Hormones don’t create ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains

On examining classic studies on differences between the sexes, Prof. Rebecca Jordan-Young concluded that most researchers saw only what they were looking for.

By
June 5, 2011 03:00
Prof. Rebecca Jordan-Young

rebecca jordan young 311. (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)

 
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Prof. Rebecca Jordan-Young, who teaches women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University’s Barnard College for Women in Manhattan, once asked students of both sexes to watch the video of a basketball game and count how many times the ball changed hands. At the end of the film, she queried: “And who noticed the gorilla on the court?” No one had paid attention to the hairy interloper because they were so engrossed in looking for what they were expecting to see.

“Our expectations are very powerful,” says Jordan-Young in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on her first-ever visit to Israel. Jordan-Young’s lecture on her latest findings was held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus and co-sponsored by Barnard and Bishvilaych, the non-profit Jerusalem Women’s Comprehensive Medical Center headed by Dr. Diana Flescher.

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Trained in the sociomedical science, with a specialty in research design and measurement, Jordan-Young specializes in the interdisciplinary field of gender and sexuality, science and technology studies. The scientist has devoted nearly 13 years to examining hundreds of published, peer-reviewed studies by psychologists, neurologists and other specialists aimed at proving “human brain organization theory,” which has claimed responsibility for everything from gender identify and innate talents to homosexuality.

This long-accepted “given” is that exposure in the uterus to sex hormones like testosterone not only triggers the formation of sexual organs, but also affects the brain throughout one’s lifetime – thus males and females have “different brains” that are permanently “hardwired.” Advocates of this view have claimed, among other things, that little girls prefer dressing dolls to playing with trucks; teenage boys do better in mathematics; men in college studying engineering and computers while women go for softer, easier subjects; and that women care about raising a family more than men. And they stress that all this has been “scientifically proven.”

Jordan-Young says she discovered “serious methodological weaknesses, questionable assumptions, inconsistent definitions and enormous gaps between ambiguous findings and grand conclusions.”

She argues that environmental factors, and not only biology, shape brains.

Women were barred from studying medicine for many years, but today, half of all medical students are women. They stuck to “nurturing” professions like nursing and were always scarce in engineering schools and computer sciences. Going into abstruse subjects such as physics was almost unheard of. But today, they have an important presence in these fields. How could their hormones during gestation suddenly change and modify their brains to allow them to enter such fields? THE 48-YEAR-OLD Jordan-Young, who recently published her book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences (Harvard University Press) on her disagreements with these widely accepted premises, believes they are all wrong. “The studies were peer reviewed before publication, and the work looks persuasive. Maybe they were fine scientists, but they had tunnel vision.

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Advocates think their findings are reasonable, so the peer reviewers have no objection to their arguments, and avoid giving the close scrutiny they otherwise would. It is not a conspiracy against the truth, but people tend to block out things that don’t fit in with their own world view.”

“Most books set out to answer questions,” she writes in her challenging 381- page, hardcover volume, which includes 90 pages of notes. “This book sets out to question answers. The answers I question have to do with the nature and causes of differences between men and women, and between straight people and gay people. Specifically. I question what we ‘know’ about male and female brains or gay and straight brains.”

Jordan-Young, who adopted the double surname to honor the family names of both her mother and father, credits her mother for one of her insights on “male and female brains.” Born to a working-class Christian family in Missouri that converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and believed in having many children, Jordan- Young has four brothers and three sisters.

When she heard a woman say that her daughter is very boyish, Jordan-Young’s mother commented: “That’s because you have only two. With just a couple of children, gender looms large – it’s the most obvious explanation for every difference you see between them, and unless your children are really unusual, it’s going to be easiest to see their personalities as ‘boy’ versus ‘girl.’ But when you have a lot of children, you begin to notice that they all come with personalities of their own, and they are all quite different. Gender recedes in importance.”

Jordan-Young, who just made her first visit to Israel, seemed to feel at home during an interview in a Jerusalem hotel flooded with haredi tourists from abroad who came to attend a convention. She lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York – a neighborhood made famous by its longtime resident, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Both blacks and Chabad hassidim live there, along with some whites. She likes the area because of its proximity to cultural institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum, as well as to the Columbia University campus in upper Manhattan.

Teaching at an undergraduate institution to which only women are admitted might seem odd for a woman who supports gender rights. She explains that although Barnard College was founded way back in 1889 to promote women’s education, that long took a back seat to men. Women’s colleges of recent decades “came out of the feminist movement.” Among the students, she says, are modern Orthodox and haredi Jews who want to study without men for reasons of modesty. Some were interested in researching family violence in Orthodox homes.

“Barnard students are more than twice as likely to go for a doctorate than women who study in a mixed undergraduate college. In our college, women are both at the top of the class and at the bottom. They have a place” without the competition and pressures resulting from having men in the same class. Jordan-Young is not aware of women-only graduate schools in the US, so her graduates go on to mixed medical, law and other graduate schools.

She did her own undergraduate degree in political science at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, but went on to graduate work in her interdisciplinary field that combines social sciences and epidemiology and her doctorate in sociomedical sciences. “I always had a very eclectic mind and was interested in political philosophy. It is taught only as graduate work. I didn’t want to be a physician, but I continue to do public health work in research design and measurement.”

SHE SPENT a number of years in Washington, DC doing outreach epidemiology work with drug addicts and prostitutes, and met numerous homosexuals. When a British neuroanatomist named Simon LeVay insisted in 1991 that what separated homosexuals from heterosexuals was a clear difference in the structure of one part of the brain, Jordan-Young couldn’t believe it, as she had noted such personality differences among gays she had met.

In America of the 1980s, when only a small minority of medical students were women, a doctor recalled that on the first day of anatomy class at one medical school the professor pulled the sheet off the body of a woman donated to science and proceeded to “cut off the breasts so it would be easier to go inside the chest. This shows a great lack of respect.” And it hints that breasts don’t contribute anything to medical knowledge. It was claimed that women are not analytical enough, not emotionally tough enough to become physicians, she says. “It was not so unusual then. Even worse things happened, and slurs were voiced.”

In the former USSR in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, medicine was largely a women’s profession, and looked down upon. Salaries and prestige were low. Men, she recalls, dominated the well-paid specialties. “Even today, some people are convinced that women are naturally good at one thing and men at another.” Which is why Jordan-Young is so upset by fallacies of brain organization, and why she wrote her book, which has been widely hailed.

The younger generation of Western professionals – both women and men – are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice family for career. More turn down opportunities in hi-tech, law firms and other demanding professions because of the tremendous number of hours they would have to be away from their families. Jordan-Young is not opposed to giving advantages through affirmative action to minorities or to those who have been discriminated against.

These include not only racial groups, she notes, but also women and people from where she grew up – small, unsophisticated towns – who without help to get into higher education would never have passed admissions tests. “We had no role models and no experience. First-generation college students as I was have many obstacles, and I benefited from the help.”

When doing epidemiological interviews, she found to her surprise that slightly changing questions and revising optional answers, caused results to differ greatly. Thus she began to question the massive number of studies on which brain organization theory was based, and decided to disprove their widely accepted conclusions.

“In this book, I don’t give solutions. In science, one must first get misleading answers out of the way. I don’t know what makes some people outgoing and other people shy, what makes some love art or music. There are all kinds of complex characteristics and predispositions that probably have biological components, but not are not simple.”

Men have more testosterone than women – many people are surprised to hear that women have any at all – but receptors are involved, points out the researcher. “And these are not necessarily evenly distributed in the body. There is much overlapping between men and women, and variability among different women and among different men may be greater than between the sexes on average.

‘A quarter of menopausal women have no hot flashes. There are places in the world, as in parts of Mexico, where indigenous women have none at all. Their weight-bearing, physical exertion and diet could explain the differences.”

Closer to Israel and Jews, she notes that among the hassidic community, where studying Talmud makes men prestigious but do not give them muscle mass, wives and mothers of many children do a lot of physical work. That can make their bodies “more masculine.”

Jordan-Young, who wants to make a return visit to Israel because she realizes there is much more to see and understand, concludes: “We have to move away from sex being the end point and the explanation of various types of differences, some of which are not real. One’s gender is just one of numerous aspects in the body.”

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