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Thin evidence for a simplistic hypothesis
, June 2, 2011
This review is from: The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism (Paperback)
I know of Simon Baron-Cohen from his work on autism. I have little doubt that his underlying view of the disorder is correct. People on the autistic spectrum tend to have deficient empathy, or theory of mind, while retaining, or even improving upon, more abstract 'systemizing' abilities. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Baron-Cohen decided to extend this view to gender, arguing that autism was but an extreme extension of the natural tendency of males to trade off empathy for 'systemizing'. This is a significant claim, and significant claims require significant evidence. Baron-Cohen hasn't presented that evidence in this book. With the exception of some intriguing studies on the effects of hormones on the brain, the majority of the evidence simply consists of reviewing behavioral differences between the sexes, and chalking up whatever is found to his nebulous hypothesis. For instance - females have some superior language abilities? Well that's a natural extension of empathy. Males tend to form dominance hierarchies? Well that must be a natural extension of systemizing. The terms 'empathize' and 'systemize' are left vague enough so that Baron-Cohen can conveniently sweep gender-differences arbitrarily into one or the other.
When Baron-Cohen attempts to define 'systemizing', he defines it in terms of predictive ability - i.e. the ability to predict an output Y from an input X. The problem with this framework is that it encompasses all human behavior. Humans make decisions by predicting the consequences of their actions, that is, by forming internal models of the environment. Much of what Baron-Cohen calls empathy can be seen as nothing more than internal models of social interactions and others - e.g. theory of mind. All humans form internal models, after all we all have the same neural architecture (e.g. neocortex), where we differ is the respective complexity of our internal models in different domains. Once you see things in this perspective, it is not that the female brain is more 'empathetic' and less 'systemizing' than the male brain. Rather, evolutionary fitness may have predisposed females and males to form different internal models.
This is not just a difference in terminology. For instance, I find it highly unlikely that 'empathy' is across the board higher in females than males. When Baron-Cohen decides in chapter nine to play evolutionary psychologist, he lists 'making friends' and 'gossip' as evolutionary needs of females. What, males did not need to make friends (i.e. alliances) and gossip (i.e. spy)? Males have required understanding of social interactions and others just as females do, although perhaps in subtlely different ways. One way that Baron-Cohen tries to get around this is by a subtle distinction between 'empathizing' and 'theory of mind', arguing that one might have theory of mind but be devoid of empathy (e.g. psychopaths). In this case, the difference becomes one of value, not ability. However Baron-Cohen repeatedly conflates the two definitions.
On the other side of things, Baron-Cohen seems to assume that on an evolutionary timescale females did nothing but make babies and chat with other females. I think there is room for women to be offended by this, but really this type of lazy thinking should offend all scientists. We know from hunter-gatherer tribes that females tend to engage in actual work, like gathering food and working with tools. Thus, there are constraints on abstract systemizing in women, just as there are in men. If I can play armchair evolutionary psychologist myself, perhaps superior female spatial memory has developed from foraging, and perhaps females might be better predisposed to 'systemize' plant life (after all, they do love flowers!) Honestly, that speculation is just as valid as the majority of the flimsyevidence that Baron-Cohen offers in this book.
There are no doubt important differences between the brains and respective abilities of men and women. However trying to reduce them to an ill-defined single-dimension is doomed to fail. People are just more complicated than that.
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