SEARCHING OUT DIFFERENCE – neuromyths and neurosexism

From Organize!, the magazine of the Anarchist Federation (UK), Issue 72, Summer 2009 (Special Issue on Gender and Sexuality).

Anarchist communists believe in an egalitarian society, where people are no longer judged on differences in ability and are no more or less entitled to the benefits from our collective society. As long as it is not used to discriminate, we just don’t see difference as a problem. But could this make us insensitive to scientific claims about the discovery of innate differences between men and women, or do these claims need to be better understood, and challenged by non-experts?

Over the last couple of decades, intense interest in brain research, including the 1990s ‘Decade of the Brain’, has helped bring together many different fields of scientific enquiry, especially biology with psychology. From biology, the physical structure of animal and human brains and their electrical and chemical processes are better understood than ever. Computer imaging like MRI scans, as used in medicine, are being applied to find out how brains change when people perform basic tasks with words or pictures. Animal and human behaviours, and theories of the mind from psychology, can now be put to the test by looking for variations in chemistry, electrical activity or blood flow in the brain. Some of these experiments have been directed at searching for differences between the sexes and factors that might be related to sexuality. Where differences have been detected, it is tempting to feel that we are nearer the truth than ever.

On the other hand, we know that scientific enquiry can so easily be used to back up prejudice. In the 19th century almost all scientists believed that people of colour and women were intellectually inferior to men and this just needed proving. An experiment with brain size by anthropologist and craniologist Paul Broca, performed by filling up skulls with seeds and measuring the difference in volume, would do nicely. Since the female brains were on average 10% lighter that the males’, this proved a lack of the region of the brain where the intellect was located! Most notoriously, in 1879 Gustav Le Bon used these results to compare the brain size of women unfavourably with those of gorillas, children and “savages”, using this as good reason why women should not be educated. By 1909, it was clear that brain size was really just a reflection of body size. Never mind that any connection between brain size and intellect is a fantasy. Never mind that even the figure of 10% from original data is questionable due to age, disease, and other effects on body growth not being controlled (most of the women in the original experiments were older than the men, and brains can shrink with age-related degenerative diseases). Apart from size, supposed differences in the number of folds on the surface of one part of the brain showed women’s inferiority; then, in 1909, it was shown that there was no difference. The story goes on and on, with differences in variability of brains being used to show male superiority – men were less “average” than women, an idea that carried over into the IQ tests of the 1970s. A similar story from the 19th century can be told about the linking of left-handedness to criminality, and incidentally, the possibility of brain abnormality causing criminal behaviour was investigated only as long ago as 1997 to try and explain Ulrike Meinhoff’s ‘slide into terror’ as a member of Red Army Faction – her brain had been preserved for 26 years, then given to a neurologist!

Over many decades, genetics has provided insight into sex differences at a molecular level. Before discovery of DNA, it was already understood that certain diseases are inherited differently by male and female children. This is described in terms of passing on chromosomes, DNA sections of a person’s entire genome that are present in cells of the body. Most cells have all the chromosomes, but sperm and eggs have only one of either sex chromosome, X or Y. When the egg and sperm come together, the foetus’ cells become either XX (female) or XY (male). This is not always the case, though, and some people have XXY, XXXY, XYY, although having a Y is usually necessary to give you balls, so to speak (apart from the rare ‘XX male’ condition where the relevant SRY gene from Y jumps to the X). It becomes more complex still. Hormones are involved with a chain of events that activates a male baby’s SRY gene and results in him growing testes. Some of the same hormones, and others, are involved continually after birth. These levels of so-called male and female sex hormones in the body are not static over time or age. For example, testosterone is thought of as the male hormone, but many women have higher levels than men. Levels change over a woman’s menstrual cycle and with age. Coming sexually aroused makes hormone levels go up temporarily, and so on. A lot more is now known about how the brain takes part in processes involving hormones. For example, some receptors in the brain respond to hormones from other parts of the body. Interestingly, most testosterone has to be converted to oestrogen (a so-called female sex hormone) before it is received by the brain, so the actual effect of hormones on the brain is very similar in men and women.

With all this knowledge, it would be nice to think things have changed in the 21st century from the days of Gustav Le Bon, but it seems that sexism is alive and kicking, and we can now talk reasonably about neurosexism. Books entitled ‘The Female Brain’ and ideas of left-brain versus right-brain types of people are now part of popular culture. They use a mixture of science and myth to explain why women don’t get so bored when ironing, why working women inevitably get confused juggling work and home life, can’t fly planes safely and so on. Many of these ideas have some origin in scientific experiments which attempt to measure hormone or brain activity levels. When a difference is found, explanations about innate, ‘hard-wired’ behaviours are usually offered. More ludicrously, origins of these behaviours within our evolutionary past are explained using theories about the way early ‘hunter gatherer’ societies could have been structured. For example, you obviously need a different brain to go hunting, an unpredictable activity, than to find nuts and grubs, or stay at home cleaning the cave, don’t you? These kinds of stories are woven from studies of “primitive” tribes living now, since the fossil record tells us so little. One brilliant example of the kind of madness coming out of the field of ‘evolutionary psychology’ is a study claiming to explain why girls prefer pink, since prehistoric gathering required identifying pink berries, apparently. Never mind that the study on 21st century twenty-somethings only asked about preference and not ability to distinguish colours, you only have to go back to 1914-18 to find magazines saying things like: “There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” (Ladies Home Journal, 1918). Pink for girls came in the 1940s. Oops, so much for the prehistoric berry theory then.

For another example of neurosexism, let’s look at the idea of spatial awareness differences between genders, arising from psychology experiments where people sit down to look at and compare shapes, or locate objects on a page. Rats running around and getting lost in mazes have also been studied. These experiments have arguably shown some differences between sexes, and it is from these that popular books back up their just-so stories, like why women can’t read maps or park cars as well as men. Still, a difference is a difference, right? Not quite. Aside from the possibility of different life-experiences, what was once thought of as better general spatial awareness in men is now known to be much more complicated. With further research, on average, women seem to be better at some spatial tests than men and vice versa. So, was it that the definition of “spatial” was not well enough defined, or is there not really so much difference? The goal posts move yet again. Neuroscientists also claim that there are different “thinking styles” in men and women, or in homosexual and heterosexual people.

Now bring in the hormone levels and MRI scans. People doing spatial or other cognitive tests (visual, audio or language tasks) have hormone levels measured in their blood, saliva or urine. Can a difference in hormone level be related to their ability to perform the task? Bizarrely, in some tests men with higher hormone levels do worse than other men, but women with higher than average hormone levels do better! So is there really a causal link between hormones and spatial test results, or was is just due to individuals having spent more playing with lego as children? As with hormone levels, studies with MRI scans claim to have shown differences between men and women in the way particular volumes of the brain have greater or less blood flow when doing a task. Recently, though, it seems that many of these differences go away when the experiments are done properly. In spite of early experiments to the contrary, MRI now provides evidence against both localisation (psychological events relating only to defined locations in the brain), and lateralisation (psychological events relating mainly to only one side of the brain). This of course puts, or should put, into question previous experiments that purport to show innate and permanent differences between men and women. Unfortunately, these neuromyths are hanging on so strongly and are now so pervasive in society that educationalists are starting to worry that learning in schools will be affected by this assumed knowledge with little scientific basis.

One example of how things can come unstuck was a study of gender identity in girls with a condition called adrenal hyperplasia, who have masculinised genitals. Data came from asking their mothers about behaviour that was compared to a sister without the condition. Results of one study showed evidence of increased energetic play, or “romping”, which is normally attributed to boys. Quite apart from the possibility of mothers treating sisters differently, or typecasting gender behaviours, the killer blow came in a later study comparing children with adrenal hyperplasia and those with diabetes. Both groups were found to exhibit the energetic behaviour, suggesting that childhood illness in general was the common factor, nothing to do with gender identity. But without this last study to show otherwise, how many of us would continue to believe the gender identity theory?

So, as revolutionaries, we have to be careful not to fall into the neuromyth trap. The assumed “facts” about difference gleaned from scientific experiments have to be understood in greater depth and broken down before taking any media headline even slightly seriously. Was the experiment just a psychology experiment asking a bunch of student volunteers to look at pictures, or did it involve some measurement of hormones or brain activity? How was the hormone level measured, and was menstrual cycle taken into account? Was the experiment done on rats where the results may or may not apply to humans? Could the results have an environmental origin, as in the example above? Does a scientist doing a psychology experiment really have the expertise to make claims about hormone levels or judge theories about prehistoric society, or are they making connections that are just not there, based on prejudice? Do they perhaps want it to be true, like Simon Le Vay who hoped his (flawed) experiments showing brain differences between homo- and heterosexuals could help lesbian and gay men become more accepted? Are they even a racist like James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of DNA who got a Nobel prize? (Rosalind Franklin, the woman on the research team, didn’t, by the way!) This is not to say it’s easy to get to the bottom of media headlines about gay-genes or female brains, especially as the details of the experiments are buried in scientific journals that you have to pay for unless you study or work in a university.

Finally, here are two things that often get left out of discussions about innate abilities or behaviour. Firstly, we know that it is possible to change our ability by practising a task or change behaviour by learning to think differently. It may take a few hours or days or years, but we know we get better over time when we practise something, the opposite if we don’t. One practised individual can easily overcome small differences in averages between experimental groups of men/women or gay/straight (assuming these differences exist at all). So to a great extent we can just choose what to become good at, given the opportunity. Secondly, in spite of inequality in upbringing, education and diet, cultural diversity, and discrimination due to racism, sexism and homophobia, the amazing thing about human beings is the overriding similarity in so many of our abilities and capabilities. How much more will this be so when inequalities are removed as they would be in an anarchist communist society?

The main sources for this article were:

• Steven Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 1996.
• Lesley Roberts, Sexing the Brain, 1999.
• Steven Rose, The 21st-Century Brain, 2005.
• John Hall, Neuroscience and education – what can brain science contribute to teaching and learning?, 2005.
• Betta Schnitzel, Gender and ethically relevant issues of visualizations in the life sciences, 2006.
• Ben Goldacre (Bad Science blog), Pink pink pink pink pink moan, 2007.
• Greg Downey (Neuroanthropology blog), Neurosexism, size dimorphism and not-so-‘hard-wiring’, 2008.

From Anarchist Studies Volume 16, Number 1 2008 – By CHARLES THORPE AND IAN WELSH


The authoritarian and ecologically destructive juggernaut of state-supported big science and technology in the twentieth century understandably fostered a deep pessimism and suspicion towards science and technology among many in the green, anarchist, and libertarian left milieu. This reaction has been crystallized in the “anti-civilization” primitivist anarchism of John Zerzan. In opposition to this drift towards primitivism, this paper argues that a vision of a liberatory and participative science and technology was an essential element of classical anarchism and that this vision remains vital to the development of liberatory political theory and praxis today. The paper suggests that an anarchist model of science and technology is implicit in the knowledge-producing and organizing activities of new social movements and is exemplified in recent developments in world, regional, and local social forums.


This article develops an anarchist political theory of science and technology that highlights the latent forms of anarchist praxis present within a diverse range of social movement engagements with contemporary techno-science. We argue that there is a marked congruence between contemporary social movement engagement and the key concepts and principles underpinning anarchist writing on science and technology from the nineteenth century onwards.

By exploring the tensions and ambivalences in established anarchist approaches towards science (cf. Restivo 1994) we demonstrate that classical nineteenth-century anarchism emphasised the centrality of socially accountable science within libertarian thinking. Elements of this tradition are discernible in the emphasis on liberatory technics by twentieth-century writers such as Lewis Mumford, Murray Bookchin, and Paul Goodman. This later work on liberatory technics developed during a period dominated by state-sponsored big science. The twenty-first century, however, is dominated by neo-liberal ascendancy characterised by the early transfer of “near market” science to the private sector. This transition to a neo-liberal era requires clarification of, and debate on, the relationship of anarchism to science. Further, such debate must address the global movement milieu in which traditionally conceived social movements combine with network movement actors to form an antagonistic and proactive social force emphasising autonomy.

Important features of this movement milieu are unqualified opposition to: the alignment of capitalist and state forces through global institutions such as the World Bank and IMF; the military sequestration of public corporate scientific research and development (R&D) budgets; the imposition of “market solutions” across all areas of “public provision” and the pursuit of modernisation agendas which simultaneously degrade ecological and human integrity. Global social movements also challenge the prevailing cognitive order by defining key knowledge stakes regarded as vital to “the other worlds that are possible”. The recognition and respect for difference is a central part of these linked political and epistemological objectives raising significant challenges for conceptions of science based on universal laws. Key questions explored here are what does the philosophical and political tradition of anarchism have to contribute to such contemporary challenges to dominant social-epistemic orders and is there a theory of science embedded in anarchist political thought that is relevant and applicable to contemporary struggles?

Given the continuing importance of science to modern states and the neo-liberal “global knowledge economy”, a critical anarchist theory of science and technology needs to overcome the limitations within various forms of “primitivism” exemplified by the writings of John Zerzan (1996). Zerzan’s criticisms of alienation in modern life and of the nihilism of contemporary technological culture are trenchant. But, from this critique, Zerzan leads his readers to a quasi-religious ideal of a return to a wild Eden (cf. Aufheben, 1995). Primitiism neglects the anarchist intellectual tradition examined here.

Rather than a return to simpler technics, we argue that the ideas and the epistemic practices of contemporary social movements constitute the basis for non-totalising forms of scientific knowledge and scientific practices resonating with anarchist emphases on decentralisation, horizontal structures, and diversity. This emergent anarchist or proto-anarchist politics of science and technology is necessary to transcend the limits of contemporary state-corporate science which has reached a “plateau” (Mumford 1934/1972) encountering “paradigm limits”, which can only be transcended through alternative epistemic practices consistent with the autonomous self-organization of society.

We deliberately re-emphasise the potential for the socially shaped and negotiated “democratic technics” advanced by Mumford (1964). As Bookchin argued, resistance to authoritarian science and technology makes the formulation of an alternative liberatory conceptualization of science a critical political task. Indeed, whilst many contemporary social struggles are perceived as against established science, they also contain liberatory promise and alternative epistemic practices and priorities. Such struggles hold out the promise of a liberatory science with an affinity toward anarchist modes of self-organization as an increasingly diverse range of citizens learn to combine observational, recording, and analytical capacities constituting a potential for proactive grassroots initiatives. An anarchistic organization of science requires such decentralized, network-ordered and bottom-up cognitive and material structures consistent with the political of anarchist(ic) social freedom.
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Meet your Meat

April 26, 2008

Had a great time this past weekend at the FOR conference, even though we didn’t do the workshop we ended up getting to discuss most of the issues in another workshop. For anyone visiting from that workshop the links to the programs we talked about are over to the right under #6.

But that’s not why I’m here today. I want to discuss the announcement from PETA about the fake meat challenge. Admittedly I’m not huge fan of PETA, they often have confusing and damaging media campaigns and a bit too much of the wild eyed fanatic in most of their rank and file. But still this is a big step in the right direction.

Even though they are using the logic of capitalism to foster innovation I think in some ways it short-circuits the larger flows of global capital. This isn’t going to be a prize that is chased after by big ag companies, but by smaller inventors and innovators, and it also boosts interest in biosciences among the lay public. So in that sense it’s a multiple good. I’d love to see more of these small Ansari X prizes for more scientific fields to spur innovation among garage inventors and basement chemists.

Anarchist Urbanization

February 14, 2008

vertical farm --

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth discussion on the anarchists LJ community lately concerning technology and urbanization. I don’t loiter on LJ enough to get involved in these threads (they seem to explode very rapidly into 100+ posts), but it’s nice to see the level of debate taking a step up. Of particular interest is this post on Land Mass, Crop Production, and Urbanization with some math worth thinking about.

Open Biohacking Project

February 1, 2008

green-rabbit.jpeg Open source biological engineering takes another step forward with a newly released Open Biohacking Project kit — everything you need to start your own DIY biology lab.

From Bryan Bishop:

The open biohacking kit project contains information on important protocols in genetic engineering, stem cell research, microbiology and other fields of related interest. Additionally, the archive file — ready for immediate distribution and diffusion — contains numerous articles and designs for cheap DIY hardware such as incubators, centrifuges, oligonucleotide machines, microarray chip schematics, and so on. An integral part of the entire package is a cached copy of the BioBrick Foundation and synbio websites, such as OpenWetWare and the Parts Registry — some may know about these groups from the International Genetically Engineered Machine competitions. Short introductory files are also being included regarding methods of artificial gene synthesis, using online bioinformatics databases, transfections, running ecoli farms, synthetic biology (synbio), ES cell harvesting procedures, quick “where to buy” guides, and one-page documents introducing newbies into the arts.

Available via torrent or direct download. Talk about it on the hplusroadmap mailing list.

The good thing about projects like this is that they help counter corporate control of biotechnology, in particular attempts to patent life. The drawback, of course, is that they could lead to anti-social use of biotech, such as biowarfare weapons, misuses of the technology, or simply contagious mistakes — but these are possibilities that exist anyway. In fact, attempts to control such technologies (and take note that most transhumanists and technoprogressives advocate government oversight here) are certain to fail, given the exponential growth of this field and the lowering threshold for access, and are also more likely to lead to situations where black market — and potentially dangerous — biotech thrives. This is, however, a situation where a decentralized and anarchist approach to technology — one where technology is universally accessible and the tools to deal with problems are widespread — could prove most beneficial. To quote Eudoxa:

The threat from biohacking is manifold and distributed. The real risks are not likely escaped modified E coli making cocaine in the gut, bioweapons or glow-in-the-dark aquarium fishes but something completely unexpected not in anybody’s contingency plan. The best way of dealing with such threats is also a distributed and manifold approach – a diversity of researchers sharing information, alerting each other about threats and discoveries, trying different approaches and competing at being the first to find solutions.

I call shenanigans!

November 2, 2007

So it appears that Case Western has created ‘super mice’ by way of a genetweak. Full article here.

The article itself makes for some interesting reading. The mouse is stronger, faster, more durable, lives longer, eats more but is less fat and, as the talking bobbleheads on CNN pointed out, it is sexually active longer into its lifespan. And best of all, the gene that was tweaked is one that is also present in humans.

But not to worry, say the researchers, this would never be done on humans! Bullshit. It’s fucking intellectually dishonest to present this as something that these scientists did “just for funsies and only for mice.” What kind of fucking moron actually buys that? You don’t do biomedical research on mice because you’re interested in making mice live longer, eat better, and have great sex in their old age. You just don’t. You do it because you want to improve humans. Improve them in the way you improved the mice.

By avoiding the question of whether these techniques can be developed for humans, or worse still claiming that they would never do that is utter bullshit. It’s dishonest and tries to preempt a legitimate discussion on this technique. Claiming that something is unethical and shouldn’t be used to enhance people merely ensures that discussions about the technique don’t take place in the public. And this is a discussion that should very much take place in public. Are you honestly telling me that everyone in the world is bound by the same morals as the CWRU scientists? That China, or Russia, or even DARPA isn’t creaming themselves over the idea of soldiers or workers who can work longer, live longer, are more durable? Considering all the crazy shit that DARPA has done in the past (for example check out Sharon Weinberger’s stuff or the Danger Room blog) this is basically a slam dunk homerun touchdown.

Not talking about techniques like this openly and publicly only feeds the conspiracy theory trolls of the bioconservative movement. Pretending we would never-ever seek to do something like this to humans just reinforces the paranoia that scientists are lying to us and are making a seekrit army of clones in underground bunkers somewhere. Sure, a public debate is gonna bring out the crazy, but last I checked crazy still got to participate in public debate (see: Presidential Election). Crazy is gonna sound off anyway, we may as well have a more open and honest discourse.

Gaining control

May 29, 2007

From the better-late-than-never file, I’m finally writing the post I’ve been wanting to on the FDA approving the new birth control pill Lybrel.

As Amanda Marcotte over at Pandagon points out, this has all kinds of people up in arms — though “all kinds of people” in this case is the predictable list of pro-lifers, religious nuts, and women who’s idea of feminism is being properly submissive to men.

Why does this matter to us? Well part of the transhuman agenda is gaining greater control over our bodies. Anything that helps us do this is good. Looking at the types of resistance to new drugs like Lybrel can also give us an idea about how other therapies are likely to be viewed in the future.

As we move forward and start to see new gene therapies, procedures derived from stem cells, and increasing use of pharma for control of our bodies and biological futures, expect to see a corresponding ratcheting up of the shrill protests. These will probably come from both the religious nuts out there who see these techniques and technologies as interfering with “god’s plan” and primitivists who see this as tampering with our “natural selves”–which is like “god’s plan” but for the faithless.

This has the potential to turn into an uphill struggle and poses a danger of slowing progress. While I’m skeptical of unrestrained progress, this is not a good reason for it to slow down. Slowing progress for safety concerns is one thing. Slowing it because your magical imaginary sky god told you to or because you believe in some fairy-tale magical world where we live in harmony with nature is fucking stupid and should be resisted.


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