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Review - The Essential Difference - Simon Baron-Cohen

 

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Let's start by saying the topic of this book is fascinating and challenging to the guardians of political correctness. We'll come back to why in a moment, but we have to get the bad news out of the way first.

In principle, because of the content, this should have been at least a four star book - but I'm afraid Professor Baron-Cohen would have been wise to have co-authored with a writer, because it just doesn't work as a book. His style is fine - light and entertaining. But the structure and readability collapses because the book devolves into lists of arguments for the case he is trying to make. At times it reads more like a jaunty scientific paper than a book that is aimed at the general public.

Health warning over - the premise is simple, in fact eminently predictable by common sense, it's just we're used to science coming up with results that challenge common sense. What it amounts to is women are different from men. Women have a greater tendency to empathise (so be interested in people, talk about people etc.); men have a greater tendency to systematize (so are interested in systems, structures and machines and talk about them etc.)

What is particularly interesting though, is that despite all we've been told for years, what we secretly believed is true - this seems not to be solely due to culture and socialising, but rather an in-built difference in the genetic makeup of the male and female human brain. Baron-Cohen stresses we are only talking about a shift in tendencies. There are plenty of empathetic men and plenty of system-aware women, but statistically women come off better on the empathy side, men on the systems.

Baron-Cohen goes on to examine the evolution of the male and female brains and to comment on his own specialist area, one example of the extreme male brain, the autistic spectrum. As he says, you can forget all that stuff about men being from Mars and women from Venus - the truth is more subtle (we are still very similar) and more interesting. [Incidentally, later versions of the paperback have the Mars/Venus comment removed from the cover - could be a bit of a backlash there.]

Please don't misunderstand - this is still a highly recommended book in terms of its content, but don't expect it to be the most readable popular science book you've ever launched into.

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Reviewed by Jo Reed               

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Last update 05 June 2007