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Sex on the Brain: a review
March 6, 2001

Deborah Blum, Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women. New York: Viking, 1997.

Charles Pickstone, The Divinity of Sex: The Search for Ecstasy in a Secular Age. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

Deborah Blum's latest book Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women follows in the iconoclastic footsteps of her 1994 work Monkey Wars, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Monkey Wars explored the reality and ethics of animal testing and animal rights with a fairness rarely exhibited by those who have a clear political slant. Sex on the Brain examines the no less controversial body of evidence concerning biologically based sex differences, and does so with humor and even handedness.

Blum, an experienced science writer, deftly sifts through studies and theories to ask the scientific question: does gender based behavior reflect biology rather than culture? The opening sentence of Sex on the Brain hints at her answer, "There comes a moment in everyone's life when the opposite sex suddenly appears to be an alien species." Here Blum flies in the face of her own liberal upbringing in which all gender differences were seen as being culturally imposed. After watching her own two infant sons, she concluded, "I had been fed a line and swallowed it like a sucker."

Blum then moves from science into politics with the question: does behavior also influence biology and, if so, can we consciously redirect biology along more desirable lines? And should we? She cites researchers such as Marian Diamond, the Berkeley neuroscientist who has demonstrated that the brain can physically alter to adjust to circumstances. Given the extreme adaptability of human beings and the fact that genes predispose people to act rather than determine behavior, Blum speculates on whether we can chose to alter our biology. For example, Diamond believes that a father who spends substantial time in rearing his children actually reduces his own testosterone level, thus 'gentling down'. In such a manner, the biological breach between men and women might be narrowed.

The politics of redirecting biology along desirable lines resides largely in how you define 'desirable'. Blum believes this definition should include "a system of equality based on mutual respect." To her credit, she draws back sharply from the Orwellian prospect of conducting a "great biological experiment...in pursuit of a great mutual goal." Sex on the Brain more compassionately urges that "we learn to fully appreciate and honor what we have in common while we continue to appreciate, and, yes, honor too, what makes us so confoundingly different."

Blum is not convincing, but proselytizing is not her purpose. The study of biologically based gender differences is in the stumbling steps of infancy. It is still frantically drawing together data from dozens of fields: neuroscience, anthropology, animal psychology, paleontology, genetic research... No realm of human study will remain untouched by its questions. Blum is attempting to do no more than ask the right ones.

In doing so, she escapes many of the pitfalls into which other researchers in genetics have tumbled. For example, Edward O. Wilson in his path breaking work On Human Nature leaves little space for the functioning of free will. Blum's approach will be far more palatable to philosophers and psychologists who wish to leave some room for human beings to chose.

Sex on the Brain is a highly readable and fair survey of an explosive field. Place it on the book shelf beside Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men by Anne Fausto-Sterling, the feminist biologist who argues that gender differences are culture, "Male and female babies may be born. But those gender-loaded individuals we call men and women are produced." Both women want basically the same political outcome: an equality of opportunity for both sexes. Fausto-Sterling presents her goal as a question, "Do we care that the poorest segment of our population is comprised of women and children?" I am reassured that two women with such divergent beliefs can agree, 'we care'.

By contrast, Charles Pickstone's The Divinity of Sex: The Search for Ecstasy in a Secular Age is neither encouraging nor fair. As an Anglican priest, Pickstone follows in the tradition set by the original churchman Augustine in setting down his thoughts on sex. The book annoys, rather than informs the reader, through its unsupported statements, unrepresentative data, and glaring bias.

Consider Pickstone's main theme: The Divinity of Sex argues that, since the golden age of Queen Victoria, an increasingly secular society has searched for ecstasy through sex rather than through religion. In essence, sex has usurped the role of religion in the soul of modern man. Citing children's stories from the like of A.A. Milne and Kenneth Graham, Pickstone concludes that the Victorian world was "an Arcadian paradise, a world of innocence, especially sexual innocence."

The legal scholar Richard A. Posner disagrees. In Sex and Reason, Posner sketches a panoramic history of sex and society. The Victorian Age made sexuality into a dark monster by driving it underground with a whip. Children were committed to institutions for masturbating. Prostitution rates have rarely been higher in England. Venereal disease ran wild and occasioned the Contagious Disease Acts. Meanwhile, cheap printing presses democratized pornography by making it available to the lower classes. Pickstone confuses repression with innocence.

The accusation that sex has become a form of secular religion sounds catchy. But Pickstone seems to consider any enduring fascination to be a 'religious' one, and it is difficult to understand why he did not pick money or sports as the secular scapegoat. But even granting his premise, Pickstone leaves the most interesting question unasked. If sex has replaced religion, why did this come to pass? What human need does sex fulfill that contemporary religion does not?

Avoiding this dangerous question, Pickstone assigns blame to psychology and technology which have usurped "the 'sacred' place of mystery and magic". The railroad is singled out as "a potent symbol...of how God and nature were yielding their place to technology and capital". Even coming from a union family, I question whether the CPR is responsible for society's spiritual void.

Pickstone is rude to both history and data, preferring to quote the Bible or Wordsworth's poetry rather than to investigate real world attitudes or practices. He is rude to his reader.

Works Cited:

Anne Fausto-Sterline, Myth of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Richard A. Posner, Sex and Reason. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992.
Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988.

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