especially those affecting sexual behavior? (The same holds if sexdifferences evolved by divergent natural selection.)

The answer to the ideological “sexes-must-be biologically-identical” argument is simple. We should, and must, give both sexes (and all ethnic groups) complete equality of opportunity as a moral principle—for such equality is the foundation of a good society. Average differences in behavior are just that—average differences—and do not justify differential treatment of individuals, whether their groups be based on sex or ethnicity.  Somehow the “blank slaters” can’t grasp that simple principle.

To be fair, blank-slaters base their ideology on biological determinism being used in the past by bigots to suppress groups, but let us remember that blank-slateism remains not science but ideology, an ideology that is not only biologically misguided but whose fears can be overcome by changes in morality. And, indeed, changes in morality are overcoming it. Steve Pinker has documented the increasing moral equality of the sexes in his last two books.

Still, blank-slateism with respect to male and female brains persists, most prominently in the books of Cordelia Fine, an Australian philosopher and psychologist who has made a career out of debunking the idea that men and women are biologically different. I’ve now read both of her books on this topic, Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, and found them a mixed bag.  Fine is good at debunking bad research, as well as the implicit sexism of some researchers who work on brain biology, but is loath to admit, much less admire, the good research that’s shown differences in both brain anatomy and behavior between men and women. In other words, her books are not works of science but of tendentious ideology. (See here, here, here, and here for my posts on her claims.)

It is, in my view, a bit of a travesty—indicating the unscientific blank-slateism that has infected science—that Testosterone Rex won the Royal Society’s Insight Investment Book in 2017. At the time I called it “not a bad book, but a biased book. It’s not a judicious work of science, but a polemic.”

The same problems that plagued Fine’s books now appear to resurface in a new book by Gina Rippon that makes the same “no-difference-in-brains” claim: The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, recently out in the UK and soon to be released in the US under the title Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds. Wikipedia describes Rippon as “professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre, Aston University, Birmingham.”

Despite ample evidence for genetically based differences in male vs. female brain structure and behavior, the reviews of The Gendered Brain and interviews with Rippon have characterized the book as doing exactly what its title says: aiming to dispel the myth that there are average differences between male and female brains. (Those differences, by the way, may be and probably are be effected through hormonal influences on that organ, which may not produce obvious morphological differences, even though there is substantial evidence for such differences.) The book has received extremely favorable reviews in Nature and The Guardian, though the claims and uncritical approbation in those reviews raised red flags for me.

The review/interview in the Guardian, for instance, characterizes Rippon’s thesis as indicting socialization as completely responsible for sex differences in behavior. The “plasticity” argument is one common to biological ideologues:

The next question was, what then is driving the differences in behaviour between girls and boys, men and women? Our “gendered world”, she says, shapes everything, from educational policy and social hierarchies to relationships, self-identity, wellbeing and mental health. If that sounds like a familiar 20th-century social conditioning argument, it is – except that it is now coupled with knowledge of the brain’s plasticity, which we have only been aware of in the past 30 years.

My suspicion that Rippon’s new book (which I’ll read when it comes out in the U.S) is guilty of the same sins committed by Cordelia Fine, is awakened by the following review in Quillette. It’s by Larry Cahill, identified as “a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine and an internationally recognized leader on the topic of sex influences on brain function.”

Click on the screenshot to read it:

I’ll give a few quotes from Cahill’s review, quotes that could apply to Fine’s works as well. The first paragraph pulls no punches in enumerating the book’s problems:

A book like this is very difficult for someone knowledgeable about the field to review seriously. It is so chock-full of bias that one keeps wondering why one is bothering with it. Suffice to say it is replete with tactics that are now standard operating procedure for the anti-sex difference writers. The most important tactic is a comically biased, utterly non-representative view of the enormous literature of studies ranging from humans to single neurons. Other tactics include magnifying or inventing problems with disfavored studies, ignoring even fatal problems with favored studies, dismissing what powerful animal research reveals about mammalian brains, hiding uncomfortable facts in footnotes, pretending not to be denying biologically based sex-influences on the brain while doing everything possible to deny them, pretending to be in favor of understanding sex differences in medical contexts yet never offering a single specific research example why the issue is important for medicine, treating “brain plasticity” as a magic talisman with no limitations that can explain away sex differences, presenting a distorted view of the “stereotype” literature and what it really suggests, and resurrecting 19th century arguments almost no modern neuroscientist knows of, or cares about. Finally, use a catchy name to slander those who dare to be good scientists and investigate potential sex influences in their research despite the profound biases against the topic (“neurosexists!”). These tactics work quite well with those who know little or nothing about the neuroscience. Here are some lowlights. . .

The “lowlights” include praising bad studies claiming to show no average differences between male and female brains, and misrepresenting good studies that do show such differences.

Here’s Cahill’s summary of the known science and of the book.

So are female and male brains the same or different? We now know that the correct answer is “yes”: They are the same or similar on average in many respects, and they are different, a little to a lot, on average in many other respects. The neuroscience behind this conclusion is now remarkably robust, and not only won’t be going away, it will only grow.

The book is downright farcical when it comes to modern animal research, simply ignoring the vast majority of it. The enormous power of animal research, of course, is that it can establish sex influences in particular on mammalian brain function (such as sex differences in risk-takingplay behavior, and responses to social defeat as just three examples) that cannot be explained by human culture, (although they may well be influenced in humans by culture.) Rippon engages in what is effectively a denial of evolution, implying to her reader that we should ignore the profound implications of animal research (“Not those bloody monkeys again!”) when trying to understand sex influences on the human brain. She is right only if you believe evolution in humans stopped at the neck.

And everyone who isn’t a sexist or a racist, and is objective about the data, eventually arrives at this conclusion:

After almost 20 years of hearing the same invalid arguments (like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” waking up to the same song every day), I have come to see clearly that the real problem is a deeply ingrained, implicit, very powerful yet 100 percent false assumption that if women and men are to be considered “equal,” they have to be “the same.” Conversely, the argument goes, if neuroscience shows that women and men are not the same on average, then it somehow shows that they are not equal on average. Although this assumption is false, it still creates fear of sex differences in those operating on it. Ironically, forced sameness where two groups truly differ in some respect means forced inequality in that respect, exactly as we see in medicine today.

What he’s referring to is the neglect of women in clinical studies of medical interventions or drugs, which often show different outcomes in men and women. That’s based largely on biology rather than socialization, and shows differences between the sexes in bodies and their physiology. The best guess is that our brains will also show differences, and to deny that a priori as a possibility bespeaks a profoundly unscientific attitude.

90 thoughts on “The biology of sex differences in human brains and behaviors: a new book on “neurosexism”

  1. At the risk of being accused of brown-nosing, Professor Coyne, the world would be a better place if everyone could make the effort to be as frank and as objective as you have been on this and every other controversial topic. Thank you.

    P.S.: Any chance we could get you to run for president?

  2. I’ve wondered if we could ever separate folks into those who are scared of information and those who are not. I’m a big fan of knowledge, and think learning can be had from all things. I don’t think the continued study of brain differences will lead to the conclusion that women are less suited for politics, science or leadership roles. I’m sure some people would look for evidence to back those things us, but rigorous reviews should be able to screen out flawed data. What we might learn might benefit us all.

      1. Went to see Beach Bum this afternoon (Harmony Korine’s sequel of sorts to Spring Breakers), which was shot in my South Florida stomping grounds, some of it not more than a block from the theater where I saw it.

        Anyway, they showed a trailer for High Life, a science fiction film from French director Claire Dennis. Looked to me like a BJ kinda movie. It’s something I plan to see, too, but struck me as being right in your wheelhouse.

        1. I’m always interested in a thoughtful sci-fi film. I looked up “High Life” on IMDB. The trailer makes it look interesting. On the other hand, it looks like we’ll hear a baby say “da da” thousands of times.

        2. High Life definitely looks like my kind of film. I actually stopped halfway through the trailer because I didn’t want to know any more about the film. Thanks for the heads up!

          How was The Beach Bum? I can’t say I’m a fan of Korine’s at this point. So far, I think he’s kind of a hack who thinks he’s making great art with incisive social commentary, but it’s not as if he has an enormous oeuvre on which to judge him yet and he could always grow.

          1. The Beach Bum was goofy, pointless, and kinda trashy — but goofy, pointless, and kinda trashy in the best possible way. It certainly had spirit and style. And the cinematography showed South Florida in all its glory.

            It also had an interesting ’70s and ’80s pop-song soundtrack, and a theme song over the closing credits co-written by — get this — Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett, who both had co-starring roles (which oughta tell you a lot about the movie itself). 🙂

            I liked Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, though I’m cognizant that’s not a universally shared opinion. 🙂

            1. I’ll have to catch it when it comes out on disc. I haven’t been to a movie theater since I saw Throne of Blood at my local Alamo a few years ago. I would probably still catch a flick at the theater once in a blue moon, if only that theater was closer to me. They don’t let people talk or use cell phones, you can order food and alcohol, and they show both new and old movies. Alas, I live over an hour away from one.

  3. I read an article by Fine recently in which she claimed that plasticity accounts for all anatomical differences between boys and girls but she also claimed in the same article that girls who had greater testosterone were less plastic. I don’t see the difference between this and saying testosterone makes a difference.

    Also, and I’ve mentioned this before, her books don’t touch on conditions that make people more or less influenced by testosterone, eg. congenital adrenal hyperplasia or adrenal insensitivity Syndrome. Surely comparing people with these conditions with those with a normal sensitivity to androgens would control for differences associated with socialisation?

    1. Your characterization of her views on plasticity must be erroneous, for nobody could say that XX individuals become anatomically female nearly 100% of the time while the reverse holds for XY individuals. That simply cannot be explained by plasticity that’s uninfluenced by genetics.

      1. Here’s the article:

        We now have evidence of the lifelong experience-dependent plasticity of the human brain, which means that the brain can be changed by experiences such as bullying, parenthood, playing videogames, learning to juggle, or training to be a London cab driver (May 2011). To the extent that the experiences that shape the brain are gendered, this is an indirect effect of sex (Bleier 1984; Kaiser 2012). Intriguingly, sex-related hormones may exert an indirect effect by making us more (or less) susceptible to such gendering effects. Thus, girls who were exposed to atypically high levels of androgens during pregnancy were found to be less influenced by gender modelling and labelling compared to typically exposed girls (Hines et al. 2016). This finding is particularly revealing because of evidence that parents of such girls often make more of an effort to emphasize gender-appropriate behavior (reviewed in Jordan-Young 2010).

  4. Pretty simple rebuttals to the blank slaters are the experiences of those who are not gender normative. People who are gay, effeminate, butch, transgendered, and so on. No way could those characters be imprinted by society.
    As I understand it, there are also the experiences of transgendered people who go through the process of sex reassignment, including hormonal treatments. The typical experience of a person born female who is transitioning to male is that when they start their testosterone treatments, they start to experience highly stereotypical male characters. These include having a temper, having an increased libido, and when seeing an attractive women they have sudden. involuntary. thoughts. that are not for polite company.

  5. This BS has given rise to so many problems. I have a relative who works as a guidance counselor, and we were talking the other day about how all the campaigns against bullying, etc. are giving kids more anxiety than ever over things that didn’t give them nearly as much anxiety in the past (her daughter is currently freaking out over another girl in her school getting “bullied,” even though her daughter has nothing to do with it. She feels traumatized by proxy, and was even called into the principal’s office just so the principal could ask what she had heard about the situation, which then led to rumors that her daughter must have done something wrong, and on, and on…).

    I am going somewhere with this, I promise. My point is that, rather than trying to propagandize the public into thinking there are no sex differences (which is something the vast majority of people simply recognize from experience), we should be saying, “yes, there are differences, but they are averages, they don’t apply to the individual level, and anyone and everyone who wants to work in a certain field or engage in a certain hobby or whatever should be provided an equal opportunity to do so and an environment in which they are not discriminated against in any way.” Instead, as my relative and I were discussing, we’re telling the more rare young girls who are interested in things like certain STEM subjects that they will encounter tons of sexism if they choose to go into those fields, giving them further anxiety and pushing them away. These ideologues assume such fields must be full of sexists because they say there are no differences between the sexes, and therefore the lack of parity between the sexes in these fields must come from sexism (although the lack of parity in fields where women dominate is, of course, entirely natural, somehow). My relative felt that the schools from elementary through high school are trying to both push girls into subjects that often don’t interest them (to gain parity) while also pushing them away in their later years by warning them that these fields are full of sexist men.

    Recognize the differences, say they don’t matter on the individual level, and make sure everyone has an equal opportunity and an environment with no discrimination. That’s it. Tell kids to do what interests them and make sure they have the opportunities to pursue those interests. These ideologues are creating problems instead of solving them.

    1. Oh, and to be clear, there’s no reason to teach about these differences in high school (except maybe in advanced biology/anatomy?). While I used examples from high school to make a point, my general point is that we shouldn’t be trying to push false and ideologically driven “science” and shouldn’t be shying away from these differences.

    2. we’re telling the more rare young girls who are interested in things like certain STEM subjects

      I think it might be a USian oddity that we assume some children aren’t fit to learn STEM subjects. I think all children should receive a well-rounded and rigorous education, including STEM subjects. If we can do that – they will be prepared to enter the sciences at a higher level should they choose to do so. I do agree that we focus quite a bit on telling girls how hard it will be after – but those experiences are too common to ignore, I fear.

      1. Oh, you misunderstood me, and I can see why. I was talking about careers, later paths (college and beyond). I’m a strong believer that every child should be learning the sciences. Everything from basic biology to chemistry should be required for every students in the public education system prior to college. I was talking about pushing people into careers or college paths when they’d prefer to continue their studies/work in something else.

        1. Gotcha- we agree. We do a similar thing to people interested in traditional trades as well, I think. We tend to value those careers less, even though they are vital and good ways to make a living. Those jobs, of course, are primarily held by men as well.

          On that note I have to propositions for elementary education! We should teach the periodic table along with the alphabet – nothing fancy – just the names and the orientation of the elements. Also, symbolic logic could be taught at the 5th grade level. Truth tables are fantastic!

          1. Love your ideas in the second paragraph! Although the periodic table might be a little too soon if it’s being taught with the alphabet. Maybe wait until 4th grade for that 🙂

            I agree about the trades. Jobs like electrician, plumber, roofer, etc. are unfortunately looked down upon in our society, and this is an absurdity that needs to be corrected. We’re sending millions of kids to college take on lifelong debt so they can (if they’re lucky) one day be a lowly cog in an office. Meanwhile, we have all these trade jobs that are always in demand, in which they can make far more money, and which require far less expenditure for the education needed. College degrees have become something to signal social status and we’ve convinced people that they need to get them to have value, when they could be doing far more valuable things in which they make far more money, pay far less for their education, and often work for themselves rather than some faceless, soul-sucking corporation. It’s a shame and it’s one of the reasons I’m opposed to the idea of free college for everyone.

            1. I think the despair many feel with graduating from university is that they expect a sausage factory result in that they go in one end and, without input from them, the protosausage, are spat out into a little sausage skin of a career. However, universities were never about careers, they were about education. You went to university to be educated. And I think what you learn in university is absolutely essential from a societal perspective and vital in a democracy. To me, I never expected a career at the end. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do and decades later I think I’m still working through that but isn’t that what many of us do? Look for a fulfilling job that is, if we’re lucky, also lucrative. Most of us don’t have that privilege but to have the privilege to learn and to meet other learners as rapidly as one does in a university, I think is immeasurably valuable (and I had lots of school debt). It might not be for everyone, but we should stop kidding ourselves that it’s all about a career. For me, I always figured the career would take care of itself if I just kept looking to do what i liked doing and for the most part that’s worked out. The trick is not to become attached to a job because of trappings like money, pension, commute.

              Now, don’t get me started about how corporate structures incentivize people management over true leadership.

              1. With the cost of college the way it is, it has to be about a career. I’ve always severely lamented the fact that I spent my college years getting education in various subjects that interested me (in other words, I got a Liberal Arts degree, which basically means “take whatever you want”), rather than focusing on a subject that would have put me on a path for my future and that I knew would always interest me. I think colleges and society in general do a very poor job of impressing upon students that college is a stepping stone to something greater.

                In my opinion, more needs to be taught in middle and high school — all the things you need to have an educated society for a functioning democracy can and should be transmitted there. It’s fine if people want to go to college solely to become more educated, but they need to understand the financial consequences of that choice (finances is also something that we really need to teach in high school!).

              2. I don’t think Hinkley career is he job of universities. I have 2 liberal arts honours degrees. I’ve worked in IT for over 20 years and i use a lot of what i learned through critical thinking in that profession.

              3. And I managed to successfully transition to other things that had nothing to do with my degrees, but we’re both people of well-above average intelligence. If college is only going to be about furthering one’s education, I think it needs to be severely overhauled when it comes to price, length, and curriculum.

              4. Maybe in the US. I think in Canada it’s still pretty good. Though it differs by province but we have few private universities.

      2. And I was talking about interests, rather than abilities. Of course, young girls are just as capable of learning these subjects as young boys. No question.

          1. When we apply that to small children, I worry. Anecdata ahoy: Kiddo had zero interest in learning to read. He had every interest in being outdoors ‘survivaling’. It was painful for a few years, like pulling teeth. I, nevertheless, persisted. Kiddo is now reading at an eleventh grade level at age ten. His ability to read was never the question, just his interest. So, on that note, I’m with BJ on a strong, well-rounded education for all children at pre-college level. Give them the tools to choose what they want to do and then let them.

            1. I was not so much advocating “applying it” as recognizing it. There’s many cases where parents need to override the child’s interest or lack thereof, reading certainly being one. Agree on the well-rounded education.

              Also, a correlation doesn’t tell you anything about an individual. On the other hand, when a child is reluctant to read, the first thing to do is check for some kind of disability. For example, my elementary school teacher noticed I was squinting to see the chalkboard so my parents were contacted and I ended up with glasses.

              1. Agreed on all counts.

                I have more than a few friends who homeschool/unschool their kids (from my past, crunchier life) and I worry for the kids. Some can’t read, and others just self direct in very narrow ways. Most won’t get good math or science instruction. I think math and science, like reading, should be taught regardless of whether the kid is enthused to start- they are amazing and interesting subjects and understanding that can come later.

              2. Yes, I worry about home schooling too. while it cuts down on the many unproductive distractions most kids are exposed to, it depends so much on the limited knowledge and skill of only one or two teachers. I suspect the motivation to home school is often not in the interest of the child or society.

            2. @Paul Topping Homeschooling UK: Across the UK 48,000 children were being home-educated in 2016-17, up from about 34,000 in 2014-15. The Isle of Wight has the highest proportion in the UK of home-educated pupils, almost one in 50.

              Criticisms by Ofsted over the island’s high proportion of “inadequate” schools may have had an impact, the council said, adding it was tackling “lower educational standards”.

              By contrast Scotland has 1 in a 1,000!

              Red Balloon Learner Centres, are UK specialist learner Centres providing a safe, full-time learning environment for children aged eleven to sixteen who have self excluded from mainstream school for reasons of being the victim of bullying, assault or trauma. They provide this in a face-to-face environment normally, but they also have an “on air” school.

              Tory austerity measures have struck hard at our education system resulting in a lack of depth when dealing with peripheral aspects of education such as safety in school & the treatment of special needs pupils. There’s a link below from which I drew much of the above, but there’s a striking example in there of a high functioning autistic lad who wasn’t served well by his school [they saw autism as a problem to be solved kinda thing] who now Red Balloon remotely & I presume he has a range of teachers.

              i read about a school yesterday where the teachers have voted to take a substantial £2,000/yr cut in salary so that the school can maintain a full staff. Shocking.

              BBC LINK

      1. Are they written by people like Fine or Ripon? I have no doubt that the INCEL morons rage about toxic femininity all the time, but that’s not what was meant by the comment.

          1. And sadly what I consider the worst of toxic femininity is so wrapped up in the big three abrahamic religions and thus have seeped so far into our culture that it’s verboten to pick them a part. Consider the quiverful movement where the good women take on their biological imperatives as baby makers. Motherhood is so mythologized in our own society, only monsters criticize it. There are lots of other examples as well but I think the worst that society reinforces is that women must be princesses to be rescued so there has been a lower expectation of women. It’s cute if a woman does it but stupid if a man does. Perhaps it’s something that is changing but I’m still seeing it with boys and girls.

            1. I agree with what you’ve said and I’ve found it very strange that current mainstream feminism supports these ideas. The frailty of women, the idea that every mother is a hero (which, by extension, will make those who aren’t feel like they aren’t fulfilling some obligation), the notion that men need to save women from men…It’s like everything is turned upside down. I feel like it was just ten (or maybe a little more) years ago when feminism was all about being strong and independent.

            2. I get sooooo frustrated with this when out and about with one of my preschool aged female relatives. She is very cute (of course I’m biased, but I think most people would agree,) and petite and always dressed in adorable girly girl clothes. I had her out the other day and twice – *twice – within a few hours ran into a situation where she got anxious about something and pitched a fit; I stepped back and encouraged her to work through it; she started to calm down and assess the situation much more calmly – and then was interrupted when someone rushed over to try and “make it all better” by offering her a sticker or hug or whatever, at which point she returned to having a meltdown.

              I feel bad because I don’t want to lecture a well-meaning waitress about building resilience in children, but at the same time – again, it’s really frustrating. I’m glad she’s getting the message that other people care about her and are there for her, but I feel like being adorable is almost hindering her growth in a way. Nobody ever just lets her get upset for a few minutes and figure out how to cope or problem solve, it’s like the world at large goes into instinctive “rescue” mode when they see a cute little girl upset. She has a brother who is younger and I see people take a much more “buck up champ!” attitude with him despite the difference in age.

          2. I know nothing of the Medium or Meghan Daum; I’ve never heard of either. Nor do I understand the tinge of hostility behind your comments. What I do understand is that it is currently very much the cultural zeitgeist to accuse men of being “toxic” and that it ignores the “toxic” behaviors of women (some of which were mentioned in the article you provided) and that we need to stop labeling people as being “toxic” simply based on their genitalia. I’m sorry if that bothers you, although I cannot understand why it would, as I assume you do not follow the ideology of Fine and Rippon, or else you most likely would not be reading this site. As for your pigeon hole, well, that IS the problem, trying to shove all male behavior into the “toxic” pigeon hole while ignoring the issue of female behaviors that are just as problematic and damaging to society.

            1. The “tinge of hostility” you think you detect in me doesn’t exist outside your head. Please don’t try to assume my emotional state without evidence.

              1. Fair enough. Glad I was wrong, it’s just what it appeared to me but I’m sorry if I misread your comments. I struggle with that in person, so online without any physical cues or tone/volume of voice is that much harder for me. My apologies.

              2. To be fair to quiscalus, I thought you were intending to be hostile as well. Communicating tone in text is hard…

                Anyway, I also think s/he makes a good point, and the point is about mainstream media, academia, politics, etc. An article on Medium doesn’t really refute the point.

              3. There wasn’t a point other than “toxic femininity” IS a thing [in that it is discussed] & the discussion isn’t solely within the ranks of MGTOWs, MRAs & incels – the link I provided is one example of none-of-the-above employing that term & discussing it. Are you OK with that?

              4. Unless s/he corrects me, I’m going to assume (especially from the further discussion where s/he mentions that it’s discussed in dark corners like the incel community) that s/he meant in popular culture, mainstream media, academia, etc.

                In other words, no, I don’t think providing a single link to a glorified blogging website is not sufficient. I don’t think it addresses the larger point. I don’t think two or three more links would either.

              5. I’ll defer to you then, a person of “well-above average intelligence” as you put it. And you’re able to read minds too! LOL.

        1. @quiscalus Thank you. That’s fine. I hope all’s well in the “you have got to show me” State.

  6. I’m somewhat amazed that the blank slate hypothesis has so much life still. In the AI world, we have neural networks that must be trained on millions of items just to be able to “understand” natural language poorly. Many wonder how children are able to learn based on a single experience when the answer should be obvious. Children have a built-in understanding of much of the world. Their experience serves only to hook it all up and fine-tune it. The slate isn’t blank but fairly full from birth. It should be no surprise that this pre-programming depends on the individual’s sex.

  7. I often hear the argument that there are no significant differences caused by DNA between individuals, ethnic groups or sexes.
    That changes the argument somewhat to shat constitutes a significant difference.

    I think the studies should be on what those differences are.

    Saying there are no differences seems to totally ignore facts.

    Reminds me of the statement among journalists that when the myth is stronger than the facts print the myth. Ludicrous. And that is a fact.

  8. Larry Cahill’s summary (“She is right only if you believe evolution in humans stopped at the neck.”) is perfect.

    True believers in the social construction of gender—the ones intent on changing things by requiring little boys to play with dolls and little girls to play with toy trucks—have overlooked a prospective influence on brain plasticity with a great historical record: temperature. Why not keep small children at a low temperature for a while, the same way the inherited germination times of wheat could be altered in certain famous Soviet research reports. Why, if this treatment converted children’s brains from one thing to another, and heritably at that, we could call it “яровизация” in honor of its inventor, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.

  9. Anybody having male and female children knows that there are innate differences.
    I seriously wonder if Ms Fine and Ms Rippon have children of different sexes.
    That being said, I do not want to diss the scientific studies that examine these questions, they certainly give us more detail and insight, but the basic difference between male and female is there long before much ‘environmental’ influences may have moulded these traits, we ain’t putty.

    1. I was going to say the same. Anyone with children can make the very simple observation that blank-slateism is just wrong.
      Sometimes some scientists spend a lot of time making the emperor’s new clothes…

  10. I understand wariness about creating a culture of low expectations on either side of the gender aisle. If men or women test, on average, lower on this or that skill, then it is easier to shrug off lower test scores or lower employment rates that may indeed be due to other factors – in fact, if there are genuine differences, you would almost have to do this to some extent, as the logical expectation would be that, given equality of opportunity, you would not see equality of outcome with preexisting gender differences. I do think it’s very easy for humans to get very lazy very fast with that kind of thing and, again, understand some level of wariness about that. When it comes to the far fringes of any movement I don’t know that they are meant to be logical so much as they are meant to be a bulwark against goalpost-shifting (what does make me nervous, however, is when the fringes are no longer on the fringe and rather extreme ideological views become mainstream.) I suppose the “no gender differences” crowd does act as a kind of guard against lazily allowing for sexism to creep in under the guise of “what can you expect, there are innate differences”. In a perfect world I’d like to think there is a more rational way to do that, in the real world, I think society often acts as a sort of self-regulating organism where the illogical actions of any group only make sense when you look at them in terms of maintaining big picture balance.

    In regard to average gender differences – it’s really hard to explain away data like traditional gender roles in careers becoming more exaggerated as freedom of opportunity increases. (If memory serves, women are much more likely to become engineers in countries where this is one of their only routes to economic success, and tend to self-select away from those positions once more careers are available.) Or brain changes in the brains of pregnant women that push towards increased emotional intelligence and verbal dexterity – this could not possibly happen in the brains of men, as they don’t tend to get pregnant, so there’s just no way to square that circle. Besides, nobody seems to have a problem with the idea when women are portrayed positively – I hear people say that women have, on average, better interpersonal skills and so are becoming more crucial as managers in today’s economy – there’s little to no outcry about how unfair this is to men who undoubtedly have equally good interpersonal skills (quite the opposite, it’s totally ok to make jokes about “men are clueless” or memes about “what happens when you leave dads in charges” in a way that would be shocking if they involved women.) I think most people in the middle with some common sense understand both the dangers of having lax standards and the idea that there are statistical differences between males and females.

    1. I too struggle with all this. I believe that the truth should be pursued and accepted even when it sucks and I’m sure it is one of the contributors to my own misery, but at the same time I’m painfully and personally aware of that human tendency toward lazy thinking that you describe. It’s so easy to shrug off a female that is bad at math or a male that lacks concentration as just part of their gender and leave them to struggle or be excluded. I really think, given recent, premature reactions to certain one-off studies about women in STEM that unsavoury consequences are almost guaranteed. And I don’t know how to handle the the truth with laziness in understanding the truth and therefore don’t know how to reconcile my own need for truth with my own practical experience of how its received and applied. No matter how much nuance you introduce into an explanation about individuals and averages the inevitable, lazy “yeah but” dismissal and over simplification will ensue.

      Ugh. And even saying all this, I suspect, is also going to contribute to my own misery.

      1. Why does this topic give you misery? You have commented before that men in your male-dominated field have often been sexist to you, but you have stood up to them.

      2. I agree, and I think it’s possible that keeping standards high for relatively more equity in things like test scores could actually result in improved teaching methods tailored to females, males, or just individual learning styles.

    2. The problem isn’t that there may be measurable differences in groups, it’s that differences in groups cannot be applied to individuals. I think that’s the message that needs to be hammered home again and again.

      1. Yes, but even there, I think there are difficult consequences to statistical group differences. Is it fair to accuse an employer of sexism if their male / female ratio of engineers is not 50/50? Or a teacher of being a bad teacher if all genders don’t score equally well in all testing areas? If there are genuine statistical differences between sexes, then the answer is, no, it’s really not fair to them. That said, once you go down that road, how do you find an acceptable cutoff? How much lower can test scores be? How many fewer female engineers can be hired? How do you know for sure these numbers reflect gender differences and not sexism or low expectations? I think that is a genuinely difficult topic with no easy answers.

        1. Also, suppose for some area the numbers were more extreme. For example, suppose 1:10000 men were capable of something and 1:2 women were capable. Do you comb through all men looking for that 1:10000? Or do you regard it as not worth the time? Remember that there may be externalities to doing so. If 10000 is fine, replace with 1 million or 1 billion?

          I’d like to think all the items that matter are not like this, but I don’t think that can be known a priori.

  11. It’s intriguing how much those book seem to follow the same templates that books by evolution deniers do: the distortions, the selectivity, etc etc

  12. So are female and male brains the same or different? We now know that the correct answer is “yes”: They are the same or similar on average in many respects, and they are different, a little to a lot, on average in many other respects. The neuroscience behind this conclusion is now remarkably robust, and not only won’t be going away, it will only grow.

    I have a hard time see why the attention spent on sex differences in development and resulting differences in some body systems. The sexual organs and hormones are different of course, more interesting is that modern humans to a lesser degree display differences in overall and muscle mass than earlier hominins and a cryptic oestrus. Passing over ever smaller differences in intestines and metabolism, when we get to sensory systems they are virtually the same and the average intelligence indistinguishable between the sexes. So, yawn,

    Speaking of earlier hominins, the latest Denisova cave find has the “number 13” addition of a sizable piece of skull! Differently from their sister lineage Neanderthals, their skulls may be robust as is the earlier found teeth. But of course the picture is complex, seeing how the current tally of distinct “Denisovans” are 3-4 and counting, so it is harder to draw generic conclusions. (I believe I read in passing that the papers in progress have people deliberating if some of those would merit distinct species designations.)

    1. One of the arguments made by Jordan Peterson is that, yes, the differences between average men and average women are small and the range of abilities overlap – but at the extremes of the ability ranges the differences are much larger. So top engineers are far more likely to be men. And also the violent criminals in prison are far more likely to be men.

      Averages are a dangerous statistical tool if you aspire to create the perfect society.

  13. Ironically, forced sameness where two groups truly differ in some respect means forced inequality in that respect, exactly as we see in medicine today

    This is an excellent point and one we need to press at every opportunity. I’ve been on the funding (rather than receiving) side of studies where we had to insist, against opposition, that the proposal writers use female as well as male test subjects. Precisely because we were concerned that using an all-male cohort would not give us an accurate understanding of the drug’s effects on a mixed-sex population.

    This is critical, folks. We need to include women (and female mammals) in studies. And this “male/female brains are exactly the same” craps is standing in the way, because it gives researchers full justification to cut study costs by using cohorts of all males (whether it be humans, apes, or other mammals). And it gives government funders no reasonable justification for turning down all-male study groups.

    1. Why does having all-male cohorts save money? Are you referring to the need to have more subjects in order to differentiate male and female results significantly? Or is it something else like the need to supply separate bathrooms or changing facilities?

      1. I think the answer might be that most medical research has traditionally used male subjects where possible for old timey social/cultural reasons. Same as the having the vote, a career or going about without a chaperone.


    2. I would say that, if you want to compare physiological tests of two groups, one being a control group, then insisting on all the same sex would be an obvious way to save having one extra variable to account for.

      This is obvious if you’re talking about testing, say, contraceptive pills – no point in testing them on men. But suppose you’re testing any other sort of mood-altering drug, wouldn’t the presence of testosterone in just half your test subjects potentially muddy the results?

      Maybe separate tests should be conducted for males vs females. It seems to me that some particular drug might work better on one sex than the other.


      1. My guess is that the response to drugs, or to most any stimulation of an experimental nature could be potentially bimodal based on gender. This means the analysis becomes more complex requiring, perhaps, more data points, leading to more expense.

  14. This is a very good article and shows that the whacko far left third wave intersectional feminism is attempting to puts its mark on science which is ridiculous. However, I teach in my classes that female brains are better but that the differenced pale in comparison to the similarities. The feminists are right on some things in that plasticity can often account for the superiority between one sex over the other. For instance men are better at spatial relations skills and women at verbal fluency. But that is due to how we raise kids. Women’s brains however shrink at a slower rate as wel age and that is not plasticity. Ideology has crept into science at times in our past such as when Lysenko imposed Lamarckianism on soviet agriculture producing a famine.

    —————————————–From: “Why Evolution Is True” To: Cc: Sent: Sunday March 31 2019 9:01:46AM Subject: [New post] The biology of sex differences in human brains and behaviors: a new book on “neurosexism”

    whyevolutionistrue posted: “For a while now I’ve put up the occasional post about those who claim that there are no evolved and genetically based differences between male and female behaviors, brains, and hormones. This claim is based not on science but on ideology, stemming from th”

    1. “For instance men are better at spatial relations skills and women at verbal fluency. But that is due to how we raise kids.”

      Really? This difference between men and women is well-known (has it held up over the years?) but what evidence is there that it’s due to environment? I find this surprising to the point where I don’t believe it. Do you have a reference to the relevant research?

  15. Gina Rippon was a star “expert witness” on a BBC two part series –
    “No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?”
    No one was invited to critique her work and ideas.

    The BBC (and C4) has lost all credibility as an objective broadcaster. It now relentlessly pushes a “social justice” ideology. I was a big supporter and didn’t mind the compulsory subscription fee. Now?

  16. Some thoughts:

    1. With the efforts being made to become more aware of and, accepting of, transgender issues (of whatever flavor), why can some of us not understand that male and female brains may be variable as well?

    2. My Mom was viewed as being more masculine than feminine because of the many “masculine” skills she had. She also had as many or more “feminine” skills. Oh well! My Dad was raised in a household of women. His Dad was usually away from home working somewhere. He preferred to be around women and got along exceptionally well with them, whereas he didn’t play sports or enjoy fishing, etc., as men of his generation did. In addition, my Dad may have preferred the women in the household because they were more empathetic than his Dad was.

    Certainly, there can be many other reasons for Mom seeming “masculine” and Dad seeming “feminine”, but being raised in that environment caused me to question what I was in that regard for most of my growing years. Until a dream I had resolved the matter for me.

    My husband and I taught our kids (one male, two females) that they could do almost anything they wanted. One daughter likes to fix her own cars. One daughter does carpentry, building her own bookcases. My son is a fine cook. (Actually, all of them are, as the whole family enjoyed good food.) All three children (in their 50s) are equally intelligent((gifted), capable in a great many areas, and still interested in learning anything they set their minds to.

    3. I can’t go back to hunt up articles now, but there have been many articles published over the years in the U.S. about brain differences that make girls more adapted to (adept at?) school earlier than boys.

    4. Public schools in the U.S. are a diverse lot in terms of their success or failure in teaching kids what they need to learn. Money is not equally distributed between the wealthier neighborhoods and poorer ones. School facilities are not equal. In some schools, too many kids, not enough teachers. Our federal and state governments make laws that cause school districts and teachers to be unable to teach as they want or as they’ve been taught. And their are discipline and bullying issues among kids in schools that are difficult for teachers to control.
    Etc. Etc.

    I have seen home schooled kids that have not received a good education and I have seen those with a superb education. Depends on the parents. A lot of home schooling is done in the U.S. by far right religious parents who don’t want their kids contaminated by the diversity of humans and thoughts they would encounter in public schools.

    1. Ha! Interesting family.
      When I was in high school, early 60s, the boys got to take home economics for one semester and learned to cook a pizza in an oven. The girls were given shop class and learned how to use a ban saw. 😎

      1. Sounds like a good idea. I don’t recall my high school having that option. I think the girls took cooking and sewing and the boys took wood shop and machine shop. But this was so far back in the dark ages that boys and girls had dress restrictions (no tennis shoes or sandals, girls still predominantly wore dresses or skirts and blouses, and some other rules that were gang related re colors and jewelry.) The vice principals wandered around the school yard during lunch with a 12 inch ruler to measure the distance between boys and girls to ensure that they weren’t holding hands or walking too close together.

        One thing they did that helped me, though, is that they tried to slot kids into classes appropriate to their intelligences as measured by a variety of IQ tests. The courses I took in accelerated classes were much better (in my opinion) than ones offered to other students. Shakespeare in English. Don Quijote in Spanish by Cervantes in Spanish class. The first Psychology class offered. Etc.

        1. That 12″ ruler reminds me that we had corporal punishment administered using a wooden bat. It was similar to a Mauri war club, except it was all wood. Once, a boy got hold of one a “paddled” another kid and hit him in the nuts! They decided to abolish the weapons. Those were the good old days. 😎

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