Brain and Behavior



A Brief Gendered History

Structural Differences

Hormonal Differences

Functional Differences

Individual Variation


The Question of Sexuality



A Brief History of Gender

Tell Me More . . .

excerpted from the paper "Creating a Gender-Inclusive Scientific Environment" written by Patricia Kinser in May 2000

The construction of gender has long been based upon scientific inquiry and study. Gender difference is one of the oldest, most universal, and most powerful origins of many conceptualizations of everything else around us. Throughout history we have organized our social and natural worlds according to gender meanings. These meanings are more often than not organized on the basis of "biological" origin of masculine/ feminine behavior. For much of society, the assumption is that biological differences are inevitable and there is little to no overlap of behavior or anatomy between the sexes. From Aristotleıs theory of reproduction to present- day attitudes towards abilities and intellect, the conceptualization of women in terms of biological inferiority can be traced. These theories elucidate the ways in which the cultural assumptions influence the institution of scientific inquiry and vice versa. Aristotleıs scientific explanation of the inferiority of women is based upon the idea that heat in the womb enables development. In other words, "That which has by nature a smaller portion of heat is weaker" (Tuana, 148). A woman is fundamentally inferior to men due to the fact that she has a defect in heat, both within her and within her motherıs womb as she develops. This lack of heat, Aristotle says, explains a variety of physiological and psychological differences between men and women, such as the woman is smaller and weaker and her brain is smaller and less developed, which in turn accounts for her "defective" nature. He says, "For females are weaker and colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency"(Tuana, 153). Aristotle also ties the defect in heat to the role of women in reproduction by comparing male semen and female ³semen², or menstrual flow. Noting that male semen appears white in color, he insists that male semen must be the result of heat and is inarguably potent. He proceeds to equate menses with semen since "semen begins to appear in males and to be emitted at the same time of life that the menstrual flow begins in females" and they both cease with old age (Tuana, 148). He is correct in asserting that the menstrual flow is related to reproduction, however he incorrectly asserts that female semen must be emitted. Due to the fact that male semen is scarce and white and that female ³semen² is abundant and looks like blood, Aristotle claims that "these differences are accounted for by the fact that women are unable to 'cook' their semen to the point of purity- thus 'proof' of their relative coldness" (Tuana 149). Additionally, male semen is much more potent since he believes that the fetus is contained within the sperm and is merely placed into the woman where she serves as a vessel for the development process. The creative aspects of procreation are attributed to males while females play a passive, and less significant, role of nursing the seed within.

Through these assertions we see how pre-existing assumptions regarding the inferiority of females shaped Aristotleıs development of his biological theory. Stating that an embryo becomes female in the womb due to lack of heat, two biases are revealed. First, he believes that the proper, ideal human form is male. Second, a female only results from a defect, a deviation from nature. Due to lack of heat, the creation is not perfect and thus a female is born. These statements were scientific fact to Aristotle and helped to explain and shape further gender definitions. No matter the fact that much of his evidence is easily refutable, Aristotle does not acknowledge any inconsistencies that disprove his theory. Rather, through these inconsistencies, we see that his theories were not necessarily principles to be proven, but rather were just expressions of a belief system underlying biological "study". Aristotleıs theories were much supported and often expanded upon, as in the case of Galen, a theorist from around 1300. Galen fully agreed with the idea of the female inferiority to the male, and presented the argument that a key aspect of her inferiority was ignored in Aristotleıs studies- the genitals. Galen believed that the mere fact that a womanıs genitals are found within the body was proof of the concept of woman as less developed, since the ³perfect² form of genitals are, of course, the penis and testicles. Illustrations by scientists interested in anatomy demonstrate the impact of the Aristotelian and Galenian arguments, where female genitalia most often closely resembles male external genitalia. Authoritatively, Galen and Aristotle develop a biological explanation for the inferiority of females, in terms of reproduction and thus every other aspect of life:
Since woman was conceived out of impure blood, she was colder than man. Because of her defect in heat, her organs of generation were not fully formed. Because her sexual organs were not fully developed, the seed produced by them would be imperfect. Religion had postulated a male being- Marduk, Yahweh, Zeus- as the ultimate creative force to account for the primary of the male creative principle. Science pointed to the anatomy of the testes (Tuana, 156).

Over time the inferiority of women as represented by these theories continues to be "proven" by scientific study and "objective" observation. As weıve seen and continue to observe, "the physiology of [women's] bodies... adapts to the demands of culture" (Laqueur, 43). Laqueur reminds us that around the 18th century the definition of women evolves, yet it never abandons the underlying scientific search for evidence that women are naturally inferior. Woman was no longer seen as a deficient male, but as an entity completely separate and opposite from the superior male. Of course, this difference affirms that females are in every way biologically separate from males and therefore does not affect implications on societyıs perception of females as inferior. Some of the central arguments in support of this gender construction was sexual differentiation of embryos in the womb as well as the function of female orgasm in conception. Ideologies of gender enter scientific inquiry while shaping the perception of scientists and the direction of experimentation such that any results are used to further support the binary.

Science Perpetuating Gender Bias and "Anatomy as Destiny" Debates
Scientific research has not only perpetuated the nominalization of women in the past but also in the present. Research and practice regarding intellect and physical capabilities all demonstrate the remnants of Aristotelian, Galenian, and 18th century attitudes towards women. Extensive scientific literature on gender differences within the past couple of decades demonstrates an interest to justify the belief that significant differences are present between the sexes. Perhaps it is easier for us to look at past scientific inquiry and observe how belief systems were formed into biological theories; however, due to societyıs concept of science as a sacred entity, it may be slightly more difficult to see clearly that present- day social values can affect the questions that scientists desire to ask, the methodology they use, the interpretations they make of the data, and the data that they reject because it does not fit.

Recently, attempts by the neurological and psychological communities to find gender differences in brain structure and function have been focused on explaining presumed gender differences in cognitive ability, specifically with regards to hemispheric specialization and lateralization. Typically, it is thought that women tend to favor more their left brain in cognition while men predominantly use their right brain. The right hemisphere is associated with superior visuospatial skills, and artistic, musical, or mathematical talent (Bleier, 154- 157). Yet, scientific data as a whole has not conclusively proven this degree of lateralization or specialization, as variation within each gender is most often greater than the variation between them. However, this information is not as interesting to the general public, so when gender differences are found, even with very weak statistical significance, this is most often the information that will be used to support cultural assumptions (Bleier, 147- 155). For example, a paper which is often cited as supportive of sex differences in hemispheric lateralization by McGlone concludes "Thus, one must not over-look perhaps the most obvious conclusion, which is that basic patterns of male and female brain asymmetry seem to be more similar than they are different" (Bleier, 153). Yet, even with this statement that no conclusions can be made from such inadequate data, McGlone still supports the idea of sex differences in brain lateralization. One leader in this field, Marcel Kinsbourne, makes an important comment:
We have seen that the evidence for sex- differential lateralization fails to convince on logical, methodological and empirical grounds. Is that surprising? Not all the points made in this critique are subtle, and some at least must be obvious to anyone in the field. Why then do reputable investigators persist in ignoring them? Because the study of sex differences is not like the rest of psychology. Under pressure from the gathering momentum of feminism, and perhaps in backlash to it, many investigators seem determined to discover that men and women ³really² are different. It seems that if sex differences (e.g. in lateralization) do not exist, then they have to be invented (Kinsbourne, 242--- Bleier, 154).

Okay... now I'm ready to start thinking more about the brain...