Science has tried for centuries to prove that men’s brains are different from women’s. A new book takes a withering look.
By Laura Miller
Sept 23, 2019
Sarcasm is a rare and underappreciated mode in science writing, which tends toward wonderstruck lyricism or, when the situation demands it, sober concern. But sarcasm is exactly the tone called for when your subject is centuries of flimsy scientific research designed by men to “prove” that you, and 50 percent of the human population, are inferior. Of all the bracing virtues in Gina Rippon’s Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, Rippon’s sarcasm is surely the most savory. Rippon, a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in the U.K., argues that the extent and significance of the biological differences between the brains of men and women have been greatly exaggerated by generations of scientists and, especially, by the popular press. In recent years, developments in her own discipline, particularly fMRI imaging, have been used to bolster pronouncements about the inherent distinctions between the “male” and “female” brain, even when the evidence for such conclusions is rickety. This ticks Rippon off.
Her response is to dissect the shortcomings of these various studies with a withering, pragmatic scorn that reads a bit like a secretly recorded trash-talking session in a lab break room. And Rippon has plenty of grist for her mill. Going all the way back to the 18th century, when science began to replace scripture as the preeminent authority for many Westerners, Rippon describes how researchers began looking to the brain to justify the different social roles assigned to men and women and the behaviors encouraged in each. She calls this approach “an area of entrenched opinion” that “has been the ongoing focus of just about every research discipline from genetics to anthropology, mixed with history, sociology, politics and statistics.” The scientists who produced this work started with an assumption (that women and men have distinct destinies as ordained by nature, rather than God) and set out to find the evidence to prove it. Lo and behold, they discovered just what they were looking so hard for—except when they didn’t and had to hurriedly change the rules.
Brain size was a key focus of this theoretical fancy footwork. Men, on average, have larger brains than women, and this was deemed to be the source of men’s obviously superior mental abilities. However, it turned out that brain size varies with body size, and, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, “a tall and large-boned man must on this showing be wonderfully superior in intelligence to a small man and an elephant and a whale must prodigiously excel mankind.” Attempts to adjust the comparison for variations in body size, as Rippon relates, “didn’t come up with the ‘right’ answer either.” By such calculations, the Chihuahua, whose brain is enormous relative to its body, should be the most intelligent breed of dog. (“This is known in the business as the Chihuahua paradox,” writes Rippon, in just one of many quips that make an endearingly dorky counterpoint to her disdain for poorly conducted research and slanted conclusions.)
Women weren’t the only people targeted by this sort of research. In the late 19th century, a property called “orthognathism,” which could be judged by the angles in a human profile, was seized upon to prove that European males were superior in intelligence to central Africans, who were in turn better than orangutans. Then, disaster struck: “Women, on average, turned out to be more orthognathic than men,” Rippon reports. But “fortunately, help was at hand”: An anatomist figured out that children, too, had exaggerated orthognathism, demonstrating that women were actually just overgrown kids. Crisis averted! In one particularly embarrassing 19th-century incident, a sophisticated volumetric formula was used to calculate the skull capacity of students of both genders, as well as 35 leading members of the Anatomical Society in Dublin. But (oops!) several of the anatomists turned out to have relatively diminutive brain pans. “The discovery that these eminent men’s heads were on the smaller side,” Rippon writes, “magically created a large number of instant converts to the conclusion that linking skull capacity to intelligence was obviously ludicrous.”
Continue reading at: https://slate.com/culture/2019/09/gender-and-our-brains-gina-rippon-review.amp