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Essentialist Neuroscience

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Despite the best efforts of a few awesome scholars, essentialism is alive and well in the neurosciences.

An article posted on Salon on August 5 describes the results of a study in Behavioral Brain Research wherein the authors reviewed research done on sex/gender (they conflate the two) differences in a decision-making experiment known as the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT). The review notes how research using the IGT has consistently found differences in behavior between men and women, though these differences appear in only a few test conditions and there is some overlap. “The dividing line is often blurry when it comes to female- and male-typical behaviors,” says Ruud van den Bos, the lead author.

The thing is, the problem is not that researchers find differences between men and women. I don’t know of anyone who would deny that there are differences between men and women. The problem is the meanings that are created out of these differences and the accompanying emphasis placed on those differences (to the detriment of similarities). The ways that people—both researchers and the public—interpret these differences in Euroamerican societies is inevitably one of gender essentialism and biological reductionism. We jump from “there are differences” to “those differences must arise out of immutable biological traits,” in this case brain structure and function. This leap is made not based on sound empirical evidence (see the awesome scholars I linked to in the first sentence of this post), but on our sociocultural understandings of gender and human nature.

Why is this bad? Well, for starters, human beings are not simply biological creatures. We are biocultural creatures. Let’s take a look at one of the claims of the researchers as quoted in the Salon article:

“By disentangling the biological from the societal, we can understand how differences can be turned into advantages,” van den Bos says.

Aside from this sentence making absolutely no sense, it exhibits a major problem in such research: you cannot disentangle the biological from the cultural when looking at the behavior of human beings. There is no such thing as a human being without culture. And the thing about culture is that most of the time it works in unnoticed and subtle ways. It affects and shapes our biology (for example). The idea that there is some sort of human nature without culture is a myth that is reproduced through studies like this one.

Second, this study conflates sex and gender, and also appears to buy into the idea that there are some underlying essential biological traits that produce these differences. It is the old assumption that because there are some biological differences that those differences must be immutable biological traits (nevermind brain plasticity and the role culture plays in shaping the brain). The authors make the following speculation (citations removed from quote):

As to the nature of these underlying differences in strategy, explanations may be related to a higher vulnerability of female subjects compared to male subjects. For instance this may be related to physical strength or the responsibility of raising young, such that females need more detailed or precise information from their environment. Alternatively, this could be related to the fact that male subjects, at least as argued for rats, do have larger home-ranges than female subjects. This would make it impossible to acquire the same level of detailed information for male as for female subjects. Future studies could test these different hypotheses by testing decision-making in species where for instance the reproductive investment between males and females is either very large or (almost) non-existent.

So there we have it. They interpret these data to mean that the differences arise from immutable biological traits in males (physical strength) and females (“raising young,” which tells me that they need to do some reading on kinship and family structures across cultures). This passage also is indicative of the authors’ belief that you can separate human biology from human culture because they make the argument that cross-species studies (like the ones they have previously done on mice and rats) may yield dependable results that can be interpreted to tell us something about human behavior. But rats and mice don’t have gender systems. They certainly exhibit sex differences, but rats and mice do not have cultural processes like humans do that elaborates, influences, shifts, changes, and suppresses biology.

To the credit of the authors, they recognize that cross-cultural studies are necessary:

Finally, biologically founded sex differences in decision-making should not be mixed or equated with cultural or societal founded sex differences. Thus, cross-cultural studies are clearly needed to further unravel the nature of sex differences in decision-making.

But, again, this is something that should be stated up front and explored in detail before jumping to conclusions about universal human biological traits. This is clearly a case of researchers who are not well read across disciplines.

What these studies show is not some essential biological traits that explain differences in decision-making processes between men and women. What they’ve found is that there are differences in decision-making processes between some men and some women in a particular society. They leap to the conclusion that any biological differences arose out of some strictly biological evolutionary processes rather than a combination of evolutionary processes and sociocultural influences. And as I stated before, you cannot extract the sociocultural influences from human behavior nor from human evolutionary history.

Jonathan Marks put it best (citations removed):

No other living species has evolved as we have, which makes it difficult to model human evolution as simply biological processes, with precedents in zoology. The reason human evolution cannot be studied from a strictly zoological perspective is that such an endeavour begins by denying the very facts of our existence that we are trying to explain—how we came to be the creatures that we are, weak and slow-moving, unable to survive without the non-biological environment that our ancestors made, yet nevertheless overrunning the planet; genetically almost identical to chimpanzees, yet driving them and all the other apes to extinction. We did it by evolving into biocultural animals…

To try and represent humans as non-cultural beings is a fool’s errand, the residuum of a pre-modern scientific approach to understanding the human condition. This is itself simply an instance of a deeper and broader myth, that humans are scientifically understandable independently of culture—either your own or that of your remote ancestors. To begin the study of humans by imagining that you could free yourself or your object of study from culture, then, would be as regressively anti-intellectual a proposition as any that comes from a modern creationist or climate change denier. Modern studies of human evolution are engagements with the biocultural; the determinism may be weaker, and the interpretative elements may be self-consciously more evident, but we no longer pretend that we are Martians, or that our subjects are automatons. We are humans studying human ancestry and diversity, and there are few, if any, precedents in the history or diversity of life to guide us.

It’s time that the neurosciences started looking at the broader picture of what it means to be human beings and stop reducing our behaviors to cultureless, immutable, biological brain characteristics. It definitely is interesting to look at how gendering people creates differences in cognition and emotion, but it is unscientific to inject our culturally inspired assumptions about human nature into interpreting those differences. It makes for lousy science, and it reinforces cultural stereotypes about the capabilities of men and women as being biologically determined.

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10 Comments

  1. Aside from this sentence making absolutely no sense, it exhibits a major problem in such research: you cannot disentangle the biological from the cultural when looking at the behavior of human beings. There is no such thing as a human being without culture. And the thing about culture is that most of the time it works in unnoticed and subtle ways. It affects and shapes our biology (for example). The idea that there is some sort of human nature without culture is a myth that is reproduced through studies like this one.

    A minor quibble from a population geneticist. There is, at least theoretically, a way to disentangle some culture from biology. More specifically, environment (which includes culture) from genes. However, this only looks at the component of variability of a trait that is genetic and the component that is environmental, so if there’s a universal due to genes or a universal due to environment, it won’t identify it. In addition, it doesn’t work for sex/gender because it requires that there is little correlation between environment and genotype, and since very few people who are biologically (in body and mind; trans* people are a whole other ball of wax) one sex are raised as the other, it would be very difficult to apply this to differences between the sexes.

    • Thanks for your comment Jeff.

      I’m not sure your quibble is with my comment so much as the different ways that perhaps we think about what a trait is. I was talking about behavior specifically, which I realize is a kind of trait but not the only kind of trait. I’m also not just talking about genetics, though I find that often when I bring up this topic that people think biology = genetics (I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing, but I wanted to clarify that I’m not limiting my scope to genetics).

      But anyway, more specifically to your point, I’m not sure that it refutes my point that you cannot separate biology from culture when studying human behavior. Could you give me an example of a human behavior that has been shown to be 100 percent genetic and 0 percent cultural?

      Also, I highly recommend the Jonathan Marks article I linked to in the post. He is a biological anthropologist with a background in genetics and has written more extensively on this topic.

  2. There are many different voices in Neuroscience and not all advocate an essentialism or biological determinism. Indeed, recall some of the earliest voices such as Brenda Milner or Donald Hebb “Neurons that fire together, wire together” or some of the seminal work of nobel laureate Eric Kandel in regards to synaptic plasticity from long term potentiation. Other voices include Patricia Churchland, Terrence Sejnowski, Gerald Edelman, Jeffrey Elman, Esther Thelan, Christoff Koch, the late Francis Crick to name a few. And they are reductionists in the sence that the mind is the result of brain activity as opposed to supernatural dualism. My own former supervisor Antonio Damasio (who was instrumental in creating the Iowa Gambling Task) whose work on the neural basis of consciousness has always stressed the importance of a biocultural perspective in neuroscience research.

    I highly recommend the book “Liars, Lovers and Heroes” by Terrence Sejnowski and Steven Quartz as a strong neuroscience based rebuttal to genetic determinism. Indeed, I would argue that it is within the neuroscience community you will find many looking at the broader picture of what it means to be human beings. No doubt you are also aware of the east and west coast divide. Those on the east coast lean heavily towards nature a la Steven Pinker. Sadly, Noam Chomsky (who opposes genetic determinism) is added to this lot given his thesis on an innate Universal Grammar. Those on the west coast lean towards nurture a la Patricia Churchland and practically everyone at the Salk Institute.

    And one significant point is that none of the neuroscientists I have mentioned would ever claim that we have got the brain all figured out. They would all wholeheartedly agree that genes and environment are such an entangled web that segregating the two (ie. biological from the societal) is foolish.

    • Very good point, and I certainly did not mean to imply that all neuroscientists are essentialists. It’s just the sort of neuroscience that regularly gets reported on in the media because it plays into the public’s already existing gender stereotypes.

      I highly recommend the book “Liars, Lovers and Heroes” by Terrence Sejnowski and Steven Quartz as a strong neuroscience based rebuttal to genetic determinism.

      Added to my Amazon list! =)

      Indeed, I would argue that it is within the neuroscience community you will find many looking at the broader picture of what it means to be human beings.

      In that case, I think there is a lot of fertile ground to be sowed between neuroscience and anthropology (which is already being done with neuroanthropology). I think the two disciplines have a lot to offer one another.

      I was actually unaware of the coastal divide, that is quite fascinating. And also quite sad that Pinker has much influence on neuroscience (I’m not particularly fond of him).

      • I’d say most neuroscientists aren’t essentialists, any more than most MDs are naturopaths or most anthropologists believe in some universal monotheistic goddess (who mirrors Yahweh so perfectly) in times gone past. It’s what gets depicted in the MSM. I mean, again, one science magazine (can’t remember which) had Rushton answer a question only a few years ago, like, a couple years before his death. Remember back in the 80s when the mainstream media thought his “race, penis size, and IQ” idea was ludicrous? (Spoiler warning: It’s still ludicrous.) Now we have “If your index finger is longer than your ring finger, you’re gay. Oh wait, it’s if your ring finger is longer than your index finger. I mean, let’s try this again…”

        FWIW, evo psych is closer to the psychology part of the equation than the biology part.

  3. Will, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your last 2 posts.I am too fucked to comment except, except, I was thinking, maybe an example of 100% genetic and 0% cultural behavior could be “breathing”?

    And then, if you did not accept that, I would then go on to argue that the very word “behavior” in itself implies “cultural”.

    What do you think? Not sure if I am making any sense here…

    • Thanks!

      I’m not sure breathing is a genetic behavior. It seems to me that genes are what develops the physiology, but that genes do not regulate breathing.

      Further, it’s interesting that you pick breathing because it is one of the few physiological processes that we can control to some extent. If you think about breathing from a cultural perspective, there’s a lot of different ways to breath for different reasons and at different times. Plus, to take it a step further, if a person is unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator, wouldn’t that be an example of culture (medical technology) controlling breathing?

      I think, when it comes to humans, behavior does imply culture in a biocultural sense. But, I think social scientists often define behavior a little differently than biological scientists, so perhaps that is where some of the confusion stems from. If someone were to say human behavior to me, one of the last things I’d think of would be physiological systems that humans have little or no conscious control over. I guess for me behavior implies some conscious agency.

      Very interesting discussion that has got me thinking. Thanks! =)

      • Yes, thinking about it some more, if you wanted to include playing wind instruments under “breathing”, then music has loads of culture associated. Then I was thinking “blowpipes” – hunting, glassblowing, lab pipettes back in the day – so you are right. Some folks might say all that is not strictly breathing, but that would be a completely boring and hyperskeptical POV!

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