You can be almost certain that someone will never change their mind because of a comment posted on social media. Does that mean we should never try?
When you get so accustomed to particular arguments and evidence, it can be something of a shock to encounter people who’ve clearly never heard them before, and have gone through life assuming that what they learnt at the age of 11 (simplified and summarised, if not superseded by now) must always be true.
What do you do when Someone Is Wrong On The Internet?
I had that experience on social media, and ended up regurgitating pretty much all of the sciencey posts I’ve done on this blog (with a couple of choice quotes I found elsewhere; unfortunately I can’t recall the original source).
Here’s what I wrote in reply:
“TL;DR version: sex, sexuality and gender aren’t ‘either/or’ concepts. If a person doesn’t fit into the way you think about the world, maybe *just maybe* the problem isn’t with that person?
The TL bit:
yes, there’s XX and XY, but there are other variants like XXY or XO (Klinefelter’s Syndrome or Turner’s syndrome); intersex people exist (and since 2003 are starting to be recognised on some nations’ passports, such as Germany in 2013).
– So I wouldn’t go about saying “XX or XY! Boy or a girl! End of story! Science!” because that’s not what the science says; things are more complex than that:
You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice – effing – versa.
Sure, most people identify as heterosexual, but homo-, bi-, and asexual people exist too. Whether or not people come out as such depends on how tolerant their society is; if it’s against the law or punishable by death, then they’ll obviously not want to say. Check Wikipedia to see how wildly the statistics vary between Brazil and Iran (for example).
Adler (1991) and Byne et al (2001) found a cluster of nerves in the hypothalamus was largest in straight men, smaller in gay men and slightly smaller in women (this develops before birth).
Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2010) found environment doesn’t affect sexuality. Bailey & Zucker (1995) say 63% of gay men and women don’t conform to ‘gender behaviour’ as kids (vs 10-15% of straight people not conforming.)
– So nature, not nurture, determines one’s sexual orientation – and it’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition – people can be more hetero-, or more homo-sexual (think of it as a range), or simply not interested (asexual; maybe 1% of people will identify as such).
Joel et al (2015) did 1400 MRI scans of brains; there are some sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour. We have unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females, some in males, and some common in both. Regardless of whether nature or nurture causes sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour, human brains cannot be categorized as ‘male’ or ‘female’.
Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2008) showed that the interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH) in the brain is:
- larger and more elongated in men and more spherical in women.
- Male-to-female transexuals have a similar INAH to women, as do castrated males – so is the size of the INAH determined by testosterone? (But: study criticised for a small sample size and no study of different sub-types of transexuals.)
– So, there’s a bit of the brain that might well tell you what gender you are?
Swaab (2005) found sex differences in your body develop early in pregnancy (the first few months), but sexual differentiation of the brain occurs later in the second half of pregnancy and might be modified after birth by culture. This explains why, for certain transexuals, you can expect to see ‘female brain structures’ in people who are ‘otherwise male’.
- So your body’s sex and your brain’s ‘gender’ can be different?
- So can we really divide people into two genders? Not if we use biology, it seems!
On television, Secrets of the Sexes (BBC, 2005) said that men and women don’t always fit neatly into their respective groups. A University of Cambridge around that time study found that 17% of men have a ‘female’ empathising brain and 17% of women have a ‘male’ systemising brain. We aren’t ‘Male OR Female’; these are just end points on a range.
Hell, you can test yourself and find out where you belong on the range at this BBC website.
Why do we find it hard to accept there are more than two genders? Other cultures recognise three, four, or even five (such as Kathoey in Thailand, or Hijras in India, or ‘two-spirit’ people among some of the first nations of North America. Greeks accepted other sexualities, Romans accepted transgender folk. What changed?
Not wishing to upset anyone’s sensibilites, I’d just simply suggest that when the Romans adopted a variant of bronze-age desert mythology as their state religion, that’s when it started to get really difficult for women and transgender folk. This idea mutated and spread around the world for the next few centuries; almost all of us have grown up indoctrinated by aspects of it.
Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (BSRI, 1974) lists 20 ‘male’, 20 ‘female’ and 20 ‘neutral’ traits (eg: males are assertive, ambitious, swear a lot, etc, while females are meek, peacable, don’t swear… you get the idea). But by 1998, Holt & Ellis found recorded differences between men and women have decreased since the 1970s – men are less ‘manly’, women more ‘manly’ (but on average, men are still more impulsive)… at least in the west.
Costandi (2013) found Sex is determined by genes; Gender is determined by culture/upbringing.
Elliott (2013) found male and female brains have far more similarities than differences; gender differences come from culture/ upbringing.
Just because we’ve been brought up to believe something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, or that we have to keep believing it. In the 21st century, bearded women win Eurovision, men can get pregnant.
Intersex people exist. Trans people exist. So do men and women. Denying any of these things will weaken whatever argument you want to make about sex and gender.
Before anyone says “But it doesn’t happen in nature!” – well, actually it does, from lesbian hedgehogs to cross-dressing cuttlefish:
…you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others)…
That’s it; I’m done. I’ve laid as much science on here as I dare to, given that nobody’s ever had their mind changed by a Facebook comment. But I just *had* to get this out because SIWOTI.”