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Biology, Sex, and Gender

What Biology Has to Contribute to Thinking
About Sex and Gender: Some Suggestions
8 September 2009
(see below for an earlier iteration)
"Affirming diversity is hard, very hard" ... Joan Roughgarden, Evolution's Rainbow
Science/biology = a source of new observations and new "stories,"  ways of making sense of observations
Not "True" nor authoritative but useful for individuals, groups, both in going beyond existing understandings?
  • diversity is a ubiquitous characteristic of living organisms, including humans
  • diversity reflects genes, sexual reproduction, development, individual experience, culture (group stories), and individual choice
  • neither sex nor gender are well-defined/invariant categories in the non-human biological world 
  • both sex and gender are human created categories, "stories," that predate science/biology and are advantageous to some, disadvantageous to others
  • there is significant variation in both individual and cultural stories about sex/gender


  • diversity is a problem, a failure to achieve the norm or "ideal" - it should be reduced
  • diversity is a virtue, a necessity to be prepared for/create a constantly changing future - it should be encouraged
  • why do we have sex/gender categories, individually and culturally?
  • in what ways have they been useful?
  • do we want to continue to use them in those ways?  are they useful in new ways?  would it be better to replace them with .... ?  to get rid of them? individually?  culturally?

Your thoughts ...

8 September 2008 
Biology, like all science, is a story, a way of making sense of observations that in turn opens new possibilities and new questions. As such, it can provide observations and perspectives useful for further thinking about any subject, sex and gender included. Remember though that, at all times, science is not about about "Truth" or "facts." Science is about observations and stories that summarize them in an assailable way and, in so doing, it may suggest new ways of making sense of things and new ways of further exploring them.
Sex and gender are not matters of fact.
They are subjects of exploration and grist for innovation.
Human beings are biological entities. Cultures derive from interactions of human beings with each other, with human artifacts, with other living things, and with the non-living world. Among other things, cultures create collective stories that differ to varying degrees from the stories of individuals. Individuals both contribute to and influence cultural stories.
Sex and gender are components of the stories of individuals as well as of cultures.
In both cases, they are influenced by genes but not determined by them.
In both cases they in turn influence gene frequencies in a variety of ways,
among them by influencing mating behavior.
Humans, like other organisms, are characterized by a high degree of diversity, and are continually changing over individual life times. Aspects of sex and gender characteristics are influenced by genes, by complex interactions during development including external factors such as hormones, by environmental and other cultural factors, and by personal choices. Hence in terms of most characteristics individuals vary along a continuum. In addition, most characteristics can vary independently of one another.

Genes influence but do not determine sex/gender

Different parts of the body, including the brain, respond somewhat independently to a variety of influences, hormones among them.

Different parts of the body, including the brain, influence one another.

Sex and gender are both social constructions rather than biological invariants.

The cultural story that males and females represent two discrete categories is inconsistent with contemporary biological stories. Simply because of independent variation of characteristics, there are at least sixteen different forms of human defined in terms of a combination of anatomical appearance, social identification, mate preference, and self-identification. With additional characteristics and continuous variation included, it is unlikely that any two people are identical in terms relevant to thinking about sex/gender. While the human population is to some degree bimodal with regard to some characteristics relevant to sex/gender, it remains to be determined whether it is in actually bimodal with regard to any reasonably large set of such characteristics. The degree to which there is any significant bimodality that is consistent across individual lifetimes is also an open question.
Many cultural stories treat sex as serving only a reproductive function. In biological stories, there is a clear dissociation: reproduction can occur without sex and sex serves important functions other than reproduction (image). Among these is genetic recombination, which in turn contributes importantly to diversity.
Sex (and gender?) play important roles in biological evolution and human culture above and beyond their contributions to biological offspring.
The biological stories in turn raise some interesting questions about cultural and individual stories:
  • Why do some cultural stories group humans into two mutually exclusive categories?
  • Why do some individual stories group humans into two mutually exclusive categories?
  • Why do some cultural stories array humans along a single female -> male spectrum?
  • Why do some individual stories array humans along a single female -> male spectrum?
  • Would it be desireable to change cultural stories to bring them more into line with biological ones?
  • What are the implications of the biological stories for the current distinction between sex and gender?
  • What are the implications of the biological stories for feminism?
  • What are the implications of the biological stories for women's institutions, such as Bryn Mawr?


Discussion (see also on-line forum below)




Paul Grobstein's picture


For discussion and my own thoughts following session in this year's core course in Gender and Sexuality, see Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Paul Grobstein's picture

Biology/Sex/Gender - PG thoughts

After presentation/discussion in Critical Feminist Studies class, what struck me, for my own thinking and anyone else's uses ...

Two general parallel points seemed particularly important. There is no opposition between biology and culture; culture emerges from biology and the two reciprocally influence each other Similarly, there is not opposition between mind and body: mind, as a part of brain, emerges from body and the two reciprocally influence one another.

This together with some more specific biological observations (multiple genotypes, semi-independent development of different relevant phenotypic characteristics including the brain, ability of the brain to conceive alternatives to what is and to implement them by, among other things, altering the body) seriously challenges both the traditional two sexes story and the more contemporary sex/gender dichotomy.

The talk was intended to offer an alternative story: that sex/gender is more fluid than implied by either the more traditional or the more contemporary story, and that this is a good thing: it contributes to a productive diversity. Under time pressures, I'm not sure the latter got across to the extent I intended.

Its worth talking much more about the use value of this story, both in the context of feminist evolution and more generally. It also needs to be related more clearly to the clear two sexes feature of biological reproduction.

Additional important points from student comments:

  • That culture derives from biology and mind from body doesn't mean that there are no distinctions between biology and culture or mind and body. It means only that one needs different terms for making those distinctions. In particular, there clearly do arise conflicts between individual and collective stories, as well as between one's conscious understandings/experiences and the inclinations of the rest of the nervous system/body. The value of those conflicts and ways of dealing with them needs further elaboration.

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