Quilt, hexa­gon or mosa­ic pat­tern, The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Many cul­tures have myths about the cre­ation of humans, and some of these explain why men are supe­ri­or to women. But the Bible, rather sur­pris­ing­ly, has two ver­sions of the cre­ation myth – one in which sex cat­e­go­ry deter­mines des­tiny, and anoth­er in which being male or female is of no sig­nif­i­cance what­so­ev­er. The lat­ter account is the first to appear. It’s a short, sim­ple sto­ry about how humans, males and females, were cre­at­ed to rule the world. In this ver­sion, the human male and female are por­trayed as equal – in the way they were cre­at­ed as well as in their roles in the world; they are to rule it togeth­er: Male and female cre­at­ed he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruit­ful, and mul­ti­ply, and replen­ish the earth, and sub­due it.” (Gen­e­sis 1:27 – 28)

The sec­ond account, which appears in the sub­se­quent two chap­ters, is a long, com­plex sto­ry, in which the human male is por­trayed as supe­ri­or to all oth­er crea­tures, includ­ing the human female. He is cre­at­ed first in order to rule the world; the female is cre­at­ed lat­er, from his rib, because it is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen­e­sis 2:18) Regard­less of how one inter­prets God’s inten­tion behind cre­at­ing the female, the rest of the sto­ry leaves no doubt that males and females are not only inher­ent­ly dif­fer­ent in their very essence (he was cre­at­ed from dust, she from a rib) and in their role in the world (he would cul­ti­vate the land, she would bear chil­dren), but also in their respec­tive posi­tions in soci­ety – the male is supe­ri­or to the female, who is told about her hus­band: he shall rule over thee.” (Gen­e­sis 3:16)

While I do find it puz­zling that two such dif­fer­ent sto­ries co-exist in the Bible, it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that it’s the sec­ond one – the myth about an essen­tial dif­fer­ence between women and men, which pen­e­trates every aspect of their exis­tence – that has won out not only in Judaism, but in West­ern cul­ture through­out his­to­ry. After all, this sec­ond myth is bet­ter aligned with patri­archy than the first one. It then makes sense that in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, when sci­ence start­ed replac­ing reli­gion in pro­vid­ing expla­na­tions for the phys­i­cal and the social world, sci­en­tists took upon them­selves the bur­den of pro­vid­ing evi­dence for women and men being intrin­si­cal­ly dif­fer­ent, and for the inher­ent supe­ri­or­i­ty of men over all oth­er crea­tures, includ­ing women. That was how the sci­en­tif­ic myth about the female and male brain was created.

While I do find it puz­zling that two such dif­fer­ent sto­ries co-exist in the Bible, it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that it’s the sec­ond one – the myth about an essen­tial dif­fer­ence between women and men, which pen­e­trates every aspect of their exis­tence – that has won out.

Some of the ear­li­er ver­sions of this myth seem naïve, even ridicu­lous in ret­ro­spect. These include his­toric claims that the size of men’s skulls or brains, which are on aver­age larg­er than those of women, is proof of men’s greater intel­li­gence and the rea­son women can’t study in uni­ver­si­ties. In the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, the myth of the female and male brain is still with us, focus­ing not on brain size but, instead, on the dif­fer­ences between females and males in the micro and macro struc­ture of the brain. The inter­pre­ta­tion of these dif­fer­ences is always the same: they are tak­en as evi­dence that men and women are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent, and there­fore expect­ed to occu­py dif­fer­ent posi­tions in the world. Rather than declar­ing that it was God who cre­at­ed us this way, the sci­en­tif­ic myths tell us that it was nature. But are these myths, the Bib­li­cal and the sci­en­tif­ic ones, true?

Many sci­en­tists, most­ly women, have long argued that the myth of the female and male brain is false. They have pro­vid­ed an alter­na­tive expla­na­tion for women’s and men’s dif­fer­ent sta­tus. For the most part, they have been show­ing that observed dif­fer­ences between women and men are not a result of a nat­ur­al” dif­fer­ence between their brains, but of the dif­fer­ent ways in which soci­ety treats human females and males.

In the past decade, my col­leagues and I have con­duct­ed research that chal­lenges the old myths in a com­plete­ly new way. This avenue of research does not con­cern itself with the source of observed dif­fer­ences between human females and males – whether they come from nature or nur­ture. Nor does it deny the exis­tence of dif­fer­ences between women and men in brain and behav­ior, or the fact that sex-relat­ed genes and hor­mones (like testos­terone and estro­gen) pro­duce direct effects on the brain. Rather, it focus­es on accu­mu­lat­ing sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that the effects of sex-relat­ed genes and hor­mones on the brain mix up in every indi­vid­ual to cre­ate unique mosaics of brain fea­tures – some fea­tures in the form more com­mon in women and oth­ers in the form more com­mon in men.

The results of our study were pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, USA, in 2015. In that study, we also ana­lyzed the behav­iors and pref­er­ences of over 5,500 Amer­i­can women and men. We chose about ten fea­tures on which women and men dif­fered the most, includ­ing such vari­ables as wor­ry about weight, gam­bling, engage­ment in sports, and the use of cos­met­ics. I’m sure you can guess which of these received high­er val­ues in women and which in men, but you may be sur­prised to learn that par­tic­i­pants who had only mas­cu­line” or only fem­i­nine” scores were extreme­ly rare. On the oth­er hand, par­tic­i­pants who had both mas­cu­line” and fem­i­nine” scores were very com­mon. This is prob­a­bly some­thing you know about your­self – you may very well have mas­cu­line char­ac­ter­is­tics and fem­i­nine ones, as most of us do.

Yet, soci­ety treats us as if we belonged to two types of peo­ple in terms of our gen­der char­ac­ter­is­tics. It’s true that most of us belong to one of two types in terms of the form of our gen­i­tals; except for a very small minor­i­ty of peo­ple born with inter­sex gen­i­tals, humans have either only female or only male gen­i­tal organs. But this bina­ry divi­sion doesn’t hold for our behav­iors and pref­er­ences – or for our brains.

Yet, soci­ety treats us as if we belonged to two types of peo­ple in terms of our gen­der characteristics.

Let’s take just two vari­ables as an exam­ple. It’s known from research that women, on aver­age, are more inter­est­ed in peo­ple than men are, where­as men, on aver­age, are more inter­est­ed in things than women are. How­ev­er, this doesn’t mean that human beings belong to two types: those inter­est­ed in peo­ple but not in things, and those inter­est­ed in things but not in peo­ple. Research shows that there’s lit­tle rela­tion between these two vari­ables, so that both women and men can be inter­est­ed in both peo­ple and things, in nei­ther, or only in one and not the oth­er. Thus, even when we con­sid­er only two char­ac­ter­is­tics, we end up with four types of peo­ple, not only two. If we were to con­sid­er more vari­ables, the num­ber of poten­tial mosaics would sky­rock­et. Yet, the social sys­tem we call gen­der takes this enor­mous human vari­abil­i­ty and attempts to squeeze it into two box­es – man and woman.

In the world I envi­sion there is no divi­sion into two gen­ders; in fact, in this world, there is no gen­der at all. There are peo­ple with female, male, or inter­sex gen­i­tals, but the form of one’s gen­i­tals has no bear­ing on the roles they can assume in soci­ety – just as in the first ver­sion of the Bible’s cre­ation myth. As I write in my book, Gen­der Mosa­ic, in this vision of the world, what­ev­er you like and do – if it’s appro­pri­ate for humans, it’s appro­pri­ate for you.

Check out Daph­na Joel and Luba Vikhan­ski’s Gen­der Mosa­ic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain!

Daph­na Joel is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science at Tel-Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author with Luba Vikhan­s­ki, of Gen­der Mosa­ic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain (Lit­tle, Brown Spark, NY).