Sunday, 17 May 2015

What kind of construct is gender?

I have told you this story once before, but it was buried deep in my screed on evo psych and I wouldn’t blame you if you missed it. At the age of three, one of my nephews announced to my mother (his grandmother) that girls have blue eyes and boys have brown eyes. About nine out of ten for observation, there; only one member of our local family group breaks this rule, and he must not have looked in a mirror that day.

When his mother and I were that age – we’re twins – we had a magnetic letter tray, with plastic letters in four colours. We spontaneously came up with a treaty to avoid precedence disputes over letters: green and blue were boys’ colours, whereas red and yellow were girls’ colours. The convention was readily extended to the crayons and felt pens. Girls’ colours also included pink, purple, and white, while boys’ colours extended to orange, brown, black and grey. Why orange was a boys’ colour when red and yellow were girls’ colours, I could not for the life of me tell you now. But we both agreed that it was. Sadly, when we graduated to a larger set of felts, that overlooked inconsistency proved the downfall of the system. I think the disputatious item may have had the word “vermilion” printed on the side.

I repeat these charming vignettes, I think the word is, to draw your attention to three common features. First, as you’ve surely picked already, both involve gender binaries. Second, both binaries are false to the point of silliness, such that you only excuse their proponents because we were all preschoolers. And third, just so’s you know, both were spontaneous. Neither was endorsed by the authorities in our lives. In our case, admittedly, we may very well have heard from on high that pink was a girls’ colour, and probably also our toothbrushes and hairbrushes and what not would have been colour-coded just so our parents could remember which to use on whom. But, whenever they overheard us negotiating settlements, those same adults also told us in so many words that the notion of girls’ colours and boys’ colours in general was daft. We ignored them. We weren’t about to give up any cultural convention that had proved such a powerful force for peace.

Was our colour-gender convention a construct? Absolutely. Was it a social construct? That’s harder to argue. And I can’t see any argument at all for my nephew’s ideas about eye colour being socialized upon him. Now, clearly, if I had picked a more familiar gendered cultural trope to talk to you about – I’ve already mentioned pink being a “girls’ colour” – then the mere fact that it was familiar would show it had been socially disseminated; and if you picture what would happen to a little boy wearing a pink coat in a schoolyard, it’s hard to deny it would also be socially enforced. What the experiences I’ve shared with you demonstrate, I think, is that the mere notion that there are two genders is not, itself, imposed on young minds from the outside. It is the shape that most young minds naturally grow into.

Does this make it correct to split the human race into a simple gender binary? Of course not, any more than it makes it correct that women never have brown eyes or that green is a boys’ colour. Just because it’s natural to think this way doesn’t make it right. It’s also natural to think that the Sun goes around the Earth, that moving objects slow to a halt when no force is acting on them, that every bad thing that happens is somebody’s fault, and that the people you know plan their lives around your feelings. All these thoughts are nonetheless wrong.

Some people are short, some tall. Some people have soprano voices, some bass. Some people don’t grow beards, some do. Some people do grow breasts, some don’t. Some people have wide hips and narrow shoulders, some vice versa. Some people’s genitalia consist of small appendages and a large opening, some vice versa. Some people pursue status peaceably within reasonable limits, some are irrationally and aggressively obsessed with it. Some people experience sexual attraction gradually and tentatively as they get to know the person, some are immediately and irrevocably turned on by any one attractive feature. And some people see a woman in the mirror, some a man. Not one of these parameters is a binary; they’re all continua. You could be of middling height, with a light tenor voice, downy facial hair, partly-developed breasts, balanced hip-to-shoulder proportions, and so on and so forth.

Now, given only that information, an alien observer’s first guess would be that all those traits were randomly distributed. Other things being equal, the best bet is that the half-way point on any such continuum is the most common in the population. Here that expectation would be violated. People 166cm tall are not quite as common as one would expect, given that it’s the average human height; there’s a slight bulge in the graph on either side. People with wispy half-beard facial hair are pretty rare, except within a narrow age band around puberty. People born with in-between genitals constitute only about 0.1% of the population (of course, that makes “only” seven million people worldwide). In each of the traits I’ve mentioned, the human population shows a distinctive two-peaked distribution.

The alien would also have no a priori reason to suspect that the traits were connected. Seeing me with my beard in photos, it would be none the wiser as to whether I sound more like Melissa McCarthy or James Earl Jones. Initially, it would expect one-quarter of the adult population to be bearded contraltos and one-quarter smooth-cheeked baritones. And so on, for all the other possible pairwise combinations of the traits I’ve listed. Again, it would have to update the model when it analysed the data. The number of people with vaginas and beards is very small compared to the number of people with penises and beards. Shortness, soprano voice, beardlessness, breasts, wide hips, etc. (the first option in each of the pairs I listed a couple of paragraphs ago) tend to go together; tallness, bass voice, beardedness, etc. (the second option in each pair) likewise tend to go together.

But “tend” is the key word. All it means is that the numbers are larger for some possible combinations than for others. If you encounter a tall baritone with rough facial stubble and big shoulders, it’s reasonable to guess that they identify as a man, but in occasional cases that guess will be wrong. If the person tells you she’s actually a woman, she has just given you a lot of information (since information content is a measure of surprisingness), and you should thank her for her confidence. To conclude that she was a man pretending to be a woman would be misguided; to tell her so would be unconscionably rude.

The problem is, as I said a couple of posts ago, that the human mind is object-oriented. We find it hard to think in terms of most-but-not-all. We gravitate towards sharp-edged categories with uniform properties, and with living creatures we work on the assumption that they have an inner “nature” or “essence” that remains unchanged regardless of what particular accidents happen to them. On the whole this approximates reality, at least on the time-scales we’re used to, pretty well: you can’t turn a chihuahua into a cat with cosmetic surgery and obedience training. But when we take “essence” to be a real thing and start drawing metaphysical conclusions from it, or worse still moral conclusions, we wander into swamps of nonsense.

As our alien continued to study Earth’s animal kingdom, it would find repeating patterns in reproductive biology. Most animal species come in two basic forms, of which you have to bring one each together for reproduction to happen. There are exceptions and complications, but that theme can be heard underneath most of the variations. Commonly, one form holds the offspring inside their body during its initial growth. The other form almost always competes in some way for the opportunity to mate with the first form. In some species they make showy displays to get the first form’s attention; in others they bluster, fight, or attempt to kill each other; in still others they outdo one another at producing sperm. But unless our alien had an object-oriented mind like ours, it wouldn’t conclude that the two-forms theme was some kind of necessary universal binary, nor would it hand-wave away the exceptions and complications. On the contrary, seeing as this alien is studying an entire planet’s biota in the first place, it would eagerly seek an explanation for the phenomenon.

Let me bring this down to earth just for a second. Chances are, you’re reading this waiting for me to explain why some people are transgender. I’m not going to. The fact that some people are transgender does not call for an explanation. Given (for instance) the fact that some people are born with vaginas and the fact that some people identify as male, you should predict that some people will happen to fit into both sets at once. What calls for an explanation is the fact that so few people are transgender. That’s what would exercise the alien observer’s curiosity.

In newborn humans, anatomical gender differences are limited to the gonads and genitals, and no gross psychological differences are apparent (though I gather babies with vaginas are statistically slightly more likely to cry upon hearing another baby cry than babies with penises). Growth and development are of course superlative-defyingly complex processes, but just three or four hormones seem to be largely responsible for gender-differentiated features, testosterone in particular. Even as adults, people taking testosterone supplements report increased feelings of aggression, competitiveness, and libido. This is often taken to mean that the gendering of those traits is biological and therefore unalterable – but of course “biological, therefore unalterable” is one big fat non sequitur, and it’s especially nonsensical to conclude that something is unalterable on the basis that you’ve found a way to alter it. Testosterone secretion is highly responsive to external circumstances, and we know that includes some social circumstances.

So what starts a young human down the low-testosterone or high-testosterone development path? As in nearly all mammals, low-testosterone is the default, but the embryo will switch to the high-testosterone track if it carries a gene called SRY, one of the very few functional genes on the Y-chromosome. SRY itself only acts for a few hours at a critical period of gestation, which for humans is in the seventh week; apart from that, most people’s genomes contain all the instructions necessary to become any gender. All SRY does is flick a switch.

SRY is functionally the same in all mammals except one obscure species of rodent, but beyond the mammals things get more diverse. Birds have a different chromosomal arrangement. Reptile embryos use an environmental cue as a switch, usually temperature – an option not open to warm-blooded creatures. Many fish can spontaneously change gender as adults in particular social conditions. But nearly all species have exactly two reproductive genders, female and male, even if a given individual can change between the two. In species with three or more forms, the additional ones are usually non-reproductive. Species with just one reproductive gender either reproduce asexually, by cloning (whiptail lizards, stick-insects, bdelloid rotifers) or else grow two distinct reproductive organs in one body (earthworms, slugs, snails).

What never varies is that, whenever reproduction involves the sexual fusion of two cells, one of them is a great big ovum and the other one is a little fast-moving sperm. No animal species anywhere does sexual reproduction by fusing two equal-sized cells together. It takes less energy, water, protein and time to produce just ova or just sperm than to produce both, which is why most animals stick with one of the two – as long as they can safely bet on someday meeting an individual who produces the other. Hermaphroditic animals are solitary, slow-moving, and short-lived, and hence quite often only ever meet one other member of their species in their lifetime, so they have to be able to make the most of any meeting.

Why doesn’t any species reproduce by fusing two equal-sized cells? Because of mitochondria. These are tiny bacterial cells which live inside every eukaryotic cell, and perform vital functions for it. They help the host cell because they can only multiply when it multiplies; they help each other because they are all clones, and what benefits one’s genes benefits all their genes. But if you put two different strains of mitochondria together, they would try to kill each other. Soon there would be very few mitochondria left, and that would be bad news for a fertilized cell with a lot of growing to do. So instead, sex fuses a big cell with lots of mitochondria for growing (the ovum) with a tiny mobile cell which leaves behind what few mitochondria it started with (the sperm). We could go deeper – why are there multicellular organisms? why do most of them reproduce by sexual fusion? – but we would never come to the end of the questions, and this is enough to explain the origin of reproductive gender.

Once again, since this is a point people tend to miss: all I’m doing here is explaining why the number of people who don’t fit the “typical” gender binary is so small. All too often evolutionary science – especially evolutionary psychology (sigh) – is misappropriated by guys trying to tell women things like “You must be lying about being happy childless,” or “You can’t really enjoy games that appeal to the male hunting instinct,” or “You have a Y-chromosome, so you’re actually a man.” Even in cases where evolution really has favoured a particular gendered trait over the alternatives, all that implies about someone who doesn’t have the trait matching their gender is that there are relatively few people like them. Nothing more. It does not add a milligram of weight to the claim that that person can’t really be the way they are. The thing about evolution is that no-one’s in charge. There’s no quality control at the factory gate. For any evolved norm we expect about a thousandth of the population to deviate from it. It shouldn’t be surprising that that’s what we see.

Now that that’s all crystal clear, I would like to turn around and explain to my fellow social-justice enthusiasts why I don’t think it’s especially helpful to call gender a “social construct”, either. I acknowledge that people who say that have at least got up to the point of challenging the ingrained idea that it’s an essential universal binary, but we’ve just managed to do that from a purely scientific perspective. The problem is that the bald statement “Gender is a social construct” can mean a number of different things, some of them true, some of them false, and some not just false but problematic.

Are specific gender rules like “Pink is for girls” socially transmitted? Yes. Are they socially enforced? Yes. Are the myths and tropes that rationalize those rules likewise socially transmitted and enforced? Yes. And the driving force behind all this, is it people trying to maintain their power and privilege? Yes – in a way. If that’s what you mean by “Gender is a social construct”, I agree. But those myths, tropes, and rules are not all there is to gender. And I think the “in a way” bit matters too. Most people don’t consciously scheme for power like Lannisters; they just try to keep things “nice and normal”, and take care not to ask themselves whether it’s nice for the people who aren’t “normal”. They won’t make the connection unless it’s framed in terms they recognise.

People differ in mind as well as body. Some of these differences arise from socialization, but some grow naturally. And some of the natural ones correlate with anatomical and reproductive gender features, for reasons that we can trace back to reproduction. When a cis woman has sex with a cis man, she’s taking risks with her body that he isn’t. It makes sense, therefore, that she would be more cautious about it than he is, even if she wants it as much as he does. We also find that men commit the majority of violence in any given society. Again, these are statements about relative numbers; some women are more sexually daring than some men, and some women are more violent than some men. But if by “Gender is a social construct” you mean that the differences don’t exist at all, or are solely due to culture, I have to disagree.

Where it becomes problematic is when social constructionism is used to deny people’s gender identity. Around the age of three, children start to identify strongly as one particular gender. Contrary to claims popular in the second half of the twentieth century, this identity cannot be changed by any amount of social programming. I would like to point out, here, that social-constructionist theories were used during that time to enforce the gender binary, not challenge it. Transgender children were forced to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth, in the belief that that would allow them to “adjust” and fit in to society.

David Reimer was born with a penis but had it removed by accident during circumcision when he was a baby. On the recommendation of a social-constructionist researcher called John Money, he was surgically given a vagina and renamed Brenda (he had originally been Bruce). He was subjected to aggressive socialization, including what amounted to corrective rape, to try and make him think and behave like a girl. Money claimed the case as a success and a vindication for social constructionism. In fact Reimer was desperately unhappy until he underwent a second gender reassignment surgery, took the name David, and married a woman. Tragically, when his marriage broke up his gender anxiety returned, and he succumbed to depression in 2004.

Reimer’s maleness, at least, was not a social construct. Unfortunately popular science works making this case tend to be complicit in transphobia by making a big deal of the fact that his assigned gender was surgically assigned, thus reinforcing the idea that it’s what you’re born with that makes the difference. The lesson I draw is, if it was wrong to try and make Reimer a girl when he knew he was a boy, it’s wrong to try and make anyone a girl when they know they’re a boy. Or vice versa. Or when they know they’re neither a girl nor a boy. Or any other kind of misgendering.

I have seen transgender people compare their situation to having an amputated limb. Your brain contains a complete blueprint of what parts it understands your body to have. People who’ve had a limb amputated often feel that it’s still there – a “phantom limb” as it’s called. They’ve lost the limb, but not the corresponding part of their mental blueprint. This demonstrates that the blueprint isn’t created by the brain checking what’s actually there on the body; it’s part of the starter package, presumably programmed by the genes. I don’t know for a fact that gender identity is another kind of mental blueprint, but it wouldn’t be surprising. As I mentioned earlier, most people’s genes contain the instructions for every gender, so sometimes the body and the blueprint won’t quite line up in the usual way. We all accept that amputees have the right to get prosthetics, when feasible, to make their bodies match their mental blueprints; I see no argument that gender should be any different.

While on the subject of body blueprints in the brain, I can’t resist mentioning another phenomenon which they may help explain. Nudists (such as myself) find that going nude, especially outdoors or in casual social situations, is intensely liberating. It feels normal or natural in a way that clothing just doesn’t. And it’s not just us. Everyone I’ve ever read who’s voluntarily done this reports the same feeling, even those who’ve done it so as to write magazine articles on how freaky and weird those freaky and weird nudists are. It’s best not to gush too much about this, because people who haven’t tried it think you’re talking about something sexual and naturally get a bit uncomfortable. But it isn’t sexual. It occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, it’s because our pre-programmed mental body blueprints don’t include clothing, and so when we don’t wear any our bodies at last feel like they’re the way they’re supposed to be. Needless to say this is all speculation, and I don’t know how you’d test it.

So what kind of construct is gender? That depends on what, exactly, you’re talking about. There exist biological distinctions, mental identities related to those biological distinctions, and social constructs encrusted around those mental identities. In different contexts any one of the three might be the most appropriate referent of the word “gender”. I don’t think we need to ask vets (say) to start talking about “cats born with ovaries” instead of “female cats” just because cats won’t answer questions about their gender identity. But when you’re talking about human beings, the simple rule is that in polite society minds merit more attention than genitals. Gender – the kind of gender that matters – is a mental construct.


  1. You write that 'whenever reproduction involves the sexual fusion of two cells, one of them is a great big ovum and the other one is a little fast-moving sperm'.

    Are you asserting this to be true of all sexually reproducing organisms, or only of all sexually reproducing animals?

    1. Of animals. I think it's pretty close to the truth for other sexually-reproducing multicellular organisms. I'm given to understand that single-celled eukaryotes which reproduce sexually do so by fusing a large cell with a small cell, after which the mitochondria do indeed battle each other chemically until all the small cell's mitochondria are gone. Prokaryotes which sexually exchange genetic material do not generally fuse their cells to do so.

    2. Well, I've been doing a little unsystematic reading.

      What I've read so far suggests as follows.

      Fast-moving male gametes are found generally in animals and also in some plants. But in many plants and in fungi generally gametes are not motile (not under their own power, that is).

      In many fungi reproduction involves the sexual fusion of two gametes of distinct 'mating types', but there's not a significant difference in size (and therefore the convention of identifying one type as male and another as female is not applied).

      In at least some species of bivalve molluscs (so we're back to animals), there is 'Doubly Uniparental Inheritance' of mitochondria. Females have one type of mitochondria, which they inherit from their female parents and pass on to all their offspring; males have two types of mitochondria, one which they inherit from their male parents and pass on to their male offspring, and one which they inherit from their female parents and don't pass on to their offspring at all.