The topic of the differences in male and female’s brains and behaviour has triggered a succession of popular books over the last decade which has helped advance study into the area of human brain differences in relation to sex and gender. In a book review, published today in Biology of Sex Differences, authors Margaret McCarthy and Gregory Ball provide a critique of two recent publications, Rebecca J. Jordan-Young’s “Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences” and Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender"
The critics agree with aspects of both Jordan-Young’s and Fine’s approaches to questioning the translation of research in this field, but point out that there are areas of research that have not been properly represented. On discussion of Delusions of Gender for example, the authors explain how despite being sympathetic to Fine’s frustration with the unfounded claims for “hardwiring” of any sex difference in the human brain, she unfortunately “opts for throwing neuroscientists under the bus instead of directing her anger where it truly and deservedly belongs.”
One of McCarthy and Ball’s main points is that both books are limited to an extent in that they focus primarily on research on humans, a species in which it is often impossible to rigorously separate sex differences caused by biology or society. If the main question is whether sex differences (in cognition, etc.) are caused by differences in biology or environment, then studying this exclusively in humans will likely yield few firm answers. In contrast, the effects of biology are much more easily demonstrated in animals, and that research has important implications for humans.
After careful assessment of Brain Storm and Delusions of Gender, McCarthy and Ball conclude that encouraging the general public to be critical of overly simplistic views of complex subjects would of course be supported by any scientist and they applaud the authors in that regard. However, they advocate that the hard science be left to the experts: “Pendulums tend to swing widely before the inexorable progression to the center. Where that center will ultimately be is the critical issue and assuring it is appropriately balanced is in large part the responsibility of scientists who must continue to do innovative and useful research into the topic of sex differences in brain and behavior.”
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