Today we look back with amusement at the efforts of nineteenth-century scientists to weigh, cut, split or dissect brains in their pursuit of finding the precise anatomical reason for female inferiority. How much more scientific and unbiased we are today, we think, with our PET scans and fMRIs and sophisticated measurements of hormone levels. Today’s scientists would never commit such a methodological faux pas as failing to have a control group or knowing the sex of the brain they are dissecting – would they? Brain scans don’t lie – do they?
Well, yes, they would and they do. As Cordelia Fine documents in Delusions of Gender, researchers change their focus, technology marches on, but sexism is eternal. Its latest incarnation is what she calls “neurosexism”, sexist bias disguised in the “neuroscientific finery” of claims about neurons, brains, hormones.
“We have been here before, so many times”, writes Fine, with a sigh. No one disputes that the sexes differ physiologically, in hormones and anatomy, or that there are sex differences in the brain related to men’s and women’s different reproductive processes. The eternal question is, and has been, so what? What, if anything, do those differences have to do with work, love, success, ambition, talent, love of sports, and who does the housework? Perhaps they do, says Fine, but “when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith – as well as more than one echo of the insalubrious past”.