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PHSL3062w in-class exercise_women's brains

Short (10’) in-class assignment. This assignment will take place in the context of a lecture on experimental design and interpretation of data. Students will be presented with the following (projected onto screen at front of class) and asked to work in groups of 2-3 to answer the four questions. Students will be told to just jot down their thoughts; form is not important. We will then spend ~10’ discussing their answers. (Although not graded, the answers will be collected at the end of class, as a means of taking attendance.)

In the 19th century, scientists used measurements of brain size to support the contention that women are less intelligent than men. Chief among these scientists was the neuroanatomist Paul Broca, professor of clinical surgery at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. Broca weighed the brains of patients at autopsy and found the following: the average weight of 292 male brains was 1325 gm, while the average weight of 140 female brains was 1144 grams (difference of 181 grams, or 14% of male brain weight). These data were used by Gustave LeBon, a contemporary of Broca, to conclude that:

In the most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, as a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.
(quoted in The Panda’s Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould)

1. What is your response to LeBon’s conclusion?

2. Assuming that Broca’s measurements were accurate, is LeBon’s conclusion supported by the data?

3. What assumptions were made by LeBon in interpreting the data?

4. Can you think of factors other than intelligence that might be correlated with brain size?


Wow, this one opens a huge can of worms (you might have trouble getting the lid back on). I'm curious what specific points you hope to illustrate with this? That scientists aren't completely (or even mostly) objective seems like an obvious thing to discuss, but Gould was probably guilty of the same, albeit from a politically correct perspective. That one needs to consider other variables (e.g. body size) seems like another important point, but physiologists have a long history of inappropriately correcting for body size (I believe Gould inappropriately scaled for body size assuming a 1:1 functional relationship). I'd actually use this example to venture the ethical opinion that science doesn't have the right to intrude everywhere, and using science to ask "are some groups naturally smarter (and by implication, other groups naturally dumber) than others?" is one such arena.

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