Let’s get this straight: Sex is biological and gender is social

We’ve all heard it right? “Gender is a construct” is a common term thrown around by folks in the LGBTQ community to emphasize that gender does not align with the claim that there are only two biological sexes. In fact, differences in sex development does exist and sometimes results in the birth of an intersex child.

And in the U.S., many health professionals – in the case of having a child with ambiguous genitals – suggest reconstructive surgery to physically (and forcefully) assign gender at birth. 

The Massive Science article linked above notes that about 2% of childbirths around the world result with an intersex infant. So that begs the question: Does gender even matter?

Nautilus writer Cailin O’Connor explores a philosophical discussion that gender is not only social, but also cultural and can vary by species. In her article “No, Animals do not have Genders,” O’Connor outlines the emerging definition of “gender roles,” first coined in the 1950s by psychologist John Mooney. 

He described it as “something that associates with biological sex, but is not the same.” As such, it’s quite clear that gender roles and actions among them are different across cultures in humans worldwide. 

“[Gender] involves a set of behaviors and norms that shape how men and women act, prescribe how they ought to be, and specify what it means to be a man or a woman,” O’Connor wrote. “These behaviors and norms emerge as a result of cultural evolution, and are transmitted to new generations through cultural learning.”

The philosopher, evolutionary game theorist and Associate Professor in the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California at Irvine said innate behaviors essentially exist to divide and assign labor among species. 

And among animals aside from humans, stable patterns of learning useful behaviors emerge and persist as generations carry onward, O’Connor said, which allows species on Earth to build cultural knowledge of those prior. 

“Killer whales, for example, learn how to hunt from each other, and different groups develop different strategies for killing prey,” she said. “In a famous case, a band of Japanese macaques learned to wash sweet potatoes after one female started doing so. … What is considered appropriate for women in one culture might be deemed completely inappropriate in another.”

O’Connor alludes to the fact that gender isn’t necessarily needed to solve or organize this division of labor, but it is the most reasonable and convenient way to do it given the biological differences. However, humans can – and do – divide labor in other ways as well.

“Once gendered division of labor is in place, rituals, meanings, expectations, norms and all sorts of cultural baggage can accumulate,” she wrote. “When we see different behaviors in men and women, we cannot infer, as we can with animals, that these behaviors emerge from innate biological differences. When little boys reject dolls, we do not learn about their innate abilities to care for infants. Instead, we have to see this sort of behavior in humans through an entirely different lens, that recognizes how important our cultural systems are in determining what we do as men and women, boys and girls.”

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