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Sexing the Brain: Neuroscience vs. Neurosexism

What are little boys made of?
“Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of!”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!”

This popular kids nursery-rhyme, and the popular notion that men and women are different species from entirely different worlds, may have to be re-written in the light of recent findings.

Several books recently have taken a scalpel to ‘neurosexism’, or rather the neuroscience of ‘innate’ and ‘inborn’ – or ‘hardwired’– differences between men and women. It seems that most of what we have been told about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains over the last few decades is, to use a highly technical term, bollocks.

It turns out there is little or no sound scientific evidence for the sweeping claims that have been made about sexed brains – even if they make for easy headlines for copy-editors and provide endless material for lazy stand-up comics. In fact, the very notion of a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ is misleading. Shockingly, it turns out that the human race, in all its billions and billions, doesn’t actually resolve itself into just two kinds of people. One made of snips and snails and the other made of sugar and spice. One from Mars, the other from Venus.

Yes, there are some differences between adult male and female brains, but these are not, it seems, so much inborn in the way we think of anatomical sexual difference as being inborn – there’s little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. Instead they’re the result of our highly ‘plastic’ brains adapting to the culture and expectations they are born into. Learning the syntax of sex and gender.

Having read one of the most publicised books, Dr Lise Eliot’s (ironically titled) Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I can report I thoroughly enjoyed the way she methodically dices and slices the mounds and mounds of dodgy neuroscience papers that have gone before her, like some kind of white-coated Ellen Ripley figure. It’s always a thrill to see scientific scepticism in action – especially in a particularly egotistical field such as neuroscience that seemingly just can’t resist making several whopping great tendentious claims before lunchtime. Neuroscientists sometimes come across like a real-life Pinky and The Brain, but more ridiculous.

Eliot’s argument is that small physical and temperamental differences between the sexes at birth are exaggerated by cultural attitudes – and by bad science based on cultural attitudes, providing a depressing feedback loop. She certainly makes a forceful case for it, showing how so much of the data in this area has been cherry-picked or unreasonably extrapolated from studies on rats. Essentially, for the vast majority of children, how they are raised and educated and the cultural expectations they are born into are of much greater importance for their psychological development than the amount of testosterone they were or were not exposed to in the womb.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that while she might be characterised by some (though not as far as I’m aware by herself) as a ‘feminist scientist’, if only because she’s female and a scientist and taking on gender stereotyping, she’s not so much riding to the rescue here of girls, as boys.

The biggest losers as a result of latter-day ‘neurosexism’ aren’t the girls who are discouraged from being physically adventurous by their over-protective mothers, or tacitly persuaded that maths isn’t for them, but the boys who are talked to less than girls, left on their own longer and not expected to be interested in books. We can glean an idea of who is really losing out in the figures which show that boys are falling further and further behind girls at every level of education. It’s not so much that education has been ‘feminised’ as some would have it, it’s that education has been branded ‘not for boys’ by bad science and even worse popularisations of it.

The notion/prejudice that girls are ‘hardwired’ for communication and boys’ for aggression is doubtless very unfair indeed to girls – but it’s downright abusive for boys. Our assumptions that boys as a ‘species’ are ‘naturally’ much less empathetic than girls, less social, less literate, less sensitive – less ‘human’ in other words – are a self-fulfilling prophecy/nightmare.  Snips and snails…. Boys are, in effect, being ‘hardwired’ into failure by adult prejudice – and scientific hogwash.

Neuroscience has ended up saying some very strange, very damaging things about boys. Leading neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he’s the cousin of the other one) actually argues that autism is ‘an extreme form of maleness’, caused by exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone. Put another way, he’s in effect arguing that ‘normal’ maleness is a mild form of autism (rather like most of the novels of Nick Hornby). Dr Eliot does a particularly nifty job of dispatching this argument, concluding that far from being some kind of excess of maleness, we still just don’t know what causes autism.

But my favourite part of the book was this anecdote, used to illustrate how five-year-olds tend to define and enforce gender in a manner entirely consistent with the ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’ nursery rhyme:

Psychologist Sandra Bem cites a perfect example of such gender-defining stereotypes in the experience of her own son, Jeremy. She and her husband had gone to great lengths to raise their two children in a gender-neutral way, so when Jeremy announced one day that he wanted to wear hair slides to nursery school, she simply put them in his hair and let him go.  Expecting him to be teased, she was surprised that he said nothing about it when he came home that day. Later, however, she learned from his teacher that Jeremy had indeed been hounded by on boy, who kept asserting that Jeremy must be a girl “because only girls wear hair slides.”

“No,” Professor Bem’s well-taught son had countered, going on to insist that he was indeed a boy because he had “ a penis and testicles.”  To prove the point, Jeremy even pulled down his trousers.

But the other boy was not persuaded and replied: “Everyone has a penis; only girls wear hair slides.”

Given what Dr Eliot reports here about many of her colleague’s work, it’s difficult not to conclude that the ‘only girls wear hair slides’ bossy little boy is going to grow up to be a neuroscientist.

Waxing Desmond Morris

naked-man.jpg

By Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 21 Jan 2008)

Every child wants to be a zookeeper when they grow up. To run a place where everything is in its place, and has nothing to do but eat, shit and breed – to your timetable. Maybe it’s a yen for revenge on the parents who brought them into the world without asking their permission first, or maybe it’s just because children are all little dictators with a peaked-cap fetish.

Most though abandon these zoo fuehrer dreams when they actually grow up. Not so Desmond Morris. Impressively, this former curator of mammals at London Zoo, doesn’t make do with animals: with best-selling books such as The Naked Ape and Manwatching, this world-famous zoologist has managed to become head keeper at his very own human zoo.

And to be honest, the world evoked in his latest book The Naked Man, ‘a study of the male body from head to foot’, sounds like a place I’d quite like to visit – but only because I’m something of a nostalgic.

Morrisland isn’t just a zoo, you see. It’s also a historical theme park. In Morrisland, millions of years of evolution, red in tooth and claw, have brought us right up to… the suburban 1950s (the decade Morris graduated). In Morrisland ‘long-term pair bonding’ is the universal norm and there’s no need for a Child Support Agency or Asbos or turkey-basters since: ‘Powerful paternal feelings are unleashed the moment a human father holds his new baby in his arms and in the years ahead he will devote a great deal of time and attention to the rearing of his offspring.’

In Morrisland, where everything happens according to the zoo-keeper’s plan, women are 7 percent shorter than men so that their nose will reach inside a man’s hairy armpit, because sniffing his manly, rugged ‘pheromones’ makes her happy and want babies. And, of course, no Western man would shave his armpit. Only ‘members of the homosexual community or the bondage/sadomasochistic communities’ would do that.

By far the biggest attraction in Morrisland is sexual certainty. Within this fenced-off space the distinction between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, is unclouded by all those unnatural modern trends. ‘As nature intended’ is a favourite phrase, one which appears above the entrance gates. In Morrisland, men are men – and there’s a strict golf club dress code. ‘Acceptance of male earrings still tends to be limited to those worn by the younger, more flamboyant males, largely from the world of sport, music and showbusiness,’ you’ll be glad to hear. Male bracelets are simply effeminate. And men only shave their legs – ‘sacrificing their masculinity’ – to swim or cycle faster.

In today’s fallen world, an older man might be called a ‘slaphead’ by unruly yobs – but safe inside Morrisland you’ll find yourself properly respected: ‘it is obvious that baldness is a human display signal indicating male seniority and dominance. It typifies the virile older man…’ (There’s no author photo on the dust-jacket, but a quick Google search confirms that Desmond is completely ‘virile’.)

There is trouble in the Garden of Desmond, however. Apparently ‘A few men – narcissist or masochists – have opted for nipple rings.’ But at least it’s only ‘a few’ – and they’re all deviants. Meanwhile, serpent-like ‘Gay designers’ ‘ignoring male preferences’ attempt to introduce ‘effeminate new leg fashions’. Fortunately, these fashions prove as sterile as the gay designers themselves: ‘they may have looked amusing on the catwalk, but they have never made it to the high street. Crumpled trousers and grubby jeans still reign supreme in the world of the manly male.’

In Morrisland there does exist however something called a ‘‘six-pack’ chest’ – though ‘few are prepared to make the effort to create it.’ Perhaps because a ‘six-pack chest’ would require not just regular visits to the gym, but also substantial surgery.

Surprisingly, that terrifying 21st Century male phenomenon I’ve been blamed for siring myself – metrosexuals – are allowed in Morrisland. But only those whose heterosexuality is beyond question and ‘are well-known as tough, masculine sportsmen and as famous celebrities… so, for them to become fastidious and fashion-conscious creates no confusion.’ Well, that’s a relief.

Non-celeb metrosexuals don’t exist in Morrisland, because ‘if an unknown heterosexual male were to display over-groomed, narcissistic tendencies, his sexual preferences would be automatically misread by anyone who met him.’ Which would, it goes without Mr Morris saying, be the worst thing that could possibly happen to a man and would render him completely emasculated and ridiculous. ‘This limits,’ explains the human zoo-keeper, ‘the metrosexual category to famous celebrities who are already publicly recognised for their heterosexuality.’

Clearly, not many of those High Street sales of male cosmetics which have increased by 800% since the year 2000, have been made in Morrisland. Though I do worry that the cover model for Morris’ book, an anonymous, headless, naked, smoothly muscular, young male photographed from behind in that sensuous-shadowy advertising sex-object way – offering us his arse – has been bingeing on metrosexual products. I sincerely hope his heterosexuality is already very publicly recognised.

As you may have guessed, Mr Morris has a problem with homosexuality. Throughout his book ‘manly’ means ‘heterosexual’, unmanly means ‘homosexual’ – and vice versa.

But it’s not a personal problem, it’s a scientific one, you see. In a final chapter called ‘The Preferences’ devoted not in fact to the preferences but rather to explaining/pathologising male homosexuality, he writes, ‘Viewed purely from an evolutionary standpoint, there is only one valid biological lifestyle for the human male and that is heterosexual.’ In other words, evolution, like zoo-keepers, doesn’t like waste and wants you to reproduce early and often.

But I can’t help but wonder why, if God/Darwin/Morris didn’t want men to get shagged, why did he give them such itchy prostate glands? And if every sperm is sacred, why did he put their hands at crotch level?

Des’ explanation for exclusive homosexuality (exclusive heterosexuality needs no explanation apparently – and bisexuality isn’t discussed) is, like much else in his book, charmingly mid-Twentieth Century: at puberty some boys fail to move out of the long all-boy social phase of childhood – and also boy-boy ‘sex play’ – and switch into dating girls and home-making, because they have become ‘too attached’. I personally don’t mind the arrested development explanation of homosexuality: I think it rather romantic (like Morris, I attended a boy’s boarding school). I’m not entirely sure though that I’m that much more immature than someone who never gave up wanting to be a zoo keeper.

In conclusion, Morris makes a final impassioned plea for tolerance and acceptance of difference and human variety: ‘Isolating homosexuals as though they are members of some exclusive club does them no favours’.

So true. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the The Naked Male does. Morris’ human zoo separates ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’ with barbed wire – and electrifies the fence.

© Mark Simpson 2008

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