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What Makes Us- a response to Jordan-Young

rachelr's picture

        In my first web event I wrote about the medical treatment of “gayness,” looking at both how different groups have tried to “fix” homosexuality and how the different structures in the brain work and might affect how neurotransmitters play a role in our sexual selection. In this web event I am going to continue with this idea and also respond to the selections we read from Rebecca M. Jordan-Young’s book “Brain Storm.” Having not read the entire book, my conversation will be based on what I did read: the Preface, Chapter One, and Chapter Ten. 

         Evolutionarily, for a species to survive it is crucial that reproduction occurs. In the various chapters we read from Roughgarden’s “Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People” we learned that other species show homosexual behavior, that not all species need genital contact between a male and a female to produce offspring, and there are many species whose gender roles are reversed from the “norms” defined in our society today. And something has to be telling all species to reproduce. That basic response to life is based primarily on biology; this means that its not society that’s saying to reproduce, and its not really life experiences either. Something is hardwired into us, telling us to have sex and to do so to produce offspring. For humans, that means a male and a female. Following from this, if we need to produce to survive, then evolutionarily males need to be attracted to females and vice versa. So evolutionarily, male/female attraction would be favored.

        As we know, while male/female attraction is perhaps favored, it is not as simple as that. Male and female are not the only gender binaries, and male/male and female/female attraction often displaces the evolutionary norm. This means that the response to reproduce is “overridden” by a choice of what is pleasurable. On page 271, Jordan-Young writes,

“ The three key concepts are the inseparability of experience and heredity, the importance of random events, and the fact that development is a lifelong process. Outcomes in the cognitive domain, in particular, are always contingent, rather than ultimate.”

This, out of all that I read of “Brain Storm,” struck and resonated with me most, but it was also a thought I was most disappointed in because I feel that Jordan-Young did not follow through with it. I couldn’t agree more with the above excerpt; no one factor can control anything and the three above (heredity, experience, and random events) all fit together to form the self, and sexuality is a prime expression of self. One of the reasons that I was most disappointed in Jordan-Young was that she came up with many ways that different ideas about biological mechanisms that might play a role in sexuality DON’T work. While I can appreciate the importance of informing and “debunking” common misconceptions about what contribute to sexuality, setting up road blocks like that only gets you so far. I want to hear about what might work.

            Testosterone levels and early exposure isn’t the answer to differences in sexual preference (4). Money tried to act upon his research that suggested that gender is flexible and determined by early socialization and failed (6). There is evidence that “suggest[s] that sexuality is fundamentally contextual, rather than comprising a universal set of desires, sensations, and acts” (14), but also “the influence of biological variables that we think of as “sex-linked” almost certainly plays a role in the overall iterative-and-looping process of development” (290). It’s almost like Jordan-Young is contradicting herself: first biology (heredity) and hormones play a role in sexual orientation, and now suddenly environment is the “broadest” piece of the puzzle of sexuality (272) and both era (282) and place of origin (280) factor into development. Do I agree that average heights differ along geographic gradients? Sure. Can I agree that more women are entering into the sciences and graduating college? Yes. Height differences can be explained by nutrition and lifestyle; more women entering the workforce, college, and the sciences can be explained by a shift in society. So following from this, can we just say that there are more gender differences and sexual orientations because society has become more accepting of differences and people are more open about their sexuality? Well maybe more people “come out” because of this but I don’t think that people, or more people, develop different sexualities because they can.

       In an article I found entitled “Sex, Sexual Orientation and Sex Hormones Influence Human Cognitive Function,” the author, Kimua, states in the conclusion that,

“Cognitive profile varies consistently with sex, albeit with substantial overlap between men and women… Studies relating cognitive pattern to sexual orientation report more consistent findings on a real-world targeting task than on paper- and-pencil spatial tests.”

       What I find great about this in comparison to other articles or excerpts that we’ve read is that she acknowledges that there is “substantial overlap between men and women.” Usually authors mention that men and women have varying levels of testosterone and that some women have equal levels of testosterone as some men, or even higher levels, but ignore this when they lay down the cold, hard gender binaries of male and female. And not only does Kimura mention this overlap in her conclusion but she also includes sexual orientation. In addition (and I am restraining myself from quoting the entire paper),

“The evidence from structural brain differences between the sexes, sex hormone influences, and similarities in      sex differences across cultures, combine to suggest that men's and women' s brains are to a significant extent wired differently from the start. Nevertheless, environmental influences must interact with diverse predispositions to produce large variation within each sex; and in the larger comparative context, the similarities between human males and females far outweigh the differences… Hormones secreted by the gonads are known to exert potent effects on behavior. During critical periods early in the life of mammals, androgens and their metabolites organize the brain to produce lifelong, irreversible effects on a variety of re- productive and non-reproductive sexually dimorphic behaviors ("organizational" influences).”

          The paper goes on to talk about varying hormone levels in women depending on the time in their menstrual cycle and varying hormone levels in men during different seasons, consistently changing how they preformed on spatial and non-spatial tasks. Jackpot. Environment and development play a role in sexuality, but so do hormones, and here are some biological structures that may contribute to that. No definites, but there are suggestions that take into account more than one variable.

            While I was interested by what we read of Jordan-Young and liked the direction of where I thought she was headed based on the preface, I ended the readings with disappointment. I didn’t feel invited to partake in the conversation regarding sexuality because I didn’t feel that any options were presented and left open for me to consider except the random combination of development in an environment and random experiences, both of which you can’t control for in humans. And since it can’t be controlled for, how much further can you go with it? Perhaps I would have come away with a different feeling had I read the entire book, but as is, I feel that she failed venture into the possibilities of future research and understandings of the biology behind sexuality. 


Kaye's picture

entangling experience, heredity, and randomness

Although I appreciate that you “want to hear about what might work,” I don't think that is possible with the current state of biological research on sexual orientation.  Although Jordan-Young did a nice job of illustrating how one could explain the variation in phenotype of seven different Achillea genotypes grown at different altitudes by considering Norms of Reaction (NOR), Achillea is not Homo sapiens, or a primate, or a vertebrate, or even an animal. However, these experiments on plants do provide is a theoretical framing for thinking about variation in life forms.  Knowing of your interest in biology, I hope you will think about how you might design experiments to understand how heredity, experience and random events intra-act with each other to produce sexuality.

I’m somewhat puzzled by your conclusion that “since (the random combination of development in an environment and random experiences) can’t be controlled for, how much further can you go with it?”  I’d be interested in hearing more about what you would like to control, and for what purposes.  Were you hoping to extend your first web event and have a clearer understanding of how to develop a pharmaceutical or therapy to canalize or change sexual orientation?

I’d also be interested in reading the study by Kimura that you reference, and I hope that you would post the citation for that article.  When was it published?  Does it include data missing in Jordan-Young’s analysis?  From the excerpts you provided, I appreciate how s/he acknowledges the significant intersex overlap in traits, while not dismissing that there are differences between males and females.  (Jordan-Young also highlights such overlaps and differences, but you seem to be much more critical of her argument than of Kimura’s.)

You write, "And something has to be telling all species to reproduce. That basic response to life is based primarily on biology; this means that its not society that’s saying to reproduce, and its not really life experiences either."  I agree with you that there must be a biological drive to reproduce for species to have persisted.  However, that does not negate the possibility that society can also play a role for humans and other social animals.  And, if “evolutionarily, male/female attraction would be favored,” this does not mean that attraction would be exclusively male/female.  Be more careful not to simplify Jordan-Young’s argument.  (“Do I agree that average heights differ along geographic gradients? Sure. (…) Height differences can be explained by nutrition and lifestyle.”)  However, height differences are more complex that merely nutrition and lifestyle.  Throughout the chapters of Brainstorms, which we asked you to read, Jordon-Young acknowledged that genetic factors are at play, and that some of them may have different effects on males and females. 

 And one final thought as you think more about how the “…three above (heredity, experience, and random events) all fit together to form the self, and sexuality is a prime expression of self.”  It might be interesting to consider Barad’s ideas of entanglement and diffraction with these three factors.  Taking into account random events, differential gene expression over time, changing social environments and our abilities to learn new behaviors, there is no single self, but one that can adapt and change.