What I'm reading - The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon, Behave by Robert Sapolsky - Part 1
The Virustimes didn’t make me more well read. What with the day being cut into a lengthy period of work from home, and the fear of stepping outside in case I was punished for breathing, existing, spreading the virus, or picking up the virus, the amount of free time seemed vanishingly small. You finish work, limp over to the kitchen, back to the sofa to eat and spend quality time with your beloved, then work on the coronavirus model. Anyway, I digress. With the returned freedom to go for hikes, meet people, and swig pints inside a building, I finally feel like staying in and reading more.
I’ve been chewing my way through The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon. Wow, it’s heavy going for a popular science book. There is an awful lot of neurological studies to mention - and every time one is mentioned, there is another to describe that rebuts it. Maybe the problem is more simple - there’s something about the page layout which presents a dense wall of text on every page, somehow also strangely large in size so I feel I am on the verge of reading a large print book. Several times I tried to start mowing through it, only for my mind to get distracted and fall out, only saved by my bad habit of flicking forward a few chunks where I would inevitably get drawn in again by some tender morsels of interesting facts. For some reason, the best of a book always seems to lurk in the future pages.
But, it’s not a badly written book by any means, I merely have ADHD from an adult diet of smartphones, Google and social media. There is an awful lot of studies, assumptions and general media tosh to debunk, and certainly Rippon does this very thoroughly. I feel in safe hands and now that I’m committed, I’m enjoying the journey through the history of anatomy, endocrinology, neurology and psychology. I once wandered onto a Facebook group by a man claiming that sex differences made men inherently disadvantaged, ergo they crime and fight, while women are inherently better off, ergo they talk things out and lucratively sell their bodies (funnily enough no one responded when I pointed out men could sell their bodies too). It was both amazing and depressing how readily his supporters selectively quoted neurological and hormonal gender studies in the comments section. What was especially concerning was that the man seemed to have found a vein of support from some trans members - surely there is room for male and female gender without invoking concrete differences in brain structure that also destroy the concept of equality? The fight for trans rights doesn’t need the ugly spectre of misogyny creeping in and trying to use it for self-justification. Anyway, I’m hoping this book will give me some better ways to sum the state of gender research up in a debate, rather than, “I say sir, have you read the latest meta-review?”
So at last I am semi-hooked my bookmark is grimly migrating through it. I’ll summarise it later, but here is the gist - there is no gendered brain. It’s all tosh, and bad science.
I am also reading Behave by Robert Sapolsky. It began promisingly, I was enjoying the introduction with its heady combination of lucid writing, knowing humour and personal anecdote. BAM! Derailed again. I’d run up against an immensely irritating error, one I’m really surprised Sapolsky allowed to pass. The so-called Wellesley effect is the myth that women’s menstruation cycles synchronise if they live in close quarters. It is a case of a concept being simply too alluring to forget, never mind that it has been thoroughly debunked. In short, young scientist Martha McClintock carries out a survey-based study at Wellesley College on other women’s menstruation cycles. She concludes that women’s cycles synchronize. What follows are decades of other scientists attempting to replicate her study, improve on her study, and basically prove or disprove her conclusion.
One exciting theory, followed by years of toil, baseless and persistent speculation on the evolutionary biology of the reproductive capacities of women’s bodies, and a breathless feature in every single teen and women’s magazine that has ever existed.
“House two female rats together, and over the course of a few weeks they will synchronize their reproductive cycles,” says Sapolsky. “Try the same with two human females (as reported in some but not all studies) and something similar occurs. It’s called the Wellesley effect, first shown with roommates at all-women’s Wellesley college.”
His little scrap in parentheses suggests that he is aware of some negative results, but his overall expression exudes confidence that the Wellesley effect actually exists. After all, this is his link to the behaviour of female rats. Which is representative of a big and delightfully interesting chunk of animal biology - how much like other animals are we? What behavioural and neurological mechanisms of ours exist proto-form in their brains? And it’s pretty much the basis of this book, Sapolsky being an expert in baboon behaviour. I promptly disappeared down a rabbithole of Pubmed and Googling as I wondered if I should set the world to right in a searing article. No, because plenty of writers have already done so, digested here and here, and here and here.
I flipped to the front to find this book had been published in 2017, so Sapolsky really ought to know better. The Wellesley effect, which I now propose calling the Wellesley myth from hereon, is also tosh. There is no proven mechanism by which it could exist. Evolutionary biologists and behavioural ecologists can bend over backwards trying to come up with reasons for it to exist and make only pretzels. The way studies have been carried out are hugely problematic. Menstrual cycles vary in length - what level of overlap is considered acceptable for ‘synchrony’? Have women been asked to post-emptively recall their cycles, or reported on the day? How much time do women have to spend with each other for the effect to happen?
Flipping to the back, I find Sapolsky’s references for the Wellesley myth are dated from 1992 and 1998. The 1992 reference collates a few negative findings for the myth, while the 1998 reference is by the original author of the Wellesley myth, who uses some frankly bizarre metaphorical writing in her abstract - protodonts, anyone? McClintock is still a supporter of her original study today, and her research focuses on finding ways in which hormones in human sweat can influence hormones in another human’s body. She describes her original finding as a ‘complex phenomenon’, rather like a magic eye picture. After all, she says, just because you can’t find the effect, doesn’t mean it’s there - it’s just awfully, awfully complex, and don’t we all live in a confusingly mixed social world today, etc. Today, there are still researchers fighting to show that human women can detect each other’s hormones, and respond to them, while others critique their study designs and statistical methods. Was it all worth it?
Overall, I’m reminded of what I learned long ago. Good biological science is less about conceiving of amazing conjecture and looking through microscopes at beautiful slides, and more about the correct design and statistical analysis of ever blunter and blunter studies.
Also, menstrual synchrony in rats? That’s in doubt too. Funnily enough nobody is too bothered about this.
I’ll continue, skeptically, with Behave. But being only a few pages in, this rate of derailment would not bode well.
Not quite a blog, but things that I have written. Please note - these writings are unedited, for the purposes of flexing my fingers, and no doubt contain grammatical errors and carelessness of expression I wouldn't allow in professional writing.