Further Reflections from the Future Directions in Feminist Phenomenology Conference

By Emma Ryman

At the Future Directions in Feminist Phenomenology conference, Veronica Vasterling gave a talk titled, “Feminist Phenomenology, Embedded Embodied Cognition, and [Pseudo] Scientific Gender Claims.” She is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies and Philosophy at the Institute for Gender Studies at Radboud University in The Netherlands. Her talk was motivated by her concerns about evolutionary psychology and neuroscientific claims about gender. You can find the abstract for her talk online here.

Image courtesy of smokedsalmon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Vasterling begins by pointing out what she takes to be serious flaws in brain organization theory (or brain-sex theory) – a popular theory in the scientific community. She explains that the causal map of brain-sex theory says this:

1.The first causal step in male brains and female brains involves either an XY fetus being flooded with testosterone during pregnancy or an XX fetus not being flooded testosterone during pregnancy, respectively.

2. After this hormone flooding (or lack thereof), you get sexed brains – with sexed behaviour, interests, and cognition.

She references the work of the scientists Simon Baron-Cohen (who has published books like the 2003 The Essential Difference) and Bao and Swaab (whose work includes the 2011 article “Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relation to gender identity, sexual orientation and neuropsychiatric disorders”). Such researchers make enormous, essentializing claims about male and female brains, calling them systematizing and empathizing, respectively. However, they don’t consider themselves to be biological determinists because they are “post-dualists” – they are beyond the nature/nurture duality.

Vasterling takes issue with their claims. First of all, she doesn’t think they are post-dualists at all, but rather crypto-dualists. Vasterling argues that the only difference between their theories and dualist theories is that they allow for nurture to have a small amount of causal influence. So, on their picture, you get binary gender with some variation. They explain variation in two ways – by allowing for nurture factors, and also by acknowledging that lots of things can go wrong during the masculinizing of brains, like insensitivity to testosterone, for example. This picture is not genuinely post-dualist, according to Vasterling, because it is simply additive. All brain-sex theorists do is add some elements to the traditional nature vs. nurture picture. To be genuinely post-dualist, Vasterling claims there should be some substantive interaction between nature and nurture factors. Brain-sex theory provides no such interaction.

Vasterling critiques this crypto-dualist theory on two levels. First, it subscribes to an outdated view of nature. She calls this view of nature Cartesian, or at least pre-Darwinian. It paints nature as unchanging and universal. Second, it subscribes to an outdated view of causality – a sort of one-sided mono-causality. According to brain-sex theorists, hormones are the major determining factor for fetal brain behaviour, and brains are the major determining factor for cognition, behaviour, and, interests. But Vasterling objects – surely causality goes both ways, and is multi-factorial. Hormone levels impact behaviour and mental states, and vice versa. Many studies have shown that hormone levels can change as a result of behaviour. For instance, resistance-type exercise, like strength training, increases testosterone levels in men. The exercise raises hormone levels, instead of the hormones causing an increase in exercise. Furthermore, behaviour and mental states also impact brains, and vice versa. For instance, when you acquire facility at a musical instrument, this shows up in your brain. The brain is a plastic organ.

Vasterling goes on to explain how binary gender gets scientifically constructed. In her analysis of the research data used by brain-sex theorists, she found a wide distribution of characteristics among men and women, and then an enormous overlap between the two sexes. The average difference between the two is not particularly significant. In fact, out of all the possible cognitive differences between men and women, the only significant cognitive difference that stands up to scrutiny is mental rotation (spatial perception), and even then, the difference is not particularly large. However, the studies themselves translate this data into binaries. Binary gender is literally constructed in scientific accounts of gender difference.

So, she goes on to ask, what can be sexed about human beings? Her answer is only the chromosomes and reproductive organs (with the exception of the roughly 1% of the population who are intersexed) can be sexed. This is the only level at which we can binarize. When we get to brains, they cannot be sexed at all. There is no meaningful biological difference in what brains are made up of. We have now learned that there are no female and male hormones, just varying mixtures of various hormones. In fact, having unusually low levels of estrogen can lead to increased mortality in men (See Jankowska et al. 2009, “Circulating estradiol and mortality in men with systolic chronic heart failure”). And, we cannot neatly binarize behaviour, interests, or identity. Even when it comes to reproductive capacities, a large amount of people who identify as women cannot or do not have children, making reproduction increasingly less important for their identities as women.

Vasterling suggests embedded embodied cognition (EEC) as a potential new paradigm for exploring gender. Cognitivsm (the theory drawn upon by brain-sex theorists) views the brain as a control room, an information processor with specialized modules that gathers and analyzes information and directs behavior. On the other hand, EEC, which is informed by phenomenology, views the brain as embodied, interactive, and embedded in a world that constraints and influences cognitive processes. The brain is something that is plastic and can improvise – it’s part of a dynamical interactive network.

Vasterling also looks to feminist phenomenology in particular for exploring sexual difference. She does not mean to deny that the lived experience of gender is an important one – there are, of course, differences in the lived experience of bodies that identify as male and bodies that identify as female (to do with experiences like menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, erection, and so on). Furthermore, lived experience is often permeated by a lingering sex or gender dualism. A lot of lived experience of gender is a result of what Vasterling calls “the recycling of binary” – the recycling of stereotypes, gender segregated practices, and heteronormativity. She explains that heterosexuality is often seen as thriving on the story that men and women are fundamentally different and complimentary (Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus, etc). Or, when romantic heterosexual relationships fail, this too is often chalked up to the sexes being ‘too different’.

Embodiment is important for cognition, but one should not generalize this to say there are two basic ways of thinking or relating to the world – one that comes from male bodies and one that comes from female bodies. Research of lived experience should not assume, but rather investigate, binarity. However, Vasterling asks, how do we do good, phenomenologically informed research without bringing in binarity? Scientific accounts of gender differences, she laments, cannot seem to evade the recycling of binary. But what is left of gender without the recycling of binarity? She draws a parallel to race. While race can be an important critical category, and it clearly still structures social categories and lived experience, the scientific community gave up on race as being an important determinant of behaviour, interests, abilities, and so on. Vasterling ends with a final proposal: Since we gave up on race being important in this sense, maybe we should give up on gender being important in this sense as well?