Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gender, Terminology and Reality

The Wall Street Journal, on many topics a fairly level-headed periodical, had a story in their Marketplace section this morning about how neuroscientist Dr. Bob (formerly Barbara) Barres has experience the gender divide in science, having "been" both genders. What struck me, however, in the opening of the article was the way in which the terminology used made certain assumptions about the nature of gender:

Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.

Being first a female scientist and then a male scientist has given Prof. Barres a unique perspective on the debate over why women are so rare at the highest levels of academic science and math: He has experienced personally how each is treated by colleagues, mentors and rivals.
Notice the phrase "made him fully male". Now, I've read the basics of what sex change treatments involve, and it seems odd to talk about how such treatments "made him fully male". Certainly, the treatments may have made him look about as male as he can be made to look. But if we take "male" to be a biological category, it's silly to talk about someone being "made fully male". Either you're male, or you're not.

Now, I have enough acquaintances who are into such issues that I know the standard argument goes: "Well, physical gender is really not nearly as clear cut as you imagine. What about hermaphrodites? Close examination suggests that gender isn't a binary attribute, it's a spectrum."

Obviously, how you answer this contention with whether you think there is any kind of teleology implicit in biological structures. I'm not necessarily talking teleology in the sense that ID advocates use the term, but rather the more basic concept of certain biological attributes having a defined function, regardless of how that function got there. In the case of gender, the male/female attributes clearly exist, in the biological sense, in order to allow sexual reproduction, an innovation which first appeared (according to standard interpretations of the fossil record) about 1.2 billion years ago, which has allowed more rapid genetic diversification and endless fodder for the cheaper sort of fiction.

For sexual reproduction to occur, a functional male and function female of the species are required. In this sense, while it's undeniable that various genetic defects can effect the appearance and/or function of human gender attributes, it seems to me clear that the textbook definitions of male and female represent not merely points on a spectrum, but what (at least for the perpetuation of our species -- something I'm generally in favor of) male and female "ought" to be. This doesn't mean that people with physically malformed gender attributes are less human -- unless you accept the idea that one's humanity is a matter of degree rather than identity (something which I unquestionably reject) -- but it does mean that gender is indeed binary by nature, even if some instantiations of that nature are imperfectly formed. It also means that talking about a female undergoing treatments to become "fully male" currently not only impossible, but unimaginable -- since it's not possible to make a female function as a male in any biologically meaningful sense.

Which leaves one to ask, why is it that our culture's ways of discussing gender of drifted so far from what gender actually is?

5 comments:

bearing said...

Gender theorists who believe in the "spectrum" often point to the existence of people with anomalous chromosomes, such as XXY, XYY, etc., as "proof" that many people are not unambiguously male or female.

Yet if you actually go to the websites of support groups for people with these chromosome conditions, you'll find that without exception, they identify as male or female, depending on the chromosome combination. My impression is that they can be classified pretty simply: if there is at least one Y chromosome present, they're male.

For example, Klinefelter Syndrome, in which the individual has 2 X's and 1 Y chromosome, affects people who are identifiably MALE. Go look at the website. It's all about "XXY boys."

Or look at this. "XYY Syndrome is a rare chromosomal disorder THAT AFFECTS MALES."

Or this. "Triple X Syndrome... affects FEMALES."

The people who actually have these chromosomal abnormalities identify unambiguously as one or the other.

Joseph said...

In a few decades, it will be possible for people similar to Professor Barres to father children.

On the other hand, my suspended disbelief snapped at the end of the article, when she/he said that men are less likely to be interrupted. I suspect that it's more likely that other people can now get a word in edgewise.

CMinor said...

It's been a while since I took a genetics course, but at the time I did, I recall it being pointed out that in humans maleness is defined by the presence of the Y chomosome. The lack of a second X (called XO or Turner's syndrome) results in a sterile female, but decidedly a female (A definitely female college dormmate and pal of mine had this condition, so I have some acquaintance with it.)

As I said, though, I've been out of the loop for a long time. Has somebody figured out a way to switch out all those little sex chromosome thingies from individual cells? No?
Then I'd hold off on that "fully a male." Chromosomally speaking, the good professor is still a female.

Kevin Jones said...

I've been hoping somebody has written a good examination of philosophy of nature, so I won't have to.

Aristotle defined the natural as that which happens "most of the time," and that was authoritative enough for him. At present a few deviations from the norm are taken to be outright refutations of the norm. Something's gone awry when the norm isn't even considered normative.

darwin said...

It's definately the case that _someone_ needs to write something calm, level-headed, and accessible to the interested layman about the philosophy of nature, purpose and function.

I think part of the problem is that (perhaps because some people no longer focus on human _identity_ providing the basic level of human dignity) far too many people think that refering to someone as possessing some form of physical or psychological defect means saying that the person has less intrinsic worth as a person -- and idea from which most people rightly recoil.

But as a result people back themselves into the oddest corners. A doctor friend of mine (one of several people I know who also insisted that gender was a spectrum, not a binary trait) eventually fell back on saying that it was impossible to define "health" or "sickness" beyond saying that health was how you wanted to be and sickness was a condition you didn't desire. Any idea of saying that a trait was by definition a defect seemed to her to attack the humanity of anyone possessing that trait.