caudoviral

Discussions and reflections on science and life

Sex & the Myth of Gender

with 3 comments

So recently the lovely ladies over at Fishnet Bluestockings added me to their blogroll, and I have reciprocated in kind. If you are at all interested in a rational slant of feminism, especially as it concerns the entertainment industry, I highly encourage you to go check them out (and I am not just saying that because one of their writers is a dear friend). This post is inspired by something I started saying in their comment sections, and as it concerns something that influences my view on humanity in general, I thought it would be best to expound on it here.

Sex is a defined, binary, biological distinction. It is a genetic designation based on the possession of a particular genotype. In humans this is the presence or absence of the Y chromosome and even more specifically the gene SRY (Sex-determining Region Y).

There's the little bastard now (courtesy of the NLM).

In other animals it can get a little more complicated and fun, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. So, the presence or absence of this one thing is the difference between male and female. It’s a pretty tiny piece of genetic material, but then you know what those people with penises say… And (in this case) they are not too far off the mark. The cascade effects of having this are huge and make for a great deal of phenotype variation between males and females (for a good example of this, just check out my article on Estrogen, Leptin, and Obesity). Males and females are biologically and genetically geared towards different things: e.g. males store fat in different areas of their body, males create sperm instead of ova, males tend to have an easier time developing muscle, etc. There is also a great deal of structural change, bone shape, brain shape, there have even been recent studies showing a difference right down to the cytology of certain cell types, etc.

But what does all this mean? It means that biology is damn awesome, and it means that males and females have a number of legitimate differences that need to be taken into account if for no other reason than their medical significance. As a for instance, hip replacement therapy needs to be different for males and females since we have different bone structures in our reproductive regions (ironically there is currently only a single ‘sexless’ hip on the market because doctors have been accused of being evil and sexist for saying that their male and female patients need different prostheses). What this most emphatically does not mean is that one sex is somehow better than the other. This latter idea is part of the myth of gender, and is one that should be expunged.

Gender is a fuzzy, poorly-defined, spectrum with a basis in sociology and psychology. The important thing to take away here: GENDER IS NOT SEX. This would be a lot more clear if our society could stop marginalizing transgender individuals (and stop conflating the larger transgender community with strict transsexualism or any kind of display of sexuality). Now, gender would like to be sex, and for quite a while the enforcement of a narrow gender role based on biological sex has been the status quo (in recent years this has become less true for the concept of ‘woman’ thanks in large part to the feminist movement). The idea of gender is deeply ingrained and wants to survive and so it will often pretend to have a ‘natural’ basis. In recent years this has adopted the language of science and the lie that gender has a biological basis, or that indeed gender and sex are one. Both of these are easily shown to be false due to varied gender roles across culture and race, and especially by the presence of both eclectic third gender individuals (like your humble author and many American transgendered people) and organized third gender groups (like the Hijra). None of us have a fundamentally different biology than any of the normative folk walking around. None of us are not, at a genetic level, male or female. But we are most emphatically not men or women. And given how that false dichotomy has been repeatedly abused as the subject of a patriarchal power play, why would we want to be?

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Written by Caudoviral

02/20/2011 at 16:52

3 Responses

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  1. After a promising start, you end up with a (I hope, unintentional) strawman-ending: What serious “pro-biology” debaters say is that there are differences in preferences, abilities, and similar, between average individuals which have an effect on life when we look at aggregate numbers (e.g. who tendentially chooses what profession) and typical behaviours (e.g. that Disney provides a certain type of princess because young girls like this type—not the other way around). Behaviours that vary in a non-trivial manner between cultures are not ascribed (or only indirectly so) to biology. In addition, the concept of individual variation is of immense importance in this area.

    In a bigger picture, the opposite problem to what you paint is far more common (i.e. that sex is considered non-existent to the favour of an all-deciding gender). Notably, the feminist movement (at least in my native Sweden) is the by far strongest force trying to surpress any distinction between the two concepts (except where only the body is concerned)—sometimes to the point that a boy of three playing with a truck (girl of three playing with a doll) is seen as a failure to prevent the evil “Patriarchy” from “gender-coding” infants.

    michaeleriksson

    02/20/2011 at 19:17

    • I should make it clear that I did not mean to imply that the feminist movement has been a beacon of common sense and scientific reasoning as it approaches sex & gender. Rather, I was pointing out that they have done a lot of work to make the idea of ‘woman’ more flexible and thus have helped loosen definitions and open discussion. But that only goes so far. When pressed to it, many feminists seem well invested in the dichotomy.

      I am unfamiliar with the particular case in Sweden, but that does not seem to be the case over here. Although I will admit that I do recognize the problem to which you refer. Part of the inspiration for this entire topic was my shock that certain people will go so far as to try to deny hard, neurobiological evidence of differing brain structure between males and females (rather than just questioning the interpretation of that fact). I am firmly of the belief that we should not tear down sex in the pursuit of tearing down gender.

      That said, I do feel that the opposite line of reasoning is just as misguided and unscientific: I am aware of no research indicating that preference is anything but a socialized response stemming wholly from nurture elements and early life exposure (both diet and potty training provide excellent examples for the ramifications of this sort of thing). And it seems a little naive to use entry into the work force as any kind of indicator since that only comes after years of socialization in a society invested in perpetuating this false dichotomy and its myths (the laughable chestnut that men are better at math and spatial reasoning for example). There are certain basal behaviors that derive directly from the brain and hormones and there are individual differences in our expression of these factors. But a gender does not spring, Athena-like, from the self-organization of these basal qualities.

      Essentially: If feral children want to grow up to be Disney princesses, I will be quite surprised.

      But then, I am a molecular biologist. If you can’t show me evidence of a biological mechanism, I don’t believe there is any right to claim a biological causality. And by the same token, if there is evidence I want to see it. As the advancement in behavioral neurobiology moves forward at a staggering pace I think that this idea of gender is going to be crushed beneath the feet of science marching on (the work of V.S. Ramachandran in the past 10-15 years alone has forced a complete overhaul of our concept of the static vs. dynamic brain) and I think it and other like conclusions must be regarded with the greatest of skepticism lest we enter a new age of phrenology.

      Caudoviral

      02/21/2011 at 10:02

      • Thank you, for your reply.

        A few sub-issues:

        o “I am aware of no research indicating that preference is anything but a socialized response stemming wholly from nurture elements and early life exposure (both diet and potty training provide excellent examples for the ramifications of this sort of thing).”

        I do not have any references at hand, but I have seen a number of discussions of research that indicate e.g. that even infants have preferences with regard to toys or uses of toys (e.g. that a girl treats a toy fire-engine as doll) or that the probability of a girl becoming a “tom-boy” is strongly affected by testosterone levels in utero. Just as important: That there are inborn differences is the most natural assumption (considering both physiological brain differences and the benefits of evolutionary specialization)—and by Occam’s Razor the main burden of proof resides on those who deny them. That preferences can be affected by nurture is no counter-proof, seeing that a strict either–or is an exceedingly rare opinion outside of the feminist movement (notwithstanding that feminists sometimes try to create a strawman, where their opponents are ascribed further-going opinions than they really have).

        o “And it seems a little naive to use entry into the work force as any kind of indicator since that only comes after years of socialization in a society invested in perpetuating this false dichotomy and its myths (the laughable chestnut that men are better at math and spatial reasoning for example).”

        Not at all: Firstly, work-force preferences appear to be far more stable than a pure nurture assumption would imply. Secondly, if we were to discount work-force preferences due to effects of nurture, then we would be begging the question. (In contrast, some sort of factor analysis would be a valid road.) Before claiming a false dichotomy or a myth, you would have to provide evidence that there is such a myth and that it has sufficiently over-whelming effects on choice that nature can be disregarded. Notably, a difference in math and spatial abilities is far too accepted and re-occurring in various forms to be just ridiculed as “laughable”. (Indeed, as with the tomboy above, there seems to be a connection between female abilities in these areas and testosterone levels. Note that the occasional recent claims that school-girls are just as good as boys in math go hand-in-hand with a dumbing down of the math curiculum, refer more to arithmetic than real math, and that many claim that boys’ results are falling in all subjects due to a school environment that is too adapted to girls.) Thirdly, work-force preferences are just one of many puzzle pieces.

        o “If feral children want to grow up to be Disney princesses, I will be quite surprised.”

        As would everyone else: The point with my example was something very different, namely that Disney presents its female heroines in a certain way because they know what young girls like—not the other way around. There will almost certainly be some amount of cross-influence; however, why should they try to reshape entire generations when it is so much easier to just give people what they want? Why try to convince people to eat broccoli when they voluntarily gobble down potato chips? (Just this is a very common feminist complaint: Evil, evil Disney, who ruins our poor little girls.)

        o “If you can’t show me evidence of a biological mechanism, I don’t believe there is any right to claim a biological causality. ”

        As stated above, biological mechanisms (on the basic levels) are the natural default assumption and in much the burden of proof must be placed on the “biology deniers” (in particular, as members of the “pro-biology” faction hardly ever deny the influence of nurture, but just claim that nature is important; further, are not the ones demanding a restructuring of society). Further, you must differ between what is proved, unproved, and disproved (and, if unproved: plausible, neutral, implausible). “Unproved” does not imply “wrong”—just “at the moment we make conjectures”: You are right in having a healthy scepticism until proof is available, but would be wrong in an a priori rejection.

        (To expand on “on the basic levels”: That Western women wear high-heals is unlikely to be biologically determined; however, the underlying wish to be physically attractive is a very different issue.)

        michaeleriksson

        02/21/2011 at 13:52


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