Little girls are sugar and spice, and little boys are snails and puppy dog tails — or so the saying goes. Gender is one of the most basic tenets of our society, but science has long held sometimes faulty views on its origins. The New York Times reports on a new book from Dr. Cordelia Fine that dismisses many of the answers claimed by neuroscientists examining gender.

"Delusions of Gender" is the latest book from Fine, who holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from University College London. In it, she dissects some of the easy gender tropes in our society, such as “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” Gender inequities have a long history of being "explained" by science. The Victorians credited female inferiority to their delicate brains, smaller by five ounces. In 1915, neurologist Dr. Charles Dana claimed that a woman’s smaller spinal cord explained why she should not be allowed to vote.

But advances in scientific research have led to more detailed examinations. In the 1980s, Norman Geschwind proposed that fetal brains develop into different sizes because of a rush of testosterone in the eighth week of fetal development.

Fine disputes this. She points out that several studies show there is no difference in right or left brain sizes in newborns. She also proposes that sex differences in the brain don’t necessarily translate for sex differences in the mind or behavior. She says those studies done on newborns proving gender differences are “grimy” at best. As Fine writes, “Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.”

Ultimately, gender seems more to be a social construct. Fine cites writer and male-to-female transsexual Jan Morris, who notes “The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became.” Gender theory has long held that boys and girls learn behavior and attitudes from culture and family. Science shows that while female brains are smaller, they are more densely packed with neurons. Other studies reveal there is little difference between sexes in cognitive and psychological traits.

One thing is certain — the debate will continue over gender.

For further reading:

New evidence revisits theories of gender and our brains
Researcher challenges some of our most basic views on gender and neuroscience in new book.