April 1, 2011
More on Races, Genders, and Brains
Reading Cordelia Fine’s most excellent work of popular neuroscience, Delusions of Gender, reminds me once again of the importance of opposing the reactionary scientism that has taken hold in increasingly large sections of the population.(1) This way of thinking manifests itself in a revival of many old stereotypes, clichés and damaging rigidities of cultural and social roles that once seemed on the verge of eradication, but are now back in vogue. What has given them a new lease on life is the supposed support they have in intuitive appeals to scientific knowledge and the bamboozling use of neurology, sophisticated statistical testing, and social psychology in order to underpin them. In the New Left period of Western politics it was seen as obvious that we would soon not only do away with racist and sexist structures and beliefs in our society, but overcome gender and race as parts of our conceptual apparatus altogether. Now very few indeed seem still to be interested in such a proposition of politics or even to deem it feasible. This is because the great counterrevolution in the West from the 1980s to now has been accompanied not only by a new pseudoscientific orthodoxy in economics and statecraft, but also in ideas about cultural norms and roles. ‘Scientific racism’, once seemingly utterly banished, is now making a creeping revival, and ‘scientific’ sexism is sold everywhere in mass market paperbacks. Few on the left, even in the radical parties and groups, make any real attempt at countering this or even providing a serious analysis of the arguments at hand. Instead, the focus is all too often on the outward sexist appearances of certain religious or cultural practices. This is justified enough of itself, but we must win the battle on all fronts, and that includes dispelling certain important ‘intuitions’ many people, even the middle class intelligentsia, now (again) have about gender and race.
There are several kinds and versions of this. The most noxious and probably still the least publicly accepted one is ‘scientific racism’, in which differences (particularly in intelligence) are argued to inhere in races as we know them, which in turn is supposed to explain certain political and economic patterns prevailing worldwide. I have dealt with this at some length in an earlier post, Races and Brains, but it may be worth doing a brief summary of why such conceptions are inane and damaging. Firstly, the intelligence measures used tend to be based on IQ tests, which are not actually tests of intelligence, but designed as tests for relative performance along a standard of mental ability in order to make differentiations in the mentally handicapped. Since they are ratios, the average is always 100; this is regardless of the performance of individuals or the entire population over time, which, as shown in my article, has gone up considerably over longer periods of time. It is therefore worthless as an absolute measure, let alone one of intelligence. Secondly, most of the tests done by the leading ‘scientific racist’, J.P. Rushton, were done on utterly spurious samples that had no relation whatever to the populations they were supposed to sample. But much more importantly, there is no intuitive reason to believe that intelligence or other such differences would inhere in racial distinctions in the first place. Our idea of who belongs to what race may seem at first glance to be immediate and obvious, but this is far from the case. As Noel Ignatiev has so well chronicled in his book How The Irish Became White, (Catholic) Irish in both the UK and the US were for the most part of the 19th century not considered to belong to the white race, the race of the Anglo (and French and German) peoples.(2) Neither, for that matter, were Finns and Lithuanians for a considerable amount of time. Only when these ‘races’ decided to participate in the suppression of the most oppressed ‘race’, the blacks, were they allowed to take up the lowest rungs on the ‘white’ racial ladder. Hence the Irish in particular have a nasty history in the US of racism against blacks, including the rebellion in New York City in 1863, during the Civil War, of conscripts refusing to fight to save black slaves (as they saw it). But indeed most people would agree that if it were solely a matter of judging the relative paleness of one’s skin color, the Irish and the Finns would be the most white of all the white race one could think of! Similarly, by such a paleness measure it is by no means clear why Italians and Greeks should be ‘white’ and yet, at times, light-skinned Arabs or Indians should not.
It has also often been argued that since there are physical differences that do seem to inhere in certain groups of people, this makes intelligence or other brain differences expressed in culture and society plausible. But this does not necessarily follow. Indeed certain subgroups of our species are more vulnerable to certain hereditary diseases than others. Indeed also certain subgroups have different physical structures, to some degree, than others; there is a clear overrepresentation of highly successful long-distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, and this may well have to do among other things with their seemingly relatively long legs and skinny build. But so what? When you think about it, it is not at all obvious why all manner of social and political and cultural conclusions should follow from this. After all, brown-eyed and blue-eyed people also have inherent physical differences in their genes, ones that are strongly hereditary; namely their eye color! Yet nobody has of yet divided up whole categories of races by this standard, or claimed that it must be ‘intuitive’ that if we differ by the color of our eyes, we probably differ by the content of our brains as well. It is this kind of ‘intuition’ that is created by racist patterns in our society and a history of oppression on the basis of racial categories, and it is this ‘intuition’ that we need to destroy and dispel. There is nothing intuitive about it: the Belgians, when they conquered Rwanda, split up the country into a ‘race’ of shepherds (Tutsi) and a ‘race’ of peasants (Hutus), on the kind of spurious physical characteristics so beloved of 19th century scientists. It hardly mattered whether one even was a shepherd or not. They then proceeded to place the Tutsi minority at the top of the hierarchy and the Hutus below (and the pygmy Twa people out of bounds entirely); the result is now familiar to all. Yet initially, there was virtually nothing in language, characteristics, or affiliation that differentiated them.(3) Even now, however, it has become a literal matter of life and death for the people of Rwanda whether or not they believe in such racial categories. This is how important it is to resist the logic of such ‘intuitions’.
For gender, too, many similar things have been argued. Eminent scientists like the Pinkers frère et soeur, Simon Baron-Cohen, and the economist Lawrence Summers have gotten into public controversy over claims as to innate differences between men and women’s brains that express themselves immediately in society. These differences would then conveniently explain why there is such underrepresentation of women in positions of power or in natural sciences (possibly overlapping categories in any case), and various folk psychological ideas, e.g. why men are bad at reading minds and women bad at reading maps. In the 1970s, such things would have been unequivocally seen as vulgarities from fossilized patriarchs by all educated people. Today, the situation is different, and this may have real consequences for the struggle against sexism. Cordelia Fine’s book is a long and in-depth chronicle of all the misrepresentations, shoddy studies, and inanities produced in order to find neurological origins for the differences between men and women. It goes too far to summarize the book entirely here; it is heartily recommended to read it instead. But I can summarize a number of the general themes of argument that again refute the apparent ‘intuition’ regarding these matters, even among the literati.
The first is that whatever the real neurological causes in the popular literature, and even some of the scientific literature, for the differences between men and women are deemed to be, they always conveniently happen to be those that suit whatever preconceived notions about gender roles people already have. The actual cause for the difference is sometimes seen in the size of the brain, then again in different hormonal quantities in utero, sometimes in the development of the frontal lobe, then again the parietal lobe, and so on and so forth; but invariably the scientific conclusion is inexorably that it follows from this that men are better at things that men dominate at that particular point in culture and time, and women good at whatever women’s roles are at the time. This itself varies as much as the supposed scientific explanations do. So while in 1900 science unfortunately proved that due to women’s underdeveloped brain size they would never be able to vote or hold intellectual positions without risk of real insanity, in 2011 science has unfortunately proved that due to different activity of the right premotor area of the brain, women are excellently suited to be professors of literature, but not at all to be engineers or do computer science. In the 1960s, of course, science knew just as strongly that women, with their aptitude for precision in secretarial work, would make great programmers (which were majority female at the time), but could not possibly be politicians. And so forth. This alone, completely aside from the technical merits of this or that study, should give any objective observer some serious pause. The intuition here, when understood rightly, is not that women are by genes or hormones inherently suited for this or that, but that researchers are looking for physical differences, any difference at all however small and insignificant, to hang on them the entirety of a very temporary and politically determined set of gender roles, as if they were some tiny coathanger holding a great many heavy robes of learning.
But what then of the observed lesser participation of women in such fields as maths and engineering, even with attempts made to recruit them? Here, the case is fairly simply answered, and in fact the parallels with the race-based argument are very strong. In both cases, it can first of all be demonstrably proven that the attempts to involve more women or minority ‘races’ into particular fields does work. While for example in the 1980s the ratio of boys to girls on the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth was 13:1, by 2005, after a long period of attempts by the US government (and many others) to draw more women into math and similar subjects, the ratio had plummeted to 2.8:1.(4) This is still bad, but a pretty significant change for something considered so innate and non-malleable! But what then of the remainder? Indeed with such transformations, it should become less plausible that they could not be reduced further, but what if we have reached the supposedly hardwired biological limits of female ability or interest? Much of this is explained by the fact of what social psychologists call ‘priming’. Many studies have shown that when women are asked to take part in a test together with men, and they are told that the test tests some field traditionally associated with male aptitude, when they are first reminded in some way of their womanhood – whether this be by having them check a box for gender on the test, or by mentioning women do worse than men on the test usually, or simply by having them be the only woman in the room – they will do significantly worse on the test than a control group that is not reminded of gender at all.(5) The same obtains for race, where black children perform worse on tests when in some way reminded of their identity as black than a control group not so ‘primed’ for blackness.(6) In fact, sometimes such oppressed identity categories, when primed as something other than those categories (for example instead being reminded of being students at a high-ranking college), perform much better than a control group.
The same has also been shown to hold for expressions of interest: when a computer science course recruiting room was dressed up in traditional male, ‘geeky’ attributes, such as junk food, male-oriented magazines, and a Star Trek poster, men with high previous interest were much more likely to want to take part in the course than women with high previous interest; but for the control group, with much more neutral dressing up of the room, there was no gender difference.(7) There are countless more such studies one could name, and yet these rarely make it into popular journalism, due to the revival of patriarchal ideology. In other words, how inviting a society is towards certain traditionally oppressed identities or groups for a particular role makes literally all the difference in their ‘free choice’ to choose to participate or even how they perform in ‘neutral’ standardized tests of merit. It should be clear that the intuition should always be that major differences in performance or participation by traditionally oppressed groups are not in ‘inherent’ aspects of brain or gene, but in how we as a society choose to structure, consciously or by subtle and implicit signs, the way in which we assign people certain roles and test them for it (the IQ test being no exception at all). Yet this is not the way it is often portrayed in the current counterrevolutionary period.
But what do we make then of evolutionary psychology? Doesn’t this show that the brain is hardwired in a certain way from our caveman period? Don’t our genes tell us that women want to be nurturers seeking out high-status men for their offspring, and men are competitive and therefore suited for aggressive tasks and roles? Again, often an appeal is made to our ‘intuition’ in this regard, in that because these are patterns we see sometimes in our current society, they must be innate. Not only is this itself an invalid maneouvre, but the scientific ideas behind it also do not hold up. The problem with this manner of thinking is, in fact, that it vastly underestimates humanity as a species. The sheer diversity alone of different roles and norms regarding gender, and even of the number of genders, in different societies should make us think again about what roles and patterns of behavior are ‘natural’ and to be expected of people of a particular one. Secondly, we should think about the difference between genetics and gene expression. The brain is not, as it is sometimes portrayed, a set of hardwired functions that we add new hardwired patterns to as we grow and experience things, with the oldest ‘core’ bits being there from the start and undeviatingly forcing us into certain instinctive behavior. While the brain may well come pre-equipped to some extent with certain functions, those are generally of a broad and flexible behavioral kind (one can think here of the ability to learn in general, or the ability to use any kind of language system). When you think about it in an evolutionary way, this makes much more sense than the caveman story: even if we knew what gender patterns were in the caveman period, which we do not and no evolutionary psychologist does either, evolution always favors flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances over rigidity. What we find therefore, when it comes to gender, is that for example among some ape species the brain is ‘hardwired’ to do whatever it needs to do for parenting depending on the role the animal is given; so that within the same species, with the same genes and the same hormones, in some tribes of a particular primate species the men did nurture and parent the children, whereas in others they did not. When the alpha male had decided, the lower males in the hierarchy of course soon followed, fitting themselves to the new gender role patterns.(8) The ability was always there, but whether it was exercised depended on something perilously close to primate culture.
More generally, the brain itself is powerfully capable of adaptation and is constantly in a state of flux and change. Like our societies themselves consist of our interactions with each other and the changes we make in it through these interactions and the contradictions they produce, so too with our brains. Our brains are not Platonists, that have given functions frozen forever in time and space from the moment of our birth. Our brains are rather Aristotelians; the brain has capacities which it can learn, and which exist as potentials, realized at particular times under particular circumstances. It is well known in biology that when one part of the human brain is damaged, over time other parts of the brain take over its functionings; there seems to be barely any limit to the brain’s ability to do this, given it has enough time to recover and the damage is not lethal in the first instance. This puts paid powerfully to the idea of the ‘modular brain’, on which all evolutionary psychological explanations of our ‘inherent’ roles rely: namely the idea that the brain comes with pre-set modules where part A of the brain corresponds with the ability to do X or the instinct to desire Y. Generally, our ever-increasing knowledge in neuroscience of the way in which the very physical matter and structure of the brain constantly changes and is changed by our environment, to which it adapts itself through learning and experience, shows that the idea of the ‘innate’, ‘natural’ brain freely interacting with an artificial environment is far off the mark. As Bruce Wexler has stated:
In addition to having the longest period [of all species] during which brain growth is shaped by the environment, human beings also alter the environment that shapes their brains to a degree without precedent among animals.(…) It is this ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alteration of the genetic code itself. This transgenerational shaping of brain function through culture also means that processes that govern the evolution of societies and cultures have great influence on how our individual brains and minds work.
To understand this precisely, it is important to note here the difference between the truism that environment and genes interact, with the genetic predisposition towards this or that gender role (or racial role) being triggered by a particular external cue, and the real way in which the brain works. The former is completely compatible with the massively modular view of the mind espoused by evolutionary psychology, since one can see it simply as an innate aspect of the brain that is triggered at a particular time in the developmental cycle; a time-bomb, as it were. Yet it is not so, because the brain is constantly sculpting and resculpting itself, focusing particular parts of the brain on particular tasks at a given time, and killing off neurons not used to replace them with others. As one undergoes new experiences, new roles and new challenges, the brain will as it were re-sculpt itself and give itself a new structure and a new ‘hardwiring’ to match these challenges. It is in this flexibility, the evolution of the brain within the individual during his or her lifetime, that the great power of our brains rests. As David Buller summarizes it:
Environmental inputs do not ‘trigger’ the addition or ‘appearance’ of various information-processing structures or ‘cue’ the development of their properties. Instead, during cortical development we find a diffuse proliferation of neural connections, which later brain activity, guided by interaction with the environment, sculpts into its ‘final’ form. Brain functions in infants are widely distributed across a variey of cortical areas, and as children mature some of these same functions become localized to particular structures. In this process, neurons compete with one another for the sort of information-processing structure they are going to be, and brain activity, guided by environmental inputs, determines which neurons win this competition(…). The processing roles of neurons are not laid down in advance by a ‘developmental program’ encoded in our genes.
(10) This is the real nature of our brains: not massive modularity, but neural plasticity. Our brains are not evolved to fulfill rigid roles from the Pleistocene, but are flexibly evolved to respond to new challenges that our labor and the structure of our societies throw up, and our individual brains have been adjusting themselves throughout the lifetimes of our generations to the changes that civilization has brought to them with little regard to the prejudices of patriarchal science. The environment has moulded, at all times moulds, and will continue to mould our brains as a response to the works of our own hand and mind. Or, as Friedrich Engels put it:
Mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labour, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown properties in natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. (…) First labour, after it and then with it speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which, for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect. Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments – the senses. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye discerns considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle. The dog has a far keener sense of smell than man, but it does not distinguish a hundredth part of the odours that for man are definite signs denoting different things. And the sense of touch, which the ape hardly possesses in its crudest initial form, has been developed only side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labour.
What does all of this matter? It matters for a number of reasons, that must now be clearly outlined. The first is that, as shown by the evidence on the exclusionary and performance-inhibiting effects of certain conscious and non-conscious priming, the degree of racism and sexism institutionally and structurally present in our societies has a real, measurable effect on the equality or lack thereof of such traditionally oppressed groups. The second is that for us to overcome this, it is clearly necessary to reject the ‘intuitive’ and pseudoscientific appeals to neurology, evolutionary psychology, and IQ tests to justify exclusions and existing exclusionary patterns for such groups. With the long history of attempts at finding differences that make a difference, always against an already oppressed group and always in favor of an already favored group, there is no reason to believe that neurosexism and Evo Psych will fare any better in hindsight than did phrenology, the study of facial angles, the study of brain weights, and so forth. Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most important point, a true overcoming of these obstacles in society requires more than a mere culture of so-called political correctness, important as it is. ‘Political correctness’ is exactly that, politically correct: not being denigrating or exclusionary to oppressed groups, as said before, is measurably significant in terms of their performance. Behavior contrary to ‘political correctness’ therefore not only is morally undesirable in a society of free and equal citizens, but also robs society of (some of) the potential and talents of often a majority of its members. This is in the interests of no-one.
But this of itself is not enough. The failed attempts at raising children in a ‘gender-free’ way, whereby the boys would inevitably sooner or later start associating with boy-associated toys and games etc., and girls with girl-associated ones, do not prove the inherent desires and abilities of boys and girls. What they prove is that gender roles are in fact so strongly ingrained in our society that children have been proven to be able to distinguish gender roles, even without explicit verbal indication of them by their parents or other adults, by their second birthday. However, when in experiments such gender indicators were reversed, children behaved according to the reverse roles; girls would play with pink hammers, boys with spiky Barbie dolls, and so forth.(12) It is therefore not enough to have an individualist, liberal approach to the matter. Neither individual good behavior, e.g. political correctness, nor individual attempts at parenting against the tide of gender roles will achieve much; it is precisely in the nature of these things, and what makes them so powerful that they seem innate, that such roles are constituted in and through society. What we require therefore is a societal approach that attempts to not just correct for existing racial and gender roles, but that at a social level overcomes the existence of such roles. Very often in science when we are presented with seemingly intractable dichotomies, the answer is not to choose to favor the one alternative over the other, but to recognize the contradictions inherent in both and to overcome the dichotomy by a synthesis at a higher level. This has sometimes been called dialectics, or to quote Engels again:
And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.
Whatever the case may be, this must be the right approach in the case of gender and race; until we abandon the new liberal counterrevolution and again take up the fight to abolish gender and race altogether, we will be faced with the virtually impossible task of having a few well-wishing individuals change a socio-cultural pattern as strong as the ages by their individual actions. We can do better than that. We need a revolution against race and gender, and against the fraud of patriarchy and racism masquerading as science.
1) Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender (London 2011).
2) Noel Ignatiev, How The Irish Became White (New York, NY 1995).
4) Fine, p. 181.
5) Fine, p. 30-31 and passim.
6) Christopher Jencks & Meredith Phillips, The Black-White Test Score Gap (New York, NY 1998), p. 419.
7) Fine, p. 46.
8) Fine, p. 126-128.
9) Bruce Wexler, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (Cambridge, MA 2006), p. 3-4.
10) David J. Buller & Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge, MA 2005), p. 135. Emphases in original removed.
11) Friedrich Engels, “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour/index.htm
12) Fine, p. 226-231.
13) Engels, op. cit.