[Marxism] Ben and Barbara Barres

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at videotron.ca
Thu Jul 13 15:45:27 MDT 2006

He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat
Wall Street Journal
July 13, 2006; Page B1

Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious Whitehead
Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists
from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top
institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause
died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and
remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, "Ben Barres's work is
much better than his sister's."

There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of
neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn't have a sister in science. The
Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.

Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him
fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the
research he was presenting was done as Barbara.

Being first a female scientist and then a male scientist has given Prof.
Barres a unique perspective on the debate over why women are so rare at the
highest levels of academic science and math: He has experienced personally
how each is treated by colleagues, mentors and rivals.

Based on those experiences, as well as research on gender differences, Prof.
Barres begs to differ with what he calls "the Larry Summers Hypothesis,"
named for the former Harvard president who attributed the paucity of top
women scientists to lack of "intrinsic aptitude." In a commentary in today's
issue of the journal Nature, he writes that "the reason women are not
advancing [in science] is discrimination" and the "Summers Hypothesis
amounts to nothing more than blaming the victim."

In his remarks at an economics conference in January 2005, Mr. Summers said
"socialization" is probably a trivial reason for the low number of top
female mathematicians and scientists. But Prof. Barres, who as Barbara
received the subtle and not-so-subtle hints that steer smart girls away from
science, doesn't see it that way. The top science and math student in her
New Jersey high school, she was advised by her guidance counselor to go to a
local college rather than apply to MIT. She applied anyway and was admitted.

As an MIT undergraduate, Barbara was one of the only women in a large math
class, and the only student to solve a particularly tough problem. The
professor "told me my boyfriend must have solved it for me," recalls Prof.
Barres, 51 years old, in an interview. "If boys were raised to feel that
they can't be good at mathematics, there would be very few who were."

Although Barbara Barres was a top student at MIT, "nearly every lab head I
asked refused to let me do my thesis research" with him, Prof. Barres says.
"Most of my male friends had their first choice of labs. And I am still
disappointed about the prestigious fellowship I lost to a male student when
I was a Ph.D. student," even though the rival had published one prominent
paper and she had six.

As a neuroscientist, Prof. Barres is also skeptical of the claim that
differences between male and female brains might explain the preponderance
of men in math and science. For one thing, he says, the studies don't
adequately address whether those differences are innate and thus present
from birth, or reflect the different experiences that men and women have.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who defends the Summers Hypothesis,
acknowledges that the existence of gender differences in values, preferences
and aptitudes "does not mean that they are innate."

The biggest recent revolution in neuroscience has been the discovery of the
brain's "plasticity," or ability to change structure and function in
response to experiences. "It's not hard to believe that differences between
the brains of male and female adults have nothing to do with genes or the Y
chromosome but may be the biological expression of different social
settings," says biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford, who completed her
own transgender transition in 1998.

Jonathan Roughgarden's colleagues and rivals took his intelligence for
granted, Joan says. But Joan has had "to establish competence to an extent
that men never have to. They're assumed to be competent until proven
otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves
otherwise. I remember going on a drive with a man. He assumed I couldn't
read a map."

Actually, Ben Barres says there may be something to the stereotype that men
are better map readers. The testosterone he received to become male improved
his spatial abilities, he writes in Nature, though "I still get lost every
time I drive."

Still, there is little evidence that lack of testosterone or anything unique
to male biology is the main factor keeping women from the top ranks of
science and math, says Prof. Barres, a view that is widely held among
scientists who study the issue. Although more men than women in the U.S.
score in the stratosphere on math tests, there is no such difference in
Japan, and in Iceland the situation is flipped, with more women than men
scoring at the very top.

"That seems more like 'socialization' than any difference in innate
abilities to me," geneticist Gregory Petsko of Brandeis University wrote
last year. In any case, except in a few specialized fields like theoretical
physics, there is little correlation between math scores and who becomes a

Some supporters of the Summers Hypothesis suggest that temperament, not
ability, holds women back in science: They are innately less competitive.
Prof. Barres's experience suggests that if women are less competitive, it is
not because of anything innate but because that trait has been beaten out of

"Female scientists who are competitive or assertive are generally ostracized
by their male colleagues," he says. In any case, he argues, "an aggressive
competitive spirit" matters less to scientific success than curiosity,
perseverance and self-confidence.

Women doubt their abilities more than men do, say scientists who have
mentored scores of each. "Almost without exception, the talented women I
have known have believed they had less ability than they actually had,"
Prof. Petsko wrote. "And almost without exception, the talented men I have
known believed they had more."

Which may account for what Prof. Barres calls the main difference he has
noticed since changing sex. "People who do not know I am transgendered treat
me with much more respect," he says. "I can even complete a whole sentence
without being interrupted by a man."

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