Someone should have warned Naomi Wolf what slippery material she’d get encounter by taking a neuro angle into Vagina: A New Biography.
[Wolf’s] original plan was to write a book surveying cultural representations of the vagina through the ages. In the course of her research, however, she decided that “the truth about the vagina” lay not in history or culture, but in the latest findings of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. So the survey was sidelined and her book became instead a sort of character study of the vagina. What now remains of the original, “biographical” project—a fifty-seven page overview of some of the “dramatic shifts” in historical attitudes toward the vagina—is a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think: the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians worshiped the vagina, the post-Pauline Christians were really horrid about it, male modernists objectified it, and so on.
Bad enough; but apparently it gets worse when Wolf puts the science machine in gear:
The truncated version of Wolf’s cultural survey may give us no reason to wish it were longer, but her enthusiastic foray into the “new science” comes with its own set of problems. Like many who have drunk shallow drafts from the fountains of evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Wolf is so excited at the idea of explaining complex, overdetermined features of human behavior with simple reference to the prehistoric savannah or the hypothalamus that she often ignores the promptings of common sense and logic.
Whether she knows it or not, investigations into the adaptive “purpose” of orgasms, vaginal or otherwise, are far more contentious and inconclusive than she suggests. The classic data on which the “upsuck” theory of female orgasm is based derive from one study, involving a single participant, conducted in 1970. And the fact that between a third and two thirds of women rarely or never achieve orgasm through intercourse would seem by itself a pretty conclusive argument against any evolutionary explanation for female orgasm.
I’m not one to tell people to steer clear of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, despite their extreme dangers. But as Heller notes, shallow sips from these fresh founts can generate an epiphanous but unjustified confidence.* The (apparent) answers some researchers offer may seem simple and complete, but they rise from young, rapidly growing, and highly complicated disciplines that have a long way to go and many falls to take along the way. Wolf seems to have missed this reality or set it aside.
She seems especially buzzed on oxytocin and dopamine. Dopamine, declared the slut gene in other contexts, apparently becomes for Wolf “the ultimate feminist chemical,” one that accounts for not just sexual wholeness but female consciousness. Says the Neurocritic,
I almost feel sorry for Ms. Wolf because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Dopamine is not a feminist neurotransmitter, unless snails and insects have been secretly reading Betty Friedan and listening to Bikini Kill. Chapter 4 of Vagina is on Dopamine, Opioids, and Oxytocin. Other than the excerpt and review in the Guardian, only three pages of the chapter were available online.** But here’s one choice quote:
Those of us who are not scientists often forget that brain chemicals are vehicles for very profound human truths.
I thought brain chemicals were vehicles that bind to receptors and trigger signal transduction molecules. Even the most reductionistic neuroscientists among us realize we are worlds away from understanding how oxytocin might explain morality (Paul Zak notwithstanding).
Neurocritic says he can find little peer-reviewed literature to back Wolf’s claims. Wolf suggests otherwise in a piece in The Guardian:
Why write about the vagina? And why now? The main answer is that new neuroscience, which has been very little reported outside of scientific journals, is providing truly revolutionary new information about what the vagina is and does…
This should alarm. Wolf is asking us to believe that both the quick-dip pop-science press and an extremely attentive and rather bawdy science blogosphere have overlooked a substantial body of “truly revolutionary” findings in neuroscience, consciousness studies, and sexuality — all closely watched, red-hot disciplines beloved of university public relations officers — that insist on a sharp revision of female sexuality. I think not. We live in a world where even the thinnest findings about oxytocin and dopamine get quickly hyped. As for more subtle, subsurface stirrings of sexual science, someone should assure Wolf that if substantial, credible, replicated science of that sort were published in scientific journals, scicurious and Kate Clancy, those peer-reviewed goddesses of the sciences of psych, sex, and lady parts, would be all over it.
This is dispiriting. Should we just stop writing about neuroscience, evo psych, evo anthropology, and the genetics of behavior? As I’m writing a book that involves many of those things, you won’t hear me call for a ban. But we should approach these young disciplines skeptically, write about them carefully, and be slow to treat their findings as settled certainties.
Perhaps those writing about these sciences should think more about genre. The sciences investigating mood, thought, and behavior offer plenty of stories, but they’re rarely stories of clear revelation, and more rarely yet are they stories from which we can extract Guides To Personal Behavior and Fulfillment, much less fables about the vaginal roots of female consciousness. Enough with the self-help — or, as Suzanne Moore put it in a scorching assessment in the Guardian, with self-help masquerading as feminist tract.
Years ago, some clever and wise writer, forgive me for forgetting who***, noted that it’s just as hard to write a cookbook as it is to write Moby Dick — so you might as well write Moby Dick. I love that. It’s funny, and it’s useful to remember if an alluring offer to write a cookbook threatens your attempt at Moby Dick.
But it’s not true. It’s actually much harder to write Moby Dick. Likewise it’s much harder to write a science-book equivalent of Moby Dick than to write the science-book equivalent of a cookbook or, for that matter, of a self-help book. This is why we get Neuro Self-Help books every week and Big New Idea books every month but must wait much longer for the more difficult, demanding, valuable, and lasting hard genres, like the race-to-the-pole (Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine), the police procedural (Maryn McKenna’s Superbug), the detective story (Carl Zimmer’s Microcosm), or a sort of geek-scientist bildungsroman like James Watson’s The Double Helix. And for Moby Dicks — such as Horace Judson Freeland’s Eighth Day of Creation, David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park, and Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack — we must, as you’d expect, wait years.
We needn’t everyone try to write Moby Dick. We don’t want everyone to try to write Moby Dick. “Call me Naomi”? No. But it would tickle my oxytocin if writers smitten with the neuro evo anthro genetico sciences to resist overselling provisional findings as epiphanies of self-realization and self-help. Behavior and evolution are excruciatingly hard problems. We’re just figuring out the ingredients and where the burners are. It’s way too early to write cookbooks — or, for that matter, certain biographies.
*Is neuroscience, over a century old, a fresh fount? Put it this way: I asked a table full of neuroscientists at the big neuro conference last year “Of what we need to know to fully understand the brain, what percentage do we know now?” All the answers were in single digits.
** I too was limited to peeks provided at this site by Wolf’s publisher, since the book comes out tomorrow and HarperCollins didn’t offer or send me a review copy (though I get receive review copies of several neuroscience books each week). HarperCollins site gives access to only a few of the many pages that consider dopamine. They’re not encouraging. Page 56, where Wolf apparently first dives into the dopamine pool, is aswim with sweeping generalizations that reach far out in front of the complicated, constantly updated and revised science on dopamine’s function. Much of it, such as the statement, “A woman with low dopamine will have low libido and depression,” is flat-out wrong. Low dopamine levels might produce any number of effects, and they might (or might not) contribute to depression in some cases; but they will not reliably produce it, and low dopamine levels will almost certainly not produce depression on their own.
I’m troubled too by how Wolf draws on quotations and presumed authority on these pages. On these three pages she cites two ‘researchers’. One, Jim Pfaus, really is a researcher, and while it appears he sometimes talks expansively about his findings and it’s possible Wolf represents his scientific views accurately here, her use of his quote sounds suspiciously like a wild extrapolation from a general statement. Pfaus says, “You could call dopamine the ’cause-effect’ chemical.” This is quite true at some level or even several levels; the chemical causes things to happen. But what effects does it cause? Wolf jumps from Pfaus’s statement, without setting it directly into context, to state in essence that dopamine is the key to “good orgasmic sex.”
Got dopamine? I hope so, because apparently if you have enough, you can have great transformative sex, and if you’ve too little, well, you’ll be blue. Glad we know this! This is astoundingly simple, direct effect for a neurochemical used in numerous complex neurological conversations among multiple brain areas that are also using other important neurotransmitters for the same operations! But wait: I feel my dupe-amine system going off here; either Pfaus is badly oversimplifying (in which case Wolf should have done enough work to know and note that) or Wolf is.
I lean toward the latter partly because of Wolf’s use of the work of the other ‘researcher’ cited on these available pages that open her dopamine chapter (and in many other spots in the book), whom Wolf refers to in her first appearance, on page 56, as “dopamine researcher Marnia Robinson.” Unless that Marnia Robinson is hiding her PhD and all her peer-reviewed dopamine publications, she is only a dopamine researcher in the loosest sense, since the Marnia Robinson Wolf cites is, according to her bios at Psychology Today and Huffington Post, a former corporate lawyer who now writes about sex and evolution and, apparently, dopamine. A PubMed search shows no published scholarly research. Perhaps Wolf clarifies this later in her book; but even if so, identifying Robinson as a “dopamine researcher” in her first appearance in the book seems shifty.
This stuff drives my dopamine down into a dark and most unsexy dungeon.
***TC Shillingford kindly informs me that Annie Dillard wrote this, and indeed some searching that I should have found time for before reveals she did so (roughly) in 1999 in the NY Times: ‘It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in ”Moby-Dick.” So you might as well write ”Moby-Dick.”’
Amazon.com: Vagina: A New Biography (9780061989162): Naomi Wolf: Books
Pride and Prejudice by Zoë Heller | The New York Review of Books
New Statesman – Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” is full of bad science about the brain
Naomi Wolf Exalts the Vagina : The New Yorker
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf – review | Books | The Guardian
Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: self-help marketed as feminism | Suzanne Moore | Comment is free | The Guardian
YouTube clip from Woody Allen’s Manhattan