Review of Delusions of Gender by

Book cover for Delusions of Gender

Pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and that’s just the way it is, right? Girls like nurturing toys and boys like toys that involve motion or action, and don’t even bother trying to change those habits—they’re ingrained at birth, yeah? Doubtless you’ve heard these and other stereotypes and claims about the biological origins of sex differences. In some cases, such as the pink/blue divide, you might already be aware of the history of the phenomenon, including the fact that the colour assignments used to be reversed. Nevertheless, like any area of science, pseudoscience has set up shop in the study of gender, bolstered by media’s intense desire to seize on anything that has the patina of advanced, hi-tech science even when the results come from flawed research.

Delusions of Gender is a thorough debunking by Cordelia Fine of scientific studies and scientific posturing regarding what we know about the biological (and particularly, neurological) differences between sexes. Fine basically wants to restore the reader’s doubt and uncertainty, challenging us to be a little more sceptical and critical of what we read and hear. She isn’t making the claim that sex and gender are entirely social constructs with no biological influences. Rather, her thesis is that the scientific study of sex and gender is still fraught with uncertainty, and we really don’t know as much as some people claim we know. There are a few reasons for this: firstly, although our technology for studying the brain has advanced considerably, we’re still a long way off from understanding it; secondly, it seems like people doing these studies are really vulnerable to spurious correlations; thirdly, the biological influences on sex and gender are complex because they interact with cultural conditioning in ways that are difficult to replicate reliably in a lab.

Somehow, Fine manages to distill this into a 250-page book, and it mostly works. She does a good job of wading through recentish (from my perspective, given that this book is verging on a decade old) research and writing, picking apart arguments and debunking theories. She links these ideas to much older ideas about sex and gender. And she provides some guidance to the layperson in terms of how we can approach learning about sex and gender, from a scientific perspective, in the future.

In Part 1, “'Half-Changed World,' Half-Changed Minds”, Fine catalogues the sex differences seen in modern society (mostly American, though often her homeland of Australia and sometimes the unhelpfully nebulous “West” in general). She reviews the standard gaps in workforce distribution, in pay, in equity of housework and other caring labour. This part is interesting but perhaps the least memorable, in my opinion, particularly if you’re not someone who needs much convincing of the inequities that exist owing to one’s gender. Perhaps the most interesting chapter was “XX-clusion and XXX-clusion”, in which Fine discusses the difficulties of defining gender in any concrete biological sense. This seems particularly topical given absurd rumblings from the US government about defining gender in law. Again, I was already well aware of a lot of what Fine said in thsi chapter, but she lays it out clearly.

Part 2, “Neurosexism”, is where the book really starts to come into its own. This is where Fine tackles claims about differences between “male” and “female” brains. This whole part is valuable because she talks specifics, right down to the study and the scientists conducting them. Laypeople (myself included) often put a lot of stock into scientific results that come from what appear to be more rigorous or “hard” experiments, like MRI scans, as contrasted with a “soft” experiment like a psychological study. This is a bias that’s really hard, at least in my experience, to counteract. So it’s well worth my time to check that bias by being reminded of all the ways in which scientists (who are human, and therefore faulty) can draw faulty conclusions from these types of experiments. Fine challenges the shallow understanding most people have of the links between testosterone and masculinity; she points out that animal behaviour (even primate behaviour) can’t always be used as an analogy for unsocialized human behaviour, etc. This section is just a great reminder in general that science is a human process, and like any human process, is prone to error and a good tonic against thinking of science as this black box that we put experimental data into and get facts about the world out of.

The final part, “Recycling Gender”, is where Fine provides some opinion and analysis of the state of the field. She basically says: we don’t really know a lot about gender, and it’s really hard to test, and I’m not going to tell you there are no biological differences between sexes—but can we please stop falling back on this explanation because we think gender-neutral parenting is futile? She points out that gender-neutral parenting often seems to “fail” (as in, kids still adopt gender stereotypes) because no matter how good the parents are at being neutral (and they usually aren’t as good as they think), the rest of our society is still hella stereotypical, and, you know, most families end up being part of society. I like the inclusion of this part in the book, because it encourages readers to consider how we actually apply scientific discoveries to our lives. That being said, this part of the book is probably the most scattered of the three and the least interesting from a scientific perspective.

Delusions of Gender endears itself to me because, at the end of the day, Fine is basically saying we need to stay skeptical of claims that appear to be scientific on the surface but, if you scratch that surface, reveal supposition. Beyond its subjects of sex and gender, this book encourages critical thinking about doing science, and that is something that is sorely needed in society today. Lastly, although I have long been interested in gender and thinking more deeply about it, this book definitely got me thinking about gender along different tracks. While I already knew much of what Fine explains or alludes to, I learned more things and even had my own unconscious biases checked at some points. And really, that’s what I want from a pop science book!

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