SEXING THE BRAIN by Lesley Rogers


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Australian physician Rogers (Neuroscience/Univ. of New England) argues in clear, crisp prose that discussions about differences between the sexes must consider environmental as well as genetic and hormonal factors.

Rogers establishes immediately that her account is not just about the science of sex differences: “It is also about social attitudes and prejudice.” She recognizes that research into gender differences has long had a political as well as a scientific component: “When society wants to maintain inequality, biological explanations can be used to justify it.” Repeatedly, she states that the mere identification of differences does not explain their origins. If men and women, for example, do indeed process language differently, it does not follow that this difference is necessarily genetic or hormonal; the culture may teach boys and girls to process language tasks differently. Rogers has no use for reductionist explanations of human behavior. Accordingly, the search for individual genes to explain alcoholism or homosexuality does not impress her; nor does the entire field of sociobiology, which she believes emerged in the 1970s as a backlash against feminism. She devotes an entire chapter to the interest in identifying a so-called “gay gene,” an enterprise she believes is nonsensical. (She points to studies of identical twins—one gay, one not. How can sexual orientation be genetic, she asks, if genetically identical people can differ so fundamentally?) Rogers razes a number of traditional theoretical edifices—e.g., the notions that men and women differ in “spatial ability” and that the levels of testosterone in the blood of men determine the intensity of their libido (neither case is so, she claims). To demonstrate the power of environmental influences on sex differences, she employs the arresting example of mother rats, which lick the anogenital area of newborn males more frequently than of females, stimulating subsequent male-rat behavior in the recipients.

Readable, sensible, scholarly, convincing. (5 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-231-12010-9
Page count: 129pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2001