Can modern science explain gender differences or our capacity for cruelty and kindness?

Marek Kohn takes a cool look at new books that tackle the hottest issues in research

Aleading medical journal publishes a reverential tribute to a cat with an "uncanny ability to predict" when residents of a nursing home are about to die. A team of neuroscientists scan the brain of a dead salmon while showing it photos and asking it what emotions the people in the pictures must have been experiencing. Looking for insights into the differences between boys and girls, researchers ply monkeys with toy trucks and dolls. In their different ways, these reports all pose awkward questions about the relationship between nature and human nature. Onlookers might well wonder if this science is mad, bad, or dangerous to know.

For the primatologist Frans de Waal, animals are a profound source of comfort about the human condition. It is not that they are always comforting to observe. De Waal has documented chimpanzee violence in horrific detail: "All missing body parts were later found on the cage floor," he noted in a report on the "brutal elimination of a rival". He also set this aggression in the context of power struggles and alliances that he identified as "chimpanzee politics". These insights helped to shape a theory that human intelligence is "Machiavellian" in origin, evolved as an adaptation to life in complex societies full of other clever, manipulative primates.

Yet our ancestors wouldn't have needed to manipulate each other if they hadn't needed each other. The human condition is one of mutual dependency, relying upon and revolving around co-operation. In de Waal's latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature's lessons for a kinder society (Souvernir Press, £18.99), he offers a plethora of examples to show that empathy, kindness and caring are as natural as violence and rivalry. When a chimpanzee is wounded or defeated by a rival, a friend or relative may console it with a hug. An arthritic old chimp may be helped up a tree by a sturdy junior. On occasion, adults in zoos have drowned trying to save young chimpanzees that have fallen into moats: chimpanzees cannot swim and dread water.

Such capacities are not exclusive to ourselves and our nearest relatives. Observers witnessed an agitated elephant's attempts to lift up a dying fellow using her tusks; in another incident, after similar efforts failed to save a shot elephant, one of her family tried to stuff grass into her mouth. These elephants showed both signs of concern about another's plight and a desire to do something about it, as well as some sense of what an appropriate response might be. They illustrate poignantly the central theme of de Waal's popular writing: that goodness is not a delicate invention recently applied by humans as a veneer over a pitiless and amoral nature, but a quality that arises from nature and has deep roots within it.

De Waal's writing is appropriately warm, engaging and empathic. His readiness to discern kind qualities in animals encourages the reader to be similarly open to the idea that we might learn to live better by considering ourselves as evolved beings, rather than ones who have risen above nature.

But in this latest essay his warmth has blurred his focus. He surmises that Oscar the cat, the prophet of death in the New England nursing home, is trying either to comfort himself when he curls up with people whose time has come, or trying to comfort them. Yet the journal report depicts Oscar as a cat who stalks the corridors like a haughty consultant, without a scrap of warmth for anybody not about to expire; nor do those he picks out appear to be actually suffering. He might be drawn to the dying by some terminal scent, or just their immobility. De Waal's preference for an explanation based on empathy, or even the germ of an existential awareness of mortality, inspires unease about his readiness to see kindness everywhere.

The cue for this latest account of his vision was the combination of the banks' downfall and Obama's advent. "Greed is out, empathy is in," he declares. It remains to be seen whether we have entered a new age of empathy or have just passed through the Obama moment. Today's Tea Party is a less kindly affair than those chimps in the zoo used to have. The prospect of a new epoch that "stresses co-operation" and puts the "emphasis on what unites a society" has provoked an opposite and possibly more than equal reaction.

Obama himself has spoken of an "empathy deficit". One of our society's most pervasive psychological beliefs is that this deficit is concentrated among males of our species; and one of its most pervasive psychological suspicions is that the shortcoming is innate. Glowing images are compelling, and popular accounts of cognitive neuroscience have seized upon brain-scanning experiments to proclaim, with liberal use of mysterious anatomical Latin, that male and female brains are differently "hard-wired".

Even neuroscientists themselves risk being mesmerised by the glowing lights – and this is where the dead salmon comes in. The scientists who conducted the deadpan exercise, which Cordelia Fine includes among many colourful studies she dissects in Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences (Icon, £14.99), did it to remind their colleagues of the need to correct scans for false positive signals. By omitting to do so, they detected hints of empathy in a dead fish.

It was an apt choice of subject in a field littered with red herrings. Claims about differences between the brains of men and women – such as that the hemispheres of women's brains are more richly connected than men's, or that women's brains divide the processing of language more evenly between the hemispheres – have not stood up well to scrutiny. For Fine, a psychologist, the persistence of claims about sex differences in the brain despite the weakness of their empirical support is "neurosexism": the same old prejudice that prompted a neurologist in 1915 to remark that women's brains were not well organised for "political initiative".

Although such prejudices have been forced to stage a colossal retreat over the past few decades as women have proved them wrong by example, beliefs about the innateness of psychological differences between the sexes may actually have been reinforced by a generation that sought to refute them. Believing that they brought their children up without the baggage of old gender stereotypes, yet finding that those children avidly opted for pink or blue, they concluded that difference must be inborn after all.

Fine doubts, probably with good reason, that parents reject stereotypes as strongly as they like to think. She shows how vulnerable people are to conditioning about gender. Even the gentlest reminder can encourage them to conform to stereotypes.

In one test, men did better in maths, and women better on verbal skills, when the paper invited them to tick boxes to indicate whether they were male or female. Such priming effects are a powerful force – as she demonstrates by priming her discussion of sex-difference neuroscience with a hundred pages on culture and sexism. She makes ruthless sport with the shortcomings of the scientific findings, pointed up with ironic flourishes that give her critique a columnist's tone. Readers who feel threatened by biological explanations of psychological differences between the sexes will find all the reassurance they want in this book.

Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist, takes a similar view of the state of the science and the power of conditioning. But in Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do about It (Oneworld, £12.99), she accepts that there are subtle, inborn differences between male and female brains, upon which the forces of stereotype seize. She is ready to allow, for instance, that a wider spread of abilities might underlie the preponderance of males among the highest maths achievers. Fine prefers to highlight a few countries that defy this general pattern.

Eliot is confident that although such marginal differences are amplified and stylised under the pink-blue order that still prevails, they could be diminished and nuanced by quite simple techniques, such as helping boys develop the vocabulary they use to describe emotions. She tells her story authoritatively but modestly, with frequent references to her experience as a mother, and illuminates a very accessible pathway through the science.

The way the two scientists treat the case of the monkeys illustrates the difference between them nicely. A couple of studies have found signs that male monkeys prefer boys' toys and females prefer girls' toys. One of the preferences observed, among female vervet monkeys, was for a pot.

Fine pounces on this as an opportunity for an arch quip about how monkeys are not known to practise "the art of heated cuisine". The researchers themselves suggested that the preference was actually for the pot's red colour. Fine buries this point in a footnote, whereas Eliot cites the researchers' discussion to suggest that female monkeys are drawn to reds and pinks because those are the colours of newborn monkeys.

Fine points out that the monkeys' apparent preferences are not especially strong or clear. But the fact that there were any preferences apparent at all in such distant primate relatives is remarkable. These studies may have detected the germ of a psychological difference between males and females that takes a far more developed form in humans, just as compassion and co-operation in humans is far more developed than it is among chimpanzees and elephants.

Such possibilities are not as heartwarming as signs that kindness has a deep evolutionary ancestry, but they're the kind of scientific puzzle that tugs at the curtains of the imagination. And, as de Waal affirms, the more we learn about nature, the more richly we're able to imagine a better society.

Marek Kohn's 'Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles Will Change as the World Heats Up' is published by Faber & Faber

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit