Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
Delusions of Gender is an excellent book. From a neuroscientific perspective, Cordelia Fine meticulously unpicks prevalent gender stereotypes we’re all very familiar with, and lays out a detailed and well researched critique of the (often shoddy) research and writings that have propped these beliefs up.
The book is divided into three sections – ‘half changed world, half changed minds’, ‘neurosexism’, and ‘recycling gender’. Whilst I didn’t feel this sectioning was strictly necessary due to how all of the subject material and arguments are interlinked and related, they do help maintain a sense of ‘detailed introduction’, ‘analysis of scientific claims’, ‘detailed conclusion’, which is helpful. I felt that Fine draws the reader in from the start – with pithy, acerbically satirical (but importantly, inoffensive) humour on the very first page of the introduction. By page 9 of the first chapter, one is drawn in by proclamations such as the familiar ‘male/female’ check-boxes at the start of many forms in fact ‘priming gender’ and influencing how one then answers the form. Fine expertly achieves what is necessary for any popular science book – getting people interested in the questions, without scaring them off with the technical aspects. No biological background is needed to appreciate the critiques that Fine structures throughout the book.
I feel the concept of ‘neurosexism’ is a valuable one, which Fine has coined in this work. All too often, the prejudices of researchers can leak into supposedly objective work, because there is a prevalent attitude that scientific methodologies allows researchers to successfully remove themselves from influencing their results, even when undertaking interpretations – rather than recognising the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of this. Little to no acknowledgement of this happens inside or outside of the field, and so one can hopefully see how in combination with the simplistic (but again, virtually ubiquitous) attitude that ‘science = facts’ can cause a lot of problematic stuff to be taken for granted. It is a mighty claim for anyone to say something behavioural is ‘hardwired’, though this is a term I would hazard we are all familiar with through popular culture. Fine uses a great quotation from Anne Fausto-Sterling in the introduction which sums up her claim nicely:
[d]espite the many recent insights of brain research, this organ remains a vast unknown, a perfect medium on which to project, even unwittingly, assumptions about gender.
Throughout the book, an impressively thorough number of references are given (the bibliography is 39 pages long), though in the text there is a recurring focus on the work of a small handful of particular authors. In no particular order, ones that stuck out to me were:
- Louan Brizendine – The Female Brain
- Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters
- Simon Baron-Cohen – The Essential Difference (and other works)
- Allan and Barbara Pease – Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps
These works were quoted and dissected, used as examples of poor methodology, untenable claims, and problematic stereotype support. What Ben Goldacre might term ‘Bad Science’ (another fabulous book, that you should read if you haven’t, incidentally). The reason I bring this up is because some might claim that the revisiting of these sources may imply there isn’t that much out there to criticise, that Fine may be picking on only a few examples to make her arguments easier to maintain, or to make strawmen of the cases presented.
I do not believe these potential criticisms to stand up, however. Brizendine, Sax, and Baron-Cohen are all respected neurologists, psychologists and doctors (With Allan Pease being the exception, his background being in sales before writing best-sellers on body language and communication with his wife), commanding a great deal of academic clout – making it all the more impressive that Fine’s meticulous research creates serious criticism that also remains accessible. There are a large number of differently sourced examples through the book that highlight how ingrained and accepted much insidious gender stereotyping there is throughout societal consciousness. None of the quotations chosen by Fine of works she casts a critical eye over appear unfairly cherry-picked, and indeed having also read The Essential Difference at least, I can confirm no misrepresentation or simplification of Baron-Cohen’s work, which is almost disappointing as one would not expect a Cambridge Professor to propagate such underdetermined claims that buy into a chronically anti-feminist state of affairs.
Delusions of Gender doesn’t restrict itself to an insular critique of those within the niche of neurobiology. By broadening discussion to how work in this field has influenced (or been influenced by) how people view personal relationships, single/mix sexed schooling, how people raise their children, advertising and media, and work on gendered behaviour in animals, Fine managed to create a work that covers so many important questions as to keep the non-scientist engaged from beginning to end, but without attempting an analysis in terms that are outside her area of familiarity. You won’t find any Judith Butler or Michael Foucault in the references. Nor will you find any meaty discussion of how trans* or non-binary gender experiences are related to the narrative of the science of sex differences. Fine obviously can’t be held responsible for the ubiquity of the sex binary within scientific discourse, though I feel exploration of this could have been a valuable and fascinating addition to the book. It is a delusion of gender to imagine that there are only two genders.
This is tame criticism however for a book that clearly sets out its area of investigation, and does so with precision and originality. I feel it would be a very small number of people who could read this book and honestly say they hadn’t learnt a lot. Make time for this book, even if you think it sounds too brainy.