Extremely brave, extremely Rachel

Once in a while, you end up with someone as special as Rachel Corrie.

Demonstrators in Beirut in 2010
Demonstrators in Beirut in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Rachel Corrie is in the news again. This time her parents are bringing a civil suit against the Israeli government, claiming that her death beneath the wheels of a bulldozer, which was trying to knock down Palestinian homes, was either intended or due to gross negligence by the Israeli army. They don't give up. You don't have to look far in that particular gene pool to find the source of Corrie's determination and fire.

But seeing the story made me think. I've been reading Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference, which explores the genetic differences between male and female brains, in particular how male brains tend to be good at systemising, while female brains are better at empathising. (Important note made by Baron-Cohen, before you get irritated: women can have "male" brains and vice versa.)

Baron-Cohen's work has centred largely on his seeing a link between autism and the extreme male brain, one specialised in systemising and with little skill at empathising. But in one of the last chapters he speculates about what an extreme female mind might be like: "All scientists know about the extreme female brain is that it is predicted to arise . . . scientists have never got close up to these individuals," because hyper-empathy is not likely to turn up in a clinic.

Baron-Cohen's hypothesis on the extreme female brain is that it might include people prone to believe in telepathy, or caring people "who can rapidly make you feel fully understood . . . an endlessly patient psychotherapist who is excellent at rapidly tuning in to your feelings".

Well, I have a suggestion; has Baron-Cohen investigated activists as possible examples of the extreme female brain? After all, what motivates a person to uproot their young life - as Rachel did - and to travel far across the world to a place such as Palestine in order to try to protect and care for people there? For most of us Palestine is profoundly upsetting, but we're not about to move there. But someone like Rachel Corrie cares so much, feels the pain of the Palestinians (a suffering that she called "chronic, insidious genocide") so profoundly, that she stands in front of a bulldozer to stop it. She wrote: "It really hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be."

And it's not surprising that the extreme female brain would lead its owner to politics. Ever since the abolition of slavery, when campaigners aroused compassion and empathy for the treatment of slaves by circulating images of them being whipped or the inhumane conditions in which they travelled, much of modern political campaigning depends on an appeal straight to the heart. After all, a lot of the time you are trying to get someone on one side of the world to care for someone on the other side of it.

It's a question of degree, of nature and nurture, after all. You start at a certain point on the empathy scale. You have parents - like Rachel's - who are brave and outspoken themselves, who encourage you to think, to understand and care about others. There are an infinite number of tiny tipping points that make each of us unique. And once in a while, you end up with someone as special as Rachel Corrie.