Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Then Today's Science on Girlz

Feministe linked to this interesting article about how the brain can change because of how it is used, in ways which might end up leaving men and women, on average, with somewhat different-looking brains. Or perhaps not. The research all uses very small sample sizes so it's important not to make very strong conclusions, see?

That's never a problem the other way round, for some reason. When the first PET scan differences in women's and men's brains (in use) came out, a horde of essentialists wrote books about how girls should be kept in a large pink box until they turn 21 and how boys should be kept in a jungle until the same age. Then they should fuck. Read some of those lovely The Wonder of Boys/Girls books if you doubt me.

Anyway, I digress, as usual, and this is the point where loads of readers go elsewhere. Which is a pity, because that article indeed is fascinating. The author talks here about the straight gyrus, SG, an area of the brain which is believed to have something to do with social cognition and interpersonal judgment:

In other words, there does seem to be a relationship between SG size and social perception, but it is not a simple male-female difference. Rather, the SG appears to reflect a person's "femininity" better than one's biological sex: women who are relatively less feminine show a correspondingly smaller SG compared to women who are more feminine, and ditto for men.

This finding—that brain structure correlates as well or better with psychological "gender" than with simple biological "sex"—is crucial to keep in mind when considering any comparisons of male and female brains. Yes, men and women are psychologically different and yes, neuroscientists are uncovering many differences in brain anatomy and physiology which seem to explain our behavioral differences. But just because a difference is biological doesn't mean it is "hard-wired." Individuals' gender traits—their preference for masculine or feminine clothes, careers, hobbies and interpersonal styles—are inevitably shaped more by rearing and experience than is their biological sex. Likewise, their brains, which are ultimately producing all this masculine or feminine behavior, must be molded—at least to some degree—by the sum of their experiences as a boy or girl.

The point the author makes is a good one, however much she hedges her bets. Because you must hedge your bets when you write from this direction. When you write from the other direction you don't have to hedge.

At the same time, I find it fascinating how essentialist the labels themselves have become. So if it's not the female brain, then it's the female psychology patterns just happening to sit in a male brain. Or femininity. Of course it's circular to say that people who are better at social recognition and interpersonal judgment have larger SG areas than people who are not so good at social recognition and interpersonal judgment. But calling that "feminine" loads in something all feminists know has a value judgment (run for the hills, guys).

And that value judgment is exactly why I write about all this. The terms "female brain" and "male brain" are not two neutral and equal concepts. The former is what is used to argue that women really are better off when sequestered in their homes and when allowed to do only repetitive work (see the comments thread to that post and don't except great commenting) or in child-care. Men, on the other hand, are better at everything else. Surprisingly, social intelligence appears to have no place among the movers and shakers of this world. Presidents don't need it, psychiatrists don't need it and so on.

Until those underlying value judgments are made clear to all, research in this field will always be used to keep women subordinate. An important point, wouldn't you say?