Saturday, November 22, 2014

A more positive account of genetic sexuality structures

(Identity Series: see Defining Sexuality, Intelligence, Blank Slate)

Though by no means an actual positive account. This is simply because most human behavior, especially social relationships and what is happening within the brain/body of an individual during a social encounter, is far beyond our descriptive reach.

I have read a little on these issues and this is the only specified genetically based positive account of sexuality that I recall noticing, albeit for mice. The analysis I read of this study was suggesting a possible route for genetic sexuality structures in humans. This is the general idea, see section here. I originally read this elsewhere, but it was an analysis of this paper. The whole chapter that is linked is a good rundown of pheromones. We can take or leave the study given that what we care about is the possibility of what a mechanistic picture looks like. The main idea is that a gene in male mice was controlling some social behavioral responses, especially as coupled with the female releasing a certain pheromone. The claim is that male mice that lacked the gene were more likely to engage in same sex behavior, partially because their male-male aggressive response was no longer as strong. And similarly, female mice would be more likely to engage in same-sex behavior if the same gene was turned off.

Physical lesions of the VNO impair lordosis behavior in female mice (Keller et al. 2006), suggesting that pheromones sensed by the vomeronasal system also play an important role in female sexual behavior (Keller et al. 2009). However, once again, the behavioral deficits of TRPC2 knockout mice appear to differ from the effects of physical lesions of the VNO. Dulac reported that TRPC2 knockout female mice showed significantly higher levels of malelike sexual behavior, including ultrasonic vocalization and mounting of other females (Wysocki and Lepri, 1991Kimchi et al. 2007). This would suggest that sex-specific behavioral patterns of male and female mice are at least partly dependent on ongoing sensory input rather than being developmentally determined. But, other groups have not reported such effects, and both male and female mice with physical VNO lesions are capable of discriminating sexual identity of urine odors (Keller et al. 2009). The differences that have been reported between the behavioral effects of physical VNO lesions and knockout of the TRPC2 gene might arise due to developmental effects of the knockout, or due to the presence of VSNs that do not use the TRPC2 transduction pathway (Kelliher et al. 2006).

Though we have very little understanding of the human mechanistic picture when it comes to social behaviors (and hence social emotions, complex desires, etc.), there is good reason to believe that many mechanistic facts, like the above, structure some of our bodily/brain responses. But there is a good reason to believe that there would be multiply tiered, multiply nested structures there. Our social behaviors and bodily response systems have all sorts of factors at play, including more reflective and socially learned behavioral responses. Even for the mices' sexual behaviors and social behaviors, the authors of these papers recognize that such social behaviors in mice are effected by all sorts of things. But they have enough evidence, holding some other factors in place, that the mechanisms they find (say the turning off of certain genes) are leading to changes in behaviors to some degree.

The key here though is the gap between our description of human social behavior and the kind of categorizing we do. Two linguistic notes. One is just that categorization and naming tends to erase differences, to make those differences non-noticeable. This effect is likely multiplied as we delineate broad social behaviors into categories. The second is a reifying factor, especially as reflective human behaviors are concerned. The taking in of an identity category, one that we believe is salient, can shape our behaviors. When that category is about one's self or other selves, such categories will go on to shape and reshape social responses and to influence further thoughts, actions, and social institutions.

Just to lighten the mood, let us similarly dispel the concept of love. If mechanistically something like this happens between two people who are in “love”, say between a female/female couple, and this is what causes attachments and subsequent emotions, it is quite common to hear things to the effect, "but oh well, such a mechanistic picture does not matter, such feelings and emotions are still real.” Well the problem is that despite being emotional beings, we are also reflective beings. And if a scientist comes along and showed that feelings of love between two individuals is only bodily reaction to a chemical that gets attuned between two people, and the scientists proves such by duplicating the chemical and spraying it on the nearest teddy bear, and both individuals instantly love the teddy bear as much as each other, well these individuals are likely to be a little weary of what their bodily responses mean. This is of course an absurd picture, there is good reason to think that our attachments and bodily responses are at least a little more complex. There may be some underhanded confabulation. Something like “she loves her voice,” where the connection only is ephemerally tied in after the fact of the chemical attraction (assuming such a story). In time, however, such things may become tied, such as the partner and the partner's voice become an intellectually inseparable fact in the brain, even if at first such attachment was only some chemical quirk.

With all that said, if love is only this mechanism by cellular and bodily processes, and then taken in more widely within an intellectual sphere, I think many people may respond significantly differently to relationships. We humans are probably wont to say that: “If this idiotic pheromonal response is all coupling amounts to, then why should we respect it as a way to organize our selves, and our relationships, when I can just as easily spread a little pheromone over here on this teddy bear and experience the blissfulness of the emotional response. There are other things we need from relationships, but this bodily response is not what such should be built on.” Now, with that said, given both that our stories are not that simple nor can we begin to understand them, and given the way that all of this seats into our brain/mind/body in a nested mesh, we will probably never be able to fully reproduce the above, given that attachments, emotional responses, and thoughts are intertwined. We also probably do not have the intellectual architecture to make such acknowledgments and arrangements. Though, I will say, that some people have probably been moved by lines like “sugar intake is a blissful experience caused by evolutionary arrangement,” and then have gone on to alter behavior. There will be even more profound changes in the future as we reflect on the accidents of our evolutionary and genetic makeups, and find ways to alter or get around such, whether through medicine, technology, or social attitudes.

Back to mechanism, it does not matter what exactly the mechanistic story is that is configuring at the most baseline level, say the level evolution originally “cared” about. Such a level is going to be vastly bereft of the conceptual imagery that we lay on top of it. And this, quite frankly, is the psychologists' problem, that is, they are helping to reify characteristics that when cognitive scientists or even evolutionary psychologist go fishing for mechanisms or a mechanistic story, they are going to find something that is vastly different than the socially proposed or psychologically proposed definition of a given characteristic. The cognitive scientist along with biologists of various stripes should eventually be able to tell the story, but it is going to come with endless culturally mediated behavioral aspects that get nested onto more fundamental structures. The mechanisms may be active and encouraging some of the complex social behavior in question, but the entire story will not be anywhere close to represented, at least within the more general mechanisms at the inherent genetic level.

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