[note: this post mentions rape and eugenics]
One of the most prominent proponents of the scientifically inaccurate idea that “male and female brains” are biologically, categorically distinct went on a podcast this week and retracted some of his rhetoric. That’s great news! But in his retraction, Simon Baron-Cohen says people incorrectly jump to the conclusion that his is a “very sexist theory” because they “haven’t bothered reading the book” or his articles. He’s wrong there—reading closely reveals plenty of evidence for sexism as the origin of his theory—but it raises a larger issue. Baron-Cohen is right that reading the original text is important, that the history of science and ideas matters. Without it, modern incarnations of eugenics, phrenology, scientific sexism, and more are able to present themselves as new and progressive ideas.
First up, the receipts. Baron-Cohen’s major book on the subject is The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain (2003). It has plenty of warning signs early on, from cringy examples like “I have systematized a woman’s fertility” and “ovaries” when he could have chosen literally anything else in the world (p.4) to his claims that white, straight, christian men are the real people “victimized” by “oppression” (“sexist abuse of men by women is astonishing and would never be tolerated if the subject of the joke were a woman, or was black, Jewish, or gay” [p.9-10]). On page 11, he says “My women friends, most of whom consider themselves feminists, have persuaded me that the time is ripe” for writing about essential differences between men and women. Plenty have written about the “I have a ___ friend [thus I can’t be __ist]” trope already.
He engages in the familiar yet horrifying apologetics of this field, saying that biology causes some men (the ones who are at the most male extreme, the manliest of them) to commit rape. His example is Nazi soldiers “queued up for hours to bribe the guards of the orphanage with liquor to let them have sex with these children” so as to spread Aryan genes (p. 36). He provides no citations at all in that entire section, thus obscuring the origins of his theory. He’s likely drawing on a heavily criticized theory by Thornhill that I’ve written about before. Those aren’t his only Nazi apologetics, however. He also writes:
Professor Konrad Lorenz [is] widely regarded to be the founding father of ethology, and the master of careful behavior observation and measurement…. I read his books at the tender age of nineteen…. [D]espite his high intelligence, the esteemed Lorenz was unable to see that the political ideology of ethnic purification in Germany in the 1940s where he worked, and indeed his own views on eugenics, were hurtful and even dangerous (p. 26).
Lorenz was a Nazi who defended his eugenicist beliefs and research even in his 1973 nobel prize acceptance speech. That’s 4 full years after most eugenics societies and journals changed their names to remove the word “eugenics” (they live on today, however). Yet that history was erased. Baron-Cohen first read Lorenz in 1977 and subsequently built a career on it. He made it all the way to 2001 before being surprised with the “revelation” that his ideas have eugenic roots. And even after learning this, he writes of Lorenz with a tone of adoration. Lorenz’s Nazi theorizing is brought up not as cause to rethink Baron-Cohen’s theoretical basis, but to support it! He’s an example of the “male brain,” which is brilliant at systematizing but poor at empathizing (and thus prone to being both a great scientist and a Nazi, with no apparent conflict between the two).
Then there’s the sort of pedestrian sexism that litters the pages of The Essential Difference. Glib remarks like this one from page 64 abound: “We often think of … technology as ‘man made’. (My guess is that most of these were indeed invented by men, and as this book will go on to explore, that may be no coincidence.)” Pages 184-5 state his motive plainly, “hopefully, in reading this book, men will also experience a resurgence of pride at the things they can do well” before listing off high status and pay professions for male brains (scientist, engineer, architect, lawyer…) and mostly lower status and pay professions for female brains (personal staff, carers, primary school teachers).
But the history of an idea doesn’t stop at one book. Baron-Cohen got this sexist drivel from somewhere—he’s simply not original enough to have invented it from whole cloth. The easy but not very informative answer is “society.” Things like “I have a ___ friend” and “men are good at engineering” are ubiquitous cultural tropes with severe consequences. His ideas also have long and well documented histories in scientific thought. Seven years before Baron-Cohen first published about male and female brains, Laquer had already published his critical history Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Yet Baron-Cohen is offended by the notion that his ideas are a continuation of that history. They are new, he insists, and fundamentally unrelated to the scientific sexism of yore. Modern physiognomists (people guessing personality traits from face shapes) say the same thing.
So where does he say he got the idea? In one of his early essays on the subject, he credits Moir & Jessel’s 1989 bestseller Brain Sex: The Real Difference between Men and Women. If Baron-Cohen is coy about his sexism, couching men and women as “different but equal” and claiming to have feminist “women friends,” Moir & Jessel are full-throated in their sexism. The opening paragraph reads: “Men are different from women. They are equal only in their common membership of the same species, humankind. To maintain that they are the same in aptitude, skill or behavior is to build society based on a biological and scientific lie” (p. 5). M&J mock “liberals” failures to advance gender equality and delight in taunting “feminist friends” with “wicked riddles” (e.g. p. 53). They even go so far as to argue that liberals and feminists are the ones harming women, by getting their hopes up:
Many women … have been brought up to believe that they are, or should be, ‘as good as the next man’, and in the process they have endured unnecessary pain, frustration, and disappointment. They were lead to believe that once they had shaken off the shackles of male prejudice and oppression – the supposed source of their second class status – the gates of the promised land of equal achievement would be thrown open… But they have only failed to be like men (p. 6).
M&J popularized much of the benevolent sexist argumentation, the general vicious tone, and even rhetoric like “blank slate” that now often gets credited Pinker’s 2002 The Blank Slate. Pinker doesn’t cite any of Moir’s work (she wrote more), and Baron-Cohen never mentions it again in his later writing. Thus the ideas’ origins are forgotten, casually omitted from citational practice, sometimes rephrased, sometimes cribbed verbatim, but nevertheless presented as new and revolutionary. And while they popularized it, M&J didn’t invent rhetoric like “blank slate” either. It was circulating in a handful of academic publications during the 1970s as a strawwoman for feminist views. M&J boast about popularizing the contents of Moir’s “attic … burgeoning with Xeroxes of monographs” that “only a few scientists … knew about” (p. 2). But in keeping with their pop-science genre, most pages of the book are entirely devoid of citations or notes. Here too, decade-old ideas are presented without origin or context.
This is part of why we keep “going over old ground” in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s words, or dealing with “Whack-a-Mole myths” in Gina Rippon’s terms. Old, clear lineages of sexism and other bigotry are quietly erased, leaving the same warmed-over claims with a veneer of novelty and neutrality. But erasing the history of science is just one tactic among several used to perpetuate bigoted pseudoscience. I discuss it alongside two other tactics in my recent book chapter, “‘A Large and Longstanding Body: Historical Authority in the Science of Sex.“