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Limitations of Choice in Gender for Hermaphrodites


A person's ability to make a choice is defined by the amount of control they have over the situation. In Middlesex, Herculine Barbin, and Orlando, the three hermaphrodites face the issue of changing genders with varying degrees of choice. How much choice is available to each character is limited mainly by two types of factors the biological and the cultural. However, by gaining choice in one area, the character can lose the ability to choose in another. All choice is limited to a degree by biological and cultural perceptions. This can eventually happen to the point where characters believe they have only one option, or where choice exists only as a decision as to which type of factors will have greater influence over the characters' actions.

Biological factors in choice concern the physical bodies and genetics because it is the body of the hermaphrodite that creates the opportunity for choice. In What Evolution Is, Mayr's discussion of evolution deals with the body and its genetics, bringing up the point that "the capacity for nongenetic modification is under strict genetic control" (Mayr 142.) No matter what changes an organism may make to itself during the course of its lifetime, those changes must be within the original limits imposed by the body. The body, being formed by its genotype, has had these limitations defined from before birth. Hermaphrodites, being entirely neither one sex nor the other, seem to have been granted more choice by their bodies than other people.

However, while the opportunity for greater choice may exist, decisions concerning this choice can be limited by perceptions almost as much as by the body. The mind, as well as the body, is formed by the genotype, so the brain, the physical structure of the mind, has been subject to evolutionary forces. As Dennett points out while discussing the implications of Darwin's theories in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, "from the gene's 'point of view,' a body was a sort of survival machine created to enhance the gene's chances of continued replication" (Dennett 325.) From this perspective, which Dennett draws from Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, to whatever extent behavior is affected by genes, the amount of choice in that behavior is limited. Genes that lead to unfavorable behavior do not get replicated, so the only bodies, and thus minds, that are produced are those conditioned to behave in the interests of the genes (Dawkins.) By this theory the genes that affect gene-reproducing behavior would be replicated, meaning that free will would be limited because those individuals who acted in a way contrary to their genes' interests would be selected against. If free will exists only for those who act according to a higher command, it may be the power of that command rather than choice that forces the actions.

Even though the brain is formed by genetics and evolution, other influences than genetics allow the mind to transcend the power of biological evolution. Dennett argues that, in addition to the evolution of genes, humans are affected by the evolution of "memes," or ideas.
"Anyone who worries about "genetic determinism" should be reminded that virtually all the differences discernible between the people of, say, Plato's day and the people living today... must be due to cultural changes, since fewer than two hundred generations separate them." (Dennett 338)
In the evolutionary time scale, humans as we think of ourselves have not existed long enough for meaningful genetic change to have occurred. While this explanation does dismiss the possibility that organisms have been evolving behaviors that favor their genes since the evolution of a brain, possibly earlier, Dennett's argument reopens for humans the ability to choose in defiance of biology. Any control our genes have over us is in the parameters for choice they set in the form of our bodies, and in the behaviors they allow based on those bodies.

By Dennett's argument, control by genes is being succeeded by control by memes, building blocks that form ideas the way genes form a genetic code (Dennett 341.) However, while collections of memes may be the influences that define minds, they are not as predetermined and isolated as genetic codes.
"When memes come into contact with each other in a mind, they have a marvelous capacity to become adjusted to each other.... The very creativity and activity of human minds as temporary homes for memes seems to guarantee that lines of descent are hopelessly muddled." (Dennett 355)
Memes work together within the whole that is the human mind, but they change one another as well. New memes enter the mind every moment of the day, and each one has the potential to change any of the others. When making choices, conclusions come from this combination of memes that forms the mind. The memes a person absorbs influence that person's choices, changing the way that person thinks. Culture, which can be viewed as a vast collection of memes drawn from the people who are immersed in it, has a very strong influence on these choices by being an invisible background against which people's thoughts occur.

In Herculine Barbin, the culture in which Herculine lives affects her transformation from female to male. She lives in a time period when "it was no longer up to the individual to decide which sex he wished to belong to.... Rather, it was up to the expert to say which sex nature had chosen for him and to which society must consequently ask him to adhere" ( Foucault ix.) Perceptions of gender are related to perceptions of culture, because part of gender identity is an individual's place in society. The cultural viewpoint was that gender was incontrovertibly defined, so choice, for people living in that culture, did not exist. Gender was believed to be a fact, so the culture contained no mindset for the possibility of choice, even when the body allowed it. Herculine's own perception of her gender comes from the way her culture teaches her to view gender, meaning that at some fundamental level she is unable to accept the concept of choosing her own gender. Even though she grows up as a female and seems to identify herself as female, Herculine speaks as though her transformation to male was an unveiling of the truth that she did not have the power to prevent.

The cultural pressure on Herculine's perception of her "one true sex" being male is present throughout her writing, particularly in her descriptions of her transformation. "It now remained for [the doctor] to bring about the correction of an error.... This inevitable outcome, which I had foreseen, had even desired, terrified me now like a revolting enormity" (Foucault 78-9.) Despite her fear of living as a male, Herculine is not able to believe that she can remain female. She even goes so far as to deliberately bring about her transformation, rather than trying to hide her sex. Herculine is unhappy with her life long before her transformation to male, so bringing about the transformation may be an attempt to justify her lifelong depression, but it is also because of an underlying belief that she is, on some level, a "true" male. Society's refusal to accept sexual ambiguity affects Herculine to the point where she can't imagine living, even living happily, as anything other than her biologically true gender.

Despite the pressure of society's ideas forcing her to conform, Herculine does have an element of choice in her transformation. She is able to choose the time when she becomes male, rather than waiting until society uncovers her secret. Herculine views being biologically male not only as truth, but as an aspect of her fate predetermined by God. She laments, "They were fine days of a life that was henceforth doomed to abandonment, to cold isolation. O my God! What a fate was mine! But You willed it, no doubt, and I shall say no more" (Foucault 87.) Herculine believes that her sex was not determined by chance, but by God's will, meaning that any denial of it is also a denial of her faith, and thus doubly unthinkable. With these aspects of her life unchangeable, Herculine makes the choice to take control over her fate in the only way she can. The ideas that define Herculine's mind have left her very little choice in how to act concerning her gender she is a male, she must conform, she is fated for unhappiness so the decision of when and how to reveal herself as male is the only choice that remains for her to make.

Herculine's choice exists in the only space that is not defined by the cultural and biological factors of her life. Because of the meme embedded in her culture that a person has only one "true" gender, the evidence of Herculine's body declares her to be male. Herculine manipulates her culture's perceptions to give herself a limited amount of choice in the time of the revelation, but the price of this choice is a life of suffering. "Why should I go and cast myself into a future that was uncertain at the least? Solely because I believed that I had committed myself.... This accursed obstinacy was a matter of false pride" (Foucault 113.) Herculine's choice puts her into an even worse situation than she was in while living with Sara as a female, leaving her to try to create a new life as a male in a world where she had been known as female. At the time of her decision she believes the change to male is inevitable, and that control over her fate is better than happiness, but once she realizes the kind of life her choice has condemned her to, she regrets it. In hindsight, she decides gender roles are not as defined as her culture would have her believe. Her choice exists only at the cost of her happiness because, in order to make the choice, she had to accept the inevitability of becoming a male.

While Herculine's choice is clearly limited by cultural and, to a lesser extent, biological factors, the limitations of choice for the other two hermaphrodites are less obvious. In Eugenides' novel Middlesex, Cal is faced with a single moment when he has the option of choosing between becoming male and remaining female. However, the choice that exists is ultimately not about gender. Like Herculine, Cal's mind is structured by his culture and his body, but different types of influences on Cal create a different version of the choice from that which Herculine faced. Middlesex is very focused on the role genetics plays in Cal's life, to the point where the story can be viewed as the history of the gene's descent, rather than the history of the Stephanides family. Cal begins his story with an invocation to the Muse:
"I want to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! ... Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family.... Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too." (Eugenides 4)
Cal mingles genetics with his family history until his genetic traits are inseparable from his learned behavior. Cal's obsession with his family's history and how he came to exist colors his decisions with the influence of biological factors. Because Cal views this single gene as so important in defining his life, he unknowingly allows the theory of the selfish gene to influence him by virtue of the role in his life he allows it to play. Cal feels that his body has control over him because the root of his problems lies in an aspect of his body, and by feeling controlled Cal submits to control, whether it exists or not.

Part of what fascinates Cal about the biological aspects of his existence, both as an individual and as a hermaphrodite, is the role chance plays in it. As Mayr points out, chance and randomness are important aspects of evolution, but their evolutionary role is in part because of their effect on the development of individuals (Mayr 119.)
"The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am. Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection....Not me but somebody like me might have been made that night. An infinite number of possible selves crowded the threshold, me among them but with no guaranteed ticket." (Eugenides 11)
Like Herculine, Cal has no choice about being placed in situations that occur because he is a hermaphrodite, but rather than attributing this lack of choice to fate, he blames chance. Had just one of any number of details been otherwise, he might have been a different person, perhaps a hermaphrodite or perhaps not. Because of a series of chance occurrences, he becomes Callie, and later Cal. This does not only refer to events such as two incestuous marriages or the Stephanides family moving to America, but to the genetic processes that create Cal. Cal is very aware of the random nature of the biological processes that form a fetus. He focuses on the results of a single gene because he knows how much his life has been defined by the placement of one gene that, under slightly different circumstances, he might not have inherited.

Biology and genetics are strong influences on Cal's ability to choose, but they are not the only ones. When he is faced with the possibility of choosing his gender, Cal is torn between remaining a female and becoming a male. At this point he does have a choice, but it is in choosing which set of pressures will rule his decisions. Before his choice to become male, Cal encounters new memes so powerful that when they combine with the memes currently forming his perceptions of the world, they create a perspective from which he views becoming male as his only real option. In the New York Public Library, Cal consults Webster's dictionary, following a series of cross-referenced definitions until he identifies himself as a monster. "There was graffiti in Webster's but the synonym wasn't part of it. The synonym was official, authoritative; it was the verdict that the culture gave on a person like her.... It explained so much, really" (Eugenides 431.) Because Cal views the dictionary as an absolute authority drawn from the combined memes of his culture, he unquestioningly incorporates the ideas he takes from the dictionary into his world view. Like any meme becoming part of a mind, the definition of hermaphrodite as monster changes until it finds a place in Cal's world view that of self-identity. The dictionary shows a correlation between hermaphrodites and monsters that might be unspoken by individuals but is present in the culture.

While the dictionary may hold the essence of a culture's views on words and meaning, it also holds the culture's biases on those views. The black-and-whiteness of American society's view on hermaphrodites in 1974 comes across in the dictionary's cross-reference of "monster," while the individual experiences of hermaphrodites are likely to be far from black and white. However, because these individual experiences are not referenced in the dictionary, having been overwhelmed by the views of the culture as a whole, Cal does not absorb them along with the dictionary definition of hermaphrodite. This gives Cal a belief in a "true" gender similar to that which Herculine has. The fixedness of the definition from which Cal draws his conclusions leads him to accept what he later assumes to be the fixedness of his body's gender. When Cal secretly reads Dr. Luce's report defining him as a male pseudo-hermaphrodite with a female gender identity, the unchanging nature of the dictionary definition comes back to haunt him by making the physical, biological nature of his body seem to be the only truth. In a letter to his parents, Cal says, "I am not a girl. I'm a boy" (Eugenides 439,) as if the issue were as simple as that statement. After Luce's complicated analysis and the sexual ambiguity of Cal's previous life, this appears to be a narrow way for Cal to define himself, if in keeping with the narrowness of defining himself by a dictionary definition.

One of the reasons that the cultural memes Cal encounters just before making his decision have such a profound effect on him is because, before reading Luce's report, Cal's gender identity does not seem to be fully formed.
"The adolescent ego is a hazy thing, amorphous, cloudlike. It wasn't difficult to pour my identity into different vessels. In a sense, I was able to take whatever form was demanded of me. I only wanted to know the dimensions.... My mind was curiously blank. It was the blankness of obedience." (Eugenides 434)
In the moments before making his choice, Cal has the potential either to submit to society's pressure to avoid change and remain female or to follow the biological form of his body and become male. He does not seem to define himself as male or female, and he is willing to obey Luce's command to remain female because that is what he thinks is the truth. However, the contradiction in Luce's report makes a greater impression on Cal's unformed gender identity than Luce's speech, so that when Cal draws conclusions about what he thinks the "real truth" is, he bases his conclusions more on the report than on the speech. Luce's report has the thread of lies woven through it, not only because the reassurances Luce gives Cal are different from the message in the report, but because the information Cal provided Luce, on which the report is based, is false. Because the report is hidden, as is much of the truth in Cal's life, Cal believes it to be more accurate than Luce's speech, and because Luce's decision that Cal is female comes from lies Cal told him, Cal assumes that the opposite conclusion must be true.

All these conclusions have beneath them the constant stigma of the dictionary's reference to monster, which Cal quite naturally fears. Cal's need to find his "true" gender comes from a wish to define himself as other than a monster. The hermaphrodite is cross-referenced to monster because American culture finds the idea of two sexes combined in one body horrifying, so by identifying himself as only one sex, Cal is trying to remove the aspect of himself that causes this horror. He even goes so far as to separate his identity as Callie from his identity as Cal. "When Calliope surfaces, she does so like a childhood speech impediment.... It's a little like being possessed" (Eugenides 41.) The present Cal who narrates the story no longer associates himself with the female gender, to the point where any feminine trait he experiences feels like another person's ghost acting through his body. Later in life, Cal protests that "gender was not really all that important" (Eugenides 520,) but by continuing the separation of his past feminine self from his present masculine self he shows that the idea of monster has not completely faded. Genetics and biology create the idea that there is a biological truth to find, and the definition of monster means that this truth must be revealed. This ideas, combined just before Cal makes his decision, mean that the only choice Cal can accept is to become male.

The hermaphrodite who appears most able to transcend biological "truth" is Orlando, from Woolf's Orlando. This is possible because the biological aspect of her gender transformations is rarely discussed, and then only in the most general of terms. "He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but to confess he was a woman" (Woolf 137.) This is the closest to a description of the process of the transformation as Woolf comes. Orlando seems able to switch from male to female with relative ease and little concern for the genetics that should go with such a change. Because of this, she lacks many of the biological elements that affect Cal's and Herculine's ability to choose. Orlando does not appear to be a hermaphrodite in the physical sense that the other two are, and her gender is not as much a physical property as a mental property, as influenced by the world around her as the rest of her being. Because of this, Orlando does not have the perception of a single true gender to which she must conform. Rather than moving from being male to being female in one moment of choice, she takes on different aspects of gender identity at different points throughout the novel.

Orlando's ability to transcend the biological aspect of gender identity is part of her identity not as a body, but as an idea. She exists outside of the physical world in time as well as in biology, but to balance this she is very strongly influenced by the changes of the culture in which she lives. "Such is the indomitable nature of the spirit of the age however, that it batters down anyone who tries to make stand against it far more effectually than those who bend its own way" (Woolf 244.) The spirit of the age affects Orlando's actions both when it fits her personality and when it does not, even to the point where it forces her to desire marriage against her own nature. The spirit has such power over Orlando because so much of her is formed by ideas. Any idea, on encountering another idea, is changed (Dennett 355,) and with every shift of culture around Orlando, she alters correspondingly, both in body and in personality. There are early ages in which Orlando is male, intermediate ages in which Orlando can act either male or female, and later ages when Orlando is female. Her changing gender reflects changes in cultural perceptions of gender.

It is this shift of culture and being that allows Orlando to be so many different selves at once. When new ideas enter a mind, they do not replace the old rather, they come together to form different ideas that have both the old and the new elements (Dennett 355.) Just so, Orlando does not lose any aspects of her former selves when she takes on new selves in response to new ages.
"The selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own... for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his different selves have made with him." (Woolf 308-9)
This description of how Orlando has come to have so many selves is very similar to Dennett's discussion of memes combining. Orlando's selves are combinations of memes, much like every individual's identity, but hers are unique in that they have no physical element to influence them. Orlando embodies the behavior of ideas, with her physical self affected by them, rather than affecting them. The extent to which Orlando exists in the physical world is the extent to which she has been defined by culture. She has the ability to switch genders as cultural perceptions change, but the same lack of biological limits that allows her transformations prevents her from choosing where and when these shifts of gender occur. Being so defined by ideas may allow Orlando to transcend the limitations of the physical body, but it does not entirely free her from a limited gender identity.

The two factors limiting a hermaphrodite's ability to choose his or her gender, biology and culture, combine in different ways depending on the individual in question. The amount of influence biological factors have over individuals depends on the memes they have absorbed from their cultures. While biological factors can remove choice when the idea of "truth" is added to gender identification and limit choice by leaving open only one possible gender, cultural perceptions limit gender identification just as strongly by eliminating ways for individuals to consider choices. Choice exists for hermaphrodites only in the narrow areas limited neither by biology nor culture and may, in the end, be nothing more than a decision about which pressure the individual prefers to obey.


1) The World of Richard Dawkins , Dawkins, Richard. "The Selfish Gene." Ed. John Catalano. 10 May 2005.

2) Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

3) Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.

4) Foucault, Michel. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. Trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

5) Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

6) Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1928.

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