February 05, 2010

The Manly Mind; or, Sex on the Brain

Forgive me for presuming to thrust upon you some thoughts on an ongoing academic project of mine. I have mounted the task of revisiting the Victorian debate on the inherent sexual nature of the brain. I am not seeking to proselytise – far be it from me to assume the Missionary position – but simply to enlighten. Historiographical orthodoxies present themselves to be undressed, and it would be unmanly of me not to oblige them.

The Victorians were under the impression that women ought not to be educated for three simple reasons. First, female brains were thought to be universally smaller then male ones, based on some rather skewed statistical evidence. The brains of leading male intellects who died with healthy heads were compared to a motley collection of female brains pulled from the bodies of the insane, the infirm, and the indecent. Second, nature had fitted women to be the bearers of the stock of human instincts that were manifested in civilization, and it was a female duty, if not a privilege, to pass these on to the future of the race. In short, women were to be mothers. Third, this repository of human evolution was necessarily limited: women were presumed incapable of abstract or original thought; they were incapable, physiologically, of leading politically, artistically, technologically or philosophically. Those cognitive abilities were the preserve of men, who would in turn pass on their bold developments, stored up as newly acquired characteristics of the stock of human evolution in the next generation of mothers. The female mind was conservative; the manly mind was dynamic. The over-education of women was therefore useless, but moreover it risked damaging or distracting from their primary maternal purpose. All this was enshrined in Darwinian or neo-Lamarckian science, and as such has been justly called to book by feminist historians.

So far so good, but the story begs a question. If genuine worldly accomplishments were the sole remit of the manly mind, what did that say for the majority of men who in every respect failed to contribute any philosophical, artistic or technological advances, and who in most respects blindly followed, or ignored, their political leaders? On this, Victorian science had a lot less to say. With a total disregard for critical reasoning, scientists talked of the male and female mind as if all men were of the type of Socrates, Michelangelo, Brunel, or Pericles; as if all women were mere damsels in distress. If anyone had bothered to point this out, it would have been clear that the scientists’ portrayal of the gendered brain was practically worthless, for they surely would not have agreed that manliness was available only to the remarkable, only to the exceptional, only to genius. It cut against the grain of the majority of vernacular thinking on the meaning and definition of manliness, and yet it was held up by the new priesthood as the new law; or rather, the oldest law: that of nature.

We can rest assured, however, that if the Victorians were wrong about sex in the brain, they nevertheless had sex on the brain. Darwin himself was pushing fifty when he and Emma had their last child. The fact that nobody talked about it only added to its excitement. As I’ve said before, being buttoned-up only adds vigour to the unbuttoning.


  1. Ooer...

    I'm worried you might be unfairly maligning Darwin, though - he was in fact remarkably socially progressive in his personal life! Sadly he often gets tha blame for the misuse of his ideas...

  2. I am sad to see natural law become a punch line; and if you dare defend Berkeley's character, I may as well stick up for the intellectual prowess of our Victorian predecessors.

    I agree that the point seems to be made by men at their best - I disagree that the procedure is wrong.

    Let me argue a Victorian favorite position, that of breeder: one looks over briefs on dogs and sees the best specimens with detailed information about their bone structure, muscles, strength, speed, stamina - and the differences male to female hold, from height to length to weight. Irreverently, writers write about the litter and gestation of the females... One reads warnings against known defects and is given to think that these must be corrected. The argument seems to be that dogs ought to have four legs and so forth: how does one use morality against happenstance I am not sure - but I do believe dogs ought to have four legs, though not all do. Nature doesn't believe in fair-play, it seems. Much like abominations are shunned and destroyed, the exemplars of the species are held to be its true embodiments. Like a mongrel is not really the dogs it resembles, an untrained dog is held to be deviant.

    To sum, some characteristics are required for the definition of the species, others are uninteresting thereto; but of the former, some give its meaning and purpose, as it seems to such people, and those particular individuals that best meet those requirements inform us generally about the species. Imagine what were to happen if one only saw untrained dogs, or foxes and wolves and such...

    Perhaps, then, not all men can be truly manly; perhaps only those at the top give a sense of manliness that is adequate, compelling, and comprehensive all at once. I mean adequate to leading opinions, such as they are; compelling to the wishes of the audience, such as it is; and comprehensive, such as those who try to understand the matter may find satisfying.

    The insurmountable difficulty I see here: were Socrates and MichelAngelo really manly? - that Pericles was a paragon of manliness has never been in doubt, to my knowledge. I see no coherent sense of manliness that can comprehend the three... However, to add Brunel (the son, I presume) is, I think, to show the bent of Victorian thought. To prove this point: you mention that women were thought conservative, men dynamic. Well, there was nothing dynamic about Socrates or MichelAngelo - I do not know that they were conservative, perhaps the categories are wrong, but they surely were the opposite of dynamic: they did very little, and nothing, when they could help it. People have been pleased to record this of them irrespective of how unflattering it may end up seeming as ages pass and civilization recedes.

    Perhaps the four have only this in common: they signify progress, if one makes certain choices about how progress looks, the first being that it is good. (It only need mean go forward, not go to the good.) Then it must mean that women are bad for progress, though perhaps necessary on the whole. This implies that progress is not wholly or simply good. The democratic hatred of discrimination, as well the thin-skinned distaste for disdain miss this: the grudging admission of the necessity of women to the human species is by far the strongest criticism of progress: that Victorians wrestled with it is obvious, but so it is that they never denied it. (By comparison, Marx never speaks about women seriously, because he believes they must be overcome.)

  3. You know, when I put you on my "following" list, I was a bit nervous that I would have to take you off; one who put such stock on manliness could easily feel that ladies have no right to it, or to anything beyond that which you mention in this post.

    It's marvelous that I actually feel welcomed (so far) to own whatever sort of manliness I may feel, by a man who writes about manliness. How uncommon.

  4. @Cockatrice: One only has to read the relavent parts of 'The Descent of Man' to see that Darwin was of his time, at least publicly. In his lifetime he gradually incorporated more and more Lamarckian principles into his work. It is true, however, that the male/female discourse was fuelled principally by Spencer, under Darwin's 'ism', but while wearing a Lamarckian cloak.

    @Kravien: I did not say that women were thought conservative, men dynamic, but that their respective minds were so classified. The powers of deep thought, true artistic expression, abstraction, etc., were qualities of the manly mind. This does not have a bearing on the specifics of action, only on the type of thought behind action. Following the theory, women were essential for progress, for it was in female brains that Victorians believed the progress of the previous generation was passed on. Women did not innovate, but they stored innovations for the good of the race. Hence their essential role as mothers, and all the bruhaha if they chose to opt out of that role.

    @Claire: Long may you continue to feel welcomed.


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