Unpublished: The Biology of Sex and Gender on the Left and Right

There is a weird disjoint between how biological science is used on both the right and the left in regards to sex and gender.

Concerning the biological science regarding same-sex attraction, the findings that same-sex attraction has genetic and other non-genetic/biological foundations is generally taken to be helpful to liberals and unhelpful to conservatives. Framed other way, the scientific conclusion that same-sex orientation is "natural" is welcomed by liberals but is worrisome to conservatives.

By contrast, concerning the biological science regarding gender "differences," the findings that (statistical) differences between men and women have genetic and other non-genetic/biological foundations is generally taken to be helpful to conservatives and unhelpful to liberals. Framed other way, the scientific conclusion that (statistical) gender differences are "natural" is welcomed by conservatives but is worrisome to liberals.

--from an unpublished post exploring the use of science in debates about gender and sexuality

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16 thoughts on “Unpublished: The Biology of Sex and Gender on the Left and Right”

  1. Actually, I would tend to say that the biological and genetic aspects of both sexuality and gender are more complex and nuanced than either "side" sometimes allows. For instance, I'm not sure that "conservatives" would welcome everything science is learning about the complexity of gender.


  2. There's an asymmetry you have not considered. In the case of gender differences, there has for centuries been enormous social pressure for women and men to behave differently. In the case of sexual orientation, there has for centuries been enormous pressure for people to be heterosexual. It is inherently more plausible that behaviour which goes against social pressure is genetically based than behaviour which conforms to it.

    It's also worth noting that in the case of sexual orientation, it's relatively easy to find pairs of subjects who are genetically (nearly) the same: identical twins. In the case of gender differences, it's impossible.

  3. I think that the left/right split on gender is interesting when applied to particular populations like the transgender community. The far left and the far right actually seem rather united in that instance that gender identity is more mystical that biological; that a gendered spirit is perhaps what determines true gender identity. The 'middle' right and left, more seemingly reliant on a scientific/biological determinism interact with the transgender community (or individuals) in a different way than either the 'far' right or left (i.e. a sort of tolerant but condescending skepticism that the phenomenon is truly occurring at all, but unthreatened by claims that the transgender experience is real/valid). The far left often vociferously defends the possibility that an inherantly gendered identity can exist in a differently sexed body. The far right equally protests that 'God does not make mistakes' and that the assumed gendered spirits cannot or would never be assigned to a differently sexed body. The discourse is obviously more nuanced but the discussion of the place of science in gender and sex discussions just reminded me of how science and the metaphysical are taking placed in the discussion of transgender identity.

  4. We are all "biologically" predisposed to sinful actions regardless of our felt attractions. Gay or straight, we must resist sexual activities outside of a marriage to someone of the opposite gender.

  5. But I've not read anyone on the 'liberal' side, to use your vocabulary, claiming that there were no genetic or natural differences between men and women, merely that these are further culturally constructed.

  6. It's usually been helpful to trans people that science has offered evidence for a biological origin for the trans experience. Those who are gender queer probably find it less helpful.

    I personally experience gender as pure performance. It's just that I've always felt much more comfortable performing one of the traditional gender roles more than the other. Is that biology at work? I can't tell.

  7. Yes, exactly. And it's the culturally constructed part that I found so unpleasant, rather than my biology per se.

    The disagreement between liberals and conservatives is more to do with how much of culturally performed gender is actually ordained, right, normative, moral, good and/or proper, and how much is simply 'how it's turned out' with no 'shoulds' or 'oughts' or any obligations attached (and therefore open to continuous reinvention).

  8. When he was President of Harvard, Larry Summers commented in a closed conference that differences in "intrinsic aptitude" was one possible reason more men were in high-end science and engineering positions. Summers included this opinion because there was academic research in prestigious journals supporting the claim. He also acknowledging the complexity of the problem and mentioned cultural constructions as his preferred cause for absence of women in high-end STEM careers. But the damage was done. The fact that the President of Harvard would even raise the possibility that genetic or natural (i.e. intrinsic) differences existed between men and women was completely unacceptable to the intellectual elites - the vast majority being "liberals." He came under immediate attack, was accused of sexism, and was forced to eventually resign from Harvard.

    Whether the research in question was/is true or not, the frightening aspect of this story is the inability to acknowledge, much less debate, academic scholarship and opinions. So yes, there are "liberals" who claim there are no genetic or natural variations between men and women.

  9. How can that hold when you consider average physical strength? Anyone who's experienced both testosterone and the lack of it will know the enormous difference it makes.

  10. I'll confess that I'm missing the connection here. I completely agree with you that average physical strength can and does vary and there is no cultural constriction involved.

    Summers was commenting on intrinsic/genetic aptitudes as it relates to cognitive skills in STEM fields. The research suggested that men in the extreme upper ends of STEM talent pool may be slightly better than women in the upper end and this was genetically based. I'm not arguing for/against that position. My comment was to relate highly publicized event where liberals claimed that was no genetic or natural differences between men and women.

  11. I am just confused how anyone can say there are "no" genetic or natural variations between man and women when average strength is clearly different. I can understand how someone might feel able to claim that's true with regard to cognition, but you didn't limit the claim to cognition.

  12. Again, I agree with you. My original comment was to provide an example (in response to Lorenzo's statement) where people on the "liberal" side WERE claiming that genetic or natural differences do not exist. The context of the Summers controversy was limited to cognition and I was simply relaying the story. Average differences in strength can be readily quantified and attributed to natural variation. Whether the same is true for cognitive abilities in a given area is not my specialty, but I'm willing to look at the data and keep an open mind rather than go simply on what feels right. It's quite likely that differences DO exist and perhaps women score better than men in these areas.

  13. I realise you were agreeing with me. I just wanted to note that the liberals you mention do have to accept *some* natural variations between men and women, even if they deny it in terms of cognition.

    Since Lorenzo's original point was that he hasn't read any liberals who claim that there are *no* differences (of any kind), I felt your counter-example didn't quite work. Unless, that is, Lorenzo was also referring solely to cognition, in which case please forgive me for butting in.

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