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  • Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
  • Alyson K. Spurgas (bio)
Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences By Rebecca M. Jordan-Young (Harvard University Press, 2010)

A quick glance in the Science and Health sections of any major newspaper reveals how enamored mainstream culture in the United States has become with evolutionary neuropsychology. Over the last two decades, this scientific paradigm has been popularized to justify “common sense” notions about human sociality and behavior, especially the idea that the human brain is “hardwired” by, or for, [End Page 64] gender, race, sexuality, and the like. The notions that bisexuality in men does not exist, that women are wired to find sexual submission arousing, and that ethnocentrism is the result of ancient chemical distributions in the brain that promote trust only toward one’s “in-group” are among neuropsychology’s greatest hits. As a result, racism, sexism, and the violence that often results from these are regularly legitimated and naturalized.

It is this search for a one-to-one correlation between brains and behavior that Rebecca Jordan-Young attacks so viscerally in Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. She targets one particularly beloved story in her analysis—the notion that prenatal hormone exposures permanently sexually differentiate the brain. Jordan-Young’s stated goal is not to answer questions, but rather to “question answers”—specifically regarding what scientists assume to know about differences in the brains of men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, or what may be called “androphiles” and “gynephiles.”

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the notion that early hormones “create permanent masculine or feminine patterns of desire, personality, temperament, and cognition” (xi) became clinically prolific. Psychologists like John Money and his archrival Milton Diamond were some of the first to utilize Brain Organization Theory or “BOT” to explain the essential and dimorphic nature of sexual difference. Over the second half of the twentieth century, BOT became the most popular explanation for everything from sexual orientation to social reproduction. The story goes like this: our brains are bathed in hormones in utero, there are only two ways they can be bathed, this hormonal bath becomes fixed neurologically, and for the rest of our lives we live out this binary destiny. Thus, BOT is really about discovering the truth of masculinity and femininity. But, as Jordan-Young provocatively inquires, how can we really ever define, let alone measure, such fuzzy concepts as “feminine sexuality” and “behavioral masculinization”?

Following other feminist pioneers like Anne Fausto-Sterling, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Karen Barad, Jordan-Young makes it clear that she is, first and foremost, a scientist. The business of this book is to tell the story of BOT, how it originated, how it has been manipulated and reified, and then to tear it apart, through a synthetic, critical, and thoroughly scientific analysis (which Jordan-Young half-jokingly acknowledges may be “passé” for many feminist and queer theorists today). Jordan-Young shows that almost all of the experiments that test BOT—from cohort studies that examine intersex conditions and the effect of diethylstilbestrol (DES) on fetal brain development to case-control studies which “work backward” from purportedly-distinct groups like gay and straight men—simply do not hold up to the scientific standards of reliability and validity. With devastating precision she shows that these studies do not measure the same variables or compare the same populations, and that due to these definitional and measurement issues and sloppy designs, they represent nothing more than folklore posing as empirical evidence.

Jordan-Young’s suspicion that most of the scientific research on sexuality was faulty was the impetus for this book: she knew something was wrong with this research, she could tell that the studies that were being used to support each other actually contradicted one another, [End Page 65] and so she decided to do something about it. Brain Storm is the result of over a decade of research and analysis, and it is ultimately a scathing critique and uprooting of an idea that has become so firmly entrenched in our zeitgeist that it is taken as an indisputable fact of life. But...


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pp. 64-66
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