Are there cognitive differences between sexes?

Cheeky peekIn a series of posts, entitled ‘Gender Is Dead, Long Live Gender’, ‘Social by Nature’, and ‘Girl Power’, philosopher Alva Nöe makes some contentious claims about the sexes.  Never one to shy away from controversy, Nöe argues that almost all behavioural or cognitive differences between males and females will not and cannot be explained in terms of underlying psychological or neurobiological processes.  Instead, what will do all the heavy lifting in explaining any such divide is society and the way in which our concepts assume certain differences between the genders.  Such deeply held assumptions in turn structure our lives and our expectations of ourselves, and these expectations turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.  In other words, boys aren’t really better at math and science, our social concepts just assume boys to be better, boys in turn expect themselves to be better, and this leads them in fact to be better.

It’s a long chain of reasoning, one that Nöe never really defends or argues for in a particularly illuminating way.  Indeed, across the three articles, he can’t decide whether or not to include the category of the psychological as something underpinning differences seen in the use of gendered concepts (psychology understood as the place where social concepts do their work), or indeed as something that is part of and explained in terms of sex-differences (psychology as understood as structures and processes like memory and reasoning).  And this vacillation might be one of the reasons that lead him to conclude that most behavioural or cognitive difference between the sexes is explainable only at the level of wide-spread social concepts.

First, Nöe states, based on arguments in a recent book by Cordelia Fine, despite neurological differences between the sexes, these are not relevant when it comes to explaining whatever putative differences there are between the behaviour or capacities of each sex.  Looking at the brain just isn’t going to tell you anything interesting about why we observe different psychological (understood here as cognitive abilities like working memory) results between genders.

To support this claim, Nöe cites two recent studies that suggest that difference in performance on a cognitive task were attributable not to participant’s actual gender, but to imagined identifications with a particular gender.  Identifications with the male gender, or with male-gendered roles improved cognitive performance.  However, and unfortunately for Nöe, these studies aren’t extremely convincing.  The studies could equally suggest that imagined identifications with a particular gender-neutral role (professor, honours student) could be doing the explanatory work.

Nöe is at his most convincing on his home turf of Enactivism, when he suggests that it is the mechanism by which social concepts come into being and are maintained.  Gender is real but entirely socially constructed – something that we continually enact and extend with our everyday performances and utterances.  We constantly rehearse a social narrative – albeit, one that can be subject to change.  Indeed, at the end of ‘Girl Power’ Nöe ends with a high note: maybe we can purge our social concepts of gender biases, and maybe it’s already happening.

Whatever your misgivings about Nöe or his arguments, he certainly has interesting things to say, and interesting conclusions to draw.  And despite some sloppy reasoning, I do agree with him that social concepts play a large role in gender differences.  But this is far from a new conclusion.  Judith Butler had much the same to say over twenty years ago.  If anything, Nöe is adding a more scientific-inflected philosophical view to the debate – one that I think is welcome.

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