Men’s brains, women’s brains, and complementarianism

Let’s suppose I believe that God has made men and women biologically different, and that this simply and directly fits them for differing but complementary roles in society and in the church.

I don’t believe this. I really don’t. But let’s suppose I did, just for the sake of argument.

So let’s suppose, purely in order to give this idea some handy labels, that I believed that God has made men for focusing, and women for multitasking. (Feel free to substitute whatever other labels you prefer, that name the supposed biologically-derived differences between male and female aptitudes, that supposedly fit them for different roles.)

And then let’s suppose that I think that giving men social (and ecclesial) roles that require focus, and giving women social (and ecclesial) roles that require multitasking, is justified precisely because it does justice to the different biological constitutions that God had given them.

And let’s even suppose that I believe that there is something natural, something fitting, about pairings of men and women, above all other kinds of pairing, precisely because it means the bringing together of God-given focus and God-given multitasking – the bringing together of the complementary expressions of the God-given biological differences between men and women.

And then, finally, let’s suppose that I believe that the kind of research recently splashed all over the headlines – research showing the differentiation in brain structure between men and women – is true in an unproblematic way, and that it identifies precisely the kind of differences between men’s and women’s biological make-up that I have been talking about, and demonstrates that they are real, in a scientifically verified kind of way.

If I were to think like this, I would (I think) be well on my way to coming unstuck.

What the research appears to show, after all, is that men’s and women’s brains tend to differ. Even if we take it at face value, all this research shows is that on average men will have brains better fitted for certain kinds of cognitive task than women, and on average women will have brains better fitted for other cognitive tasks than men. Even if we took it on face value, this research would only allow us to talk about tendencies, about averages, about overlapping bell curves of likelihood.

Take any given man, and unless you happen to have picked the most extreme of the extreme, at the deeply eccentric far end of the male spectrum, you will be able to find women who are more focusy and less multitasky than this man. Similarly, take any given woman, and unless you have once again managed to hit the nether regions of the female twilight zone, you will be able to find men who are more multitasky and less focusy than this woman.

In other words, if I did think that people should be given different roles in society and in the church, and that the reason for this was that God had given different biological constitutions, and that these differences were the kind of thing captured by this research – if I did think, in effect, that people should be given different roles in society and in the church according to whether they were more biologically focusy or more biologically multitasky, this research would suggest that my ‘more focusy’ roles should go to both men and women and my ‘more multitasky’ roles to both women and men – just that the proportions of men and women would be likely to differ in each case.

And if I really did think that there was something fitting about pairing a focusy human being with a multitasky human being – that these pairings were for this very reason natural in a way that focus-focus and multitask-multitask pairings could not be – if I thought, that is, that they were natural because of the natural complementarity of the focusing and multitasking roles – well, this research would suggest that my ‘natural’ focus-multitask pairings were likely to come in male-male, male-female, female-male, or female-female varieties – just that I might expect somewhat more of them to fall into the male-female pattern than fell into the other three patterns.

I don’t think any of this, of course. But if I did, I think my views would be well on the way to unravelling.

* * *

What do I really think?

Well, in a discussion on Facebook with Ian Paul, I first commented on the way the research had been presented as identifying essential differences between men and women. I said, ‘Let’s take a large sample of people, divide the sample roughly in half, systematically treat one half very differently from the other from birth onwards in ways that we know will alter the connections their brains develop, and then see whether their brain connections differ at the end of the process… Well, what do you know!’

Then, when Ian asked whether I denied any ‘essentialist element to gender identity’, I said, ‘Amongst the many differences that shape the development of our identities, biological differences associated with sexual differentiation are bound to be important. But I do think you would have to be very brave to say we could reliably isolate those effects from others; and I do think that, given the ways in which our societies (and our churches) are still afflicted by disastrously simplistic nonsense about the different roles and treatment appropriate to men and women, I think we could probably do with exercising some caution in this area.’ [Quote corrected slightly for clarity]

I should perhaps add, given that I’ve just dropped his name into this post, that am not at all claiming that my thought experiment above captures what Ian Paul thinks. I’m pretty sure he has a considerably more complex view than the one I set out here.


6 Thoughts on “Men’s brains, women’s brains, and complementarianism

  1. Actually, not just more complex, but rather different…

  2. Mike Higton on December 4, 2013 at 10:34 pm said:

    Yes, I didn’t just mean you went for the souped-up version of the simplistic story I set up here. The Facebook conversation with you earlier was the initial trigger that got me thinking about the connection between scientific research into gender differences, and theological claims about essential gender differences (and I’m still not sure I understand what you think about that issue), but I’d be more than a little surprised if this volley landed particularly near your position!

  3. Susannah on December 5, 2013 at 8:17 am said:

    I suspect someone might retort that of COURSE there are slightly more focusy women and slightly more multitasky men, but that we also need to be suspicious of men who stray too far from their God-given focus and women from their divinely-mandated multitasking. After all, this is a fallen world we live in, and it’s bound to have messed things up a bit. God’s intention is very clear: women are multitaskers, and men are focusers. That’s not just how things happen to be, but how God meant them to be.

    Likewise, this person might add, your putative multitasker male-focuser male partnerships are just more evidence that not all males are living up to what God intended for them. Not (necessarily) their fault, but undesirable nonetheless.

    After all, we KNOW what males and females are supposed to be like. We don’t need to look at actual males and females to tell us! That would just be a distraction from the real truth.

  4. Mike Higton on December 5, 2013 at 8:24 am said:

    You may well be right, Susannah.


  5. Pingback: Arguments for male-only ministry, good and bad | Shored Fragments

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