Readers respond to a review of "The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain."

Salon Staff
August 29, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

[Read Amy Reiter's review.]

Boys are less empathic than girls because they are taught, throughout childhood, to be that way. Boys who cry are told "Big boys don't cry." If they persist in crying, and doing other emotional, empathic things, their parents and friends get more and more alarmed, until the child falls into line.


Every boy has the experience of fighting in the schoolyard. We all learn what it is like to be the victim, and the perpetrator, and we especially learn that it is better to be the latter. Those boys who sympathize with the weak, unworthy "wimps," well, they are next in line to be victims. If girls fight, the grown-ups come by quickly to put an end to it. When boys fight, well, I guess "boys will be boys." (In other words, I got beat up as a kid, so everybody else has to go through that, too.)

Boys tend to go into math and science, and for that matter, war and politics, due to the competitive expectations placed on them. The only way to please Dad is to do better than Dad did as a kid, when Dad was trying to please Granddad. We fight and die to become heroes, or geniuses, or leaders, in pursuit of that elusive approval.

Meanwhile, girls get parental approval by being "cute," empathic, caring; by doing all of those things we expect of women in our culture. They, in turn, fight to lose weight, find a man, win the beauty contest, even if they kill themselves in the process. Children don't show these tendencies until we teach them to be that way.

I would encourage anybody to read the book "I Don't Want to Talk About It," by Terrence Real. It's a book about male depression, but he writes quite a bit about the socialization of boys in our society. He decides that boys, before being socialized, are as empathic as, or more empathic than, girls.

-- Allan Bonadio

Amy Reiter took the right approach to Simon Baron-Cohen's book "The Essential Difference" -- liberal seasoning with salt. While there are unquestionably differences between male and female brains, generally linked to hormonal influence, there is tremendous disagreement as to what that means. Given humanity's most obvious trait, which is the vast range of potential behavior, there is no reason, even if Baron-Cohen were right, that you couldn't have math-genius women (like Einstein's wife, who helped him with his math) or empathy-genius men. Clearly the perspective here is naive at best and lacks an understanding of "constraints." I recommend Daniel Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence" books as a valuable counterpoint looking at similar traits rooted in a more sophisticated biology.


Certainly a scientist should not try to justify such a hypothesis with an array of aging clichés. Anyone with young children today will know that things look different now than they did 20 years ago, with no differences in brains visible.

Oh, yes, and those tests -- there is a well-established finding that people who rate themselves high are actually low, and vice versa, especially when it comes to things like empathy. People who are empathic, for example, tend to be more aware of their faults in that area. I speak here as a personality psychologist with an interest in gender differences, who also assesses executives in their ability to lead -- which skill rather requires a good deal of empathy, regardless of gender!

So this is a book with weak research, unsophisticated examples, and bad self-tests -- this is science?

-- Stephen P. Kelner Jr.

You know what this theory doesn't explain? I was terrible at math in school (I'm female) but I have always been fascinated by maps. I've even drawn maps of my own imaginary cities. Maybe it's because the teachers expected me to fail at math that I did. Nobody expected me to have an interest in maps, so I developed that skill without the interference of human biases. Studies of gender differences repeatedly fail to consider what 3,000 years of socialization might have done to our abilities.


-- Lynne Bronstein

It might arrive to Mr. Baron-Cohen in the form of an unpleasant agitation to his data that I fail to have admiration for his questionable methodology and additionally fail to empathize with his position as an inductive scientist. Perhaps rather than a "both," I am a neither. When I studied as an undergraduate at MIT (bachelors of science in the following three areas: theoretical mathematics, literature and French language), one of the first lessons future scientists, engineers, philosophers and linguists -- both male and female -- were taught was that all scientific inquiry should be deductive rather than inductive. Data should be amassed and studied for statistically significant differences within a variety of schema before hypotheses are formed. Then, and only then, should a hypothesis be specifically tested. Yet, even this empirical methodology is flawed -- biased on both the sub-atomic level and the humanistic subjective level; Professor Baron-Cohen could have learned this through the systematic study of Heisenberg or an empathetic stint with Milton's "Paradise Lost."

Prof. Baron-Cohen's methodology is of the same genus as creationism; he has an idea he wants to prove and thus amassed data specific to proving such an end. One can see similar motives and methods in biblical exegesis, Edmund Burke's system of the sublime and beautiful, and Kant's "Third Critique." All of these have been unmasked as systems of artifice; flawed and shamelessly biased, these are the types of studies that Baron-Cohen's "systematic thinkers" would scoff at after careful study as they certainly shall do with his own. Though I have little empathy for Prof. Baron-Cohen, or any ideologue attempting to utilize science to further a political doctrine, I am, however, deeply embarrassed for Cambridge University.


-- Melanie Holm

Salon Staff

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