Monday, August 23, 2010

"Delusions of Gender"

Here's a review of a new book-length critique of pop "scientific" accounts of neurobiological pseudo-theories purporting to legitimate gender hierarchies. Of course, this has been a point emphasized by dozens of feminist theorists and activists already. But its refreshing to see some sharp push-back in the pop non-fiction genre against the proliferation of bullshit like this.


-sf said...

What I think is the problem here is when people bring their social world view to science. This goes both ways as empirically measured biological differences between the sexes are dismissed by sociologists who view gender as only a social construction. This of course is a logical push back to the "science" from the late 19th to early 20th century that sought to explain socially constructed gender "differences" through biology. I would not so readily dismiss the scientific facts that are presented in the "bullshit" article you linked to. Vasopressin and oxytocin are both correlated with complex HUMAN behavior and emotion like fidelity and love. Not only that but both hormones are EVOLUTIONARILY conserved. This is where the evidence is pretty strong: one study focused on two different species of voles with different mating strategies. One species is known for monogamous behavior while the other is polygamous. The monogamous voles have higher levels of vasopressin, and when non-monogamous voles are genetically modified to express vasopressin, they too exhibit monogamous behavior! Human behavior is just way too complex to dissect genetically, and no real scientist posits that there exists one gene=one behavior pathways in humans (have you heard of the "gay" fruit flies? knock out one gene and male flies start mounting each other), but these same genes are evolutionarily conserved in humans, and as the article you linked to points out, function similarly in humans. The real problem, that you get at, is when soft scientists and policy makers use hard science (sorry if I offend here ;) to support/refute their social theories. We're not in the business of doing that, and the real wrong here is committed by lay journalists who like to wrap complex experiments into tidy little newspaper articles. One thing I'd like to point out here is that some genetic determinist theories actually directly (and unintentionally) challenge the status quo. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests morality is an evolutionarily conserved adaptation. There are numerous studies looking at altruism in other animals that suggest that concepts like "right and wrong" are present in great apes and even some birds (a bird that doesn't respond to a warning call is not helped when making his/her own warning call). This is not only challenging to capitalists (we're actually hard-wired to be altruistic, not necessarily selfish) but also to religious institutions (very little "human" characteristics remain that are not also found in some animals).

t said...

"I would not so readily dismiss the scientific facts that are presented in the "bullshit" article you linked to."

I'm not dismissing facts, on the contrary, I'm claiming that the claims in the article are not supported by the facts. I'd be interested to know what you think of the arguments I laid out in the post I linked to, since I respond to some of the points you make at length there.

Gender is not a biological category. Sex can be cashed out in terms of biologically specifiable criteria, but gender is a concept that picks out non-biological properties (e.g. social expectations, norms, institutions, social relations, etc.).

Even the typical male/female binarism with respect to sex is not warranted by the biological data we have before us.

Check out the posts under the "sex" and "gender differences" tags if you're interested to know what I and other bloggers at pinkscare have to say about these sorts of issues-

-sf said...

I think the viewpoint you laid out in the link is largely correct: despite genetic predisposition to some set of behaviors, it is impossible to predict human behavior based solely on genetics. I tried to address your arguments in my original post, but probably didn't get to everything, since my main argument was that social scientists can also be guilty of coloring science with their world view (something hard science should always avoid) One point that I find quite interesting is this:
...WE ADAPT TO DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTS AND CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THOSE ENVIRONMENTS. That is, after all, what the content of evolutionary theory actually is: random mutations render certain organisms more fit in a particular environment, and if that environment changes, they may no longer be as fit, and hence, as favorably placed to reproduce. It is not as though the environment is "determined" by the genes themselves." (emphasis added)

First I'd like to make a distinction between slow evolutionary adaptation that you described, and the ability to survive in a changing environment which is a function of learning, etc. I would argue that for us and many other animals, the ability to adapt and change to certain environments is in itself genetically determined. That is, our ability to learn from our surroundings and to adapt to changes in our environment is a function of our genes. Learning, memory, and social behavior are controlled by our genes (in VERY complex ways that no one claims to fully understand) and these traits are what has allowed us to survive in societies as diverse as hunter/gatherer to industrialized societies. Again the evidence here is from studying our ape cousins, as well as human genetic disorders that control this (autism). If social intelligence is controlled by genetics, I don't think its too far of a stretch to postulate that some social structures are a result of our genetic predisposition. You can see evidence of this in hierarchical social structures, of baboons for example. Before you get all miffed about me reinforcing power structures, I'll throw in an interesting caveat: hierarchical social structures in baboons are socially learned! There was a baboon troupe where for some reason all the dominant males died off (first-born syndrome? they got all the bad meat?). This troupe's social hierarchies shifted to where the "friendly males" (the ones that help raise the babies) were preferentially selected by the females for mating, as opposed to dominant males (the big colorful ones). Even more, when baboons from other troupes would join this one, they quickly learned what qualities mattered the most -ie helping raise babies, not beating up your competition. I don't think there's an example of this from chimps and bonobos, our closest cousins, but my point here is that if our closely related cousins form social hierarchies in similar ways as we do (and can adapt to new ones!), I don't think its too far of a stretch to say that this behavior is genetically predisposed. What hierarchies we're predisposed to is certainly not clear, but the fact that in every social animal there are winners and losers as far as getting some is concerned means that there must be some sort of genetic basis for this, and being a winner/loser is not always (but often) socially constructed. (in other words, "macho" dudes being sexually desirable may or may not be a matter of genetic predisposition on the part of women wanting to bang macho dudes). Of course ethologists aren't out there trying to reinforce the gender binary, but if evidence seems to support (or refute) the gender binary, its dangerous for sociologists to dismiss the facts that challenge their world view.

-sf said...

And finally on gender and sex. I’m fully aware of the distinction between sex and gender ( Its only in reproduction (as opposed to just banging) that the binary is important, and in this regard sex IS genetically determined. Ethologists often have a hard time determining who is male and who is female in animal studies, so they picked one reproducible criteria: females produce larger, and generally fewer gametes than males. In order to produce eggs, females need two X chromosomes (no more no less) and to produce sperm males need a Y chromosome (actually a single gene makes you male!) as well as only one X. Everybody else (XO, XXY, XXX) is technically neither male nor female when it comes to sexual reproduction since they are usually sterile. In essence sexual reproduction requires a binary, and anyone outside the binary is an evolutionary dead end (as oppressive as that sounds).