January 6, 2008

Overcoming gender

Your gender is a constraint. This is an inalienable truism, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.

We can no longer deny that males and females are profoundly different. The hallucination is over. Scientists and behaviorists are discovering that men and women differ not just physically, but cognitively and emotionally as well. These differences are not merely the result of gender-specific socialization; they are innate—the result of thousands of years of sexual competition and selection.

Your gender assignment and sense of sexual identity is an imposition. Like many of your other characteristics, you are largely the result of a genetic lottery that happened beyond your control. Consequently, you are in no small way predetermined. Your physical and psychological capabilities are very much constrained and dictated by your genetic constitution.

Sure, the environments that we find ourselves in and the ways in which we are socialized play a contributing factor to our health, personalities and broader perspectives. But let’s not fool ourselves, each and every one of us has characteristics that are forever limited by our genetic code.

Barring the application of enhancement biotechnologies, I will never be able to conceptualize music as profoundly as Beethoven, nor will I ever be able to visualize numbers like Pierre de Fermat. No amount of studying, hard work or dedication will ever change this. I am physiologically incapable of acquiring these capacities.

Similarly, my gender plays an integral role in determining who I am, what my preferences are, and ultimately what I’m capable of.

And that bothers me.

Gender is a disease

Like the work being done to bring about a radical life extension revolution, and whose proponents argue that aging is a disease, we likewise need to change our perceptions about gender. There are a number of areas where we can see how our genders work to our disadvantage and why we would want to do something about it.

Men have the double-edged sword of being, in general, physically advantaged. While this tends to contribute to male dominance over women, it has also placed men in dangerous situations and environments. Males are conventionally the members of society who are sent into combat and are expected to perform hazardous—and sometimes sacrificial—work.

Aside from the overtly obvious physical dimorphism that separates men from women, there are also a number of cognitive and behavioral differences that work to stratify humans along gender lines.

Threats, physical assaults and homicides are an indelible male feature across all cultures and typically the result of male-male competition over resources that work to increase reproductive fitness. Males tend to have more accidents than females across their entire life spans. For every girl that is injured on a playground, four boys are likewise injured. Boys burn themselves more than girls. Roughly twice as many females across all ages suffer from significant levels of anxiety and depression than their male counterparts; women are more prone to suffer from eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Looking at latent cognitive abilities, boys and men have slightly higher average IQ scores than girls and women. Females across all ages consistently outperform boys and men on tests that assess the speed of matching arbitrary symbols to numbers. In measures of sensitivity to verbal cues, females almost always outperform males.

Needless to say, these gender differences are general tendencies. Men and women do not all fall within these parameters. But what these statistics reveal is that across the entire population males and females are stratified in a non-trivial way.

Sex differences also impact on occupational interests and achievement—differences that contribute greatly to the wage and social status advantage that men enjoy in most (if not all) industrialized nations. The acquisition of the educational credentials required for a lucrative career in a field such as engineering – a math intensive field – is made easier for men by virtue of cognitive factors that are less pronounced for women.

And of course, as long as women carry, give birth, and nurture their offspring, they will be set at a social disadvantage and even face subjugation. As cyberfeminist Donna Haraway noted in her Cyborg Manifesto,
"...control strategies applied to women's capacities to give birth to new human beings will be developed in the languages of population control and maximization of goal achievement for individual decision-makers. Control strategies will be formulated in terms of rates, costs of constraints, degrees of freedom. Human beings, like any other component or subsystem, must be localized in a system architecture whose basic modes of operation are probabilistic, statistical."
Consequently, Haraway saw true female liberation occurring through the application of cybernetics and the subsequent alleviation of biological pressures on women. As Haraway famously noted, "I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess."

The end of immutable sexual characteristics

While reproductively necessary, the ongoing presence of gender has proven problematic over time. Humanity is far removed from its evolutionary heritage and environment. Moreover, evolution makes for a poor moral compass. We value fairness, non-arbitrariness and egalitarianism -- even in the genetic sphere; the ongoing presence of gender should therefore trouble us. We should strive for a post-Darwinian condition.

We are, often at a subconscious level, working to become postbiological. Most of us are in denial about or in opposition to this, but the level of control that we seek over our minds and bodies is in tune with this goal. We are perpetually working to transcend our biological vulnerabilities and constraints. This will eventually get us to the oft spoken and quasi-mythological posthuman condition.

Most efforts to achieve a postgendered state have largely focused on non-biological solutions, namely through social, educational, political and economic reform. While environmental strategies can be effective and important in their own right, they will continue to experience limited results on account of their inability to address the root of the problem: human biology.

Transhumanist postgenderism, as differentiated and further elucidated from mainstream feminism and postmodern/deconstructionist cyberfeminism, calls for a more equitable distribution of gendered traits across the two sexes and the elimination of those gendered characteristics that are deemed disadvantageous. Postgenderism in this form calls for actual reproductive and medical interventions for the achievement of these ends.

People deserve access to biotechnologies that will help them control their morphological, cognitive and reproductive characteristics. In a postgendered world, individuals will have the option to remain gendered, to experiment with their sex and sexuality, to mix and match gendered characteristics, or to reject gender altogether. The idea is to exact control over our bodies and minds. A postgendered condition does not necessarily imply the end of all gendered characteristics, it merely signifies the end of fixed and traditional gender assignments wrought by evolutionary processes. In this sense, persons who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery are humanity's first postgenderists.

There are other postgender biotechnologies in existence today. Birth control pills are a well established method that thwarts our reproductive natures, and menstruation suppression has all but arrived. Other physiological factors, such as hormonal influences and neurotransmitters, will soon be addressable.

Looking ahead to the future, there's the possibility for male pregnancy and neurological interventions to normalize male and female cognitive functioning. More radical solutions to help persons become truly postgendered include the advent of artificial wombs, virtual reality and whole brain emulation.

At the social level, the broader suppressive and controlling social megastructure that exists and thrives on gender differences will be undermined by the postgenderist agenda. It will mark the end of sexual politics.

Thus, it is through the application of substantive and real biological interventions that the problem that is gender will most meaningfully be addressed. Postgender-tech will be an integral component to the larger collaborative struggle to achieve a genetically egalitarian, posthuman, and postbiological condition that works to the betterment of both individuals and society in general.


m. s. said...

While I'm all for posthuman evolution and eliminating disadvantageous behavioural traits, I don't understand why should we level everyone to the same set of behavioural standards. I think instead that we should increase this diversity; that instead of a couple (or a few more) genders we should have a hundred, a thousand genders. This would add richness to the (post)humankind, while your hypothesis would make everyone dull equal. This would be a very boring world to live within. I think you misunderstand "egualitarian": one thing is to want equal rights and equal opportunities to everyone, another thing is to make everyone a twin of each other.

George said...

1. I'm not saying everyone *should*; I'm saying everyone *should have the choice.*
2. If we're not going to work towards genetic egalitarianism, who gets to decide who will be the genetically advantaged and who the genetically disadvantaged?
3. "Hundreds of thousands of genders" sounds fine and well, but it seems like something out of a b-grade science fiction novel to me a at this point; if you're arguing in favour of morphological diversity, count me in.
4. Equal access to transhuman-tech will equal the genetic playing field; neurological diversity is set to increase and not decrease -- although there will be social trade offs for those who deviate far beyond normal functioning and into more experimental cognitive realms.

Anonymous said...

Good, thought-provoking article. I agree with you (of course) about the desirability of equality and freedom (even morphological freedom, should such a possibility ever arise), and I share your discomfort at the fact that people can be constrained in their potential, and even in their thinking and attitudes, by factors beyond their control.

However, it is worth noting that it has *not*, in fact, been established beyond doubt that neurological gender differences (most of them, at least) are genetic and innate. Certainly there are highly significant gender differences in brain structure and chemistry, but it is not impossible that (many of) these result from environmental differences in infancy, rather than genetic heritage. Given how pervasive many social attitudes are concerning gender, and given that children may be influenced developmentally even prenatally, it is exceedingly difficult to exclude the possibility that environmental differences may be the root cause of most neurological gender differences. (A probable exception being the neurochemical changes affecting women during menstruation, which appears to produce measurable psychological differences, for example by affecting brain lateralisation). Certainly it *might* be the case that many gender differences are indeed innate, and could thus be altered only by technological intervention, but this is far from proven. I wouldn't give up on social solutions just yet!

Nic Shakeshaft

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking stuff, George.

I agree with you that more choice is better (same with cures for aging). Those not interested can just choose not use the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Very well written, George.
We certainly should be able to overcome our biological limitations especially those of sexual nature; it is only natural to have the ability to chose your sex and sexuality at will.


Rasmus said...

Did anyone pause to consider that gender might have a purpose?

How do you know that eradicating the gender as a biological necessity will not break social systems, impoverish cultures, skew a delicate balance in the way humanity thinks, acts, cooperates?

It's very well to dream of the ultimate free choice but you seem to be skittering past the possible negative consequences - and I doubt that "transgenderism" comes for free.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not a talking head here. I've had my testosterone reduced by means of bilateral orchiectomy (removal of both testicles). I'm not just someone spouting off on the internet. I've had it done. I do not in any way intend to become female. I have chosen to, as George, says "reject gender altogether". I can answer any questions you might have.

Rasmus said...

So, did it come for free?

Another thing - if gender in its current configuration is seen as a clear constraint, that would mostly be because of social, political factors inhibiting people - that seems to be the most controversial part of it, anyway. Sports and child care don't seem so interesting.
So, if this is taken into account - do transgenderists (my term, is there a better one?) not risk becoming the new, weak, even shunned, gender? The social trade off might wreck the entire plan, true?
How is it certain that gender will EVER disappear given such a scenario?

Anonymous said...


I think you might mean postgender. I'm a bit confused--you do mean people like me, right? On the female side, perhaps menopausal or those who have had ovaries removed (even some birth control methods).

Transgender means feeling like the opposite sex.

Kathleen said...

Society, in its current form, is a construct established by the evolution of humans to fill certain roles. These roles revolve around the concept of community, specifically the family unit and the raising of children to continue the genetic line that is Homo Sapiens. If I understand your desire to break down society correctly, there is more than a bit of misunderstanding of this construct.

While the desire to allow people the opportunity to accomplish their goals is admirable, as is the establishment of an option to declare one's gender as M, F, or N, the desire to force said choice on the human race as a whole by stating "this is what should be" is counter-productive. Freedom is not the declaration of being post- or trans- anything, it is the state of existing the way one wishes, as long as that existence doesn't impinge on another's ability to live. We are not all equal in intelligence, ability, stature, or desire, and this needs to be taken into account whenever a philosophy emerges that claims to know the "best" for all of us.

There are two books that might be called for here. One is "Sophie's World," which gives a nicely concise history of philosophy from the Greeks onward. The best and most widely accepted philosophies are the ones that apply to humans as a whole, across cultural and historical lines. Pay close attention to the descriptions of each philosophy attempting to deal with the concept of limits and limiting factors.

Another is Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Specifically, in this, a section towards the end of the book that deals with a hive-mind society. They sound quite a bit like this post, in the attempt to be uber-intellectual and use a number of large words and invented concepts to sound self-important.

Belief structures are all well and good, but this is not one that will ever be well accepted because of its nature being contrary to everything society is. We have existed and survived for this long because of our social constructs, not in spite of them.

Anonymous said...

Your bit about undeniable gender differences is problematic. What we cannot deny is the existence of certain traits which are statistically gendered in certain ways. The whole picture is complicated because of the way in which gender is not neatly divided into two boxes, even now. Gender identity and expression are both complicated things, working on many, many axes. Declaring that gender differences are an element of everyone's lived reality simply isn't possible due to the incredible grey area that exists already. In the end, we already have an incredible number of genders, because no one experiences their own gender in quite the same way. There are frequently shared commonalities, and vague attractors corresponding to male and female, but no two people are going to have quite the same configuration.

Sex is slightly different, and generally more what you're actually talking about here, but even this exists on a spectrum, with nothing approaching a universal experience of what it means to have body that is sexed either male or female, as well as the existence of many individuals who challenge the construction of a clean dichotomy between these.

But all that only strengthens the need for commonly available, consensual non-normative or -normativizing medicine. We need to remove all forms of gender discrimination from society (the three sexisms: traditionally constructed sexism, heterosexism, cissexism). We need to allow every individual to freely choose and express their own gender identity and expression, as well as fight the medicalization of transsexualism, so that medicine which affects the sexed form of a body can be made more readily available, with a proliferation of new possibilities of consensually developed sexes can be created, to better suit the multiplicity of genders which already exist.

All of which is sort of getting at the point Dale is fond of, which is that none of this is specifically transhuman stuff: this is what's going on in the already existing community of gender-deviant, progressive individuals.

And I'm really not sure Harraway is properly read the way you're proposing there. I think you're missing the way in which her Cyborg is the already existing, lived reality for humans as technologically constructed and dependent entities. Cyborg vs. Goddess is more about the way that gender is framed and understood than it is about an actual modification or deification as such.

inVivo said...

Biological sex is a disability, I have been unlucky to be born female, and hate it, but current medical technology has no way to get rid of biological gender yet.

I long to leave this nightmare behind, but I guess there is no hope. All my life I have been constraied by this.

Alexxarian said...

I am happy that these issues are being discussed. In my opinion, removing limitations is one of humanity's great quests and this includes the limitation that gender in its current form currently imposes on us.

Jemima said...

>However, it is worth noting that it has *not*, in fact, been established beyond doubt that neurological gender differences (most of them, at least) are genetic and innate. Certainly there are highly significant gender differences in brain structure and chemistry, but it is not impossible that (many of) these result from environmental differences in infancy, rather than genetic heritage.

I would just like to second (third?) this point, as it seriously undermines the point of this post to take gender differences as a given. They are not. This isn't hearsay, anecdote and pro-feminist liberal opinion, this is based on actual scientific debunking of poorly-conducted research.

I would strongly recommend you read further on the debunking of this modern gender-essentialism myth - an excellent book on the topic is Cordelia Fine's 'Delusions of Gender' ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Delusions-Gender-Science-Behind-Differences/dp/1848312202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355443052&sr=8-1 ) - as the neuroscience etc that supposedly proves all this biological pre-determination is consistently shown to be just be plain wrong. Researchers unconsciously confirming their own sexist bias, reporting minor data changes as statistically significant when they're not, failing to account for societal and psychological factors, and the fact that pop science magazines aren't going to publish articles headed 'New Study Finds No Real Brain Differences Between The Sexes at Birth, Frankly, So If Your Daughter Can't Do Math It's Actually Just Because You Raised Her Badly'...these all add up to a skewed picture of how things really are. Which is actually with very, very little difference between the genders at birth.

If you wish further confirmation, cursory study of historical (or even cultural) gender relations will also show our Western current conceptions of masculinity and femininity to have been their polar opposites at some point in history (e.g Edwardian boys were always taught to prefer pink to blue since pink was 'stronger' and closer to red). This article is a fun intro to this idea: http://www.cracked.com/article_19780_5-gender-stereotypes-that-used-to-be-exact-opposite_p2.html