Some Reflections on the Study of Gender

The State of the Discourse
Nature vs. Nurture

"Women and men are different." There seems to be general consensus on this point. This also tends to be the point on which the general consensus usually ends. The minute the discussion turns to origins of any differences between the male and female of the species, opinions diverge rather sharply. Given the current state of science on many of the core issues, it should not come as a surprise that ideology plays a prominent role in the discussion.

This is particularly so on the two extremes of opinion on the subject. On the one hand, we have people — including fundamentalist clerics and pop-psych gurus — who hold that any behavioural and psychological differences, whether observed, imagined, or based purely on stereotypes, are innate, based either on the will of the Creator du jour or the inexorable hand of the double helix.

On the other hand, there are those who take the contrary position to almost Skinnerian extremes. According to this version, which has its roots in various forms of the notion of human malleability, gender itself is purely a social construct, a learned behaviour with no biological or other basis but societal indoctrination.

Both positions have one fundamental problem: the evidence. In fact, one occasionally gets the impression that they're in a competition to see who can be less scientific. While the "it's all innate" faction prefers to ignore the broad diversity of behaviour on all points in the gender spectrum, not to mention the internally inconsistent way in which the fundamentalist-reactionary element of the faction insists on training their children in this "natural" behaviour; the social construction camp ignores the wealth of evidence that indicates that certain biological differences with behavioural effects do exist, as well as the way in which gender identity, in particular, resists even the most persistent and overwhelming social pressure. Moreover, they both ignore how little we really know at this point about the human mind/brain.

What We Do Know

Starting with the painfully obvious, male and female bodies typically include different organs and organ systems, and have — to varying degrees — differences in body habitus. Moreover, the hormonal makeup generally differs along the lines of physical sex, with men predominantly producing testosterone and other androgens, and women predominantly producing oestrogens and progestins. Moreover, differences in brain structure and composition have been observed; women typically have more interneurones, which foster interconnection between different functional areas of the brain, as well as a larger corpus callosum (particularly the splenium)*, which connects the two cerebral hemispheres. Men tend to have greater brain weight, but this is largely due to non-CNS tissue, such as connective tissue.

Moving from structure to function, there are a few key observable differences that could reasonably be supposed to affect behaviour and lead to some degree of gender/sex-based difference in behavioural predispositions. For one thing, the electroencephalographically demonstrated brainwave patterns of men and women differ (based on studies conducted in patients undergoing cross-gender hormone replacement therapy, these brainwave patterns have been shown to be primarily hormonally based). Similarly, functional MRI and PET scans show that brain activity tends to distribute itself differently in men and women in reaction to identical stimuli: in men, metabolic activity is concentrated in the functional area of the brain most immediately relevant to the stimulus at hand, whereas women's brains distribute metabolic activity throughout various functional areas simultaneously. Moreover, these metabolic patterns also shift from the pattern typical of one sex to that typical of the other when the hormonal balance is shifted.

Here's the problem. As much as we're constantly learning about brain-behaviour relationships, there's much more that we know little or nothing about. Since the brain's only observable activity is electrical, it is not as easy to draw conclusions from observations of the brain as it is with the heart or the colon, where there is coordinated movement.

Because of that, we rely largely on serendipity for our attempts to relate brain activity to behavioural and other phenomena. Either we cause lesions on laboratory animals' brains, or we observe behavioural changes in patients with brain lesions. Unfortunately, there are plenty of confounding variables. One of the most notorious of these is the phenomenon of diaschisis, in which a lesion in one region of the brain leads to symptoms referrable to another region. Because of this, the study of the brain is even more provisional than science already is by definition.

Another common, and problematic, method of devising theories about gender and gendered behaviour is the use of evolutionary hypotheses. These generally read as follows: in prehistoric times, the men were primarily involved with hunting for food, while the women tended to gather edible plants and care for children. Because hunting was a much more wide-ranging activity, men gradually developed a directional sense appropriate to these sorts of activities, while women developed aptitudes more suited to their activities at the time. The problem with this means of developing hypotheses is not that it is necessarily incorrect; it most likely can be neither substantiated nor refuted. The problem is rather that our knowledge of prehistoric social relations is severely limited and highly speculative. Thus, the tendency is to interpolate from our understanding of current realities to arrive at theories about how things were in prehistoric times (based on what limited sources we have), and, based on what we surmise might have happened in prehistoric times, theorise about what effect what we think happened in prehistoric times might have on what we think are the current biological realities.

Lawyers call this bootstrapping. Since we necessarily interpolate based on our current understanding, the validity and usefulness of any evolutionary hypothesis is entirely dependent on how well we understand current psychobiological realities. Of course, our current understanding of psychobiology (whether related to gender or not) is still quite superficial. While we can certainly make internally consistent statements based on our current superficial understanding, internal consistency only matters to the extent that it correlates with something more solid. At our current level of understanding, evolutionary speculation provides more fodder for ideologues than for scientists.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Because our study of the brain is still quite a ways away from descriptive, let alone explanatory, adequacy, we have to confront the question of questions, literally. The most important question to be asking now is: What questions does it currently make sense to ask?

One question that it currently does not make sense to ask is:Nature or Nurture? While it seems rather reasonable to assume that the answer to that question will be, "some of both," we do not yet know enough about where human behaviour comes from to even ask the question in a meaningful way. It would seem better to take a minimalist approach.

One criterion for this approach would be that it not require excessive reliance on what we currently know or think we know about the human brain. It should rely on readily observable phenomena that are easily documented. Moreover, it should avoid asking too much at once — small steps, small inferences. In this respect, we might look at the path the study of universal grammar has taken.

One phenomenon that immediately comes to mind is that of gender identity. Gender identity — a person's consciousness of him/herself as male, female, or (in some cases) both/neither — is readily observable, due to the increasing openness with which it may be expressed in many societies. It has also been the subject of at least some scientific study. Moreover, the work of one of the leading members of the "social construction" faction sheds a great deal of light on the subject.

John Money was one of many in the mid- to late twentieth century who believed that the human mind is a tabula rasa when it comes to gender. A firm believer in human malleability, it was his position that gender, including gender identity, was learned behaviour with no innate basis. He found a perfect controlled experiment in the patient he dubbed John/Joan. John/Joan was born a healthy, anatomically unremarkable boy. However, in the course of his circumcision, his penis was severely damaged. Both in the interest of surgical convenience and based on Money's assertions, it was decided that John/Joan's damaged penis would be surgically converted into a vagina, and the boy would be raised as a girl called Brenda.

Following Money's advice, John/Joan's parents named him Brenda, and raised him in all aspects as a girl. Once he reached the age of puberty, he was (unbeknownst to him) given female hormones in order for him to develop female secondary sex characteristics. According to Money's published work on the case, "Brenda" grew to be a perfectly normal girl, who preferred stereotypically feminine clothing and activities over stereotypically masculine ones, and was quite happy as a girl.

Years later, a graduate student by the name of Milton Diamond came across the John/Joan study, and began to question the result. Like many who requested access or further information about "Brenda," he was told that none would be given in the interest of privacy. Diamond, however, continued his research on the case, and discovered one small flaw in Money's work:

It was all bullshit.

Well, not all of it. The botched circumcision and genital surgery parts were, in fact, true. However, that was about all that was true about Money's account of the John/Joan case. In reality, even Money's colleagues could clearly see how miserable "Brenda" was, and how much he resisted and hated all attempts to feminise him. When "Brenda"'s parents finally told him the truth, he decided immediately to put an end to the charade and began living as male, going by the name of David Reimer. When Diamond published his findings on the case, Money, once again demonstrating his famous scientific integrity, threatened legal action.

This case, and many others like it, demonstrate rather clearly the limits of human malleability. David Reimer was raised practically from birth as a girl. If, as social construction ideologues and John Money claim, not only gendered behaviour, but gender identity itself is learned, then cases like David Reimer's and those of many others whose gender identity does not correspond to their societal indoctrination, are simply unexplainable phenomena.

Also interesting is the only limited correlation between gender identity and gendered behaviour. In the year 2005, it is not hard to find plenty of stereotypically hyper-masculine lesbian women, who, despite stereotypically masculine mannerisms, tendencies, etc., nevertheless clearly identify as women. Similarly, there is a wide range of men with stereotypically feminine mannerisms, tendencies, etc., who nonetheless have no doubt that they are male. Certainly, these are two extremes, but they do clearly indicate that gender identity, whatever its origin, does not, without more, dictate behaviour.

An examination of gender identity as we currently know it makes it tempting to draw an analogy with another only vaguely understood human phenomenon: the language faculty. Based on the work done by Noam Chomsky and other linguists over the past few decades on universal grammar, it appears that the language faculty is a system that provides certain principles and parameters for human linguistic expression, no matter what the language. However, while it provides this structural framework for expression, it does not serve as a predictor for linguistic behaviour. For example, let's say that I'm walking up to the door of my neighbourhood café. As I approach the door, a man who is walking in in front of me opens the door, and stands aside for me to walk in first. There are potentially infinite possible linguistic responses to the gesture: I might smile and thank him; I might say "you know, I'm perfectly capable of opening the door myself"; or I might even say, "Would you happen to know what time it is?" The language faculty determines the structures within which these thoughts will be expressed, but it doesn't determine the content of what I'll say.

Sound familiar?

In both cases, we have systems that provide a certain framework, while at the same time not dictating what behaviour will occur within that framework. In both cases, we have systems that appear to be part of the human genetic endowment, and are present in some way or other in pretty much all people. With similarities like these, it seems reasonable enough to go all the way, and hypothesise that gender identity, like the language faculty, is an innate system of knowledge, a system with a very limited purpose, specifically, to provide the mind's answer to the question: "Are you a boy or a girl?"

* See, e.g., Sexual dimorphism in the human corpus callosum: its evolutionary and clinical implications. In G.H Sperber (ed.), From Apes to Angels: Essays in Anthropology in Honor of Phillip V. Tobias. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc., pps. 221-8. (independent study of callosal sexual dimorphism also citing various other studies reaching similar conclusions)