Review Books - Hue and cry over gender differences

17th September 2010 at 01:00

Pink Brain, Blue Brain

By Lise Eliot

Publisher: Oneworld

ISBN: 978-0618393114


Martin Spice

It is difficult to see how Pink Brain, Blue Brain can become anything other than the definitive text on sex differences. Neuroscientist and "domestic goddess dropout" Lise Eliot's book is so thorough, exhaustive and well-balanced that it should become the starting, and probably finishing, point of any debate over whether sex differences are innate or learned.

Forget Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus or any of the popular pseudo-scientific claimants determined to prove the essential difference in men's and women's brains. The fact is that men and women share 99.8 per cent of their genes and the brain differences between the sexes are far less significant than the differences within each sex. They are also less than the differences between many social and racial groups.

More to the point, there is little evidence to support many of the commonly held views that, for instance, men are innately better at science and asserting their opinions, and women are better at speaking and reading people's feelings. The test results and statistics - of which there are plenty in this book - simply do not bear these views out.

Eliot's area of professional investigation and expertise is brain plasticity, "an admittedly ugly term used to describe the very beautiful fact that the brain actually changes in response to its own experience". Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is solidly opposed to the idea that our brains, male or female, are "hard-wired".

The dangers implicit in the "hard-wired" school of thought are evident - "the more we parents hear about hard-wiring and biological programming, the less we bother tempering our pink or blue fantasies and start attributing every skill or deficit to innate sex differences". The result of this thinking, she argues, is a new form of stereotyping that is just as hard to unpick as the old belief in innate male superiority that preceded the crusade of the women's movement.

But unpick them we can - and must. To argue that the differences between male and female brains are far smaller than is often believed is not to deny that some differences do exist, or that "small differences can grow into troublesome gaps".

For instance, in developmental terms girls will be a few months ahead of boys when they start school and boys may score less than girls on reading, speaking and writing tests. But boys are by no means deficient in verbal skills and have similarly large vocabularies.

Eliot's rightful concern is that gender differences, of which this is just a small example, are being exaggerated and used not only to explain failure but to predict it. So, to stick to the same example, it has become acceptable to say things like, "Jack doesn't read as well as Melissa did at his age, but of course he's a boy".

A small difference in performance is in danger of becoming something much more important when Jack, instead of getting the additional support he needs, is excused his relative underperformance simply because he is a boy.

As well as debunking some of the current populist thinking, Eliot sets out in Pink Brain, Blue Brain to suggest ways in which the manifested differences in the sexes - the vast majority of which are a result of parental expectation and societal conditioning - can be addressed.

To this end, every chapter concludes with a section of practical suggestions for modifying or rebalancing the interests, strengths and weaknesses of boys and girls. Some of these, such as ensuring that male infants are exposed to as much live talk as possible, are familiar; others, such as the case for formally teaching spatial skills, are less so.

There are plenty of challenges for teachers here: to "keep boys reading, communicating and creating, practising their leadership, nurturing and organisational skills" and to exercise "girls' spatial, maths and technical abilities and easing them into greater competitiveness, risk-taking and confidence in their own leadership abilities".

Eliot's review of the current scientific research is exhaustive, and there are close to 100 pages of references to articles, books and journals for any reader who wishes to follow up specific claims or views. For all that, Pink Brain, Blue Brain takes the reader on an eminently readable, interesting and at times provocative journey through the intricacies of the hypothalamus, the cerebral cortex, testosterone, serotonin and the intricacies of the interactions between nature and nurture.

Her conclusion? That the "brain is an amazing organ, but none of its remarkable faculties is limited to one sex or the other". At a time when boys' underperformance has become a national concern, we might do well to heed what she has to say.


Lise Eliot is associate professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago. She has studied at Harvard and Columbia universities and is also the author of What's Going on in There? How the brain and mind develop in the first five years of life. She has a daughter and two sons.


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