Feminist Philosophers

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Neuromythology? March 25, 2008

Filed under: gender,science,sex,Uncategorized — annejjacobson @ 9:10 pm

Scientific research arguably involves a high capacity for  systematic thinking, where a love of discovering repeated patterns seems  to be a help.  In addition, science often requires long periods of solitary reflection or immersion in the labs, apart from partner and family. 

Why are there many more men in this life than women?  Is it a matter of socialization, genetics or both?

There’s a well-known answer, based to a large extent on Baron-Cohen’s work described here.   And the answer goes as follows:  It is first argued that the characteristics of scientific inquiry also show up in some conditions of neuro-difference, particularly in people on the autism spectrum.  But such people are MUCH more likely to be men.  So it seems reasonable to think that autism is a variant on the average male brain.  And that leaves women outside this cluster of the systematicizing people who can tolerate relatively restricted social lives.  And outside science.

Is this MYTH or more like fact?

It turns out that there’s another way to explain the prevalence of men among autists without committing oneself to anything more about the male brain.  And it is this:  Most men have one X chromosone from their mothers and a  Y one from their fathers, while most women have an X from each.  That means in general that men carry their mother’s and not their father’s X chromosones.  Suppose something that prevents or mitigates autism is carried on the paternal X chromosone.  Then women will get  it and men won’t, which means that few women will have autism compared to men.

And in fact Turner’s syndrome, which characterizes women with a single full X chromosone, tends to be accompanied by autism when the chromosone is the mother’s, but not when it is the father’s.  This is some comfirmation for the paternal-prevention hypothesis. 

Given such competing hypotheses, we are still in the land of conjecture when we talk about autism as a form of ‘the male mind.’  And when we analyse or defend social policy or practice on such a basis, we should worry seriously that we are enacting a myth.

How, one might ask, could a man have acquired a non-preventing X chromosone from his mother, but pass on a preventive one.  Understanding this really takes us into the difficult literature on the ways in which genes depend on the environment of the chromosone for their expression.  But the question is really well studied, and a good place to see it is to search under the names “Creswell and Skuse,” who apparently initiated by study of Turner’s and the occurrence of autism as genetically linked to the X chromozone.

I’m very indebted to Jamie Ward’s The Student’s Guide to Cognitive Neuroscience, pages 323-324, which has been an invaluable text for a class I teach.

 

6 Responses to “Neuromythology?”

  1. Ruth Says:

    OK, it’s me again. I have to keep pressing you.

    How does this gainsay anything about average differences in cogntive profiles between men and women? You just provide an alternative sex-linked mechanism for the emergence of ASDs. In fact, we KNOW that something like this goes on with boys with Fragile X, who are almost always mentally retarded and have a higher incidence of autism. Girls are typically not MR but can have LDS and anxiety, because they have a good X to protect them (produce some of the the FMR-1 protein).

    I don’t doubt for a minute that being xy is a big genetic disadvantage. That’s my point. Men and women have average differences in cognitive profiles. Maybe its because of fetal testosterone and its effects; maybe its because of something else. But its still there.

  2. Ruth Says:

    Another thing I forgot to mention is that I don’t think it follows that women are left out of science if men are more likely to be ASD. It also does not follow that men can’t demonstrate superior social skills and charm–things that depend on empathy and mind-reading. However, it might provide a partial explanation for some of the disparities we see. But as Virginia Valian points out in her book, Why So Slow, the very tiny differences in average male/female performance on some tests of spatial ability are really out of whack with the enormous disparities in science.

    One way discrimination happens is for people to take an average difference, exaggerate it, and then give it a normative force. IMO, that’s a lot of what’s going on with the “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars,” crowd.

  3. jj Says:

    Ruth, you’re asking great and complicated questions, but I think we’re on the same side of the controversy.

    The real underlying question is whether the differences – which are pretty visible however one describes them – are due to environmental, and so changeable, influences or not.

    The point of pointing out the possibility that the differences are due to something locatable – e.g., the maternal X chromosone- just puts the break the a quick identification of maleness and science. It’s really just a point in the current dialectic, a shifting of the burden of proof.

  4. Ruth Says:

    Well, what are you going to say if turns out the SBC is right–that it is partially a function of fetal testosterone in “standard” cases (e.g., not in cases such as Fragile X, or Rett’s Syndrome (not really autism), or other things that have until now been put under the ASD label)? Would that provide evidence for the hypothesis of average difference in cognitive functioning?

    What’s worse, you’d have to contradict all the other stuff he says: about how the profession of the father is highly predictive; about how neonate humans respond to facial imagery, etc. I have a feeling if you look at the research on this, you aren’t going to like it. But what if it turns out he’s right? What then? Does feminism curl up and die?

    I think not.

    Even if he’s wrong about the specific mechanism, I still think you are stuck with the fact that
    1. ASD is disproportionately male–by a LOT.
    2. ASD is not psychogenic or culturally produced. It is not “environmental” in the usual sense.
    3. ASD is on a continuum with normal behavior on a curve.
    4. It seems to follow that male brains have average differences from women that matter in important ways.

    **It wouldn’t even matter if, contrary to fact, vaccines, mercury, or some other biological factor ex utero were responsible. Because that would show that male brains respond to insults differently than female brains.

    I suppose you could argue that the fetal environment is environment, so then ASD is environmental. But that isn’t what is commonly meant by “environmental.” When most people say that a difference is environmental, they mean that it is either psychogenic or culturally produced. ASD is neither, yet is disproportionately male. It can be remediated (in some but not all cases) by changes in the environment–early intervention. But just because something has an environmental remediation doesn’t mean the cause of the difference isn’t a basic biological difference in brain development and functioning.

  5. jj Says:

    Ruth, sorry, my last response was very unclear about what’s in question. It seems to me we’re agreed that
    1. There are more men in science than women.
    2. Men are more likely to have ASD.

    In a comment on another post, you suggested, I think, that there is a link between the two that isn’t just some environmental fluke. It speaks more to the existence of a different male cognitive profile.

    This current post is just looking at that point, which is a very, very common one and is certainly one that Simon Baron-Cohen has made: e.g., men are more likely to be ASD, and so ASD is really an exaggeration of the male mind, where that also reveals why men are better at science. The argument is a form of “argument to the best explanation,” as far as I can see. The best explanation for the prevalence of ASD in males is the male brain has general characteristics that ASD is an extreme form of. This is in fact a very vulnerable argument, but SBC seems to make it and Jamie Ward, whom I quoted above, attributes it to him. (Ward is a neuroscientist at University College London and is probably v. reliable on this point.)

    It’s a vulnerable argument because it is possible that there’s another kind of explanation. The other kind of explanation says that there’s some specific feature, F, that is responsible for ASD-prevention. And men are liable to lack it because it is carried on the paternal X chromosone. So it isn’t some general feature of ‘the male mind” but rather a very specific factor.

    It turns out that there is some evidence there is such a feature. None of this addresses SBC’s other arguments, and none of it says that the lack of the preventive feature couldn’t give rise to a general male mind. BUT it does put those into the camp of conjecture. Or, as I called it, myth.

    Are there still other arguments? Sure. I’m disinclined to try to cover them adequately here. I’m not sure it is at all possible to do so without producing a book. More importantly, a number of SBC’s arguments are typically understood as explaining how there’s this general male mind, or as pointing out features that are supposed to be best understood by positing a general male mind. So the current argument – from ASD to a general male brain/mind – looks to be given a quite pivotal place.

    We should not forget also that there are arguments on the other side, given that the question in general is whether the low representation of women in the sciences is due to socialization or, roughly speaking, some inborn features. The recent discovery that ten hours of video games can put women’s ability to do spatial manipulations close to on a par with men’s is significant, for example.

    I don’t think Valian, by the way, would like the idea that among the small factors that can ramify are genetic ones.

  6. prothonotar Says:

    “The recent discovery that ten hours of video games can put women’s ability to do spatial manipulations close to on a par with men’s is significant, for example.”

    Of course, who tends to play more video games? ;-)


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