Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Poor discourses on sexuality and gender

ElinorBurkett, What Makes a Woman?
MassimoPigliucci, on Nature/Nurture
RichardFriedman, How Changeable is Gender?

(See my earlier post Defining Sexuality for more information)

Two of the more ubiquitous phrases about sexuality and gender identity are “trapped in the wrong body” and “born this way.” With the first phrase you can sidestep the developmental and nature/nurture structure to some degree, such that it does not particularly matter the way in which one has arrived at being trapped in the wrong body. But much of public thinking on the issue has the second phrase flow into the first. One is “trapped in the wrong body” because one was “born a certain way.”

The born this way narrative is problematic for several reasons but the main problem is just that much of what is usually encompassed when we think of sexuality and gender is in no way directed by genes in such a way. Thus making it impossible that one was literally born that way, any more than the idea that certain individuals were born to exhibit slave behavior. Within certain social worlds certain genetic factors may determine that one is a slave. Given a certain social world, one with a vagina (genetic) may always wear a hat. Or behaviorally, given a certain social world, one with a penis may always cross their legs when they sit. From a descriptive point of view, the “born this way” narrative creates difficulties for imagining the social constructing of one's identity and behaviors from the given genetic entity. You may be able to skip the nature/nurture question if “trapped in the wrong body” is some stand alone thought, but there is good reason to think that it is not. 

A good deal of the trapped in the wrong body discourse is going to show the problem with discussions that pass over the sex/gender distinction. The saying “trapped in the wrong body” often encompasses, or seems to encompass, something like “my body was meant for a dress.” When we have conflated the phrase “trapped in the wrong body” to include the idea “my body was meant for a dress,” we have reified and passed beyond reflection the idea that certain bodies just correlate with certain contingent social structures. So, trying to rescue the concept of trapped in the wrong body as a useful descriptive project, such that it is doing useful work in describing our selves, is bizarre. 

Furthermore, whatever work the phrase or idea is doing in the development of our thought and belief processes is going to be equally bizarre. There comes a time when you should realize that you root for the Yankees because of the random social contingencies that have developed your self and your social world (such that your social world has lots of people rooting for baseball teams). Whereas most of us readily accept the social contingencies and accidentality of our selves as regards team and sport affiliation, when it comes to other equally contingent behaviors (the social convention of baseline gender relations, for instance), we seem to be unable to readily maintain our awareness of those influences on our identity. It is simply who we are. And of course the latter contingency has far more impact on our lives, as compared to whether we choose to continue caring about our society's sport or our hometown team.

As with our slave example, if we take the social world as some rigid given, then it may make sense to derive socially contingent behavior or identity from genes. One was a slave because one had black skin (or any other kind of narrow genetic marker). Of course there was no necessity to one being a slave because one had black skin, it was merely a contingency of the social world (but also one where a heritability study may show meaningful value). Within sexuality and gender discussions, embracing our cultural and institutional world as it is given takes away from the possibilities of imaging a different world, and thus from creating a different world. And we must accept that as individuals and as collectives we can greatly change such a world, ignore such a world, or that we can create microworlds. In all of these cases we are not playing by the baseline cultural and institutional milieu of what we see around us today. And it will necessarily turn out that the set of genes that make us up would turn into widely differing individuals than the ones we see today. Most of our desires and our identity positions can radically change given a different cultural milieu. Most of our public discussion of gender and sexuality issues has a poor understanding of that complex dance about the creation of our selves within the world that we find.

On a broader level, our poor gender and sex discourse mirrors much of our identity and characteristics discourses. Especially important to me is our inability to appropriately analyze socialization/education of knowledge as regards the development of skills and knowledge. An individual's skills and knowledge are part of their identity, and they can be created very differently within individuals, as Malcolm Gladwell hinted in Outliers. We can of course do sex and relationships (etc.) far better as well, probably even for people who do not dance by societal norms or who ignore the general moralizing of sex. On that note, we can start by biologizing sex and seeing it as the simple, stupid act that it is.

 One example: The antipathy of many U.S. heterosexual men towards the kissing of and body contact with other men may be very ensconced in the character of these individuals. Such behaviors and feelings may be a given to their identity. Even if the U.S. homosexual/heterosexual structure flows from (or sits on top of) some innate biological differences, and the now present antipathy of some males towards certain kinds of contact flows from the erecting of that matrix, it is questionable what is gained politically, socially, or personally from the closing off of that explanation. What is lost by seeing the cultural instigating of these psychologies (dislike of kissing other males) by contingent social structures? I am confident that one could create societies where intense antipathy was not created in some people by the mere thought of kissing another man. Such a world would create a different developmental structure within those individuals. It would socially construct different identities, it would create different individuals. We should be able to tell useful stories about how different social worlds create different individuals. Obviously, I think such great antipathies towards male-male contact are absurd, but again we do not have to moralize or problematize such. I believe all we have to do is imagine different ways of being and most people will agree that those different social worlds may be useful. I do not believe people enjoy imagining their selves in societies that are repressive, or ones where if they happened to have been a slightly different person they would have been repressed for very bad reasons.

The key here is open, useful description. We do not need empty tag lines like “born this way” or “trapped in the wrong body” that make such basic descriptions quite muddy. Reflecting on the structures of the self has enough structural obfuscation without ensconcing identity positions in dubious ways. Also, it is questionable that such shallow tag lines are where our social and political gains are coming from, though we do live in an idiotic social climate. Seeing the social contingency of our desires or dislikes should not dissuade the argument that we should be much more accepting of most identities, of most people, of most behaviors. It also does not prevent us doing the work of undercutting the moralizing of nature in empty ways. 

On the transgender argument, we can embrace that Jenner wants to play a different role, believes her self to be different than what she has portrayed previously, but we can do so without closing off the complex formation of identities or closing off understanding the contingencies of our cultural and social structures. Gender and sex is precisely a place where socially contingent factors get intertwined with previous biological structures in an inexorable way. It becomes even more inexorable when we allow discourse obfuscating ideas to proliferate. Such socially contingent factors as wearing a dress and appropriate bodily contact are a large part of our identity, our brains, and our desires. Ideas such as being born this way, where “this way” seems to include dress wearing, does not help clear thinking. The phrase being “trapped in the wrong body,” where it seems much of what is meant is gender expression, is a strong reinforcing and closing off of the body/gender givenness of our present time. That present is one where we act and perceive within those discourses, almost always without seeing the contingent links therein. Which is precisely the reason why when we turn to describe that world, we need discourses that do not continue such seamless portrayals of the given sex/gender correlations. We need those contingencies to be ripe within the brain. Or else we end up with bad claims, like our boys just always loved blue. Parsing identities that are immersed in a social world, especially from within that world and interacting with such people, is immensely difficult.

To clarify, there is good reason to think these discussions themselves flow into our psychologies and development. To speak of the body (sex) and have it assumed that one means the wearing of dresses is to blur the gender/sex distinction, and to create it as given within our thoughts. The standard idea about sexing the body of someone you meet, that is, how we immediately try to categorize the person before us as male or female (~man or woman), is something that seems correct for most of us. And for much of that process we take the social coupling of gender/sex for granted. If such identification markers are significantly disturbed, if we have less context and less categories to interact with, we have less behavior that we can express. This is especially true for those of us who have been raised in a rather ordered world, where our behavior towards others can be helpfully ordered by having other people marked, either by sex or any of the other stereotypical markers that we rely on. On some kind of social program level it may make sense that one wishes to revel in the order that we created. Females wear dresses and are to be treated and spoken to and desired in certain ways (or not so, and vice versa). Even if one likes such order and argues we keep it going, when it comes to actually describing human beings (identities, desires, bodies, etc.), descriptions are going to be hopelessly tangled if we continue to use such political language. In the end, shortcutting our best descriptions of our selves leads to the creation of poorer worlds and poorer selves. It's also just bad science/philosophy.

Monday, August 24, 2015


I am writing a response to several of the gender and sexuality articles here but I will go ahead and link to them.

Also I am giving the link to the created petri-dish brain which is roughly equivalent to a 5 week fetal brain (minus vascular structure, etc.). I am still a little baffled on the claim they created 99% of the genes (expressed genes) and cellular types. Cellular types makes sense but I do not know exactly what the expressed genes entails and how we came up with that number. I have not found many more detailed explanations on what exactly they have done and what exactly this entity is representative of. For instance, as they grow it further are sensory systems becoming active? And how much intracellular communication is happening? (I assume a good amount)

Food for thought:

Scott Bakker gives a couple more good takes on his brand of overthrowing philosophy and embracing eliminativism and scientism.

Anne Fausto-Sterling gives a good overview of CRISPR. However, see my response to some of the more unprincipled naysaying about genome editing.

Growing (very young) brains from stem cells.

An earlier article on growing brain spheroids.

Massimo Pigliucci on nature/nurture and gender identity

A fat gene and a shift in what exactly it does.

Jay Joseph critiques more of the heritability paradigm, this time on crime genes. Focusing on how certain genetic elements contribute to whether a person is a criminal takes focus off all the far more salient environmental structures that created such a criminal. There may be genetically inclined dispositional differences in temperament, and given an exact set of social structure those with these dispositions may be the ones that take up credit card fraud. In the end, there are going to be far more robust things to say about the environmental structures that lead to the behavior of credit card frauding.

NYTimes article on gender identity.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Don't Edit that Genome!

There has been a bit of upturn in talk on scientific ethical questions, from stem cells to fetal body parts to sex selection.

I have found far too much of the bioethical complaints come from a position of poor social structures, and not from simply the science itself. Perhaps that is necessarily true but ethicists spend far more time contemplating the science side instead of engaging in social theorizing or social critique.

A case in point is fetal selection and genome editing. This can be seen quite clearly with the simple tool of recognizing the sex of a fetus. Given a society that believes that males have greater worth than females, the technique of identifying the sex of a fetus along with the simple tool of abortion (or genome editing) may lead to some people using these technologies to select for a greater number of males. Assuming that we all accept this is problematic, the lesson here should be that we have significant social questions to be asked about sex and gender, not that there are scientific questions to be asked or scientific discoveries to limit. For one thing we are talking about rather simple techniques that should get easier with time and with new technologies. Bioethicists would create far greater good in the world by social critique than by trying to worry that a group (of idiots) over here will use this technology in this way. If we had solved gender and sex relations in the 1920's then our eventual technological achievement of fetal sexing would be moot as regards ethical concerns.

Baldly stated, there was immense social danger when individuals discovered they could sharpen a stick, but the answer to such dangers was not to shield people from the knowledge of stick sharpening. It was instead to build safer, globally connected societies, which we did not begin to accomplish for tens of thousands of years after inventing stick sharpening.

Too much of bioethics fits the above mold: complaints and restrictions on scientific advances and not due concern with our social institutions and structures. Was the scalpel a dangerous tool in the hands of Nazis? Yes, but the problem was always Nazis and not the scalpel. Similarly, genetic understanding is a basic insight. It was dangerous when it was blossoming within racist and classist societies. That does not mean we are better off by trying to curb our best understanding of genes, even during the messy beginning of such knowledge. The problem was always racist societies and our inability to reflect on such.

I will grant that we live in a messy world and country, one where a great many still cling to their tribalistic instincts, but the answer to these problems is generally a cultural/social one, and not one that should have us holstering science in any significant way. If we have a social problem that the introduction of a new technology will greatly exacerbate, then we should easily recognize that we have a serious social problem. Lastly, our best scientific understanding, say of the brain and genes, should help us understand our selves better and to further such social changes.

In other news, complaints on stem cells and the use of dead body parts are inane. If as a religious person you believe that your body needs twenty days of decay for some one to bless it, that is fine. We can, for the most part, accommodate your carrying out such. But if you wish to come before our society and claim that your (empty) belief should hold for all dead bodies, then you must give the rest of us useful reasons for such.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Moral Tribes

Opening of chapter 7 in Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes:

[Obama] Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or [invoke] God's will- I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

[Greene] "As Obama's remarks suggest, modern herders need a common currency, a universal metric for weighing the values of different tribes. Without a common currency there can be no metamorality, no system for making compromises . . .

The most fundamental challenge comes from tribal loyalists. Obama urges religious moral thinkers to translate their concerns into 'universal' rather than 'religion-specific' values. But what if you firmly believe that your specific religion delivers the universal moral truth. In that case, the distinction between universal and religion specific values makes no sense. (Obama is aware of this problem.) Santorum, declared that Obama's position makes him sick to his stomach. “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?' Santorum is overstating. No one said religious people can't make their case. Instead, says Obama, they must make their moral cases in secular terms. But to many religious moralists, that's like telling a ballerina to dance in a weight-suit. Try translating 'The gay lifestyle is an abomination against God 'into secular terms. No wonder Santorum feels queasy.”

I liked much of Greene's book, and this was an enjoyable anecdote of U.S. Politics. There are things that are missing in the book, generally speaking, of which much of this blog is a counterpoint to. 

The idea, Obama's here, that democracy as a whole should be based on secular reasons as agreed upon by the public, instead of on shared values of the majority, shows that what we (most of us) mean by democracy is really secularism. That is, we mean a politics devoid of cultured or religious positions. The idea that anyone's belief systems or political positions can surpass that kind of cultured washing, such as the way in which many of our values are just given by our culture or by religion, seems a far stretch. Not to mention that it is a stretch that Greene is trying to come to grips with throughout much of his book. It is also to worship at the altar of Reason, where we believe that hyper-rationality is a consistent and appropriate stance that can soak through our decisions. In the end, there may be nothing else to believe or no way for two people to come to discuss broad social issues other than through some kind of secular reasoning, but it is questionable whether it makes sense to try to define what is happening in our societies or our political systems as working within such.

The moral of this story is that if you really want to be a good utilitarian, you have to forego not only religion but culture and social institutions in a larger respect. Likewise, it was something that Rawls's original position did not do very well, nor did socialism or communism do very well. Neither reached into the fabric of our socially mediated identities to then make judgments about the kind of beings that we are and thus the kind of social structures we could erect or would want to erect. They left off the difficult part about the interplay between our social structures and who we are, and thus even the rationality and discourse framing that we would find moving. Where they held useful political positions, it was not from a sacredly-removed understanding about the nature of human beings, but was instead a parochially positioned structure given the embedded culture that they were arguing within. There were many other equally moving social positions or rationalities that one could take (say gender and sex institutional makeovers), but such positions were not considered.

As we start delving into more of our identity and our social institutions, we can then use even broader positions to ask appropriate questions about what we want. Which again, given the tenor of much of Greene's book, say a broad-based progressive-liberal-utilitarianism, there are places of our identities that he is unwilling to ask about. He is unwilling to come to grips with certain social contingent facts about our identity and the kind of social structures and political reasoning that we may embark upon, once we lay such social contingencies on the table. There are important reflections that he, like Rawls, is unwilling to engage in.

On a further note, some of Peter Singer's work pushes a hyper-rational utilitarianism to the extreme. One example is the idea that we should ignore natured/cultured emotions when our own 1-year-old is dying and instead save two foreign 10-year-olds (or even one other 10-year-old). Many naysayers believe that natural identity structures (say the emotion that nature has provided us of impassioned love for our own children) is a good thing, helps society tick, and is impossible to reflect upon or change. Again, much of this blog is counterpoint to the notion that such a nature exists within our identities, and that often subtle cultural structures are erected upon such emotions or body structures. 

I believe that a culture and identities that were awash in our best understanding about the self-awareness of 10-year-olds versus 1-year-olds, understood the structure and reasons of our natural inclinations, were more capable of prying apart social institutions that nestle onto such genetic structures; such selves would be more capable of making the more appropriate, utilitarian judgment about how to structure societies and how to make such judgments. And they would be more capable of making decisions that supposedly cuts against such indelible natures. Outcries like “I would do anything to save my child” or “I think my emotion to want to thoroughly harm some one who has hurt my child is a good thing” are outcries from positions that are weak at reflecting on who we are and what we can be. Such positions buy into a socially conservative position that cannot imagine selves or societies structured very differently. Many of the claims from evolutionary psychology (etc.) help bolster this unthinkable idea about the existence of different selves and different reactions to events. Lastly, it is one thing to say that for the time being we need to continue allowing these emotions to guide us, or to say that politically this is what I think best for us to continue to reproduce in society and identities. It is an entirely different thing to believe that we have found a basis of human nature or have something upon which we can erect moral responsibility.  

Importantly, in the end, all children would lead far better lives if we came to embrace such a cold understanding of who we are. There would be better focus on socialization and education of every last member. Accepting the kinds of machines that we are, individuals who can see beyond “death-to-my-child's-murderer” are individuals who know that individual love is an insane position to allow for the arising of the kind of disparate environments we allow around different developing machines. This includes not just between the haves and the have-nots, which disparity is of course absurd. But it also gives us better focus on the vastly disparate developmental programming we put around most adequately wealthy children. That is, when we take arbitrariness of differential developmental programs off the table, ignore the emotionally-structured belief about parent-child guided arrangements, we will see the basic necessity of appropriate programming for every last individual. As we move into our best naturalistic understanding of our world, I am confident that this is the understanding that we will eventually embrace. It will erase U.S. processes of socialization/education and familial structures, but it will also erase other social systems that believe they are erecting a fair meritocratic program of achievement, one where everyone has the “opportunity for success.”

So, when our best and brightest cling to their supposedly natural or culturally-induced emotions, and say this is just how humans are suppose to be, we have good reason, that in the end, our world will see beyond such people. We will see beyond the social structures (moral responsibility, e.g.) and the selves that such people think necessary to erect or to reproduce.