Race, Sex, and the Brain
M. Bakri Musa
Anatomists would be hard put to declare at the gross or even microscopic level that there is such an entity as the Malay brain any more than there is a Negro or Caucasian one. At the genomic (DNA or genes) level however, certain genetic markers are associated with certain races, and that there is indeed a Malay brain in contrast to a Caucasian one, just as there is a Malay intestine or red cell in contrast to Caucasian ones. That explains why Malays do not tolerate cheese and Europeans are more susceptible to malaria.
If there are such differences in the distribution of certain traits with respect to the gut and blood cells of individuals from the different races, it stands to reason that similar differences should also exist with the brain. An example would be the incidence of mental retardation due to various “inborn errors of metabolism” like Tay Sachs disease, and the onset of dementia among various ethnic groups.
Those with a racist bend will find these insights of modern biology reinforcing their prejudices. The scientist Daniel Hillis however, likens our genes (or genome) to the menu of a restaurant, or the ingredients found in its kitchen. If you were to see a wok and MSG in the kitchen, and the menu offers sweet and sour pork, then you could conclude that you are in a Chinese restaurant. If cheese and truffles were in the fridge and the menu offers chicken cordon bleu, then it is most likely a French bistro.
You cannot however conclude from that the taste or quality of the food, the reason for choosing a restaurant. That depends less on the ingredients and tools found in the kitchen, more on the talent of the chef.
Just as there are variations in the brain based on race, likewise there are differences based on sex. Former Harvard University President Larry Summers generated considerable heat when he stated this fact in his usual less-than-tactful manner. He used that to “explain” or more likely rationalize the lack of women in mathematics and the hard sciences on his campus and in academia generally. Summers paid dearly for his utterance. Just to be sure that the message was hammered into him and others of his persuasion, Harvard chose a woman biologist to succeed him.
The pertinent question is the significance of those differences, anatomical or otherwise. Differences between man and woman extend beyond our primary and secondary sex organs. No surprise there either, as the male body is exposed to different hormones; likewise, the experience of a male child as compared to that of a female. Those two factors, more than anything else, differentiate the “pink brain” from the “blue” one. It is the recognition of these other factors that led to the increasing acceptance of transgender individuals.
There are discernible as well as subtle differences between the brain of an infant boy and girl. However, as the neuroscientist Lise Eliot noted, infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time as parents, teachers, peers, and the culture at large unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes. Then as adults we attribute all those differences between the sexes to the innate qualities of our brains instead of all those environmental factors.
Eliot likens the nature-nurture debate thus. Imagine a ball on the slope of a hill, with the journey of life being a roll downwards with no re-do, as with rolling up the hill to re-start. Nature determines how smooth and heavy the ball, but the steepness of the slope and the terrain are the environment (nurture). If you are fortunately gifted (a heavy smooth round ball) and be placed (born) on a smooth steep slope, you will end far and fast down the slope. However, even if you are heavy and smooth but the slope you were put on had many outcroppings and obstacles that could shift your slide one way or the other, then you could end on the far side of either left or right. A young boy in a tough neighborhood makes a slight mistake, and he pays dearly, sometimes with his life; another would be rescued and end up far differently.
The inspiring life story of Ben Carson, the brilliant Black pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins and later bumbling Presidential candidate, illustrates this point. Brought up by a single mother in inner city Detroit, he overcame many obstacles that could have potentially shifted his downward flow in a far different direction.
Laura Bush, wife of President Bush 44, ran a stop sign at 17 and killed the driver of the other car. She was not injured or even cited. Someone less lucky or born on the other side of the track could have been convicted of vehicular manslaughter, his or her life forever altered. A friend’s son partook in a drag race on a city street at midnight, and paid the ultimate price. Those are the bumps on the slope of life that could not only alter the course of your life but also end it.
In the retelling of the stories of highly successful individuals, one easily forgets the contributions of the many waypoints down the slope that help nudge the flow in one direction over the other. Had Steve Job’s Syrian biological father been born in mid 1990s, he would not have been able to come to America. Jobs and other outstanding individuals like Bill Gates had many fortuitous circumstances nudging them along the way, as so elegantly chronicled in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.
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I end this sojourn into neuroscience with a necessary pause for reflection. I do not imply from the studies cited that the human mind or person could be simplistically reduced to the transfers of molecules of neurotransmitters across synapses, electrical impulses along nerve cells that could be picked up by sophisticated instrumentations, or biochemical changes at the cellular that would be manifested on f MRI scans. Nor could we predict how individuals would react based on studies of laboratory rats and volunteer college students out for a few dollars to pay for their Starbucks. One need not be a philosopher or particularly religious to appreciate that human consciousness or mind, or even the human person, is much more than that.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the insights gained from these studies or be contemptuously dismissive of them as the British neurologist-turn-philosopher Raymond Tallis did in his book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.
My purpose in citing these studies is to give us an insight or at least possible neurological basis on why it is that at times we willingly listen to the words of the Mullah and ignore the donkey braying in our face.
Next: The False Comfort Underneath The Coconut Shell
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.