Volume LVI Number 7-8
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Part 1 of this article is here…
Simone de Beauvoir’s separation of sex and gender
Reading gender studies websites frequently turns up a famous aphorism coined by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86): “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” These words have become a core dogma of radical feminism, that culturally-based gender and biologically-based sex are distinct. De Beauvoir was especially interested in the question of self-realisation, of the origin of womanly identity. She concluded that it was this gender identity that biology could not explain. Gender, the conscious experience of being a woman or a man and the cultural apparel and socially-imposed norms of femaleness and maleness, is independent of one’s biological sex. In her view biology provides the body but not the mind of gender. A brief discussion of how de Beauvoir arrived at this view, and why it is false, offers clues as to how biosocial science might be reconnected to gender studies.
De Beauvoir’s maxim is false because XX babies usually grow up to become self-consciously women not due to coincidence or arbitrary social imposition but because biological sex causes them to acquire female consciousness and culture.
De Beauvoir’s aphorism was formulated in her book The Second Sex, published in 1949, which examined the oppression of women. The book begins with an interesting and generally well-informed survey of the biological basis of sex. She knew about chromosomal determination. The book must be judged by the knowledge then available. For example, de Beauvoir claimed that the alleged passivity of the female is disproven by the equality of importance of the male and female gametes (p. 11). Although this is an improbable view judged by present knowledge, de Beauvoir was opposing the equally improbable claim that the passivity of the female egg and the activity of the male sperm are inevitably reflected by the behaviour of women and men (pp. 13-14). Her discussion of how the endocrine system shapes the foetus into male and female was scientifically up to date, and is still in line with mainstream theory. Also up to date was de Beauvoir’s discussion of the higher investment women make in reproduction, in line with sociobiological theory: “The production of sperms is not exhausting, nor is the actual production of eggs; it is the development of the fertilized egg inside an adult animal that constitutes for the female an engrossing task” (p. 24). This statement anticipated an important element of Robert Trivers’s classic 1972 sociobiological paper on parental investment. Like de Beauvoir, Trivers sees maternal investment as including care of the neonate. De Beauvoir implies the same in her view that women are irrevocably tied to the care of their children. Her formulation fell short of sociobiological theory mainly by omitting the connection between parental investment and reproductive fitness. The latter is not hinted at by de Beauvoir, for whom reproduction had vague psychological payoffs and many costs located in the conscious mind.
The lack of a usable theory of evolution is a signal weakness of de Beauvoir’s biology. She had no concept of genetic interests or of how selection might have operated differently on the sexes to shape a different nature. Darwin had pointed the way to that with his concept of sexual selection, competition within a sex for sexual access to the other sex. In primates competition occurs mainly among males, resulting in larger size, aggression, and appetite for risk. De Beauvoir might have taken satisfaction in knowing that in this regard the power balance is firmly with females because it is generally they who choose mates. Her evolutionary theory was limited to the notion that instincts are evolved to perpetuate the species (e.g. p. 36), a view out of favour among contemporary theorists. To be fair, the same error was made by most zoologists of the time.
However, by the 1970s it was accepted that natural selection usually operates on individuals and small groups, rarely if ever on species as a whole. Had she known that, de Beauvoir might have changed her view that reproduction is a curse, a nuisance and an enslavement imposed by the species on women. Maintaining the myth of female victimhood would have required reconceptualising the slave masters to be overbearing men. Unfortunately for such a view, humans evolved in egalitarian societies where women usually had as much choice as men, more so in choosing mates. The realisation that women in their traditional roles, including tens of millennia of prehistory, have not been inferior to men and that their behaviour and intellectual prowess were equally adapted for survival and reproduction, shifts attention from the god of victimhood to the complexities of physiological and psychological adaptation. What de Beauvoir viewed as subordination, essentially from a chauvinistic male perspective, is in fact female behaviour playing a different game, where the winning condition is reproductive fitness in the form of thriving children and grandchildren. It was de Beauvoir’s brand of feminism, her insistence on judging traditional women from the perspective of French intellectuals circa 1949, that was a greater slavery, which her writings have helped impose on future generations of feminists. Her dehumanisation of traditional women forms part of the Western intellectual elite’s alienation from ordinary people, their history and continuity.
De Beauvoir’s review of sex differences is not bad. It’s what she failed to do with it that set her off on the path of gender unconnected with biology. For at the end of the chapter her matter-of-fact scientific exposition descended into metaphorical imprecision. For example, she declared that “society is not a species” as its customs cannot be deduced from biology. Individual members of society “are never abandoned to the dictates of their nature” because custom always takes over (page 36). This separation of biology from gender is consistent with the near absence of social instinct in de Beauvoir’s account of human nature. In her account there is male sexual aggression and female mothering and little else; nature produces mainly physiology, not sex-typical patterns of behaviour, preference and motivation. Culture alone supposedly governs gender, illustrated by examples of situations in which custom prevents masculine and feminine behaviours from asserting themselves. In situations where women get to choose their spouses, male initiative is powerless. And when society does not value the maternal bond it is not given recognition: “this very bond ... will be recognized or not according to the presumptions of the society concerned” (p. 36). This overlooks the general rule of female choice of mates and the universal importance of the mother–child bond. Some males devalue what mothers do for their babies, but why adopt male values? Androcentrism hardly alters the social fact that in all societies it is normal for neonates to be cared for by their mothers. Female social power is demonstrated by the fact that no sustainable culture imposes separation of mother and baby. De Beauvoir’s emphasis of the male perspective and thus political-level power relations distracted her from the biological basis of social behaviour in general. How else could reproduction and child care for most of human existence, executed by an exquisite set of adaptations, be interpreted as nothing more than “enslavement of the female to the species” and the “limitations of her various powers” (pp. 36-7)?
No wonder de Beauvoir is popular among the utopian-minded. Her doctrine that gender is wholly artificial and that it develops independently of biology allows speculative analysis and wishful thinking to soar unimpeded by stubborn biological facts. She was correct to conclude that biology is insufficient to fully explain gender relations. She was correct to include culture, economics and psychology as causes. Her error was to assume that biology affects the body but not consciousness or culture. The promise of her first chapter on biology is left unrealised, perhaps due to the rudimentary knowledge available in the 1940s or her over-reliance on Hegel, Marx and Sartre. We now know that gender identity is usually sex identity and is fixed by age three, when girls and boys begin rehearsing adult behaviour patterns that were adaptive for most of human existence. The cascade of events leading to gender identity involves environmental inputs but also innate biological processes and propensities at every stage.
Hormones and gender
The mainstream theory of mammalian sexual differentiation of behaviour received its first experimental confirmation just a decade after The Second Sex was published. Already in the 1930s it had been shown that the sexual behaviour of guinea pigs was affected by changing hormone balance. Then in 1959 a team of researchers led by William C. Young at the University of Kansas conducted another guinea pig experiment to test his hypothesis that prenatal hormones permanently organise the nervous system during critical periods in development. The experiment showed that genetic female foetuses exposed to testosterone develop male sexual behaviour as adults. The resulting theory—that hormones shape the development of male and female nervous systems—has survived all tests in animals and humans and has become a cornerstone of behavioural endocrinology. The two effects are combined in the “organisational-activational theory”, which has needed little amendment in the fifty years since Young and his students conducted their experiment. The theory allows for other factors, such as further hormonal organising effects during the critical period of adolescence and the direct action of X and Y genes.
The pioneering breakthroughs in behavioural endocrinology were not informed by modern evolutionary theory. Instead, they used animal comparisons to guide the study of human physiology and brain structure. The approach resembled the classical ethologists who focused on the elucidation of a species’ nature without bothering much about how that nature arose.
By the 1970s the theory was being tested on humans. John Money and Anke Ehrhardt’s 1972 book, Man and Woman, Boy and Girl: The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity, reviewed evidence for the developmental effects of hormones. They reported that masculine and feminine physiology and behaviour were sensitive to pre-natal exposure to hormones. However, the data were incomplete at that stage, and Money and Ehrhardt concluded incorrectly that gender could be assigned to an individual of either genetic sex by hormonal intervention, even after the child was born. In particular, Money’s animal experiments indicated that castration of neonate males and augmentation with female hormones reliably produced female gender, though lacking the physiology needed to conceive. He believed that humans acquired gender identity through social learning. With body shapes to match, anyone could learn to adopt either gender identity.
The first application of this hypothesis to humans failed. David Reimer, a normal boy whose penis had been removed by a botched circumcision, was on Money’s advice surgically and hormonally “reassigned” to female gender at the age of eighteen months. Initially the reassignment seemed to work, though castration prevented the patient from conceiving children. The case was held up as an example of the fluidity of gender identity. However, Reimer behaved like a boy, even while having a female gender identity, and was teased by schoolmates. From his ninth year Reimer developed a male identity and in puberty began living as a male. He had reconstructive sex-change surgery and married. The case is evidence that gender identity is sensitive to prenatal and early childhood organisation of the nervous system and contributed to the decline in gender reassignment of normal XY males. Evidence continues to mount in this direction. Gender identity is usually fixed by age three, consistent with innate influences. A 2004 study of fourteen male (XY) babies reassigned as girls along the lines recommended by Money found that between ages of five and twelve the procedure had proven unreliable in eight children. All fourteen children showed moderate to marked masculine attitudes and interests. The authors of this study suggest that the high rate of reversion to genetic gender identity is due in part to direct action of X and Y genes on the nervous system.
By the 1990s the organisational-activational model of human sexual differentiation had accumulated strong empirical support. Many sex differences in brain organisation and associated behaviour had been identified. It was known that women who were administered various hormones to treat at-risk pregnancies produced children who were feminised or masculinised relative to others of their own sex. And the psychology of sex differences had matured, revealing similarity in general intelligence but major differences in some cognitive functions, such as average female advantage at verbal tasks, male advantage at spatial tasks.
The Left academic establishment continued to resist biological explanations of gender, despite converging evidence to the contrary. An instructive example is an exchange between Sandra Witelson, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience at McMaster University, Canada, and Richard Lewontin, Professor of Biology at Harvard University. Lewontin, an influential Marxist critic of all attempts to introduce biology to the social sciences, denied all biological causes of psychological sex differences. Despite advocating Darwinism against creationists, he repudiated all of Witelson’s examples of hormonal effects on animal sex-typical behaviour and evidence of sex differences in humans. He found it relevant to claim that Jews were under-represented in large corporations, and ended by suggesting that Witelson had not earned her professorship but was “simply a lucky fish who has wriggled through a hole in the net meant to contain her”. There is no room for doubt on this exchange. Lewontin represented ideology, Witelson the spirit of science. I recommend Witelson’s 2011 talk at Moses Znaimer’s Ideacity Conference on how sex differences in the brain and behaviour are hardwired.
Australia had its own controversy over gender about the same time as Witelson confronted Lewontin. In 1985 Hiram Caton, Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, wrote a devastating criticism of a proposed course on women’s studies at that institution. His objection was that the course contradicted and would keep students ignorant of many scientifically established biological influences on gender roles. He objected to a university teaching as true what was known to be false. His argument was broad and rich with data. It was not based on sociobiological models but on behavioural endocrinology, physiology, psychology and anthropology. The critique failed to prevent the proposal from being accepted. A colleague at the time and an advocate of the new course acknowledged that Caton’s “sustained opposition” was the main obstacle encountered.
The biological facts of sex differentiation falsify the notion that gender is independent of sex. They do not falsify all gender theory but constrain it. Biology determines whether an individual has male or female reproductive organs, and usually matches sexuality, brain structure and preferences. No change of customs, laws, beliefs, indoctrination, or practices have these effects. Sex identity involves learning, as de Beauvoir and Money supposed, but it can be difficult to persuade most individuals that they belong to one gender when they feel or look or behave like the other. That is the experience of David Reimer and of many transgender individuals. The dichotomous identity of male or female is a biological given, although upbringing and culture dress that dichotomy in local colours. Like clothes, gender fits the preformed human body and mind, even though on occasion it is a bit of a squeeze.
Sex and work preferences
Beliefs about sex differences affect how we interpret data on proportions in the workplace. Female under-representation is usually interpreted as a problem to be rectified based on assumptions about stereotypes and male discrimination. Incorporating biology into the study of gender qualifies this assessment when the sex proportions are in line with known sex differences in preferences or abilities.
The entry of women in large numbers into the extra-household economy is a recent historical event. Their rise in the professions is even more recent. Clearly traditional gender roles have constricted female choice of careers. But what shapes those choices now that customary obstacles have receded? One would expect there to be much greater correspondence between individual preferences and gender proportions.
Support for this is provided by Kingsley Browne, a biosocial scientist at Wayne State University in Detroit, who uses behavioural biology to interpret work patterns. He finds that in the United States the representation of the sexes corresponds largely to average sex differences in work preferences and abilities, which can be traced back to variation in hormones and ultimately to evolutionary history. Men show higher competitiveness, dominance-seeking, and risk-taking, while women show more nurturance. Men are oriented more towards objects, women towards persons. Differences in abilities can also play a role, for example men’s greater upper body strength and some advantages in mathematics, and women’s advantage at some spatial, computational and verbal tasks. Browne notes than men are more willing to subordinate other activities, including family life, to achieve career success. They also run greater risks to gain advancement. Men also work longer hours and take on riskier and less pleasant work. To this can be added behavioural factors that advantage girls in education. Girls show lower rates of disciplinary problems and attention deficit disorder, both of which disadvantage boys educationally.
Browne makes the important point that a theory of broad female disadvantage cannot explain the highly variable sex ratios among work categories. As in Australia, women make up the great majority of graduates in veterinary science but a minority in engineering. Even within disciplines there are differences. In US biology, women are 28 per cent of graduates in entomology but 81 per cent of those in nutritional science. In psychology, they are 55 per cent of graduates in psychometrics and quantitative methods but 81 per cent in child psychology. These variations are in line with sex-specific preferences. With respect to women’s low representation in blue-collar occupations, Browne agrees that “gendering” plays a part, in which some types of work are considered appropriate for only one sex. However, this explanation is “grossly incomplete”, he argues, because it ignores coincidences of male preferences and abilities for these occupations. The analysis is completed with a review of the organising and activating effects of hormones and Darwin’s theory of sexual selection.
I have given some space to Browne’s thesis because it is a fine specimen of biosocial analysis, unifying the psychological, biomechanical and evolutionary levels of analysis. His theory might not be correct in every detail but has the huge edge in plausibility that it admits both social and biological causes, while competing theories, such as those found in gender studies, admit only social forces and insist on broad disadvantage, and only for women. In addition, biological theory explains much of the complex variability in sex ratios across work categories.
Gender relations and social technologies
Gender studies would not be made redundant if it were proven that female disability had largely been overcome, that from now on the battle of the sexes was a just war requiring no state intervention. The growing numbers of women, including in management roles, creates challenges for interpersonal relations and institutional design. In particular, women are rising in formal organisations through technical expertise and find themselves in positions that require managerial skills, where the job description includes exerting authority. Even with an all-male workforce there were endemic problems related to the rise of specialist managers competing with generalists that parallel some of the issues faced by women and the glass ceiling. There is no need for women or men to accept being relegated just because the process that works against them is deemed fair. In sport as well as business someone headed towards defeat can legitimately deploy tactics that neutralise a competitor’s winning tactics, so long as the methods used are ethical and legal.
An example is dominance. Browne correctly notes that men have greater ability to dominate than women, though there is overlap in the various components of the dominance repertoire. There is no avoiding the cut and thrust of dominance because the great majority of moves are part of everyday interactions. Dominance is usually legal and ethical, if not always polite. Most bullying is dominance behaviour but dominance is rarely bullying. An example is subtle stressors, for example ambiguous signalling of intent that causes a target to withdraw or concede. More subtle still, it is normal for actors to size up another individual, compute the likely outcome of a dominance contest with him or her, and avoid a losing strategy by withdrawing or pre-emptively submitting with appeasements. Consequently, dominance does not usually involve conflict. Alphas are generally relaxed and even friendly in established dominance relationships, but heated and unpleasant when their status is threatened. This is not a matter of advanced science; much of it is intuitively understood and performed by implicit, subconscious cognition.
If it is fair for men to use their behavioural advantage in dominance to edge out women (and sub-dominant men), it is also fair to neutralise that advantage. Three types of countermeasures have been attempted. Women have formed coalitions to overcome individual male dominance. This makes sense because men are also adept at forming empowering coalitions, perhaps more so than women. A second tactic has been for women to beef up their dominance repertoire. This can be successful to a point. Human cognition has some ability to override implicit motivation. On the receiving end, knowing that a certain stimulus is likely to induce subordinate motivation can allow the conscious mind to block otherwise automatic responses. Appropriate responses can be rehearsed. The power of the conscious mind to override instinctive responses makes many sociobiological mechanisms negotiable. Sandra Witelson recommends that women make themselves aware of hard-wired tendencies that can reinforce the glass ceiling. She picks out aversion to risk as one female characteristic that helps reduce the number of women high-flyers. One obstacle to simulating dominance behaviours is that some, such as low voice pitch, are generated physiologically. The tactic they embody is the result of evolution, not human cognition.
With regard to signal quality, Margaret Thatcher famously sought to sound more impressive by training her speaking voice to a lower timbre. In effect, she saw politics as a drama in which she was a performer. The late urban anthropologist Erving Goffman would have seen Thatcher’s public persona as well-crafted self-presentation. Thatcher showed that instinct is negotiable to a point. Managerial dramaturgy can be carried off if the poses become automatic and sustainable, which requires consistency with the actor’s personality. However, it can be difficult to emulate the subtleties of spontaneous dominance tactics. For example, men who judge themselves dominant to another male subconsciously lower their voice pitch when addressing him, but raise their pitch when they consider themselves less dominant.
The third tactic is to deploy social technologies. These are devices, including rules, routines, architecture and ideologies, that regulate behaviour. The theory of social technology was developed by ethologists and political theorists and overlaps the sociological concept of “social control”. But unlike sociological approaches, social technology theory does not deny the existence of hard-wired behaviour. Social technologies manipulate instincts as well as learned behaviours. Among the earliest of these technologies were architectural structures that directed attention to a central point, obviating the attention-getting component of dominance. Examples include throne rooms, amphitheatres and temples. In these settings anyone, no matter how unprepossessing, who occupies the focal point, can attract attention more readily than others. The routine, low-key attraction of attention is a necessary component of established dominance hierarchies. It is a feature of the formal organisation. The latter favours women because it allows anyone of technical competence to acquire the powerful means of dominance that go with line office.
Formal organisation is an assemblage of social technologies that negates the most powerful dominance behaviours. It has been argued that women are disadvantaged in bureaucracies because feminine attributes are subordinate ones. On the contrary, femininity is most disadvantageous where men are unrestrained. Bureaucracy offers special advantages to women. Feminine interpersonal behaviour is most advantaged in environments disciplined by a degree of separation between office and person. Codes of courtesy are another social structure that inhibit dominance, because they target aggressive tactics.
Managers and aspiring managers should know how dominance interacts with organisational structure and how to mobilise the soft power of courtesy to regulate feral tactics. They should know the difference between the aggressive behaviours used to win dominance, which can disrupt work groups, and the more benign types shown by dominants once in power, which promote team effort. They should know the tell-tale signs of dominance when it is deployed dramaturgically or as felt emotion. They should know how emotions are distributed down a hierarchy in times of peace and conflict. They need to know the difference between legitimate and illegitimate tactics and how to move the dividing line. And they should understand how the organisational environment systematically changes the rules of dominance, turning otherwise competitive displays into faux pas that undermine authority.
Courtesy applied to social tactics has teeth. It tends to neutralise overt dominance tactics by incurring heavy social costs. In courteous social environments, ambitious young males who use a booming voice and interruption to suppress others’ input can be legitimately brought to heel, in their tactics, by ostracism and intervention by management. The courtesy code should also be imposed on high-ranking line managers, male or female, who exploit their power to establish heavy-handed dominance. This corruption of office harms not only the manager’s social standing but the cohesion and morale of work groups. It is the antithesis of effective leadership.
As with other markets, the intersection of gender and work will always produce pockets of rigidity, monopoly, and enthusiastic buying and selling. Regulatory intervention in the form of equity measures should remain an option. But when the playing field is reasonably level, which it has become, women should join men in fending for themselves. Why should not everyone benefit from his natural endowments?
What can be done to prevent departments of gender studies from teaching as true what is known to be false, such as that there are no hard-wired behavioural sex differences? The situation is unacceptable, though perhaps not as grim as the late David Stove suggested in his Quadrant article of May 1986 (“A Farewell to Arts”), in which he argued that feminism of the Marxist variety had contributed to turning faculties of arts at Western universities into disaster areas akin to badly-leaking nuclear reactors. While this is surely an exaggeration, nothing violates universities’ ancient values more than teaching what is known to be false. As a result real damage is being done to the knowledge of generations of students and to the nation’s political culture.
Departmental or institutional self-correction of anti-biological bias would be the best remedy. That would be most likely to occur in an interdisciplinary milieu rich in collaboration between gender analysts and behavioural biologists. But that would entail a breach of disciplinary boundaries, and the social sciences have protected their turf against the harder disciplines for at least two generations and are unlikely to change overnight. By themselves, universities are probably unable to correct the situation because gender studies’ parent tribal-moral community is hegemonic in the universities. At present gender studies, partly sheltered within the social sciences, is anything but compromised by its anti-biological dogma. It will continue to be fed by taxpayer funds and supported by elements of the mainstream media, some government bureaucracies, and the intellectual Left.
Some types of political intervention would be legitimate, for example legislation that paralleled laws mandating equity programs or that established procedures to deal with corruption. Intervention aimed at restoring truth in teaching could not reasonably be construed as violating the university’s mission or its intellectual autonomy if the standard of truth came from within. New laws that equalise the status of men and women would be ethical and would help sever any unseemly feedback that might exist between ideological solidarity and appointments. For example, the 50-50 rule should apply when either sex is in the minority, or be formally rescinded as an element of equity programs. There is also the question of effectiveness. Which measures would correct the situation with least collateral damage? Sunset clauses might limit harm but do not guide content. Is there, in principle, a legislative magic bullet? To give a negative example, the problem is not of a kind to be solved by sacking university boards, as Hiram Caton recommended in 1985. Nor would it be wise to excise (or reassign) gender studies programs as a structural category. Even if such a measure were politically feasible, gender is too important a subject to sacrifice, as is the expertise accumulated by scholars in the field. The goal should be one of augmentation, not amputation. But how? How to drag gender studies and the social sciences in general into the larger world of science?
One model is the requirement that all technical students, such as scientists and engineers, undertake courses in the humanities and social sciences. The principle could be applied to gender studies and the social sciences. One broad measure could be to require departments of social science, including centres of gender studies, to interact with behavioural biologists. For example, courses dealing with a phenomenon could be required to include instruction in relevant biological knowledge, taught by experts from the relevant discipline, and overseen by a board of interdisciplinary studies. Another measure would be to direct funding agencies under government control to favour cross-disciplinary research proposals that integrate the social and life sciences.
The pragmatic question is whether the conservative political parties will take the lead in pushing reform through. That depends on whether they see university departments of gender studies or social science as a political nuisance. Such a perception is more probable the longer those disciplines remain wedded to the Left.
Government intervention would be regrettable. State meddling in universities is inherently clumsy and dangerous to academic freedom. However, the same can be said of entrenched ideological monopolies in the social sciences.
Dr Frank Salter (website franksalter.com) is an urban anthropologist and political ethologist. His book Emotions in Command is used to teach observational methods and ethological theory of organisations. His article “The War against Human Nature in the Social Sciences” appeared in the June 2012 issue.
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The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray