12/14/17

There are Males and Females Out There (How exciting!)

I'm feeling tempted to write an article (academic or otherwise) about how there are males and females out there. "Out there," as in the categories are not socially constructed.  Such a thesis is the worst possible thing to argue for. To most, it's absolutely boring. It's the "null hypothesis," the default, the usual assumption.  But to a minority (but a minority I care about) biological realism about sex is outdated and disproven, and also associated with right-wing intolerance.  Ugh!

Anyway, I do think there are males and females out there. I find it baffling that anyone thinks otherwise. When I think about this, I think about the whole biological world.  For example, I'm currently reading the very interesting book The Evolution of Beauty (by Richard Prum), which claims that ornaments on male birds evolved because of the selective pressure of female mate choice.  This may or may not be the correct theory, but you couldn't even state it if you thought male and female, as categories, were imposed on nature by the human mind.  All sorts of regularities and explanations would be missed if you couldn't see individuals as falling into sex categories in their very nature.  And no, it just won't do to affirm some sort of human exceptionalism, whereby birds have natural sexes, but humans don't.  Humans are different in some ways, but we're not that different.

You would think that, in response to the many many articles about books by feminist philosophers making the case that sex is socially constructed, there would be articles that say it is biological real and not constructed, but hey--it's the null hypothesis.  Nobody wastes their time arguing for something so dull. Because of the boringness of biological realism about sex, the idea doesn't even have much of a presence in the literature. Nobody bothers to address the skeptic, when they outline and defend their own particular brand of social constructionism.  Authors are worried about subtly different alternatives to their own views, but nothing so absurd and obsolete as the idea that sex is out there throughout the biological world, and not constructed by us.

So you can read people who just take it for granted that sex is biologically real (for just one example, Patricia Churchland in the book Touching a Nerveand you can read people who argue that sex is socially constructed, but without taking the skeptic seriously.  I don't see where there is a serious, in depth, scientifically well-informed debate between these two views.  And yet I keep searching....

3 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

For many many years I accepted without thinking feminist orthodoxy that sex is socially constructed. I guess I closed my eyes to any evidence to the contrary. It was like belonging to a church or a sect.

It takes courage to challenge official church doctrine and if you do, I admire you for that. I wouldn't do it publicly myself, first of all, because I don't have the academic credentials to do it, secondly because I don't have the energy (and my sciatica makes it difficult to spend much time on the computer), but lastly, because I sympathize with the feminist movement, don't want to create problems for them and don't want them to write me off as a complete sexist jerk.

Anyway, if you decide to write that article, that takes cojones (gender-free), especially because I know that you are a feminist.

s. wallerstein said...

One more thought on the subject.

I believe that the idea that gender is socially constructed goes back to Simone de Beauvoir who famously states that "one is not born a woman, but becomes one".

I have the highest regard for Simone de Beauvoir as a philosopher, novelist and social critic. I recently read her book on ageing, which I recommend to all who are facing old age.

However, she and Sartre believe that there is no human nature, that we create ourselves
or if not, are created by social forces. That is an extreme "blank slate" view and has no scientific basis.

That Simone de Beauvoir was wrong about there being no human nature in no way refutes the basic thesis of the Second Sex: that women in general are oppressed.

Nonetheless, it is difficult for any movement to criticize their founding parents and Simone de Beauvoir is the founding parent of contemporary feminism. Feminism is both an academic discipline and a social movement, and the two do not always keep comfortable company. A social movement tries to inspire followers with slogans and simple pictures of reality, while an academic discipline should seek the truth in all its complexity.

Alex said...

Firstly, I don't know whether you agree or disagree with the other commenter, but just wanted to start out by stressing that there's a difference between a feminist saying "gender is a social construct" and them saying "sex is a social construct". Gender is about identity, performativity and expression, it is something inherently non-biological. Sex on the other hand, is about biology.

However, just because something is biological, doesn't mean it can't also involve social categorisation. Sure, it seems very natural to go "well sex works very well to explain the biology of birds, humans aren't SO different". However, a few problems with this:

1) To the extent sex is a useful thing to think about across biology, it is useful in different ways, from species to species. The obvious example is male seahorses give birth. But also even the very example you mention (birds) use a ZW chromosomal system, not XY. There's no universal rule for sex across biology.

2) Moving on to humans specifically, which is the appropriate why of categorising sex? There's many to pick from. Chromosomes? Genitals? Gonads? Hormones? Reproductive organs? Secondary sex characteristics? All of these are ofc biological aspects, but there is no absolute biological reason any of them need to align with one another (and often enough they don't). You can pick one or any of them if you like and study them biologically, even label people as "male" or "female" based on that, but just note that picking one over the others is a) your arbitrary choice, and b) will inevitably miss some people out who we probs would categorise differently under one of the other systems.

3) Finally, even if we can pick one of those biological categories which is somehow primary and all agree on it, that doesn't entail the same conception of biological sex that all know about. Given the existence of e.g. intersex people, while we're MOSTLY dimorphic, we're not completely. Each of the categories is much more like a continuum with two big peaks.

So people can study all these biological sex characteristics as much as they want and learn about them - that's cool. But to pick one out and go "there are two sexes, male and female", well THAT'S the social construct. It's a mostly arbitrary categorisation based that obscures a more complex biological reality.