Gender and Biology

March 15th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Whenever gender roles and gender issues are discussed, one of the most controversial questions is whether biological hardwiring affects the behavior of men and women. Are gender specific neurohormonal factors significant enough to affect the everyday behavior and choices of each sex? Are men’s and women’s brain constructed differently, or are the differences negligible or even completely absent?

There are a few different stances that people tend to adopt when discussion biology and gender issues, and unfortunately most of them are pretty polarized:

Biological determinism. This is the belief that human beings are animals who are basically controlled by instincts and hormones. Let’s forget about the higher functions of the human brain, at our core we are simply animals who are preoccupied with survival and reproduction.

Sociocultural determinism. Everything is a cultural construction, you were born as a blank slate and then your upbringing and your culture formed you into who you are today. This is a seductive stance since it gives you a very “clean” worldview of gender issues. You remove a lot of complexity by making everything culturally constructed, and that is an attractive option if you want fast results.

Paying lip-service to multiple factors. Some people pretend to take both biology and sociocultural factors into account, but it’s obvious that they have chosen sides pretty emphatically. These people will say things like:

“I believe that biology may affect human beings in some ways but it is completely out-shadowed by our upbringing and cultural programming”.

“Of course we must take culture into account, but at our core our choices are determined by biological hardwiring”.

Seeing the truths of all research fields. In my opinion this is the only defensible stance for anyone who believes that academic science is a good thing. There is undeniable research that demonstrates the importance of sociocultural programming in shaping gender roles. On the other hand, there is undeniable research that highlights the differences in brain structure and function between men and women (and how these differences affect choices and behavior). So who is right? Both are. We are biological creatures living in a culture and environment that shapes us extensively.

Pros and Cons of Acknowledging Biology

Even if we ignore the scientific findings, proof stares us in the eyes. When looking at gender roles in different cultures we see a myriad of differences and some universal features. The differences represent sociocultural factors and the universal patterns represent biological programming. This kind of simple cross-cultural overview is a direct demonstration of how culture and biology co-create the fabric of a community or a country.

Many progressives want to avoid addressing the whole issue of gender specific biological differences, since they feel that it limits constructive social reform by sowing doubts about whether change is truly possible. After all, if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes? It certainly can be, and people who want to preserve traditional gender roles often do use biology as an argument for keeping men and women trapped in very constricted life conditions.

In light of these potential downsides to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, what are we supposed to do? How do we deal with this fairly new information that has come to us through the huge strides that science has made in the past 20 years? Do we suppress it or bring it into the gender discourse? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons…

What are the pitfalls of acknowledging biology?

  1. Neurohormonal differences between the sexes can be used as an argument for reverting to traditional gender stereotypes. As we just saw, this is already being done.
  2. Even nuanced thinkers can easily over-emphasize the influence of biology and forget about the huge importance of the sociocultural factors. This is unfortunate since we can change culture and make it more friendly for both sexes, while it’s much harder to manipulate biology.
  3. The research about biological differences could lead to pre-judging individuals, for example those who are looking for a job.

What are the consequences of banning research and pretending that biology doesn’t exist?

  1. This would be intellectually dishonest and overly controlling. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where scientists are controlled in such a way by the state!
  2. If we do not pursue this avenue of research, we will miss precious opportunities to develop better drugs to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
  3. Trying to change sociocultural trends while denying a key variable is likely to be unsuccessful. Paradoxically we will probably be more successful in transcending gender stereotypes if we acknowledge brain differences. If we instead perpetuate the myth that men and women have identical brains, then the reforms will automatically focus on eliminating gender roles completely, and having 50 percent men and 50 percent women at all workplaces. Such a vision is almost certainly incompatible with biology, and we shouldn’t waste time and money on trying to achieve an impossible goal. 

My Own View

I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.

Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.

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16 Responses to “Gender and Biology”

  1. Bj0rnborg Says:

    To me this question isnt too complicated:

    No matter biologism vs the sociocultural perspective; everyone should be allowed to be and become whoever they want without shame, social stigma or legal (or other) discrimination.

    Artificial interference with this process, like affirmative action, is bad. The tools avaiable should be aligned with the higher principle, ie everyone should be allowed to be and become whoever they want without shame, social stigma or legal (or other) discrimination.

    Tools such as information, education, positive feedback will do the job better.

    Just quick thoughts from a feverish mind.

  2. Bj0rnborg Says:

    The endresult would differ depending on wich one of biologism or the socialcultural perspective where (most) true, but that dosent matter. As long as the individual is free, collective outcomes are irrellevant.

  3. Pelle Billing Says:

    Bj0rnborg:
    No matter biologism vs the sociocultural perspective; everyone should be allowed to be and become whoever they want without shame, social stigma or legal (or other) discrimination.

    Artificial interference with this process, like affirmative action, is bad.

    I agree completely.

  4. Paddan Says:

    Hear hear…. what Bjorn said, absolutely!
    I want a friendly and open climate where we can discuss all these issues without blowing eachothers brains out and without the guilt and shame tied to all of this.

    And I agree with Pelle, if we take the evidence from both fields seriously and asked ourselves “how can ALL of this be true; how can we make sence of the information?” then yours is a sound opinion/view.

    Problem is, this means a lot of people need to challenge their deeply rooted ingrained worldviews and values. And I’m afraid education is a slow help, but perhaps all we can hope for. Although, as it stands today, the “everything is a social construction” argument is a very strong and dominating argument in todays schools.

  5. Schala Says:

    “Although, as it stands today, the “everything is a social construction” argument is a very strong and dominating argument in todays schools.”

    Read about John Money.

    From wikipedia, I’ll post the relevant bits:

    “John William Money (8 July 1921 – 7 July 2006) was a psychologist and sexologist well-known for his research into sexual identity and biology of gender.

    Money identified several influential concepts and terms during his career, including gender identity, gender role,[2] gender-identity/role, and lovemap. Money was a professor of pediatrics and medical psychology at Johns Hopkins University from 1951 until his death. While there, Money was involved with the Sexual Behaviors Unit, which ran studies on sex reassignment surgery. He received the Magnus Hirschfeld Medal in 2002 from the “German Society for Social-Scientific Sexuality Research”, for which he worked.

    During his professional life, Money was respected as an expert on sexual behavior, especially for allegedly demonstrating that gender was learned rather than innate. Many years later, however, it was revealed that his most famous case was the result of fraudulent reporting on the part of Money. The subject of Money’s fraud was his involvement in the sex reassignment of David Reimer, in what later became known as the “John/Joan” case.

    Money’s ideas relating to gender and gender identity formation have come under intense criticism in the scientific community. Money argued that a child’s gender identity is fluid up to a certain age, after which this gender would become consolidated and more-or-less immutable.

    Money claimed that media response to the exposé was due to right-wing media bias and “the antifeminist movement.” He claimed his detractors believed “masculinity and femininity are built into the genes so women should get back to the mattress and the kitchen.”[14] However, intersex activists also criticized Money, stating that the unreported failure had led to the surgical reassignment of thousands of infants as a matter of policy.[15] Privately, Money was mortified by the case, colleagues said, and as a rule did not discuss it.[16] Money’s own views also developed and changed over the years.[3][17]

    Johns Hopkins University maintains a Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit (SBCU).[18] The Psychiatry Department, however, has concluded that gender identity is primarily innate, and the university no longer performs sex change operations for adults with sexual dysphoria.[19]”

    ——————

    That’s all for the article. But its also easy to find a link between John Money, feminism and social construction theory.

    John Money brought his theory to light in the 60s and 70s, and was acclaimed as “being right” until 1995 when his flag case was discovered as fraud.

    ————-

    “table in Spanish is feminine (la mesa), in French it is masculine (le table)”

    I’m afraid not lol, table is feminine in French. (that’s also from the following article)

    ——————

    “His theories on the psychosexual flexibility at birth of humans forms the cornerstone of an entire medical specialty – pediatric endocrinology – and his influence even reached the Victorian Committee on Equal Opportunity in Schools.”

    “Money did describe Brenda as always the “dominant twin”, though by age three he reported her dominance over Brian had become “that of a mother hen”. The twins seemed to embody an almost miraculous division of taste, temperament and behaviour along gender lines, and seemed the ultimate proof that boys and girls are made not born. (9)

    The importance of the twins’ case cannot be underestimated. It was seized on by the feminist movement which had been arguing for years against a biological basis for sex differences (except when they were also arguing that research on sex differences should be completely stopped because it might be misused – presumably by the fundamentalist religious right).(l0) Money’s papers from the 1950s on the psychosexual neutrality of newborns had already been used as one of the main foundations of modern feminism. Kate Millet in her 1970 definitive feminist tome, “Sexual Politics”, had quoted Money’s papers as scientific proof that the differences between men and women reflect not biological imperatives but societal expectations and prejudices. The twins’ case offered apparently irrefutable proof to support that view.”

    “Although Money’s views on psychosexual neutrality or the malleability of gender identity was the established wisdom of the scientific community and particularly of the feminist movement, there was at least one researcher who had been questioning his conclusions. With a pioneering team of endocrinologists at the University of Kansas in the 1950s, working on guinea pigs, biophysics researcher Dr. Milton Diamond and colleagues established that prenatal sex hormones played a significant role not only on the development of the reproductive system and external genitalia of a fetus, but also on the masculinization or feminization of the brain.

    The results were published in a 1959 issue of Endocrinology.(11) In a follow-up paper entitled “A Critical Evaluation of the Ontogeny of Human Sexual Behaviour” Diamond rejected outright the John Hopkins team’s theory. Reporting on the guinea pig findings, Diamond stated that prebirth factors set limits on how far culture, learning and environment can direct gender in humans. Citing evidence from biology, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology and endocrinology, he argued that gender identity is hardwired into the brain virtually from conception. Later confirmation of the guinea pig experiments was to come from effects observed in girls who had been exposed to testosterone in utero – either accidentally or as medication given to their mothers.

    Diamond’s 1959 paper was a direct challenge to the scientific authority of John Money, who had become one of the gurus of the feminist movement. A long and acrimonious academic debate spanning decades ensued. It may explain why when fate delivered to Money the opportunity for the “perfect” experiment on the identical twins, he seized it so eagerly and why he was so reluctant to acknowledge the signs of failure.”

    —————–

    from here: http://www.endeavourforum.org.au/articles/babette_social.html

    Diamond was mostly ignored until 1995 when he proved the case was fraud. He’s considered an authority on intersex, and also researches transsexuality in his university in Hawaii.

  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    Schala,

    Thank you for that very interesting historical exposé! I certainly learned a lot from it.

    It’s interesting that even with the overwhelming biomedical research we have nowadays regarding gender identity and neurohormonal differences between the sexes, many people still want sociocultural programming to reign supreme. I wonder why it’s so hard to accept that there are many different factors at play? Culture, biology, upbringing, personal choices… They all form us, no?

  7. Schala Says:

    “I wonder why it’s so hard to accept that there are many different factors at play? ”

    I think because people (read: parents) like to think they have knowledge and control over their children. That they know them better than they know themselves, that they can basically trace a future for them, and for it to be bright etc.

    But then comes the intersex and the trans person, shattering that hope by bringing uncertainty in the mix. Suddenly, your amniocentesis at 3-4 months of pregnancy might have been wrong, you might not have known your child as much as you thought. Trying to know a child through gender stereotypes is all too common nowadays – as opposed to REALLY getting to know a child. Even for parents.

  8. Ashwaria Says:

    Its Depend Upon biologism or the socialcultural.A stereotype is a preconceived idea that attributes certain characteristics to all the members of class or set.Stereotypes often form the basis of prejudice and are usually employed to explain real or imaginary differences due to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic class, disability, occupation, etc

    Cultural Myths,Gender Stereotypes

  9. Gender Says:

    [...] himself as a androgyne. I pretty much agree with this Pelle Billing article on the topic: Gender and Biology Gender =/= Biological sex That’s what we all want, we want the freedom to have choices [...]

  10. The feminism I don't buy Says:

    [...] think it is purely one or the other Here are some interesting reads Gender Differences Are Real Gender and Biology Gender and Biology Excerpts from Brain Sex (I think i’ve posted this [...]

  11. 美国一夜情 Says:

    美国一夜情…

    [...]Gender and Biology[...]…

  12. Domina Erfurt Says:

    Domina Erfurt…

    [...]Gender and Biology[...]…

  13. David Gong Says:

    The reason gender roles existed in the first place was perhaps because we didn’t have the luxury to cater to everybody’s personal desires. As a race, we needed to survive and because resources were scarce or hard to obtain, gender roles allowed us to survive more efficiently even if it meant sacrificing our personal desires. The men hunted because they were more suited to do so and the women tended the home because she (anatomically and neurologically) was more hardwired to do so. I base my previous statement on the fact that males typically have more testosterone and muscle to hunt etc. etc. Times are a changin’ when we’ve let our food and shelter be taken care of by our environment and with the help of machines. We may have more choice now than ever so please don’t see sexism or gender roles as something that is purely “evil” when it could have been a necessity in the past.

  14. Submariner Says:

    Certainly both factors play a role in determining behavior. Human behavior is so complex that to try to ascribe it to one or two causal factors is simplistic, to say the least.

    “create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes”

    What does that even mean? Does it mean that as a man I am no longer expected to pay for dates? Women should buy me flowers from time to time? Whenever a heavy object needs to be lifted, we should draw straws? When wars need to be fought, we draft everyone for front line duty?

    How far is society willing to go to “transcend gender stereotypes”? Because, I’m all for it….are you?

  15. robert Says:

    Thank you Pelle for your deep but balanced point of view.
    Personally I beleive that humans are limited and we can not forget about our biology. For example only women can become a mother.

    I am not sure if I can understand what you say here:

    I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.
    Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.”

    Is it that you suggest that one day we can overcome our biology and we ought to do that in order to live in more just world? Do not you think that it could be a bit dengerous for our society?

    I think that the existance of both sexes is a value for us but is is expensive, to put it in other words: to live in a human world we have to pay a price of some ‘gender-stereotypes”.

  16. Pelle Billing Says:

    Robert,

    No, I don’t think we will overcome our biology as men and women, nor do I see that as a goal. What I mean is that we need to accept that not all boys will play with cars and play wild games, even though many of them will. There is a biological spectrum for each gender that we need to honor.

    Gender differences have a tremendous value for society. Men and women complement each other in important ways, and to artificially try to erase these differences could only be done in the context of a totalitarian state.


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