Gender and Neuroscience

By Liah Greenfeld

Readers’ comments to my recent post raised for me some questions about an important topic: gender. I don’t know how to answer these questions, but it seems interesting to ruminate—chew—on them, and I invite you to do so with me. Perhaps, you will have answers. The comment that specifically drew my attention to the issue was an angry one: The person who sent it strongly disagreed with my suggestion that the actions of many so-called “home-grown jihadists” or “Muslim extremists” in the West are very similar to those of mentally ill perpetrators of violent crime, and that, because their dedication to Islam is often of a recent date, it may not be Islam at all that motivates them, but their mental illness. The commenter called me various names and asked, in so many words, how someone with a Ph.D. can doubt that a wicked and, among other evil things, “misogynistic” religion such as Islam, which advocates the subjugation of women, is the motivation behind heinous crimes such the recent Boston Marathon bombing or the beheading of a soldier in London.

It was the combination of this certainty that Islam was to blame and the outrage against misogyny and the subjugation of women that attracted my attention: I would expect respect for women and concern for gender equality to be quite opposite to the range of opinions held by someone so confidently declaring one of the three great monotheistic religions evil. The fact that the two views were combined, however, led me to the conclusion that gender equality is no longer a question of debate in our society and that we all, no matter what our other opinions are, believe in it, even though this is a rather recent belief, as we all know: Some fifty years ago feminism (women’s lib movement) emerged because of how few of our compatriots shared it. The concept of “gender” itself only came into popular usage in the 1970s (though invented in 1955) through the work of feminist scholars, who wanted to emphasize that our ideas about male and female roles (i.e., rights and duties, among other things) and behaviors were socially constructed, rather than biologically based, and that, therefore, these ideas may and must be changed to achieve the equality of women and men, implied in our Declaration of Independence (presumably “all men are created equal” should read “all human beings are created equal”) and the values of our society.

What puzzles me is how this recent belief in gender equality can be reconciled with another very widespread and also recent belief that all our mental activity (i.e., our ideas, our inclinations, our desires, and our behaviors motivated by all these) is a reflection of the activity and nature of our brain—that is, biologically based. This is a belief supported by neuroscience and the belief in neuroscience. Most of us believe in neuroscience, don’t we? And we believe that our mental activity (our minds and what they tell us to do) reflects the biological capacities of our brains, don’t we? But these two beliefs—the belief in gender equality and the belief in the biological determination of our nature—contradict each other; they cannot both be true.

As the readers of my blog know, I very much believe in the cultural construction of human reality and do not trust neuroscience as much as is fashionable. But I cannot deny that we humans are also animals and therefore share many characteristics with other animals, especially those which are, like us, highly intelligent and social. Now, among such animals, for example, lions and wolves, the roles of males and females are rigidly defined and determined by the biological sex: It is impossible to speak about socially-constructed inequalities. Is it possible that some of our gender inequalities (that is unequal social positions of women and men) are also biological? Of course, despite the claims of neuroscience, I think that humans are not just animals, but have, in addition to our biological nature, also a cultural nature and that much in our mental activity (all our ideas and a lot of our inclinations and desires) is defined by culture and not by biology. But this raises another problem in regard to gender equality in which we all believe: If the roles of men and women are defined by culture and different cultures define them differently, there is no possibility to say that one cultural definition (for example, ours, that social positions of women and men should be equal) is objectively preferable to another (for instance, that of Islam, that men and women should be unequal)—they are all relative. Each culture, likely, has its own reasons for the values it adopts: Some prefer gender equality, some prefer gender inequality.

What do you think? How can we defend our belief in gender equality which is contradicted by (1) the belief, supported by neuroscience, that there is no gender, only sex, and that, from the biological point of view, males and females are unequal, and (2) the social science, relativist, position—on which the idea of gender as socially-constructed is based—that different cultures would have different views on this subject?

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

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