Saturday, November 08, 2008

Brizendine and the Natural Desires of the Female Brain

In a previous post, I have written about Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain.

I am now using that book as one of the readings for my undergraduate course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature." The other books for the course are my Darwinian Conservatism and Darwinian Natural Right along with de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics, James Watson's DNA: The Secret of Life, John West's Darwin's Conservatives, and Alan Mazur's The Biosociology of Dominance and Deference.

Brizendine's book complements Mazur's, because Mazur concentrates largely on male behavior, while Brizendine stresses the female side of human nature.

Brizendine's book is by far the most engaging of the readings for my students. Of course, any book with an entire chapter on orgasms is probably going to be popular with undergraduates! But beyond the obvious sex appeal, my students say that the book helps them to understand the biological causes for their common experience with the differences between men and women.

Brizendine writes in a clear and pleasing way, particularly because of her use of anecdotes about the women who have come to her Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic. She uses the anecdotes to illustrate the scientific research on the female brain and endocrine system.

The research surveyed by Brizendine supports my claims about some the twenty natural desires. I speak of the desire for a complete life that is expressed as changing desires over the human life cycle. Brizendine distinguishes ten phases in a female's life--fetal, girlhood, puberty, sexual maturity, pregnancy, breast feeding, child rearing, perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. She organizes her book around these phases. And for each phase, she shows how the desires of women change in response to changes in their biochemical nature and in their social and physical environment.

I speak of the desire for sexual identity as the desire to identify oneself as male or female. Brizendine confirms our common experience of the natural differences between men and women, and she shows how these differences arise in the brain. Contrary to the claims of radical feminists, there is no "unisex brain." The male brain is not the same as the female brain, because they have been differently adapted by natural selection in human evolutionary history. But against the traditional patriarchal claim of male superiority, Brizendine indicates those many respects in which the female brain might be considered superior.

I speak of the natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding. Brizendine shows how these desires are inscribed in a woman's neural circuitry.

And yet Brizendine's book suggests a potential problem for my position in the debate with critics like John West and Carson Holloway. West and Holloway say that biological science cannot support traditional morality, which depends on religious belief. For example, the biological science of sexuality might suggest that human beings are naturally inclined to sexual promiscuity and infidelity. West and Holloway say that we need religious morality to teach us that monogamous fidelity is good, and that promiscuous infidelity is bad.

And, indeed, Brizendine does seem to suggest that women often experience a conflict between their desire for monogamous bonding and their desire to enjoy extramarital sexual pleasure. She never mentions religion, and she never indicates the need for religious morality. One might wonder, then, whether her scientific view of mating and marriage becomes morally subversive in its implicit hedonism, because she seems to assume that women's only concern--from a purely scientific point of view--is how best to calculate the satisfaction of their appetites, without regard for moral norms.

But my response would be to point out how far she goes in recognizing the importance of monogamous fidelity. Again and again, she deals with clients who long for the satisfaction of faithful bonding, even as they feel the conflict with temptations to cheat. Here we see that common human experience in which we see how our deepest and most enduring needs for familial bonding override our momentary appetite for lustful pleasure. Our natural capacity for deliberate judgment about how best to organize the fullest satisfaction of our desires leads us to make difficult tradeoffs.

Religious morality will often help many people to suppress their momentary promiscuous appetites for the sake of securing their more enduring desire for monogamous fidelity. But the religious teaching only reinforces what we know by natural experience.

Moreover, the Bible suggests that a religiously based morality often fails to do the job. The story of David and Bathsheba illustrates this.

I would also point out that in the Bible the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) celebrates erotic love. When I was a child growing up in Texas, I noticed that many family Bibles had had the Song of Songs ripped out of them by parents disturbed by the remarkably explicit descriptions of the lustful activity of the lovers in this book. God is never mentioned in the book. There is no theological teaching at all. Because the book is totally devoted to a poetically beautiful depiction of erotic love as good in itself. There is not even any indication that the lovers are married.

Since many readers of the Bible have been uncomfortable with the literal meaning of the Song of Songs, there is a long tradition of interpreting this poem as an allegory depicting the love of God by the believers. But this allegorical reading has to be imposed without the support of evidence within the book itself.

My conclusion, then, is that the desire for sexual mating as erotic love is so natural to human beings that no healthy religious tradition can ignore it. But struggling to balance such erotic desire with other desires for monogamous fidelity and parental care becomes part of the human condition.


Carl said...

Unfortunately, Brizendine displays poor scholarship in that book. Linguist Mark Liberman explains why over at Language Log.

Larry Arnhart said...


In my previous post on Brizendine's book, I noted some of the weaknesses in her use of citations.

She has corrected some of her errors in the paperback edition of the book.