Naomi Wolf on the Male Brain

Naomi Wolf's commentary on brains and gender today in the Globe and Mail makes it clear why essentialism is such risky business. As she writes:

Feminists understandably have often shied away from scientific evidence that challenges this critique of sex roles. After all, because biology-based arguments about gender difference have historically been used to justify women's subjugation, women have been reluctant to concede any innate difference, lest it be used against them.

But now a spate of scientific analyses, based on brain-imaging technology and new anthropological and evolutionary discoveries, suggests we may have had our heads in the sand, and that we must be willing to grapple with what seem to be at least some genuine, measurable differences between the sexes.

Wolf goes on to discuss work by Dr. Helen Fisher and Dr. Michael Gurian. On Fisher's work, Wolf writes:

... in her description of our evolution, Dr. Fisher notes that males who could tolerate long periods of silence (waiting for animals while in hunt mode) survived to pass on their genes, thus genetically selecting to prefer “space.” By contrast, females survived best by bonding with others and building community, since such groups were needed to gather roots, nuts and berries, while caring for small children.
Reading Dr. Fisher, one is more inclined to leave boys alone to challenge one another and test their environment, and to accept that, as she puts it, nature designed men and women to collaborate for survival. “Collaboration” implies free will and choice; even primate males do not succeed by dominating or controlling females. In her analysis, it serves everyone for men and women to share their sometimes different but often complementary strengths - a conclusion that seems reassuring, not oppressive.

Reassuring, maybe. And anecdotally, I might be inclined to agree that women are more verbal and more inclined to "build community" than men -- but then, I certainly know men (heterosexual men, even!) who will happily spend hours gossiping around a French press. It seems more useful to suggest that it serves everyone for people to share their "sometimes different but often complementary strengths", than it does to talk about this kind of complementarity as something that exists in a gender binary. Even if these differences are 'wired in' generally, they will certainly not hold true for all men, or all women. And even if these difference are 'wired in' generally, should we accept them as the basis for a functional society?

I don't know Fisher's work well, and I'm hesitant to characterize it based on a brief second-hand report. But I would have liked to see Wolf ask some more bigger questions here.

First, I'm not sure why she so eagerly reads and accepts the suggestion that we should take gender norms that presumably existed in hunter-gatherer societies as a basis for current childrearing practices. We simply don't live in that kind of society any more, and our "survival" no longer literally depends on the norms that she outlines. I can see a lot of benefit to encouraging girls to "challenge each other and test their environment", even if for that's somehow less 'instinctive' for them. If it's also true that it's harder for girls than boys to build muscle mass, would we tell them not to bother trying? (I suppose that we do, in some ways -- and that's simply not acceptable either.) Should we really consent to be constrained by our purported biology?

Second, it strikes me as flat-out weird that any current feminist thinker would not, in fact, ask if there's anything about current socialization of young girls that makes it seem that they have less instinctive interest in challenging their peers or testing their environments than do young boys. I'm not sure that it bears explaining, in fact, why young girls might be discourage from such "challenging" or "testing". It's a major lapse on Wolf's part not to address this basic issue.

When she discusses Gurian's work, however, Wolf's comments are even more disappointing:

Michael Gurian, a neurobiology consultant, takes this set of insights further. [...]

He even posits that the male brain can't “see” dust or laundry piling up as the female brain often can - which explains why men and women tend to perform household tasks in different ways. Men often can't hear women's lower tones, and their brains, unlike women's, have a “rest” state (sometimes, he is thinking about “nothing”). [...]

Somehow, all this is liberating rather than infuriating. So much that enrages women, or leads them to feel rejected or unheard, may not reflect men's conscious neglect or even sexism but simply their brains' wiring. According to Dr. Gurian, if women accept these biological differences and work around them in relationships, men respond with great appreciation and devotion (often expressed non-verbally).

So -- my response is pretty similar here. It seems that there's a very basic question about the influence of social norms on this 'brain wiring', or on the way that it gets expressed in behavior, needs to be asked here, and Wolf's not asking it. And then, really, how much are we willing to be constrained by our brain wiring? If it's less "instinctive" for men to handle particular household tasks, does that get them off the hook? Or, if those are still necessary tasks, is it imperative upon them to simply learn to handle them? We can't simply allow basic inequities in the division of domestic labour (and yes, that's what laundry is) to persist because men are fortuitously wired in a way that gets them off the hook. That's bad for everybody.

And again, of course, these differences don't fall cleanly across gender lines. I'll speak from experience here. I grew up in a household where, because of various issues in the family dynamic, I wasn't terribly well trained in basic housekeeping skills. And sometimes I really "don't see" clutter, dust, whatever. I'm working on it, slowly and systematically. Why? Not because I regard it as some kind of feminine imperative, but because I want to live in decent conditions, and because I don't want to drive the people I live with insane. Just as it's harder to learn a second language in adulthood -- because of changes in the plasticity of the brain! -- this is a much trickier set of skills to teach oneself as an adult. But you know, it can be done. I don't think it's unreasonable for people to expect this of me, and I don't think it's unreasonable for me to expect it from other people (be they family, roommates, or partners).

I think that legitimate research in evolutionary biology (as Helen Fisher's seems to be, from my other encounters with it) is fascinating, and potentially deeply revealing. But as individuals, as partners, as parents, or as teachers, we might actually do well not to be so 'reassured' by readings of this research that try to identify essential differences between the sexes. Instead, we might ask -- who do we want to be? Biology might be destiny to a point (and I don't believe that we can transcend it completely), but is it acceptable to use it as a collective excuse for perpetuating fundamental inequalities? Italic


Anonymous said...

"Biology might be destiny to a point (and I don't believe that we can transcend it completely), but is it acceptable to use it as a collective excuse for perpetuating fundamental inequalities?"

Yes, of course it is. Otherwise you would be making judgments and opinions based solely on personal feelings and prejudices. Humans are subject to emotions and egos, and to ignore science (or deem it less important) and rather consider your own biased personal opinion more finite is a mistake of your ego. I know that you don't want there to be a biological difference between women and men, because that can lead down a dangerous road, but it is clear the old ideas of feminism are outdated and passed-by. You presented no evidence to back anything you said during the course of this blog post, so I am very reluctant to consider your opinions over that of a trained biologist.

One thing that both men and women are entirely equal at is the capacity for narcissism. You need to be more open-minded and accepting of new ways of thinking. I get the sense through this post that you are a stubborn person and you dislike people who may challenge your rooted views on feminism, but things change and new science is constantly arriving. If the ultimate goal of feminism is respect then being a slave to your own prejudices and egotisms in lieu of research and science is not helping to reach that goal, (or if you believe it to have been already met)enforce that goal.

Elizabeth Irwin said...

If Anon is so sure of his position, why does he lack the courage to post under his name? I thought men were inherently brave, and posting a comment to a blog certainly requires barely a modicum of cajones. Anon unwittingly proves a couple of CanCrit's points.

Firstly, although certain attributes may well be more common to a particular gender, there are always exceptions, which make it dangerous for us to make the leap in thinking from "Many men are this way" to "You are a man, therefore you MUST be this way."

Secondly, he demonstrates the propensity of bigots to distort the findings of science to their own political ends. You will see that while he appeals to science and logic his post is a collection of logical fallacies, appeals to emotion, and knee jerk reactions.

Nice post CanCrit, you raise very important questions. The fact that Wolfe doesn't attempt to address them is very telling.

cancrit(at)gmail.com said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! You've said most of what I wanted to in response to Anonymous.

I'll add: I'm not sure where you think my evidence problems were here, because you didn't specify. But in any case, my primary problem here is not with the research that Wolf comments on, but with Wolf's comments themselves. Fisher is really well respected in her field, and as I suggest in my post, I think Wolf's presentation of Fisher's work is probably quite simplistic. (As for Gurian, I don't know -- but I do question what a "neurobiological consultant" is.)

As for being stubborn: sure? But the bigger points are these:

1) Even if this research leads to accurate generalizations about men and women, it can't account for everybody. (I don't think that there's a trained biologist out there who would suggest otherwise.)

2) Scientists are people too. Even given rigorous and careful methodology, their interpretation of data can be coloured by assumptions and ideology. I'm not a trained scientist, but I think it's well within my purview to ask questions about the relationship between cultural attitudes and the interpretation of data, or between cultural attitudes and the use of interpretations of data.

So, when Wolf talks about 'brain wiring' as something independent of socialization, I'll question that. And when she suggests that we can heave a sigh of relief because our husbands do quietly love us for cleaning messes that they're biologically incapable of noticing, I'll ask if that's really the best we can do. Because I don't think it is.

Queen of Thoughts said...

I find that Naomi Wolf presents this scientific information, but doesn't offer much commentary on it. I'm a little confused by what she wants us to think.

Katie said...

In response to Mary, Queen of Thoughts, I think not offering much comment on the findings is exactly the way this should be reported. Naomi Watts shouldn't be presenting such information in the way she "wants us to think." We should be able to decide what to think on our own. ;-)

My own personal opinion is that evolutionary biology can offer descriptions of why certain general characteristics seem to exist, based on logical assumptions about the way humans evolved. What I don't see here is any attempt to disentangle environmental conditioning (very powerful!) from evolutionary/genetic "hard-wiring". As most of us have observed, many of our friends don't fit these gender stereotypes, so it can't be as simple as "Men are silent, women are chatty," or whatever the generalization is.

Arguments from evolutionary biology are interesting and fascinating. But they should be considered at best descriptive, and not prescriptive of behaviour. To say that men can't do laundry is an insult to men's ability to learn and adapt.

cancrit(at)gmail.com said...

Totally agreed about the failure to disentangle nature and nurture. I don't know if that's a fault of the sources that she's reporting, or her own weak reading. Also, totally agreed about the usefulness of evolutionary biology. It's really INTERESTING, as long as we don't take it to be -- well, destiny!

I do *kind* of disagree about the "what to think" issue, though. Wolf isn't a science reporter -- she's a (pseudo)feminist writing an opinion piece. Her opinion thus DOES belong here. A 'clean' presentation of the research is the job of writing in a different genre.

That said -- as I read it she does tell us what she wants us to think, if in a slightly sideways manner. Her goal here is to convince us that we can attribute things that "infuriate women" to biology, rather than to social structures. And, well, I can't agree there.