A More Accurate View

Ex-Googler James Damore gives a simple, tidy explanation for the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields: they have evolved to be better at and more interested in “empathizing” than “systemizing” – people rather than things. He calls upon “science” to make his feelings about men and women look more like facts that are solid and unassailable.

Look into his “science” and you find psychologists like Simon Baron-Cohen, who divide people up into simple and tidy “brain types”, using the language of the natural sciences to make their theories about the essential difference between men and women look more like facts that are solid and unassailable.

James Damore says we must “open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition.”

Simon Baron-Cohen writes that “as we discover the ultimate causes” of sex differences – i.e. “inborn biological factors” – some readers “may find things that they would prefer not to see” (The Essential Difference, p.11).

They claim, in short, that however much we might like to believe that men and women are equally talented at everything, “science” will expose the tough but simple biological truth: men make better scientists and leaders, while women make better nurses and mothers.

They reach for “science” to show that differences in the way men and women think are solid and essential.

But do the “hard” sciences really offer such simple, tidy categories? What kind of place (and how much space) is there for essentialism in the biological sciences today?

Let’s continue a moment with the species question, by way of example, and then I promise I’ll actually get on to the sex differences stuff.

As I suggested in the last post, most biologists called off the search for the essences of species long ago. Even Linnaeus, in his later work, had begun to doubt that species were completely distinct or that they reflected an unchanging essence. And then came evolutionary theory, the core premise of which is that species change over time. It was broadly agreed their essences were nowhere to be found. But then, what was a species, if it wasn’t defined by some essence that all its members shared?

So began the search for the new essence of the term “species.” What special trait is it that makes a species a species, instead of a genus or a variety or a type?

I grew up with the impression that a species was a group of organisms that could breed to produce fertile offspring. I also had the impression that this was an objective reality. I expected that most people in this day and age would have grown up with a similar idea, but just for fun I did a mini Facebook survey and offer the results by way of anecodatal evidence:

  • A more-or-less arbitrary grouping of individual organisms based on their genetic similarity/relatedness.”

  • Can produce fertile offspring.” (NB. This guy went to the same school as I did.)

  • A group of chemicals that share chemical structures and can react in the same way.”

  • Group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing viable offsprings.”

  • A type.”

  • Superficially plausible, but actually wrong.”

  • Taxonomy is bullshit. Don’t even try to work it out.”

The fact is that there are a number of competing definitions, and none of them are completely satisfactory. This is sometimes known as the species problem. In his seminal 1942 work, Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist, Ernst Mayr discussed the different approaches, which he termed species concepts. I’ll briefly introduce three species concepts that are common and have been influential:

The Morphological Species Concept: organisms are grouped by structural similarity.

  • This is a version of the old natural kind concept, where perceived similarity of type is what matters. The problem here is that structural similarities frequally do not correlate with how closely organisms are related, or whether they can interbreed. A Chihuaha and a Great Dane look less similar than a donkey and a horse, but the former are considered members of the same species whereas the latter are not.

  • Another problem arises in deciding which characteristis should be compared to gauge simlarity/difference, and where to draw the species boundary-line when it appears that there are gradations or a continuum of similarity. Such decisions may be arbitrary.

The Biological Species Concept: a group of organisms that can successfully interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

  • This is the concept that Ernst Mayr argued for.

  • One limitation of this concept is that it doesn’t work for species that reproduce asexually – and that’s a hell of a lot of species. In fact, the majority of organisms on earth.

  • The other major problem here is that it isn’t actually all that clearcut whether two populations can interbreed “successfully” or not. How many fertile offspring does it take to qualify? Does this interbreeding have to happen “naturally” – do the populations have to have access to each other in the wild? Does that mean that populations on different continents cannot be members of the same species?
    And then, we frequently discover that pairs of populations can interbreed when we thought they couldn’t. Does that mean they are varieties of the same species, then? No matter how structurally and behaviourally different? In that case, we might have to consider that lions and leopards are one species. We might even have to class tigers in that species too; it all depends on how fertile how many of these offspring need to be.

The Phylogenetic Species Concept: a group of organisms with a unique ancestry, i.e. sharing one branch of the evolutionary tree and closely genetically related.

  • This definition came after Ernst Mayr and was supposed to address the limitations of the biological concept.

  • Geneticist Eugene M. McCarthy has called it “a morphological wolf in genetic sheeps’ clothing” because, like the morphological species concept, it uses structural and genetic similarities/differences to gauge how closely related organisms are.1

  • And DNA doesn’t necessarily tell us everything. As botanist and geneticist Verne Grant puts it, “Many evolutionists originally anticipated that molecular evidence in general and DNA sequence data in particular would resolve uncertainties about evolutionary relationships, but this hope has not been realized.”2

  • Assessing the similarity of DNA sequences is not always that illuminating. Sequence similarity doesn’t necessarily mean organisms can interbreed. Big sequence differences don’t necessarily mean organisms can’t interbreed. And, as with morphology, how do you decide how much similarity is required and how much difference allowed? The species boundary-line is often drawn quite arbitrarily across a continuum of similarity.

Species Monists insist that a single definition exists, or can and should be found.

Species Pluralists accept that there is more than one valid definition, but there is a broad spectrum of pluralism, from anything-goes (not all that influential) to the just-a-few-accepted-concepts (more mainstream). Some pluralist thinkers regard the different definitions as reflecting the different kinds of species actually found in nature itself; some pluralist thinkers regard the definitions as useful intellectual constructs.

The morphological and biological concepts were already competing in Darwin’s time, along with the old essentialism. Darwin himself emphasised different versions of the concept at different times, and actually seemed to think that the category could not be defined because it didn’t really exist.

In a letter to Joseph Hooker dated December 24, 1856, he wrote,

I have just been comparing the definitions of species … It is really laughable to see what different ideas are prominent in various naturalists’ minds, when they speak of ‘species’; in some, resemblance is everything and descent of little weight — in some, resemblance seems to go for nothing, and Creation [is] the reigning idea — in some, descent is the key — in some, sterility an unfailing test, with others it is not worth a farthing. It all comes, I believe, from trying to define the undefinable.

In On the Origin of Species he recalled

I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties.3

Later in this work he concluded,

In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species (p.484).

Elsewhere, referring to the biological species concept, he pointed out its tendency towards a logical fallacy known as begging the question or a chicken and the egg argument:

There is no way to escape from the admission that the hybrids from some species of plants are fertile, except by declaring that no form shall be considered as a species, if it produces with another species fertile offspring: but this is begging the question.4

In slightly more modern English: I declare that two species cannot produce fertile offspring together. So if two organisms previously considered members of different species do produce fertile offspring, I declare they are one species and my definition remains intact.

This rather neatly demonstrates the way that our definitions and classifications, though arbitrary, can create or select the data that fit them, and exclude any evidence to the contrary.

So, for example, if I declare that the “female brain” is not designed for “systemising,” and then am faced with a female who “systemises” well, I simply declare that her brain cannot be “female.” She must instead have the “male brain” in her female body. If my name is Simon Baron-Cohen I’ll say she is “atypical for [her] sex”.5 Like this I avoid confronting the possibility that my definition is flawed and its criteria arbitrary.

To summarise: Darwin recognised that the term “species” was an artificial intellectual construct, supposed to be convenient for discussion, that did not in fact represent an objective reality. He expected that biologists would soon all recognise this, and called off the search for the “undiscoverable essence of the term species.”

NB. To say that the term or the class “species” as an intellectual construct doesn’t imply that the organisms denoted by the binomials homo sapiens and rattus rattus do not exist. Neither does it imply that all organisms are equally close genetically, or can interbreed freely. This kind of thinking simply recognises that the term does not represent a single natural class as found in nature. Instead the one term is being made to represent several different kinds of natural group. It is a term we have inherited from a pre-evolutionary tradition, and if we hadn’t inherited it, we might not now invent it to describe the way that nature is organised (or disorganised).

But whether they agree with this philosophical position or not, and even if they are monists, most biologists (zoologists, taxonomists, etc etc.) do at least agree that the question is complex. It becomes perfectly clear when you look closer that nature is not divided into tidy categories. And even with all the tools we have at our disposal, we can’t always be certain who is related most closely to who.

Take the animal known as the red panda.


It has been very difficult for zoologists to decide whether this cutie is more of a bear or a racoon; in any case, its binomial Ailurus fulgens means “shining cat.” Check the footnote to read this taxonomical stray’s story.6

And what about the fertile offspring of lions and leopards? Or the fertile female offspring of a other big cat crosses? And female mules that can be back-crossed with a male donkey or horse?

And that’s just in the mammalian world.

As Ernst Mayr put it, “an outsider would never realize how many interesting cases of evolutionary intermediacy are concealed in the seeming definiteness of the species and subspecies designations.”7



1Eugene M. McCarthy, On the Origins of New Forms of Life, http://www.macroevolution.net/reproductive-isolation.html <accessed 2 September 2017>.

2The Evolutionary Process, 2nd ed. (New York, 1991), p.359.

3 On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection (London, 1850), p. 48.

4The foundations of “The Origin of Species.” Two essays written in 1842 and 1844, ed. Francis Darwin (Cambridge, 1909), p.98.

5Simon Baron-Cohen, ‘The Essential Difference: the male and female brain’, Phi Kappa Phi Forum 2005.

6This animal made its debut in Western taxonomy in 1825 when it was given the binomial Ailurus fulgens by the French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier. He adapted the genus name “Ailurus” from the Ancient Greek word for “cat,” and gave it the species name “fulgens” which is Latin for “shining.” He placed it in the family Procyonidae, as a close relative of the racoon. The poor creature was later shunted through the families Ursidae with the bears, Ailuropodinae with the Giant Panda (until this family was moved into the family Ursidae), and finally in its own family, Ailuridae. This wasn’t because no one wanted the red panda in their family (as you can see, it’s cute), but because it was difficult to establish whether certain of its characteristics, like the “false thumb” it has in common with the Giant Panda, were phylogenetically conservative (inherited from the same ancestor way back) or a case of convergent evolution (independently evolved in each animal due to similar habits and needs). The discovery of certain remains point towards a striking case of convergent evolution.

7Animal Species and Evolution (Harvard University Press, 1963), p499.

On the Origin of “Species”

In the last post we saw that in order for a type to be considered real – that is, a natural object – a group of individuals must have more in common with one another than with any individual excluded from that group. It’s already quite clear that by this definition, Simon Baron-Cohen’s “brain types” are not really types at all. Look at the graph again, and you’ll see that many individuals actually have more in common (more similar scores) with another individual on the other side of a boundary line than with most individuals within their own colour zone. .

Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.04.06

Those stripes of colour don’t even represent distinct types of score, let alone distinct types of brain. They are nothing more than stripes of colour painted across an arrangement of individuals’ results on two self-reporting questionnaires.1

And that isn’t all:

Even if Baron-Cohen’s vague and arbitrary groupings did tick all the boxes to be considered “types” in the taxonomic sense, typological thinking actually went out of fashion ages ago as evolutionary biology gained currency. There are those, like Wilkins and Ebach (quoted in my last post) who argue that typology does have a place in biology – in descriptions, at least – but as they themselves point out, typology is now generally “regarded as a regressive and pre-evolutionary approach to the data and biology.”2 The question, then, is whether types exist at all.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The Linnaean taxonomy is so much a part of our tradition that most of us will have grown up feeling that the grouping and naming of living things by genus and species – as in homo sapiens and my personal favourite, rattus rattus – reflect a tangible genetic reality that exists outside of human thought.

But “species” and “genus” were concepts that Carl Linnaeus inherited from Plato and Aristotle. It was in an ancient tradition, and in perfect freedom from the framework of evolutionary theory and genetics, that in 1735 Linnaeus constructed the system of classification we still use today. Yes, it has evolved with evolutionary theory; indeed, Linnaeus modified it a number of times himself. Nevertheless, its whole aim, as well as its structure and concepts, is rooted in a tradition of essentialism.

Very, very briefly: Plato, like many philosophers before him, observed that the world around him was in constant flux: unstable and always changing. He proposed that behind this wobbly material world there was another, more stable reality: the world of ideas. Material world objects like Plato himself, like a particular horse or a particular house, were in fact only imperfect shadows of the perfect and unchanging ideas or forms, man, horse and house. These ideal forms were called species. Plato is of the species man. Species were grouped into genera (plural of genus). Man and horse are both of the genus animal; house may be said to be of the genus building.

Next came Aristotle, who termed the defining idea or form of a thing its τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, conventionally rendered in English as essence; the most common literal translation is “what-it-is-to-be.” There are other translations, but they generally communicate this sense of design: of what something is supposed to be.

And there you have the basis of essentialism. It’s a doctrine that has enjoyed profound – perhaps unparalleled – influence. Medieval Christian churchmen thought in these terms: God had created an natural order of unchanging forms, of which the material forms were imperfect representations. Early naturalists like Linnaeus were working within this tradition of Christian and essentialist thought. The members of a species shared a unique and unchanging essence, and the essence defined the species.

Trouble was, it actually proved rather tricky to locate the darned thing. To find a trait that is shared by every single member of every generation of a species for its entire life on the planet, and not shared by any member of any other species, is nigh on impossible.

R.I.P. Essentialism; enter Darwinism.

In theory, that is. In practice, the death of essentialism is about as much a natural object as were those elusive essences themselves.

1The paper does not specify how boundaries were decided. They may represent standard deviations from the mean, but even if this were the case this signifies no more than your distance from the mean score ratio…

2Wilkins and Ebach, The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences.

Typology, maths and the Brexit Brain

Now, it’s difficult to believe, but those questionable questionnaires, the EQ and the SQ, are in fact the only tools that Simon Baron-Cohen uses in the diagnosis of brain sex. We’ve already identified a number of flaws that undermine their reliability as tools for diagnosing anything other than your own opinion of yourself, or perhaps how middle class you are,1 but let’s overlook this for a moment and consider the statistics they produce.

(NB. You’re supposed to take both and compare your scores. If you score higher on the SQ, you have a “systemising” or “male” brain, represented as S > E (S is greater than E); if you score higher on the EQ, you have an “empathising” or “female” brain, represented as S < E (S is smaller than E). If you score equally on both, you have a “balanced” brain, represented as S ≈ E.)

The following table is taken from a 2005 paper listed on Baron-Cohen’s University of Cambridge page as one of his “key publications,” notable as his only paper ever published in the reputable journal Science.2

Screenshot 2017-08-23 17.14.05

Now, observe that only 48.5% of women actually have any sort of “female” brain (adding the “Extreme female” and “Female” scores). Even using his own gender-stereotype detection tools, Simon Baron-Cohen finds that 51% of women do not have “the female brain.” (Remember, the female advantage in empathising narrows or disappears when the tools are less subjective.3) What, then, makes this kind of brain so very female? I rather wish that Baron-Cohen’s brand of mathematics had been applied to the EU referendum last year: the 48.11% for Remain would have been considered more representative of the people’s will than the other 51.89% and my £££ would still afford me a decent number of croissants at family reunions in France.

The SQ does net a slightly higher proportion of men, at 59.6%, but that isn’t exactly an overwhelming majority either, even though the SQ is more blatantly gendered male. Do these numbers really merit classification into “neurophysiological” types?

Have a look at this figure, from the same page:

Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.04.06

Even overlooking the fact that the numbers on the x and y axes here refer to nothing more than people’s scores on those subjective and stereotyped self-report questionnaires, this graph actually shows a good deal of overlap between the red diamonds representing women and the blue triangles representing men (I won’t be discussing the green squares representing people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorders). But the diagonal stripes of colour are supposed to show that, in fact, those clustered questionnaire-scores are in fact produced by five distinct “brain types”.

Now ask yourself who decided where the “boundaries for the different brain types” should be drawn, and how this was decided. Do those lines really mean anything?

Consider the three red diamonds clustered where the Systemizing 30 line crosses the Empathizing 40 line, at the boundary of the “Balanced” (white) and “Systemizing” (light pink) zones. Those diamonds represent three women not diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. One is in the white zone (we’ll call it Diamond A), and two (Diamonds B and C, from left to right) lie just inside the pink zone (on top of two blue triangles, which represent two men who got the same scores as these women). Diamond A and Diamond B have the same SQ score, but are two points apart on the EQ axis and happen to fall in different zones; Diamonds B and C have different EQ and SQ scores, but both fall within the pink ‘Systemising’ zone. According to Baron-Cohen Diamonds B and C are of one type, while Diamond A is in another category entirely. But is this really convincing? Do we really believe that Diamond A represents a woman with a different type of “neurophysiology?”

What is a type anyway?

Of course we all think we know what a “type” is: it’s a word we all use. But Baron-Cohen claims to be doing “science” here, and so we must hold him to scientific standards.

In the language of the natural sciences, a “type” signifies “a group or division of animals, etc., having a common form or structure” (OED 8.a.). Baron-Cohen is tapping in, here, to the vocabulary of taxonomy (the classification of organisms in the biological sciences of bottany and zoology); or, to be precise, the vocabulary of Linnaean Taxonomy.

Most readers will be familiar with this system of taxonomy (which is the dominant system today, although it has adapted over the years), whether they realise it or not: the organisation of animals and plants by species, genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom.

Now, the Linnaean system was originally a typological taxonomy: Carl Linnaeus grouped organisms by observable type. Modern taxonomists have moved away from typology, but I’ll deal with that in my next post. For now, let’s just look at what does constitute a type if you’re into that sort of thing. According to a recent book supporting typological classification, “types are crucial in most natural classification because they are the phenomena around which classifications are made.”4 That is to say, phenomena (e.g. animals or plants) are observed, patterns (similarities in structure) are noted, individuals sharing characteristics are grouped into “types,” and then classifications are made based on these types.

But to be considered a type in its own right, an individual or group of individuals must be sufficiently different from the others already known to us:

we recognize the specimen as a “different type” only because we already have prior knowledge of things that are in relationship to it and identify that it does not fit neatly into the patterns they generate. Hence, there is a pattern, but it is a pattern of exclusion: the new taxon is formed from the joint assumption that the specimen must reside in a taxon, and that it does not reside in existing related taxa. (ibid.)

And for an observed type to become a classification, the quality and degree of difference has to be well-established. In The Classification of the Sciences, Herbert Spencer, one of the first evolutionary biologists and contemporary of Charles Darwin, offers this simple and elegant definition:

A true classification includes in each class, those objects which have more characteristics in common with one another, than any of them have in common with any objects exluded from the class.

Now, are we entirely persuaded that the women behind Diamonds B and C must have more in common with one another than with the woman behind Diamond A? Even though A and B actually have an SQ score in common?

More on types tomorrow. For now, let me leave you with a link to another blog post, written today by a friend of mine (it’s a great read, and not just because I have a cameo role in it). She studied maths at Cambridge and afterwards went into computer programming (sounds systemisey, doesn’t it?), while I studied English and have more or less been reading fiction full time since I graduated (empathisey?) – and yet her blog is far more aesthetically pleasing and person- or emotions-related than this one, which is turning out to be more systematic than anything I ever thought I’d write. Perhaps we accidentally swapped brains one day when we were out jogging together.

She can still code like nobody’s business, though, while I can barely handle a ready-made WordPress domain…



1We have seen that the questions themselves are not demonstrably linked to “neurophysiology” so much as to contemporary, occidental, middle-class gender stereotypes. It is not at all clear that Baron-Cohen’s chosen examples of “systemising” really do demonstrate that function (is football really more systemising than knitting?). We have also seen that an individual’s score may be affected by the way they see themselves and would like to be seen – as more systemising or as more empathising – and that it is likely to fluctuate throughout one’s lifetime.

2Baron-Cohen, Knickmeyer and Belmonte, ‘Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism,’ Science, 310 (2005), pp. 819-23 (p.821).

3 See Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (London, 2011), Amazon Kindle e-book, Chapter 2, location 567.

4Wilkins and Ebach, The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Quotations are taken from the Google Books preview that does not give page numbers.

New Brain Type Discovered



Let’s look at some more examples from the Systemising Quotient that Simon Baron-Cohen uses to ascertain if you have the “male brain:”

4. I prefer to read non-fiction than fiction.”

In order to be able to score points towards systemising you have not only to be literate (and outside the affluent classes of the West, illiteracy is common), but enough of a reader to have a genre preference. And then, what about computer programmers who like to read fiction in their free time? Don’t they have systemising brains?

7. If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, Iʼd be able to fix it myself.”

As well as highly gendered, this question can only test for systemising in people with homes with wiring. A large proportion of the global population live without electricity in their homes. And what about the homeless? Apparently they can’t systemise. Or, for that matter, what about people who have only ever rented? You probably get more involved with the wiring if you’re a homeowner, or grew up with parents who were homeowners…

11. I rarely read articles or Web pages about new technology.”

You have to disagree with this one to get points, which means that in order to qualify for the systemising brain you have to have internet access – which, again, a large proportion of the global population do not.

18. I find it difficult to understand instruction manuals for putting appliances together.”

You have to have buying power as well be literate in order to have a systemising brain.

19. When I look at an animal, I like to know the precise species it belongs to.”

You have to have learned about Linnaean Taxonomy in order to score points.

24. I find it difficult to read and understand maps.”

You are more likely to have been born with the male brain if you later became a scout or if your school offered the Duke of Edinburgh Awards as an extracuricular activity.

29. When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football scores or stock market indices.”

Again, you must be literate, but you must also be interested in football – which, as I suggested in my last post, may have very little to do with systemising – because I rather doubt that many people are interested in these tables unless they are interested in the information communicated by them. So it would seem that you are more likely to have been born with the male brain if you will one day have enough money to buy stocks.

30. When I learn a language, I become intrigued by its grammatical rules.”

You have to have learned at least one foreign language in order to have the systemising brain. Not only that, but you must have studied it formally so as to gain exposure to its grammatical rules. In short, you need to have gone to a good school to have the male brain.

32. I do not tend to watch science documentaries on television or read articles about science and nature.”

I haven’t been able to find a study on this, but I suspect that country, age, socio-economic and educational background all have something to do with how likely you are to watch science documentaries – let alone own a television or computer to watch with. By way of anecodotal evidence I would point out that lately I have been watching and reading more documentaries and articles and books about science than I used to. Health scare: has my brain changed type this year?

And again, you should also be literate to have the male brain. But until someone produces the data to prove otherwise, I remain unconvinced that all mathematicians, knitters, tailors and computer programmers are thrilled by science documentaries.

34. I find it easy to grasp exactly how odds work in betting.”

I have never tried to grasp how odds work in betting, so I’ll lose systemising points. But if now I did try to learn how odds work, and found it easy, would I suddenly change brain type?

41. When traveling by train, I often wonder exactly how the rail networks are coordinated.”

You have to live in a country with a rail network in order to have a systemising brain.

51. When Iʼm in a plane, I do not think about the aerodynamics.”

You have to have travelled by aeroplane to have a systemising brain. That rules out all the people without money for air travel, most of those without passports, and anyone who died before air travel became common.

56. I do not read legal documents very carefully.”

Literacy and living a lifestyle that involves legal documents is a prerequisite for having been born with the male brain – which rules out a huge proportion of the world’s population, including most of my friends in Uganda.


A bit of brevity and levity for today’s post. Nevertheless, it should demonstrate that the Systemising Quotient is not a tool with which to accurately diagnose “brain type” across ages, cultures and socio-economic groups – not to mention across a single individual’s life span. Interests, habits and even aptitudes change over the course of a life. If empathising and systemising really do “depend on independent sets of regions in the human brain,”1 this sort of questionnaire isn’t going to locate those regions.


1  Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (New York, 2003), p.16.