Man and Woman: An Inside Story by Donald W. Pfaff Hardcover: 232 pages ISBN-10: 0195388844 ISBN-13: 978-0195388848
The saga of sex differences in brain and behavior begins with a tiny sperm swimming toward a huge egg, to contribute its tiny Y chromosome plus its copies of the other chromosomes. Genetic, anatomic and physiologic alterations in the male ensue, making his brain and behavior different in specific respects from his sister. Brain-wise, specific cell groups develop differently in males compared to females, in some cases right after birth and in other cases at puberty. But genetics and neuroanatomy do not dominate the scene. Prenatal stress, postnatal stress and lousy treatment at puberty all can affect males and females in different ways. The upshot of all these genetic and environmental factors produces small sex differences in certain abilities and huge sex differences in feelings, in pain and in suffering. Put this all together and the reader will see that biological and cultural influences on gender roles operate at so many different levels to influence behavioral mechanisms that gender role choices are flexible, reversible and non-dichotomous, especially in modern societies.
The take-away from this abbreviated look at sex and gender differences is simply stated at the outset: "biological influences on sex differences in brain and behavior operate at so many different levels, and they interact with environmental influences in so many different ways, that rigid, stereotyped ideas about what is and is not typical male or typical female behavior have become impossible to sustain." Pfaff, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, has been a major player in the field; indeed, much of what he discusses originally came from research conducted in his laboratory. Despite this expertise, Pfaff struggles to make his point because he covers too many topics without devoting enough space to any of them. Although he addresses fascinating subjects including sex determination, hormonal influences on behavior, causes and treatment of autism, and the treatment of developmental abnormalities in genitalia, most of his discussion is technical and remarkably truncated, thus not readily accessible to the general audience. Pfaff covers some of the same ground as Rebecca Jordan-Young's recently released and outstanding Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, but not nearly with the same depth and panache.