Writing about science can be tricky. Broadly speaking, it’s a topic that needs a sturdy amount of basic information and understanding to even begin to understand. And when you get into the specifics of a topic, it becomes even harder to understand and to know if what you are reading is even good science or not (it might be based on deeply flawed experiments or it just might be out of date). In Delusions of Gender, author and psychologist Cordelia Fine takes an absolute huge amount of studies, statistics and data and seeks to synthesize it for the more causal and mainstream audience.
The great strength of this book, and the thing I think that is most important about it, is the way it explains science to the reader. Fine uses dozens of studies and experiments to make her case that the biological differences between men and women’s brains are not that different and that the social and cultural indoctrination we all experience as we grow up plays a large role in how we define ourselves as men and women. I like and enjoy reading about science quite a bit but I am by no means a scientist and I was never lost or confused by this book. Her ability to take piles of studies and scientific papers and synthesizes readily accessible and even applicable information to the more casual reader is strong and highly developed. Without it I would have been lost after the third chapter.
I think that the first part of the book is in many ways the strongest part because it’s so simple. Her examples are so simple and beguiling that they almost come off as silly. I snorted and chuckled to myself several time throughout the first several chapters. She recounts how the use of a single word before a test can throw off the results in huge ways. Groups that are told that the men are expected to do better on the test reflect that while other groups that are told that there is no gender difference in the test results show no gender difference whatsoever. It almost comical how often something small like that shifts the whole results. Women are more empathetic right? Well, not when they are shown videos that say otherwise. And the opposite was true for men; when they are shown empathy-based videos, all of a sudden they score really high empathy scores. It’s very fascinating and has the added bonus of making a certain amount of common sense. It’s reasonable to think that after people are told something by a trusted authority figure, or shown something that highlights a certain emotion or trait, that they might act more that way, or reflect the messages in their actions immediately afterward.
That simple truth is at the heart of what Fine is trying to show the reader. Our actions, traits and personalities are not based on our sex biology; at least not to such a degree that we are doomed to live a certain way. What is of at least equal, if not greater importance is our experience in life. Society and culture shape so much of us that it’s almost impossible to get away from or to full untangle from our selves. This makes so much sense, and the book backs it up so well that I honestly can’t think of why any reasonable person would think otherwise, or would label this book controversial.
The second half of the book deals with debunking a lot of accepted science about differences between the genders and with showing the reader just how little we know about certain aspects of the brain. For example, sex based differences appear to be less importance then the overall size of the brain when it comes to difference. Fine is calling for more and better scientific research into this subject because we simply don’t know that much about it, which I think anybody would support.
Are there differences between the brain of men and women? Yes, of course there are. But the power and effect of those differences is strange, complex and unknown to such a large degree that it’s foolish to draw firm or simple conclusions about how each sex acts or what inherent strengths or weaknesses they have. If nothing else, readers of this book will understand that and hopefully look at how they lives their lives and how they act and realize that they don’t have to, that they have more agency over themselves than they might have otherwise thought.
Next Book: Andre the Giant: Life and Legend By Box Brown
Next Movie: Drinking Buddies