• The gender binary is not the problem

    Modified work by Arthur Shlain from the Noun Project.
    Modified work by Arthur Shlain from the Noun Project.

    The expression comes up in every social justice-flavored discussion of gender norms, roles and sexuality. These aren’t topics I ordinarily write about, but the thinking or speaking on them seems a bit muddled in the discourse and a critical glance might be helpful.

    How do people reason about gender?
    It is often claimed¹ ² that people possessed of regressive views and maybe sexist slant conceive of gender as a rigid binary of manly men and womanly women (with attendant heterocity) and nary shall lay in between. Thus, they may find assertiveness in a woman or tears from a man inappropriate. Even the more moderate individuals might (consciously or non) expect stereotypical traits and behaviors of people and double-take in their violation. There are sexist and backward attitudes, and many people do hold to stereotypical views. However, this is not logically described as adhering to a “binary” view.

    When things are binary, like the 0’s and 1’s in computer-ese, that thing has only one of two possible values. 0 or 1. There is no other possible description, nothing in between, no intermediates. A person who conceived of humans according to a gender binary would be precluded from sexism as described above because every person could only be recognized as definitely man or woman. “Sort of man” would be undefined and incoherent, like asking a computer to understand 0’s, 1’s and “0-ish”. Human psychological traits are usually analog. There is a range of possible degrees and values. One color can be redder than another, but a zero can’t be one-r than other zeros. People actually construe gender not as a binary, but as a conceptual polarity.

    Genders, how do they work?
    People think of gender more like magnets. There are two poles, not one, or three or twenty, but your compass needle might be slightly more north-facing than someone else’s. Now you may say A ha! but the gender polarity is the problem. People should not subscribe to this wrong-headed idea! But that isn’t right either; gender really does seem to be a polarity in humans, and in any case, is not the basis of the social problems of discrimination and injustice.

    Why do genders exist?
    Our species has two gametic sexes. Some of us make eggs, some make sperm. Sex is different from gender, but to tell the gender story we have to start with the sexes. It is no foregone conclusion why sexual reproduction evolved, but the best ideas so far are that it affords resistance against pathogens and parasites by shuffling our immuno-locks and keys each generation. It also affords some protection against harmful mutations and recessive traits because you have two copies of every gene. The first sexually reproducing organisms had a big problem: mitochondrial baggage. Mitochondria produce the molecules that power most cellular activity, but they are also like cells themselves with their own DNA and double-membrane. When two cells procreatively merge and both bring mitochondria, each mitochondrial team will, via natural selection, compete against the other. After all, they have DNA and reproduce.

    This is a big problem because no self-respecting cell has its own organelles duking it out, like one lung fighting the other. The solution was simple: unilateral disarmament. One parent’s gamete did away with its mitochondria while the other retained them. The former were therefore cheaper to produce and smaller. The parent producing them was, therefore, investing less per gamete than the other. Unequal minimum investment in offspring means there variance in strategies for evolutionary success, necessitating matching variance in behaviors. The sexes and eventually, the foundation of genders resulted from this ancient happenstance. For a biologist, “male” ordinarily is defined as the contributor of the smaller of the gametes and female as the large. In many species, there is no other way to decide about sex.

    As Robert Trivers spelled out in his Parental Investment Theory, investment does not end with the production of gametes but can also include incubation, protecting, rearing, feeding, and teaching. Gendered behaviors do not then flow merely from gamete size, but from typical relative investment in offspring. So it is that females can be aggressive, dominant, and promiscuous and males can be choosy and reserved (when their minimal investment is higher than females). Animals have proto-gender roles that follow from the economics of their mating system and ecology. Although human sexuality is unique in its complexity and arguably, its evolved purposes, Homo sapiens is no less beholden to realities of mating economics and ecology. Even if we were, our ancestors certainly were not.

    That fact by itself doesn’t prove much about human biopsychological sex differences. One can find mammals in which offspring investment is similar enough that both physical and behavioral sexual dimorphism is relatively low (see prairie voles and gibbons). There’s nothing about evolution per se that insists humans should be more like harem-holding silverback gorillas than monogamous gibbons or for that matter, pregnancy-prone male Sea Horses. Each species owes whatever disposition it has to its history, and so do we.

    Polar bares
    Humans have two sexes and can be described as having two polar genders. Now here one may interject, what about intersex, trans or asexual people? I say, what of them? The features they possess all fall on ordinary ranges of behavior and dispositions. The representational flaw here is not that gender is binary, but that minds are unitary. Consider physical sex differences that nobody questions are statistically true about male and female humans: size, upper body strength, genitals, breasts, facial hair, fat distribution, etc.., But these each vary across individuals. Some men don’t grow facial hair, or have female-typical height. Therefore, none of these (polar) features alone can establish your physical sex, even in the eyes of the most regressive sexist. Rather, stereotypical physical male or femaleness is a statistical lean one way or the other across many individual traits.

    Our psychology seems to be similar. We’re collections of traits that can vary independently of each other, even if statistically they tend to lean together one way or another and we label those leans masculine and feminine. People not apparently conforming to these leans are not some new gender with qualitatively different features because each trait still falls on the same range of values as everyone else, it just doesn’t match the socially expected collective lean direction. They might be statistically unusual, but the unusual has to happen quite a lot because there’s 7,300 million of us.

    The real problem isn’t how many genders we have or what we think those genders ought to be— we really do agree there are many races (and subdivisions of races) without this preventing people from hating one or more of them. And like racism, the trouble lies in folks cordoning off the fat part of a bell curve and deciding anyone outside of it doesn’t get respect, consideration, or human decency. We’re unlikely to correct such bigotry by denying facts about psychology or legislating social norms with contrived, incoherent vocabulary. My opinion is that, instead, we face it directly and simply: human beings who can think, suffer, strive, and love all deserve the same regard, the same dignity, and the same consideration regardless of the uniqueness of their personal constellation of features or its remoteness from anyone’s expectations. It makes no difference whatsoever what humans are like in aggregate.

    In the bargain we may dispense with unhelpful bickering about nature and nurture and how many gender categories and what to call them. The simple moral observation above makes these considerations needless in a discussion about rights and dignity.

    Category: Critical ThinkingEvolutionary Psychologypsychologyskepticismsocial justice

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.

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    • Jeff Pinner

      I must agree with your conclusion, but find a single fault with your opinion as stated in the second last paragraph. The clause “human beings who can think, suffer, strive, and love all deserve the same regard” may be just a bit more restrictive than you intend, sir, as many with human genes seem to get through their lives without the ability to think. I’m sorry, but I can’t just write it off to our educational system’s inability to teach critical thinking. A whole lot of these folks seem to be, in Archie Bunker’s terms, “meatheads”. I know that they deserve every human consideration, but your criteria would seem to leave them on the outside.

      • I am sure you are being sarcastic, but barring diagnosible disorder, all humans can think, even ones we disagree with.

        • jg29a

          Not sure if this is exactly Jeff’s point there, but surely an argument against categorically assigning different worth on the basis of sex (or race, etc.) doesn’t necessarily depend upon a premise of universally equal worth? Being an extreme elitist on the basis of intelligence or productivity or beauty or sociability is surely crazy, but isn’t there a rational case to be made that *some* personal discrimination on the basis of such characteristics is morally valid?

          • The only reason I used the words “who can think” is as part of a description of human beings. There is no rational case to be made that some humans don’t deserve basic human rights or moral valuation because of their metered position along some value like IQ, no.

            • jg29a

              I agree. But in the sentence I was referring to, you didn’t use the adjective “basic”; you used “same”:

              “My opinion is that, instead, we face it directly and simply: human beings who can think, suffer, strive, and love all deserve the same regard, the same dignity, and the same consideration regardless of the uniqueness of their personal constellation of features or its remoteness from anyone’s expectations.”

              “Dignity” is perhaps understood as a very basic set of respectful behaviors that doesn’t scale up very far, so I can see it being equally applied to all people. “Regard” and “consideration” are very different. People organizing, competing in, or watching MMA, a Miss America pageant, or indeed virtually any Hollywood film, are expressing increased regard for certain types of males and females. I wouldn’t call them immoral — even though the widespread support of such things conveys major financial and social advantages to people with some traits rather than others.

              My argument is that we ought to be careful about basing a defense of universal rights, and the protection of minorities from abuse, upon warm-fuzzy exhortations to value everyone equally, which, when translated into concrete examples, become ludicrous.

            • I was speaking about political rights and moral worth, not resumes.

    • Edward Gemmer

      Good stuff

    • Karmakin

      Good piece, the big caveat I’d give is that when talking about psychological traits, even though we tend to lean one direction or another, I think most people have traits that are non-comforming”. It just doesn’t show up because I might have one trait, you might have another, someone else has another and so on.

      I think we’re a lot more individualistic than we normally think.

      • That’s part of what I was trying to express using the physical examples.Virtually nobody is maximally masculine or feminine for every dimorphic trait. Yet, we don’t think Tom Cruise is unmanly when we learn he is very short.

        But it bears saying, perhaps, all of us have psychological traits with values that are typical of the opposite gender. It’s wrong to think of these as “man” or “woman” traits because none are that specific. Personally, I think it’s great. It makes humans so delightfully unique and interesting.

    • Guestus Aurelius

      Few would argue that our species has two gametic sexes. Some of
      us make eggs, some sperm. Sex is different from gender, but to tell the
      gender story we have to start with the sexes. It is no foregone
      conclusion why sexual reproduction evolved, but the best ideas so far
      are that it affords resistance against pathogens and parasites (by
      shuffling our immuno-locks and keys each generation) and it affords some
      protection against harmful mutations and recessive traits. The first
      sexually reproducing organisms had a big problem: mitochondrial baggage.
      Mitochondria produce the molecules that power most cellular activity,
      but they are also like cells themselves with their own DNA and
      double-membrane. When two cells procreatively merge and both bring
      mitochondria, each mitochondrial team will, via natural selection,
      compete against the other. After all, they have DNA and reproduce.

      This is a big problem because no self-respecting cell has its own
      organelles duking it out, like one lung fighting the other. The solution
      was simple: unilateral disarmament. One parent’s gamete did away with
      its mitochondria while the other retained them. The former were
      therefore cheaper to produce and smaller. The parent producing them was
      therefore investing less per gamete than the other. Unequal minimum
      investment in offspring means there variance in strategies for
      evolutionary success, necessitating matching variance in behaviors. The
      sexes and eventually, the foundation of genders resulted from this
      ancient happenstance. For a biologist, “male” ordinarily is defined as
      the contributor of the smaller of the gametes and female as the large.
      In many species there is no other way to decide about sex.

      We could have used your help last year in the comments section of this thread: http://freethoughtblogs.com/hetpat/2014/02/21/is-gender-inherently-oppressive/

      (Brace yourself. Better yet, just don’t follow the link.)

      • Never french fry when you should pizza.

        • Guestus Aurelius

          Hehe.

          The discussion was actually pretty calm on the whole.

          Reasonable?

          Suffice it to say that after a few hundred comments, our prolific interlocutor remained unconvinced that Homo sapiens has two sexes.

          • I don’t read or know anything about that particular blog. I suppose I run the risk of having a similar exchange here; them’s the breaks.

            • Guestus Aurelius

              Oh, just to be clear: the “prolific interlocutor” in question was a commenter, not the blogger.

            • Fair enough. Still, I won’t be going out of my way to visit the blog. If said commenter, or whomever, wishes to come here and discuss it they are welcome to.

    • Josh

      The issue isn’t that people believe in (or attack) a gender polarity, so much as apparently commonsense folk passively sexist notions, i.e. woman as somehow the opposite of man, or derivative of man and is lesser or not the “original” gender (going back of course to Genesis, but this has currency in secular culture too), and the metaphysical interpretation of language: That there are two genders called male and fe-male, and not a hundred thousand unique places within. As such, we have a tendency to reify descriptions like masculine/feminine and put too much stock in them.

      A corollary of the fact that genders are not essences is the realisation that noone is in fact “manly” or “womanly” because there is no single binary gender universal from which such descriptions could derive.

      It’s worth pointing out also that our understanding of biological sex is already gendered right from the start, yet the existence of intersex people makes this untenable, because a variety of factors are used (not just one) for medically determining the biological sex of infants (Chromosomes, primary and secondary sex characteristics, hormone levels etc).

      Because there is no actual boundary at the point where a person turns into a male or a female, it is the linguistic dualism of male/female that is the problem, and still conditions the mindsets of all gendered descriptions which attempt to pin people down based on how closely they conform to a gender ideal.

      • Well, nobody attacks a gender polarity because nobody has ever used that idea besides me, as far as I know.

        A corollary of the fact that genders are not essences is the realisation that noone is in fact “manly” or “womanly” because there is no single binary gender universal from which such descriptions could derive.

        I don’t think this is correct or why you use the term binary gender when I’ve explained that nobody conceptualizes gender using binary logic. The fact that we can and do categorize things, including gender, using statistical resemblance to a hypothetical exemplar does not mean the categories aren’t real. It simply specifies what categories are, and they what they are not: pristine, absolutisms like “a triangle is a shape with 3 sides”. It’s like saying red and orange are the same color because you can’t pinpoint some absolute hue value that serves as a pristine boundary. On examination, almost no categories have such boundaries (consider species, gene, or mammal).

        It’s worth pointing out also that our understanding of biological sex is already gendered right from the start, yet the existence of intersex people makes this untenable, because a variety of factors are used (not just one) for medically determining the biological sex of infants (Chromosomes, primary and secondary sex characteristics, hormone levels etc)

        Secondary sex characteristics are not used to determine the sex of infants because they appear during adolescence. I am not sure why it is a problem to use a variety of factors. That seems sensible to me, as opposed to just one, such as visual description. I also do not see anything wrong with gendering in this case, in the sense that tentative expectations follow statistically probable guides. Intersex individuals are extremely low prevalence, and if you factor out conditions detectable using genetic, chromosomal, and other methods, the remaining number of unidentifiably intersex infants is an extremely small number of births.

        This does not mean we should impose roles on any of them, it means we’d be sensible to rely on sound, fact-based expectations until those individuals can express their own preferences and identities.

        Because there is no actual boundary at the point where a person turns into a male or a female, it is the linguistic dualism of male/female that is the problem,

        But that isn’t a problem, not in language or otherwise. This is part of what I am trying so hard to relate. There are no hard boundaries in this mode of categorization, but it’s very standard human cognition (see exemplar theory). It’s not a bug, its a feature, and the feature works very well in spite of insistence by you and others that it doesn’t.
        We are confronted regularly with intermediates and hybrids and so forth of objects and aspects of people that do not stymie our understanding or destroy the usefulness of the categories that they resist. It’s extremely easy to understand a person from Korea and Canada could have a child and that child will have some intermediate features of the dissimilar-looking parents without our very idea of “typical Korean/Canadian” features being destroyed or leading to inevitable hatred and fear. 1. There would still remain clear, if probabilistic, differences between the two peoples and 2. Among xenophobic bigots, their fear and hate will not be erased because we did away with categories like “ethnically XYZ” because that is not the cause. The cause is, among other things, antipathy toward the dissimilar, the outgroup, or the unusual.

    • thesteelguy

      Thank you for this piece! This certainly puts the debate to rest. If at a gamete level, these differences eventually cause the differences to become archetypes of masculinity and femininity at a multicell organism level.

    • mike4ty4

      “In the bargain we may dispense with bickering about nature and nurture
      and how many gender categories and what to call them. The simple moral
      observation above makes these considerations needless in a discussion
      about rights and dignity.”

      So isn’t the way to stop the bickering just to allow everyone to identify with whatever gender category they please and accept that? If they want to say “man”, they can say “man”. If they want to say “woman”, they can say “woman”. If they want to say “trans-X”, they can say “trans-X”. Same for “gender-queer”, etc. and if they want to use a pronoun “xyr” to refer to themselves, why not? Whether gender is in genes, culture, or both, both genes & culture are quite variable and that seems the only good way to respect that variability.

      • I think people use these expressions because they feel slighted, marginalized, and attacked- and they are. I think the better long-term strategy is to make them unnecessary by making a society where they don’t feel marginalized and slighted.

        In the meantime, I think we should be as accommodating as possible, as compassion requires. However, we must also uphold our respect for the truth and where the scientific evidence lies. Facts about psychology will not bend.

        • mike4ty4

          “However, we must also uphold our respect for the truth and where the
          scientific evidence lies. Facts about psychology will not bend.”

          But what does that imply about the structure of society in this regard?

          • That we must politely dissent and have room for that in venues of discourse and policy.

    • tzioneretz

      We lived quite happily with women and men for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Now all of a sudden we have five sexes and fifteen “genders.” Give me a break. People simply live too well nowadays and are bored out of their minds. Then there is the inexorable inflation of pseudoacademics who are under relentless pressure to publish somewhere, anywhere!, any junk they can think of. The two create the perfect storm: Ever more preposterous ideas are being dreamed up by people desperately seeking relevance for themselves and those ideas gain a semblance of academic imprimatur. Hence the trans-this and the inter-that.

      If Rachel Dolezal can be “black” and if feminists’ main campaign now is affirmative action for emojis, then I hereby declare myself to be a trans-queer, inter-species, pansexual, cis-normative dolphin. I dare you to tell me I’m not!!!

      Puh-lease. You’re a man or you’re a woman, based on what’s between your legs. Yes, sometimes it’s not clear what’s between your legs; at other times what’s between your legs does not correspond to what’s in your head. Both cases are EXTREMELY rare and very easily remedied, and there is entirely no need to create an entire selfserving industry out of it. Now go get a real job and raise a family; that should preoccupy you sufficiently to stop coming up with all this sex and “gender” nonsense.

      • I don’t think people take up bad ideas like the gender binary because they are bored or attention seeking. I think most of them mean well, and are motivated by the real hate and discrimination they suffer. LGBT individuals who might not conform to norms of gender face violence, prejudice, disemployment, and being disowned from their own families to name just a few. One reason I wrote this was to help strengthen the cause to reduce these injustices.

        • Michael L.S.

          “LGBT” individuals–which, let’s face it, really only means the T part because hardly anybody has problems with the LGB part anymore–make up a minuscule proportion of the population. Sure, campaign against prejudice (although in many cases it’s a matter of mental illness) but don’t shove it down people’s throats or insist wide-ranging changes to public policy be instituted on their supposed behalf.

          I mean, what, we’re now going to have THREE bathrooms? And what once the Ts are no longer deemed big enough “victims” to merit attention and “struggle”? We’re going to be hectares about the prejudice of those who identify as dolphins and trees? Special bathrooms for the trans-species!

          Give me a break.

          These professional activists need to get a real job.

          • “LGBT” individuals–which, let’s face it, really only means the T part because hardly anybody has problems with the LGB part anymore

            This isn’t true at all. Homosexuals still face a great deal of prejudice, whether you personally experience this or not. A mere 64% of the US even supports their right to marry. And that’s just the tip of the social pathology ice berg. I am a straight/cis man and I have had my masculinity questioned based on what I ordered at a restaurant! Men in our society sometimes fear to show emotion, sensitivity, vulnerability, affection for other men, or to express themselves with fashion as they may prefer because of backward, regressive and bigoted views of gender norms.

            but don’t shove it down people’s throats or insist wide-ranging changes to public policy be instituted on their supposed behalf.

            Who is doing that? This discussion is about good and bad arguments, better and worse conceptions of the causes of this particular social pathology. If you want to grind your ax about activism you disprefer, do it somewhere more appropriate.

            I mean, what, we’re now going to have THREE bathrooms?

            Who are you addressing? Who has suggested this? What has this to do with our discussion here about how people parse gender? Please confine your remarks to those relevant to this discussion.

            • Michael L.S.

              Biologically, a person is either male or female. Sure, in their head a man may think he’s a woman, or king Henry VIII, or an antelope, or a tulip, or a combination of the antecedent. That is called mental illness. Now, if such a man WANTS to have a “gender” reassignment surgery or live his life as a transsexual, transracial, transabled, transspecies creature, so be it. This is America. But do NOT demand that my tax dollars be used to implement public policy to accommodate that man and do NOT persecute and prosecute me for having an opinion about it.

              P.S.
              “I have had my masculinity questioned based on what I ordered at a restaurant”
              It seems you need thicker skin, pal. Given your statements (that, plus the “social pathology ice berg,” the “I am a […] cis man,” the “[men should] show emotion, sensitivity, vulnerability, affection for other men, or to express themselves with fashion,” and the “backward, regressive and bigoted views of gender norms”), it is clear you are a beta, not alpha, male. That’s okay–so am I, for the most part–but do not disparage those who do not subscribe to your views. The two sexes (and yes, that are only two) are not equal. Neither is on the whole superior to the other but they do differ: Men and women do have individual and collective strengths and weaknesses, and pretending otherwise is why folks like you are laughed at and get called “cucks.”

            • I am sorry, you are a deeply ignorant person. Denying that gender is as biological as sex and can be a mental illness reminds me of the time when homosexuality was also considered a mental illness by a society who was insecure and uncomfortable with it. Carving the male landscape into “alphas” and “betas” and calling people cucks is deeply silly and indicative of emotional stunting that can’t be remedied in a comment thread like this one. Please do not comment here again.

            • Michael L.S.

              “Denying that gender is as biological as sex”
              Yes, I do deny it because there is no evidence for it. When you show me the gene(s) that determine(s) “gender” I’ll change my mind. Until then, I consider it, and will continue considering it, hot air at best.

              P.S. “Alpha” and “beta” males are empirical truths. Some are leaders, some are followers.

              P.P.S. “Please do not comment here again.”
              I will comment wherever I please. It’s a free country. If you can’t handle it, go to your little echo-chamber “safe space.”

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