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Related Topics
Brain StormReview - Brain Storm
The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young
Harvard University Press, 2010
Review by Andrew Hirst
Sep 13th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 37)

This book caught my eye as it is very similar in aims to another book I have recently been reading in great detail: Adapting Minds by David Buller. Buller tries to demolish both the theoretical underpinnings and several specific experimental paradigms of contemporary evolutionary psychology, and (in general) succeeds. I am always suspicious of psychologists who purport to have an all-encompassing "theory of everything" which explains all human behavior, given the relative infancy of psychology. We may eventually understand the whole gamut of human behavior, of course, but it is unlikely to be for a long, long time.

Brainstorm has a similar scope, although it is attacking a different area of psychology. The primary focus of Brainstorm is demolishing the body of research investigating the effects of prenatal testosterone and estrogen on the brains of fetuses early in development, theorized to have a series of predictable wide-ranging, unchanging effects on people's eventual behavior and cognition (which Jordan-Young terms "brain organization theory"). There is a lot of evidence ostensibly supporting the hypothesis that prenatal hormone exposures cause permanent masculine or feminine patterns of desire, personality, temperament, and cognition; evidence which is used to explain a huge variety of apparently gender-differentiated behaviors. I say "ostensibly", because throughout the book, Jordan-Young systematically demolishes the scientific credibility of this research, showing that large mistakes have been made in a) experimental design (studies in this area are primarily "quasi-experiments" in which variables and thus causal direction cannot be properly discovered) , b) interpretations of data (not properly considering alternative interpretations), c) the use of data from older studies in support of recent studies (definitions of masculinity and femininity in older studies are frequently vastly different to their contemporary definitions, yet older studies are still being claimed to support conclusions of recent research), and d) foundational methodological and ideological assumptions underlying much of the research (e.g. there is masculinity and femininity, they are objective and unchanging properties, and it is "right" for men to possess the former, and women to possess the latter). Many of these studies focus on intersex individuals who have experienced unusual hormonal environments in utero, and are sometimes born with ambiguous genitalia and other medical problems. These individuals are ideal candidates for brain organization theory researchers, because they can compare them to same-sex siblings and attempt to isolate behavioral and cognitive changes which may have been caused by prenatal hormones.

This is not just a niche area of research, however. It is of wide public interest/importance. Many of these studies have entered the public consciousness. Simon LeVay's study in which he claimed to have discovered "The Gay Brain" (LeVay, 1991) was reported widely in both the popular science press and the international press. Furthermore, assumptions relating to the immutable, unchangeable and dichotomous nature of gender are both utilized as part of the studies' theoretical underpinnings and apparently supported by their data. These assumptions are part of the popular consciousness and damage the way people perceive intersex, transgender, bi-sexual, or homosexual individuals, who are frequently seen as "unnatural" and "wrong" in some way and in need of "fixing". As she states, "brain organization theory is little more than an elaboration of long-standing folk tales about antagonistic male and female essences and how then connect to antagonistic male and female natures".

Perhaps more worryingly, some of these studies have been directly responsible for harming women. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a genetic disorder that causes overproduction of androgens (testosterone and similar compounds) from the adrenal glands, which leads to elevated androgen presence throughout fetal development. This is particularly unusual for female fetuses and is the primary cause of ambiguous genitalia at birth. Many studies have purported to show that females with CAH show more "masculinized" behavior and are more likely to be homosexuals. It is considered to be very important to "normalize" these individuals by correcting both their genitalia and behavior through long-term treatment and behavioral modification. This is perceived to be in the best interest of these women, but – as Jordan-Young shows – many of them experience severe psychological trauma during these treatments, using the language of rape, invasion and violation when describing their experiences. She devotes much of the book to clearly and concisely demonstrating the flaws in the brain organization research relating to individuals with CAH, and it is my hope that the medical establishment takes note to prevent further harm.

This is a very important book, one which ought to be read by a wide audience. Its length and depth, however, may prove off-putting to casual audiences. This is a shame, because it is clearly and carefully written and well-referenced. It breaks itself free from the realm of high-academia and shows a strong social conscience.

 

© 2011 Andrew Hirst

 

Andrew Hirst, PhD student for the AHRC Project "Method in Philosophical Aesthetics: The challenge from the sciences", Department of Philosophy, School of Humanities, University of Nottingham


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