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New insights into gendered brain wiring, or a perfect case study in neurosexism?

The latest neuroscience study of sex differences to hit the popular press has inspired some familiar headlines. The Independent, for example, proclaims that: The hardwired difference between male and female…

Male brains are, on average, larger than females but this doesn’t mean men are better at reading maps. Flickr/pedrosimoes7

The latest neuroscience study of sex differences to hit the popular press has inspired some familiar headlines. The Independent, for example, proclaims that:

The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are “better at map reading” (And why women are “better at remembering a conversation”).

The study in question, published in PNAS, used a technology called diffusion tensor imaging to model the structural connectivity of the brains of nearly a thousand young people, ranging in age from eight to 22.

It reports greater connectivity within the hemispheres in males, but greater connnectivity between the hemispheres in females. These findings, the authors conclude in their scientific paper,

suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex. Male brains are, on average, larger than females and a large brain is not simply a smaller brain scaled up.

Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimise energy demands, wiring costs, and communication times – there may physical reasons for different arrangements in differently sized brains. The results may reflect the different wiring solutions of larger versus smaller brains, rather than sex differences per se.

But also, popular references to women’s brains being designed for social skills and remembering conversations, or male brains for map reading, are utterly misleading.

In an larger earlier study (from which the participants of the PNAS study were a subset), the same research team compellingly demonstrated that the sex differences in the psychological skills they measured – executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition – are almost all trivially small.

Biological sex is a dismal guide to psychological ability. Karel Seidl

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.

Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.

As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all.

Yet the authors describe these differences as “pronounced” and as reflecting “behavioural complementarity” – scientific jargon-speak for “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”. Rather than drawing on their impressively rich data-set to empirically test questions about how brain connectivity characteristics relate to behaviour, the authors instead offer untested stereotype-based speculation. Even though, with such considerable overlap in male/female distributions, biological sex is a dismal guide to psychological ability.

Also missing from the study is any mention of experience-dependent brain plasticity. Why?

As prominent feminist neuroscientists have noted, the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces.

Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.

This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.

These characteristics of the PNAS study are very common in neuroscientific investigations of male/female sex differences, and represent two important ways in which scientific research can be subtly “neurosexist”, reinforcing and legitimating gender stereotypes in ways that are not scientifically justified. And, when researchers are “blinded” by sex, they can overlook potentially informative research strategies.

The study did not find evidence that women’s brain wiring was linked to their ability to nurture. Flickr/shootingjaydred

Returning to the popular representations, we can now see a striking disconnect with the actual data. The research provides strong evidence for behavioural similarities between the sexes. It provides no evidence that those modest behavioural sex differences are associated with brain connectivity differences. And, it offers no information about the developmental origins of either behavioural or brain differences.

Yet, the popular press presents it as evidence that “hardwired” sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. While this is tediously predictable, what is more surprising is for a study author to push along such misinterpretations, claiming to have found evidence for “hardwired” sex differences, and suggesting that this might explain behavioural sex differences not actually measured in the study, such as in “intuition” skills “linked with being good mothers”.

In the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, co-authors Rebecca Jordan-Young, Anelis Kaiser and Gina Rippon and I argued that scientists investigating sex differences have a responsibility to realise “how social assumptions influence their research and, indeed, public understanding of it.” We then called on scientists working in this area to:

recognise that there are important and exciting opportunities to change these social assumptions through rigorous, reflective scientific inquiry and debate.

The continuing importance of this message is only reinforced by this latest case study in how easily scientific “neurosexism” can, with a little stereotype-inspired imagination, contribute to inaccurate and harmful lay misunderstanding of what neuroscience tells us about the sexes.

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  1. Bruno De Villenoisy

    logged in via Facebook

    This is a great rebuttal that I feel still leaves the question of gender difference in brain structure open. If I have understood the argument,well, the social context of brain development after birth influences the biological development of a brain, therefore difference in gendered social activities may explain difference in brain structure between men and women. It could be perhaps possible to study brain development and structure before birth so that the influence of gendered activities is neutralized. That could be interesting, but what would be the point? If nurture has a such powerful influence on nature, it becomes in effect nature.

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    1. Rachael Louise Young

      Student

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Hi Bruno, I think your are spot on regarding the point that due to neuroplasticity, in the end, nurture in effect becomes nature. I hope I've understood you well by thinking that you feel it is of little importance for scientists to say that what they see in the brain is nurture because in fact in the end it manifests as physical, nature in our brain? If this is indeed your point, I feel it's important to note that while yes, nurture becomes nature in a sense, without explicitly making this distinction and thus failing to draw attention to the external socialization factors which lead to this end point, there is a danger that people then see these differences between men and women as essential features of our sex. That is, we are just born different. Obviously the problem with this is that the myriad sexist stereotypes about men and women can be left unquestioned and accepted as just innate differences.

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      "Obviously the problem with this is that the myriad sexist stereotypes about men and women can be left unquestioned and accepted as just innate differences."
      And perhaps even more people are not even slightly fussed by that. All the people I know ringing their hands over whether it is even worth having the words "gender" and "sex" any more, or whether anyone has to right to tell you, your chromosomes are XX, every single one of them is an anxious mess. And very boring. They think they are living…

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      I am way out of my depth in areas such as this, but it does appear that for an area that has very little quantifiable data, many people has definitive opinions. Which is not a negative thing, but surely in this area anything is possible until proven otherwise.

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    4. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Stephen, it is the public school's and university Arts departments. What else are they going do with all these kids from the lower academic end, who have spilled into the universities with free "demand-driven" admissions? Indulge their narcissism. Feed them a diet of identity politics, pop culture, gossip, propagandise them to think their great-parent's race is the core of THEIR identity, that they live in a scary world of 'rape culture' and 'misogyny', and 'homophobia', and 'Islamophobia', and 'colonizers…

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    5. Bruno De Villenoisy

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      I understand your essentialist concerns, but to a certain extend they transcend the gender debate. The same issues have been raised bout the nature mental illness in the past. The bigger point is that we shouldn't be afraid to point out individual differences and understand their roots without the fear that it will be instrumentalize by people who want to promote stereotypes. We are all individuals, but within the framework our own biological make up.

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    6. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Another world really..........

      but the bottom line is the actuality of gender differences.
      That is an interesting area in an academic sense - but only if it can help bridge a gap in men & women understanding each other better.
      Certainly not if it's just dry academic wankery.

      Some couples manage to find an almost immediate synergy that remains for life. Other couples may find love, but the relationship is fractious at best, violent at worst.

      Despite your comments, the issues could offer insight into the old age problem of men & women and the rocky road to compitability.

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    7. Rachael Louise Young

      Student

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      I certainly agree that being able to publish results that aren’t politically correct without fear is important, however this a tiresome and very typical criticism of ‘us stereotypists’ and it’s the good ol’ straw-man fallacy of argument, which misrepresents our actual position and than attacks it. We are not against the publishing of sex differences in the brain, we are against poorly conducted science and over-extrapolated claims which are often deeply inaccurate and sometimes downright fictitious…

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    8. Stavros Karageorgis

      Sociology Lecturer

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      What does "gender difference in brain structure" mean? Based on my understanding of "gender", connecting "gender" with "brain structure" does not compute.

      The 'operation' of gender may epigenetically alter the "brain structure" of individual male and female human beings.

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    9. Richard Sands

      Researcher

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Rachael, I do not feel this current paper has deeply flawed methodologies. Nor do I feel typical studies in this field employ deeply flawed methodologies. We must be careful not to over-interpret studies like these. Many of the comments made about the paper in the blog post are valid. The study is very limited, and many opportunities to explore the ramifications of the results are not undertaken by the authors. But as a self-contained study on network characteristics, the paper contributes to…

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    10. Richard Sands

      Researcher

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Stavros, gender in this context refers to whether or not a person identifies themselves as male or female. While many of the behaviours and qualities associated with gender are social constructs (E.g. Pink is a girl colour), gender identity itself is believed to be biological, at least to an extent, and lots of research into gender dysphoria involves looking at how the brain and the body can sexually diverge even before birth.

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    11. Rachael Louise Young

      Student

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Richard, I do appreciate and agree with most of your comments however I would like to clarify that I never said that THIS paper has deeply flawed methodologies. I don’t have the academic background to navigate the neuro-scientific terminology or advanced statistics in this article to make such a claim, especially with only a bachelor level of psychology under my belt. What I did say about this particular study is that the claims are blown out of all proportion. This was referring to the media’s gross…

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    12. Richard Sands

      Researcher

      In reply to Bruno De Villenoisy

      Thanks for the reply. Such comments from one of the authors (which I had not been previously aware of), are indeed very silly. If I were to play devils advocate, I would say that such comments still don't amount to gender essentialism, as the positive correlation of such stereotypes with neural networking could be due to cultural pressures and neural plasticity. In the paper itself, the authors remark (albeit briefly) that previous studies show behaviour can stem from cultural roles and influences…

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  2. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    Hi Cordelia, great article that looks at issues from both cultures - science and humanities. I haven't dipped into neuroscience for a while, so could you fill me in on what the latest thoughts on corpus callosum. When I was studying, the dominant view was a gendered difference in width, though some new research was finding no difference in width, while others finding gay male brains with similar corpus callosum widths to straight women. The only reason I ask is that the corpus callosum bulb lit up…

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  3. Kris Rogers

    Biostatistician

    This is quite an interesting article, and must have one of the largest sample sizes to date in this type of research. It may be due to the editorial constraints of PNAS, but I was very disappointed that we were given no information on the magnitude of the differences between genders in these network measures, or any indication of the variance or distribution of these in their sample. Most of t-statistics were around 5-6 which could reflect relatively minor, but systematic differences between genders, much like the the article on psychological skills this research group produced earlier.

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    1. Stavros Karageorgis

      Sociology Lecturer

      In reply to Kris Rogers

      When you (and many others) write "the differences between genders", what do you actually have in mind? If you were to (perhaps annoyingly and wordily) avoid short-hands, what would you (plural) have written or said instead?

      Do "a gender" or "(the) genders" refer to "paper classes" (i.e. aggregates of individuals on the basis of analytical categories) or to something else?

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    2. Kris Rogers

      Biostatistician

      In reply to Kris Rogers

      For this context I was thinking along the same lines of the paper (the sex difference in the network measures).

      I do appreciate that sex (male and females) or gender (men and women) are labels. In most of the research I do these would be self-identified labels - although in most cases we do only give people a dichotomous choice.

      That's why I think think it would have been informative to show the variation within the 'labels' in the PNAS paper - I suppose one way of thinking about this, is given a set of these brain network measurements, how reliably could you predict whether the individual was (or identified etc.) as a man or a woman.

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  4. Rachael Louise Young

    Student

    Thank you Cordelia for coming to the rescue as a result of yet another neuroscientific study which has been blown out of all proportion and used as an excuse to justify regular tired old sexist stereotypes. Like you said this is all very tedious, and personally I think it does such harm, I just wish it would end.

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  5. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    Thank you!!!

    As a neuroscientist I read those news reports with dismay, which turned to frustration that such poorly simplistic press releases always dominate the 'dissemination' of science, to dismay that the researchers themselves could oversimplify to such a great extent and state some of things they have, to thinking 'this is all most people will remember, some news item about scientists discover hard-wired brain differences'... and all this ended with a profound sense of depression…

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  6. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    Sometime ago Henrietta Vanechop recommended a book called "Brain Sex" by Anne Moir, Ph.D. and David Jessel - published nearly 15 years ago.

    It more or less covers these issues, so this is not so new.

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  7. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    Is there any difference between lesbian and hetero sexual women and gays and hetero sexual men when it comes to this sort of research.

    Are lesbians and gays wired the same as hetero sexuals

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    1. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Not really, just wondering when this gender obsession of "academic researchers", will one day come to a conclusion that it is these "gender researchers" who are not quite wired corrctly

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    2. Stavros Karageorgis

      Sociology Lecturer

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Does not your question assume that "homosexual" and "heterosexual" are classifications of human beings that make sense and are legitimate for "this sort of research"?

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    3. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Not at all, all this so called gender research has gone completely bonkers, what if they would do all this type of "research" based on race?

      You have everyone screaming racism or Nazi racial experiments

      So why just gender?

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    4. Richard Sands

      Researcher

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Gender categories as a basis for these types of research has great exploratory potential, and has been key in the discovery of how the brain functions in a variety of areas, from pain regulation, to the generation of neural tissue, to the impact of brain-damage and neurological disorders on the nervous system.

      None of this, of course, implies men or women are inherently better at sophisticated tasks and cognition. But it is important to reserve the right to perform these kinds of studies.

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    5. Rachael Louise Young

      Student

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Excellent question Rene. And ironically, or perhaps not, the very same methods which were used to scientifically 'prove' the inferiority of black people (obviously we know now this is untrue and utterly appalling) ie., measuring the size of the corpus callosum, are still used by scientists researching sex differences in the brain.

      Essentially you make a good point, and if we could imagine such a nightmare -that scientists were measuring innate brain differences that could explain superior abilities among racial groups- I imagine we would reject this endeavour or at worst call for more stringent methodological and scientific practices to be upheld considering the obvious ethical implications of such research. But no, when it's gender, we widely accept substandard science and journalism when the consequences are arguably as dire.

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  8. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Rachael Louise Young

      Student

      In reply to Roger Lane

      Interestingly enough you will find that Cordelia Fine didn’t at all start her career from the position she takes today. In fact, she herself states that she was initially interested in the idea of sex differences (as a parent) and was not at all against this notion (as much as she isn’t now), however when she looked into the research as a fascinated neuroscientist she simply found that things didn’t add up. She found major flaws in methodology and interpretations and was, as she is today, simply combatting against ‘bad science’. I’ve seen the arguments and counterarguments get batted back and forth from one side of this debate to the other and I find that if anyone has put themselves in a position to be accused of being blinded by their own ideology, it’s certainly not Cordelia Fine. Her methods and research are thorough and quite simply it adds up, that is, in my opinion of course…. ;).

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    2. Stavros Karageorgis

      Sociology Lecturer

      In reply to Roger Lane

      To answer your (loaded) question: No, this is not simply a case of Dr. Fine being unable to accept contradictory evidence "into her theory" (what ever accepting contradictory evidence into one's theory (of what?) actually means).

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    3. In reply to Roger Lane

      Comment removed by moderator.

    4. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Roger Lane

      All science is an interpretative exercise. Don't kid yourself Roger.

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    5. In reply to Roger Lane

      Comment removed by moderator.

  9. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    Unfortunately, the piece isn't up to using the two cultures at the same time. There is are a hell of a lot of uncritically accepted mush from the Culture/Gender/Rhetoric Studies department: "scientific neurosexism can, with a little stereotype-inspired imagination, contribute to "inaccurate and harmful lay misunderstanding of what neuroscience tells us about the sexes"? Really? Harmful for the "lay" folk? And perhaps the fine doctor might take her own medicine:
    "Gina Rippon and I argued that scientists investigating sex differences have a responsibility to realise “how social assumptions influence their research and, indeed, public understanding of it.”'

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    1. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      The fact is Andy that you are a lay person. The evidence for this is contained within your comment. You have not understood the article or the "rich data" and what is more, you are not qualified. If or when you become qualified I for one would be pleased to have a discussion with you.

      Until then, your troll-like snipes are not acceptable.

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    2. Greg Woodward

      None

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Unfortunately Jena, it is you who have missed the point. While not supporting, or otherwise, what Andy said, it is most important that you, with all your qualifications, communicate effectively with the likes of Andy, me, lay people and your ilk. Only by making the science you study comprehensible to Andy, me, lay people, and your ilk, can we avoid the sensationalist media headlines that we all decry.

      Troll-like, or otherwise, snipes are not acceptable from you either.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Greg, Jena has no training in Science. I at least have a Science degree, and so can easily read, comprehend, and critique articles published in academic Psychology journals. Jena starts and finishes with rejecting "the privileged discourse of science" and its misogynist use of transphobic data. Or something.

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    4. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Dear Greg, As should be obvious to you now, Andy is not equipped to critique the article.

      Andy is receiving from me, this once, something that he/she doles out as a matter of course to all and sundry. Best not to be duped or become Andy's dupe.

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    5. Greg Woodward

      None

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Jena, It is becoming apparent to me that you do not have the comprehension skills necessary to engage in any debate. I shall reply in point form so that you can more easily understand what it is that I am writing.
      One: I am not Andy's dupe and I resent your implying that I could be.
      Two: I read your self proclaimed profile and it seems that despite your doctorate you are not a scientist either (whether Andy is or not).
      Three: I originally wrote that you did not seem to understnad what was being…

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    6. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Rationalising your decision to be a dupe does not make it disappear. It's done now. Ho hum.

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    7. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      A science degree = a basic and foundational course of receptive learning, not research.

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    8. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Yes. Post-modern deconstructionists are schooled in people like Foucault, Derrida, and Butler. These are literary types, and are not biologists or anthropologists. Foucault et al. are all about textual deconstruction, and do not engage in empirical analysis and data collection. Therefore, they have little to teach us in this area.

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    9. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Stuck in the same groove are we Thomas? I suspect that you know nothing about the post-modern dilemma/condition (Lyotard) the archaeology of thought (Foucault) the nature of representation (Derrida) and/or the relation between the development of the political subject/citizen and socio-political hegemony (Butler).

      If this is NOT so, please provide us with an explication of each and a critique. Simply trashing a few names and a branch of philosophy that you truly do not understand will not cut it any longer.

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    10. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      You again skirt around the issue. You know I am correct that Foucault, Derrida, and Butler are not biologists or anthropologists and therefore do no engage in empirical analysis. They therefore have little to teach us in this area.

      Derrida has nothing to teach us whatsoever. His whole point was that there is no point. To make a point is to become political and therefore an essentialist and totalitarian. He attempted to avoid making a point at any cost, because that would just make him a Nazi…

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Parag Jasani

      Yes, "design" precedes "creates" or "produces". We might say ants create/build/produce an ant hill, but surely they can't be said to have "designed" that ant hill, in the way an architect designs a building. Then again, given the consistency of those same types of ants building the same types of ant hills, when faced with the same sorts of conditions and materials, we really need to be thinking about what is going on before the active producing/building/creating stage.

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  10. Alan Donnelly

    logged in via Facebook

    "One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex. " So - run the tests again with some big women and small men?

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  11. Kim Wallen

    logged in via Facebook

    Dr Fine raises a number of important points, but ultimately fails to make the case why the differences reported (not the interpretation of the differences) are not of interest and valuable. She raises the issue that the neural organization differences may reflect structural constraints in relation to brain size as is this therefore negates the sex difference in organization. While she is correct that comparing males and females with comparable sized brains might point us to the mechanism of the…

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  12. Susan Grimsdell

    retired

    Andy says: "And perhaps even more people are not even slightly fussed by that. All the people I know ringing their hands over whether it is even worth having the words "gender" and "sex" any more, or whether anyone has to right to tell you, your chromosomes are XX, every single one of them is an anxious mess. And very boring." Andy, the reason that people are concerned is that this kind of pseudoscience justifies women being paid less, having to do more than a fair share housework and child-rearing, which in turn limits the progress of their career, if they manage to have a career at all, being less respected in every way, having to swallow down some "scientific" article telling them they can't read maps when they have a PhD in geography for example. You find people who are concerned about those inequities boring. I suppose you would prefer we'd just shut up and get back in the kitchen.

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Susan Grimsdell

      "I suppose you would prefer we'd just shut up and get back in the kitchen."
      Bit of a loaded question to be me asking me Susan. I have just put the kids down for their nap, and am in the kitchen cutting vegetables and making pastry for tonight's dinner. The missus swears she'll be home from work at 6.30 sharp. But as she's on call, who knows?

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Susan Grimsdell

      But I will say one thing, if I had my choice, I would not choose my wife to spend any time in our kitchen, as she is a lousy cook. And a worse ironer!

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  13. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    If there is a demonstrable difference in behaviour between men and women that is consistent and non-erasable by upbringing than this is hardwired from birth. Either way, it is a moot point because if men and women exhibit different but consistent behaviour than their brains are different. As behaviour stems ultimately from the brain than it is no great leap to conclude that the wiring of men's and women's brains IS different. It is whether there is consistency in the wiring is the issue (within the gender), I suppose.

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    1. Greg Woodward

      None

      In reply to Citizen SG

      The word you want is "then" not than. Makes more sense that way and I am more prepared to consider the merit of your argument than otherwise.

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    2. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Thanks for the non-contribution to the substance of my argument, then.

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    3. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Citizen SG

      "Citizen SG'' - there is an inherent problem with the concept of ''upbringing''. Our ''nurture'' (in the sense that it shapes us) occurs not only from our parents but from the whole world around us. The social concepts of maleness and femininity are everywhere - from the pink vs blue baby clothes and toys to the different-shaped bikes and certainly all through clothing. The way we are moulded relates to all we see around us.

      Nor is that socialisation irreversible. It is perfectly possible to be raised tightly within a stereotype but to escape from it by choice in adulthood - whether that be ''girlish'' or ''masculine''.

      Having said that, there are clearly two bell-curves of people with ''feminine'' and ''masculine'' characteristics, with a big overlap in the middle.

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    4. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Yep,
      My comment was not really pertaining to gender roles and whether they are hardwired or not, merely that there is a structural difference, whether it has been detected thus far or not. The question is whether there is an identical neuronal correlate in all male brains (or rather all brains with a masculine behavioural phenotype) or whether those neuronal structures (or wiring) are individual.
      I'm not suggesting that there is some kind of 'male lobe' or 'female lobe' in the brain merely that there is a neuronal structure or structures that manifests as gendered behaviour. It would be interesting if an identical site or neuronal structure existed in males/females with typically gendered behaviour.

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Citizen SG

      "Having said that, there are clearly two bell-curves of people with ''feminine'' and ''masculine'' characteristics, with a big overlap in the middle."
      Sue while I doubt it's actually a "bell" curve, your broader point of distinct intra-sex distributions/patterns/endowments is correct. But also multidimensional (individuals lie on different parts of the different curves on all phenotype, trait, whatever). Your other point about the big overlap is just as important. That is, the differences *within…

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Citizen SG

      "Our ''nurture'' (in the sense that it shapes us) occurs not only from our parents but from the whole world around us"
      Including our babies. Nurture is not all one way.
      "The social concepts of maleness and femininity are everywhere"
      So are males and females.

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  14. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    Well, how does human neuroanatomy compare with that of other species, say primates, or even dogs. In them, we do see significant sex differences in behaviour, and no doubt in detailed neural connections (although I haven’t chased up such studies). Do they distinguish between juvenile males and females in their cultures?
    There are obvious anatomical differences between human males and females, and these clearly relate to fundamental biology, one acting as sperm donor, the other as foetal incubator…

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  15. Zoe Brain

    logged in via Facebook

    There's a number of confounding factors to the idea that there are male brains and female brains.

    First, it's all statistical. Men are taller than women - but some women are above average height, some men shorter. Same sort of deal.

    Second, the brain is a complex structure, many parts are sexually dimorphic, but someone can be more M in some areas, more F in others, and there are degrees.

    Third, while the bits we're talking about are not neuroplastic, other sexually dimorphic areas are…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Zoe Brain

      But men are different from women - so what gives?
      It has to be something.
      Some are more different, some less.

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    2. Zoe Brain

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Zoe Brain

      And there's overlap.

      Some men are closer to a female norm than a male one, some women closer to a male norm than a female one.

      More common is that some men are closer to a female norm in some areas, far closer to a male norm in others, and some women are closer to a male norm in some areas, far closer to a female norm in others.

      There are people, both men and women, whose psychology is such that you can't tell which group they belong to, looking at that alone.

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Zoe Brain

      And naturally as stereotypes evolve, so people are marginalised or persecuted,

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  16. Jena Zelezny

    research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

    For those who do not accept that neuro-science alone can approach a reasonable answer to the question of whether there is a difference between the brains of males and the brains of females, I recommend taking an alternative tack, and there are many from which to choose.

    It seems to me that there are factors that influence the training of the brain and as with other organs and muscles of the body that training changes the shape and functioning of the muscle/organ. Apart from training there are…

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    1. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Post-modern deconstructionist theories possess the belief that because there is fluidity of behaviour, therefore biology plays no part. This is a non-sequitur - it does not follow.

      Behaviour and language are already manifestations of biological processes. Biological processes precede the language games played by deconstructionists. Language doesn't come into being before the body and all its inner workings; rather, bodily functions exist primarily, then language comes into being and is a manifestation of these bodily functions.

      Post-modern deconstructionists have put the cart before the horse.

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    2. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Post-structuralists do not "possess" a belief system as an analytical framework Thomas and you would know this if you bothered to educate yourself or avail yourself of the education system. Even yr 12s get an introduction to post-modernism and post-structuralism these days (since about 1995 I think) therefore there is no excuse for you.

      With regard to language and bodily functions, yes language is an acquired skill. But en-cultured behaviours exist before any one of us is born.

      My point was/is…

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    3. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      You're skirting around the issue. Regardless of enculturation and language, there are biological processes of the body that no amount of deconstruction can avoid acknowledging if it is honest with itself. Factors like blood pumping through the body, the sex drive, hunger, pain, pleasure and other sensations exist. We can try to mess around with the language, deconstruct it, subvert it or whatever, the fact remains that the body does what it does regardless of how we interpret it through language. We could signify these phenomena with different signifies and alter their meanings, but this again is just another manifestation bodily processes. You have incorrectly reversed cause and effect.

      Additionally, it is incorrect the claim post-structuralists have no "analytical framework". They all have their point of departures on how to analyse phenomenon, or should I say "text".

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    4. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      That's not an argument, Jena.

      As long as deconstruction fails to engage with its interlocutors it will remain an intellectual ghetto that has no relevance outside the academics that study it.

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    5. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      This is a foolish and ridiculous statement Thomas. Deconstruction as a term has entered the language and is used/misused frequently. I believe the concept is familiar to graduates in media and is an analytical tool for analysts even on the Gruen Transfer.

      There is, however, no definitive way of using deconstruction and each theorist/philosopher chooses his/her own method. Readings that are deconstructions provide insight in to the credibility of bald statements, contradictions, structural analyses…

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  17. Andrew Kewley
    Andrew Kewley is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Student

    The part that I find strange is the conclusions. The discussion of the study is biased in the typical way of scientific studies - over emphasising the differences, while ignoring the similarities.

    If the headlines matched the evidence, we would not be reading "The picture that reveals why men and women's brains really ARE different: The connections that mean girls are made for multi-tasking" (DailyMail UK). Instead we should be reading "Male and Female brains far more similar than commonly believed".

    You can usually tell if a scientific finding is weak when the specificity and sensitivity of the method have not been tested.

    It still frustrates me when the headlines of news articles on scientific studies are not supported by the studies themselves.

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  18. Comment removed by moderator.