September 17, 2006

David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist

Having digested Leonard Sax on "the emerging science of sex differences", David Brooks has been continuing his education in neuroscience by reading Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain ("Is Chemistry Destiny?" 9/17/2006):

These sorts of stark sex differences were once highly controversial, and not fit for polite conversation. And some feminists still argue that talking about biological differences between the sexes is akin to talking about biological differences between the races. But Brizendine’s feminist bona fides are unquestionable. And in my mostly liberal urban circle — and among this book’s reviewers — almost everybody takes big biological differences as a matter of course.

Without too much debate or even awareness, there has been a gigantic shift in how people think human behavior is formed.
... In the 1950’s, the common view was that humans begin as nearly blank slates and that behavior is learned through stimulus and response. ...

But now the prevailing view is that brain patterns were established during the millenniums when humans were hunters and gatherers, and we live with the consequences.

This is all true, as a picture of social trends in scientific (and popular) attitudes. But maintaining the 1950s "blank slate" orthodoxy required true believers to ignore mountains of contrary evidence, and the emerging "hard-wired" creed has exactly the same problem.

In my opinion, the most important insight in this area right now is Deena Skolnick's demonstration of the power of neuroscience to cloud people's minds. She took explanations of psychological phenomena that had been crafted to be "awful", and which (in their plain form) were recognized as bad both by novices and by experts, and added some (totally irrelevant) sentences about brain anatomy and physiology. With the added neuroscientific distraction, the bad explanations were perceived as satisfactory ones. [Update 6/6/2007: the paper has now been published, and is discussed here. ]

Brooks' conclusion:

Consciousness has come to be seen as this relatively weak driver, riding atop an organ, the brain, it scarcely understands. ...

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

Again, this is true as a description of an intellectual trend. But let's be careful to keep the political agendas and the scientific evidence from getting tangled. The science in this area is complex and equivocal (or more exactly, it offers unequivocal evidence for a complex interaction of genetic and environmental effects), and there's a long tradition of overinterpretation and misrepresentation on all sides of the issue, which recent works have maintained to a high degree. In addition, the connections between what is "natural" and what is "moral" -- between what comes easy to our species and how we decide we should live -- are not simple ones for any of us, and especially not for cultural conservatives like David Brooks and me. (Well, at least I'm a member of one of the most conservative cultures in the history of the planet, contemporary American academics.)

Other posts on Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain:

"Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (8/6/2006)
"Sex-linked lexical budgets" (8/6/2006)
"Sex and speaking rate" (8/7/2006)
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting" (8/14/2006)
"The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006)
"The superior cunning of women" (9/2/2006)
"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)
"Open-access sex stereotypes" (9/10/2006)
"Gabby guys: the effect size" (9/25/2006)
""Every 52 seconds": wrong by 23,736 percent?" (10/13/2006)
"Guys are a bit gabbier in Dutch, too" (10/16/2006)
"Two new reviews of Brizendine" (10/30/2006)
" Word counts" (11/28/2006)
"Sex differences in "communication events" per day?" (12/11/2006)
" The first time?" (7/5/2007)
" Female talkativeness: 'Knowledge protected against induction'" (7/6/2007)

More on the spread of these ideas in the media:

Regression to the mean in British journalism(11/28/2006)
Censorship at the Daily Mail(11/29/2006)
Contagious misinformation(12/1/2006)
Femail again(12/2/2006)
Bible Science stories(12/2/2006)
Fabricated but true?(12/3/2006)
The spread of bogus numbers in the meme pool (12/16/2006)
Busy tongues (12/31/2006)
The silence of the men (12/29/2006)
Cerebro de El País (1/28/2007)
The Female Brain is out in Britain(4/4/2007)
The New York Times slyly abets a lie (7/6/2007)

And on Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters, and Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens' The Minds of Boys:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2005)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)
"The emerging science of gendered yelling" (9/5/2006)
"The vast arctic tundra of the male brain" (9/6/2006)
"Girls and boys and classroom noise" (9/9/2006)

See also:

"He bold as a hawk, she soft as the dawn" (9/14/2006)
"Stereotypes and facts" (9/24/2006)
"Gender myths: letting science mislead" (9/30/2006)
"Political correctness, biology and culture" (10/31/2006)
"When stereotypes hang out" (11/16/2006)
"Dueling stereotypes" (11/18/2006)
" The neuroendocrinologist formerly known as Prince", 11/28/2006
" Guess what?", 2/20/2007
" Women and men again, you know?", 5/13/2007

[Note that Brooks' title is not only a rhetorical question of the foxoidal variety, it's also an instance of the "X is destiny" snowclone, which began with Heraclitus' "Character is destiny" and Sigmund Freud's "Anatomy is destiny" (often misquoted as "biology is destiny"), and continued with Wittgenstein's "Etymology is destiny", and many other riffs on the same phrasal theme. The first few pages of a Google search for "is destiny" finds X = {geology, culture, turnout, demography, strategy, intelligence, identity, communication, poetry ...} ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 17, 2006 10:23 AM