The Sexual Brain Hardcover – 16 Jun 1993
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"The Sexual Brain" examines the biological roots of human sexual behaviour. It puts forward the case that the diversity of human sexual feelings and behaviour can best be understood in terms of the development, structure and function of the brain circuits that produce them. Discarding preconceptions about the motivation and purpose of sexuality, LeVay discusses the scientific evidence bearing on such questions as why we are sexual animals, what the brain mechanisms are that produce sexual behaviour, how these differences develop, and finally, what determines a person's sexual orientation: genes, prenatal events, family environment or early sexual experiences? "The Sexual Brain" is broad in scope, covering evolutionary theory, molecular genetics, endocrinology, brain structure and function, cognitive psychology and development. It is unified by LeVay's thesis that human sexual behaviour, in all its diversity, is rooted in biological mechanisms that can be explored by laboratory science. The book does not shy away from the complexities of the field, but it should be readily appreciated and enjoyed by anyone with an intelligent interest in sex.
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LeVay covers every aspect of life and biological aspect that controls our sexuality. It delves into the differences between genders as well as the process of courtship. The book is written with the casual reader in mind. There are no terms that are too big to understand or no concepts too difficult to grasp. Everything is presented in such a way that someone with no knowledge of neuroscience would be able to pick up most, if not all, of the the ideas that LeVay is trying to share with us. The chapters are short, which provide that psychological advantage of completion that was present in the Harry Potter series to me. LeVay also helps us with short term memory problems by referring us back to previous ideas that he's presented previously.
Parts of the Book:
The beginning of the book is devoted to a lot of background on sex and our behaviors regarding sex. It goes into a pretty interesting discussion about why we evolved into sexual creatures as opposed to sexual creatures, which is something I never thought about. He presents the idea that we evolved into sexual creatures to rid our species of harmful mutations, but also presented a world where a mutation allowed someone to reproduce asexually. Additionally, he goes over the hypothalamus, whose purpose in our body is nowhere indicative of the small size it occupies in the brain.
LeVay spends several chapters looking at fetal development and the differences that exist therein. I had always believed that development is determined by the presence of hormones, but LeVay lets us know that in some cases it is the absence of some hormones that can affect development. I liked how he provided details on this aspect that he went over. For example, levels of testosterone from two days prior to birth to six days after can drastically affect the size and number of the sexually dimorphic nucleus, which obviously enough is larger in males than females (due to the testosterone). He examines some studies about how the exposure to hormones or other scenarios can lead to different behaviors.
He also touches base on the actual action of sex and the biological pathways that occur during the different aspects of it including hormones such as vasotocin (which actually is very similar to two very important hormones -- vasopressin and oxytocin). He starts off with courtship and examines cases involving birdsongs in birds or eye contact with monkeys and somewhat sidestepped discussing human courtship. I suppose that's because we experience it in our everyday lives and there's no reason to discuss it in the book. He takes a lot of space to discuss pregnancy and the changes that occur and examines studies where hormones were injected into rats.
The last few chapters discuss some of the more controversial aspects in the world today: homosexuality and transsexuality. When I first hit these chapters I fully expected for him to provide his own views on these topics and either denounce or support them especially since he himself is a homosexual. However, he avoided that. He made some interesting observations such as the differences in sizes in regions of the brain between homosexuals and straight or that homosexuals tend to be left handed (although I don't fully believe that warrants any further research as I think that's sheer coincidence). Transsexuality isn't exactly talked about much, which is probably because there isn't a lot of research completed on it, but he does mention a potential disorder that may be responsible for it.
Simply put, this book is a must read if anyone is interested as to the basis and biological happenings that occur during sex. LeVay finds a very happy medium in being simple, yet detailed enough in his topics. The topics he reviewed covered a wide range, which all were very interesting. He presents his own theories, which is great. Also, he does not spend too much time on one topic, which keeps the flow of the reader going and not fixated on a certain topic for too long. For someone who does not read books often (or at all), I found myself able to read through this book with relative ease. That's not to say that this book shouldn't be read by neurologists as it's too dumbed down as the ideas he presents are unique and novel. Anyone can read this book and should.
LeVay makes clear what the stakes are for him personally. He tells us that he once accepted the Freudian view that a young child’s relations with his or her parents are responsible for the sexual orientation they develop as an adult. He writes that he remembers his mother as having been “very close and possessive” and his father as “distant, even hostile”, noting that this is “exactly the kind of family environment” which, according to Freud, “makes it difficult for young boys to follow the ‘normal’ path to heterosexuality.”
Later, of course, LeVay rejected the Freudian view; according to him, he did so because he got to know large numbers of gay people and decided that they seemed “too normal” to be products of defective parenting. That is a self-serving argument, but not LeVay’s worst offense. LeVay writes that as he became trained in the methods of science, he “became more and more skeptical that there was anything scientific about Freud’s ideas.” Whatever the methods of science may have taught LeVay, one thing they clearly did not teach him is basic intellectual honesty. For him to say that there is nothing scientific about Freud’s ideas implies that he does not accept any of those ideas, that he has no common ground with Freud at all. Those who take the trouble to actually read Freud, and compare him carefully to LeVay, will discover that the truth is very different. Undoubtedly, LeVay would reject by far the large majority of Freud’s ideas, but his views nonetheless in some cases resemble Freud’s closely, even though they are expressed in a different scientific language (this is perhaps more apparent in LeVay's hypothalamus study than it is in The Sexual Brain itself). LeVay’s views are especially similar to Freud’s when it comes to the crucial matter of deciding who is homosexual, though there are many other resemblances as well.
How, then, can LeVay possibly suggest that Freud’s ideas are totally unscientific? Since LeVay states that he read Freud, ignorance cannot be the reason. I am afraid that LeVay’s rejection of Freud as totally unscientific is simply propaganda, designed to mislead his readers and suggest that his views contradict Freud’s to a much larger extent than is actually the case. His strictures against Freud are foolish and ultimately self-defeating. Were it indeed really true that there is nothing scientific about Freud’s ideas, then LeVay’s ideas would also have to be judged unscientific, and his work would be exactly what John Lauritsen labelled it: pseudo-science. LeVay is perhaps worried that the discovery that his research on homosexuality actually depends on assumptions about sexuality very similar to Freud’s might discredit it in many people’s eyes. If so, he is right to worry. Were it to become more widely known that LeVay is working with a set of assumptions in crucial respects similar to Freud’s (and quite likely inherited directly from him), this could destroy the credibility of his efforts to establish a biological basis for sexual orientation.
I predict here and now that this disaster will one day come. When it does, there will be no turning back and no reversing its effects. It will not be a disaster for LeVay’s credibility only, since what is true of him is also true, to a considerable extent, of many likeminded scientists: despite their hostility to Freud and disagreement with his theories, they have always been altogether closer to Freud than they have ever cared to admit, or even realize. If LeVay’s views are more obviously similar to Freud’s than those of most other scientists interested in showing that sexual orientation is rooted in biology, this is perhaps partly because he has a scientific background, involving the study of the brain and nervous system, that closely resembles Freud’s (a fact LeVay of course does not mention).
LeVay asserts that, “Although he denied this in some of his writings”, Freud viewed homosexuality as “pathological.” Though this has evidently not occurred to LeVay, he is open to precisely the same charge that he directs against Freud: of supporting the status of homosexuality as a disease while officially denying that this is his position. LeVay compares homosexuality to a disease, sickle cell anemia, in his chapter on “Sexual Orientation and Its Development.” The comparison is based on the fact that sickle cell anemia persists because, “Individuals who are heterozygous (i.e., carrying just one copy of the gene) do not suffer from the disease, but have slight differences in their red blood cells that confer a resistance to malaria.” It has been proposed that homosexuality persists for similar reasons: a “gay gene...might be preserved in the population because individuals who are heterozygous for the gene, besides not being gay, have some other advantage that improves their reproductive success.” LeVay says that while this suggestion “doesn’t appeal” to him it “has some plausibility.” Much as LeVay would deny this, the comparison of homosexuality to sickle cell anemia makes no sense unless one is prepared to view homosexuality as a disease, or something analogous to a disease.
In summary, LeVay has authored a book about a subject that he is not qualified to write about, and is guilty of intellectual dishonesty in general, as well as partially rehabilitating the idea that homosexuality is a disease without having the courage to admit to himself and to others that this is what he is doing. I am happy to give The Sexual Brain one star.