What determines gender as we know it? Biology? Society?
We make the mental error of somehow separating the body from the environment, when they are intimately intertwined. It is never nature or nurture, it is always a gene-environment interaction. We have to remember also that we as a species have an advantage; if our genes don’t agree with out environment, we can change it. We are adaptable. However, we need to understand how our biology works before we understand environment.
Let’s go back to the basic biological differences that determine gender. The difference is an effect due to different hormonal profiles androgens versus oestrogens. These hormones introduce tendencies for behaviour and the differences in sexual characteristics. Their largest effect outside sexual characteristics may be their effect on muscle, fat deposition and bone. Do they have a differentiating effect on the brain? The answer is primarily no in a direct manner, but perhaps yes in an indirect way.
We are born blank computers. Genes determine our brain’s hardware, but they do not determine our software in a direct way. They do however determine the tendency of how that software will work. For example, pain is a hardwired sensation. Fire is a painful sensation. Our brain will associate fire’s colour with pain. However there’s also the added complexity that fire is a source of warmth, therefore a source of positive sensation if we keep our distance. This all in turn leads to the complex societal associations we have with ‘warm’ colours — the colour of fire — as a society, from passion to danger. Going back to the genes, they did not code for red means passion or danger. However we naturally learn these associations based on our hardware and its algorithms. Yet if we changed our environment where we never experience fire in any primary or secondary way, we would not experience red the same way.
I hope I haven’t lost you. Regardless, what I’m trying to say is that biology gives us basic hardware. This hardware gives us tendencies for our behaviour in a particular direction. These tendencies will only occur in a specific environment. Understand where this all originates, and you can use your power as a technological sophisticated human being to alter the environment in such a way as to push the tendency in some other direction.
Our behaviour towards warm colours is a relatively simple thing. When it comes to complex behaviour, it isn’t merely enough to rely on tendency. So one of our earlier biologically determined functions we have is to identify other human beings and copy their behaviours or their ideas. Genes cannot directly determine behaviour in an inherited way. However, memes can. Memes are inherited ideas and behaviours, inherited ways of conducting life that’re passed on. Most of us are traditional people; it is very difficult to untangle our thoughts and behaviours from the particular group we have been born into.
Gender is mostly memetic. The group we are born into tell us very quickly which category we belong to: male or female. They tell us how we behave and who we are expected to be attracted to based on this category. Deviations from accepted behaviour actually seem to be pushed by biological tendencies though that are particular to that individual; these are too strong to entirely accept memetic concepts. Memes may have been important for survival, but that does not make them true. Many concepts of gender can make sense from an evolutionary perspective, yet this inheritance can be due to memetic basics which we no longer need to take as true due to our ability to influence on the environment.
This does not mean that memes are powerful and basic to your behaviour. I can be as gender aware as I like, but the ideas of male and female and what that means are deeply programmed. Yet recognising this, I can work with these concepts and my biology to change it or make it more complex. I can condition myself to accept something different. The biological mind-body is a simple thing. Reward it with a positive sensation and it quickly learns to associate whatever the accompanying stimulus is with good things.
A man can feel aggression, an emotional tendency that he’s more likely to have due to his androgen profile. Yet how he expresses this aggression and how he uses it is socially and environmentally determined.
My concept of male can be associated with aggression. Whether this aggression is interpreted positively or negatively or in an even more complex way, this is memetically socially or culturally determined.
Here’s an example of an implication of this. If we as women are told that we are attracted to men and that aggression is male, it isn’t surprising that some of us can learn to eroticise aggression. This is in a complex way because of other contradicting superficial social messages about aggression. Even if it is socially conditioned, that still means it can be a very powerful response. However, awareness of this response means you can adapt it. Practicitioners of safe, sane, consensual BDSM learn to use their responses in controlled environments that do not overflow necessarily into their social interactions.
Our biology is also more adaptable than we give it credit for. Behaviour and a change in environment can trigger changes in our biology due to our dynamic feedback systems. Whilst we can’t change our genes, the pattern of gene expression (genes can be turned on and off in a sense) can be regulated by our environment and our behaviour.
In summary, biology and environment are complex systems that interact dynamically. Awareness of how this works and what is actually necessarily ‘biological’ gives us insights into why we think how we think about gender. This also gives us an avenue to change that and disown memes that are unnecessary for our survival.