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Delusions of Gender

September 20, 2010

Katherine Bouton in The New York Times:

Experts used to attribute gender inequality to the “delicacy of the brain fibers” in women ; then to the smaller dimensions of the female brain (the “missing five ounces,” the Victorians called it); then to the ratio of skull length to skull breadth. In 1915 the neurologist Dr. Charles L. Dana wrote in this newspaper that because a woman’s upper spinal cord is smaller than a man’s it affects women’s “efficiency” in the evaluation of “political initiative or of judicial authority in a community’s organization” — and thus compromises their ability to vote.

These days gender inequality is commonly explained by neurological differences, most popularly the notion that the surge of testosterone that occurs in the eighth week of fetal development affects the relative size of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and of the corpus callosum, the bundle of neurons that connects the two. In the 1980s Norman Geschwind proposed that the surge results in a smaller left hemisphere for males, leaving them with greater potential for right-hemisphere development, which, as he put it, results in “superior right-hemisphere talents, such as artistic, musical, or mathematical talent.” In female brains the hemispheres are more collaborative, explaining women’s superior verbalizing skills.

There are two problems here, Dr. Fine says. First is that several studies have found no difference in hemispheric size in neonates. The supposedly larger female corpus callosum is also in dispute. But even if size difference does exist (as it does in rats), she says, “getting from brain to behavior has proved a challenge.” Given that there may be sex differences in the brain, “what do they actually mean for differences in the mind?” [More]

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