Humans appear to have a reasonable amount of diversity in their sexual orientations, in what is often referred to as “gender” and in adult behavior generally. When convenient, people will point to “genes” as the “cause” of any particular subset of th is diversity (or all of it). When convenient, people will point to “culture” as the “cause” of … whatever. The “real” story is more complicated, less clear, and very interesting. And, starting now, I promise to stop using so many “scare” quotes.


Prior to birth there are a number of factors than can influence things like gender or sexuality in a human. You have probably heard of the finger-index (not the index-finger … actually called the 2D:4D ratio). The ratio of length of two of your fingers seems to be associated with certain trends; Men with a certain ratio tend to be more athletic or more gay, for instance. The mechanism for the finger ratio variation is probably straight forward but has not been nailed down yet. Likely, a surge of steroid hormones enhances growth rate of whatever bones are forming at that time (I simplify somewhat) and if such a surge occurs at a certain time, a slight shift in bone length ratio affecting fingers occurs and because of the timing, a slight change in something else also occurs, something having to do with what will eventually be adult behavior.1 I am not arguing here for the strength of this association or its meaning, but available evidence shows that there is something going on. To the extent that this particular relationship is true, we see an adult outcome (related to gender, sexuality, or other behavior) being the result of something that is biological and prenatal, but not likely genetic. While the overall pattern of the hormonal environment of a fetus may be broadly determined by genes, variations in the details are just as likely determined by other things. In many contexts, one steroid hormone looks a lot like another, or can convert into another as they float around in the blood supply, so any large surge of steroids could act like sex hormones or growth hormones even if they are merely stress hormones, and there is an exchange of hormones between the mother’s blood supply and that of the fetus. Since the mother’s hormonal environment is heavily influenced by her environment (especially stress hormones), the ultimate cause of steroid hormone-mediated developmental variations in a human is very likely to be strongly environmental, if not entirely environmental, even though it all happens before birth.

Then there is the stuff that happens after birth. One study carried out in Australia seems to show that adults in a specific culture (Australian middle class) treated infants very differently depending on their knowledge of the infant’s sex.2 For instance, a boy would be moved around more, tossed about a bit, handed boy-specific toys, and so on, while a girl would be held more calmly, not tossed about, hugged more, and handed girl-specific toys. In that study, the “sex” of the infant (boy vs. girl) was “known” to the adult on the basis of obvious clothing choices and pronoun use, and in fact, the infant was always a boy. After months of treatment as one sex or the other, depending on what that treatment consisted of, one could potentially get a gendered difference. Movement, touch, voice, etc. all form part of the environment in which the infant’s neural system, including the infant’s brain, develops. This would make a difference.

And so it goes throughout development; At numerous stages along the way, a human is affected by hormones, bathed in gendered behavior, and eventually, starts to observe her or his own environment and act accordingly. One study seemed to show that at about Kindergarten age, boys were more conscious of how they would fit into a group than girls, paying special attention to what other boys were doing before making certain choices. If this was a general pattern in a particular group of people, one might see girls engage in a wider range of available stereotypes while boys restricted themselves to a narrower range.

While it is possible that there is some hidden Jungian subconscious difference between nominal boys and girls resulting in different thematic tropes in their behavior (i.e., girls like circles and boys like lines or some such thing), the degree to which kids past a certain age … say six or so … gravitate towards gender specific toys or other objects, or engage in gender specific behaviors, is way too finely tuned to be the product of anything other than high cognitive function. While we know that across cultures, different colors are associated with different genders, within a culture most boys and girls know what the boy vs. girl colors are and to varying degrees express this knowledge as strong preferences, perhaps with boys expressing a narrower range of preferences than girls. Most likely, culturally specific gender preferences for things like toys and clothing are learned early, become deeply ingrained, are unlikely to be genetically determined at any level of detail (if at all) but may be attended to by boys more than girls.

There are many factors that would determine a person’s gender over a lifetime. The above mentioned inter-uterine hormonal conditioning is probably fairly complex, with multiple moments in time when one or another thing might happen, and where one version of the developmental scenario would lead towards one gender orientation than another. After birth, more of the same but less hormonal and more cultural, and later on, with puberty, the hormones kicking in again, but with a twist: Early conditioning may determine the nature of later hormonal activity by setting up differences in receptor sites or sensitivity, or other aspects of hormone feedback systems.

In speaking of humans it is easy to assume that other animals, who lack the complex and often costly (and therefore presumably ‘important’ in some way) trappings of prolonged development and culture have simpler systems for determining gender. For the most part, I would argue that rodents do in fact have simpler systems of gender than do humans, with the caveat that I’ve just compared an entire order of mammals (and a rather speciose and diverse one at that) with a single species. But what would you make of a gender-shaping system in rodents that was actually very complex, in which ‘culture’ was the main determinant of adult male-ness?

In rats, males get to be males in large part because they have testes that secrete testosterone, which in turn causes other changes. But according to at least one study, the degree to which testes will secrete testosterone is determined by anogentital licking behavior of the mother. This behavior is, in turn, brought on by some sort of cue produced by the newborn male. Without this licking, the testes do not produce much testosterone and andorgenization of the rat does not take place.3

OK, so I was exaggerating slightly when I said that rat “culture” determines adult gender, but prior to hearing this you probably assumed that there was a gene or set of genes that simply coded for which sex the rat would be when it grew up. And yes, you can get some interesting results when the mother rat is replaced with a lab tech and various different variations of the licking thing are tried out. (Using tiny wet paintbrushes.)

And I could go on. But I want to make two points about development and behavior, especially gender. One is that whatever genetic component is working, most aspects of adult behavior and orientation are shaped by non-genetic factors and those genetic factors that may exist come in the form of basic species-specific (but almost certainly gender-differentiated) “drives.” I’ve discussed the importance of drives here, and if you want to read a whole book about the link between drives and everything you do in your life check out Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal InstinctsSelf-Help Books)

The second point is that as something complex (and both personal and social) as gender orientation emerges in a person it must be true that it comes to whatever point it comes to after a series of many turning points. If every single factor is thought of as a simple binary choice (and I use the word “choice” with no reference to human decision making) between two cannalized options, then the number of possible outcomes could be thought of as 2n where ‘n’ is the number of times a binary choice is encountered. So, if there are, say, three hormonal moments in utero, and one more after birth (puberty) and, say, three life stages that have major influences on gender (and I oversimplify) then the number of possible routes a person may take from conception to adulthood would be 27. That is 128. If these different paths lead to mostly different outcomes, wouldn’t there be over 100 “genders” among humans?

The interesting thing about this is that a cursory examination of potential human gender diversity from a purely biological point of view suggests that there are at least dozens of “genders” but the vast majority of cultures define (or even allow) only a few. Perhaps culture, in this case, is more restrictive than biology. Which, to a behavioral biologist, is not much of a shock, though it might be if considered from a broader social science perspective.

So, the next time you are in charge of making a form to collect personal information from people, when you are designing the “gender” question, you might consider something other than a couple of checkboxes. Perhaps a drop-down list. Or, best of all, just have people write a short essay. Make ‘em think, that will.

1Be careful with this idea: While I’m sure there are several aspects of 2D:4D research that are valid and interesting, it is often somewhat over-reported. Also, the numbers are tricky. The measurement is often done on fleshed and living fingers, but should really be done on the bones directly (using X-ray technology, not sacrificing the subject and defleshing them!). And the meaning of this trait is somewhat open to interpretation. I’d be comfortable sorting out males from females in a skeletal population with good preservation of hands but no pelvic remains, but more reluctant to use this for sorting out ethnic groups, gender orientations, or assertiveness levels. For a recent review see Bailey and Hurd, 2005. Finger length ratio (2D:4D) correlates with physical aggression in men but not in women. Biological Psychology. Volume 68, Issue 3, March 2005, Pages 215-222.)

2The specific research to which I refer was shown on a documentary about sex differences; For an exemplar published study on this work see Frisch 1977. Sex Stereotypes and Adult-Infant Play. Society for Research in Child Development. Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 1671-1675

3See this study and references therein: Moore and Morelli, 1979. Mother rats interact differently with male amd female offspring. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol 93(4), Aug 1979, 677-684. doi: 10.1037/h0077599.

___________

ResearchBlogging.orgMoore, C., & Morelli, G. (1979). Mother rats interact differently with male amd female offspring. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 93 (4), 677-684 DOI: 10.1037/h0077599

Comments

  1. #1 G127
    July 8, 2011

    It’s not exactly clear for me what you mean by “gender” in your post. Aren’t those more like biological determined sexual preferences or attitudes?

    Because I’ve always assumed gender is simply determined by your genitals (female or male). Now there are people that are born (or perhaps grown) in the wrong body, but I doubt that is what you mean.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2011

    Good question. Actually, in the language of social scientists “sex” is what your chromosomes make you and “gender” is what you are, and often that is assumed to be for some particular reason or another (as per the first paragraph). However, both terms almost never really mean what people think they mean, especailly when it comes to sex across more species than humans. Note that in this post you could use a word like “sex and/or gender and/or sexual orientation and/or stuff” and that would work because I’m trying to avoid that semantic trap.

  3. #3 Quietmarc
    July 8, 2011

    I wonder if maybe “n” approaches infinite and that other, cultural factors “streamline” the majority into a smaller number of “genders”. If one looks at gender not as a set of discrete groups but instead as a continuum, things can get pretty interesting. Being gay myself, I wonder how much this idea could explain the development of the rich variety of queer subcultures: butch and femme, bears, twinks, drag queens, trans, genderfuck, etc…all of these play with conceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality. Maybe along with the struggle for equal rights, we’re also expanding the cultural “space” we have to explore gender as an individual, rather than a cultural, state of being?

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2011

    Yeah, I had a whole bunch of stuff to say about continua vs. discontinuous variation and stuff, but it was only conjecture. As opposed to what I wrote which is …. less conjectural?

    I also didn’t say that US culture/Western culture is where you do in fact find many “genders” (as you point out) or sexual orientations (whatever term one likes) but that this is partly, maybe, because of an intention to expand the space as you point out.

    Another way of thinking about these things, also simplistic but informative for people just starting out thinking about these sorts of things, is to think of a fem-masc scale, and then ask “how do you see yourself, how do you see your ideal partner, how do you prefer your preferred partner to think of themselves, etc. etc. Factoring in chromosomal sex you get a lot of interesting possibilities.

  5. #5 Blumpy McFrumpkin
    July 8, 2011

    Hello, how do we use this information to prolong the elevatorgate clusterfuck? I haven’t studied science, but I have a blog and I like to talk about myself and how people want to fuck me. Thanks in advance.

  6. #6 H-Bob
    July 8, 2011

    As for post-natal biological “triggers”, several species of fish and amphibians can change gender based on the gender ratio of the local population — why couldn’t something analogous occur in humans ? Since the fish/frogs obviously are not computing gender ratios, there is some biological mechanism for them sense gender ratios or population densities. Perhaps some humans can sense (not consciously) a high population density, which could trigger a change in sexuality orientation (e.g., changing to gay (i.e., non-reproductive sexual activity) when the population density becomes high). Such a “trigger” would be consistent with the perception that homosexuality in urban and civilized areas, which would have a higher population density. Perhaps such a “trigger” complements the other mechanisms discussed in your article.

  7. #7 bks
    July 8, 2011

    H-bob, in prison populations, almost without exception, one partner is dominant and one is submissive. What’s up with that?

    –bks

  8. #8 Nedal Nib Idkinezar
    July 8, 2011

    are you any relation to “Bin Laden” ?

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    July 8, 2011

    One study carried out in Australia seems to show that adults in a specific culture (Australian middle class) treated infants very differently depending on their knowledge of the infant’s sex.

    I hope this study includes enough longitudinal depth to continue into the subjects’ adulthood.

    If doing so found significant influences on said subjects’ lifestyles &/or orientation, would ethics committees allow similar research thereafter?

  10. #10 CherryBombSim
    July 8, 2011

    And it’s quite likely that a person’s path through the N points is chaotic. Think of the pins in a pachinko machine: you have genetic variation at the top determining where the ball is dropped, but there is no obvious correlation with which hole the ball falls into at the bottom. It’s a problem with most efforts to find genetic bases for any complex behavior. It’s not just hard to control for environmental effects, it’s damned near impossible.

  11. #11 daedalus4u
    July 8, 2011

    Cherry, it is not damned near impossible, it is impossible.

    Development physiology couples to the environment at the level of noise via stochastic resonance. It is the butterfly effect but with the Brownian motion of molecules.

    Greg, there is signaling upstream of steroid synthesis via NO. That signaling is probably more important. High NO inhibits testosterone synthesis, low NO potentiates it. The coupling of steroid physiology to the rest of physiology is likely via NO and superoxide.

    I am going to be at TAM, if you have time, I would like to talk with you about some of this.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2011

    Pierce, yeah, I always wonder about little “Quan” (a subject in one of the studies) and the others were affected as they grew up! Of course, they Quan was only used as a photograph in a study I did not mention, and the infant(s) in the other study … where they were handled … were only used for a day or two in each case.

  13. #13 Anonymous Individual
    July 8, 2011

    Interesting post, thanks.

    I’d like to say something about my own sexuality if that’s not TMI for everyone.

    Firstly, by both biological sex and gender I am male. For most of my life (I am in my 20s), I was simply heterosexual, though I didn’t (and still don’t) have any particular bias towards any particular “BDSM orientation” (for want of a better term) in a sexual relationship with a woman i.e. I’m turned on in roughly equal measure by being dominant, submissive OR vanilla with a female sexual partner.

    However, around when I was 19/20, my sexuality went through a large change in that over the course of about 2/3 months, I started to fantasize firstly about giving oral sex to another man, and later on, having sexual relations in general with other men, though for the most part in these fantasies, I would be taking a submissive role.

    The interesting thing about this for me is a few things:

    * Firstly, I remain “heterosexual” in the sense that I am attracted to members of the opposite sex, but am not attracted to those of the same sex. So I am attracted to women (but since I am a young, white, Anglo-Westerner, maybe throw in middle class in there too, who I am attracted to is culturally biased), but not to men, though I do desire to have sex with them.

    * Also, if you had told me when I was let’s say 17, that I would soon be having fantasies about sleeping with other men, I would never have believed you. Not in a homophobic way, since I’m not (except in the sense that occasionally I have to watch what words I use thanks to cultural brainwashing), but simply because it wasn’t anything to do with my sexuality, and then suddenly it was.

    So I’m interested in what science there might be around these sort of late-teen/early adult changes in sexuality, and also whether there might be a word for what I am, because I haven’t been able to find one so far (though I hate society’s obsession with labels and putting everyone in boxes, I do like science and search engines).

  14. #14 Pierce R. Butler
    July 8, 2011

    I can see some James Dobson wannabe instructing parents that if they want good clean Christian hetero kids, boys must be always tossed and never cuddled and girls vice-versa. :-P

    Somewhere in The Tangled Wing, Melvin Konner describes an experiment of only a few days involving newborn infants with mobiles placed over their cribs: some not moving, some remotely-randomly activated, some shifting in response to a switch under the babies’ pillows. Supposedly, years later, there were measurable differences in their behavior in navigating little obstacle courses and the like (those with no “control” over the mobile being rated most passive: one more pebble of ammunition for those of us who like to rant against the effects of television).

  15. #15 chiral_mirror
    July 8, 2011

    I find this all very interesting. I’ve personally never really felt male or female and often wished there were other options. I’ve talked to other genderqueer people and there doesn’t seem to be any real consensus about anything beyond neither male nor female fitting. Some people seem to feel they’re somewhere between male and female, whereas the whole system just feels alien to me. Don’t have much science to add, but I’d love to read more about it. I know my fingers are more male than the average male’s (measured “fleshed out”, as it were, but I did try to measure along the bones and not the skin)

    Thank you for writing about it.

  16. #16 sidhe3141
    July 9, 2011

    Anonymous Individual: Sounds like bisexual/heteroromantic (sexually interested in both, romantically interested in only one), if you want a word for it.

  17. #17 bks
    July 9, 2011

    Just to try to bring this back to the real world, as opposed to subjective rambling and specious reports about mental states:

    ABC News’ Russell Goldman (@GoldmanRussell) reports:

    Michele Bachmann became the first presidential candidate to sign a pledge, vowing to support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage between a man and a woman, and which calls for a ban on all pornography.

    http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote/2011/07/bachmann-signs-pledge-for-ban-on-porn-and-same-sex-marriage.html

    –bks

  18. #18 Anonymous Individual
    July 9, 2011

    sidhe3141, that’s not quite right, since I don’t just have no romantic attraction to other guys, but I have no “lustful” attraction in terms of “Wow look at the abs on him” or whatever. Or to put it another way, if I wasn’t a feminist, I would be busy gawping at women’s chests in elevators or whatever it is that passes for flirting in Dawkinsville. But I wouldn’t be doing the same to guys.

  19. #19 Nemo
    July 9, 2011

    H-bob, gay people tend to migrate to cities because they’re cosmopolitan and therefore more tolerant, and because they have established gay communities in them. I’m not aware of any evidence for a higher rate of gay people being born into higher-density areas.

  20. #20 heteromeles
    July 9, 2011

    I’m not going to dispute the idea that cultures tend to have a few genders, but it does get a bit more complex than that.

    For example, many complex cultures have classes or castes, and marriage rules and norms within each class. Ruling males are often polygamous, for example (or wannabe polygamous, as in modern politics). The modern middle class officially professes the heterosexual couple as the ideal (whatever reality is), with exceptions based on such things as location and politics.

    I could go on ad nauseum, but the point is that “two genders” really aren’t, because social circumstances within each society affect gender expression too.

    I’d also point out that people need to include population numbers in understanding categories. For example, openly polygamous males tend to be very rare in any human population, mostly because it is a behavior only condoned among the few dominant males. Researchers theorizing about human sexuality really should calculate proportions of each different type of gender in their study populations, rather than either assuming they are “normal” or that, because some verious (like polygamous males) exist, that therefore every male “should” be that way, except for the constraints of culture.

    It may be that a majority (perhaps a slim majority) of humans fall into a couple of rather large bins (heterosexual, pair-bonding men and women), but that there’s a long tail of alternatives, including: asexuals, the LGBT rainbow, the polyamorous crew, the kinksters and (unfortunately) pedophiles and others whose sexual preferences are abusive. That’s a guess, because I don’t know what the numbers say. I just know that all these people exist somewhere.

  21. #21 Doug Alder
    July 9, 2011

    re: steroid surges

    Given the lunacy in the current GOP trying to criminalize miscarriages as murder and their total loathing of all things LGBT one can only wonder how long it will be before they try and victimize women for having children that don’t fit the right’s definition of normal sex/gender etc. and create penalties for those women

  22. #22 sidhe3141
    July 10, 2011

    Doug Alder:
    Please don’t tempt fate. I can actually see how that line of reasoning would go:

    Well, everyone knows that Strong Completely Heterosexual Men Who Do Completely Heterosexual Manly Things And Constantly Think About Completely Heterosexual Sex (In A Completely Heterosexual Way) and Weak Sexually Uninterested Women Who Cook And Clean And Make Sandwiches And Raise The Kids are the only two natural sexes. Therefore, anything that does not fit into those categories is unnatural. And anything unnatural can only arise from human intervention. Therefore, the only time anyone can not fit into those categories is if some Evil Closet Radical Feminist Man Hating Covert Lesbian Who Is Probably A Communist wanted her unborn baby to be a political statement instead of God’s gift to such an unworthy b**** and willed it to be a perverted abomination, using the pill to mess with her baby’s hormones. Won’t someone Please Think Of The Children?

    Anonymous Individual:
    Ah, I see. I suspect “normal primarily heterosexual male” covers that, but I don’t really have a lot of experience with “normal” and IANAExpert.

  23. #23 sidhe3141
    July 10, 2011

    Doug Alder:
    Please don’t tempt fate. I can actually see how that line of reasoning would go:

    Well, everyone knows that Strong Completely Heterosexual Men Who Do Completely Heterosexual Manly Things And Constantly Think About Completely Heterosexual Sex (In A Completely Heterosexual Way) and Weak Sexually Uninterested Women Who Cook And Clean And Make Sandwiches And Raise The Kids are the only two natural sexes. Therefore, anything that does not fit into those categories is unnatural. And anything unnatural can only arise from human intervention. Therefore, the only time anyone can not fit into those categories is if some Evil Closet Radical Feminist Man Hating Covert Lesbian Who Is Probably A Communist wanted her unborn baby to be a political statement instead of God’s gift to such an unworthy b**** and willed it to be a perverted abomination, using the pill to mess with her baby’s hormones. Won’t someone Please Think Of The Children?

    Anonymous Individual:
    Ah, I see. I suspect “normal primarily heterosexual male” covers that, but I don’t really have a lot of experience with “normal” and IANAExpert.

  24. #24 sidhe3141
    July 10, 2011

    Okay, how the heck did that happen? The comment wasn’t there when I hit “Back”…

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2011

    heteromeles:

    Actually, I didn’t say “two genders” I said “a few” and in fact the vast majority of cultures, if not all, are underdetermined in relation to gender diversity. But you are absolutely correct in pointing out additional diversity in gender or things like gender Still, there is probably a shortage of terminology.

    For example, openly polygamous males tend to be very rare in any human population, mostly because it is a behavior only condoned among the few dominant males.

    Well, there is an emic side and an etic side to this argument. The primary limit to polygymy (and polygyny would be the correct term here, not polygamy) is that ever polygynous union subtracts one male’s potential mate from the mating pool.

    “Researchers theorizing about human sexuality really should calculate proportions of each different type of gender in their study populations, rather than either assuming they are “normal” or that, because some verious (like polygamous males) exist, that therefore every male “should” be that way, except for the constraints of culture.”

    We do! Or at least in studies of fertility related aspects of gender across society we do, and it’s called the “operational sex ratio” which manages to include a lot.

    Regarding your last paragraph, I’m sure your right. However, in considering nominal categories (i.e., monogamous heteros, etc.) it is helpful to recoginze that the cultural category “monogamous” is NOT the biological category. Just as “gay men can have kidz!” is real and not just a counter-anti-darwianian-homophobic trope, “monogamy is not all it’s assumed to be not” also has to be kept in mind. Hmmmm …. That borders on “falsehood” territory and may require a blog post…

  26. #26 daedalus4u
    July 10, 2011

    Greg, so what you are saying is that it is polygamous males are the cause of the gay?

    For every extra female that a polygamous male has, there is one fewer female to be the mate of some other male. So either those males become gay, or they will never have a mate.

    So it is those polygamous leaders like Gingrich, Ensign, Sanford and so on that are the cause of the gay.

  27. #27 ursuppe
    July 10, 2011

    Thanks for the very interesting post

    This question on asexuality came into my mind reading your post
    http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/4189/is-asexuality-real/4206#4206

    How do you put asexuality in your big picture here? (which i totally agree with)

    Can from a genetic POV asexuality exist? Seems like a evolutionary oxymoron. The case of the gerbils in the links looks pretty similar to what you describe above for the human case – pre and postnatal conditioning. Is asexuality a kind of not happened gender conditioning. Many asexuals seem to be better described as auto-sexuals, they masturbate and do feel orgasm, but dont look for intimacy with other humans.

    I have my problems with assuming that asexuality exists as genetic disposition, following your argumentation of highly fine tuned gender distribution put into rough cultural gender categories. All genders there seem to be a mixture of homo/hetero. Is asexuality a type of suppressed homo/hetero/bi sexual behaviour by psychological disorder? The concepts/terms of a-,auto-,non-sexuality confuse me a little…

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2011

    Asexuality as a phenomenon in humans is really understudied. It is certainly not genetic. It is defined as the lack of sexual attraction across a lifetime, as opposed to shorter (but not necessarily very short) periods of lack of sexual activity or attraction. One recent study (citation below) looked at the usual tests for sexual arousal in women (a device that measures vaginal pulse amplitude). There were differences between asexual and non-asexual women, but the tests did not indicate any measurable difference in sexual function. In other words, this study suggests that asexual women are sexual when it comes to … well, vaginal pulse amplitude (and subjective measures).

    I quickly add that the study had an abysmally small sample size and is the only one of its kind that I know of, therefore we can’t evaluate it. They may well have been barking up the wrong tree.

    link
    Brotto, L. & Yule, M.
    Physiological and Subjective Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Asexual Women
    Archives of Sexual Behavior, Springer Netherlands, 2011, Vol. 40, pp. 699-712
  29. #29 yet another genderqueer
    July 11, 2011

    Mr Laden, thank you for posting about this sort of stuff, enlightening people of the complexities of reality. The fewer ignorant people there are in the world the better. Also, less ignorance means less danger for us who fall between the culturally approved genders.

  30. #30 Helen
    July 11, 2011

    Thanks so much for this blog post! It’s nice to see environment getting more play in the discussion of gender identity. When I was a wee lass in the 1970′s, the party line was that it was environment. Since then, it’s been all genes and/or prenatal hormonal exposure and has stayed that way in most people’s minds ever since. What is much more interesting and realistic is an interplay between the two. And people really underestimate the influence of culture.

    I have three-year-old twin daughters. We’re trying to raise them in a way that is not constrictive regarding gender and “gender-based” choices. (I see parents with boys struggling with this more, since the punishments for being a boy with female-identified interests are much harsher.) We were lucky to inherit some boy-identified toys, such as Bob the Builder tools and trucks. (We don’t watch TV, so we just have the books and toys.) They are interested in tools and trucks as a result. They are not obsessed with construction vehicles, as some boys are, but have a healthy interest.

    They haven’t talked much about what’s a boy or girl thing to be interested in, but they got the clothes thing right out of the gate. Sometimes they want to dress “like a boy” and sometimes only a dress will do. Sometimes they wear something more gender-neutral, but because the source of our hand-me-downs doesn’t provide many such choices, usually their outfits are pretty gendered (flowers, pastels, and such). When they were only two, I was surprised at how clearly they could ID a “boy” vs. a “girl” sock. They correctly identified the ones with athletic stripes and motifs as “boy,” and would either favor or disfavor that choice depending on whether they wanted to “look like a boy” that day. I’d never talked about clothes as being “boy” or “girl”; they must have picked this up from observing what kids wore at play groups.

    Your point about certain gender preference – like color or clothing – being clearly culture-based rather than innate (as evidenced by the variability among cultures of gender assignment of such) is very apt. The socks example falls into this category, and my girls demonstrate how early kids pick up on and follow these cues – even when encouraged *not* to by their parents.

    Based on our evolutionary past, I suppose I could accept that girls might be slightly more inclined toward more nurturing activities, like playing with dolls, and boys more toward combat or hunting-related types of play (like sports, war games, maybe even interest in large vehicles). But I don’t get how evolutionarily based sex differences would influence other things, like interest in cooking (though I suppose there is a theory (“Catching Fire”) supporting cooking as evolutionarily female), using toy tools, blocks, crafts, computers, adornment, and such. I think much of gender preferences is modeling or subtle/not-so-subtle encouragement or discouragement, like which toys are given to kids and what they see other kids playing with – whether in real life, in TV ads, or on the box of said toy. I’m not very handy, but I’m proactive, so my daughters see me getting out the toolbox pretty regularly to tighten or hammer this or that thing, and so they associate tools with me. In fact, one of them asked me recently “does Daddy use tools?” They like playing with tools, they like playing with blocks, they like playing with dolls, they like wearing fancy dresses, and they also like wearing their baseball caps.

  31. #31 DuWayne
    July 11, 2011

    Helen –

    It is absolutely impossible to raise a child to be gender neutral, unless you somehow manage complete gender neutrality at home and never take them outside the house – at least anywhere they will see other humans, or evidence of other humans. It is absolutely amazing how subtle the cues kids can integrate can be. There is a great deal of evidence that would suggest that, for example, even if they are not a natural child of said adult, children raised by someone who used to engage in addictive behaviors have a significantly elevated risk for substance abuse. Likewise, children of substance abusing parents who are raised by others do not have as significantly elevated a risk for substance abuse, as those raised by parents who did, or currently do.

    My point is, is that the subtle behavioral cues coming from someone who is no longer engaging in substance abuse, are enough to increase the risk of substance abuse (relevant only to my example, this has led to great research in how we might mitigate this risk). Every bit of research I have read indicates that gender neutrality in child rearing is near enough to impossible, to simply state that it is impossible. Especially as the very few examples that might be considered successful, are well within the range for “naturally” occurring transgender.

    The problem with this is that very young children are able to suck up virtually every cue around them. The younger they are, the more they are taking from their environment and the more firmly entrenched everything becomes in their neural pathways.

    What I tend to think is far more important than gender neutrality (that is not to say that raising them with that in mind is bad – I do that with my two boys, the youngest of whom has decided that when he wants what he thinks mama should provide, he simply calls me mama), is maintaining relevant communication skills with your children and making sure that they understand why this is important to you – a conversation that should happen often and very honestly over the years. That is likely to have far more impact than attempting gender neutrality.

    That said, it will be considerably more effective if you continue with the gender neutrality. While it is unlikely to actually produce a gender neutral person, it does increase the likelihood of producing a more tolerant person, whose tolerance won’t be subject to the whims of those rebellious phases. And of course it must always be understood that no matter what you do, it is always a crapshoot – kids have this maddening tendency to be, well, human and eventually engage in their own decisionmaking.

  32. #32 Helen
    July 11, 2011

    DuWayne -

    I completely agree. We’re not even trying for gender-neutral – we gave them girls’ names, not gender-neutral ones, and don’t discourage dresses, and, in fact, put them in dresses for special occasions before they even had any say about it. But within the context of acknowledging their being girls and going along with certain conventions – at least surface ones, like names and clothes – I want them to get the message that they can be interested in anything, be good at anything, and also not be obligated to be interested in or good at anything, because of their gender. Instead of attempting androgyny (as I did in my early twenties!), what we see them engaging in is a mixture of signifiers and interests. I mean, dresses are fun, but so are power drills. Power drills aren’t allowed yet, but pretend drills are.

  33. #33 TGGP
    July 12, 2011

    I’d be interested in hearing about the being raised by addictive people studies. I’ve read Judith Harris’ “The Nurture Assumption” and that’s about it.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    July 12, 2011

    Helen,

    But I don’t get how evolutionarily based sex differences would influence other things, like interest in cooking (though I suppose there is a theory (“Catching Fire”) supporting cooking as evolutionarily female),

    Yeah, I was involved int he Catching Fire research (co-authored the first paper on it, etc.). I would have thought orientation towards cooking would be totally non-genetic, and I still think that. A sub culture can instantly reverse roles or disconnect gender with cooking, it seems. At the same time, there is not a single traditional culture where women don’t do the primary cooking, and only a handful where men do any at all, and that is always in some ritual setting. That is a gender difference that as far as I can tell is entirely an emergent property of culture and circumstantial yet is tied to our deep evolutionary history and displays almost no cultural variation, and it is an extremely important activity.

    Great insights from your twin girls!

  35. #35 DuWayne
    July 12, 2011

    TGGP –

    I will do my best to dig through my mess of a PDF archive when I have power at home again and can actually access and search it. My email is duwayne dot brayton at gmail – I cannot promise I will get to it quickly, as I am absent minded, taking classes this summer and raising two boys myself – but I will try to get to it as soon as possible. I am not sure if none of the papers are paywalled, but I know most would be.

    I can say that they aren’t definitive, as none have utilized large enough samples (finding appropriate samples is obviously not easy for this type of study) and at least two of them were likely confounded by respondent bias. However, there was a study that actually just went through all the respondent data available from four different studies and attempted to eliminate cases where respondent bias was likely an issue.

    But I have read through papers on six different studies and a lit review that explored two others I hadn’t read. For all the potential flaws, most of the studies produced consistent results, within an acceptable margin of error. There was one that was definitely an outlier and it isn’t at all obvious why it was outlier, unless the sample was from a statistically anomalous geographic area. Across teh board it found considerably higher rates of substance abuse.

    I would also note that one of the reasons I am more comfortable accepting these results, is that they are consistent with what we now understand about neuroplasticity. Specifically, it is consistent with what we understand about the neural development of small children and their ability to integrate such very subtle behavioral cues.

    That said, this is far from the end-all of how substance abuse can become a problem for individuals. There is a growing body of evidence that would suggest many, possibly most cases of substance abuse disorders are the result of the comorbidity of other mental illness – with a particularly strong correlation found between substance use disorders and mood disorders. Schizophrenia is also correlated with substance abuse to the extent that the only reason that not all people with schizophrenia engage in substance abuse is likely a lack of exposure.

    On the topic of Judith Harris’ research, it is my understanding that she doesn’t do a great job of accounting for what we now know about how much children pick up at an extremely early age. And I am also not claiming that addictive behaviors are entirely dependent on parental influences. What I am claiming, is that parents have a very profound influence on personality and some behavioral traits at a very young age – as in infancy.

    That said, I have never read “The Nurture Assumption,” or all that much of her work. I sincerely doubt the level of certainty she puts into her assertions, but also would not be surprised if ultimately peers and even more, our cultural context have a stronger influence on the development of behavioral traits than parents do – though I would assume that parents/peers are probably closer to equal in influence, while cultural context has a stronger influence than either.

    My point though, is that parents/primary caregivers have the strongest influence over the most pervasive (ie. far reaching, most firmly entrenched) personality/behavioral traits, because they have the most influence at the period when such traits have the strongest impact.

  36. #36 Michael
    July 12, 2011

    As for being born a gay person; Well some of us have a tendency to idolatry, murder and adultery (which includes homosexuality) but who would applaud an Idolaters, Adulterers or Murders Pride Parade?

    Even African-American leaders said comparing demands for gay marriage to civil rights is inappropriate.

    It is a stubborn demand by heterophobes to obfuscate the worldwide—and long tradition—of the acceptance of the meaning of marriage.

    This has to do with obfuscation. What will NY do with polygamous “marriage,” transgender “marriages”, Man-Child “marriage” advocates, or “marriage” for those who practice bestiality?

    See where we are soon headed?

  37. #37 DuWayne
    July 12, 2011

    Michael –

    Well some of us have a tendency to idolatry, murder and adultery (which includes homosexuality) but who would applaud an Idolaters, Adulterers or Murders Pride Parade?

    The difference being that the tendencies you’re talking about aren’t innate characteristics and really, the murder thing is all I really give a damn about. While I am not fond of people cheating on their partners, I don’t think it is as much a problem as you do. And given that you somehow equate homosexual sex as adultery, I assume what you actually mean is fornication – which if that is the case, I am all for celebrating positive sexuality – whether among married people or not.

    As for idolatry, I could care less. I’m an atheist and really don’t buy into any of it.

    Murder is a problem for me, but I would suspect that how you define murder and how I define murder are two different things altogether. We have parades every year, celebrating those who risked their lives or gave them, in the process of taking the lives of others. I am not a pacifist by any stretch of teh imagination, but I do recognize that there were a whole lot of murders committed by those men and women we celebrate every year. War is rife with murder – whether lawful or not, murder defines war.

    Even African-American leaders said comparing demands for gay marriage to civil rights is inappropriate.

    You mean like Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? Oh wait, they themselves have equated gay rights with civil rights. Sure, some black leaders have come out rather strongly against gay rights, or at least the comparison of gay rights with civil rights, but that is because there is no monolithic African American/black community – any more than there is a caucasian community.

    It is a stubborn demand by heterophobes to obfuscate the worldwide—and long tradition—of the acceptance of the meaning of marriage.

    You mean the tradition of marriage only being for landed gentry? Or the tradition of marriage being between a man and his many wives? Or are you talking about the tradition of different types of marriage that include short term marriages – such as those that last roughly an hour? Or could you be talking about the long tradition of marriage that considers wives to be nothing more than chattel – including the husbands right to beat, rape and in some traditions even kill their wives?

    I would note that accepting the very first tradition on the list, all of those forms of marriage exist in the world today. Every fucking one of them.

    This has to do with obfuscation. What will NY do with polygamous “marriage,” transgender “marriages”, Man-Child “marriage” advocates, or “marriage” for those who practice bestiality?

    Some of these are not at all like the others. I am all for consensual marriages that might include more than two partners and support the right of transgendered persons to marry (I should note that this is already legal in a whole lot of jurisdictions, as they recognize the gender of the person, not the sex they were born with). On the other hand, comparing gay marriage to non-consensual and even non-human relations is just fucking sick. But what should we expect from a bigoted fucking asshole?

  38. #38 Jason
    November 6, 2011

    Men with a certain ratio tend to be more athletic or more gay, for instance.

    Are these in opposition, at least as regards 2D:4D?

  39. #39 Greg Laden
    November 7, 2011

    No.