Delusions of Gender
338pp. W.W. Norton & Co.
So when a person writes a book review after having a lot of whiskey, it ends up with cussing in it, but basically, this book is fucking boss. (DRUNK BOOK BLOGGING, WE ARE COPYRIGHTING THAT, DON'T TOUCH IT.) This book is like the time you were in a class with That Dude, the dude who would say things all the time that were disguised as "questions" but were actually just "bullshit not worth a response," such as "so why IS it that there have never been any women of genius." And your awesome lady teacher refused to rise to the bait of That Dude (oh ladies, you know That Dude, mmm hmmm! You know the Dude to whom we refer!) and ignored him nobly, and then one day That Dude crossed a line and your teacher finally gave in to that delicious urge and let rip, and fucking faced him so hard, in front of the entire class, and you were so delighted you cheered aloud.
This book is like that moment for 338 pages. Cordelia Fine is not just smarter than you, she is funny as shit. For every study John Gray drags around the playground, about Men and their Mars of warlike thrusting vs. the Planet Veeeeenus where ladies embrace their vacuums and emote gently across that moist and pinkly lit landscape, Cordelia Fine has thirty more studies that tell you what a bunch of shit that study is, also with jokes. (On an unrelated note, it is sort of interesting how when boys do better in math it is because they are cranially hardwired to do so, in their tiny advanced child-man brains, and yet when they don't read books it's because lady editors got their vaginas all over the books, don't you think? We think that is interesting.) (Seriously, though, we shouldn't make jokes, it's totally not funny when a young man wants to read and he can't, because vagina got on the book.)
Fine moves briskly through popular science, laying waste to widely circulated ideas about gender and brain difference that insist male and female brains process information differently. (As Fine points out, it's kinda hard to process information correctly when AN ENTIRE FUCKING CULTURE is erroneously telling you FROM BIRTH that a boner is a prerequisite for math skills.) And yeah, for new parents who insist they "never saw gender" until baby Albert made a beeline for the blue dumptruck and baby Tina rolled around in a pile of Barbies: there's studies for that, too, and it's a little more complicated than My Girlbaby Wants Pink Princess Pony.
In some ways this book is a bit of a downer; we are, like, vaguely aware that there are people running around out there who genuinely believe dudes can't pick up after themselves because of a BRAIN CLOUD or whatever, but we sure as fuck don't hang out with them. The idea that there is an entire industry of people cranking out bestselling and (and totally fictitious) books codifying that kind of crap makes us want to torch the girls' aisle of a Wal-Mart in T minus five. There are people successfully campaigning for single-sex education, RIGHT NOW, on the basis that girls need to be hand-held through math lessons and boys shouldn't have to talk about the "emotional" content of books because they are neurologically incapable. Do not try to pass that bullshit off as science to Cordelia Fine, because Cordelia Fine will fucking decimate you. Of Sandra Witelson's oft-cited neuroimaging study that "shows" men's and women's brains use different areas to process emotional versus analytical tasks, she writes:
Could the sex differences in brain activation be spurious? ...many researchers are now arguing that the threshold commonly set for declaring that a difference is 'significant' just isn't high enough. To illustrate this point, some researchers recently scanned an Atlantic salmon while showing it emotionally charged photographs. The salmon--which, by the way, was 'not alive at the time of scanning'--was 'asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.' Using standard statistical procedures, they found significant brain activity in one small region of the dead fish's brain while it performed the empathizing task, compared with brain activity during 'rest.' The researchers conclude not that this particular region of the brain is involved in postmortem piscine empathizing, but that the kind of statistical thresholds commonly used in neuroimaging studies (including Witelson's emotion-matching study) are inadequate because they allow to many spurious results through the net.
We shall close our review of this fantastic, hilarious, and eminently readable book with another apt and pointed quote from Ms. Fine: "As neurophyiologist Ruth Bleier put it over two decades ago, we should 'view biology as potential, as capacity and not as static entity. Biology itself is socially influenced and defined; it changes and develops in interaction with and response to our minds and environment, as our behaviors do. Biology can be said to define possibilities but not determine them; it is never irrelevant but it is also not determinant.'" Hell yes to that.