This post is a reply to EvolutionistX’s article “Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one: Sex is biological; gender is a social construct.” Located here:
In that post EvolutionistX defends the claim that sex is a social construct, a claim I wish to respectfully dispute. EvoX begins her article with the claim:
“X is a social construct does not mean “X is totally made up.” It means, “The word is defined however the hell people feel like using it.” This is true of all language.”
Right from the beginning you can see that the source of her error comes from being lead astray by certain outmoded semantic and conceptual issues. I discuss these same issues concerning the word “race” here. If I feel like using the word “dog” to refer to elephants it does not affect the meaning of “dog”, it just means I am using it incorrectly. Language consists of a mass of public conventions, each which is reproduced for their ability to often enough meet speaker and hearer common interests. That “dog” refers to dogs in English is a fact about these public conventions, and if I idiosyncratically decide to use “dog” to refer to elephants it does not affect the meaning of “dog.” That terms have their history and proliferate and survive because they successfully facilitate communication about specific things in the world is a fact about the world.
But there is something else mistaken here. Social constructs are usually contrasted with natural kinds. To say that X is a social construct is in part to say that there are no natural kinds X. For example, to say that race is a social construct is to say that race is not a natural kind, that there are no mind or social-practice independent kinds that are races. And so to say that “x is a social construct” means “The word is defined however the hell people feel like using it” is mistaken about the nature of social constructs. That something is a social construct is primarily an ontological claim, not a claim about language (although it might then require an account of how language for constructs works if it is not being used to refer to natural kinds).
EvoX goes on to state:
“200 years ago, people did not define “biological sex” as “has XX or XY chromosomes,” because no one knew about chromosomes, and yet they still had this concept of “biological sex.””
Notice the unstated premise here: there is a single concept of each thing that is shared by all individuals who understand a term and it must be the same through all time periods. Since people had a concept of biological sex 200 years ago, before they had a concept of chromosomes, the concept of biological sex can have nothing to do with chromosomes.
EvoX is here being lead to her conclusion by an old-fashioned view of concepts. The traditional view, descended from Kant, is that concepts are ways of organizing experience, or “carving up reality.” Her unspoken premise is that there is one concept of X, that all individuals who speak a language share this same concept, and that it doesn’t change across time. On the other hand, the contemporary view is that concepts are not classification schemes. Instead, concepts are mental abilities to reidentify what is objectively the same on disparate occasions and under disparate conditions. So 200 years ago people might have identified an individual’s sex by, say, checking for the presence of male or female genitalia, and today we might use genetic testing, but these are just different ways of identifying the same real (that is, not socially constructed) natural phenomenon. It in no way calls into the question the reality of the phenomena.
EvoX then goes into a long discussion of different sexual conditions, abnormalities, and syndromes. Her examples are supposed to loosen up our intuition that essence of sex is the possession of XX or XY chromosomes. The lesson EvoX wants us to draw from these cases is that the existence of these conditions calls into question the reality of sex. How is this supposed to work? The problem is that EvoX is working on the essentialist view that a sex is a class of individuals with some common essential property. If you define being a male as possession of male genitalia, EvoX will show you a male who lacks male genitalia; if you define it as the possession of XY chromosomes, EvoX will show you someone who possesses an XY chromosome but did not develop as a normal male; if you think male is XY and female is XX, EvoX will show you individuals who are neither XY nor XX.
The problem is that biology does not work on this essentialist basis; it works on the basis of function/malfunction, normal/abnormal. The real lesson to draw from examples such as those presented by EvoX is that sex is a functional biological norm, and individuals can deviate from this norm in many different ways. “Biologically normal” means working as designed by natural selection, or being in the condition it is supposed to be in, where “design” and “supposed to” means that the item is in the condition its ancestors were in on those occasions where they actually were selected for by natural selection. I will use “design” and “supposed to” since they are more intuitive to grasp and easier than writing out “as happened historically when the mechanism was selected for” each time.
For instance, take the nectar retrieval system of the honeybee. When a bee finds a source of nectar it flies back to the hive and does a squiggle dance. The turns and pace of the dance indicate to watching bees the location of the nectar relative to the sun and hive. The perceiving bees then fly off to the location indicated by the dance and retrieve the nectar. That is how the retrieval system is supposed to work, how it is designed to work.
Lots can go wrong however. For one, perhaps the bee misidentifies something as a source of nectar that isn’t one. Maybe it is a plastic flower and not a real one. Or perhaps this bee has a brain parasite and its internal mapping system miscalculates the location of the nectar. Or perhaps the system that translates the bee’s inner directions into dance moves suffers from brain damage so that the bee does a malformed dance. Or perhaps the viewing bees have visual impairment and perceive the dance incorrectly and so fly off in the wrong direction. Or maybe environmental conditions are unfavorable and the bees are blown off course by a tornado. All of these are abnormalities that prevent the dance from performing its function as it was designed to. But none of this shows that the dance wasn’t supposed to map the location of nectar, or that a sperm which doesn’t fertilize an egg wasn’t supposed to, or a heart that can’t pump blood wasn’t supposed to, or camouflage that fails to make an animal invisible to predators wasn’t supposed to. This is how it can be said that camouflage might fail, or that a heart might be deformed, or that there is a right dance for the bee to do given the location of nectar, or that a thalidomide baby developed abnormally.
Thus, that each previous step has been done as designed is a biologically normal condition of each subsequent step functioning normally. That the bee’s internal system of translating the mental map or directions it has in mind is working as designed is a biologically normal condition for the perceiving bee’s mental system of translating squiggles and loops into a mental map. If the dance isn’t performed as designed, the perceiving bee’s translation system can’t work as designed—what is biologically normal for the perceiving system is that the dance actually corresponds to the location of nectar. All of these steps are supposed to line up and work as designed for the entire system to work as designed.
To take another example, when light enters the eye it is focused on the retina. The rods and cones fire depending on the quality of the light and send a signal up the optic nerve to the brain where the information is processed into a mental image of the world. That is how the vision system works when it is working normally. But things can be abnormal at every step. A cataract might prevent the light from passing through the lens undistorted, nearsightedness might make the image out of focus, the rods and cones might be damaged and not fire, the optic nerve might be severed, brain damage might prevent the production of an accurate image. Each of these steps requires the others to be working correctly for the system to work as designed.
And so, being a human male isn’t whether you are XY, it is whether you are supposed to be XY; it is whether this is what would have been the biologically normal result had the process that determines sex worked as designed. Like the bee dance example, when a fertilized egg ends up XY this is supposed to kick off a whole series of events that are supposed to line up. If you are XY you are supposed to develop male genitalia, your body is supposed to develop a certain way (with greater upper body strength, for example), and when your brain develops you are supposed to psychologically identify as a male, and are supposed to be attracted to females. All of these steps are designed to line up in this way in order for one to develop as a normal male.
But also like the bee dance, each step in the developing and functioning of the human sexual system can go wrong. When a sperm fertilizes an egg, for a few moments the chromosomes fight it out to see which ones are going to be expressed. The system is designed to produce either XX or XY, but things can go abnormally and the system fail to produce its selected effect. During these short moments where sex actually hangs in the balance, it might truly be indeterminate what sex the individual is supposed to be. However, none of EvoX’s examples are cases where you can’t determine what sex the individual is supposed to be (I suspect that any individuals whose chromosomes develop so abnormally that it is truly indeterminate whether they are supposed to be male or female, where the recombination of chromosomes truly failed, prove unviable and do not reach birth). As with everything in the biological world, things don’t always go as designed and the process might occur abnormally where we end up with individuals who are neither XX nor XY. But this does not effect whether they are supposed to be XX or XY. The system works correctly close to 99% of the time, which is pretty good for the biological world, and not unexpected given that everything is riding on whether the individual develops in a sexually normal way.
To take some of EvoX’s examples:
“Klinefelter Syndrome: person is born XXY instead of XX or XY. People with KS have tiny genitals. The Y chromosome triggers male development, but the two Xs cause an over-production of female hormones. Most people with KS are infertile. KS occurs in 1:500 to 1:1000 live male births.”
This is the case of abnormal male development. The very phrase “over-production of female hormones” and “male births” indicates that there are supposed to be fewer female hormones, that the presence of this many female hormones is abnormal in males.
“Some other obscure conditions with similar names are XYY, XXXX, and XXYY Syndrome. People with only one X chromosome and nothing else have Turner Syndrome. TS affects about 1 in 2000 to 1 in 5000 females, or about 75,ooo to 30,000 Americans.”
Evox X says right in the text that “TS affects about 1 in 2000 to 1 in 5000 females [my emphasis]” as in, we know they are females with an abnormality.
“Androgen insensitivity syndrome “is a condition that results in the partial or complete inability of the cell to respond to androgens. The unresponsiveness of the cell to the presence of androgenic hormones can impair or prevent the masculinization of male genitalia in the developing fetus, as well as the development of male secondary sexual characteristics at puberty, … these individuals range from a normal male habitus with mild spermatogenic defect or reduced secondary terminal hair, to a full female habitus, despite the presence of a Y-chromosome.””
This passage is full of normative terms such as “inability,” “unresponsiveness,” “impair,” “prevent,” “defect,” “reduced.” All of this shows that these individuals are not developing the way that is biologically normal. If this condition “can impair or prevent the masculinization of male genitalia” the presupposition is that male genitalia are what are supposed to develop.
“Kallmann syndrome is a genetic disorder in which, “the hypothalamic neurons that are responsible for releasing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH neurons) fail to migrate into the hypothalamus during embryonic development.”
The most prominent symptom is a failure to start puberty; oddly, one of the other common symptoms is an inability to smell. It affects both men and women.”
Just by saying “It affects both men and women” shows that we can tell what sex the individual is.
These kinds of disorders do not only affect physical development, they are present in psychological development as well. Transsexuals are those whose sense of sexual identity does not align with their biological sex as is normal. I suspect that nature gives us an inborn sense of sexual identity so that we go on to behave as our sex in order to aid us in attracting a mate and passing on our genes. (Many transsexuals go on to produce offspring despite their disorder as other compensating factors such as social pressure come into play.) In homosexuals the psychological mechanism that determines the object of sexual attraction is working abnormally and hooking the individual up with the wrong object. Biological sex and object of sexual attraction are supposed to line up, but in homosexuals this isn’t happening. See my “The Myth of Sexual Orientation.”
In conclusion, sex is real, it can’t be changed, and there are only two of them. The cases that are presented to show otherwise all rely on an unwarranted essentialism, and ignore the fact that biological phenomena are functional in nature. Caitlyn Jenner is still a dude.
Update: So what is male and female?
The original post was not intended to provide an account of male and female, it was just to show that examples such as those presented by EvoX did not call into question the reality of sex. I said that sex is a functional norm where “function” is to be understood as what something is selected for, or what effect the item produced that provided a reproductive advantage and so was selected for replication. And so what we need is an account of why sexual reproduction occurs at all and why it takes the form it does. There is as of right now no universally accepted theory of why sexual reproduction started hundreds of millions of years ago and what advantage it bestowed over asexual reproduction. A popular theory is the Red Queen hypothesis which holds that the recombination of alleles during sexual reproduction occurs so as to keep a step ahead of parasites evolving to attack the organism. When sexual reproduction does occur one of the organisms does not contribute organelles so as to prevent competition within the organism to pass on its own organelles.
And so, if sexual reproduction produces an organism that is not supposed to contribute organelles so as to prevent the negative effects of intra-organism competition it is male. If it is supposed to pass on its organelles, it is female. This works for odd species such as crocodilians which don’t possess the xx/xy sexual chromosomes just as well as for those that do.
Whether this is the theory that is ultimately accepted is unimportant. It is just an example of how a theory of what the sexes were selected for tells us what it is to be male or female.