Monday, July 23, 2012

Equivocation and inconclusive science

I was disappointed to read a recent post from a feminist/skeptic blogger who I usually like. Stephanie Svan's post, Broken Chromosomes and Damaged Brains, refers to comments made on a panel that discussed gender differences (broadly.) Here is the question that prompted the post:

The first statement, called sexist by many viewers, was Heina Dadabhoy’s comment that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome. The other, called outrageously sexist, was Greg Laden’s statement that the male brain is a female brain that has been damaged at various times throughout development by testosterone. The question is, however, are these statements true?
Fair enough premise. The post first investigates the claim regarding the Y chromosome, using this article from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as its reference. The evolution of the Y chromosome essentially stems from a series of self-inversions that left it structurally different from the X; these drastic differences left the X and the Y unable to recombine. Without these recombinations, the Y then was subject to a series of deletions that left it smaller in size. Given this evidence, the post claims that indeed, it is not factually incorrect to say that Y is a "broken" X:
This [evolution] has undesirable consequences for male humans[...], at every stage of development. A short sex chromosome means that males have only one copy of some genes. Sex-linked hemophilia is one of the specific vulnerabilities of males caused by this arrangement. There are plenty of others, and there are a number of vulnerabilities that we’re still not sure to what degree are sex-linked and to what degree our screening processes and social expectations make it more likely that males will be diagnosed. Some of those may also turn out to be attributable to having a Y chromosome.
So, yes, the X chromosome is the original in this situation, and the development of the Y chromosome both depleted the X chromosome and did so in ways that are not helpful to those who carry it. It is a broken X chromosome.
In my view, there are some problems with this argument. Simply evolutionarily speaking, the Y chromosome has stabilized and has only lost 1 ancestral gene over the last 25 million years. Additionally, the Y chromosome contains close to 100 unique, functional genes, and it shares more functional genes with the X.

Scientifically, then, I don't think it's as factually accurate to say that Y is "broken" as it is to say that Y is simply "changed" or "altered."

With regard to the comment about "damaged" male brains, the post says: is very difficult for us to tease out what causes the differences observed between male and female brains. There does seem to be a role for testosterone (used generically for androgenizing hormones) during gestation in the establishment of gender identity...
The best information we have suggests that any differences between the function of male and female brains tends to be quite small and unimportant relative to the vast similarities in the capabilities that we find when we compare the two. It is decidedly not enough to account for the large differences we still see in opportunities and performance between men and women.
Essentially, the role of testosterone in brain development is pretty murky. We're not really sure what the role of testosterone is, period, so using loaded terms like "damage" is an inflammatory supposition. The post defends the term, though, with the following:
There may, in fact, be some skills that men are better at than women by virtue of masculinization of a female brain due to the presence of higher levels of testosterone in males.
However–and this is a very important however–Greg’s statement about testosterone damaging female brains to make them male is true to exactly that same degree...
If you have a complex system that is capable in a general sense, and you retool it to specialize, you lose some of that general capability. In other words, you have damaged the ability of that system to generalize.
To make this more specific to hypothesized sex-related differences, if you take a cooperative system and retool it to be more competitive, you have damaged its ability to cooperate. If you take a highly verbal system and retool it to a more spatial system, you have damaged its verbal abilities. If you take a “female brain” (whatever precisely that is) and, through the application of testosterone, retool it to act like a “male brain” (whatever precisely that is), you have damaged its abilities as a “female brain”. How can you have done anything else?
Svan is saying, more or less, that a testosterone-induced male brain is not damaged in general, per se, but it is a damaged female brain; it's damaged in its ability to be whatever female brains are. She is making this semantic distinction, and arguing in favor it it, because of the implicit, unchallenged assumption that men are people, and women are a different, specialized kind of people (for a fun post that illustrates this idea using bathroom signs, check out this post about how men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts.) Referring to biological standards of maleness as 'damaged' and 'broken,' she theorizes, satirizes the common rhetoric that maleness and masculinity are improvements.

Now, I'm going to editorialize. For starters, though I'm critical of this post, I'd like to state that I infinitesimally small levels of sympathy for men who loudly shout down women who experience tangible, real-life, day to day sexism (for instance, sexual harassment) but scream "MISANDRY!" over an abstract comment about the Y chromosome. Obviously, I have no issues with people who look critically at sexism against men and women, because that's what we all should do.

Primarily, I'm critical of the choice of language because I really don't think there is the scientific merit to back the language up, just like I don't think there is scientific merit to demonstrate male brain superiority at math, for example. As one commenter said, "When certain forms of feminism is (sic) shown to be without scientific merit, we should abandon them for more evidence-based forms of feminism, not zealously defend them as obviously true by substandard arguments." Svan has sidestepped this criticism in the comments by suggesting (my interpretation, not her words) that the post isn't really about the science, but about the satire. The science, here, merely establishes that the accused statements are not factually incorrect. The intent of the language is more important.

I understand her point, but I think it's gotten too esoteric for its own good. She's doubling down on words that may not have been carefully chosen (or they may have been, but by Svan's own admission, in the context of a panel discussion, elaboration on the intent of the language wasn't possible) and creating an advanced-level discussion out of some pretty casual statements. As another commenter said, "The fact that two throwaway sentences had to have pages of text written to justify them, seems to be an admission that most aren’t going to get it on first blush. What of the people who hear that line, but don’t get the benefit of this massive footnote explaining the language choice?"

Because I like her general idea of satirizing the concept of male superiority, I might have constructed the whole argument focusing just on the semantic aspect. Personally, though, I wouldn't try to justify the statements, because as social justice types always say, "Intent isn't magic." I would, using the responses as evidence, make the point that "Isn't it interesting, that when maleness is presented as a lesser form of femaleness, men don't like that very much? Could they maybe see how, when the reverse occurs, as it often does, women don't like that very much?" I wouldn't care so much about trying to demonstrate through the scientific aspect that "it's kind of true!" I'd want to focus on how these men seem to be very perceptive of pervasive sexism when it's directed at them, but have no problem silencing women when they speak out about the same. I'm not interested in defending problematic language; I'm interested in getting people to explore their empathy by recognizing problematic language even when it doesn't apply to them.

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