Cordelia Fine – Delusions of Gender: Kritik

Da meine eigene Besprechung von Cordelia Fine: Delusions of Gender, aus Zeitmangel nicht recht fertig werden will, führe ich hier mal ein paar andere Kritiken an:

a)  Simon Baron-Cohen

Delusions of gender – ‘neurosexism’, biology and politics

Cordelia Fine’s new book is a bold new attack on the very idea that there are any essential sex differences in the human mind and the brain. Her barely veiled agenda, in this long, scholarly book, is to show that any sex difference found in humans can be made to vanish! How? Simply by a quick manipulation of a social-psychological variable. If, for example, men on average score higher on a maths test or a mental rotation (spatial) test, then simply by telling women ahead of time that women on average score higher on such tests can not only lead women to perform better than they usually do, but can make the sex difference vanish.

These are just some of the dozens of social psychological studies that Fine reviews, and her argument has an appealing simplicity: if women and men can score equally in areas where robust sex differences have been reported, then surely they don’t constitute essential sex differences. They must instead be a remnant of the centuries of sexism that attempted to portray women as less intelligent than men. Fine goes further to argue that any modern cognitive neuroscientist who suggests there may be any essential sex differences in the human mind is just perpetuating these historic sexist attitudes. And she coins a new word for the exploration of sex differences in the mind by contemporary scientists: ‘neurosexism’. She litters her book liberally with quotes from 18th- and 19th-century sexists, as if contemporary scientists in the field of sex differences are no different from those who wished
to deprive women of the vote, keep them confined to domesticity, and as if to say ‘look: nothing has changed’.

So what’s good and what’s wrong with her basic argument? What’s good is that this book examines the role of social psychological factors in how men and women perform on psychological tests, and this is a welcome contribution. As one of those psychologists Fine has in her sights, it might surprise her that I strongly agree that social variables are important and doubtless play key roles in shaping our behaviour. Indeed, the kinds of effects Fine highlights can be thought of as commonsense demonstrations that if you make someone feel more confident, they do better on a test; or that if you change a person’s expectations of how they will perform, their performance is influenced by their expectations. We should thank Fine for reminding readers not to forget the importance of social factors influencing sex differences.

But showing that a manipulation of social variables changes behaviour does not prove that it was those very social variables that cause the spontaneous sex differences in the first place. Social manipulations are forms of intervention, and we shouldn’t fall victim to the old fallacy of assuming that the absence of a treatment is the cause of a condition. Aspirins can make headaches vanish, but headaches aren’t necessarily caused by the absence of aspirin. Where I – and I suspect many other contemporary scientists – would part ways with Fine is in her strident, extreme denial of the role that biology might play in giving rise to any sex differences in the mind and brain. My own book The Essential Difference was I think quite moderate in suggesting that sex differences are the result of both social and biological influences, and the same is true of Melissa Hines’ excellent book Brain Gender. But for Fine, even a hint of biological influence is too much biology.

So how does she deal with experimental findings that show either prenatal or neonatal influences on sex differences? Here, her main strategy (arguing that sex differences can be made to vanish by using the trick of manipulating social psychological variables) just doesn’t apply. So she is forced to adopt a different strategy, namely, dissecting the experiments that purport to show prenatal or neonatal influences, to reveal that such experiments are flawed and therefore incorrect in their conclusions. This is Fine’s last-ditch attempt to make sex differences go away.

Being a co-author of some of these experiments I can examine her criticisms with the benefit of close knowledge of the studies she discusses, and found errors in her critiques. For example, in our newborn study (Connellan et al., 2001), which showed that girls look longer at a human face and boys look longer at a mechanical mobile, Fine attempts to dismantle this evidence by saying we should have presented both stimuli at the same time, rather than one at a time, since one at a time might have led to fatigue-effects. However, she overlooks that it was for this very reason that we included counter-balancing into the experimental design, to avoid any risk of such order-effects.

Secondly, she argues that the experimenter may not have been totally blind to the baby’s sex because there might have been ‘congratulations’ cards around the bed (‘Congratulations! It’s a boy!’). However, she overlooks that it was precisely for this reason that we included a panel of independent judges coding the videotapes of just the eye-region of the baby’s face, from which it is virtually impossible to judge the sex of the baby. Fine is right that our newborn baby study needs to be independently replicated, given its importance for establishing a human sex difference in the mind at a point in development before culture has had a chance to have any influence. But it is
an example of where Fine’s scholarship shows some shortcomings, where details are overlooked in order to fit her biology-free theory of human sex differences.

Although we would all like to believe in Fine’s extreme social determinism, efforts to explain (purely in terms of social variables) why neurodevelopmental conditions like autism, learning difficulties, and language delay affect boys more often than girls lead to the ludicrous position of blaming these conditions on sexist factors in society (or in parents). And extreme social determinism has major difficulties explaining why left-handedness is more common in boys (12 per cent) than girls (8 per cent). In contrast, a moderate position that recognises that – over and above the important role of the social environment – biology may also play a small role opens up all sorts of lines of inquiry (e.g. into the effects of prenatal hormones and genes). Autism runs in families and many genes have been implicated, and it may turn out that some of these are relevant to why it is sex-linked.I have also been impressed to see consistent correlations between amniotic fetal testosterone (FT) levels and measures of social development across 10 years of follow-up studies of a cohort of typically developing children we have been tracking, whose mothers all had amniocentesis during pregnancy (Baron-Cohen et al., 2005). An extreme biological determinism would be equally ludicrous, since there is no doubt that social variables can amplify and interact with such biological effects.

Fine is of course obliged to try to find fault with these hormone studies, challenging, for example, whether FT in the amniotic fluid reflects FT in the brain. Again she overlooks that if we could measure FT in the brain in an ethical way, we would. FT in amniotic fluid is the next best ethical option, and it seems to be showing us that FT is associated with sex differences in the mind.

Ultimately, for me, the biggest weakness of Fine’s neurosexism allegation is the mistaken blurring of science with politics. Her book reads as a polemic about the implicit political bias underlying the science of sex differences. However, this ignores that you can be a scientist interested in the nature of sex differences while being a clear supporter of equal opportunities and a firm opponent of all forms of discrimination in society. One endeavour need have nothing to do with the other. Fusing science with politics is, in my view, unfounded.

Icon Books; 2010; Hb £14.99 Reviewed by Simon Baron-Cohen who is at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge

Baron-Cohen, S., Knickmeyer, R. & Belmonte, M. (2005). Sex differences in the brain: Implications for explaining autism. Science, 310, 819–823.
Connellan, J., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S. et al. (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception. Infant Behavior and Development, 23, 113–118.

b) Diane Halpern

Das Buch ist dort am stärksten, wo es wacklige Schlüsse bloßstellt, die mehr auf Einbildung als auf Wissenschaft beruhen und dort am schwächsten, wo sie es versäumt, auch auf Unterschiede hinzuweisen, die durch eine Vielzahl sorgfältig durchgeführter und gut replizierter Studien abgestützt werden.

Ihre Beprechung als PDF

C) Margaret M McCarthy und Gregory F Ball

The topic of sex differences in brain and behavior continues to garner broad interest and generate considerable controversy. A spate of popular books in the past decade has heralded many of the recent advances in the study of the biological basis of human brain differences in relation to sex and gender. Volumes such as Doreen Kimura’s Sex and Cognition [1], Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain [2], Melissa Hines’s Brain Gender [3] and Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain [4] have reviewed, and in some instances overinterpreted, the current state-of-the-art. This flurry of attention has also generated lightning rods for criticism, as evidenced by the two books reviewed here: Rebecca M Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences [5] and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create a Difference [6]. Both books contain much of merit that we think readers of the Biology of Sex Differences will agree with, but both books can be vexing in the ways the scientific study of sex differences in brain and behavior is portrayed and the current state-of-the-art is presented.

Jordan-Young wrote Brain Storm after she became interested in the causes of variation in human sexual behavior while engaging in a study of human sexuality related to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome epidemic. During the course of this work, she was struck by the substantial variation that is exhibited by humans in relation to sexual behavior and the difficulty one can encounter in fitting individuals neatly into categories such as man versus woman or homosexual versus heterosexual. In this context, she was fascinated by the claim that there might be a „male or female“ or a „gay versus straight“ brain. Her interest was piqued by Simon LeVay’s 1991 Science paper [7] because it employed a very simple categorization of its subjects into „men, women and gay men.“ She questioned the value of such a scheme, given the lack of sharp categorical boundaries she had experienced in her own work. When trying to understand the possible causes of correlations between brain structure and human sexual behavior identified by Gorski et al. [8], LeVay [7] and Swaab [9], to name a few, she learned about the organizational and activational hypothesis proposed by Phoenix et al. in 1959 [10]. The now iconic organizational and activational hypothesis codifies the concept that early hormone exposure permanently organizes the neural substrates which will be activated in a sex-specific manner in adulthood by gonadal steroid hormone production. As most readers of this journal will know, whether this hypothesis can be applied to the human brain remains a matter of controversy and a difficult question to address, given the inability to perform the same types of experiments that have clarified the validity of the hypothesis in other species. Jordan-Young reviews, in a thorough and engaging manner, the challenges and pitfalls of trying to study brain sexual differentiation in humans. This is one of the strongest aspects of the book. Human behavior is complex and often does not exhibit marked or categorical sex differences as have been identified in some cases in other species. Both human sexuality and human cognition require multidimensional behavioral analyses to capture the full range of observed variation. To capture this variation and then relate it to a static, one-time snapshot of a brain structure or a hormone measurement is fraught with difficulties and subject to error. One can only make correlations. However, these correlations are a first step that can set the stage for further study. Moreover, even if one takes the arguably simplistic approach of simply defining every human as male versus female, there are numerous robust and reliable sex differences in the size, shape and neurochemical phenotype of specific brain regions in boys versus girls and men versus women. The challenge is to discern how the observed sex differences were established and what they mean. As noted by Jordan-Young, despite the promise of variants in human reproductive development, such as androgen-insensitivity syndrome and congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) or individual cases (such as the famous „Joan/John“ instance of a boy whose sex was reassigned as a girl after his penis was accidently and irreversibly damaged), the direction of the arrow of causation (if there is a causal relationship at all) cannot be specified. Frustratingly, after consideration of the iconic Phoenix et al. guinea pig study [10], Jordan-Young gives little attention to the voluminous animal studies conducted in the intervening 50+ years, denying the reader the presentation of overwhelming evidence that correlations between brain and behavior can be the result of early organizational effects of steroid hormones or adult activational effects (or both), or of experiences that occur independently of hormones. Instead of presenting a complex and vibrant field that at times produces messy or inconsistent data, she takes a very humanocentric view and suggests that studies of sex differences lack structure and coherence. Moreover, she ignores critiques that have emerged from within the field [10], implying that there is unanimity among scientists studying sex differences regarding the relative contribution of hormones versus other variables. Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone subject to peer review can tell you. She also ignores the published provision of an experimental road map that lays out the basic protocols needed to first ascertain whether there is a sex difference in a trait, then to investigate whether hormones are involved and, if so, to distinguish possible organizational effects from activational hormonal effects [11]. Nonetheless, if one considers the broader biological context of studies of sex differences in brain and behavior in humans, Jordan-Young’s concerns are well-founded. It is indeed difficult to ascertain at present which factors, biological or environmental, cause the documented sex differences in the human brain, although significant evidence suggests that gonadal hormones are among these factors [12]. If one were just looking for a good species among all vertebrates to try to ascertain basic principles that underlie interrelationships among hormones and brain and sex differences, one would certainly not pick Homo sapiens!

Cordelia Fine’s penning of Delusions of Gender was apparently motivated by her observation of her son’s kindergarten teacher reading a book which reportedly stated that males do not have the neural wiring required to connect language and emotion (exactly which book this was is not clear, but a little digging suggests it is likely to be by Brizendine [4]. She reports being sufficiently outraged that she decided to research for herself the studies on which such flimflam was based. Fine is an engaging and clever writer who combines sexist quotes from the Victorian era with modern-day quotes from some of the more offensive recent popular books. The not-so-subtle message, that little has changed for women for hundreds of years, is effectively and powerfully conveyed. Fine goes on to review in exacting and voluminous detail the huge number of studies demonstrating how insidiously gender bias pervades our society and how this in turn leads to gender inequality. Given the overwhelmingly strong case that so much of what distinguishes males and females comes from our decidedly different experiences, Fine’s frustration with the unfounded claims for „hardwiring“ of any sex difference in the human brain is perfectly understandable (Cordelia, we feel your pain). Unfortunately, though, she opts for throwing neuroscientists under the bus instead of directing her anger where it truly and deservedly belongs.

Fine divides her book into three parts, each of which comprises a collection of short chapters designed to make a specific point revealed by wordplay titles such as „Brain Scams“ or „Sex and Premature Speculation.“ Part I is titled „Half-Changed World – Half-Changed Minds“ and should have been printed with a warning label for women that even if you are married to a „rare jewel,“ like Fine apparently is, you are likely to find yourself angry and resentful that you are doing more of the housework while getting less credit for your better curriculum vitae and earning lower pay for equal or more work. It is still a man’s world, and Fine wants to be darn sure we appreciate exactly how much of a man’s world it still is. Part III hammers this same concept home with detailed discussions of the overwhelming evidence that the perception of gender, both by others and by oneself, begins even before an individual is self-aware and thereby directs all future choices, from playmates and toys to career and lifestyle. There is no arguing with the point Fine is making: gender is an overwhelmingly salient and pervasive parameter that defines each of us in ways we do not even realize. Her big complaint is that any component of these differences be accepted as „biological.“ She deftly reveals the level of absurdity of some arguments, pointing out that suggestions of an evolutionary basis for a preference for pink by girls and for blue by boys is ridiculous in the face of the recent emergence of this Western culture color code in only the past 50 years. She is witty and acerbic, issuing lacerating asides and derisive dismissals. She uses favorite punching bags over and over to make her points, with Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, mentioned so often you would think he had spent his entire career publicly speaking about the inferiority of women. Her irritation is equally great or greater with Simon Baron-Cohen [2] and Louann Brizendine [4], both of whom have written popular books, and who Fine essentially accuses of being charlatans. After the hundredth or so insulting aside, it begins to seem a bit mean-spirited.

But it is in Part II, which she titled „Neurosexism,“ that Fine really disappoints. Throughout the book she repeatedly warns the reader of the perils of preconceived notions, inherent and hidden biases and seeing only what we want to see. Yet, that is exactly the behavior she there engages in. Her use of the inflammatory and made-up term „neurosexism“ is further supported by her use of prejudicial words such as „neurononsense“ and „neuroscientific“ (the closeness to „pseudoscientific“ is undoubtedly intentional). She goes so far as to say, „sexism dressed up in neuroscientific finery“ is being used to push through new policies on same-sex education. The hostility is open and raw. But her critiques of the science are as weak and unfounded as she accuses the science to be. Studies of sex differences in neuroanatomy in animals are dismissed as useless because, according to Fine, the field has failed to directly tie differences in the size of the SDN (sexually dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area, a pronounced sexual dimorphism in the rodent brain) to a specific behavioral change. In this case, the critique is not even accurate, as there is now a growing consensus that the SDN is a key nodal point in the neural process of defeminization and may also be critical to sexual preference. These relatively recent interpretations of SDN function have been appropriately cautious, relying on years of accumulated, converging sources and forms of empirical evidence. Fine’s use of Roger Gorski’s admission in 1980 [8] that he did not know the functional significance of the nucleus he discovered and her naming of him to further her own arguments smacks of grasping at straws. Moreover, the fact that relatively few neuroanatomical variables have ever been directly tied to the control of behavior seems to have escaped her notice. The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect sex differences in brain activation during specific tasks is rejected by blithely dismissing the entire field of fMRI as too immature and as not capable of really measuring neural activity any way. She has a harder time with the elegant and provocative studies by Melissa Hines [3] and others on sex biases in toy choice in humans and primates, including dismissing studies in CAH girls in which the role of parental influence was carefully assessed and found not to be responsible for these girls‘ malelike toy preferences [14]. Instead of acknowledging that perhaps there is something interesting going on here, Fine refuses to yield an inch and instead goes through a contorted and ultimately irrational argument about the scientists‘ „not even knowing“ the parameters of male versus female toys that make the toys preferred. Why this undermines the data is unclear. One of her frequent refrains is how little we know, suggesting that this is a flaw of the science as opposed to a natural consequence of the relatively slow pace of discovery resulting from only a small cadre of scientists being focused on and committed to the question at hand. That this situation is complex is not new news, even in the popular press. Melissa Hines’s Brain Gender [3] is about as balanced a view as possible on the current status of the understanding of both cultural and biological influences on sex differences in brain and behavior. In addition, Anne Fausto-Sterling, author of Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men [15], relentlessly brings us back to center to remind us how little we really know about the vexingly complex human brain, but she herself shifted from arguing that there is no biological basis for sex differences in the brain to acknowledging there is a complex and as yet poorly understood interaction between biology and society (see Sexing the Body: Gender, Politics and the Construction of Sexuality [16]). We fear that books such as the ones by Fine and Jordan-Young will not hasten the pace of discovery, but instead threaten to severely hamper or even reverse the progress that is being made in this field.

Thus, for both authors, endeavors that started as entertaining and potentially enlightening exposés go awry. There is good reason to be irritated with some of what has been written about the neural basis of sex differences in the brain, but the field is a lively and active one in which scientists police each other on a regular basis. There are strong foundations upon which exciting, new and sometimes even startling discoveries are being made. Unilaterally condemning all research on sex differences in the brain because of a few bad players‘ trying to appeal to a general audience seems akin to claiming that all research on cancer is bogus because some people believe that research suggests cancer can be cured by the power of prayer. In both books, there is a „throwing the baby out with the bathwater“ phenomenon in which the entire field is condemned by a combination of setting up straw men to knock down and an overemphasis on criticism of a few errant studies or errant interpretations. What is particularly frustrating to those of us who actively engage in the study of sex differences in the brain is how hard we are continuing to fight for sex or gender as a critical biological variable that must be considered in any study that purports to advance our understanding of the brain. The preference of most neuroscientists is to study only one sex, usually males, and then assume that any findings generalize to females. But time and time again, we have seen this is not the case. This bias is not limited to neuroscience, as a recent analysis demonstrates an overwhelming tendency to exclude females from studies across a wide range of biological disciplines [17]. Moreover, several novel aspects of brain function have been discovered only because males and females were compared, highlighting the tremendous exploratory power of studying sex differences in the brain. These include novel mechanisms of pain regulation, synaptogenesis, neuro- and gliogenesis, cell death, genetic imprinting and surely many more yet to come. Two of the most promising areas for exploitation are (1) gender biases in the relative vulnerability to and the severity of mental health disorders and (2) sex differences in the functional impact of brain damage. By comparing and contrasting the mechanistic basis of sex differences, as well as the therapeutic benefits of various approaches, both sexes stand to benefit. But the useful side of research on sex differences appears to be entirely lost on Fine and, to some extent, on Jordan-Young. Delusions of Gender concludes with a depressing final admonition that the cycle of repression of girls is unlikely to change, because it is a self-perpetuating system in which parents teach their children to live along narrow gender lines and those children in turn become parents who then teach the same thing to their children. Fine acknowledges that large numbers of women are taking on hard science and math majors in school, becoming physicians and scientists, but nonetheless she seems to see little hope for change. Nothing short of stopping research on the topic would seem to satisfy her. Jordan-Young, on the other hand, does not go nearly as far as Fine, but rather provides her view of how such research should be conducted and interpreted. Her views again are certainly welcome and valuable. However, she presents them as if they are unknown to scientists studying sex differences. Her observations that „sex“ steroids are misnamed because androgens can be converted to estrogens and that these steroids do many other things besides regulating sexuality are not news to those of us in the field who have been inculcated since the 1970 s about the significance of the aromatization hypothesis [18]. Again, such concerns are not put in a broader context. The fact that natural substances are often misnamed and inadequately categorized when they are first discovered is a widespread problem not limited to work on sex steroids. One need only think about what happened during the neuropeptide revolution, when endogenous messengers with names such as vasoactive intestinal polypeptide were found to be widespread and active within the brain. The idea that experience effects interact with hormonal effects in fascinating ways is also not a new observation and has often come out of research trying to discern the context in which hormones act. One cannot help but think that Jordan-Young’s focus on human studies, which, as she states, cannot involve detailed experimental analyses, led her to assume an overly deterministic view of hormone action on behavior that is not indicative of the broader field. She points to the value of adopting a broader biological context by considering sex differences as a particular type of reaction norm which addresses the variability in phenotypes that a single genotype can generate in different environments. This is a valuable concept that is in widespread use by researchers, especially evolutionary ecologists, who are trying to understand the causes of intraspecific phenotypic variation. Sex differences are indeed just another example of intraspecific variation, albeit one that is perhaps better demarcated than some other dimensions. An exciting development in the behavioral field is to consider personalities in animals and humans in the context of reaction norms, and it makes sense to include sex as another variable in this context. The challenge, of course, is ascertaining the full response range of a trait specified by a particular reaction norm and testing this response range in a variety of environments. Such a thorough analysis is not going to happen in humans for the obvious reasons mentioned in Jordan-Young’s book, though it would be a valuable research strategy to pursue in nonhuman animals. However, it is a bit disappointing to be told that studies in plants and animals are essential to understanding sex differences in a broader biological context when she is prescribing a future research strategy after ignoring or even denigrating such studies (for example, the guinea pigs studied by Phoenix et al. [10] are „lowly“ in her eyes) when she considers studies of the organizational and activational hypothesis.

But popular books are written to appeal to a broader audience, and in that respect both Jordan-Young and Fine have succeeded. Prompting laypeople to adopt a more critical view of overly simplistic views of complex data sets is a goal any scientist can support, and for that we applaud their efforts. Pendulums tend to swing widely before the inexorable progression to the center. Where that center will ultimately be is the critical issue, and ensuring that 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

d) Leser David

David hat etwas zu dem Buch bei Maren geschrieben (die es anscheinend lesen will)

Christian hat da aber nicht ganz unrecht.
Natürlich hat Christian einen Bias, den haben wir wohl alle. Wichtig ist, dass man ihn mitreflektiert, und das ist mir bei Fine selbst zu wenig der Fall. Vor allem da sie sich ja sehr offen feministisch positioniert.

Den größten Bias haben wohl die, die Cordelia Fine als ihren Einstieg in die Neuropsychologie wählen, denn dem Anspruch eines Einführungswerks wird sie nicht gerecht.

Natürlich ist sie eine seriöse Wissenschaftlerin, liefert reichlich empirische Belege ihrer Argumente und hat auch einige Studien ordentlich zerlegt. Sie hat durchaus auf einige wichtige Punkte in den Sexual Dimorphism – Diskurs der Neurowissenschaften aufmerksman gemacht (wichtig sind imho insbesondere die Alternativerklärungen für den Dimorphismus der Corpus Callosum).

Aber sie ist dann doch keine Koryphäe auf dem Gebiet, hat noch nicht mal eine Professur. Sie hat zwar schon eine ganze Reihe von Publikationen, ich weiß aber von meinem früheren Neuropsychologie-Prof. dass bei ihren eigenen Studien in den Peer Reviews teils erhebliche Mängel festgestellt wurden, weswegen die meisten auch für Neuroscience extrem niedrigrangig publiziert wurden (funktionelle MRT-Daten unter IF 2.0 zu publizieren ist schon recht bescheiden).
Das Problem ist, dass ihr (bekanntes) Buch sich eigentlich eher an die Neuroscience Community richtet (richten sollte, es ist durchaus populär aufbereitet), aber vor allem von Leuten gelesen wird, die von Neuroforschung keine Ahnung haben.

Nach dem Lesen bekommt man den Eindruck, dass man praktisch gar nichts wisse und alle Studien über Dimorphismen in böser Absicht von üblen Sexisten zusammengeschustert seien.

Was kaum weiter vom tatsächlichen Forschungsstand entfernt sein könnte. Fine betreibt in weiten Teilen simpelsten Relativismus, den man auf beinahe jedes Forschungsgebiet anwenden könnte.

Studien die auch nur den leisesten Anhaltspunkt für alternative Erklärungen liefern können, werden durch ihre Suggestionen weit über deren Niveau und Impact überhöht, vieles wird weggelassen, vor allem kohärente Alternativparadigmen.
Die Gegenargumente von Fine haben durchaus Hand und Fuß, sie tragen halt nur nicht weit.

d) eigene Besprechungen von einzelnen Stellen:

e) Michael Mills auf Amazon

Cultural determinism dies a slow, agonizing death.

Fine is stunningly sophomoric in her understanding of the nature vs. nurture debate. It is over. Asking „is it nature or nurture?“ is asking the wrong question, and it leads Fine down a dead-end path. It is always a very complex interweaving of both.

What then is the right question? Try this: „Is the trait under examination an evolved psychological adaptation, a byproduct of an adaptation, or random variation?“ (Think the umbilical cord, the belly button, and variations in belly button shape — e.g., „innie“ vs. „outie“, respectively).

And, if it is a psychological adaptation, is it generally obligate (relatively robust in the face of typical environmental variation) or facultative (sensitive to typical environmental variation)? What are the neurological substrates of the psychological adaptation? If it is generally facultative, what specific types of environmental inputs influence it?

The particularly relevant question for this book is this: „Which psychological adaptations are sexually dimorphic?“ We know Fine’s position on this one — she desperately wishes that the answer is „none.“

However, sexual selection theory and a vast body of both animal and human empirical evidence suggest otherwise. Non-human animals have no culture, but, of course, most species do show evidence of sex differences in behavior that derive from evolved, sexually dimorphic neurological adaptations. In humans, culture itself is built on a foundation of psychological adaptations, some of which are sexually dimorphic.

Fine erroneously believes that a few research critiques will dispatch even the notion of evolved human sexually dimorphic psychological adaptations, leaving culture free reign on a sexually monomorphic blank slate.

Simon Baron-Cohen, whose work is critiqued in Fine’s book, unfortunately had to spend a little time writing a rebuttal titled „Delusions of gender – ’neurosexism,‘ biology and politics.“ It is worth a Google search to read his response.

Fine’s book would actually provide better material for Simon’s cousin, Sasha.


This is almost overkill, but do a search on Youtube for „Sex differences in brain development.“ There, one can literally see sex differences in cortical thickness by sex, and the relative changes that occur from the ages of 9 – 22.

Also, for summaries of recent research, do web searches for:

„The Genetics of Sex Differences in Brain and Behavior“

„Evolving Knowledge of Sex Differences in Brain Structure, Function and Chemistry“

f) Tim Josling auf Amazon


I greatly enjoyed Cordelia Fine’s previous book „A Mind of Its Own“, which makes a convincing case for the huge role the subconscious mind plays in our lives. Of course the existence of the subconscious mind is not new information, and the book’s primary achievement was the use of stories, anecdotes, examples and other rhetorical techniques to leave this reader completely convinced that it was not just other people whose subconscious minds rule their lives. The book was marred only by a number of strange comments about her husband, which I dismissed at the time.

Now Cordelia Fine has directed her considerable persuasive skills to the task of casting doubt on a widely held belief: that in human beings, as with every other mammal species, the sexes are different in their mental makeups.

Casting doubt is all she achieves. This book does not deliver „the real science behind sex differences“ as the cover promises the reader. Ironically, the book does cast doubt on the author’s objectivity in the matter. It rapidly becomes blatantly obvious that she is passionately committed to the cause of the „blank slate“, though as an academic she is careful to fudge her words so that ultimately you cannot find a quote that actually says that this is what she thinks.

The closest we get is in this quote: „Our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malliable and changeable. And if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.“ Note the complete absence of any acknowledgement of a possibility of inherent biological differences – they are not included in the list of things that „create gender“.

We see this passion in her stories of childhood rebellion against girly things, through to her constant use of sarcasm and ridicule, her use of thin and illigitimate arguments, and even her practice of changing the stories she reads to her children – to their great disapproval – so that the action heroes are girls, while the boys stay home to bake cakes and sew pretty clothes.

The blank slate is the idea that men and women are born the same and it is only because society raises us differently that we turn out differently. The billions of receptors for sex hormones in the brain in the womb and after birth have, according to this theory, no influence on cognition or behaviour and peform no discernible function.

Personal disclosure: I believed the blank slate theory when I was young, but over time I have been forced – reluctantly – to change my mind and accept that there are significant general differences. This is not to say that everyone born with a Y chromisome will be sterotypically male, and everyone who lacks one will be a classic lady. But a sound holistic statistical analysis shows very little overlap: probably in the range of 3-5% are not sex-typical. However it is clear that social influences are also very important. In fact the only people I have seen who are completely one-sided in this are the blank-slate believers.

What I was hoping for in this book was a) a credible critique of the science of sex differences, and b) a solid theory of how the very different ways men and women think and behave come about. 300 pages later, I had neither of these.

I will cover (b) first. There is not much to say. Fine’s theory of how men and women end up different doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. All we get are a number of vague hand waving arguments about how expectations influence people’s behaviour and thinking. There is nothing solid or concrete that the reader can take away. How did David Reimer’s parents somehow magically convince this boy, who was raised as a girl from 1 year old after a botched circumcision, to behave like a boy? How did they somehow communicate this to him so strongly that when he finally found out years later that he was really a teenage boy, everything suddenly made sense – why he did not fit it, why everyone regarded him as a strange girl, why he even preferred to urinate standing up like a boy? Fine merely implies they did it because they must have done it. She rules out the possibility that David Reimer acted like a boy because he *was* a boy because she has no alternative, if she is to cling to her ideology of „no essential difference“.

The critique of sex difference research that is offered is longer, but not much better. Here we see the standard techniques of rhetoric employed, such as:

* Dress up speculatation as fact (pp 94, 96, 128, 205 and many other instances).

* Quote references to justify claims, when the references do not justify the claims made. See reference 4 on page 92, and reference 14 on page 103 where mere opinion is quoted to justify a factual claim. Another reviewer has also pointed out instances of this. See

* Argument by doubt. We don’t know exacly how something works, so it doesn’t happen – p 104 Ref 19. On the next page we have a similar argument from complexity – the brain is complex, with „lots of unexplored territory“ so really we can’t believe that hormones influence behaviour.

* Criticise the weaker argument, and ignore the stronger one. Thus we repeatedly see 17th and 18th century buffoons, and other non-scientists quoted on sex differences rather than best of breed contemporary researchers. Under this category you could also file the numerous instances of „making fun of the popular press“. A lot of popular interpretations of science are simplistic, overreaching and so forth, but this is not a criticism of the underlying science.

* Focus on „the doubt“ and contradictions between studies. It is no secret that a lot of scientific research is inconlusive. Over time we muddle towards a true understanding. But Fine revels in the contradictory studies, without trying to work out what is really going on (e.g. p 129). As a tobacco company executive once wrote: „Doubt is our product“.

* Minimize statistical significance by taking one characteristic at a time. If you look just at one thing at a time, there is a considerable overlap between men and women, but when you take them all at once, the overlap almost completely disappears at only 3-5%.

* Make a big fuss about small differences in studies where you agree with them (p 195) but dismiss larger differences as ‚minor‘ when you don’t like the answer.

* Investigate any studies that contradict a pre-conceived notion carefully, looking for methodological issues. If they have any such issues, discount them. Studies that conform to a preconceived agenda are given a free pass however. In the whole book I did not see one criticism of a study that cast doubt on sex differences, but literally hundreds of criticsms of studies that went the other way.

* Misrepresent your opponents and rush to find fault where it is not justified. See […]
* Examine the numerous studies where the men and women were „set up“ in such a way as to minimize sex differences. For example, the women are given an incentive to succeed and them men are now, or the men will be told discouraging things such as that women always do better at this task. When such a study shows reduced or no sex differences, conclude that the sex differences do not exist. Of course such studies only show that incentives and discouragement can affect people’s performance. They do not show that underlying differences do not exist.

In many ways this book resembles Steven Jay Gould’s book „The Mismeasure of Man“ in its tactics and in its ideological agenda. Gould tried to demolish IQ, one of the most useful psychological metrics, which is well established, highly predictive of success, and correlated with brain metrics. And highly heritable. Many people to this day believe that Gould succeeded, as many people will believe that Cordelia Fine has succeeded. That belief is indeed a delusion.

As a final coda – not as proof but an example – have a look at the two major web sites that are the most sex-inbalanced. These are […] and […] See if you can guess which is for men and which is for women, and if you can explain how conditioning produced these differences in preferences.

g)  Barbara A. Oakley auf Amazon

Fine’s choice of references, and her way of analyzing them, along with the entire structure of the book, seem problematic. As just a first check I took a careful look at the reference for her statement „[T]he use of the digit ratio as a marker of prenatal testosterone exposure is controversial and lacks clear empirical support. For review see (McIntyre, 2006).“ When I actually looked at McIntyre’s review, his concluding comments were very different from what Fine implied he said. McIntyre wrote „The validity of digit ratios as markers for perinatal androgen action is supported by a number of lines of recently reported evidence, but further support is needed.“

Now this is just one data point–the only one I’ve checked so far. But based on this, I suspect Fine may not be an honest broker of the material. *

More importantly, I am wondering why no mention was made in this book of David Reimer: the boy who was raised as a girl. Here is a little bit about that episode, from „[…]l“ (Begin quote)

„Teachers anxiously asked the parents for more information about what made „Brenda“ so strange, so combative, so un-ladylike. One of „Brenda’s“ few friends at school later recalled:

As far as I knew, Brenda was a girl — physically. But from everything that she did and said, she indicated that she didn’t want to be a girl. The other girls in our group were competitive against the boys; we wanted to prove we could do whatever they could do. We might get in arguments with the guys, but we wouldn’t have gone as far as to fight with them physically. I wouldn’t want a bruise on my face, for example. But Brenda fought with the boys. Brenda would take the bruises. I myself was a tomboy, but I never wanted to be a boy. Brenda did.

Injections of female hormones did nothing to change „Brenda’s“ boyish ways. „When I say there was nothing feminine about Brenda,“ brother Brian Reimer later recalled, „I mean there was nothing feminine:

She walked like a guy. Sat with her legs apart. She talked about guy things, didn’t give a crap about cleaning house, getting married, wearing makeup. We both wanted to play with guys, build forts and have snowball fights and play army. She’d get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we’d use that for was to tie people up, whip people with it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat.

Remember, neither „Brenda,“ nor her brother, nor any of her classmates knew the true story about her sexual identity. They all thought she was a girl, albeit a girl who behaved pretty strangely. The other kids at school called her „gorilla,“ or „Cavewoman.“ One girl who made fun of Brenda must have been surprised when Brenda „grabbed her by the front of her shirt, smashed her against the lockers, and threw her onto the ground. Boys who teased her got similar treatment. „That’s what always impressed me about Brenda,“ said a classmate. „She’d actually fight with the boys who teased her. She’d haul off and punch them. I always wished I could do that.“

Reflecting on the case, Dr. Milton Diamond commented that „if all these combined medical, surgical, and social efforts could not succeed in making that child accept a female gender identity, then maybe we really have to think that there is something important in the individual’s biological makeup; that we don’t come to this world neutral; that we come to this world with some degree of maleness and femaleness which will transcend whatever the society wants to put into it.“
(End quote)

Also, Fine dismisses Baron-Cohen’s E-S theory based on his popular books, with little discussion of the solid scientific evidence that underpins his work. For more along those lines, in regards, for example, the profound sex differences in disorders such as depression, anxiety, and anorexia, see See Zahn-Waxler, C, NR Crick. „The origins and development of psychopathology in females and males.“ Development and Psychopathology 1 (2006): 76. wherein it is noted:
„Beginning in adolescence, females are two to three times more likely than males to experience unipolar depressive disorders, as seen both community-based and clinically-referred samples (Kessler, McGonagle, Swartz, Blazer, & Nelson, 1993; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Weissman & Klerman, 1977; Weissman, Leaf, Bruce, & Florio, 1988). It is also present whether depression is diagnosed as a disorder or measured along a continuum of symptom severity.

After puberty, the lifetime prevalence in females is twice that of males (Lewinsohn, et al., 1993). Comorbidity of depressive and anxiety disorders is much more common in girls than boys (Lewinsohn, et al., 1995b); moreover depression that is comorbid with more than one anxiety disorder is virtually exclusive to females (Lewinsohn, Zinbarg, Seeley, Lewinsohn, & Sack, 1997). Female gender and presence of a coexisting anxiety disorder are also related to severity of initial depression (McCauley, et al., 1993). Co-occurrence of symptoms is even higher when subclinical levels also are considered. Although depression and anxiety can be clearly differentiated at biological, cognitive, behavioral, and affective levels, the extent to which they overlap and cooccur suggests that the combination represents a unique but common form of depression, particularly in females.
Females show a different constellation of depressive symptoms than males, notably more anxiety, more somatic symptoms, hypersomnia, weight gain, increased appetite, fatigue, psychomotor retardation, and body image disturbance (see review by Zahn-Waxler, et al., in press). Increased appetite and weight gain seem to be the most distinct symptoms in women and adolescent girls. Higher rates of crying, sadness, and negative self-concept have been noted for school-age and adolescent girls.
In research by Gjerde and Block (1995), dysphoric males often expressed their unhappiness directly and without hesitation, by acting on the world in an aggressive, hostile manner. Dysphoric symptoms in female adolescents, in contrast, were characterized by introspection, absence of open hostility, and a mostly hidden preoccupation with self. As early as age 7, boys who later showed dysthymia were aggressive, self-aggrandizing, and undercontrolled, whereas dysthymic girls were intropunitive, oversocialized, overcontrolled, anxious and introspective (Block, Gjerde, & Block, 1991). Young girls who later became depressed also had close relationships. The sadness and anxiety in depressed girls and hostility in depressed boys can be seen as exaggerations of normative sex differences. These studies focus on subclinical depression. Further studies of males and females with clinical depression are needed to determine whether their symptomatology shows a similar pattern. Other research suggests that young, depressed boys show a pattern of acting out (Kovacs, 1996). In a recent observational study of young children, boys, but not girls, with both subclinical and clinical depression were likely to show anger relative to controls (Luby, et al., 2005).
Genetic/Biological Explanations. Some studies report similar heritability estimates for depressive disorders in males and females, several others find differences (e.g. Bierut, et al., 1999; Jacobson & Rowe, 1999; Kendler, Gardner, Neale, & Prescott, 2001a; Tambs, Harris, & Magnus, 1995). Kendler, et al. (2001) suggest that in genetic linkage studies, the impact of some loci on risk for major depression will vary in men and women. Genetics are also involved in the etiology of depression through their effect on sensitivity to environmental events. Silberg Rutter, Neale, & Eaves (2001) found that genetics had a larger effect on the development of depression in adolescent girls who had experienced a negative event in the previous year than on those who did not. Kendler and colleagues (Kendler, 1998; Kendler, et al., 1995) found that persons at greater genetic risk were twice as likely to develop major depression in response to severe stress than those at lower genetic risk. Genetic risk also altered sensitivity to the environment for women only (Kendler, et al., 1995a). At puberty, girls‘ negative life events and stability of depression over time are more genetically mediated than for boys (Silberg, et al., 1999).“

See also Zahn-Waxler, C, EA Shirtcliff. „Disorders of childhood and adolescence: Gender and psychopathology.“ Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 4 (2008): 275-303. This paper, as Zahn-Waxler points out, „is about the origins of sex differences in different forms of psychopathology in males and females. Internalizing problems (anxiety and depression) are much more common in females than males and externalizing problems (Conduct problems, ADHD, etc.) are much more common in males than females. These differences hold across cultures, though the relative differences may vary.“ (Email communication with the author, Aug 27, 2010.)
Also observe Zahn-Waxler, C, E Race. „Mood disorders and symptoms in girls.“ Handbook of Behavioral and Emotional Problems in Girls (2005): 25-77. which notes:
„The rates of depression in childhood are comparable for boys and girls (with boys showing slightly higher rates), but while the rates dramatically increase around puberty for girls, they remain the same for boys or increase to a lesser extent (Anderson, Williams, McGee, and Silva, 1987; Angold and Rutter, 1992). Studies based both on diagnostic interviews and standardized self-reports indicate that this change in prevalence rates begins around ages 13-15 (Angold, Costello, and Worthman, 1998; Ge, Lorenz, Conger, Elder, et al., 1994; Petersen, Sargiani, Kennedy, 1991; Wichstrom, 1999). There is a 4-23% increase in diagnosed depression in adolescents between the ages of 15 to 18 (Hankin, Abramson, Moffitt, Silva, & McGee (1998). After puberty, the lifetime prevalence of depression in females is two times that of adolescent males, and one-year first incidence of depression is 1.6% greater for females than males (Lewinsohn, et al., 1993). Sex differences in depression are found consistently across cultures within the United States and the world, controlling for income, education, and occupation (McGrath, Keita, Strickland, & Russo, 1990; Weissman, Bland, Canino, Faravelli, et al., 1996).“

See also Altemus, M, and L Epstein. „Sex differences in anxiety disorders.“ In Sex Differences in the Brain: From Genes to Behavior, edited by Jill B. Becker, Karen J. Berkley, Nori Geary, Elizabeth Hampson, James P. Herman and Elizabeth A. Young, 397. New York: Oxford University, 2008; Bekker, MHJ, and J van Mens-Verhulst. „Anxiety disorders: sex differences in prevalence, degree, and background, but gender-neutral treatment.“ Gender Medicine 4 (2007): S178-S193; Altemus, M. „Sex differences in depression and anxiety disorders: potential biological determinants.“ Hormones and behavior 50, no. 4 (2006): 534-538; McRae, K, KN Ochsner. „Gender differences in emotion regulation: An fMRI study of cognitive reappraisal.“ Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 11, no. 2 (2008): 143; Esther, I, TW Fop Verheij. „Differences in finger length ratio between males with autism, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, ADHD, and anxiety disorders.“ Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 48, no. 12 (2006): 962-965; Hoek, H. W., and D. van Hoeken. „Review of the prevalence and incidence of eating disorders.“ International Journal of Eating Disorders 34, no. 4 (2003): 383-396.