Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which honors the first computer programmer. The custom is to observe the day by writing about women you admire in the sciences or computing. This year, I have chosen to mention Cordelia Fine, whose book Delusions of Gender gave me a coherent argument for what I have always believed – that, contrary to the prevailing outlook the brains of men and women are largely the same.
I can’t remember a time I didn’t have this belief, but it received strong confirmation when I taught at university and dealt with several thousand students. However, it was Fine’s book that gave me the evidence and reasoned argument and turned the belief into an even deeper conviction.
To say the least, this conviction is a minority viewpoint. Modern alleged science is full of poorly designed research, and unsupported speculations about the differences between the sexes – to say nothing of Just So stories about pre-historic humans that are supposed to have implications for life today in the suburbs. All this mix is reported uncritically in the media to reinforce common stereotypes. Much of my pleasure in Delusions of Gender is Fine’s obvious delight in debunking such things with a combination of dry wit and thorough analysis, proving that most of the conclusions promoted by people like Simon Baron-Cohen (who actually reviewed the book), Leonard Sax, and John Gray are based on flawed experiments and is little more than a rationalization of conventional sexism – a logical fallacy based on an appeal to biological authority, although Fine never actually uses the term.
In particular, Fine discusses how differences in the organization of men’s and women’s brains are used as evidence that stereotypes about mental capacities. Her dissection is lengthy, but her basic point is simple: how does anyone know that the physical differences translate into behavioral differences and limitations? There is no mechanism for this translation – it is simply assumed. Yet, by contrast, when people are brain-damaged, and one part of the brain takes over the functions of another, nobody automatically assumes a similar translation. In the end, Fine condemns such views as the modern descendant of discredited views such as phrenology and cranial capacity as determinants of behavior. She calls this assumption “neuro-sexism.”
Fine also provides the answer I had been waiting for to those well-meaning parents who insist that gender must be biological, because their children are showing stereotypical behavior. Fine’s answer is that the reinforcement of stereotypes is unconscious, even among those who try to avoid them. In fact, stereotyping is so prevalent that expectant parents who learn the sex of their offspring before birth immediately start referring to him or her in traditional masculine and feminine ways. Under these circumstances, a biological explanation is unwarranted – it simply fits into people’s conventional ways of thinking.
Currently, the biological determinists prevail in our cultural, along with their sub-text that there is not much we can do about gender differences. By contrast, Fine makes the case for environmental differences, which means that change is possible. The first time I read Delusions of Grandeur, my reaction could be summarized as, “Finally!” and I continue to regard Fine as a voice of sanity. and scientific reasoning.