BrainSex book cover

B.C. on Gender: The Great BrainSex Debate

The Real Difference Between Men and Women

Put simply: BrainSex, the book about gender differences between men and women, is a shameless example of editorialisation masquerading as science.

My History with BrainSex

Back when I used to participate on the Fidonet Gender conference, I met (electronically) Laura Masters, a Canadian TG who ran an organization called TransEqual. Laura, IMO, was an interesting character; she was a woman of strong opinion, and hotly argued her position. As became quickly clear, Laura was a firm believer in the BrainSex theory: a theory that states that:

Men are different than women. They are equal only in their common membership of the same species, humankind. To maintain that they are the same in aptitude, skill or behaviour is to build a society based upon a biological and scientific lie.

The sexes are different because their brains are different. The brain, the chief administrative and emotional organ of life, is differently constructed in men and women; it processes information in a different way, which results in different perceptions, priorities and behaviour."1

Of BrainSex, Laura wrote that it "offers the first perspective [on gender identity] that I can confidently support"2. How this theory works for TGs is that a male TG fetus supposedly develops in the same way as the non-TG female. M2F TGs have female brains, and vice versa. This is an attractive theory for TGs because it means that we were born that way, and therefore should not be discriminated against for having made "unnatural" choices. In fact, one could extend that logic and argue that TGism is "natural", but merely uncommon.

For my part, I'm suspicious of biological theories of difference; just because a difference is rooted in biology doesn't mean that the different group won't be discriminated against. For years, society has been using biological theories of the inferiority of women to deny them equal rights.3 Instead, I'm inclined to agree with Bearpaw MacDonald, who once said:

"Because it's right for me" should be no less valid a reason than saying "because I was born that way."

Nonetheless, what I find interesting about Laura Master's endorsement is that in her mind, BrainSex's theory about gender became synonymous with scientific truth. She writes:

Political leanings, feminism, and moral judgments have no place in the domain of scientific research. We must first discover the truth; we can sort out the social and political impact of it later.4

For her, science is a truth system and if feminism or politics influences it, it is to suppress the truth. She describes how "these intrinsic differences have become deeply closeted yet they are still there"5 and never bothers to think that "[w]hen scientists look to nature, they usually bring with them their sociopolitical beliefs about what is natural."6

Playing cards Playing cards Playing cards Playing cards Playing cards

Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling paints a remarkably different picture of science:

To be scientific is to be unsentimental, rational, straight-thinking, correct, rigorous, exact. Yet in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scientists have made strong statements about the social and political roles of women, claiming all the while to speak the scientific truth. [...] Furthermore, research about sex differences frequently contains gross procedural errors. In a 1981 article one well-known psychologist cited "ten ubiquitous methodological problems" that plague such work. The list contains striking erros in logic -- such as experiments done only on males from which the investigators draw conclusions about females, the use of limited (usually white, middle-class) experimental populations from which a scientist draws conclusions about all males or females. [...]

What is the untrained onlooker to make of all this? Are these examples of "science corrupted," as one historian has called the misrepresentation of women in scientific studies, or do such cases provide evidence for a rather different view of science -- one in which the scientists themselves emerge as cultural products, their activities structured, often unconsciously, by the great social issues of the day?7

What Dr. Fausto-Sterling suggests is not that feminism and political leanings are stifling scientists, preventing them from reporting the truth, but rather the opposite: that mainstream, non-feminist, supposedly apolitical culture has insideously biased the scientists. What does that tell us? She continues:

If science as an overall endeavor is completely objective and functions independently of the prevailing social winds, then scientists who commit gross errors of method and interpretation are simply bad at their jobs. The problem with this view is that flaws in research design often show up in the work of intelligent, serious men and women who have been trained at the best institutions in the country. By all conventional measures -- publication record, employment in universities, invitations to scholarly conferences -- they are good scientists. Here then, we face an apparent paradox. Some of the most recognized scientists in their fields have build a reputation on what other, myself included, now claim to be bad work. One could resolve the paradox simply by denouncing the entire scientific enterprise as intellectually corrupt, but I find this an unacceptable position. I believe that the majority of scientists not only are highly capable but that they try in good faith to design careful, thoughtful experiments. Why, then, do they seem to fail so regularly when it comes to research on sex differences?

The answer may be found if, rather than simply dismissing these researchers as bad at their trade, we think about what they do as "conventional science." In analyzing male/female differences these scientists peer through the prism of everyday culture, using the colors so separated to highlight their questions, design their experiments, and interpret their results. More often than not, their hidden agendas, non-conscious and thus unarticulated, bear strong resemblances to broader social agendas. Historians of science have become increasingly aware that even in the most "objective" of fields -- chemistry and physics -- a scientist may fail to see something that is right under his or her nose because currently accepted theory cannot account for the observation. Although no one can be entirely successful, all serious scientists strive to eliminate such blindspots. The prospects for success diminish enormously, however, when the area of research touches one very personally. [...] In the study of gender (like sexuality and race) it is inherently impossible for any individual to do unbiased research.8

Wow. That's a pretty sobering thing to think about. Can a "prism of everyday culture" -- a mainstream paradigm -- really blind people so badly?

I once watched a video by Joel Barker, a futurist, who claimed that people's paradigms could physically prevent people from seeing things that did not fit into the paradigm. I found this rather difficult to believe. Then he demonstrated: in the video, he flashed a series of images of playing cards on the screen, each appearing for only a quarter of a second. Surprisingly, there was just enough time for my brain to recognize each card. But my brain was wrong.

He showed the same cards flashed at a half second each. I suddenly had an odd suspicion. When he showed each card for one full second, I noticed that all the hearts were black and all the spades were red. And my brain initially didn't notice anything unusual, although I thought I could recognize each individual card.

So it is with science. We get so caught up trying to understand the world around us that we sometimes forget to take into consideration how our own paradigms can colour our observations. In a simple example, at one time it was believed that the largest bee in the hive was the King Bee, so named because it was "obvious" that the ruler of a bee hive would be the largest male.9


Dr. Fausto-Sterling's book, Myths of Gender asks "of each claim about women and biology a very conventional scientific question: 'What is the evidence?'"10 We may attempt to take this simple tack with BrainSex; if Laura is correct and the book puts forth scientific truth unfettered by political correctness, then the science must be impeccable. We may attempt to review the evidence, but we will find it a difficult task, for you see, BrainSex provides very little of the data from the original experiments -- merely the conclusions. Perhaps this is not surprising, because the book is not a scientific publication; instead, it is an entertainment book -- both Moir and Jessel work in the entertainment industry.

So the question becomes, therefore, are there flaws in the research that BrainSex cites? Let's a significant example:

Scientists can now fundamentally alter, and redetermine, the behaviour of monkeys, by injecting the pregnant mother with male hormone -- at a time when, like humans, the brain pattern is being set.

Their female offspring will behave in the boisterous male manner. [...]

Tweaking the developing brain of an animal with extra hormones changes its structure; and a change in structure corresponds with a change in behaviour.11

(As an aside, it really bugs me that people refer to testosterone as the "male" hormone. Testosterone is a naturally occuring hormone found in virtually all people; in humans, males tend to have more of it than females.)

As a reference for this statement, Moir and Jessel refer to a study published by Dr. Charles Phoenix called "Prenatal testosterone in the nonhuman primate and its consequences for behaviour". Let us ask a reasonable question: are there any flaws of reasoning in Phoenix's study? Let's look at Dr. Fausto-Sterling's analysis of this study:

A rhesus monkey
A rhesus monkey

Dr. Charles Phoenix and his co-workers injected pregnant rhesus monkeys with testosterone and studied the subsequent behaviour of eight females born with masculinized genitalia (a scrotum and a small but normally formed penis). They defined three forms of behaviour which juvenile males display more frequently than females -- rough-and-tumble play, play initiation, and threats. (These sex differences do not exist in all species of monkey, and even in the rhesus they may be only an artifact of captivity.) The eight hermaphrodites exhibited these three behaviours with a frequency intermediate between control males and females, pointing to the conclusion drawn by Phoenix and his co-workers that prenatal exposure to testosterone makes the behaviour of juvenile XX females more malelike, not only with regard to reproductive behaviours such as mounting, but also with regard to nonreproductive play behaviours. Subsequent work on additional animals confirms these observations.12

Well, even Dr. Fausto-Sterling's telling of this experiement seems sound although it's curious that experiments on rhesus monkeys, for which sex-differentiated behaviour exists, are used to draw conclusions about how humans develop and behave. (I also find it telling that Moir and Jessel never included the information about the genital differences.)

But are there any other explanations for the observations? Could, for example, the eight hermaphrodites have been reared differently? Dr. Fausto-Sterling cites another study that shows "[t]he [rhesus] mother plays a role in prompting the greater independence and activity that is typical of males."13 Thus, she concludes: "In the Phoenix study, the mother may have treated the hermaphroditic females, which are born with malelike genitalia, more like males."14 In "good" science, such possibilities are ruled out by controlling for them; Dr. Phoenix apparently has not so. (And perhaps it is not really possible to do so).

Dr. Fausto-Sterling consistently critiques this type of science. These studies presume a simple, unidirectional causality: that hormones affect behaviour, and never the other way around. More to the point, she suggests that this presumption is so completely accepted by the researchers that they fail to ever question it as a valid premise. For these scientists, the nature versus nurture war has already been fought, and nature has won.

But could behaviour, or at least, social context affect hormones? In one study:

a group of researchers showed [... that ...] social context caused changes in testosterone levels. Male monkeys with access to sexually receptive females showed a sharp rise in serum testosterone following intercourse. If the same male, brimful of testosterone, encountered a group of strangers that attacked and defeated him, his testosterone level dropped sharply and remained low for some time. It rose again, however, if the male re-encountered receptive females. This observation resembles those on stress in humans. The same research group, for instance, found that American soldiers about to do battle in Vietname showed a large drop in testosterone levels.15

The relationship between brains, hormones, behaviour and environment is extremely complex, and difficult to separate. In fact, it is virtually impossible to extensively control for all variables in behavioural development. The difficulty of "the task of understanding behaviour from single analytic approaches can be compared to the hopelessness of seeking linguistic insights by a chemical analysis of a book!"16

For my part, I'm far more impressed with the thoroughness of Dr. Fausto-Sterling's analysis, than the intellectual poseuring of Moir and Jessel.

1 Anne Moir and David Jessel. BrainSex p. 8.

2 Laura Masters. "Transgender Identity". A TransEqual document. p.4.

3 Anne Fausto-Sterling. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Men and Women. p.4. Dr. Fausto-Sterling writes: "In the nineteenth century, some scientists wrote that women who work to obtain economic independence set themselves up for 'a struggle against Nature,' while author after author used Darwin's theory of evolution to argue that giving the vote to women was, evolutionarily speaking, retrogressive. Physicians and educators alike warned that young women who engage in long, hard hours of study will badly damage their reproductive systems, perhaps going insane to boot."

4 "Transgender Identity". p.4.

5 ibid.

6 Bonnie B. Spanier, "'Lessons' from 'Nature': Gender Ideology and Sexual Ambiguity in Biology", Body Guards p. 330.

7 Myths of Gender. pp.8-9.

8 Myths of Gender. pp.9-10.

9 "'Lessons' from 'Nature'". p.330.

10 Myths of Gender. p.208.

11 BrainSex p. 28.

12 Myths of Gender. p.143.

13 G.Mitchell and E.M.Brandt, "Behavioural Differences Relate to Experience of Mother and Sex of Infant in the Rhesus Monkey," Developmental Psychology. 3[1970]:149. I'm not citing this source directly, but rather from Myths of Gender. p.143.

14 Myths of Gender. p.143.

15ibid. p.147.

16 G.S. Omenn and A.G. Motulsky, "Biological Genetics and the Evolution of Human Behaviour," in Genetics, Environment and Behavior: Implications for Educational Policy p.131. (As quoted in Myths of Gender. p.77.)

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1999 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated: September 18th, 1999.

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