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Judging by how drivers behave when they’re lost, female and male brains are different. Women drivers famously tend to stop and ask for directions — or at least consult their smartphones. Men are more likely to trust their instincts, thereby risking not only a 20-minute detour but a stern tongue-lashing from any unfortunate female on board.
Now the suspicion that female and male brains are different seems to be borne out by scientific research. In a paper published yesterday, a team at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered “striking differences” in the pattern of connectivity in our brains between females and males. Females boast more connections between the right and left hemispheres, whereas males have more connections from front to back within the same hemisphere.
The Penn team, which is led by the Indian-born female radiology professor Ragini Verma, postulates that while female connectivity may make women better at multitasking and intuition, the male format facilitates the learning and performance of a single task.
All in all, this study deals a blow to the contention, strongly propounded by feminists in the 1970s, that observed male/female differences in academic achievement and work performance owe nothing to differing innate ability but merely reflect conditioning and other environmental factors. If Verma and her colleagues are right, one consequence would appear to be to weaken the case for formal or informal quotas for female participation in corporate management, in universities, and in fundamental science.
Certainly the study provides fodder for Richard Lynn, a controversial British psychologist whose research on IQ has long been cited by opponents of affirmative action. Lynn, a professor emeritus at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, has been conducting intelligence tests on various groups for more than forty years. His findings were a principal source for The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, a 1994 book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which suggested that different ethnic groups differ inherently in intelligence.
Lynn has contended that women are on average about 4 IQ points less intelligent than men. Writing in the London Daily Mail in 2010 , he commented: “At the near-genius level (an IQ of 145), brilliant men outnumber brilliant women by eight to one. That’s statistics, not sexism.” He added: “When it comes to IQ, men and women…..simply are not equal.”
He went to mention that only two women had ever won the Nobel Prize for physics and only four for chemistry. No woman has ever won the Fields Medal, which is the nearest equivalent of a Nobel for mathematicians.
Of course, as feminists have been quick to point out, he failed to mention that conditioning has traditionally played a major role in women’s choice of life paths. But conditioning has clearly become less important with the passage of time.
For those who hold that men have an innate advantage in at least some areas of concentrated intellectual effort, perhaps the clincher is the failure of women to make much progress in chess. Chess grand masters, after all, peak early and it is hard to argue that there have been any significant barriers lately to girls taking up the game. The world’s highest ranked female chess grand master, Hungarian-born Judit Polgár does not make it into the top fifty overall, yet she is regarded as the strongest female player in history.
The Pennsylvania team’s findings are clearly going to be hotly debated. Co-authors of the study include Ruben C. Gur, Raquel E. Gur, Madhura Ingalhalikar, Alex Smith, Drew Parker, Theodore D. Satterthwaite, Mark A. Elliott, Kosha Ruparel, and Hakon Hakonarson. The study was funded by in part by the National Institutes of Mental Health.