Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?

Paul Grobstein
General Programs 290
Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges
21 October 2004
Second Session
(click for first session)


Biology (like all science) doesn't answer questions (or solve problems) but it may (depending on one's degree of familiarity with it and other aspirations/commitments) provide observations and perspectives that are novel and useful for developing improved stories about particular phenomena (including sex and gender?). As is the case with all story-generating systems, biology (and science) creates risks as well as benefits in this regard. Appropriately used, perhaps it can contribute to counteracting "existing systemic violence"? Remember, at all times, that science is not about about "Truth" or "facts", it is about observations and stories that summarize them in an assailable way and, in so doing, suggest new ways of thinking about things and raise new questions.

Some relevant areas re "sex and gender":
Did "material body" etc and some of "development" on Tuesday. Today quick review and then on to evolution ... and "perhaps it can contribute ..."?

Genesis Material body

Thinking about body/culture/self ...

A starting placeAdding a biological perspective
sex = biology
gender = culture
identity = ?
"culture" is not independent of "biology" nor "biology" of "culture"

"self" is influenced by both and is a contributor to both

both "sex" AND "gender" are "social constructs"; so too are both "biology" and "culture"

Applying the story to individuals ...

From Jenny Boylan:

Relevant to one's own story: there seem to be at least four signals from presumably four different brain regions that may be but are not necessarily congruent with one another

Questions that arise:

How do things get the way they are? Genes AND other things ...

Multiple steps between genotype and phenotype
Complex interactions among genes
Role of environment - ALWAYS "yet to be determined"
Role of chance
Role of "self" - ALWAYS "yet to be determined"

A specific case: homosexuality

Why are there variants?

Social constructionBiological observations/story
Nature is imperfect, needs to be put "right" by human beings

Social coherence requires individuals to be shaped to fit culture

Sex is for reproduction

The objective is reproductive success

Humans are one small part of a large and continuing exploration of possibilities

So too is are human cultures

Sex facilitates exploration

The objective is exploration

The story of evolution

The story of sex

Does biology have anything to contribute to thinking about sex and gender ... revisited Yes ... if biology (and science) are treated as a body of observations and of assailable public stories deriving from those observations that are told by humans and offered for whatever use they might be in an ongoing exploration of possibilities

Might in fact be a way of counteracting "existing systemic violence" not only re homosexuality, and re sex/gender variation in general but also re the whole host of other forms of oppressive "hierarchy"?

Thanks to all for contributions to this particular story. Would love to know what you think of it, have you assail it and/or contribute to its further development. One last set of thoughts in the on-line forum, please?

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