Posts Tagged ‘biology’

The Boy Who Lived as a Girl

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Human beings are wonderfully flexible, adaptive and responsive creatures who can display an amazing range of behaviors, that shift according to the surrounding environment. The malleability of humans beings is so impressive that the belief that there are no inborn traits, only learned traits and adaptations, is understandable.

In the case of David Reimer (born as Bruce Reimer) the belief that there are no behavioral or brain differences between the sexes was taken to its extreme. Bruce was the victim of a circumcision (performed using an unconventional method) that went horribly wrong, leading to his penis being burnt to the extent that it could not be salvaged. His parents, distraught over the incident, were desperately looking for a way forward when an apparent solution revealed itself.

One night, the Reimers see a television profile of an American doctor and his theories on sex and gender. Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore argues that boys – caught early enough – could be raised to be girls. Nurture and not nature determines a child’s gender, the doctor argued.

Janet Reimer thought it was worth exploring. The family went to Baltimore to see Dr. Money, who decided that Bruce Reimer was a perfect candidate.

It was decided the Bruce would become Brenda, and the doctor castrated him (removed his testicles). The parents were told to raise him as a girl, and that would be the end of it. However, problems quickly arose:

Janet Reimer did her best to raise Bruce as a girl. She dressed him in skirts and dresses and showed him how to apply make-up. But the transformation was anything but smooth. Bruce Reimer didn’t like playing with the other girls – and he didn’t move like one either. He got into schoolyard fistfights. The other kids called him names like “caveman,” “freak” and “it.”

Clearly, the other kids-who had no idea that Brenda had been born as Bruce-felt that s/he wasn’t behaving and playing the way young girls do. What’s even more interesting to note, is that Bruce himself had no idea that he was anything but a girl, and his parents were also raising him the way they would raise a girl. Still, he simply would not pass for a girl, according to his brother:

“The only difference between him and I was he had longer hair.” “I tried really, really hard to rear her as a gentle lady,” Janet Reimer said. “But it didn’t happen.”

Dr Money, on the other hand, was still pretending that the experiment had been a success, and claiming so in scientific journals:

He published an article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour pronouncing the experiment a resounding success. It became widely known in medical circles as the Joan/John case.

Money wrote: “The child’s behaviour is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother.”

I guess some people simply don’t know when to quit, and admit that they were wrong…

Things didn’t end well for David Reimer, who committed suicide at the age of 38. Fortunately, science has finally been able to put an end to the “sex-is-nothing-but-a-social-construction” belief.

Around the same time, research was sounding the death knell for the nurture vs. nature theory. Two studies – released by the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center – concluded that it’s prenatal exposure to male hormones that turns normal male babies into boys. The studies “seriously question the current practice of sex-reassigning some of these infants as females…”

Since then, researchers have shown that it’s not only prenatal testosterone that turns the brain into a male brain, the Y chromosome also plays an important part.

Nurture vs nature has been resolved: it’s not either/or, it’s both, and they also interact throughout life.

Why Men Rule

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

In this post I want to give an overview of a controversial subject that cannot be avoided by anyone interested in gender equality. Please let me know in the comments if you disagree with any of the facts of conclusions that I list, since I believe that this is a subject that deserves a deep analysis.

Here’s the bullet point overview:

  • To this day, no human civilization has been run by a matriarchy (i.e. women having most of the positions of power). One by one the anthropological claims of having found a tribe or culture with female governance have been disproved. Currently there are no verified examples of predominantly female governance.
  • This means that men have always had the majority of the high status positions, in every known society.
  • Not all men want status, but it appears that men are much more likely to make the sacrifices necessary to reach an important position in society, regardless of whether the price to pay is deteriorating health, less time with family or even risk of dying.
  • Since the absence of a matriarchy is a cross-cultural phenomenon, we cannot look for an explanation in cultural variables. Thus, we turn to biology.
  • What biological factors could there be? We have knowledge about girls and women who were exposed to abnormally high testosterone levels in utero (for various biological reasons, one of them being the medical condition CAH). These girls, who have been affected by testosterone as their fetal brains were developing, are more likely to be interested in a style of playing that is generally considered “boyish”.
  • Furthermore, from age 11 these girls are more likely to be interested in having a career (Dittman et al, 1990a) and less likely to want to have children or be a stay-at-home mom than other girls their age. This is something that happens even though the girl is raised as a girl, and expected to behave like a girl. As grown women, they are more likely to have a high status career (Purigoy and Koopmans, 1979; W Gallagher, 1998; Bancroft et al, 1983)

Personally I consider these bullet points to be a strong piece of evidence for innate differences in behavior between men and women (though there are certainly lots of other good pieces of evidence).

This brings us to one of the “hard problems” of gender equality: how can we accept that there are differences between men and women on a group level, and not allow this to lead to discrimination? How do we separate the individual from the collective? I’ve already written about this problem once, but it continues to fascinate me. If you have any interesting ideas to share, then let me know.

(The title of this post has been borrowed from the author Stephen Goldberg, who’s written a book on this very subject.)

Defining Gender Equality

Friday, April 24th, 2009

For an expression that is much talked about, you rarely come across a clear definition of what gender equality actually means. I’m pretty sure different people mean very different things when talking about gender equality, and many people probably aren’t even aware of exactly what they mean.

Not defining words properly is a sure recipe for discussions and debates that lead nowhere, and heated arguments that are as passionate as they are meaningless.

I believe that by defining what we mean by gender equality, we can avoid intellectual sloppiness, and clarify our own beliefs in this area. Furthermore, you cannot hit a target unless you know what the target is, and for most people gender equality is a desired outcome.

My definition of gender equality rests on five different pillars:

1. Men and women have the same intrinsic value

I’m hoping that you find it self-evident that men and women have the same intrinsic value. This is simply the basic moral insight that all people have the same intrinsic value, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

2. Men and women are equally valuable to society

Are men and women equally valuable to society? I guess you could try to make the case that either gender is more valuable, but the burden of proof would rest squarely on you. Research has shown that the male and female brains are sometimes good at different things, but there is no overall difference in brain capacity. This indicates that the two genders have equal potential to be valuable.

Men and women still have very or somewhat different roles in most societies, with men more often fulfilling roles in the public sphere, and women more often fulfilling roles in the private sphere. Regardless of whether you think this will change in the future or not, and regardless of whether you find this division of labor desirable or not, I’d say it’s safe to presume that men and women are equally valuable to society.

Society would not function without the roles that men perform or without the roles that women perform.

3. Men and women should have equal rights and responsibilities

The important thing to note here is that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. If you want to claim a right for yourself, you should be prepared for an accompanying responsibility. As the economists are fond of saying: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”.

A good starting point for making sure that men and women have equal rights is to check that legislation and public policy are gender neutral. If either sex has responsibilities that the other one doesn’t have (such as the draft or military service), or if either sex has rights that the other one doesn’t have (such as access to women’s shelters), then we need to take a closer look at those imbalances.

4. An absence of discrimination (a k a equal opportunities)

Discrimination is a word that is used frequently in gender discussions, especially when talking about the labor market. But what is and isn’t discrimination? How do we define it?

Discrimination simply means judging someone by their race, gender, religion, sexuality or age – instead of judging them for their competence. The definition is very simple, but implementing it can be a lot harder!

Sometimes the word discrimination is used incorrectly. For example, you can hear people say that women are discriminated against if they don’t have 50 percent of the important positions in society. However, that is not discrimination unless you can show that men who are less qualified than competing women are given the top jobs.

As long as competence determines who gets a job, we may have 80 percent women in a certain workplace or 70 percent men, without any discrimination occurring. Read more about discrimination in this dedicated post.

5. Realizing that equality need not mean sameness

Equality between the sexes means that the sexes are valued equally, and given equal opportunities, as outlined above. But this need not mean that men and women become the same! Men and women may continue to make different choices when it comes to work, family and hobbies – while still being perfectly equal.

In fact, it is irrelevant to gender equality whether men and women make the same choices, as long as each man and each woman is truly free to choose whatever path seems right to him or her.

We know that biological differences between the sexes exist, but we do not yet know to what extent these differences would influence the choices of women and men in a culture that allows you to go beyond stereotypes.

However, it would be naive to assume that men and women would start making exactly the same choices, even in a society that is completely open-minded. By dropping the criterion of sameness, gender equality becomes much more achievable, and does not limit individual freedom.

Equality Need not Mean Sameness

Friday, March 20th, 2009

These days there’s a lot of confusion around what gender equality really means. Will we have reached gender equality when half of all CEOs are women? Or will we have reached gender equality when women and men are exactly the same except for their reproductive organs?

Unfortunately both of these criteria seem to be prevalent when judging whether the sexes are equal or not, and policy makers – at least in Sweden and many other countries – tend to think that the sexes will remain unequal until half the CEOs are women and both sexes behave in the exact same way. 

Since we haven’t reached that point, affirmative action for women is seen as more or less acceptable. However, these “sameness criteria” have nothing to do with authentic gender equality, and instead introduce an element of confusion when discussing this subject.

Assuming that equality means sameness is inherently problematic since if you want men and women to make exactly the same career choices, family choices and lifestyles choices, then you are basically trying to fit individuals into your own preconceived notion of reality.

A Better Definition

Equality between the sexes simply means that men and women have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities. According to this definition we need to remove all legal discrimination as well as break down stereotypes that prevent people from leading the lives that they want. Everyone should have equal access to education, the labor market, government grants, and so on. If you believe in this definition of equality, then all kinds of affirmative action are rejected, since affirmative action is a form of discrimination.

However, achieving this kind of gender equality need not mean that men and women become the same!

Men and women may very well continue to make different choices when it comes to work, family and hobbies – while still being perfectly equal. In fact, it is irrelevant to gender equality whether men and women make the same choices, as long as each man and each woman is truly free to choose whatever path seems right to him or her.

By dropping the criterion of sameness, gender equality becomes much more achievable, and does not limit individual freedom. Gender equality needs to be about giving women and men more choices, not imposing new stereotypes of how each sex should behave. And claiming that men and women can and should become completely similar is nothing but another kind of stereotype.

My Personal Opinion

We all know that men and women make different lifestyle choices, and this is generally seen as a sign of cultural programming and gender stereotypes having their way with individuals who are out of touch with their true desires.

I agree that cultural programming influences the choices of men and women in a very real way, however, I disagree with the assertion that all gender differences are culturally constructed. Research has shown that biological differences between the sexes exist, and in my opinion it would be naive to assume that men and women would start making exactly the same choices, even in a society that is completely open minded.

But you know what? I don’t even care if you agree with me on the biological differences between the sexes. As long as you defend the notion that equality means equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities – while rejecting affirmative action and other forms of discrimination – then we are basically working towards the same goal.

However, I will say this: I cannot help but find it offensive that many branches of feminism claim that all gender differences are culturally constructed. By saying this they basically claim that most people are out of touch with what they really want out of life, and that people allow themselves to be shepherded in whatever direction that stereotypes dictate.

Do you personally feel like your own life is 100 percent controlled by stereotypes and cultural structures, or are you able to make choices that go against that which is expected of you?

Gender and Biology

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

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.