gender, culture and biology

Ah, Ireland has voted for marriage between people in love as the only qualification–quite a departure from the Catholic canon.  (maybe now they can drink less on St. Patrick’s Day–see my post on that day).  I am reading E. O. Wilson’s seminal book, On Human Nature, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1979 as he extended Darwinian thinking to human culture and thereby set the stage for the integration of biological conceptualizations into the humanities and social sciences (to which I contribute a small part).  A good read.  I just finished the chapter on sex and I have to admire his clarity on the subject.  He states that the religious perspective on sex is wrong, i.e., that sex is not about reproduction and that there are plenty of other and easier ways for organisms to reproduce.  Sex on one level introduces variation into the genome, each mating or fertilization yields a unique individual (or twins), but socially, sex is about bonding.  It is a coin of relationship.  That said, the cultural institution of marriage formalizes an exclusive (sort of) bond and homosexuality is not un-natural because sex is not about reproduction.  Of course, he brings forth many bits of knowledge to support this eminently commonsensical view.

He did not have some more recent findings that bolster this perspective (not that he needed them).  We had not studied our close relatives the bonobos, smaller and more peaceful than the chimpanzee.  Sexual interaction is ubiquitous in their relationships; they engage sexually to make friends, to make up after a conflict, to relax and feel good sitting around the old banyan tree.  We had not specifically identified brain differences among genders; Jaak Panksepp in his wonderful text, Affective Neuroscience (that I used to mention a lot), wrote that he asked his students how many sexes/genders there are and then taught them that there are four, male body+male brain, male body+female brain, female body+female brain, and female body+male brain.  He taught this because science has led us to this understanding.  Finally, we have the benefit of our culture admitting that people vary gender-wise a good deal.  This is analogous to handedness; we used to think that people were either right or left handed (and forced some lefties to perform as righties) and then  we found that such preferences were more complicated, such as a baseball player throws right and bats left, and now we are discovering that lateralization of different functions is even more varied.  So the simple categories lose some validity.

My daughter does some work with HRC, the Human Rights Committee, on LGBT issues.  From her I have learned that people report many different genders, including some who self-identify as no gender.  Dr. Wilson discusses the biologically based gender differences between males and females using some twin studies and especially John Money’s pioneering work on hermaphrodites, and then presents how all cultures, from the hunter-gatherers on, have exaggerated those  differences into different cultural forms.  He, for one, believes we can determine our cultural course if we attend to what we really know.  I do not know if we ‘determine’ our course so much as ‘cultivate’ it, but that difference matters little.

Sometimes our progress comes from categorizing and understanding the differences and sometimes our progress comes from understanding that the facts of the matter are very complex, and always our progress comes from empirical efforts and with love (otherwise it ain’t progress).  Cultivating this view is a great challenge when we consider the cultural perspectives against LGBT equality prevalent in much of Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe. So like all of life, we feel our way forward.

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