Sexual Dimorphism and Feminism

Two months ago, there was a clash of the comic book titans between Scipio of Absorbacon and Ragnell of Written World when Absorbacon published a post arguing the implausibility of female superheroes and supervillains. Scipio wrote,

I will believe a man can fly. It is substantially more difficult for me to believe that women are as likely as men to put on a costume and fight crime… It’s even more of a strain to unflinchingly accept woman villains. Men are more violent than women. Men are more likely to become criminals.

Scipio’s argument boils down to advocating inherent biological differences between men and women resulting in different modes of thinking. Scipio extends this argument to say that because men and women are biologically different, one gender is naturally more apt (and thus more plausible) at playing certain social roles than the other (i.e. being a hero versus being a villain). Scipio backed up this claim in the comments section by linking to a Research at Penn article entitled “Possible Basis Found for the Cliché Depicting Men as More ‘Hot-Headed’ than Women“, in which a University of Pennsylvania researcher used MRI to map the amygdala of adult humans and noted a sexual dimorphism in size of the amygdala of men compared to women. The PDF of the actual research article is here, if you’re interested in reading about methods and actual results. Again, the turn of the conversation was not unexpected — inevitably, those who argue biological differences between people, whether it be gender or race will cite a scientific article (or in this case, the lay-media’s summary of a scientific finding) to support their claims, frequently with little concern regarding critical understanding of the results. In the comments section, I posted a lengthy response, addressing why one cannot jump to conclusions based on this result:

  1. Are the two control groups sufficiently representative of a random sampling of men and women such that the findings could be used to infer differences throughout the entire population?
  2. Is the difference signficant? In Figure 3 of the paper, the variability within gender seems to be just as large as the variability between genders.
  3. Is it reasonable to correlate larger size with greater function? We don’t know how the larger size arises (more neurons? more dendrites? more glial cells?) and whether or not there is a functional difference in the amygdala conferred by this size?

Still, the possibility of a sexual dimorphism existing between the brains of men and women was an interesting question to me, so I chose to do a literature review of sexual dimorphism in the nervous system for my Neurophysiology summer class.

I have to admit that despite the position of feminism when it comes to “natural differences between men and women”, it had never really occurred to me to figure out the scientific position on sexual dimorphism in the human brain. It was certainly of political relevance: throughout history, the power structure have used “natural inequities” to justify disenfranchisement.For generations, White scientists used faulty scientific surveys to “conclude” that Blacks were more genetically pre-dispositioned to excel at manual labour over academic pursuits. White plantation owners believed themselves to be saving the African savage from himself by providing their slaves shelter and a “Christian” upbringing. Nazis published eugenics reports in which skull sizes were measured in order to defend statements of Aryan supremacy. Similarly, the patriarchy has used science to perpetuate gender roles that disenfranchise women, arguing that our supposed “emotionalism”, “empathy”, “sensitivity” and (according to the UPenn study) “unimpulsiveness” is reason enough to deny us equal professional opportunities or social standing. Women are still paid roughly $0.70 to the dollar compared to men, and women are still underrepresented in “traditionally male” jobs, particularly in the military where women are prevented from taking most positions. And some men even find it difficult to believe women are plausibly able to be superheroes or supervillains.

Feminism is about advocating gender equality, which, as far as I’m concerned, demands that men and women be viewed as fundamentally identical both in physical ability and in mental capacity. With that in mind, I was certain that in my literature review of sexual dimorphism, I would be able to find an obvious reason to discount the research as a product of patriarchal conditioning or faulty science. However, the more I read, the more it seemed to make sense — unlike race, in which there is no significant genetic difference between the races, the two genders are distinguishable down to the genetic level (men have an XY sex chromosome, women have an XX sex chromosome) and this difference results in necessary physiological and anatomical differences critical for reproduction.

In the animal world, there are several examples of sexual dimorphism of the brain resulting in different sexual behaviours, and which arise from sexually dimorphic circuitry in the brain. One research article cites a difference in the behaviour of certain neurons of male and female rats arising at embryonic day 15. It came to seem less reasonable to me to argue that men and women did not have biological and anatomical differences in their brains that might result in functional differences. Although establishing a functional effect for anatomical differences in the brain is difficult in humans (and so my belief is that there isn’t any current scientific evidence for a conclusion such as the one cited by the Absorbacon post), I came out of the research project with a revised opinion of the science: it seems less reasonable to me to blindly imagine that men and women would have reproductive differences and differences in hormone production and release in the brain, but not other differences in the initial hardwiring of the brain. However, the science still has not completely resolved this point when it comes to humans, and while it is likely that our different genetic makeups prescribe different neural circuitry in the brain, the nervous system is particularly plastic, and we have yet to distinguish between the effects of nature vs. nurture in the development of the human psyche. I think that while it is reasonable to believe that male and female children might start out with sexually dimorphic circuitry, as we develop post-natally, our brains are capable of converging.

Either way, feminism must be able to adapt to the possibility that science will continue to uncover “evidence” suggesting differences between men and women that some might try to use to justify preferential treatment for men. I was wrong to try and blindly disregard the possibility that science might show a difference between the way men and women would think; by ignoring science, I wasn’t spending my time trying to consider how to argue against these findings in a way that would still benefit women. Fundamentally, I and other feminists must adapt our philosophy to incorporate the findings of science, and vocalize the fact that science cannot and should not be used to justify unequal treatment. Rather than continue to argue that women will be found to be biologically equal to men, we just develop the argument that biological difference does not justify social oppression. So, maybe the Gurs paper is right, and my amygdala is smaller than a man’s; but ask electroman and he will tell you that I can be just as hot-headed as he. And that’s just the way I like it.

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