The Perils of Magical Scientific Thinking

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Naomi Wolf is catching flak for her new book Vagina: A New Biography, in which she claims, among other things, that "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical." From Zoe Heller's review in the New York Review of Books:


After consulting many research papers and interviewing many scientists, Wolf has decided that the sex-creativity link can be "explained" by dopamine, one of the brain chemicals involved in female orgasm. Dopamine, according to Wolf, is the chemical that fosters female focus and motivation. It is what makes women leap up from the rank sweat of their enseamed beds to write novels. Modern women who complain of depression need better sex and more dopamine, but patriarchal societies, fearful of sexually empowered women, prefer to fob them off with antidepressants. "Serotonin," Wolf writes, "literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it." 

Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of "literally"... 

Hey, I resemble that remark! Ahem. Moving on...

...and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too. By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals. Dopamine undoubtedly has a role in female orgasm. But it also has a role in schizophrenia and, by Wolf's own admission, a panoply of addictions. Given this, it seems foolhardy on Wolf's part to designate it "the ultimate feminist chemical."

For me, the most problematic aspect of this thesis is when Wolf starts asserting some sort of definitive causal link between great art and sexual gratification. I would bet good money that just as much great art has come out of sexual frustration. Wolf evidently gleans a lesson about womanhood from a bout of writer's block she suffered after a host at a dinner party served her vagina-shaped pasta. I guess. I don't think such an event should make you question your writing so much as it should make you question your acquaintances. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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