Bella Baxter feat. New Brain (Poor Things)

February 23, 2024   6 mins

For decades now, an axiom of middle-class feminism has decreed that there are no important inbuilt differences between male and female brains. In fact, so the favoured story goes, there are no male and female brains at all, except in the trivial sense that there are a variety of human brains, each lodged within male and female bodies and shaped by external “gendered” circumstances that vary from culture to culture. A second axiom tends to follow swiftly: anyone who says otherwise is probably a sexist pig. This week, however, both of these foundational assumptions were dealt a blow by new research emerging from Stanford University.

Neurobiologists there have discovered that a specially designed “deep neural network”— that is, an AI presumably devoid of the misogynist prejudices of ordinary mortals — can reliably sort brains into male and female categories based on the detection of “hotspot” activity patterns. Worse, it seems that the AI can also use these differences to reliably predict different cognitive performances in men and women on certain tasks, suggesting that functional brain variations have behavioural implications. Though it’s a bit early to say, perhaps we can now look forward to a more harmonious future, where a woman can be proudly unapologetic for her inability to reverse park, and a man gets to blame his brain for repeated failures to notice that his wife is crying. Meanwhile, for the many thinkers who have staked their professional identities to the non-existence of two kinds of brain, now might seem like a good time to move some eggs into a different career basket.

Indeed, some feminist researchers already appear to have got that memo, with their provocative stances becoming noticeably more diluted as the years pass and new evidence for the opposition’s case stacks up. Back in 2019, British neurobiologist Professor Gina Rippon — author of the brashly-titled The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain — felt confident enough to dismiss the idea that there were any systematic brain differences based on “sex alone” as “neurofoolishness’. Furthermore, she said, any limited differences that did exist between men’s and women’s brains were “much more a function of experiences”, and a result of contingent exposure to “our gendered world”, than the predictable result of background chromosomes and hormones.

Yet this week, we encountered Rippon in the Telegraph, responding to the Stanford findings in an apparently more conciliatory vein: wondering whether it might be that “almost all brain–shaping factors are dynamically entangled products of both sex and gender influences”; and whether perhaps, with the new research, we are “looking at what should be called sex/gender differences” rather than “sex differences” or “gender differences”. Given widespread acknowledgement of the importance of social environment for brain development, and also of the existence of neuroplasticity — including by all those who insist that underlying biological factors make a systematic difference to some of what human brains are, and what they can do — it is unclear which of Rippon’s opponents would disagree with her. As is often the case, what started life as two spicily hot contrasting takes have ended up occupying so much shared territory that it’s no longer clear what exactly is being argued about.

In retrospect, for researchers to rule out systematic brain differences largely caused by biological factors in a sexually dimorphic species like ours — and, even more boldly, before adequate technology had been developed to spot them — was always going to pose a reputational risk; a bit like 16th-century astronomers pronouncing themselves absolutely positive there are no further planets in the solar system just before telescopes are invented. What could explain such apparent recklessness? Partly to blame must have been the fear that modern scientific confirmation of the existence of such differences would be used against women in the long run.

As with progressive arguments about reality generally, sometimes the most pressing task is not to establish what is true or false, but rather to lure people away from accurate apprehension of a socially dangerous idea. And it’s not clear that dire predictions in this respect are wrong. Although now a cliché, it’s still true that, throughout history, a raft of excuses for female ill-treatment and subjugation have been predicated on claims about their supposedly more inferior brains. In many countries, the already parlous state of women’s equality would surely be propped up by any scientific-looking discovery of non-negotiable cognitive and behavioural variations from the male norm. Equally though, in countries like the UK where feminised skills like verbal reasoning and emotional intelligence are increasingly demanded in the jobs market, it could be that the discovery would end hurting men’s life chances more.

Whatever problems might result in either direction, these would be compounded by general statistical illiteracy and an inability not to hear a claim that there are certain patterns across a huge population as an invitation to draw the same conclusions about each and every member. And then there’s also an apparent temptation to start treating some sex-typical behavioural patterns, averaged across a general population with many exceptions, as representing a kind of template definitive of the “male brain” or the “female brain” itself — which can even be lifted from its original genetic context and attributed to individuals of the opposite sex, should their individual qualitative characteristics seem to fit the bill. Bizarrely, given his intellectual background, this appears to be the approach adopted by former mathematical physicist Eric Weinstein, who in a widely circulated clip this week claimed that “there are people with male brains in female bodies, and conversely”, arguing that society should be more compassionate towards them.

Of course, many of us by now are very familiar with the general gambit of adjusting claims about reality to fit better with perceived moral commitments. For its basic form is also present in the progressive doctrine that self-identified transwomen should indeed be classified as women, because it would be very harmful for them if people said otherwise. Indeed, there is an increasingly popular narrative amongst anti-feminist commentators such as Matt Walsh that the current transactivist derangement still gripping many institutions started with feminism. In most ways this is diabolically unfair, especially since radical feminists were at the forefront of fighting transactivist ideas years before Walsh cottoned on. But it’s true that certain feminist academics wrote the playbook for wishful thinking about reality. Time and again in scholarly writing, you encounter the bizarre thought that if an idea has consequences that are helpful to women, that must be a point in favour of its truth; and if unhelpful, it’s a point against.

“Certain feminist academics wrote the playbook for wishful thinking about reality”

This isn’t just the more benign claim that some inconvenient truths can safely be ignored. There are lots of facts in the world it would be pointless or detrimental to pursue. It’s not even a deliberate fake-it-til-you-make-it strategy, self-consciously pretending to others that something is true because a widespread commitment to the existence of that thing would better fit some group’s interests. Rather, it’s the mad idea that the anticipated social undesirability of something being widely believed to be true can be recycled into a positive epistemic reason as to why that thing couldn’t actually be true in the first place.

For instance: there can’t be consistent sex differences favouring mathematical reasoning abilities in males, on average, because if there were, this would keep talented females out of STEM subjects. (Argue away about the differences by all means, but don’t pretend this is a good reason to think there aren’t any.) Or: women must be understood as a socially defined “gender” and not as a biologically defined sex, because if women were a biologically defined sex, unscrupulous men would treat their biology as destiny, and oppress them on that basis. The latter argument appears in feminist writing from at least the Seventies onwards, and is still being regurgitated by philosophy professors with a supposedly advanced grasp on logic to this day.

Quite apart from the fact you are likely to end up spouting gibberish if you proceed in this way, there are other pitfalls too. One is that, since your assumed noble aim is to avoid harm to others by reasoning as you do, you are more likely to start uncharitably misrepresenting intellectual opponents in a particular factual dispute as if their primary aim must be to commit harm — when of course it need not be at all. This partly explains not just the unjust accusations of “transphobia” so easily launched at sex realists, but also the weirdly spikey feminist mentions of neurofoolishness and the like in the context of brain research.

And relatedly, since you have now lost touch with reliable truth and evidence-seeking methodologies at least some of the time, you are more likely to have to resort to histrionic misdirection in arguments with your opponents: not just unfair ad hominems, but also objections that they have not read or understood “the literature” or paid suitable deference to elders in the field; accusations of mansplaining when they quite reasonably argue back; complaints that you are too exhausted to carry out the emotional labour of “educating” them all over again; and so on. Again, such manoeuvres are by now a well-known staple of reality-denying transactivism, but arguably, reality-denying versions of feminism got there first. Ironically, such guilt-tripping, heartstring-pulling rhetorical devices are still sometimes employed by self-proclaimed feminists, partly in the service of insisting that women could not possibly be more emotional or irrational than men by nature. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it does not come across as particularly convincing.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.