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154 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Separate, but Equal, 1 May 2004
This review is from: The Essential Difference (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
After a lengthy and unwarranted disclaimer that his work isn't "sexist" [whatever that is], Baron-Cohen surveys the foundations of male and female minds. With a long clinical and teaching career, supported by an immense list of studies, he concludes that, in general, there are indeed "essential differences" in cognitive makeup between human genders. While there is a spectrum of characteristics, certain general frameworks exist attributable to men and women. For ease of analysis, he suggests that women are more empathic ["E" personalities] while men are more systematic ["S" personalities]. Each, he insists, has their role, with most people placed well within a median between extremes. The trends, however, are clear.
In a chatty style he likely uses speaking with patients, Baron-Cohen shows that women's empathic tendencies give them the power to quickly assess others' emotional states. Women more readily identify feelings in others, respond appropriately when sympathy is required and "reach out" in dealing with people. He stresses that this "intuitive sense" among women is almost universal and is rightfully well-regarded by all cultures. Men, on the other hand, operate under the need to understand "systems", organized conditions, mechanics, technology and are thus driven to know "how things work". This urge leads them away from the intimacy women have with others and, in the more extreme cases, are likely to become "loners". The most outstanding examples are those suffering from autism which is overwhelmingly a male condition.
Baron-Cohen has spent years studying autism, offering a range of examples. It may appear amusing that a five-year-old boy may be capable of memorizing dozens of car registrations and explain which car belongs to which house, but there are other factors to consider. Such boys grow into men who cannot readily converse, directly or over the telephone. They become the butt of teasing or hostility at their "withdrawn" state. If lacking compensation in other areas, such as a vocation that allows them to apply a narrow focus to tasks, they risk ostracism from society. Baron-Cohen offers an exceptional case of a mathematician whose genius brought him high awards, but who may fail to keep a lunch date due to some distraction. These are real problems affecting real people. Some of them may be your neighbours. One of them might even, unknowingly, be you.
This book challenges much misled thinking that has permeated gender studies over the past generation. Gender differences in outlook appear within a day of birth. Newborns shown a photograph of a face, or an object composed of facial elements resulted in girls preferring the face while the boys tended to select the object. This early division Baron-Cohen thinks may result from the testosterone surge baby boys undergo in the womb. "Maleness" and brain development are interlocked and continue to manifest with development. Baby girls, on the other hand, follow a different, parallel path. They appear to respond to distress in other people more readily than do boys. They will make eye contact with others more readily. The pattern continues through life, although at differing levels with individuals. Baron-Cohen stresses these differences don't represent "better" or "worse" values. Human males and females are overall equally intelligent. That intelligence is expressed in different ways. More to the point, men and women have both E and S traits, individually manifest over a wide spectrum. Extremes are few, but he notes extreme Es are more socially comfortable and acceptable than the autistic extreme S personalities.
Baron-Cohen doesn't limit himself to the results of clinical studies and calling for more research. He is keen to have readers begin to rethink how society should deal with those suffering from autism [Asperger's Syndrome]. He calls for a greater tolerance for "coldness" or "lack of sympathy". Self assessment is a good place to start building that tolerance. As a help to readers, a series of comprehensive tests is provided as Appendices. Take the tests and judge for yourself. But first, read the book to understand the issues involved. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Feb 2008 18:48:45 GMT
a reader says:
Baron Cohen is not in the service of the "men and women are totally different as whole genders" camp, which is why he defends himself against sexism - and I don't believe for a moment that you are not prefectly aware what that is: it is simply that you wish to trivialise any discussion of it. It is not a large stretch from "girls, overall but not necessarily as individuals, tend toward being more responsive to people, boys toward systems" to "if you aren't a fluffy, systems-confused empathiser, you aren't a 'proper' girl, girls can't do science and maths, their brains can't handle it because of hardwired biology, leave it to the men".

Tendencies are not individual destiny. Read this as a useful contribution to the literature on autistic spectrum conditions. Don't use it to bash feminist and equality concerns.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Aug 2008 19:55:34 BDT
S. Page says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 17 Apr 2010 18:47:58 BDT
BewleyBooks says:
All I can offer is apologies to Stephen A Haines for the comments below. For some strange reason, I'm obviously missing the attack on womankind that "a reader" and "S. Page" implies you make - and I'm a female. I found your review very helpful and bought the book based on your appraisal. Well done and thank you.
Kaye Bewley

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Aug 2010 16:01:54 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 1 Aug 2010 16:02:10 BDT]

Posted on 10 Jan 2012 11:09:18 GMT
Last edited by the author on 10 Jan 2012 11:13:19 GMT
I'm sorry but that's all very well and good IF you accept differences are hard-wired and can conclusively indicate a person's sex from their cognitive behaviour.

If on the other hand you take a sceptical view [which after all is the scientific way of approaching it] it's very easy to explode these conclusions. Even implied within the text itself is the knotty problem of the oxymoronic males with female brains and vice versa. But looked at logically this isn't so surprising since statistical difference across male [or female] brains is far greater than that between the 'average' of the sexes. Meta-statistical analysis [see Mandy Cameron's Myth of Venus and Mars [The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?] shows such difference to be mostly insignificant or in many instances non-existent. Indeed not only across cultures but within cultures at different times, the supposed respective talents of the sexes are subject to shift within the social perspective.

I read the book and took the tests - I wonder if I should conclude I have an inter-sex brain? I think it would be rather more sensible to conclude our cognitive destinies are not set in stone.

In the final analysis what does this preoccupation with gender difference actually contribute to the study of autism? Would an allowance for aloofness of males [and an even greater than existent condemnation of cold females] actually help us as a society?

Does this exaggeration of (at best minor) differences, which are amplified by social condition, aid in the understanding of autism? Or would its emphasis simply aid in the selling of more books by its angle toward a sphere of interest which is more broadly commercial?
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