Larry Cahill, a distinguished brain-scientist, recently published an article in which he discusses the need for recognizing the differences between male and female brains by first discussing some bad medical results due to the assumption that there are no such differences and, thus, medicines will affect both the male and female brain in the same way and to the same extent. The article, Equal [does not equal] The Same: Sex Differences in the Human Brain, begins with a comment by the editors of Cerebrum, a magazine of The Dana Foundation:
Editor’s Note: While advances in brain imaging confirm that men and women think in their own way and that their brains are different, the biomedical community mainly uses male animals as testing subjects with the assumption that sex differences in the brain hardly matter. This month’s Cerebrum highlights some of the thinking and research that invalidates that assumption.
The article begins with an example of women being harmed by the assumption that there is no difference between male and female brains:
Early in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered the makers of the well-known sleep aid Ambien (zolpidem) to cut their recommended dose in half—but only for women. In essence, the FDA was acknowledging that despite extensive testing prior to the drug’s release on the market, millions of women had been overdosing on Ambien for 20 years.
Cahill concludes “the biomedical community has long operated on what is increasingly being viewed as a false assumption: that biological sex matters little, if at all.” As the tale goes, this began largely as a result of simplifying assumptions that only the regions of the brain involved in regulating reproduction were inherently masculine or feminine. I would imagine that those who regarded women as less cognitively capable thought of them as having weaker brains of the same sort as men rather than different brains than men. According to the author, and agreeing with my own readings, the opposite problem arose in modern academia:
[S]tudying sex differences in the brain was for a long time distasteful to large swaths of academia. Regarding sex differences research, Gloria Steinem once said that it’s “anti-American, crazy thinking to do this kind of research.” Indeed, in about the year 2000, senior colleagues strongly advised me against studying sex differences because it would “kill” my career.
In other words, science—even crucial medical research—is subject to deformation by ideologies. It’s all seems needless because the world is moving toward a more open view of possible male-female roles. Why not just let matters develop by treating each other, male or female, with proper tolerance and openness? Well, neither men nor women do well—in the short-term—at the task of responding honestly and courageously to reality, as I will discuss later. In any case, men and women alike were having trouble accepting that there were, and are, many women with both talent and ambition for science or engineering or business management or politics or carpentry or dentistry. Being radical individualists and fearing the human cultures which do use both greater and lesser differences between men and women to shape them to roles, modern feminists could only go from one extreme, women who had to work hard and 24 hours a day at being child-bearers and child-raisers and homemakers and women who seem to have been trophy wives of prosperous middle-class and upper-class men, to another extreme, every man and woman for themselves as equal competitors or victims in the marketplaces which have become the true (but false) homes of modern human beings.
Human cultures use all human traits to shape a human being to roles. This can be a cruel process as it is in American education. The American school system uses the social instincts of young children to homogenize them, gathering them in herds and going over the heads of some and dragging others down in the apparent belief that a mediocre mind along with enthusiasm for mass-culture is what’s needed for boys and girls to mature into good men and good women. If we’ve tended to place too much emphasis on sports, we at least display some common sense when we see sports as something good for all but also the special domain of the talented athletes, that is, those with a work-ethic which complements raw talent.
We modern Americans remain descendants of the New England puritans. We don’t conceive ourselves to be embodied creatures but rather do we misconceive ourselves to be something like `personalities’ accidentally attached to bodies and most certainly only accidentally embedded in particular cultures or particular environments of this planet. We float free, not constrained by our particular traits or circumstances. To be sure, the Body of Christ itself comes to exist as men and women push themselves to limits so surprisingly far out as to seem we are constantly re-inventing our very selves, but when we do it right we are still shaping ourselves by responses to a Creation, including our own human being, which is ever revealed as far richer and more complex than we could have ever imagined.
God’s imagination is far greater than even the sum of human imaginations over the ages.
We err greatly in thinking to understand our world by way of schematic knowledge, though schemas can be a necessary aid to a creature struggling to know and understand. I discussed some of the problems of schematic knowledge in Sex and Categorical Reasoning in a World of Evolution and Development.
Still, we modern men and women know much, by human standards, about the thoughts of God as He created and shaped this world and all of Creation, before and alongside and within this world. We can, in principle, share all of the thoughts of God specific to His acts as Creator. This is part of what it means to share His life after our resurrections—to share His thoughts, as well as His feelings and His acts.
Some of God’s thoughts are built into the basic operations of our brain by way of natural selection and all the other processes of the evolution of life. Others we can learn by paying attention to both our `instincts’, to evaluate for rejection or further nurturing, and to our individual and communal `rational’ or conscious thoughts. Much of what we instinctively know about men and women as different varieties of human being is true but still conditioned by the context of human life in a particular time and place. Because public life, including the arts and the sciences, were once dominated almost completely by men, we have a record of the arising of abstract thought and of a variety of artistic skills over the time of human civilization, as that arising occurred among men.
The male mind has expanded greatly from crafts and agriculture and warrior-centered poetry to now encompass much that would be far beyond the most vague understanding of a Homer or Aristotle or any of the craftsmen or scholars of ancient China. I would imagine the female mind is making a similar expansion, a little delayed because of the need, not to be denied, for women to play a different role than men in reproduction. So it is that women, who are now playing a more active role in that expansion of the human communal mind at the same time they develop their own minds, are starting from slightly different regions than men and will likely move over different but largely parallel paths to those of the male minds. The communal mind, ultimately the mind of the Body of Christ, will include all of this diversity and richness. Read deeply into these speculations and try to imagine the complexity of such processes and the little likelihood that male and female minds are, in general, the same though there is sure to be a lot of overlap.
In any case, there is no way to anticipate the movements of such complex processes in which facts emerge as strongly as do patterns, but even most of the patterns can be seen only in the rearview mirror. We can only pay attention to living men and women and try to respond to them as individuals while also remembering that there are both differences and similarities. Either differences or similarities between men and women could be seen to dominate the processes by which the human mind is expanding to encapsulate ever greater regions of Creation; we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be blinded by initial impressions or impressions at particular points in the processes by which individual men and women develop, such as the great differences during adolescence, and the processes by which individual and communal minds are expanding in that effort to better and more completely encapsulate Creation. We most certainly would be unwise to think we can anticipate much of the development of the communal mind of mankind, that which is ultimately the mind of the Body of Christ.
When we pay insufficient attention to Creation, most especially to human being, we rebel against God, filling in the gaps of our knowledge with ideological distortions or superstitions or simply random nonsense. We can harm our fellow-humans in this rebellion, forcing some of them into roles which are uncomfortable or demeaning or which simply don’t allow the development of certain classes of individuals. At the same time, categorical knowledge, including knowledge of the differences between the ways of thought of an American man and a Chinese man or a Japanese man and a Japanese women, can be an efficient conveyor of past knowledge or of past needs. We should be careful to preserve, if possible, what is true and good and beautiful in our various human traditions.
Let me return to the article for a short discussion of neuroscientists straying away from empirical investigation and making assumptions, perhaps necessarily so to start their research:
Despite the fact that most neuroscientists still overwhelmingly use only males in their studies, other neuroscientists have generated considerable data demonstrating sex influences on brain function at all levels, including the molecular level and ion-channel level. Very often these sex influences are completely unanticipated by investigators. Crucially, animal research clearly demonstrates that mammalian brains in particular are filled with sex influences that cannot be explained by human culture. Thus animal research proves that the human mammalian brain must contain all manner of biologically based sex influences—from small to large—that cannot be explained simply by human culture (even though there are certainly cultural contributions in many cases). Animal research has torpedoed the “it’s all human culture” ship that ruled the academic seas since the 1970s when it came to sex differences.
It might have been necessary to make simplifying assumptions when first starting to explore the workings of the human brain, but assumptions have a way of turning into accepted dogmas. In this case, the assumptions had not had time to show as mistakes before the entire subject of differences in the male and female brains, and the minds made by those brains, had become “distasteful to large swaths of academia.” Moreover, the scientific enterprise has been changing, not always for the best but probably sometimes, or even most of the time, for the better. For example, the male dominance in mathematical physics while probably being partly a matter of fewer opportunities for women has to be set in a greater context—the men doing high-level work in mathematical physics and related fields of more abstract mathematics worked as loners relative to the modern situation where even theoreticians seem to be pulled onto teams and to be attending conferences regularly. It might be that men could dominate in that past situation and won’t in the current situation, though the current understandings of differences in the male and female brains suggest men will always dominate in the particular fields of abstract mathematical sciences. What’s seems even more clear to me is: the future will be far more complex than, far different from, what we could imagine. Academics, especially in the social sciences, seem to be much like generals in always fighting the previous war.
We cannot deny and should celebrate that we are intelligent and intellectual creatures in a Creation which, as I noted in We Need All Sorts of Mavericks in This Dynamic Creation, is dynamic in two ways:
- It is dynamic in itself, and
- It seems still more dynamic because of the various ways in which our knowledge of this dynamic Creation has grown and deepened and become more sophisticated—at a very rapid pace in recent centuries.
When we pay inadequate attention to empirical reality, when we override what seems true for ideological or other reasons, when we rebel against the Creator, we harm others and ourselves as well as damaging the growing and maturing Body of Christ. The problem seems to be that few human beings, whether due to nature or nurture, seem capable of flexibly and intelligently responding to God’s Creation, on the various levels of concrete or abstract created being; most human beings need scripts or recipes to function. This shouldn’t be a problem because we have different roles in life and those with the calling to be pioneers will give the settlers new land and new materials to work with; the real problem is that those who don’t have the talents for gaining deeper and truer understandings of Creation have been encouraged from the time of the Industrial Revolution to believe they have some sort of right to understand Creation in their own way. That “their own way” might be a very bad way of understanding God’s acts and thoughts as Creator is seemingly irrelevant. It seems vaguely undemocratic and unfair, un-American to those in the United States, to so much as suggest they can’t vote intelligently for modern leaders of the American Empire when they can’t even locate on a map the countries we’ve invaded and occupied and devastated in recent decades. See Unreliable Memories, Minds Like Silly Putty for a rather sharp discussion of this issue including my take on Ortega Y Gasset’s insights into the failure of Western leaders to properly integrate the bulk of Western men following their release from parochial and limited lives during the Industrial Revolution.
This is sanity in its entirety, mind and heart and hands: to be in synch with reality as it can be best understood in our time and culture. See Intelligence vs. Intellect and Do We Need Heart and Hands as Well as Mind to Understand Reality? for background on my use of these terms. Better still, download the book A More Exact Understanding of Human Being. It is also a part of sanity to recognize when the best human understandings available to us need to be enriched or enlarged and to be open to the efforts of those who are trying to do so.
This is reality: over many generations, many human societies have developed very useful and largely true stereotypes about men and women. This is also reality: we are individual beings as well as being members in all senses of greater communities. In both our individuality and our communal roles, we all differ from stereotypes, even those women who long from their youth to be wives and mothers and homemakers and take on jobs only when necessary for special needs or when the children are grown. In general, we should act toward men or women as they present themselves, so long as they present themselves as morally well-ordered and this remains true even if some part of their lives are morally disordered by traditional standards. Sometimes, we might even play a role in nurturing the development of their human being or offering to nurture different and perhaps richer developments of their human being. If they present themselves in a morally disordered way, we can only be charitable while properly protecting ourselves and others near to us. We should also leave other valid possibilities open in some ways which cannot be predetermined nor can I currently describe them in explicit, non-narrative terms.
I started by discussing the article, Equal [does not equal] The Same: Sex Differences in the Human Brain. I give my overview of the situation: In the latter third of the 20th century, (many, though not all) feminists engaged in an intense effort to replace stereotypes containing substantial amounts of truth by stereotypes largely devoid of truth. We should be able to throw off any wrongful categorical and stereotypical understandings of male and female roles—again, see Sex and Categorical Reasoning in a World of Evolution and Development—without falling into new understandings which are even worse as most modern human schemes to understand human being have proven to be.