Viewpoint: We can’t ignore scientific evidence about male, female brain differences

3-9-2019 img
Image credit: Odyssey

It’s obvious to just about anyone who is paying attention — and to most biologists, in particular — that there are some very important differences between men and women that go far beyond the concentrations of their hormones and the shapes of their genitals.

Consider some of the subtler differences. Men, for example, have higher hematocrit (i.e., red blood cell concentration) than women, which means that for any given volume of blood, men carry more oxygen than women. Men also have more skeletal muscle mass, accounting for roughly 42% of body weight compared to only 36% for women. Reasons like these are why male athletes are stronger and faster than female athletes.

There are also neurological differences between men and women. Just how many differences are there? Well, there are so many, that an entire issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research was dedicated to analyzing them.

In an accompanying commentary, neurobiologist Dr. Larry Cahill explained that, due to political correctness, the topic of neurological sex differences was so taboo that a scientist risked ruining his career if he openly discussed them. Of course, this does a grievous disservice to both men and women, particularly when it comes to mental health.

It is well established in psychiatry that men and women suffer different rates of mental illness. Women are more likely to be depressed or anxious, while men are more likely to be addicted to and abuse drugs. Migraines are more common among women. Though the prevalence of schizophrenia is roughly the same for men and women, there is a notable sex difference in the age of onset of symptoms.

The bottom line is that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the brains of men and women differ, sometimes substantially. But a new book, which is making waves in the media, denies this.

Related article:  'It's unsettling': Cancer cells use the body's nerves to attack the brain, studies suggest

Brain Wars: Return of the Sex Deniers

Dr. Gina Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging, argues in an article for NewScientist (and in a new book called Gendered Brain) that our understanding of neurological sex differences is all wrong. The more likely explanation is that Dr. Rippon’s understanding of neurobiology is all wrong… or at least tainted by motivated reasoning.

Much of her article points out all the times that neuroscientists thought they identified a real sex difference in male and female brains only to be disproven later. But this is not a convincing argument. Indeed, it’s the same sort of argument that creationists use against evolution: “Biologists got a few things wrong before, therefore the entire theory is wrong!” No, that’s not how science works.

Dr. Rippon also takes offense at the historical and sexist notion that men’s brains are somehow superior to women’s brains. Of course, she is right to be offended; that’s nonsense. However, differences do not imply superiority or inferiority. Yet, she uses this historical sexism as evidence for the wrongness of modern neuroscience, but that point is utterly non-germane to the issue at hand.

Her objections ultimately seem to be rooted in fear of inequality. If we tell men and women that their brains are different, then they will behave accordingly, exacerbating any (real or imagined) sex-based societal injustices. That might be a legitimate concern, but it’s certainly not grounds to throw out data she doesn’t like. That’s the real injustice here.

Alex Berezow is vice president of scientific affairs for the the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @AlexBerezow

This article originally appeared on the American Council on Science and Health website as Brain Wars: Return Of The Sex Deniers and has been republished here with permission.

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
can you boost your immune system to prevent coronavirus spread x

Video: How to boost your immune system to guard against COVID and other illnesses

Scientists have recently developed ways to measure your immune age. Fortunately, it turns out your immune age can go down ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend