If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
You all know this classic example of inductive reasoning: based on a series of observed characteristics, we assume the most plausible explanation for them (the simplest theory that fits the facts), even if sometimes… we are wrong (for instance, a mallard looks, swims, and quacks like a duck but it is no duck — still, we would be right most of the time, and that’s the whole point.
MtF transexuals will obviously argue the same way: if it looks like a woman, walks like a woman, and talks like a woman, well, then it probably is a woman. Indeed, we would also be right most of the time, but… perhaps not always.
What, quoting Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists??
These days, science (both medical science and social science) agrees with a fundamental tenet of transgenderism: only the person herself or himself knows what their gender identity is. We can provide guidance in the sense of helping one’s self-discovery, but, ultimately, your gender identity is something only you can know, since we really cannot read minds…
While legally this might not be the case (few countries as such allow self-determining gender identity – my own country only started to allow that on April 6), doctors these days, at least in more liberal countries, will assess one’s gender identity based on what that person tells about themselves. And doctors will also use inductive reasoning: based on a lot of questions, they can, with reasonable accuracy, give a diagnostic of one’s gender identity. This is was ultimately they will report to allow that person to transition.
Now, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists could not care less about scientific facts (do they remember you of someone?… all right, let’s skip US politics for now 🙂 ). Although their logic is rather convoluted (and I’m being very nice in classifying their argumentation as ‘logical’), the end result is that TERFs assume that only TERFs are able to tell if someone is a woman or not: it’s a question of peer recognition. And TERFs, as you know, do not accept people assigned male at birth as ever being ‘women’. Instead, they see them as very dangerous incursions into their territory, namely, patriarchy agents ‘disguised’ as ‘women’ who are redefining what a ‘woman’ is supposed to be, and therefore perpetuating the patriarchy (as opposed to believing that most trans women, when they are feminists, are actually abandoning their privilege as members of the patriarchy, just because they do not identify with them in the least — and that’s something TERFs pretend not to see), by establishing the ‘rules’ of who should be considered a woman and who should not. In other words: TERFs do not recognise trans women the ‘right’ to call themselves ‘women’ at all, much less to ‘define’ what a ‘woman’ is supposed to be; that’s a privilege only TERFs have, and it’s non-negotiable. That summarises pretty much their argumentation.
Now, we can simply ignore TERFs (like we ignored certain tall people with strange hair and small hands… ok, ok, I promised not to go into US politics, so I won’t!), brush them off, label them as insane, and go on with our lives. After all, we know exactly what a ‘woman’ is supposed to be, right?
Strangely enough… the answer is not a loud ‘yes’. As a matter of fact, one of the many criteria for transexuality is to ‘consider oneself to have the feelings and emotions of a gender different from the one assigned at birth’. If a sexologist, therefore, asks a trans woman how she feels, she will tell him that she feels like a woman, has the emotions of a woman, and none of the stereotypical feelings/emotions/thoughts of a man. Affirming this is something that goes a long way towards the diagnosis.
TERFs, by contrast, ask ‘how do they know?’ In other words: a trans woman will have been born with a male body (or at least a body that is more male than female). That body will have produced male hormones (either only in the womb, if that person’s transgenderity is caught very early; or during puberty, if the person only seeks transition after adolescence), which will have changed the chemical composition of the body, and turned it into ‘male’ (giving them primary sexual characteristics in the womb, and secondary ones during puberty). While we cannot affirm how exactly the brain was affected (and in the case of trans people, the brain — and the mind emerging from that brain — does not seem to be affected whatsoever by the hormonal cocktail which changes the body), TERFs assume that, for all purposes, a trans woman cannot feel what a cisgender woman feels, because they don’t even have the right body to ‘feel’ things properly.
There is here a strong fallacy — TERFs who are less experienced in logic will argue that trans women do not have an uterus, and, as such, they cannot feel what a ‘real’ woman feels.
This, of course, is stupid; first of all, there are many women without an uterus. Either they have been born with a genetic defect which prevented their uterus to fully develop (but they have normal hormonal levels and therefore fully develop as females, and identify as such), or they might have been forced to remove the uterus due to disease or cancer. They are not ‘lesser’ women because of that. On the flip side of the coin, uterus transplants are now a reality, although they are still at the experimental stage; and, once they become a routine surgery, due to the difficulty of obtaining potential donors, it’s unlikely that they will be available to trans women ‘soon’. However, that’s hardly the point: the question is that all attempts to define ‘women’ based on whatever physical attributes one might choose will utterly fail, since eventually there will be some woman lacking characteristic X and still be called a woman; while there will be some male person with precisely that characteristic X and still be considered male.
But even when we move towards mental states, the situation is hardly simpler. We know now that males and females of the human species have exactly the same brain capabilities – and that includes intelligence and emotional intelligence as well. One way we can see stereotypes being so easily broken is by looking at how women complete their university studies in astrophysics, engineering, or any other degree requiring a lot of complex math – contradicting the stereotype that ‘women are not good at math’ – or they become world-famous architects, also contradicting the theory that women are not good at spatial reasoning; and remember that in these areas the number of new degrees comes from women, not men, something which is true across Europe and North America (but also on some countries where women were traditionally not allowed to study and who have recently given access to all high education degrees – here, they outnumber men as well). On the other hand, the top chefs in the world are mostly male, and so are most of the best fashion designers – saying that men are not good at cooking or sewing is simply stereotyping again.
When we start talking about emotions, and about how women are good at intuitive thinking, while men are more rational… well, if we are serious about doing a non-biased study, we will (not surprisingly) find out that both intuition and logic are equally used by men and women; giving an average group of men and/or women, there will be some who are more intuitive, some who are more rational, and this is not really something that either gender is ‘better’ at doing. Similarly, the issue about ’emotions’ or ‘feelings’ is also not shifted more towards women than men; it’s just that socially each is conditioned to express themselves differently. Anyone who has watched a football game knows how deeply and intensely run men’s emotions!
So the ‘deep thinkers’ among TERFs (yes, there are a few…) present a much more convoluted reasoning: to be a woman one has to have been raised as a girl since childbirth, going through puberty as a girl, and finally become a mother and a wife, or at least aspiring to put their uterus to good use. Essentially, therefore, being a woman is basically getting the whole female life experience. And this is something that late on-set MtF transexuals obviously cannot have had.
The problem for TERFs is that these days trans children are being identified as such at such an early stage that they will practically get the whole experience, at least since the moment they are conscious of their own selves – and ultimately that’s what counts! So I wonder how they argue these days (to be honest, I don’t really keep up with their ranting…). Still, it’s clear that TERFs do not agree that anyone is allowed to decide who is a woman and who is not — except for TERFs, of course. And on the reverse side we cannot even create a list of characteristics that ultimately decides who is a woman and who is not, at least if we work from a neutral point of view.
The issue is exactly that: we do not start from a ‘neutral’ point of view. Instead, we make our assertions based on social roles – constructs that serve as archetypes for each person to identify with. Thus, girls will have a predisposition to be with other girls and learn from them what it means to be a girl – in that particular society. This will show as specific mental traits (including how one’s personality is shaped) – say, women are ‘allowed’ to weep in public when they are angry or sad or disappointed, while men are only ‘allowed’ to do so when their soccer team loses. These are all acquired behaviours which will change from society to society, and from epoch to epoch; men in the 18th century wore makeup just as women did, and their clothes were as complex and colourful as the dresses women wore; furthermore, they had no restrictions to fully express all their range of emotions in public. It used to be women who were told not to express themselves publicly, to remain silent and submissive; the 18th century allowed both genders to fully express themselves; and from the 19th century onwards, both genders became much more controlled about the display of their emotions. So we will always need to take into account a specific social environment when talking about the gender role differences. They are not obvious, much less intrinsic or inborn; the only thing which is, indeed, defined at birth is the identification with a specific gender, and that does indeed mean that boys want to become men (following the archetypes and stereotypes that are current in their society) and girls want to become women.
And here is where the catch is: a semantics issue, where we confuse ‘being a woman’ in the biological sense and ‘being a woman’ in the social sense. We really need to be clear about what we’re talking about!
TERFs claim that trans women, no matter what they do to their bodies, will never ‘become women’ (according to whatever biological/behaviourist definition they might come up with). That’s only true in the strictly biological sense – but not in the sense that matters, that is, in one’s gender role.
Ok, so let’s delve deep into human biology…
It’s not unusual to question what exactly defines a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ in our contemporary society: after all, philosophers (and feminists!) do it all the time. It used to be simple: you’d look at the genitals and say, this person is a man, this is a woman, this is something else (on those societies that allowed third genders) or an Abomination Unto the Lord and should be killed/maimed (as we did until very recently in the West). There was no question of allowing women with male genitalia or vice-versa, even if history — from Joan D’Arc to le Chevalier D’Éon — is full of exactly those examples. Still, we can at least agree that such varieties from the norm were unusual; they were (and still are!) considerably rare.
But ‘rarity’ is not something that can used as a pretext to ignore its existence. For instance: people are constantly confusing the ‘flu with the common cold. The common cold, as its name implies, is common: one in every five persons in the world will contract it at least once this winter. The ‘flu, by contrast, is relatively rare: only one in 1,500 or so people will be affected by the ‘flu. We still continue to confuse both, and believe that an extra-tough case of the common cold (‘rhinopharyngitis’, as doctors call it to make it sound more serious) is a ‘flu, when it’s absolutely nothing of the kind: the influenza virus (causing ‘flu) has nothing to do with the rhinovirus (causing cold). They are different kinds of viruses. It’s just that they cause similar symptoms, but a lot of diseases cause symptoms that (at least at the beginning) are very similar to the common cold. And to make things even more confusing, both the ‘flu and the common cold are often confused with a form of rhinitis (there are many!) which might not even be triggered by any microorganism at all, but just be an allergic reaction to the change of weather. And don’t forget hay fever — which happens by the end of summer — which is also an allergy which also shares symptoms with the common cold. In other words: except for someone with a little bit of observation powers (or a trained doctor!), all these diseases seem to be one and the same, although they’re not — they may be not even related at all, they just cause similar (but not the same) symptoms. And this leads to all kinds of silly superstitions — like, for instance, that the cold ’causes’ the ‘flu (it doesn’t; the cold usually affects negatively all microorganisms; it’s just that in the cold season our immune system may be weakened, and therefore we are more likely to contract diseases), while in truth the cold can only ’cause’ one form of rhinitis, at worst, and you must be prone to allergies in the first place. Similarly, someone with a rhinitis or hay fever cannot infect anyone, no matter how much they are sneezing, coughing, and leaving bits of snot around, because allergies cannot be ‘caught’; while you just need to be in the same room as someone with the ‘flu to catch it (they don’t need to cough or sneeze, just to exhale), because that’s how virulent the influenza virus is.
So, enough about sneezing and coughing! The analogy, I hope, is not lost upon you: when we talk about gender identity and gender expression, we tend to confuse a lot of issues, because there is a lot of misinformation, superstition, and plain old prejudice. Sometimes, as I nastily like to add, there is some jealousy — because of the superstitious belief that anyone outside the heteronormative binary gender has way more sex (and in incredibly more satisfying ways!) than those who stick with the God-given sexuality and gender, there is some resentment from the religious folks out there — they wished they could have much more interesting sex lives, but they aren’t allowed to have them, so, full of hate towards those who they believe to be sexually much more liberal, they lash against them. All right, so this is not an established scientific fact, but just something I came to realize over the decades — which baffled me at the beginning. It’s a superstition tracing back to the concept that there is only one ‘approved’ way to have sex, and that’s to procreate — anything else ought to be repressed. One would believe that such a backwards, superstitious idea would have been rooted out of our societies centuries ago, but no: it persists. Just like the superstitions around the ‘flu persist, in spite of decades of medical science telling us what each type of disease is, and how to distinguish their symptoms.
It’s also curious that, in the West at least, gender variance and sexual orientation have not been given much thought before the 19th century. It was assumed that it existed, but people simply didn’t talk much about it, they didn’t write about it, they didn’t draw complex theories about it. Men in the 18th century were simultaneously rascals and effeminate; ‘effeminacy’ was an affectation of the aristocracy (who could indulge in such pleasures as having lots of costly clothes and wearing makeup and wigs all day); this hardly had anything to do with gender stereotypes or sexuality stereotypes, but, eventually, by the time of the French revolution, things started to change, the concept of the ‘gentlemen’ was born (someone who was not a rascal and was guided by a much narrower moral compass), which in turn launched the West in an era of puritan thought, culminating perhaps with the Freudian notions that everything that was wrong with our minds was rooted in sexual issues. In retrospective, we could blame Freud for pretty much scientifically endorsing the notion that ‘sexual perversity’ is rampant in our societies and that all mental issues we have are somehow related to deviant sexual behaviour. Over a century later, we are still stuck to Victorian prejudice, both from a religious standpoint, but also a ‘scientific’ one, by pointing our finger at Freud.
Now, the mere fact that sexuality started to get studied and researched in a methodological fashion in Freud’s days is a good sign; even if Freud got lots of things so wrong, at least he encouraged generations of scientific thinkers to analyse gender and sexuality — formerly taboo areas of research! — more closely, and start to describe them scientifically. The 20th century helped things further, thanks to new advances like medical imageology (yay for X-Rays — you could observe how a human being worked from the inside without killing them first and dissecating them!), genetics (so that’s what determines how a human being will develop!), or very sophisticated medical drugs like synthetic hormones. Still, it was only around the 1950s that the first so-called sexologists were starting to seriously abandon their former prejudices, at the light of new discoveries which simply failed to fit into decade-old assumptions.
What we know now is unfortunately not yet mainstream knowledge; in other words, it hasn’t trickled down to the school’s classroom when students open up their biology books and study human anatomy. We are still stuck in explaining the differences between male and female bodies; it is assumed in the classroom that male humans behave as ‘men’ socially, while female humans behave as ‘women’. Literature, among other subjects, will focus on how males and females interact socially, and how this interaction changed over the centuries; similar comparisons might also be found in geography (showing how gender roles change across continents), history (where the change is seen across time), or even philosophy (where some attempts have been made to ‘explain’ why men have male gender roles and why women have female ones, and why some explanations inherited from the ancient philosophers may not make any sense today). However, this is still not enough: students only learn about the cisgender heteronormative view. Schools having sexual education in their curricula may talk about differing sexualities (because at least one in ten persons will not be heterosexual), but that’s the only thing which is given the thought of ‘variance’. Transgenderity might never be a word heard in school (it certainly wasn’t in my days; and even homosexuality was never mentioned by teachers, at least not during lectures in class). The idea that biological sex is different from sexual/romantic attractions which is not the same thing as gender identity and has nothing to do with gender expression is simply never taught in school. The main reason for that, I think, is that even progressive, liberal thinkers believe that teenagers are already so much confused about their own sexuality that it is pointless to explain things in full.
By doing so, however, we are still bound to the idea that biological conditions somehow influence everything at the same time — and while this is certainly the case for a majority of people (or at least that’s what those people will tell about themselves), we also know, from a scientific point of view, that things are not that easy.
An interesting concept which I have heard from scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart is lies-to-children. This is basically telling a gross oversimplification of a very complex issue to children (or laypersons) that can be used as a teaching tool, but which is fundamentally wrong. I like the simple example of explaining people why the Earth orbits the Sun, so that they understand why it’s not the other way round, as we experience it when looking at the way the Sun moves across the sky. But ‘the Earth orbits the Sun’ is an oversimplification — in reality, both turn around a common point which is the equilibrium between the mutual gravitic attraction of Earth and Sun. Because this point is pretty much deep inside the core of the Sun, it makes little difference, for a layperson, to know about the difference. But it is thanks to this tiny difference that we have managed to figure out hundreds of extrasolar planets: because these also slightly influence the movement of their stars, making them wobble just a tiny bit in their paths, and we can measure that wobbling and figure out how many planets (and how big they are) are orbiting that particular star. In other words: if we took that oversimplification literally (‘no, I’m sure that’s what I have been taught at school!’), then we would never have found those amazing seven Earth-like extrasolar planets in a red star in our stellar neighbourhood.
Similarly, when children learn in school about the differences between the two genders of the homo sapiens species, they get presented a lie-to-children: a simplified theory that humans with XY chromosomes are male, while those with XX chromosomes are female, and we distinguish them through different embryonal development (different primary sexual attributes, e.g. a penis for the boys, a vulva for the girls) and different maturation through puberty (acquisition of secondary sexual attributes). This leads to the widespread belief that ‘men are men, women are women’ so commonly found among religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and other narrow-minded groups (including TERFs!) — because that’s what people get taught at school. It’s amazing the amount of comments you can find on the Internet coming from highly intelligent and educated adults who will stick to these definitions of the sexual differentiation among humans, who, even in spite of having the ability to educate themselves further on the subject, and having rejected many similar lies-to-children during their professional career, refuse to do so regarding how the human sexual development is anything as simple as what we get taught at school. What surprised me most is when doctors repeat these lies-to-children, fully believing them to be literally correct.
In practice, things are much, much more complex than that.
One of the best descriptions I have read about how (biological) sex is determined in humans (unfortunately I didn’t save the link, so you have to google for it yourself) is that our bodies are in a so-called sexual hormonal unstable equilibrium. It sounds scary, but this theory has great explanatory power, and is therefore worth considering as a good description of reality (as opposed as just a more sophisticated form of lies-to-children).
Basically, what happens when we’re first subject to sexual hormones, still in the womb and a long time before there is any resemblance to anything ‘human’ in our embryo, is that our genes encode instructions to produce both male and female hormones — this is, by the way, the reason why most people will always have both kinds of hormones. In a sense, the labeling of ‘male’ and ‘female’ at this stage is purely arbitrary: the body will develop proto-genitalia which are undifferentiated (in other words, no matter what chromosomes you might have, you will start your life with some genitalia which are technically neither male nor female). Don’t worry if this sounds queasy; at that stage, you will still have a tail, so having undifferentiated genitalia is really nothing extraordinary compared to all the other strange body appendages we go through as embryos. Also note that this knowledge is not recent; as far back as (at least) 1858, Gray’s Anatomy already had drawings of these stages of development — you can see for yourself how closely the male and female sexual organs look like during the embryonal stage. It should also not come as a surprise to you that both kinds of sexual organs mostly share the same tissue, they just followed different development paths. In other words, there is much less difference in terms of equivalent functionality (biologists call it homology) than many people still believe (ironically, during the Victorian Era, it was believed that women did not even feel sexual arousement just as men did, even though they knew very well how those homologous structures developed — that is, they ought to have a good understanding on how things worked, since they knew quite well how the sexual organs had developed, i.e. which parts ended up at each position).
Now, what current research shows is that the differentiation comes mostly from a delicate balance, or equilibrium, between the sexual hormones. To be more precise, biological males have one unstable equilibrium, where male sexual hormones (androgens) predominate, while biological females have a different unstable equilibrium where female sexual hormones (estrogens) predominate (and I’m oversimplifying again — there are a lot more hormones influencing the sexual development, but this can easily get very complicated, so bear with my ‘more advanced’ lies-to-children, while at the same time reminding yourself that this is just a part of the whole picture). This equilibrium is not ‘fixed’ for the human species, but is rather specific to each individual, and it is influenced by a lot of possible reasons — one of which, for instance, is the amount of androgen and estrogen receptors to which the hormones can bind to, and how well these receptors work.
In other words: to produce a ‘normal’ male human (‘normal’, as always in my articles, is a mathematical term simply pointing to a statistical majority), there has to be a certain amount of androgens that need to be synthesized by the body; such androgens must be, to a high degree, functional (i.e. the genes encoding the information for that sexual hormone cannot have been subject to a mutation which renders the resulting androgen non-functional — in this oversimplified explanation, ‘functional’ means ‘the ability to connect to androgen receptors’); and the body must have produced a high number of androgen receptors, to which androgen can connect, and, therefore, start to influence the sexual development of that individual into a specific direction. But at the same time the body must also keep the production of estrogens at a low level, as well as the number of estrogen receptors. Males do produce estrogen, and they do have estrogen receptors, because there are certain body functions which rely upon these sexual hormones — not all of which are related to ‘sex’ (even though, perhaps surprisingly, the increase of libido in males requires not only testosterone but also estrogen; just having testosterone is not enough!), namely, things like protecting the arteries to prevent cardiovascular disease (and this is one of the reasons why women are much less prone to die from heart attacks than men — they’re better protected, since they have more estrogen circulating in their blood stream), but also play a role in regulating the bone structure and even brain functions like verbal memory… so, yes, healthy males need estrogen as well, and this is why both males and females have both androgen and estrogen receptors. This point is crucial for the explanation later, so make sure you remember it!
Again, the lie-to-children that ‘women have female sexual hormones, men have male sexual hormones’ is nowhere close to reality. Both genders have (and must have!) both kinds of hormones. Or else… kaput. They die. Humans (and, in fact, most vertebrates and many insects) cannot survive without both kinds of sexual hormones, and both need to be present at a certain level — during all our lives. Indeed, one of the reasons of our decline in advanced age is that we simply don’t produce enough sexual hormones of either kind, and that means the body will slowly lose the ability to protect itself from many diseases. It would be nice to say that getting hormone therapy during all your life would prolong it indefinitely, but, again, things are way more complex than that, although it’s true that having hormone therapy at an advanced age can at least make some age-related diseases more tolerable. The only reason why we don’t do this routinely (although it’s becoming more and more popular to ‘treat’ menopause with hormone therapy) is mostly because the effects of such therapies have not been studied enough except on transexuals; and, secondarily, because of a certain morality that induces conservative doctors to believe that ‘sexual hormones’, i.e. hormones that are required during sex, should not be given to old people, since we still expect them not to have a sexual life any more — which is just a form of prejudice against old people, a kind of ‘ageism’, where we somehow expect ‘senior citizens’ to resign themselves to a life full of pain, diseases, and no more sex. But… I digress!
It’s worth mentioning what exactly those androgen and estrogen receptors are. Basically, they are very complex proteins, which will activate certain genes (which will produce, in turn, other proteins) when androgen or estrogen binds to them. They are different; there is one androgen receptor but at least two estrogen receptors, encoded by different genes. What happens exactly when androgen connects to an androgen receptor, or estrogen connects to one of the types of estrogen receptors? Now, a full description is waaaay beyond my own understanding, but I can give you another sophisticated lie-to-children. First, however, you must understand a little bit about how DNA works. And yes, this will be a gross oversimplification and incorrect in many aspects; after all, I’m not a genetics engineer, nor a molecular biologist, much less a doctor; so take it with a pinch of salt, and look it up at least on Wikipedia, if you’re really interested in the nitty-gritty details.
The common lie-to-children is that DNA is sort of a ‘blueprint’ which produces the proteins required for a human body (well, any living species, actually). So basically the idea you get at school is that you start reading DNA from the beginning to the end, and, hey presto! you get a human being. And you might also have an idea that during this process, some genes might have defects (mutations), and these will produce all sorts of terrible diseases.
A more thorough explanation will also say that the major reason for those mutations to produce those diseases is not necessarily because there is something ‘missing’ from the protein (because of a ‘wrong’ gene at a certain location). Unfortunately, things are so complex that proteins are not merely an assembly of aminoacids; they need to be ‘folded’ in a certain way, in other words, the 3D structure of the protein is crucial for its specific function. This is a long shot from learning, at school, basic chemistry (like oxidation and reduction processes), where you basically couldn’t care less how a molecule of H2O looked like in 3D.
When dealing with living beings, however, the structure is incredibly more fundamental, especially when we’re talking about mechanisms which will activate other mechanisms… let me try to explain it differently, and get back to what a hormone receptor actually does.
So, no, DNA is not like a computer programme which you start at the beginning and stop at the end. Rather, what happens is that an insane amount of highly complex molecules determine where you start to read and where you stop. These molecules, in turn, get ‘activated’ for different reasons, almost all of them triggered by a certain amount of chemicals present in the body. A typical example from a different scenario: your body cells require sugar (glucose) as a form of energy to do their work. When you eat carbohydrates, where the glucose comes from, your body needs to tell the cells to allow that glucose to be absorbed — as much as necessary, but not more than necessary. This is done by triggering the production of the hormone insulin in the pancreas: in other words, the concentration of sugar in the blood will trigger certain complex proteins to tell the insulin-producing cells to start reading the gene for producing insulin (I’ll skip the fascinating way how this actually works, I’d take the whole day to do that, but read it up, it’s really astonishing). Insulin, in turn, has a specific 3D structure which acts as a ‘key’ to insulin receptors on each cell; when the ‘key’ connects to the ‘lock’, the cell becomes porous to glucose (i.e. it allows glucose molecules to flow in). When ‘enough’ glucose enters the cells, insulin ‘shuts down’ the glucose gates, meaning that no more glucose is allowed to enter the cells. If there is still enough glucose around, however, the body needs to get rid of the excess — again, insulin (which is still around!) will this time tell the liver to store the extra glucose. As sugar levels in the blood drop, the special molecules in the pancreas insulin-producing cells stop being ‘active’, and that means they will also stop producing more insulin from reading the gene in the DNA that describes how insulin is assembled from aminoacids. The excess insulin will eventually be flushed out or reabsorbed/recycled (I’m unsure of exactly what happens to insulin, but its levels in the body will drop). When the cells require more energy, after using up all the glucose, they will trigger a very complex chain of chemical events that ultimately will trigger some higher mental functions in the brain letting you know that you’re hungry and are supposed to eat again.
You can see how things can go wrong even with such a simple mechanism. For example, the gene producing insulin may have a mutation, and now the body can only produce a insulin-like hormone which, however, has the wrong shape (because it has a different sequence of aminoacids, it will ‘fold’ differently) to act as a ‘key’. In other words: everything is in place, ready to get all this complex system working, but unfortunately, the key that fits into the lock that allows glucose to enter the cells is broken. This is a simplified explanation of type 1 diabetes — meaning that people with type 1 diabetes will require all their lives to get extra insulin, since their own body only produces defective insulin. Thankfully, because all the rest of the mechanism is in place, the extra shots of insulin will trigger everything in the correct order so that you can trigger all required mechanisms to keep both the sugar levels in the blood, the liver, all the cells — as well as the insulin levels required to maintain all of that.
Another possibility is that the ‘lock’ is ‘broken’. This happens, for instance, if you are repeatedly using the ‘key’ over and over again; eventually, the ‘locks’ start to break apart, and, at some point, the ‘key’ does not fit any more. In slightly more technical terms: the insulin receptors start to become less sensitive to insulin. In some cases, they can even become resistant to insulin (i.e. reject insulin completely and refuse to allow the insulin protein to ‘connect’ to it). This is pretty much a description of type 2 diabetes: due to a lifestyle including a wrong diet, those nasty insulin receptors work much worse than before, and there is nothing else that you can do but to ‘overload’ them with insulin, in the hope that at least some of them will react. And, yes, changing your lifestyle and diet will have an effect — those lazy receptors might start to work again as they should, or possibly the new cells that get produced as you change your lifestyle will have perfectly working receptors.
Confused? Overwhelmed? You well might be. And remember, the ‘insulin cycle’ is one of the simplest, and that’s mostly because there is a single gene for coding insulin, and the mechanism how the sugar blood levels are kept in check with more or less amounts of circulating insulin is rather well understood.
Now we can turn back to sexual hormones. The principles are the same — through release of certain chemicals, driven by sexual hormones attaching to specific receptors, and therefore pushing the protein-producing factories (the ribosomes in the cells) to synthesise certain proteins encoded in the DNA, a typical development is achieved — either in the direction of producing male sexual characteristics or female ones. But the complexity is several orders of magnitude higher than with the insulin-sugar balance — we are talking not only about several different sexual hormones, but receptors which activate a whole complex chain of events, triggering the production of more proteins, which in turn will activate more genes, and produce different proteins, which in turn will also affect the levels of sexual hormones in the body… and so on. You can start to appreciate the complexity just by twisting your mind around this description! And remember, I’m still oversimplifying — bringing it down to the level that I can understand (I’ve just got a smattering of chemistry in my curriculum, but I know almost nothing about complex molecular biology!). Reality is way, way more complex than this. You can also start to understand that things can easily go wrong, among this complexity. And that’s where it begins to become interesting…!
So… if both genders produce both kinds of sexual hormones, how does the body prevent both from affecting the sexual development? In other words: if we all have the potential to get sexual hormones attached to receptors, and these, in turn, will regulate what proteins will be produced (related to either male sexual development or female sexual development), how does the body ‘know’ which way to go?
Clearly this mechanism is still a lie-to-children: it just explains half the story. So, the body not only needs to get the cycle of sexual hormone production in balance, according to one’s gender, but it also needs to prevent the opposite cycle to function. In other words: a male body needs to produce inhibitors of the ‘female’ development cycle while at the same time promoting the ‘male’ development cycle. This needs to be in perfect equilibrium during all the development time, or else this won’t work!
You now should be properly amazed that this works at all, most of the time. Well, remember, Nature has been experimenting with this for millions of generations — sexual development came relatively early in the history of life; even most modern plants have it — and Nature tends to retain things that work well for a long, long time, until something better comes along. But if some mechanism tends to provide excellent results, then, no matter how complex it may be, or how ‘old’ (in the sense of having been developed millions of generations ago) it is, it remains in our collective DNA for really a long time. This is fortunate from the perspective of genetic engineers and molecular biologists: the ‘assembly stones’ that we humans have are shared with millions of species. There is just one DNA. While it technically could encode an infinite number of proteins, in reality, a finite amount has survived the rigours of evolution, and we all share a lot of things in common. And by ‘we’ I’m speaking of the entire spectrum of life on Earth — from bacteria through plants to animals to humans. Of course, younger species (i.e. humans, for instance…) tend to have inherited a lot of baggage from ancient species and still use it, but have made it more and more complex.
Humans, for instance, have a very complex DNA encoding. One would assume that we humans, being a relatively young species, and carrying a lot of baggage and adding whatever genes are required to make us human, we would therefore have the highest amount of genes in exceedingly long DNA strands. Actually, the reverse is true: it’s strange, but we have less genes than more primitive species (‘primitive’ here in the sense of ‘less complex organisms’ — some of those species might actually be ‘young’, e.g. bacteria that affect humans are as ‘young’ as humans, or even younger, but a single-cell organism like a bacteria is necessarily several orders of magnitude less complex than a whole human being…). This baffled everyone for a while, until researchers found out that we use DNA more efficiently — in other words, the same gene (or rather the same group of genes) can encode different proteins, depending on the environment. What this means is that we’re not humans just because we have human DNA; or, if you wish, if one places a strand of human DNA inside a mouse, for example, we wouldn’t get a human rodent as a result. The DNA is not enough — you need the whole environment, all those loops of chemicals creating all sorts of unstable equilibriums, which will fundamentally determine what genes will be activated, which ones will remain dormant, which ones will be combined with others to produce different proteins, or eventually the same protein with a different shape, which, in turn, will also affect the environment. Think of an automated traffic control system for a very large city: as traffic flows from one part of the city to the other — which will depend on the time of the day (e.g. rush hour or not) — all those traffic lights will need to go green or red to keep the traffic flowing, and that means they will have to be turned on and off at different rhythms. When a special event occurs — say, a soccer game at one part of the city — traffic will be completely different, and that needs rerouting, turning traffic lights on and off at other rhythms, which in turn will make traffic change, and that change will also be reflected on the way the traffic lights move from green to red and back. So you can see what is happening: the traffic lights shape the traffic, which, in turn, shape the way the traffic lights have to be turned on and off. Those two things are mutually influencing themselves.
Almost all living beings work like that as well — the chemicals in the environment dictate what proteins get produced from certain areas in the DNA, which, in turn, will also affect the environment, and, therefore, trigger other protein-building mechanisms from other areas of the DNA, and so forth. Keeping those cycles and loops in check so that there is an equilibrium is a tremendously complex task where gazillions of things can go wrong.
Let’s see a simple example. Suppose that you have been born with XY chromosomes. You would therefore expect that the body will attempt to produce androgen and enter the ‘male development’ cycle, while at the same time it will need to prevent that there is too much estrogen around to trigger the ‘female development’ cycle. This, in turn, requires all those receptors to be working well — in other words, the androgen receptors must bind to the androgen being produced, while the estrogen receptors must be mostly ‘turned off’ so that they cannot bind to estrogen (I said mostly because, as said, estrogen has other functions as well, besides sexual development).
But imagine that the gene that codes the androgen receptor is defective — in other words, it codes a protein that serves as androgen receptor, but, because maybe one or other aminoacids have been replaced due to a few wrong bases in the DNA, the resulting protein does not ‘fold’ correctly, and the result is an androgen receptor that is somehow ‘broken’ and fails to attach to androgen. Now we have a male organism producing lots of androgen (as well as some estrogen, of course) but all that androgen fails to trigger the male development cycle, because those androgen receptors are broken. The organism tries to compensate by producing more androgen receptors (as well as more androgen to connect to them), but it’s of no avail: all that extra androgen is sitting around, doing nothing. Worse than that: not only the androgen is useless to trigger the male development cycle… but because that cycle hasn’t been triggered… it means that the required chemicals that will ‘turn off’ the estrogen receptors have not been produced. In other words: there is a step in the ‘male development programme’ that is completely missing, the male development cycle has not started at all, and, therefore, the female development cycle cannot be blocked. What happens? Well, the estrogen will bind to the estrogen receptors, which are working as they should. More useless androgen is produced, but it does basically nothing; in the mean time, even the little estrogen that is produced starts triggering the female development cycle, because nothing is there to stop it. So the proteins that are being now produced are all related to the female development cycle: these, in turn, will trigger more and more areas of the DNA, where all required proteins for a female development are encoded, and the female development cycle starts in earnest.
But that’s not all. Remember, triggering one of those cycles means also blocking the other. So, even though this particular individual might have started with an androgen-estrogen ratio typically of a male individual, what happens now is that the female development cycle begins to block the male cycle. No matter how much androgen gets produced, now the female development cycle starts to inhibit its production — but since that androgen hadn’t any effect because it couldn’t bind to anything, and therefore could not affect the female development cycle, this now enters in full force — and its results are irreversible!
There is, however, a catch. Remember, this particular individual started with typical XY male chromosomes. Unfortunately for her, the bit that is missing on the Y chromosome has a lot of information related to developing the uterus, the ovaries, and much of what is necessary for the reproductive system to work. Thus, this individual will develop mostly as female, and, at birth, will have a fully functional vulva, and the doctors will say: ‘Congratulations, it’s a girl!’ because externally there is nothing that could give the doctors a clue.
And she will be a girl, because whatever influence the sexual hormones have on the brain (an area of much dispute, since the actual mechanism seems to be far more complex than what was thought — namely, that the brain structures for a male or a female are not directly associated to the sexual hormones, but to other molecules, also triggered by the female/male development cycle, which act directly on the brain cells, telling them to build specific proteins which will affect the way this individual thinks about their gender identity — the whole mechanism is still a mystery), this individual will be subject to whatever the female sexual hormones will do to her brain. Unsuspecting anything about their DNA, the child will clearly identify as female, recognise her body to be female, and because everybody else has not the slightest suspicion that she might be anything but female, will raise her as a girl — which is what she wants anyway.
There will be a few differences, though, but because human beings are so diverse, it’s hardly likely that anyone will notice them. Remember, this individual will not react to any androgen whatsoever. That means that her development will in fact be ultra-feminine — there will be no effects from androgen. And yes, at puberty this will mean big, round breasts, wonderful skin, no facial or body hair, but just luxurious hair on the scalp, and so forth… On the other hand, even if this person has no working androgen receptors, she still has parts of the ‘blueprint’ for a male; so, when things like the ‘growth’ cycle is triggered, because she has genes for a male growth, she will be usually taller than the average female in her area, with stronger bones, nicer legs… well, some have maliciously described them as ‘superwomen‘.
This is a condition known as complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) — a not-so-unusual genetic disease (which affects something between 1 in 5,000 and 1 in 20,000 women, depending on the study) which has, in the past, been completely undiagnosed. Such people identify as female and have an external female body, with both primary and secondary female sexual characteristics — usually quite well developed, and often very attractively so. The only hint that something might be wrong will be at puberty when they fail to menstruate; and, of course, lacking an uterus, they will be infertile. In the past, however, because there are so many possible congenital diseases preventing women to carry children, CAIS was simply shrugged away as unimportant; people affected with CAIS usually lead normal, healthy lives; they can always marry and adopt children, of course. And because their infertility is usually just something they will tell to their husbands, nobody in the world will be able to suspect that there might be anything ‘wrong’ with them (in fact, their good looks, perfect skin, and statuesque body might just raise jealousy and envy from other women, and desire in most heterosexual males…).
With the advent of modern medical imageology, doctors could see that at least something was wrong with these women — i.e. they lacked an uterus, and their vagina, consequently, would just be a ‘pouch’ leading to nowhere. This at least allowed doctors, at puberty, to see that their uterus had totally failed to develop and tell them the bad news: that they would be unable to bear children. Because there are so many diseases affecting the reproductive system and rendering women infertile, once again, for decades, even with state-of-the-art technology, CAIS remained undiagnosed as such — people with CAIS would just be bundled together with hundreds of other potential diseases affecting uterus development.
It’s just with the advent of modern (and affordable) DNA sequencing that doctors saw that something was utterly wrong: persons with CAIS were genetically male. Now, this is important to underline, because, again, there are lots of genetic ‘defects’ or mutations, where either the X or the Y chromosome gets damaged, duplicated, cloned, whatever… and the result may be male, female or a mix (intersex). In those cases, die-hard fundamentalists could just have pity on the ‘poor women — yes, because they are genetically women, they just have bad genes’, and TERFs would still consider those people women, just unlucky women with bad genes.
But people with CAIS are another story. They are, for all genetic purposes, male. They are not ‘genetic women with mutations’ or ‘bad genes’. They are male from all possible definitions at the genetic level. Sure, they are males with one mutation at one particularly sensitive gene — the androgen receptor gene — but they are males nonetheless. In fact, there are dozens of different kinds of people clearly male (mentally and physically), identifying as male without any doubt, but who have their DNA in much worse condition than people suffering from CAIS, who might just have one bad gene and nothing else. Worse than that, many males with ‘bad genes’ might suffer from genes broken down due to new mutations, i.e. their condition is not inherited, but the DNA formed from the strands of their parents just mutated at some point and broke down (which is actually very rare; human DNA is not that prone to mutations; it’s just that, at 7 billion individuals, we are such a big species that statistically something has to go wrong once in a while — even with billion-to-one chances of something to go wrong means that seven individuals might have been the unlucky ones!).
CAIS is different: it’s often (70%) an inherited condition. The parents might not even know they are the carriers of a ‘bad gene’. The androgen receptor is in a gene contained in the X chromosome (yes, that sounds strange, but that’s how it works), and, because women have two X chromosomes, they will still have one ‘good’ AR gene on one of the chromosomes, while carrying the ‘bad’ gene on the other one. That means that female offspring will also have at least one good AR gene (from the father) and one bad one (from the mother); it’s a recessive condition. Even male offspring might be absolutely normal — they can get the ‘good’ X from the father or the ‘good’ X from the mother. It’s just when they get the ‘bad’ X from the mother that things go wrong.
The AR gene is one of those genes that is very easy to mutate: around 400 different mutations are currently known (which is an astonishingly large number!). Not all of them lead to a broken androgen receptor: many might just not work as well as they should (because they are ever so slightly differently ‘folded’ and therefore androgen doesn’t ‘stick’ to it as well as it should). And yes, you’ve guessed: a partially, but not totally broken AR will lead to all sorts of intersex conditions, from very mild forms (the person is physically and mentally male, but may fail to develop fully their secondary sexual characteristics, for instance) to more severe ones (the person might have ambiguous genitalia, and mentally identify as a female, for example).
CAIS is by no means the only condition leading to intersex individuals, or to produce women who are genetically male — there are a good handful of other complications and conditions — but it is one of the more interesting ones, especially for transgender people. People with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (and the more severe forms of AIS) are not male. They are, for all purposes — physical, mental, legal — female. They have always identified as female, and nobody has ever questioned them about their gender identity. Before genetic exams became widely available, people with CAIS would not even have a ‘diagnosis’ of their condition … they would just be unlucky, infertile women, like so many others who carry XX genes. But, unlike all other women, people with CAIS have, for all purposes, male DNA. It’s not just having XY chromosomes that makes DNA be ‘male’. It’s because they have a fully functional ‘male blueprint’ encoded in their genes. The trouble is that this ‘male blueprint’ cannot be ever activated (not even artificially so) because the androgen receptor is broken. The organism with a ‘broken’ AR has no choice but to do their best with whatever they can find inside their DNA, and that often means a very attractive, statuesque woman; but one could say that this is a ‘side-effect’ of having a defective AR, that is, most species (and most certainly humans) are positively biased toward being female as ‘default’, and ‘becoming male’ requires a special effort; if the organism fails to develop as male, it usually develops as female instead (but remember that we know from the multiple intersex conditions that things are not that easy!). In other words: from a geneticist’s point of view, a person with CAIS is a ‘broken male’ who has failed to develop as such, and it’s just by a biological coincidence that they developed as female instead.
From the society’s point of view (and, of course, from the perspective of the individual with CAIS), it’s the other way round: this person is legally, emotionally, mentally, and physically female. They just happen to have a very slight genetic defect (it’s just one gene, after all) which prevents them to bear children. But they are perfectly normal, healthy women otherwise. Well, perhaps they might even be especially attractive on top of everything, but that’s not relevant!
Of course, MtF transgender people such as myself are always fascinated with people with CAIS, for a very unfair reason: jealousy! After all, MtF transgender people have also been born with XY chromosomes and a ‘male blueprint’. They also identify as female. But because they have fully functional androgen receptors, their body unfortunately has developed as male instead — so they have to suffer from gender dysphoria, and undergo complex medical procedures and face the disapproval of the more conservative and fundamentalist members of society as they try to adapt their bodies to the gender they identify with. People with CAIS have no such problems. Granted, they will never bear children, but neither will MtF transgender people — they will have to rely on adoption if they wish to have families.
This jealousy, of course, is completely inappropriate and actually a form of discrimination; people with CAIS have, after all, a genetic disease — one that is incapacitating, in the sense that they will never be able to bear children. So it’s very unfair to be ‘jealous’ of them!
Nevertheless, from an activist’s point of view, CAIS proves the whole point — that genetics is totally irrelevant for gender identity. We can repeat lies-to-children saying that ‘XY chromosomes lead to men, XX chromosomes lead to women’, but that’s just an oversimplification. People with XY chromosomes and a broken AR will be women and nothing more than women, and they will be socially accepted as such, because their bodies and minds are fully female, and have never been anything but female. Genetics doesn’t play a role in either their identity or social role. And, on top of that, CAIS is not that rare, and this should also raise a few eyebrows.
If CAIS prevents an individual from reproducing themselves and pass their DNA along to the next generation, why haven’t they been weeded out by evolution?
We have to go one step back, and frame the whole question in a new context, that of evolution. After all, we’re not talking about a de novo mutation — that is, a new mutation that popped up unexpectedly for a specific individual, because that particular individual had one strand of DNA incorrectly copied. De novo mutations in humans (well, in most modern species, to be honest) are actually very, very rare. DNA, by itself, replicates correctly 99% of the time — but on advanced and complex species as homo sapiens, there are a lot of other mechanisms to get rid of the few errors that might pop up. For instance, we might have duplicate copies of the same genes, so that if one gene gets affected by a mutation and fails to produce the correct protein, the other one will still work. Or our organism may have means to identify a broken protein and ‘fix’ it so that it works again, even at the cost of producing less of those — that’s ok, because the body has means of ramping up production, due to the complex ways of sustaining an equilibrium. Or the organism might just have mutated copies of a gene in some cells but not in others (a condition known as genetic chimerism). I don’t know about all the possibilities of ‘fixing’ mutations, but I’m aware that there are really, really many of those, so that absolutely devastating mutations are incredibly rare. For example, there is also an equivalent estrogen insensitivity syndrome, which, as you might expect, will make an XX individual fail to develop fully as female. But because the estrogen receptor gene is located elsewhere, it cannot be inherited, since a XX individual with EIS is unable to reproduce themselves and pass the ‘bad’ gene along. So all mutations of the ER gene have to be de novo. And this is so rare, so rare, that currently there are just two reported cases of EIS in the whole world. That’s how resilient our DNA is against ‘bad’ mutations!
Still, because there are so many humans — after bacteria and ants, we’re at the top of the list of the species with the largest number of individuals — as said, even billion-to-one chances will happen once in a while. But it’s worth repeating that the problem with CAIS is that it is not that rare. In fact, the 1:20,000 ratio is based on reported conditions. Up until 1950, CAIS was not even known as such. Individuals with partial AIS — which is much rarer than CAIS — would show ambiguous genitalia, i.e. some form of intersexuality, and as a result they had been better studied: so the condition could be described, but the reasons for it were unknown. Remember, we just know how DNA looks like from 1955 onwards; it’s just by the 1970s that we started to understand how exactly AIS is triggered, and that it was actually quite common for people to suffer from complete AIS, but because their external appearance would be fully female, they would escape diagnosis completely.
For all practical purposes — and this naturally continues to be the case on less developed countries with limited access to highly advanced medical exams, such as DNA sequencing — a person with CAIS was just an infertile woman: the kind of auntie we all had in our families who never got married because she couldn’t give birth to her own children, and therefore was the kind, beloved aunt who helped her sisters to raise the kids. And here is the crucial evolutionary trait: because humans are a gregarious species with an extraordinarily complex society, we historically favour large families where kids are raised not only by the parents, but by the other members of the family as well — from uncles and aunts to grandparents and cousins. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense, because family members share genes (even if in a much lesser degree than a parent-offspring relationship), and protecting the genes of all members of the family means a higher degree of getting one’s own genes — albeit inherited through one’s siblings — to the next generation. This strategy, in fact, is typical of gregarious species, and gregarious species have therefore an evolutionary advantage over the others: they can raise children together and therefore increase the success rate of those children to survive, therefore carrying the genes of a pool of members towards the next generation. Such strategies have made gregarious species extremely efficient at surviving — just see the two examples I gave before, ants and humans, being among the species with the most number of members (of course, this is another oversimplification, as obviously several gregarious species might actually risk extinction due to dramatic changes of their habitats — think about lions and wolves, for instance).
What has been postulated is that these strange genetic and/or development conditions which emerge and are not so rare actually provide an evolutionary advantage as well. I’ve talked before about the current reasoning for the prevalence of homosexuality (and transexuality) in most species, especially on the gregarious ones which raise children together, is that such individuals, while not reproducing themselves directly, are able to aid their siblings (and other members of the family) to help them raise their children, instead of focusing on their own (because they don’t have any!). Therefore, an homosexual uncle helping to raise his brother’s children will enhance the rate of survival of their nephews — who also carry genetic material of the homosexual uncle, of course, just not as much as if the homosexual uncle had children of their own. Evolutionary biologists therefore argue that those members of society who do not have children themselves, but have no otherwise crippling conditions (a sign of ‘bad genes’!), can effectively raise the collective success rate of transmitting their collective pool of genes towards the next generation. In other words: small families, with just the parents and their children, have a much higher risk of not being able to bring up their children than large families, with grandmothers, unmarried aunts, homosexual uncles, transexual godmothers, and cousins with CAIS… which will have several available individuals to raise a group of children which will also pass part of their genetic material. While in the case of transexuality and homosexuality we still have no clue how exactly those ‘conditions’ are inherited (there seem to be no ‘transexual’ or ‘homosexual’ genes), with individuals with CAIS, it’s a different story: as said, the ‘bad’ AR gene is transmitted recessively via the maternal line. Many individuals with CAIS will even be able to lactate, and therefore serve as wet nurses, so there is evolutionary advantage of having them around to take care of the children when their genetic mother is not able to do so. This means that the ‘bad’ AR gene gets passed along — not directly, through one’s own children, but indirectly, through their nephews. And that makes the ‘bad’ AR gene be evolutionarily significant, which, in turn, explains why after hundreds of thousands of generations evolution has still not got rid of it — it serves an evolutionary purpose of raising the chances of survival of the species as a whole.
Tipping the balance: how easy it is!
What can we learn from this complex description of how people develop as male or female while inside the womb? What can we see that happens when things go wrong? What lessons are hidden behind these thousands of words?
First and foremost, every MtF transexual going through transition might wonder that actually it’s so easy to change their own bodies to become more feminine!
The lie-to-children is that if you remove androgens and add estrogens, your body will ‘naturally’ become more feminine. This sounds logical at the very basic, lie-to-children stage. But if you start to think a bit deeper than that, there surely must be something wrong with this reasoning, especially if we’re talking about an adult (i.e. post-puberty human) going through transition and doing hormone replacement therapy.
Remember, we have done most of our sexual development inside the womb — we get complete (even if not yet functional) genitalia, which are differentiated at the time of birth. While I’ve shown you some links about how so many parts of the human genitalia come from the same tissues, once they have been differentiated they are ‘fixed’, just like every other part of the body. You cannot change them by adding hormones: for instance, you can take the human growth hormone in your adult life to correct some conditions, but you will not grow taller or larger because of that! Why? Because the human growth hormone will act to make you ‘grow tall’ only at a specific period of time when the organism is developing according to a complex ‘blueprint’, which means that there is a special environment at a precise time in life where the human growth hormone is able to bind to the correct receptors which, in turn, will trigger genes that will add more cells and structures to the right places so that you ‘grow taller’. But once you have reached the end of your growth stage, the environment changes, those receptors will not bind any more to the human growth hormone, and thus they will not read those genes again. That stage of development is over; we have gone a few steps further in the ‘blueprint’, and there is no turning back. So, no, you cannot kickstart your growth process again by just adding the ‘right’ hormones, triggering the ‘right’ receptors, pushing the organism to start reading the ‘right’ genes again… it simply doesn’t work like that: once a specific stage is over, it is over, end of story. You can still administer human growth hormone to produce some effects — that’s why it’s used in certain therapies — and it will still bind to some other receptors (namely, it will increase production of all hormones), so there will be an ‘effect’. It just won’t be the effect of growing taller.
On the other hand… blocking androgen and administering estrogen no matter at what age will make your breasts grow. Well, of course how much they grow depends on your particular genetic makeup, but they will grow. And that’s not the only effect, of course — the skin gets softer; body fat gets distributed so that the coarse and angular shapes in the face will be replaced with softer and more rounded, feminine ones; hair on the scalp will become more luxurious, grow longer and healthier, and in some cases even bald men will regain hair growth; body fat will be channeled into the breasts and the hips and bottom; facial and body hair will become more sparse and much finer; muscle tone will disappear; the prostate gland will be reduced; etc. etc. etc. We all have read those descriptions millions of times; we all have heard transexuals describing it as ‘a second puberty’.
Actually, it’s even more than a ‘second puberty’: at puberty, what happens is that a mostly sexually undifferentiated individual (except for the genitalia and internal organs), under the effect of sexual hormones, will start to develop the secondary sexual characteristics appropriate to their gender, according to a ‘blueprint’. What happens with MtF HRT is that the previous ‘male blueprint’ gets cancelled (chemical castration), reversed, and a new blueprint, the ‘female blueprint’, is activated. And this happens in spite of age or degree of development of those secondary sexual characteristics!
You might now be wondering how this is possible! After all, I have started to describe how the ‘growth blueprint’ stops after a while, and no matter what hormones you take, you won’t start growing again. So why is the secondary sexual characteristics ‘blueprint’ still operational — in the sense that you can switch it off and on, even at an adult age — but other ‘blueprints’ are not? What makes this particular blueprint so different from others?
Remember what I told you about the unstable equilibrium that ‘defines’ what sexual characteristics blueprint is picked? Well, there is some logic for that. As you so well know, human beings have a certain ‘fertility age’, which in women begins with their menstruation and stops with menopause. Men are a bit luckier in the sense that their penises still work for quite some time, and that sperm production drops dramatically after ‘peak age’ (somewhere around 27 years) but since men produce gazillions of sperm cells, this drop of production will take a long, long time to have some effect. Nevertheless, it’s obviously not a coincidence that men’s peak sexual performance is at roughly the same time as women’s fertility stage.
Why doesn’t the female fertility stage last longer, i.e. like men, remain active until the end of life? This, again, is where evolution steps in. Bearing children places very tough demands on the mother; a lot of energy and resources have to be funneled towards gestating a new life in the womb, and, after birth, there is a lot of ‘used material’ that has to be replenished so that the womb can carry a new child again. This means further expenses of resources; not to mention the resources also needed for lactation to feed the newborn child. Because mortality rates for the human species was staggeringly high, it meant having the ability to bear, say, a dozen children, in the hope that at least two survived, possibly three (which would allow a population growth over the generations). So evolution had to find an equilibrium again — how many children ought a woman to be able to bear in order to at least sustain the population levels, given a certain (very high) mortality rate, while at the same time not depleting the resources of the female body until the mother dies from exhaustion way too soon to be useful for the society (namely, raising the children to adulthood)?
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that the period required for humans to reach sexual maturity is roughly the time that women are fertile, plus a margin; this means that, in theory, prehistoric human beings, who had a life expectancy of 40 years, would start to carry children by around 15, and continue to have, say, a dozen of them in the next dozen of years, while possibly raising some of the first children to adulthood. That would mean that mothers would at least have to live 30 years, with 15 years of fertility, assuming that the first children would survive. In practice, there is a bit of leeway — if out of a dozen children, the first eleven would die, and only the last one survived, then the mother would be 27 years old, be able to raise her last child to adulthood, and be 42 years old — about the age that humans would die from natural causes. During the raising of most of the children, especially the last ones, she should not be bearing any more children, but save her strength just for taking care of the living ones. To save resources, therefore, the organism ‘shuts down’ the ‘fertility’ blueprint. But there is more! Once she’s infertile again, she should show external signs of infertility, to make males aware that they should pick a different partner and leave her in peace. This is what the ‘menopause’ blueprint does: not only it shuts down the reproductive system, but it also affects the secondary sexual characteristics, making the woman ‘less sexually attractive’ to potential partners (the same, of course, also happens to a certain degree to males: as they age, and become less efficient in producing sperm, they will also lose muscle tone, become balder, their skin will wrinkle, etc. and so forth — also to give an outwards sign that they are not ‘healthy’ in terms of reproduction any more, but become ‘unattractive’ through the shutting down of the secondary male sexual characteristics ‘blueprint’). I don’t mean this as a form of disrespect, I’m just referring to the biological aspects of menopause; obviously the changes will be different from person to person.
And yes, I know all this sounds horrible — dehumanizing people, describing them as mere machines that are turned on and off according to the whims of Nature and evolutionary biology. Again, let me repeat once more, I’m definitely not using any judgement here, much less trying to discriminate and/or insult people who are aging (after all, I’m almost half a century old myself 🙂 — not exactly a youngling any more…). My whole point is to explain why the secondary sexual characteristics ‘blueprint’ needs to be switched on and off: it signals to the rest of the species when a person is in their fertile stage or in their infertile stage. And we need that in order to be able to pick the ‘right’ partners so that we can reproduce when both members of the couple are at their peak of their reproductive abilities, which raises the probability of success in terms of passing along their best genes to the next generation. It’s tough, but that’s what it means in terms of evolution.
Nowadays, of course, we have thrown evolution out of the window by not only artificially enhancing our average lifespan to more than twice its natural span, but also by artificially enhancing the success rate of children surviving after birth. Thanks to modern medicine, the actual rate of child deaths is infinitesimally small, compared to prehistoric (and pre-civilization!) levels, where possibly 50-80% of all children would never reach maturity. Today, in the European Union, an average of 99.6% of all births will at least reach 5 years of age.
The implications are staggering. This actually means that women can start their fertility stage much later, and that is seen by young couples marrying (and having children) much later in life than their parents and grandparents. In other words, it’s not unusual for young adults to enter their first marriage around 25-30 years of age — which would be close to the end of their natural lifespan in prehistoric times!
Ironically, these days, women start to menstruate earlier than before! But they delay their marriage for much, much longer; i.e. they might start menstruation at 9-11, and become sexually mature by 13, but they will only think of marriage after 25… contrast that to prehistoric women, who would probably only start menstruation by 15 and immediately become sexually mature, get a partner, and get pregnant.
This is an anomaly which comes from the fact that the menstruation cycle also has a ‘blueprint’ which says that it ought to start when the woman has reached a certain level where she is able to expend resources that will go towards the growth of new life inside her womb, as opposed to use up all those resources for her own growth, maturation, and survival. Because humans are so much better fed these days (and not only on developed countries: this is a trend that happens all over the world, even the poorest people in the poorest countries are much better fed than a hundred years ago, not to mention ten thousand years ago…), this means they have plenty of extra resources available much sooner in their lifetimes, and that’s what triggers their ‘fertility blueprint’ so much earlier. It’s another legacy of evolution. It’s no coincidence that sexual hormones are produced in the body using up cholesterol — yes, that same cholesterol that clogs up our arteries because of excessive fat intake. Since we have so many fatty products easily available, we have plenty of cholesterol, which in turn signals the body that it can safely start converting it to sexual hormones much sooner, and which, therefore, will trigger the fertility stage much sooner as well. And yes, this also explains a bit why more people are strangely more attractive these days than a few generations ago — attractiveness, as in ‘suitability as a partner’, is not only linked to good genes, but somehow also to being healthy and having a regular diet, as opposed to living near the starvation level. So, with more food available, we become prettier. I know it sounds stupid. But that’s how it is! It’s complex, and we’re artificially fiddling with evolution 🙂 by tricking our organism in soooo many different ways…
All right, so we can see from this that what we usually call ‘secondary sexual characteristics’ is basically the external appearance which signals that a human being is in their fertility stage. Because of this careful balance between how many resources a woman has to spend to survive, and how many she can afford to spend to generate new life, the fertility stage doesn’t last ‘forever’, neither is it started ‘too soon’ (when the body has not reached a critical mass where it can actually store all those extra resources needed for childbearing). Evolution has figured out the ‘best’ timings for all of that; but through evolution, it has also developed a system to signal ‘sexual attractiveness’ only during the fertility stage. This is more visible in women than in men because men, even with a reduced level of sperm production, are nevertheless able to produce it for a much longer time — because producing sperm expends very few resources! See, it all makes sense if you think that way…
It’s also the reason why very, very old men and women will strangely look much more alike. Of course, we will artificially enhance the differences using clothes, makeup, hairstyle, and so forth; but the truth is that humans, decades after their fertility stage has been ‘shut down’, will simply have no further use for their secondary sexual characteristics, and these will be ‘turned off’ — or, rather, there will be no further incentive to produce whatever is required to maintain them. So things will literally ‘shrivel and die’ — both in males as well as females — and they will resemble each other much more, again, just like in their first years of life. Obviously the primary sexual characteristics, which have been produced before birth, will still be in place; and things like bone structure and skeleton will still show the different development paths taken during puberty.
Transexuals, therefore, benefit from this unique advantage of the ‘blueprint’ for their secondary sexual characteristics: it can be turned on and off, by creating the appropriate chemical environment inside their bodies. In the case of MtF transexuals, what is effectively happening is that the ‘male reproductive/fertile stage’ is ‘shut down’ (through chemical castration with anti-androgens, and, later, either an orchiectomy or a full gender affirmation surgery), and the ‘female reproductive/fertile stage’ is ‘turned on’. This ‘turning on’ of the female stage will really be like a ‘second puberty’ in the chemical, biological sense of the word, that is, the body will really tip the unstable equilibrium of those sexual hormones so that it starts entering the ‘female stage’ and actively block the ‘male stage’. Interestingly enough, this works dramatically well, at any age, and it just requires an increased output of female sexual hormones — which are artificially taken through pills, patches or injections, simulating the extra hormones produced by a woman’s ovaries during her fertile stage. As long as this new equilibrium is (artificially) maintained, that MtF transexual will effectively have all ‘female reproductive/fertile stage blueprints’ turned on, and yes, that means that she will acquire all secondary sexual characteristics and attributes that a cisgender woman with healthy genes will have acquired during her naturally-produced puberty.
From a strictly biological and chemical point of view, therefore, we can say that the changes brought by HRT have turned that person into a ‘biological female’ — more specifically, a ‘biological female in her reproductive/fertile stage’ (where biological refers to her biochemistry in this context). I know this is anathema in many circles (namely, among TERFs) but that’s what it means, if we’re looking only at the biology. In other words, it’s irrelevant if that person has XY chromosomes or not — just like it is irrelevant for people with CAIS. As we have seen, people with CAIS will naturally block androgen from connecting to androgen receptors and therefore engage the ‘female’ blueprints during all their natural lives. Transexuals will do exactly the same thing — with the difference that the blocking of the androgen receptors occurs artificially. It’s also unfair to say, ‘oh, sure, but if you give up your pills/patches/injections, you will continue to be male just as before’ — because we’re talking about technological modes of triggering the ‘female blueprint’. In 2030, we might simply be able to get a retrovirus to break down the androgen receptors, and eat some kind of bacteria that starts producing female hormones inside our bodies — so we won’t need any more pills or patches or injections. By 2050 or 2060, we might not even need that, we might be able to change our DNA so that it automatically enters the ‘female’ stage without the need of supplementing the chemical balance with externally taken hormones — in other words, tell the body to start producing female hormones on its own, and stop producing male ones. Remember, people assigned male at birth also produce female hormones, since these are also needed, they just don’t produce enough, since most of it is only produced on fatty tissue (yes, the more obese you are, the more female hormones in your body…). We might be able to genetically engineer things so that way more female hormones are produced, either elsewhere, or just make the estrogen receptors more sensitive… whatever. We’re talking about future technology here: anything is possible. So, blaming one’s ‘artificial femaleness’ on pills/patches/injections is just being narrow-minded — this is just the state-of-the-art today, who knows what we will come up with in the future?
TERFs and fundamentalists can still argue that MtF transexuals will ‘trigger’ their ‘female blueprint’ artificially, no matter what method they employ, while ‘real woman’ (their definition of real woman, at least) will do so naturally. Again, this is a very, very weak argument. We all enhance artificially our lifespans. Does that mean that anyone older than 40 is not human any more? Women start menstruating artificially much sooner than we humans were evolutionarily conditioned to do. Does that mean that female adolescents are not human any more — nor even women, just because their first menstruation artificially started much sooner than it should? What about artificially getting people to survive during childbirth? Anyone born via a C-section, or, worse, through in vitro fertilisation — are they not human any more?
The argument of ‘artificiality’ is simply not valid any more. We artificially dress in warm clothes so that we can survive during a cold winter, instead of dying out; we artificially heat up our homes for the same reason, and that goes back to the discovery of fire, the first ‘artificial’ form of using energy for heating up our homes (and for cooking — another ‘artificial’ and much more effective way of eating and consuming nutrients). We artificially wear figure-hugging clothes, walk on heels, and put on makeup to artificially look more ‘attractive’. We artificially build machines to make our work simpler or to allow us to move further distances that would be impossible to achieve simply by walking. We create artificial drugs to fight diseases that would otherwise kill us. And of course the list of everything that we have developed to ‘artificially’ enhance our lives in so many ways is so incredibly long that we should not even call ourselves homo sapiens any more, but a completely different species…
So, let’s stop pretending. Triggering one’s ‘secondary sexual characteristics blueprint’ using special-purpose drugs is as ‘artificial’ as taking a drug to lower fever when we catch the common cold. We can’t simply say that one thing is ‘unnatural’ or ‘fake’, while the other is ‘natural’. It’s not natural to lower your fever when you’re ill; fever is the natural way for our organism to fight disease. Of course it’s much more uncomfortable to deal with the side-effects of a fever. But in the same way that we feel pity and compassion towards someone who is ill and give them medicine to lower their fever, we should be consistent and feel the same compassion towards those who are ‘curing’ themselves by triggering the onset of their female secondary sexual characteristics.
Now, this is not an article about evolutionary biology, much less an essay about CAIS, even though it feels like one after these thousands of words 🙂 There is a point to be made here, and one that is fundamental for transgender activism: what exactly is a woman?
Forget genetics, forget biology: focus on the gender role!
The whole point, in fact, is to show how TERFs (and fundamentalists!) are completely wrong about ‘what makes a woman’. Lacking an uterus is not a sign for excluding a woman from being a woman — there are (unfortunately) tons of reasons why women have no uterus, or have to get their uterus removed. A woman without an uterus is not a ‘lesser woman’, a ‘subwoman’, much less ‘a male passing as a woman to subvert the feminist movement’. It’s just a poor woman who was unlucky with her health, or with her genes, and had to have their uterus removed (or it failed to develop). Just because they are unable to bear children doesn’t make them ‘lesser woman’; they are not to be scorned or despised, but they ought to be objects of compassion. In fact, even TERFs and fundamentalists will show pity towards those women, while, at the same time, continuing to insist that women without uterus are not really women…
Going deeper, and apparently ‘more scientifically’, so many TERFs and fundamentalists, or even conservatives with a mind more open than the average, will ultimately point out at the DNA and repeat the lie-to-children that XY means male and XX means female — while at the same time fully recognising the ‘right’ of people with CAIS to ‘be’ women. The argument that trans women are ‘artificial’, and therefore not ‘real’ women, while women with CAIS are ‘naturally’ women even if they have 100% male DNA… well, it simply doesn’t stick. You cannot argue both ways and get away with it (unless you’re a certain president of a certain country…).
And of course they cannot even argue that trans women are not ‘biological females’. From the perspective of what goes on inside their organisms, they are triggering the natural, biological blueprints for their secondary female sexual characteristics. This is undeniable; you can make detailed analysis of what’s going on at the chemical level and clearly figure out that, yes, this is exactly what’s happening inside their bodies. On the other hand, TERFs and fundamentalists would have to exclude women after their menopause from the classification of ‘women’, because their chemistry is not the one of a ‘natural’ woman any more — their ‘female characteristics system’ has been shut down.
We have to clear all that from the table, and start working from basic assumptions again. We cannot root the arguments about ‘womanness’ based on biology, chemistry, genetics, embryonal development, and so forth; we know today that what ‘makes’ a man or a woman is incredibly more complex than the simple lies-to-children we get taught at school. We have no choice but to go beyond that, in a world where there are so many ‘natural cisgender woman’ with such different genetic, biological, and chemical makeups — all of which socially accepted as women during all their lives — while somehow arguing that trans women are not ‘women’ at all, even if they have a ‘female chemistry’, a female mind, and a body which exhibits at least some secondary female sexual characteristics — something that allegedly only ‘natural women’ are supposed to have!
Instead, we have to move the discussion elsewhere, and it’s clear that the only way to define someone as a ‘woman’ is by watching how closely that person identifies with the female gender identity.
Now, as we will shortly see, this has a trillion of problems of their own, but at least it has a huge advantage over the physical/biological model: it unifies the whole gender since it will be the same definition for all women, no matter what their biological makeup (or how they physically look like) is.
Sounds simple? No, not in the least!
If we fail at enumerating the physical differences between men and women, because we can show how easily our lies-to-children can trick us into false beliefs, and if we can show how we can turn a man’s chemistry into a woman’s (and back again) by simply tipping the fine biochemical balance inside a person, then how are we supposed to tell the difference about mental states? Remember, as I told you before, we cannot simply list so-called ‘typical male traits’ and ‘typical female traits’, because many of those are simply social conditioning. Just remind yourself that in the early days of computing, women were programmers (‘software’) because they weren’t to be trusted with hardware; then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, programming became a man’s job; and these days, it’s becoming a woman’s job again, simply because there are far more women graduating these days. We cannot say that ‘abstract reasoning and logical thinking’ (two important factors for programming computers) are ‘male’ traits, because at some point in our so very recent past, we gave those tasks to women to perform. The movie Hidden Figures shows how the whole US space programme in the 1960s would have been impossible without those female mathematicians who did all the ‘abstract reasoning and logical thinking’ in rocket science.
Now, we know that there is a considerable number of biological differences between male and female brains, but the more these so-called ‘differences’ are deeply researched, the less differences there seem to be. Even though one thing is using imagiology techniques to ‘see’ the differences (and conclude that there are far less differences than it was thought) and another thing is trying to relate those differences to actual behaviour. In other words: just because the brain structure might be differently constructed, it does not mean that the behaviour must be different (after all, on average, women’s brains are smaller than men’s brains, but they are more ‘convoluted’, which gives them more surface area — brain size is not everything, or whales and elephants would be far more intelligent than humans; brain surface, however, seems to be more important than mass, weight or volume, which explains why mammals with relatively tiny brains, like rodents, or even birds, are able to exhibit surprisingly complex behaviour and even learn a range of new behaviours).
It’s technically hard to argue either way. We know from IQ tests and school tests that women acquire knowledge in all areas, on average, as well as men. We also know that nowadays women are getting higher education degrees on areas which were ‘traditionally’ male, and at a faster and higher rate than men; in fact, if the trend continues, in another generation there will be hardly any men with a higher education in the Western world. We will live in a strange society where all professional jobs requiring higher education will be performed by women, while men will become lorry drivers or pizza deliverers, but those men who will get an education will study enough to become electricians, plumbers and carpenters, possibly even becoming nurses or firefighters, but probably not much more than that. And perhaps in another three or four generations it will all be thrown upside down again. The conclusion? We cannot really rely upon a pre-established (and prejudiced!) idea of what men and women are able to do with their brains, because history is constantly proving us wrong.
We also must seriously separate what are innate abilities and what are socially conditioned behaviours. We tend to confuse both. In conservative societies (such as my country was during roughly half a century, from 1926 to 1974), men tend to see women as weak, stupid, unable to learn anything complex, but needing protection; and as such ideas are passed on to little girls during their early years, and reinforced by teachers and textbooks on school, women start to believe such nonsense. Under authoritarian regimes — almost always lead by men! — women are not even allowed to become freethinkers or somehow question those prevailing sexist ideas; even intelligent women will subdue their abilities and conform to society’s rules — and become ‘good motherly citizens’ due to peer pressure. We can see this still happening in so many countries in the world (mostly those where Islam is the main religion, but not only those); and even older generations living in our current, contemporary, Western societies will still truly ‘believe’ that the innate abilities, or the lack thereof (in the case of women), drives socially conditioned behaviours. To give an example of such a backwards mentality: women stay at home to raise the children because they are unable to get a higher education and a high-paying job, thus their husband needs to provide for her (and for the family as a whole).
Now, of course we live in societies where this is not the case any more (and hasn’t been so for a few generations); but people have been living for so long under such conservative societies that it’s hard to get rid of all those prejudices, passed along from our great-great-great-grandparents to their offspring. Indeed, we would have to have 250-year-olds still living with us to remember a time where even men questioned the lack of abilities of women, and when women, even though they were not intellectual and social peers of men, they would at least be granted much more leeway — at least among the Enlightened aristocracy of the 1700s (peasants, of course, would be too dumb to understand anything — both men and women!). So the main reason for still having a gender wage gap or similar rubbish comes mostly from a long heritage of generation upon generation repeating certain memes, namely, that women have not the same mental abilities as men.
Curiously enough, there is a small hidden gem in Charles Darwin’s writings. Darwin, like every other gentlemen of his age and time, was strongly prejudiced against women in general (of course, as a gentleman, he would treat them with utter respect and protect them with his life, if needed, but he would not grant them the idea that they might be his intellectual peers — that would have been outrageous in his time!), and we know that well. Nevertheless, he was also one of the deepest thinkers of the 19th century, and good scientists have this knack of constantly questioning everything. At some point in one of his books (The Descent Of Man, And Selection In Relation To Sex) there is
a curious and somewhat obscure passage on page 329 where he seems to imply that women could become like men in their mental facilities if they were provided with suitable opportunities and training (from the Princeton University Press edition in 1981)
The passage in question is:
It must be borne in mind that the tendency in characters acquired at a late period of life by either sex, to be transmitted to the same sex at the same age, and of characters acquired at an early age to be transmitted to both sexes, are rules which, though general, do not always hold good. If they always held good, we might conclude (but I am here wandering beyond my proper bounds) that the inherited effects of the early education of boys and girls would be transmitted equally to both sexes; so that the present inequality between the sexes in mental power could not be effaced by a similar course of early training; nor can it have been caused by their dissimilar early training. In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless during many generations the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women.
While to understand the precise context of this affirmation requires reading a good part of Darwin’s book, it’s nevertheless interesting that he, even with his prejudice against women, considers that it is theoretically possible for women to become men’s intellectual peers if only they got the proper training and education (like men), and, on subsequent generations, parents did the same to their children, and so forth, especially if such children would have a selection advantage (that is, if a woman with education would be able to bear more children, and those would be more healthy than the children of an uneducated woman). Ultimately — thinks Darwin — we might reach a point where women and men would show the same intellectual prowess.
Now, Darwin was almost right in his prediction, since after six generations or so we are most certainly seeing women outpacing men in intellectual endeavours — mostly because nowadays they are getting a higher education than men. He also correctly predicted a good reason for children of women with an education surviving better: because their mothers are able to treat them effectively (calling doctors and giving them the appropriate medicine), their children will be able to survive much better than an uneducated woman who tries to heal their children with superstition instead of science.
However, Darwin was not right in everything. He got it wrong that educated women would need to have more offspring than uneducated women; in fact, educated women have far less offspring than uneducated ones — but the offspring they have will almost always survive (as said before: in the European Union, 99.6% will survive until at least the age of five). It’s not the absolute number of offspring that is important, but how many of those actually survive; and the trend is seen worldwide, in all countries, irrespectively of their societies: the higher the education of women, the less children they have, and the more likely those children will survive. Having less, but healthier children is also an evolutionary advantage: the mother will be not so ‘drained’ of resources (as explained earlier on this article!) and will therefore be able to take much better care of their children — and have time to educate them as well, not only of making sure they survive. This trend is universal.
Darwin was also not right in explaining that the ‘mental ability’ of humans comes from natural selection — or at least it’s not done in the way he explains. In fact, it’s the prejudice of his time (much of which has trickled down to conservatives and religious fundamentalists even today) that constricts and limits the innate mental abilities of women, confining them to certain tasks, roles and behaviours due to their gender. Even highly intelligent women are supposed to be meek, submissive, forfeit a higher education, and commit themselves to household tasks. Some of them did all that and still wrote wonderful masterpieces of literature, or, like Lady Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and the world’s first computer programmer, who published several advanced mathematical research papers during her lifetime (they are so complex that I cannot understand a single line of them). I’m sure that Lady Lovelace was also a wonderful mother (of three children) at the same time, complying to the stereotype of the perfect Victorian lady, no matter what her actual scientific achievements were.
Ada Lovelace, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Somerville… they might be seen by people of the Victorian era as ‘exceptions to prove the rule’, while considering that, on average, women were quite dumb, well below a man’s intelligence. But even Darwin points out the difference between ‘education’ and ‘intelligence’. In other words: great women of the past, who excelled in their fields (literature or science), had the good fortune of not only having been blessed with above-average intelligence, but they had access to what we would today call a ‘higher education’ as well. Victorians would most certainly shun at running surveys about potential women of all social classes with high intelligence who might have had an education and therefore released that latent potential and be acclaimed thinkers of their time. But there were no such ‘social experiments’ — unfortunately, it was only in the late 20th century that women and men shared the same access to higher education and, as a consequence, their ‘intelligence’ levels are indistinguishable.
But ‘intelligence’ is just one mental aspect; what about so many others? What about empathy, or intuition, or the ability to express emotions, and so forth?
Because there is a limit to how much I can cram into a single article (no… really! There is!), I will not go through each aspect of human emotion — especially because each decade they get all redefined again anyway, as new researchers and philosophers come up with novel views about what is an emotion, what is a feeling, what is a thought, what is a memory, and how they are interrelated, and so forth. Needless to say, if you start from different assumptions, you will come up with different models. And which one would be ‘correct’? None, and all; that’s the beauty of science — you can always come up with new ideas.
So I’m going to cheat. I’m going back to Buddhism again, and borrowing its ideas. By this time, you might be hopelessly bored about my frequent references to Buddhism. I know; bear with me for a moment longer! The advantage of Buddhism is that ‘Buddhism’ is a name given by Westerners to what is merely a collection of teachings on a lot of topics, but which appears to the eyes of Westerners to be ‘religious’. And one of the myriad of topics covered by Buddhism is a deep and profound research on how the mind works — using the mind itself as a tool to explore itself. In fact, the ability for the (human) mind to self-observe itself and auto-analyse itself is one of the key teachings of Buddhism; it’s not a philosophical ‘thought experiment’ — in the sense of establishing conjectures on how the mind might work and then argue it ad nauseam et eternum — but it’s an empirical guide to how to accomplish that. In other words: the way Buddhism analyses the mind is like driving a car, as opposed to reading a book on how a car works. You go deep into your mind and look at what you find there. Sure, there are guidelines to how to accomplish that (several dozens of thousands of them), because each person is different and some techniques are different exactly to cover a wide variety of people.
So what does Buddhism tells us about the mind and its mental states? Unlike Westerners, who tend to divide the many different aspects of mental states in different little boxes, and try to argue why they are different — e.g. ‘pain’ is tied to some neurological triggers which in turn induce chemical changes which the brain interprets simultaneously as the ‘experience of pain’; while thinking about an abstract concept like ‘justice’ or ‘democracy’ has little or no bearing to what the body feels — Buddhism comes from the other side and simply claims that everything we experience is done by the brain; no brain (or being unconscious, either to trauma or drugs) means no mind. Easy-peasy. Collectively, everything that the brain does and which the mind is aware of are called movements of the mind (that’s perhaps the more popular translation). For the practical purposes of Buddhist teachings, it matters little if these ‘movements’ are related to feelings, emotions, thoughts, complex higher mental cogitation, or simply day-dreaming: at the core, each of these ‘different’ mental aspects are all tied together by a common denominator, and that is simply that they happen ‘inside’ the mind (‘inside’ is my own word; don’t take it literally) — in the sense that you cannot have a ‘dream’ outside the mind (even though, if you’re psychotic, you might believe that something is ‘out there’ which doesn’t really exist — except inside your deluded mind). So, mental aspects and the mind itself are closely connected, and they are ‘such stuff as dreams are made on‘, as Shakespeare so well put.
To understand how Buddhists reason about mental aspects — and you should be forewarned, I’m not a Buddhist teacher and most definitely not an expert, just a lousy student of Buddhism, but I had wonderful teachers! — it’s important to take a look at the ultimate goal of Buddhist training: basically (and using my own words) the purpose is to be able to be aware of all ‘movements of the mind’ without allowing them to affect us.
This is a mouthful, so we need a few practical examples. The easiest to show is perhaps anger. We all know the effects of being angry and irate: we ‘see red’ in front of us, we verbally assault others, we become violent, and we become so driven by this super-strong emotion that we do things that we wouldn’t do in a more rational state. In fact, it’s not surprising that we often regret what we did in a moment of anger; but people who get so used to be angry all the time will probably never regret anything (think about a certain well-known President of a certain well-known Western country). Anger is overwhelming: we cannot control ourselves with lucid, rational thoughts; it is also powerful, since strangely enough we even seem to be stronger, bolder, and less sensitive to pain while under a burst of fury (hint: it’s called an adrenaline rush); we literally tremble with fury (that ought to be a tell-tale sign of all that adrenaline in our system…). And the consequences of being angry is to do irrational things.
So what’s the point of anger? Some biologists believe it’s an innate mechanism to deal with threats that require us to fight — because anger triggers so many chemicals that make us faster, stronger, immune to pain, and so forth. However, it also has several bad side-effects, the first of which is turning off the ability to learn (and that’s why we so often forget the real reason of an argument). Long-term, a person who is too angry too often will suffer from pushing the organism to enter this ‘threat mode’ all the time — that means potential cardiovascular problems ahead on the road, and possibly an inability to learn and focus on one’s job in the short term. Not to mention that it also means people avoiding you because you’re always angry — and that, in turn, might mean being lonely, which can also lead to being more angry, and so forth.
Buddhists don’t see any purpose in anger. Although Buddhists have no problem with evolution (it actually makes a lot of sense for them and there are ancient writings suggesting some evolutionary mechanisms, although they don’t come close to the clarity of Darwin’s writings), and can perfectly understand why animals need to be angry now and then to fight threats, we humans are supposed to be above that; in other words, we have complex brains and advanced minds which should give us alternative ways of solving conflicts. Anger, for a Buddhist, is the kind of emotion that is perfectly useless — it neither benefits the person who gets angry, much less those who are the victims of that anger. Nevertheless, one thing is to recognise the futility of being angry; the other thing is to understand (and fully admit) that, as humans, we have a need to have emotions, strong or weak, and that these emotions actually allow us to relate with each other — because we experience similar emotions, we can actually be more understanding and tolerant towards others. If I’m sad because I lost a parent, I can understand much better why other people are sad when they lose their own parents; and of course this happens to anger, and to all other emotions.
So, Buddhist training regarding anger is mostly to learn to observe it without allowing anger to interfere in our actions. This is pretty much ‘breaking the habit’ in the sense that we can learn to overcome an innate emotion which occurs in specific situations (namely, conflicts with others) — not by overriding it (and becoming vegetables without emotions) but by fully experiencing it without allowing it to ‘force’ us to conditioned behaviour. And this is what Buddhism is all about: getting rid of conditioned behaviour. According to Buddhism, the source of all our troubles comes exactly from conditioned behaviour, be it innate (i.e. acquired through our genetic heritage and embryological development), be it acquired (by imitation or through formal or informal education). All conditioned behaviour will ultimately lead to trouble, an euphemism for what Buddhists call dukkha, usually translated as ‘pain’, ‘suffering’, or ‘insatisfaction’.
It might seem impossible to become angry without being conditioned to violence (either verbally, in written — think of Internet trolls! — or even physically); in fact, it may even seem that ‘anger without violence’ is not ‘anger’ at all — it would feel like a different kind of emotion! Well, it isn’t — but you really have to do some training in order to be able to experience anger without being conditioned in your actions and reactions. It’s not easy — but it’s actually the easiest emotion to recognise, and, therefore, to be able to merely observe without feeling the urge to do something (in a conditioned way) by it.
Now you understand why Buddhist monks and teachers like the Dalai Lama never seem angry and are always laughing or at least in good spirits. It’s not that they don’t get angry. Of course they do; they’re human like all of us. The difference is that when they’re angry they aren’t compelled by the urge to become violent. They can do something else instead; sometimes, something completely unexpected; other times, they might just remain silent, observing the anger rising in them, reaching a peak, and then slowly fading again. Because this emotion is tightly linked to a lot of biochemical activity, it takes a few seconds — which is an insanely long time for a trained Buddhist practitioner to watch and observe! There are far, far more difficult emotions to deal with — envy or jealousy, for instance. Eventually, a good practitioner will be able to deal with all of them, by learning all sorts of tips and tricks; and because ultimately the emotion is nothing more than a ‘movement of the mind’ — in spite of having lots of measurable physiological effects! — they will always be able to learn to observe those, instead of being conditioned by them.
Buddhists go even deeper: it’s not just emotions and feelings that constrain our actions, it’s even the whole mental building we carry with us and which exists only in our minds. Things like ‘prejudice’, ‘racism’, ‘xenophobia’, and everything negative we might wish to list; but also those positive things like ‘relationships’, ‘friendship’, even ‘love’ — all these can be tied to a multitude of emotional states, triggered when we experience something which exposes those emotions. Again, Buddhists don’t simply put away all those experiences; they become friends and lovers just like everybody else; and they will have prejudice and racism against others (often induced through social conditioning — for instance, even though it’s quite clear on the Buddhist texts that both males and females can be ordained monks, several Buddhist countries refuse to ordain females, much less allow them to become teachers, just because of social prejudice against women). The major difference is the degree of attachment or aversion they have towards those complex mental constructs — they will be much less influenced by them in terms of conditioning.
But don’t think for a second that Buddhists remain impassible, never betraying their true emotions, and isolated from the rest of the world; the whole point of Buddhist training is to allow people to deal better with the world they live in (and the people inhabiting their society), not to escape from it. So, a Buddhist mother, watching her son cross the street without looking at an incoming bus, will yell at the top of her lungs, full of that adrenaline caused by anger, pain, and fear, just to get the child to notice the bus and avoid it. However, this was not a conditioned response to her feelings; instead, she just very quickly went through the whole range of possible actions, and picked the one that was more pragmatic and functional in that particular context. From the perspective of an outsider, however, it looked just like a very angry or frightened mum yelling at her child; but she was neither. Or, rather, she experienced all those emotions very intensely, but she didn’t react according to them — but to what was more functional in that moment.
You might think that it’s impossible to be so cool and rational in mere fractions of a second, while at the same time having all those ‘anger/fear’ chemicals coursing through your veins. Well, all I can say is that it isn’t, and actually, it’s far more easier to do that than you might think (I was very surprised the first time I managed to do so!). Just think about what accomplished musicians can do: in fractions of seconds, far faster than the eye can follow, they are able to manipulate their instruments to create amazingly complex music. Athletes, in fractions of seconds, are able to perform amazing feats of gymnastics, ice skating, or jumping into pools; not to mention martial arts practitioners, who are able to precisely know where they are going to be hit, and deflect an incoming attack faster than the audience can even see it coming. Racing car drivers are able to drive at insane speeds with reflexes that are superhuman, since we know how much time, on average, a normal human needs to press the pedal to break. All these people have trained a lot — often more than eight hours per day, months after months after years, to be able to accomplish those feats, which seem ‘impossible’ to us. Nevertheless, they do it every day. And the only secret is training, training, training.
Buddhist practitioners do the same with their minds. And that allows them to observe precisely what is going on inside their minds, and, according to what is more functional and practical, establish a course of action. If you wish, the goal of Buddhism — what people might call Awakening — is pretty much that: living in a functional and pragmatic way where nothing can condition your actions, not even your mind. That’s pretty much the definition of a Buddha according to some schools; it’s not something ‘supernatural’ or ‘superhuman’ — or, at least, it’s as superhuman as an Olympic-grade athlete performing something ‘impossible’, or a musician able to play something that requires the fingers to move several times faster than the speed at which we can see things. Our minds are amazing in the way we can train them!
Now… I haven’t completely lost my thread here! One of the things that Buddhists actually find out when they’re training their minds — the actual term for it is becoming familiar with one’s mind, which in the West we call ‘meditation’, but that’s actually not quite what Buddhists are doing, at least not in the sense that most Westerners meditate — is that there is no difference in quality between all those emotions, feelings, and mental constructs. Ultimately, no matter what the physiological aspects of those mental states, the awareness of such states happens always in the mind, not someplace else. And we have proof of that: you can do surgery under anesthesia and you won’t feel any pain. It’s not that the biochemical messengers that transmit pain are not working. They are; it’s just that your mind isn’t there to register any pain! So, Buddhists feel pain like anyone else; and, sure, you can perform surgery on a Buddhist by giving them anesthesia; however, a very advanced practitioner will be able to observe what’s going on even during anesthesia. I know that this is very hard to believe, but it’s possible — because under anesthesia you’re still alive, there is still brain activity, and therefore — according to Buddhism — there is still a very, very deep and subtle level at which your mind is still operating, even though those coarser layers of the mind (those that will feel pain, for instance) might be completely shut off. But I digress; my point is not to ‘show off’ what Buddhists can do with their minds; in many cases it seems at the very least amazing, sometimes even impossible, but it’s actually just a matter of training. The point, in fact, is to show that, according to Buddhist thought, the fundamental quality of all experiences we have is the same, because it all happens in the mind. It doesn’t happen ‘anywhere else’; in other words, we just have a mind (at least while we have a working brain in a working body), there is simply no place else for mental states to happen.
And sure, all those ‘movements of the mind’ can appear differently, because they are triggered by different conditions. Some are purely mental states — say, doing a math problem in your mind. Most others are somehow related to bodily functions, which can be more or less annoying, more or less compelling, more or less constrained and conditioned. Sitting on a chair, for instance, is an experience that doesn’t require much mental activity, but if you sit long enough on a chair, no matter how comfortable it is, you will need to change position — for whatever reason, either the muscles on your bottom are tired, or you’re getting itchy, or impatient, whatever. In those cases, again, biochemical signals are sent to the brain for you to move position, and you, accordingly, in a conditioned way, will react to those signals. But ultimately the chemicals by themselves matter little; how the brain ‘lights up’ in response to them is irrelevant; what matters is that somehow all this translates into ‘uncomfortableness’ inside your mind, and there is where the decision is made to move your position on the chair. You can make the longest possible list you can imagine with all sensations and feelings that your body can transmit to the brain — and, in fact, lots of people have done that over the ages — but what all of them will have in common is that they are perceived in the mind.
I can give you also some contrary examples. For instance, we don’t get itches inside the heart, although it pumps blood once per second. We don’t get annoyed by blood rushing through the arteries. Unless something is seriously wrong, we will not feel the pancreas or the liver secreting their fluids to aid digestion; unless you have stones in your kidneys, you don’t feel the kidneys purifying the blood and pushing the toxins towards the bladder. A working organism has no need to make the brain aware of all these functions, and so there are no chemicals traversing the bloodstream, no electric charges across nerve endings, to signal the brain about the regular working of the body. It’s only when something goes wrong that we get those signals — and once we get them, we feel… pain. Or indigestion (which, of course, is a form of pain). Even if we can, in some cases, precisely point to where we feel pain, the truth is that we can only feel it if our brain is working: if we are unconscious, we don’t feel anything. Our bladder might be filling up during the night while we sleep in peace, but it’s just when the bladder is full that it triggers the complex biochemical mechanism which makes us wake up and go to the bathroom to relieve ourselves. Under normal circumstances, in order to be able to walk, we need to be awake — during sleep, the muscles actually are fed a sort of natural anesthesia, locking them down, to prevent involuntary movements — that’s why we won’t fall out of bed. And if you happen to have fallen out of bed once or twice, well, then that’s just because, like everything else in our organism, nothing works a 100%, nothing is 100% on or 100% off.
So, everything happens in the mind… or, more precisely, everything we experience is made aware in the mind. Even though all those experiences might be very different — and that is easily explained by the different chemicals involved in triggering certain mental states or others, or by different neural pathways that are ‘lighted up’ when we think of something — ultimately all of them require a mind that is aware of them, and, conversely, it is the mind (and only the mind) that is aware of all those mental states. That’s why for Buddhists all you need to really worry about is the mind; and that’s why they spend endless time training the mind. If you can change your perceptions — or, better, see through them — then you can pretty much accomplish anything, even stop suffering or insatisfaction, and lead a much better life, relating to others in a much more functional way.
Now, conditioned behaviour — innate or acquired — is also, from the perspective of Buddhism, a ‘movement of the mind’, in the sense that something (either DNA/embryological development) or someone (imitation, education…) ‘created’ that conditioned behaviour. Again, I’m using lies-to-children here — this is a simple analogy (which is ultimately false) just to get the argument along, since it’s neither a true description of modern science, nor of ancient Buddhist teachings.
But you can think of something conditioned — like putting your hand away if it comes too close to fire — in the following way: somehow, our organism has created a network of neurons and a system of biochemical release that will trigger the movement of the hand once the sensors on the skin reach a temperature threshold. It’s not important how complex that mechanism is; we know that all healthy human beings will exhibit it, it’s innate, we don’t need to learn it, so that means that it is either somehow encoded in the DNA, or it manifests itself through embryological development. In either case, the pain from the heat is still perceived in the mind; even if we ‘mindlessly’ react by taking the hand away (in the sense that we don’t need to consciously think about moving the hand), this conditioned reaction, or reflex, still registers in the brain (and therefore is made aware to the mind), even if ‘too late’ for the mind to interfere — which is as it should be, because we are supposed to keep hands away from fire!
But we all know that we can do stupid stuff like not remove the hand away, i.e. deliberately feel the pain and get yourself burned — we can all remember similar examples of sheer stupidity. What is happening here? Even though there is an innate, pre-programmed, automatic reflex to deal with an injury caused by excessive heat, our mind can nevertheless override the innate programming (and get burned). Now this seems to be a contradiction in terms: is this a reflex, after all, or is it not? Since we can override it, it seems that it is not innate; on the other hand, it’s true that unless we override the reflex, ‘our nature’ is to avoid putting our hands on fire, even if we’re not paying attention; and we don’t need to ‘learn’ that, we have acquired this ability at birth.
Let’s take another stupid example, one that is very dear to me: smoking. Anyone who has at least tasted a cigarette once knows what happens: our gagging reflex is immediately triggered by the presence of smoke (that’s particles in suspension on water vapour, by the way), and we cough like crazy. After all, if we didn’t cough — and stay away from inhaling smoke! — we would die when we saw our first forest fire, because we wouldn’t know what to do about it. Evolutionarily speaking, we are the descendants of those humans and animals who learned to avoid forest fires because the smoke would make us cough, so we would run away to where we could breathe clean air. The gagging reflex is innate, born with us, as it is with most animals who live on dry earth.
But smokers deliberately override the gagging reflex. They force themselves to inhale the smoke or at least keep it inside their mouths — and derive pleasure from absorbing the extra nicotine and the smell and taste which is pleasant for them — which they should not be able to do, since ‘tasting smoke’ is supposed to mean death (and that’s why we have the gagging reflex). And, in fact, smokers will eventually die from some form of cancer — because they are overriding a natural reflex which exists to preserve our health. I could go into further detail into this, explaining that the gagging reflex is not totally overridden, because even heavy smokers will be able to distinguish between ‘tobacco smoke’ and ‘forest fire smoke’, and trigger the reflex in the latter but not in the former; but let’s stick to a simpler lie-to-children here. The whole point is just to show how we humans, by sheer willpower, can override so-called ‘innate behaviour’, or reflexes, and sometimes with surprising ease, even if we put our health (or even our lives) at risk.
If we can even override our inborn reflexes, it’s obvious that it should be even easier to override those that we have acquired. Strangely enough, and I’m not going to philosophise on that, sometimes it seems that the acquired behaviour is even harder to override, even when it is non-functional, or even nonsensical. A typical example is jaywalking — we do it all the time even if it is forbidden, and it’s forbidden for a good reason, because we’re putting our lives, and that of other people, at risk. We nevertheless ‘override’ that social conditioning very easily, not even thinking twice. The other classical example is riding in an elevator: it’s socially awkward to present your back to the door — instead, everybody will face towards the door, or at least present themselves sideways to it, but never turn their backs to the door. There are no ‘rules’ for this, it’s not even something your parents will tell you, but it’s one acquired social rule by imitation that runs very deep in our brains — to the point that we do that automatically, by reflex, without thinking twice. And — to give an example so dear to the transgender community — for most cisgender heterosexual individuals, entering the ‘wrong’ bathroom for their gender is not only mentally awkward, but it may even give people psychosomatic symptoms (dizziness, a sense of fear or even panic, a weakness in the stomach, and who knows what else). That, again, is an acquired behaviour which goes so deep as to produce physical symptoms. And I’m sure you can add a lot of similar examples where acquired behaviour is so deeply ingrained in us that we cannot even function normally without it, and considering abandoning that behaviour — going against our conditioning — is deemed insane, and, as a consequence, impossible.
Now where am I going with this? It’s simple. From a Buddhist perspective, of course, all this ‘acquired’ or ‘conditioned’ behaviour is just that, something acquired, not even innate. While Buddhists certainly recognise that there are aspects of our body and mind that we cannot change (this explains the theory that every sentient being is technically able to attain the same state of awakening as the historical Buddha; the problem is that animals, for instance, lacking a human form and its consequences — such as the ability to use language — cannot learn about Buddhist techniques, and, therefore, it’s much harder — but technically not impossible! — for them to experience the nature of their minds), they also teach how so much behaviour that we take for granted is actually acquired and conditioned, and, therefore, ‘not innate’, meaning that we can override it easily enough with the proper training. In a sense, therefore, what we call ‘Buddhist meditation’ — becoming familiar with one’s mind and how it works — is a deconstructive process where we get rid of all those layers of conditioned behaviour and thought, until we reach the point where we can directly experience the nature of our own minds, free from all the conditioning. If it sounds crazy and impossible, you just have to remember that we spent all our lives acquiring those conditionings, learning to become self-conditioned if you wish, and all that is ‘artificial’ in the sense that it wasn’t part of our mind when we were born. So, if it’s something we somehow ‘added’ to our mind, we can ‘remove’ it. A typical example: yes, you can turn your back to the elevator’s doors, and the world won’t end, and fire is not going to come from the skies to destroy you. You might feel awkward and people will look at you with shock in their expressions — but you can override that conditioning. I’m not saying that it’s easy; I’m just saying it’s possible, with adequate training.
So, all behaviour (and even thoughts) related to gender roles are just conditioned. There is no reason for ‘boys wearing blue, girls wearing pink’ — in the sense that such a ‘reason’ is somehow embedded into our DNA or embryological development (the truth is that coloured clothing for children became popular after WWII when people started to have surplus money to spend in such stravaganza — children’s clothes used to be simply bleached white, no matter what their gender). In fact, all that is ’embedded’ there is the ability to recognise your own gender and the gender of others, and, at about 3 years of age, manifesting the desire to ‘belong’ to the group that you identify as the same gender as you. This is something that is truly part of us — as said, it’s a requirement for reproduction — but everything else (from clothes to proper behaviour adequate to your gender) is not. (Keep this in mind, because it’s important, and I will return to it later on.) Philosophers, and later pedopsychologists, attempted to describe certain traits that would give raise to specific predispositions in humans to acquire gender-specific behaviour: for example, women are naturally inclined towards protecting their children, and therefore, when they are very young, they have a propension towards role-playing the ‘mother role’, and this explains why little girls like dolls, especially those that look like small babies. This is a ‘training’ for their later role in life.
But of course this is nonsense. Today, more than ever, ‘little girls’ might replace their dolls with computer games (just as boys do!) and find ‘role-playing the mother role’ incredibly boring. Not all girls will be like that; but many will — and that shows that such ‘propension’ cannot really be part of our DNA. While it’s true that ‘dolls’ have existed for uncountable generations among almost all sorts of populations in the globe, it’s nevertheless also true that not all girls like to play with them, and they develop into socially perfectly conditioned mothers later on. In other words: there is no logical reason for girls to play with dolls, except that it’s a required social conditioning in our society. And because other girls play with dolls, and we humans as a gregarious species want always to be ‘part of a group’, then a human being who identifies as a girl (an innate, inborn desire that is conditioned by DNA and embryological development) will ‘do what other girls do’, and learns by imitation. If ‘to be a girl’ means ‘playing with dolls’, then girls will want to play with dolls. If, in this era of mobile phones and social media, ‘to be a girl’ means chatting on SnapChat, then that’s what girls will do. Clearly, we don’t have gender-specific DNA to give us the propension to use mobile phones! (Such absurd examples can show us how weak are those arguments which claim that boys or girls have a ‘natural predisposition’ towards certain specific behaviours)
I have recently read a fascinating book about the Japanese geisha written by Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist and her experiences in Japan. In it, Dalby describes the role of the geisha in Japanese society, filling a gap between conditioned behaviour: women, traditionally, are raised to become good mothers, who ought to be silent and submissive in front of their husbands. Shyness, therefore, is encouraged in little girls; and while they may get an education, traditionally they aren’t even supposed to converse with their husbands.
Now naturally this poses a social problem. Men in Japan, like everywhere else in the world, enjoy female company with whom they can have delightful conversation, in the middle of a party, where there is plenty of food, music, and dance or other performances. It would be unthinkable to demand from Japanese wives to participate (or even to organise) such events. Therefore, Japan society ‘created’ the role of the geisha: a female ‘companion’, skilled and versed in several topics — including the arts, namely, singing, playing the shamisen, dancing, and so forth — but, more important, with the ability to freely converse about pretty much everything with a man. Because a wife cannot fulfill that role (due to social conditioning), geisha had to be ‘invented’. And here is the interesting bit: how do geisha get trained? While certainly there have always been ‘rebel girls’ — who refused the strict conditioning of women in Japanese society — and although several geisha have been ‘born in the community’, so to speak (they are daughters of geisha or workers of teahouses in the geisha districts), there are always a few who come from other environments. Their biggest obstacle? Breaking their conditioning as shy, quiet, submissive girls. They might even be very accomplished dancers, singers, or performers in classical geisha arts, but if they cannot override their ‘traditional Japanese woman’ conditioning, they’re worthless as geisha.
Now, as Westerners, we might find this either amusing, confusing, or very sad; and of course, modern Japanese do not ‘condition’ their daughters so hard as before (Dalby’s book is about her experience in the mid-1970s). Nevertheless, on average, Japanese men are still very fond of shy and submissive wives; these will have an easier life if they stick to the traditional conditioning. And that’s one (of several) reasons why there are still geisha in Japan, and why the tradition simply doesn’t ‘die out’ — there will always be wealthy male individuals whose wives will stick to a traditional role presentation as a Japanese wife, and these individuals will have to rely on the society-approved companionship that a geisha is able to provide. So it’s not just about ‘preserving the traditions of Japan’: geisha exist because they fulfill a role in Japanese society, one that relies upon breaking social conditioning and adopting a role that is not appropriate for traditional women in Japan.
I’m no anthropologist, but it would be interesting to study Japanese geisha from the perspective of gender identity. Because there is such a stark, dramatic difference in the way geisha and (future) wives are brought up, each having different social roles, which clash and conflict in so many ways, one might even consider that there are two different social gender roles for cisgender women in Japan. In other words, if we list the characteristics of what a geisha and what a housewife are supposed to have, we will see that they are completely disconnected and opposed to each other in several details. And while geisha wear feminine attire and makeup, both are actually formalised and have rituals to wear and use — in other words, what a geisha wears is never what a housewife would wear, even though, in the past, geisha were actually trendsetters in feminine fashion, being always a step ahead of what was common in society. While this changed with the generalised appropriation of Western clothing in Japanese society since the early 20th century, the truth is that even today, for special occasions, when women dress up in a traditional way, their dress code will be different from the geisha’s — even if perhaps, from the perspective of a Westerner, they will look much alike; and the way geisha talk with their male patrons would not be seen as different from any other woman in the West and therefore we Westerners wouldn’t understand the social role they present. No wonder, therefore, that traditional Japanese used to be very, very confused about Western women, who seem to be able to ‘fuse’ the two roles of the geisha and the housewife in the same person; something which in traditional Japan would not make any sense.
Geisha, sometimes, have the wish to marry later in their lives. In a sense, when that happens, they will become ‘genderfluid’, if we use a Western term; they will be able to present both the role of geisha and of housewife to their husbands, although it might be far more likely that they would adopt the housewife role forever and abandon the geisha role, except perhaps for the most intimate moments with their husbands. In other words, from the perspective of a geisha seeking marriage, it would feel to her as if she was ‘changing social gender roles’. While of course I have never asked this to a geisha — and haven’t read as yet anything about the subject — I would imagine that such ‘change’ would be perceived at a similar level than someone transitioning between two gender roles in Western society. But to be honest, I seriously doubt that I would get a good answer from any existing, living geisha today, since of course Japanese society is so much more exposed to the Western world and Western thought, which is pervasive throughout all of their society; I therefore believe that the experience of abandoning the geisha role and adopting the housewife role would be more like ‘switching jobs’ in completely different areas. Nevertheless, I bring up this example, using the traditional Japanese context, to show a few important things:
- ‘being female’ (or male) is mostly conditioned, and social conditioning of women in traditional Japan (to give an example) is totally different from what happens in the West;
- there are several possible ways of ‘being female’, even in traditional Japan, who ‘invented’ different social roles for different kinds of women, filling niches in Japanese society;
- usually, people who have been assigned (or have chosen) a specific gender role in Japan will not easily switch to the other; thus, it’s very hard for girls having been brought up to become housewives to break their conditioning in order to become geisha; while geisha, who traditionally rarely marry, if they nevertheless do so, must abandon their geisha role and adopt a different social role with different attributes, characteristics, behaviour, and even dress code.
Now, we may obviously argue that what applies to Japan and Japanese society does not apply to the West, where there is but ‘one’ female social role (and ‘one’ male social role). The example of Japan’s society, however, shows how clearly social roles are merely social conditioning and nothing else; and how a society can become more complex when individuals who are biologically of the same sex (in terms of their primary and secondary sexual attributes) can actually fulfill radically different social roles.
Kabuki players in Japan, for instance, are also ‘allowed’ to cross the gender barrier when performing; and, because since the mid-1650s, there are only male Kabuki players, a few of them are especially trained from an early age to play female roles (they are usually picked from individuals with an androgynous look). Again, we can see that even in societies where gender roles are much more strictly defined, with precise attributes and characteristics specific to each gender role, such societies nevertheless are able to produce individuals who are socially accepted as belonging to neither ‘main’ gender role, but having a gender role of their own, or, in exceptional circumstances, be allowed to ‘cross’ gender roles at will, with social approval (even today, Kabuki performers are viewed by the Japanese society at large as superstars, at the same level as, say, rock/pop singers, movie actors, or sports athletes — including, of course, sumo wrestlers!).
Again, it’s tempting to draw a comparison with female impersonators in the West, who are also in the entertainment business (as are geisha and Kabuki players), and who are socially accepted, to a degree, as they perform their ‘art’ in front of a public audience. But there is a major difference. No matter what the female impersonators actually think about themselves, for the audience, this is a job being performed by a male artist; it’s fiction, a fantasy, an artistic performance, and nothing else. Sure, prejudice and transphobia might label the performer as being gay, trans, or anything like that, but the general audience just expects that performer to get rid of the wig and makeup and lead a normal life in the role appropriate to their assigned gender, that is, a male role. And, in fact, many female impersonators do exactly that. There is just a suspension of disbelief combined with a ‘suspension of gender norms’ on stage, during a show; once the show is over, ‘reality’ is back, and the female impersonator becomes just a normal guy again (the fact that many of them are actually gay, bisexual, or even trans, is absolutely irrelevant for the argument — as said, what matters here is what society thinks about them, not what they think about themselves).
Not so in traditional Japan. Geisha and Kabuki players really play a social role in Japanese society, a role which they perform all the time, just like the two ‘main’ classic gender roles. A Kabuki player who only plays female characters will be expected to learn everything that a woman is supposed to know in Japanese society — and it’s not unusual, in fact, for male Kabuki players and geisha to jointly attend shamisen classes (since Kabuki players might be called to play the role of a geisha in a convincing manner). Male Kabuki players playing female roles will often dress and behave as women all the time (or at least as much as possible), even if they do not identify as female, because that is what is expected of them. They are still viewed as ‘male’ — just like geisha are viewed as ‘female’ — but they are a special kind of male, one that is allowed to publicly dress and behave like a woman (similarly, geisha, even though they dress in a feminine way, are expected to behave and talk like geisha, even in their leisure time — which is the opposite of how a traditional female is supposed to behave). Now please don’t take this too literally: I’ve never been in Japan, I’m no expert in Japanese culture or society, if anyone in Japan is reading this they’re probably laughing out loud, but my point here is just to present yet another lie-to-children, a gross oversimplification of some aspects of Japanese culture — which is seen to be so formal and strict — where the issue of non-conforming gender roles was suitably addressed.
Perhaps better than ‘non-conforming gender roles’ a better way to look at the whole issue is to really start getting rid of our sociocultural prejudices about what a gender role is expected to be — and use all sorts of pseudo-scientific, religious, moral, or semi-logical arguments to ‘prove’ why this is so — and open our minds a little more. Just look at how people over the centuries have addressed gender roles: there has been change all the time!
Anyway, this was just a small digression, but the main point remains: male and female minds pretty much work the same way – while there are certain innate activities which are, indeed, different (like the so-called ‘motherly instinct’ which is much stronger on females than males – which of course doesn’t mean that males cannot have it: it’s just that, statistically, far more women will have it and at a stronger level of intensity than men), in general, most of what goes on inside the mind is precisely the same, even if technically some areas of the brain might ‘light up’ differently (since women’s brains are smaller and more convoluted than men’s, it’s not surprising to find some differences).
Nevertheless, it’s hard to address those ‘differences’ outside the context of acquired social behaviour. In other words: if we use RMI scans to investigate what goes on inside the brains of little boys and girls (say, before the age of three, when they acquire a sense of identity), then the differences are negligible. As we progress towards puberty, adolescence, young adulthood and maturity, those differences will be more and more significant, which is hardly surprising: as people acquire more knowledge and complexify their own sense of identity, they will imitate or be taught the ‘adequate’ behaviour for their gender role (and later for their overall role in society) – such acquisition of knowledge will ultimately transform the way a brain works. And, again, this is not surprising: we know very well that the brain of an Olympic athlete or of a professional orchestra player work quite differently from the ‘average’ brain, and that should be exactly what we are supposed to expect from a ‘specialist’ brain coming from someone regularly training themselves for endless hours a day.
Even when researchers analysed the brain waves from meditators they found amazing differences between people who meditate occasionally but regularly, those who spend a large amount of time meditating (like Catholic nuns or Buddhist monks), and people who had never meditated in their lives. The results are just astonishing for a particular school of Tibetan Buddhism (I won’t discuss here why this was the case, but it has a very plausible explanation) – for all the other groups which were subjected to these tests it was very easy to distinguish who meditates, regularly or very intensely, and those who never meditated in their lives. Also not surprising was a further experiment where a group of people who never meditated in their lives started taking meditation classes and, for the purpose of the experiment, did half an hour or so of silent meditation every day. After just a fortnight, there were significant changes shown in their brain scans: their brains had changed and now more closely resembled the brains of regular meditators. This experiment was done several times, with different groups, with people being tested after many months of regular daily meditation, and so forth. It was quite clear that we can train our brains to work differently, and that difference will register in those brain scans. Also, with the exception mentioned above, there was little difference between the actual meditation techniques that were employed; all would pretty much achieve similar results, sometimes quicker, sometimes slower, sometimes more intensely, and so forth. Many of those tests also included a scan made along a certain period of time, and, again, there were differences here: newbie meditators would not be able to register a ‘meditation pattern’ for long periods of time, while meditators with years of training would be able to enter and leave the meditation pattern at will, and sustain it for very extended periods. I could go on, but it’s best if you just google for the references if you’re interested; the point here, anyway, is not to talk about the merits of meditating (there are certainly many!) but rather to show that simple mental training will change the way the brain works – even if the person does not ‘feel’ any real difference. But those brain scanners are not so easily fooled!
So when I read about brain tests that were made with people with non-conforming sexuality and/or gender identity, where the researchers are so eager to ‘prove’ that transgender people have brain structures more closely resembling the gender they identify with, instead of the gender assigned at birth, I take all of those conclusions with a pinch of salt. I don’t mean to claim that those test are ‘fake’ – oh no, by the contrary, they are very well made, and in some cases, different labs have repeated the same tests and reached the same conclusion. The problem here is confusing cause and effect. Trans-friendly researchers will claim that because the brains of transgender people are different from those with the same gender assigned at birth, then such people will experience gender dysphoria.
Now I don’t think that’s totally true: I believe that they are confusing cause and effect. It’s because those people are transgender that their brains have changed to resemble more the brain patterns of those genders they identify with. Such an explanation is much more plausible because we already know that we can change the brain with training. There might be some structures in the brain which actually label or tag that brain as ‘more female’ or ‘more male’, but we still don’t have enough information: we must follow a transgender individual from birth to mature adulthood, scanning them all the time, to see what is going on inside their brains. Unfortunately for the researchers, transgender people are relatively rare and they will only manifest the first symptoms of gender dysphoria after a few years at best (and several decades at worst). To have a meaningful, statistically valid group of, say, a thousand individuals, it might mean scanning the brains of three million baby brains – and do that for several years until at least they start showing signs of gender dysphoria, and see how their evolution was. There is simply no funding for doing such a massive, large-scale research project!
Instead, researchers work with individuals who already say that they are transgender. They fail to capture the history of their brain changes: they just get a snapshot of the state the brain already is, and can conclude that there is indeed a difference in the way it works, compared to another person assigned the same gender at birth, but not suffering from gender dysphoria. This is not very interesting, because we lack the whole set of causes and conditions that ultimately lead to a ‘transgender brain’. Researchers have just studied the ‘finished product’ and tried to extract meaningful information from it.
Thus, I offer the following conjecture: what researchers are seeing is the result of a brain that has been affected — changed its inner workings, if you will — by transgenderity. As we have seen on the previous ‘chapter’ of this insanely long article, there are biochemical changes that will easily ‘tip’ the balance towards either the male or the female spectrum; and these, in turn, will make the person become more ‘male’ or ‘female’ (in the sense that this will be the gender identity they assume) — or both or none — and it’s that kind of sensation and/or feeling that, in turn, will change the brain to show the images that we can see today.
The main reason, therefore, why such brain scans still report ambiguous results regarding non-conforming sexuality and/or gender identity is not because such scans are ‘wrong’ or ‘incomplete’ (or because not enough scans have been made), but rather because they show snapshots of brain activity at a certain moment in time, failing to capture the history (or, if you prefer, the sequence of causes and conditions) that lead to that particular moment when the brain was scanned. This is mainly to argue that we cannot simply look at how a specific brain ‘lights up’ to different stimuli and say, ‘aha, you have reacted like a male ought to react to that, so, I’m sorry to say, but you’re not a trans woman, just a male with some delusions’. It’s actually rather scary to imagine that in the near future doctors might demand a brain scan to make sure that a certain person is transgender or not!
Well, nobody has — yet — argued that way. Nevertheless I have seen some arguments brought forward saying that transgender persons have brains that are not that close to the ‘typical’ brain of the gender they identify with, but, well, somehow in-between, at the edge of the margin of error for the gender they have been assigned at birth. This should not be surprising at all: we use our brain plasticity to the best of our advantage, and this is shown by how men and women have essentially different biological brains (based on average size/weight and level of convolution) but nevertheless can think in the same way. And we also have lots of examples where brains should not be able to allow certain people to think and act the way they do (because certain areas have lesions/tumours, in specific points where we know that, in an ‘average human’, will ‘light up’ in a certain way when reacting to specific stimuli) but they nevertheless allow such people to lead normal lives, unaware of the ‘different’ brains they have. These are, of course, edge cases, extreme scenarios, and not the ‘average’; still, they do exist, and they exist in a sufficient number to baffle neuroscientists.
Using my own conjecture, I would propose instead that things are quite a bit more complicated than that. I would not rule out that there are certain structures in the brain which, during embryologic development, might be related to a sense of gender identity, and those structures (usually these are marker molecules, not exactly neuronal structures) influence the way the brain thinks about its own gender identity (I’ll address this in much more detail below). What happens next is much harder to predict: while it seems clear that the ‘average’ male and female brains tend to develop according a certain predetermined way — and that’s why, on average, neuroscientists may guess the individual’s gender identity by scanning their brains — such a development is not 100% accurate, but probably just around 90%. Therefore, outside the established ‘average’ male/female brain, we will encounter all sorts of alternative configurations; these show much less what gender identity someone identifies with, but rather what they have made out of their plastic brains with whatever they got. In other words: a perfectly ‘male brain’, according to average parameters, can ‘feel’ to be ‘female’ in spite of what is shown on the scans; and there is no contradiction here, it’s just that this particular individual is making the most of what they have inside their brains, and, having started life with the ‘wrong’ configuration, there are limits to how quickly and profoundly they may be able to change their own brains under the action of constant training. Or perhaps we might also claim that those changes happen at a level where our neurological imagery is still not sophisticated enough to detect. But we’re getting there!
My point here is that it’s not very likely that we might isolate ‘male thinking’ from ‘female thinking’ inside a human brain. Instead, there is just human thinking, assuming we can figure out how exactly the ‘thinking’ is correlated to a signal distribution inside the brain (we’re getting there; we have decoded the neural code for the optic nerve, a work that has begun twenty years ago in simple organisms and progressively working towards the human eye). What happens next is that due to social conditioning, men and women will ‘think differently’ — they will use parts of their brains differently — in the same way that, say, a musician, an athlete, or a PhD ‘thinks differently’ than the average human being because they have trained themselves in very specialised activities for hours upon hours, changing the brain so that it works differently for that particular activity.
As you can see, my conjecture welds together behaviourism and embryological development. The main reason for my thinking is that there are not that many gene differences between men and women, and the little we know about such differences are restricted to what genes are carried in the X and Y chromosomes. If men and women had completely different brains, then we would very likely see much more genetic material differing between the two biological genders. As such, as we could see in the previous ‘chapter’, the ‘difference’ is mostly in the way the biochemical balance of sexual hormones is maintained. In other words, as far as we know, we don’t have a ‘genetic blueprint’ for ‘penis, testicles, muscles, male brain’ encoded in the Y chromosome, while the X chromosome has a blueprint for ‘ovaries, uterus, vagina, vulva, breasts, female brain’. It could not be so simple as that, especially because men also carry a X chromosome, so that would mean that men would also have the ‘female blueprint’ inside their genoma. Instead, what is much more plausible is that we have blueprints for a whole human being, regardless of gender, and it’s just the subtle chemical unstable equilibriums between sexual hormones that will ‘decide’ which blueprint gets activated — but, as discussed before, we can relatively easily tip the balance artificially.
The brain, being possibly the most ‘advanced’ organ in our body (this is naturally a lie-to-children: all our organs are at the same level of ‘advancement’, since that’s how evolution works; the difference is that some organs did not require much adaptation for the human species and therefore look similar to other organisms; while the brain is definitely different in quality from other species, since it has so much more to do), is unlikely encoded by a relatively short sequence of genes (in the sexual chromosomes). Rather, all the building blocks for the brain must be scattered along all our DNA. Their assemblage will be mostly the same for men and women, taking only into account a smaller cranial volume, on average, on women; very likely the ‘brain construction blueprint’ will know how many neurons it has to produce, and, if the cranial volume is not enough, the brain matter convolutes more in order to accommodate for the extra neurons, something which also does not need to be ‘encoded’ specifically for a sexual difference. After all, smaller humans are not dumber or smarter than taller ones; their brains simply adapt to the available space, within the acceptable size variations for the human species (which, as argued, is not that big a difference, it just looks like that for a layperson).
So what my conjecture claims is that we are not born with a ‘gendered brain’. Instead, we are born with a human brain. What happens is that certain markers in the brain — very likely tied to the way the brain, at a later stage of development, will necessarily have to immediately recognise the difference in biological gender — will provide a propension, or a potential, for a specific brain to develop according to a more ‘male’ or a more ‘female’ outlook. But such changes are not exactly ‘inborn’ — most of it, I claim, will come from constant training and social reinforcement from one’s parents, teachers, and peers, which will ultimately develop certain patterns of thinking that a specific society will recognise and identify with ‘male thinking’ and ‘female thinking’.
There are limits, however, to how far we can go with this. The notion that social gender behaviour is purely conditioned has been debunked several times. We know now, with absolute certainty, that we cannot condition someone to ‘be’ a gender they do not identify with. And this can only be explained if certain brain patterns cannot form, even in the presence of constant social conditioning. For me, this explanation just points out to the crucial inborn ability to recognise gender; we have to have it encoded in our genes, or our species would not have survived. Indeed, I’ve looked for studies on this area, and as far as I could understand, we haven’t yet found an adult human being that is unable to figure out their own gender, or, put in better words, that has the gender-recognition mechanism broken. We have several examples of people failing to recognise faces, and, therefore, unable to attribute a specific gender to such persons; nevertheless, they have no doubts about their own gender. A corollary of my conjecture, therefore, is that a human being with a broken gender-recognition unit in the brain will never develop, i.e. they will either be reabsorbed in the womb or be dead at birth: the gender-recognition unit, as so many other vital things in our organism, is a fundamental component of our human hereditary, and we cannot work without it.
Thus, once that gender-recognition unit is fully active — which will happen at least around three years of age in healthy human beings, when their identity starts to form — there is no way for the brain to get conditioned to think about itself as a different gender than the one it has originally recognised. We have so many examples showing that kids at three years of age utterly reject the gender they have been assigned at birth that it’s clear that not only that gender-recognition unit must be fully active and operational (the individual recognises its own gender and that of others), but that once it has determined its own gender, there is no amount of ‘conditioning’ that will change it, and this mechanism will also not be affected by hormones and/or any other biochemical form of ‘tipping the balance’. In other words, we can affect how the body develops according to a specific gender — at least regarding the external, secondary sexual characteristics — but this will not affect the brain, or, at least, it will not affect the gender-recognition unit (and we also know it won’t affect the sexuality unit, either).
But I claim that besides this gender-recognition unit, which is vital for the human species to reproduce and therefore cannot be tampered with, all the rest that happens at the brain level is very likely the product of conditioning — including (and most importantly so!) self-conditioning. In other words, once an individual has their gender-recognition unit active and operational, it labels itself as one of the possible genders (not only the binary ones, of course), and is compelled to join the group of such individuals who have been recognised as their own gender. Once this very simple and primitive mechanism is at work, whatever happens next will be a product of socialisation — we start to get ‘trained’ as a member of one of the possible genders, and we will yearn for that training. You can think of this as a mechanism similar to the one that makes us hungry, thirsty, or in need of going to the toilet — while the details will vary among individuals, and what we eat or when we eat (or even how we eat) is a matter of social conditioning, the raw ‘need’ to be hungry/thirsty/etc. which is essential for us to exist and continue living cannot be ‘unconditioned’. In other words: we can fast, of course, and we can even force ourselves to kill ourselves due to the lack of eating/drinking, but we cannot change the way our brain works when it gets signals from the rest of the body that it needs to eat or drink. While we can ignore such signals (until we die of hunger or thirst), we cannot change the way such signals are interpreted as ‘hunger’ or ‘thirst’, because such interpretation is vital to our survival as an individual in a species.
I believe that the gender-recognition mechanism is similar. We can be taught to ‘behave’ according to a gender that we do not identify with, and this teaching will also change the way the brain works. However, if that is attempted, we will know that something is seriously wrong. Like a person who is always hungry but nevertheless is prevented from eating (for various reasons!) might have their brain patterns subtly changed, they will still feel bad — we can call it suffering if you wish — because they are not eating when the brain is told by the body that it must eat. A similar thing happens regarding the gender-recognition unit, the gender the brain labels itself with, and the social conditioning we get. If there is a discrepancy between what the brain recognises as its own gender and the social conditioning we get, we ‘feel’ that something is profoundly wrong. The degree to which we feel that varies, of course, and we all know that gender dysphoria, if ignored for too long, will lead to depression, anxiety, even suicide — as the individual cannot tolerate further ‘wrong’ social conditioning.
But the ‘wrongness’ of this feeling becomes worse over time. Why? It’s simple: as time progresses, an individual with gender dysphoria is learning more and more about the gender role that they’re supposed to assume in society. And the more they learn, the less that role makes sense according to the gender they identify with. As they progress towards puberty, it becomes clear to them that their body will not develop according to their gender identity, and at that point, anxiety will most definitely step in — individuals with extreme cases of gender dysphoria will of course enter in panic as they realize that there is something utterly wrong with the way their bodies are developing, and the more their bodies develop in a certain direction, the clearer it becomes that it’s a body congruent with the gender they have been assigned at birth, in other words, rather the utter opposite of the gender role they identify with.
Now I cannot truly explain what goes on in the mind of individuals with extreme cases of gender dysphoria. In my particular case, what happened, in a very convoluted way, was that my brain registers my own face and overall looks as being ‘monstrous’, horrible, disfigured. I know now that this is not the case, but as I’ve written before, that is something actually very recent and came to me as both a surprise and a shock. I still see myself in the mirror as obnoxious; my female looks are slightly better than my male ones, but not that much, to be honest. I understand now that this was a ‘coping mechanism’ which was mostly subconscious. In other words, at some point, my brain figured out, during puberty, that the body was developing ‘wrongly’. I don’t really have a conscience of that, and to make matters worse, I was always romantically (and later sexually) attracted to females — which is what a ‘normal’ cisgender heterosexual male is supposed to do. But ‘something’ was wrong and I couldn’t understand my own dreams, where I was female; at that time, of course, I had absolutely no idea about transexuality, even though homosexuality figured somewhere in my very vague knowledge about human sexuality… and I was terrified that I would somehow be forced to ‘become gay’, which was absolutely horrendous for me, and impossible even to imagine — except with utter disgust. So I reasoned that the whole issue of not being successful in establishing romantic relationships during my teens was first because I was very shy — which I overcame — and second because I was physically repulsive to women. Interestingly enough, though, once I started to truly believe in that, I actually lost all anxiety and stress during my teens; I knew that I could do something about my shyness (it was a personality trait that I could work with; and it was mostly about being afraid of saying the wrong things to the wrong person, especially if those persons were female), but there was nothing I could do about my looks, so I resigned myself to that perception about myself. Even today, it’s very confusing and strange that my own wife is not only romantically attracted to me, but also physically — I always shrugged that off simply because love is supposed to turn you blind, etc. and so forth. But ultimately it was just that very unusual coping mechanism — believing that I’m hideous — that left deep scars in my mind.
I also think that this is mostly what differentiates the several levels of gender dysphoria. At the extreme levels, of course, there is no possible ‘coping mechanism’ except for immediate transition, the sooner the better, and ideally and optimally before puberty kicks in; if that option is not available, suicide is the result — and this is why the suicide rate is so high among transgender people. The less severe levels of gender dysphoria, however, have been attenuated by some form of coping mechanism, or trauma, or even abnormal personality traits. One of the most popular coping mechanisms, of course, is crossdressing, and that usually happens at a very early date. Other people will figure out their own coping mechanisms. Sometimes they are not obvious at all, like my own, and might remain dormant for a long time — and this, in turn, will ‘blow up’ sooner or later (usually later) at an overwhelming intensity, and the urge to transition can happen at any age, but possibly decades after puberty. This would ‘explain’ the so-called late onset transexuals — often due to a concatenation of circumstances, which just happen later in time, the urge to transition will be triggered. This is not much different from childhood trauma, which has been suppressed through a coping mechanism, but which at some point, the coping mechanism does not work any more (for whatever reason), and then the full consequences of the trauma are experienced.
I’m not saying that gender dysphoria is the same as trauma; it is not! Gender dysphoria clearly comes from an abnormal encoding of certain precursor chains of chemical reactions, and that happens during embryonal development at some point. Certainly the experience of understanding that people around a transgender person are forcing them to assume a gender role they do not identify with can become traumatic (unless a coping mechanism is found very early); and in a sense, that trauma can be alleviated by therapy. However, this will not affect the dysphoria in the least.
So, what makes a woman a woman?
Although I have not backed my conjectures with a lot of factual data, you can get a lot of it from merely googling around. And in that way you may be persuaded about a few concepts:
- that biology/genetics/embryology most certainly determine a lot of factors that will make a body develop as male or female, but such ‘determination’ is by no means black-or-white, but allows for a lot of variation and diversity in-between;
- that sexual hormones do not ‘define’ gender (since both genders have both kinds) but certainly help to develop primary sexual characteristics during embryonic development, and secondary ones at puberty – while at the same time reverting such effects at an age where the person is not fertile any longer;
- that these hormones, and the whole biochemistry around them, are delicately balanced in an unstable equilibrium, which can easily be ‘tipped’ either way; this allows us not only to alleviate the symptoms of menopause in women, but block and delay puberty, or switch secondary sexual characteristics in what is, to almost all effects, a ‘second puberty’;
- that the human brain, while physically it may appear to have a few differences between the two genders, does work fundamentally in the same way (in spite of claims to the contrary);
- that there are no thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc. which are innately ‘male’ or ‘female’ (except perhaps for the motherly instinct, but even that might be questionable, as some women don’t have it, and some men appear to feel something very close to it), but rather that it’s the society that labels such thoughts, emotions, feelings and so forth as ‘typically male’ or ‘typically female’;
- likewise, there are no ‘modes of thinking’ (in the sense of higher cognitive functions) that are ‘typically male’ or ‘typically female’, and nothing shows that so clearly as the number of female doctors, scientists, lawyers, accountants, and so forth, who leave university with a degree — formerly thought as ‘typically male jobs’ for which women ‘had no talent/skill’ — in a far greater number than men, who tend not to finish their studies; against all claims to the contrary, women can outperform men in all mental fields, just because they’re motivated to do so (while men, these days, tend to be much more lazy…);
- that we most certainly can define ‘social roles’ around gender, forcefully impose them, and, in that way, artificially separate the two genders more (as such social roles also imply appearance, presentation, way of speaking, emotions publicly shown, and so forth), but many societies — especially those that historically have been stricter! — added further possible ‘gender roles’ for those who did not conform with the stereotypically ‘male’ and ‘female’ ones, and that such ‘innovations’ were actually accomplished centuries or millennia ago;
- nevertheless, that ultimately there is a strong reason for having (at least) two gender roles, and those are linked to biological reproduction: therefore, we all have an innate mechanism to identify and classify our own ‘gender’ and that of other people, so that we know to which ‘gender group’ we belong — this mechanism must be innate and hereditary, or else we wouldn’t have reproduced enough to survive — although what exactly implies ‘belonging’ to a ‘gender group’ is socially established as an artificial construct, which varies according to the epoch and location.
Taking all the above into account, I will now formulate a second conjecture, one which I’m aware that will make more than a few heads shake in denial:
‘Being a woman’ is not more, nor less, than the identification with a specific gender role, which can be strongly correlated to biology, embryological development, a physical appearance, and so forth, but does not necessarily have to be.
Note my peculiar way of writing ‘identification with a specific gender role’, as opposed to ‘having a specific gender identity’. This is deliberate, because the notion of ‘gender identity’ is, in itself, also a hypothesis (or conjecture), not rooted in empirical evidence (i.e. as in figuring out which areas of the brain ‘produce’ the gender identity) but rather accepted as the simplest possible explanation with the highest explanatory power (this is pretty much what scientists mean when they apply Occam’s Razor). There are other possible explanations, but either they do not account for all observed behaviour, or they are far more complex but explain basically the same thing. It’s also important to acknowledge that the concept of ‘gender identity’, or, more precisely, the idea that there is a ‘gender identity core‘ somewhere inside the mind/brain (because we also assume there is an ‘identity core’ in the mind/brain, even if we have no idea how it works), is something that most scientists researching this area and the community will agree upon — i.e., doctors, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social science researchers and activists, all of them accept the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture. But in science that doesn’t mean that this conjecture cannot be questioned (even though activists will wince when they hear that!), nor replaced by something with even better explanatory power while at the same time being simpler — that’s the work of future generations of researchers, of course. Last but not least, the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture can be falsifiable (and that’s why it’s a scientific, not an ideological proposal) because all that is needed is for neurologists to find out that, after dissecting the brain, and figuring out how exactly it all works together, they notice that, after all, there is no place for a ‘gender identity core’, and so the conjecture must ultimately be rejected. Now, of course, we do not have the technology to do that, and won’t have it in many generations; that’s why the ‘gender identity core’ proposal is merely a conjecture and not a theory — we lack the means to either validate or falsify the proposal. In science, this is not something terrible: it just means that we must either develop more advanced technology to test the hypothesis (and then the conjecture might become a theory), or, through logic and rational thinking, we might be able to falsify the conjecture, or address some of its shortcomings, or come up with a novel concept which completely abolishes the need of such a conjecture. But while that doesn’t happen, scientists, activists, and the community at large accept the conjecture as ‘truth’. It’s a temporary truth, if you wish, but it’s nevertheless a scientific truth.
Don’t think that there aren’t people currently trying to falsify the ‘gender identity core’ theory! In the past, it was postulated that ‘gender identity’ is an epiphenomenon emerging from conditioned training according to one of the binary genders; so it was postulated that we haven’t a ‘gender identity’ at birth, but learn it from our parents and peers. This theory was dramatically debunked, several times and in different places, unfortunately with very damaging results for the people involved in the ‘experiment’ (at least two cases I’m aware of resulted in suicide). So we know that several other proposals to explain ‘gender’ have been shown to be incorrect, and that strengthens the acceptance of the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture, because, so far, there are no known ‘experiments’ (which can also be thought experiments, mind you) which have falsified the assumptions.
So what is the difference from the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture and my own? Well, the ‘gender identity core’ is based on the notion that ‘something’ encoded in our genes or in the embryological development ‘produces’ this ‘gender identity core’, which, as its name implies, is part of the ‘identity core’. In other words, and as I’ve explained in previous articles, there is this notion of the autobiographical self which somehow ‘gives’ us our identity. It does that using several ‘tools’ in the brain, and one of them produces the ‘gender identity’ we talk about. We can therefore say that the ‘gender identity’ is something innate, something we are born with.
The ‘gender identity core’ conjecture also has an advantage: it explains easily why we are just ‘aware’ of gender at about 3 years of age or so, because that’s also the age when we finally ‘acquire’ our own identity (and, therefore, the gender identity as well). In other words, it takes for a human being about three years for those innate structures in the brain to develop until they reach a stage of maturity that ‘produces’ identity and gender identity; this is actually well supported by the theory that the brain is born with a certain amount of neuronal connections, but during the first months and years of life, it creates new connections at a fantastic rate, something which will not happen in later stages of life. At some point, if you wish, these connections reach a ‘critical mass’: we become sentient as an individual.
(As a side note, this is also the reason why science fiction writers, or Transhumanists following Ray Kurzweil’s theories, believe that a sufficiently complex computer will eventually develop sentience as well — the theory is about reaching that critical point in the level of complexity which a human brain reaches at a certain stage in their lives.)
I prefer to see things as slightly different, and I will also explain why. I prefer to speak of having a ‘gender recognition/identification mechanism’ which will ‘attach’ our embrionary ‘identity’ to ‘gender identity’, but that mechanism, in the case of ‘gender identity’, requires sensorial stimuli (mostly visual, in the case of non-blind people), pattern recognition, group/category identification, and, last but not least, education (in the sense of acquisition of knowledge through tutoring or imitation).
Sounds complex? Yes, it is, and that’s why this article is not a scientific article, because it actually proposes more complex conjectures to explain what is described by a much simpler mechanism, i.e. the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture. But I have a good reason for proposing it, as you will see.
First, let’s see what is involved in my own conjecture. And secondly, I’ll try to explain how the current conjecture can be ‘perverted’ by TERFs (yes, we started with them and we finish with them) and their allies, the right-wing religious fanatics.
So, in my own conjecture, there is no such thing as an inborn gender identity core, just as there is no inborn identity core. ‘WHAT?’ — some of you might be yelling, especially when you know that the theory of gender-as-learned-behaviour has been so thoroughly debunked and rebuked and ultimately abandoned. Well, I think that things are a bit more complex in terms of explanation, but actually more simple in terms of biological structures. You see, the more I read Damasio’s (and others’) theory of the ‘autobiographical self’, the more I get convinced that there is no such thing that ‘creates’ the self, so to speak, out of the existing brain structures. Instead, self (or identity) is what our higher-level cognitive abilities call what is going on at a lower level. And what is at the lower lever? Why, the mechanism which registers your memories and links it to your body position in 3D. That mechanism is certainly inborn, inherited, transmitted by genes and embryological development, and, more to the point, neurologists like Damasio can pinpoint exactly where on the brain this mechanism is — in the sense that if that specific area gets damaged, we lose the ability to recollect memories with our body in them, and either they appear to us as memories coming from another person (they are not ‘ours’ because our own body is not in them), or, worse, we completely lose our sense of identity and just have what feel like fake memories swimming in our brains, but which we cannot link together as making part of the stream of consciousness to which we call ‘self’.
Neurologists like Damasio are a bit more cautious; they prefer to assume that there is an ‘identity core’, or a higher-level self, which is built from the lower-level structures, and is linked to them, but somehow independent — such a theory can be partially validated by showing that if the lower-level structures are damaged, the person loses some aspects of their identity, so that would mean that the lower-level structures can affect the higher-level ‘identity’ structures. Such a reasoning would be much more collectively accepted by those who work in neuroscience, since it follows the more accepted models of how the brain works.
I, by contrast, am free from the chains binding neurologists to their theories (i.e. formulate something too radical, and you can kiss bye-bye to your funding!). Instead of postulating an area of the brain where the ‘self’ is located (note that even neurologists accept that there might not be one specific area, but rather that the ‘self’ is distributed across the brain, possibly even as a whole, so that talking about the exact spot of where the self is becomes an absurdity — it’s the whole brain), I postulate instead that the notion of ‘self’ is merely a description of an assembly of lower-level brain structures, of which we are not aware, but which produce (epiphenomenically) what we describe as a ‘self’. If those structures are missing, or damaged, or not working well, then our description of the ‘self’ is only partial, vague and confusing, or totally missing. So it’s not as if the self does not ‘exist’ in the physical sense of the word; it’s more as if the ‘self’ is merely the aggregation of a lot of different and complex mechanisms in the brain, which we describe with a single word in an attempt to convey what we experience.
Perhaps the following analogy might be useful: we can talk of a ‘nation’ or ‘country’, by pointing to a map, see where the borders are, and considering that the human beings inside those borders are, in fact, the population of a nation, and give the nation its identity. But such borders are completely arbitrary. Aliens from outer space visiting Earth would only see people, wandering around the world. What essential attribute of those humans they observe include a ‘national identity core’? Where exactly is that located? Such questions do not even make sense unless you accept that borders ‘exist’ — not in the physical sense, but rather in an abstract convention, made by other humans, possibly decades or centuries before, establishing an artificial separation of humans according to their location, and declaring that the humans on this side of the border have one ‘national identity’, while the humans on the other side will have a different one. Aliens would be baffled — after all, on both sides of the artificial border, humans are just humans, with more or less characteristics, but they share so many of those characteristics that, for the aliens, they cannot understand why some humans have a different national identity. And then those same humans will explain: ‘look, when we’re small, we learn different languages; we have different holidays, and for some of them, we dress in different clothes to dance different dances; we admire different painters and musicians, we read different authors; we pray to different gods. All this contributes to form the national identity.’
And the aliens would insist: ‘all those superficial differences come from just arbitrarily drawing lines on a map?’
You would probably be tempted to say, ‘yes!’ But that’s not how we humans work. Instead, we have to explain to the aliens how we have been evolutionarily selected to be what we are today. We would have to explain that we are a gregarious species: that means we cannot live in isolation but have a lot of inborn mechanisms to naturally come together and feel more comfortable if we are together than alone. This, in turn, requires having inborn mechanisms to figure out who are the members of our clan or tribe, and who is outside our close circle of friends. We are pretty good at figuring that out, but, nevertheless, we enhance the differences by artificially creating ‘cultural artifacts’ that make each group different from the other — language, singing, but also apparel, the way we move, the way we arrange our hair. Such visual differences enhance, on one hand, the bond that draws group members together; they provide a ‘common identification’, while still leaving space for individual expression; but, on the other hand, it also provides a mechanism to separate one clan from a different clan. Ultimately, such bondage and differentiation lead to larger and larger collections of people, larger and larger units of space where such people came together, and we developed those artificial borders to artificially enhance our sense of ‘belonging’ to a group, but not to another. This ‘group’, of course, now comprises millions of individuals in the same ‘nation’. But we have even advanced towards concepts above the level of nation — i.e. ‘European’ or ‘Western’ — and perhaps one day we will consider the whole planet our own ‘clan’, but we’re not there yet.
So… do we have an inborn national identity or not? Of course not, and the aliens would understand that. The national identity is an artificial concept, a convention, which ties abstract notions (which we commonly can describe as ‘cultural’) to a specific group, making it distinct from others (who, in turn, will have developed their own conventions, there own culture). Nevertheless, all the mechanisms which allow us to pursue a ‘national identity’ are part of our genetic heritage, and they have been defined through evolution: being a gregarious species, we are naturally drawn together, and that means being able to recognise who is part of ‘our’ group, and who is not (an ‘enemy’). Such characteristics are innate, that is, even in the absence of external artificial attributes (clothing, hairdos, language…), we might be still pretty good at figuring out who is ‘one of ours’ and who is not (that’s why actors and spies — both being very good at ‘passing’ for someone who is not part of a group but successfully pretends to be so — are relatively rare; similarly, that’s why we are rather good at detecting who is lying; accomplished liars are, in fact, a small minority).
This example illustrates rather well how elements from what is innate and what is acquired mix and blend well together, and the result is something we call ‘identity’. In the case of ‘national identity’, of course, nobody has ever postulated the existence of a ‘national identity core’, i.e. something with which we are born which, at a certain stage in life, makes us identify with being American or Portuguese. We know that ‘culture’ is something acquired (through education and imitation). But we must also recognise that we have a predisposition towards ‘acquiring’ that national identity. Of course, 100.000 years ago, we would have talked about ‘clan identity’ or ‘tribal identity’, but it’s the same thing: an abstract, high-level concept, and nothing more than that, which is nevertheless rooted in the basic necessity of a gregarious species: we need to be part of a group, to be able to protect ourselves better as a community against the aggression of other groups. And therefore we have the tools, the mechanisms in the brain, which make us come together, and help us to identify who is part of our group, and who is not. These are innate, and necessary, in the evolutionary sense, or we would not be a gregarious species — we wouldn’t have a way (or even a necessity!) to figure out how to ‘come together’.
While at a very high cognitive level we might talk of abstract concepts such as ‘group identification’ (something that all teens will go through), we can also recognise that, at much lower levels, we have several tools and mechanisms which aid the existence of those high-level concepts. They are closely tied to each other. And, again, we can observe that certain brain structures must play a part in this. The typical example is the sociopath: certain brain areas that deal with ‘gregariousness’ are defective, damaged, or otherwise inoperational, and therefore the sociopath cannot ‘bond’ successfully, even not understanding, at a higher cognitive level, why he has to ‘belong’ to any group whatsoever. We have lots of mental diseases where we know that the ‘gregariousness’ is missing or broken; schizophrenia certainly shows that happening (lack of empathy towards others) but there are more cases. And in some of them we even know that chemical substances can either promote/enhance ‘gregariousness’, while others can avert it. So while we cannot affect ‘national identity’ directly with drugs and/or therapy, or even brain surgery, we can affect the low-level mechanisms, which we innately have, and on top of which the concept of ‘national identity’ emerges. Therefore, in a sense — and only in that sense! — we can say that ‘national identity’ is something that most humans will possess, at some higher or lesser degree, and that our offspring will also ‘inherit’ the predisposition of having a ‘national identity’, so somehow we can even claim that ‘national identity’ is inherited — not directly, in the sense that we have genes saying that we are American or Portuguese, but indirectly, because we have genes which will develop our need for belonging to a group (and avoid other groups) as well as the mechanisms which allow us to recognise who is part of a group and who is not. Those lower-level mechanisms are inherited; it’s on top of them that ‘national identity’ is acquired as a behaviour. And this is much easier to show, since we all know that we can switch ‘national identities’ (and, in fact, refuse to have one, or have several at the same time), because all it needs is to acquire the appropriate cultural behaviours and identify with them.
That was the easy part! Now let’s get back to gender identity. As I have shown before, the mechanisms that make us recognise gender based on pattern matching — subtle hints in physical attributes (and in the case of secondary sexual characteristics, those hints are anything but subtle!) which our brains can process almost immediately and tag a label to them — are obviously innate, and it should have been quite obvious to the behaviourists in the 1960s that we humans need to reproduce ourselves, and that means knowing for sure how to couple together to generate offspring. Nature has even been kind to us, and almost all animals have secondary sex attributes (even if in some cases they are not visually perceptible), to help us to identify each physical gender better and quicker. Because generating offspring among humans just requires two working biological sexes, our brains must be adapted to easily differentiate between one and the other. So all of this must be present in the brain structures when we’re born; after all, even insects are good enough at separating between those who share the same gender/sex (‘opponents’ in the game of love) and those who don’t (potential mates) — so such a mechanism must be not only innate, but it must be very simple indeed!
We cannot even argue that the ‘biological-sex-identification-mechanism’ is incredibly sophisticated for us humans, compared to other species, because both sexes actually resemble each other very much, so we need better pattern-matching mechanisms than, say, peacocks or chicken or even lions, where it’s really very easy to distinguish between both sexes. But this is not the case for all animals: as I like to mention always, cats have almost no (visual) distinction between the sexes, and they certainly have no trouble reproducing! So the actual complexity of this identification mechanism must be very low indeed: with just a few hints, in general, we can guess correctly in, say, 99% of the cases.
As humans, of course, we enhance that chance, because we define gender roles — cultural artefacts that attribute a lot of behaviours to each of the genders (and that includes appearance, obviously). So what that means is that we do not rely only on the secondary sexual attributes, because in some cases they might not be ‘enough’ to visually separate the two biological genders. For instance, two very skinny teenagers of different genders, who have had little fat intake in their nutrition, who do not exercise much, and who dress alike with the same hairstyle, might be easily confused; but if you dress the ‘woman’ in a dress, and the ‘man’ in a three-piece suit, then they will be immediately recognisable as to which gender they belong.
I’m just restating the obvious, all right? The assumption here is that the pattern-matching mechanism which labels each of the genders is, indeed, inborn, innate, somehow inherited genetically. We might not know exactly where on the brain this area is, but we know of some cases where people look at faces and cannot tell if they are people they know — or even what gender they are — due to some damage on a specific area of the brain. Some of those people, however, can often rely on other ‘hints’ to address people correctly and not misgender them; in other words, they can learn to go beyond the secondary sexual attributes and look, say, at clothes or hairstyles, and guess correctly the gender of the person, even if they know that, intuitively, their brains do not ‘know’ which gender is which. Such are extreme cases, where the pattern-matching ability for faces is somehow broken; such people are rare, of course, so we can safely assume that most people will guess correctly at one’s gender when looking at a face.
As we crossdressers so well know, we can cheat, meaning that we can create the illusion of a specific gender by using all sorts of tricks (from shapewear to makeup), and then we can somehow ‘override’ the natural pattern-matching mechanism; in other words, that mechanism will give the wrong answer somehow, because, through what is merely acquired behaviour (in this case, the way someone dresses or puts makeup on) in a specific cultural environment, the brain gets ‘fooled’ by matching patterns at a high cognitive level (the level of abstract cultural concepts). Now all this would deserve whole books on the subject (namely, showing how humans are able to ‘override’ natural impulses and replace them by cultural ones), but I’ll spare you another 10,000 words on the subject; the whole point, after all, is to show two things — that the pattern-matching mechanism we have that ‘recognises’ a specific gender is inborn, but that each gender is culturally enhanced with behaviour/appearance and, through that, we can actually fool the pattern-matching mechanism, which works 99% of the time, but does not guess correctly all the time (99% is an invented number, of course; it just has to be sufficiently high to allow the human species to reproduce, while at the same time we know it’s not infallible, because we can fool it).
So far, so good; nobody, I think, will dispute this argument. Now my conjecture is working at the level of the inborn pattern-matching mechanism which tells our brain what gender some person belongs to — including ourselves. What we call ‘gender identity’ is, according to my conjecture, merely an abstract description of the result of this mechanism: when it is first applied to ourselves (and rendered fully functional, which happens around 3 years of age), it will trigger one of two possible results, i.e. that we belong either to the ‘male’ group or the ‘female’ one. And, as we know, one in 10.000 human beings (or so) will get this resultwrong.
It seems like a huge step — from something so simple as tagging a face ‘male’ or ‘female’ to the immense complexities of ‘gender identity’? Well, to be honest, that’s what I think. The underlying mechanism must be something really simple, since, as said, even insects have it — and they certainly have way simpler brains than ours! Because the mechanism is so simple, it also means that when it ‘tags’ something as male or female, it creates a very strong attachment to that identity. Of course this is just speculation, but my conjecture is that, the simpler the mechanism (and we can look through all living organisms and see what mechanisms we share with the simplest of those organisms), the stronger it will be — that is why we give so much importance to, say, pain, or hunger/thirst, or passion/desire, etc. So-called ‘basic instincts’, most of which are innate and inborn, and without which we couldn’t function as living beings, must — according, again, to my conjecture — have very strong associations, bonds, emotions, whatever. In other words, the more abstract a concept is, the less rooted it will be in innate mechanisms, and the ‘less stronger’ it will be. People will care much more about the next sex partner than about voting for the next president; after all, without sex, there will be no reproduction; while having the wrong politician sitting behind their desk will not matter that much to the continuing survival of the human species (well, unless that politician has the codes for launching a nuclear war… but I digress!).
There might be a relationship between the pattern-matching mechanisms which make our species gregarious by attracting ‘people from the same group’ together, and the pattern-matching mechanism which identifies genders. However, it’s clear that the gender-recognition mechanism is much older and more important, evolutionarily speaking, because the vast majority of species is not gregarious and they have survived until today. So it’s possible that ‘gregariousness’ might be an adaptation of the gender-recognition mechanism, but I will leave that discussion for biologists; I think that all those mechanisms might be rooted in something even more primitive, or that the most primitive mechanism is precisely the gender-recognition mechanism, and all others are variations of it. I don’t know, I’m just wildly guessing.
In any case, because the gender-recognition mechanism is essential for reproduction, and therefore for ensuring the survival of our species, it must be at the top of the list in importance for all mechanisms inside the brain — i.e. at the same level of those mechanisms that make us hungry, thirsty, avoid extreme cold and heat, and so forth, or, in essence, everything which affects our ability to survive. One might even argue that, from the perspective of our genes, the gender-recognition mechanism is the most important mechanism inside our brain — because if we starve after we have sex, our genes won’t care; but they will care if we are too weak to even have sex and reproduce ourselves, so we will have a lot of mechanisms to ensure our survival at least until we are able to reproduce ourselves. Again, I will not discuss this further, I’ll leave it to the biologists! In any case, it’s easy to see that during our first months of life, we clearly will be much more interested in getting fed than in developing identity or worrying about sex…
But wait, I hear you yell. The ‘gender identity core’ is not merely an ‘identification mechanism’; their proponents, after all, also assume that a person identifying with a specific gender will also think like that gender — and this, in fact, is also at the root of gender dysphoria, when someone has a body differently gendered than their brain, who thinks like a person of a different gender. My conjecture relegates everything to the gender-recognition mechanism. What about the rest? What about what really constitutes a woman — her way of thinking? The ‘gender identity core’ conjecture, obviously, assumes that ‘all that which makes a woman’ is somehow embedded inside that ‘core’.
Well… as before, I will have to cheat once more, and turn another leaf in my Buddhism book. One important concept of Buddhism is known as ‘habitual tendencies’, and hopefully my own teachers, if they ever read this, don’t get shocked at the way I explain them. The reasoning behind Buddhist teachings is that when we tend to think according to a certain, specific way, we sort of leave some ‘grooves’ in the mind/brain structure, and then it will become increasingly harder to ‘leave’ those ‘grooves’ (i.e. thinking out of the box, or in an open minded way), because they have become so deep — and so familiar — that we will have no other (apparent) choice than to continue to follow the same reasoning, over and over again. This is, for instance, why allegedly elder people are much more stubborn than younger ones — their ‘grooves’ run much deeper. By contrast, someone who is constantly in touch with new ideas and new ways of thinking will develop relatively shallow grooves, and, as a consequence, be able to be much more open-minded — a typical example might be a teacher, growing old but learning all the time, and being surrounded by succeeding generations of youth with their own views of the world. Buddhists tend to push the analogy to the point of describing the mind of an awakened being, one who is free from every constraint, like drawing pictures with a stick on water: as soon as we trace a line, it immediately fades, and the waters will be calm and placid again. While an untrained human being is like carving on ice: the grooves will remain there for a long, long time. The water/ice analogy points to the mind: it’s the same substance, there is no difference between the mind of an awakened being and an unawakened one, the only difference is that the former’s mind is fluid like water, while the latter is solid (i.e. thick-minded!) and cold like ice.
‘Habitual tendencies’ is pretty much the way Buddhists explain behaviour. While they also assume that some things are innate — for instance, being a human being instead of, say, a cat, will constrain us due to our form to do some things, while cats are constrained differently; we may be able to learn language, but cats are able to run faster and jump on their prey on dark nights — most of behaviour, according to Buddhists, is acquired, and by constantly repeating the same behaviour, it will leave deep-lasting grooves in one’s mind. While this analogy is mostly used to explain unwanted behaviour which harms us and others (like, say, getting irate when someone offends us), it is also true for so-called ‘good’ behaviour, in the sense that we also learn it so that it becomes a ‘habitual tendency’. In fact, learning Buddhist techniques to avoid being constrained must pass through a first phase where we abandon certain habitual tendencies and adopt new ones — the Buddhist training! — until we reach a point where we can also leave the Buddhist training behind: at that moment, our mind is free from all habitual tendencies, and, as a consequence, we have a free will unhindered by any sort of constraints and obstacles. In other words, this is what Buddhists call an awakened mind: one that is free from constraints.
Constraints are often self-imposed (we adopt certain behaviours of our own ‘free will’) but many of them will come from education and imitation within a certain cultural context. In other words: it’s not that we have been born human beings, which necessarily constrains our way of thinking (we think as humans, not as cats); we are also born within a context where other human beings with their own behaviour will necessarily influence us. And this starts from an early age: our own parents, according to their own education and the cultural context they live in, will start forming our ‘habitual tendencies’ very soon in our lives, leaving what they hope to be deep grooves for those behaviours they deem to be ‘important’ or ‘appropriate’. From the tendency to study and do our own homework punctually, to the way we eat or speak or dress, all these tendencies come at a very tender age. None of them are ‘innate’, even though Buddhists will admit that we might be more predisposed towards some than towards others; for instance, some people might have a predisposition to love to read, while others will prefer to do outdoor sports. I will skip the Buddhist explanation of why some of us prefer to read while others prefer outdoor sports, because it’s not really relevant to the discussion here; the main issue here is understanding that Buddhists are certainly behaviourists when explaining habitual tendencies, but they are also aware that our nature is not behaviourist, and that we can overcome habitual tendencies even with just a little training. In other words, habitual tendencies are not ‘us’, in the sense that these compulsions or urges we feel because we are deep inside a certain groove are not innate or even ‘natural’ (in the sense that we have been ‘born’ with them), but they are things ‘outside’ the self, if I can explain it that way: they are some sort of outer layer, like in a onion, which we can safely discard while not really losing our ‘identity’.
Perhaps I can explain this better with an example. Suppose that someone lives in a household where the father, frustrated with his job and overall outcome in life, is often in a bad mood, and has spontaneous outbursts of anger, when he’s prone to hit the mother. The child sees this, and because the mother does nothing to check the father’s anger (let’s assume that for a moment), the child assumes that this is ‘expected behaviour’. So he also ‘learns’ to hit others when feeling frustrated, and because he learns this in his very early childhood, that behaviour is deeply set in his mind. Later, as an adult, he gets in trouble with the law because of the way he hit someone too hard, and they had to be treated in a hospital. He claims that he cannot do anything to control his anger and frustration, that he usually is a very peaceful person (he might even be telling the truth), but, occasionally, when he ‘sees red’ with anger, he will lash out to the nearest person, and cannot do much about it, it’s ‘part of him’ or ‘what he is’.
The clever judge, besides punishing him with the cost of the hospital fees of the victim, and condemning him to some civic duty, also forces him to do some therapy. And with the help of a good therapist, he learns that, after all, this ‘anger’ he feels which ‘forces’ him to hit others is not part of him at all. It’s something he acquired in childhood, but it’s something he can overcome or ‘opt out’. And once he manages that, he can safely discard that aspect of himself. Now he has to consider a moral dilemma: did he lie to the judge when he said that the anger was ‘part of him’? But the truth is that now that he doesn’t feel the urge to hit others so strongly he actually feels ‘more himself’. In a sense, he has recognised that his hitting others when angry was just an imitated behaviour from his father; in reality, before he saw his father doing exactly that, he did not hit others when angry. Therapy allowed him to ‘rediscover himself’ before he was so severely influenced by his father’s behaviour.
Is he the same person? Or just discarding one behaviour does not make him all that different? In fact, how much of his personality — his identity, his self — is innate, and how much is acquired behaviour? And maybe his own father wasn’t really a bad person, he only imitated others who would lash out when angry?
Such questions, of course, delight philosophers and therapists (well, and of course Buddhists too), because the dividing line between what is innate and what is acquired is never that easy to establish — and we got it wrong so many times in the past, why should we assume that the current answer in this early 21st century is the correct one, the final and ultimate truth?
Buddhists, having been thinking of exactly these questions for the past 25 centuries, have come to a few conclusions. One of them is that we pile up behaviour on top of behaviour, habitual tendency on top of habitual tendency, and somehow point at all that and say: ‘this is me, this is what I am’. A Buddhist teacher, hearing that, might ask in return: ‘Well, and who is this person who is saying “this is me, this is what I am”?’ — hopefully baffling the student in thinking how much of his identity is just behaviour; and how much of that behaviour is innate, and how much is (voluntarily) acquired. Another conclusion that Buddhists reached is that thinking about these things — by closely watching our own minds to see what the mind is doing all the time — will ultimately lead us to realise that all the things that we label as being part of the ‘self’ are just abstract concepts, which ultimately are not innate (if they are an abstract concept, then it took a human being to label it — it was not something we were ‘born’ with, but something we learned the name of at some point). The last question to ask, therefore, is: once every habitual tendency is ‘removed’, once every behaviour is stepped aside, what exactly is the ‘self’?
Again, I will not bore you with the answer, you can grab any book about Buddhism written by a qualified teacher, and you’ll get a much better answer than mine. The whole point, in fact, is not to somehow claim that Buddhism has all the answers to all issues related to the mind and the self and the problem of identity, but that we can borrow some of its ideas and see how well they actually apply to what we already know about how the brain — and the mind — works.
And there we can see some similarities, even if we use a different language. The reason why behaviourism had so much success, and has not been totally abandoned (just adapted), was that it actually had great explanatory powers with a simple theory: basically, that we are born practically with a ‘blank’ brain, and that all we have is conditioned behaviour of some sort (either acquired on our own, or forced upon us). If that’s the case, then therapists only need to reverse certain behaviours, or find ‘antidotes’ to some behaviours, in order to change the way a person thinks — which can propitiate a cure.
In fact, many mental issues can actually be solved that way. Behaviourism also tends to give a person an open mind: it sees the world and its inhabitants not as a dogmatic ‘blueprint’ which has to be followed for some reason (i.e. in a Freudian style of someone who had a traumatic sexual experience in childhood will have necessarily to suffer in a certain way from that, in the present), but rather as a progress, a sequence of events always fluidly in motion, which result in enhancing some behaviours and refraining others, according to one’s perceptions of what is better for ourselves and for others. Misbehaviour — in the sense of acting against one’s best interests or against others — can therefore be corrected; new behaviours can be learned, acquired; old behaviours which are not functional nor beneficial can be discarded. Of course, this is the theory; in practice, as behaviourists have learned, some things cannot be changed.
And perhaps not surprisingly (at least not for a Buddhist!), we cannot change those things that are more closely connected to ensuring the survival of the human species: our sexuality, the way we relate to our bodies, our basic needs (food, shelter, rest, nearness to other human beings…), and our role in society. Again, not surprisingly, all of these are, indeed, tightly connected to certain behaviours which, at the lack of a better word, we would have to consider ‘innate’ (again, I’m refraining from giving you a Buddhist explanation, and opting for one which is more consistent with Western science) and somehow transmitted during reproduction. While the remaining behaviours, especially all those which are essentially social and cultural, are acquired.
So we will always have certain predisposition towards some behaviours, namely, all those mentioned above (and perhaps a few more!), related to survival of the species, both individually and as a whole. This means that we not only need to achieve the means of physical survival (i.e. getting enough food to eat, a place to rest, a partner to mate with) but, because we are a gregarious species, we also need some innate mechanisms to deal with ‘society’. In other words, the ‘need’ to be part of a group, and to tie our identity to a group, is also driven by biology, not only by acquired behaviour.
And here is where my conjecture fits in. To recap: there is no question that we need the innate gender-recognition mechanism to ensure reproduction and the survival of the species. And that means we first have to apply that mechanism to ourselves. Then we will know to which ‘gender group’ we belong, and what is the opposite gender group, with which we will reproduce together (even if at 3 years of age we might not necessarily think exactly along these lines…). Such a mechanism is indispensable, and, therefore, it cannot be left merely to ‘education’ or ‘imitation’. In the same way that we automatically know how to pee when our bladder is full, we also know who is a boy and who is a girl (later on, of course, we will learn that it’s not socially adequate to pee everywhere, but just in specific places — that is acquired behaviour, overriding our innate impulses to pee for the sake of positive social interaction). At the very basic level, we can say that this is ‘instinctive behaviour’, in the sense of being innate and not acquired. And I might even go further and claim that figuring out one’s own gender identity is one of the first puzzle pieces that we fit into what ultimately will be our ‘identity’, our ‘sense of self’ (the first piece, very likely, is understanding the role of our mother and father, and how we relate to them — so we will recognise ourselves as ‘children’ first, and ‘boy or girl’ next). As human beings, of course, we will also have an innate ability to start labeling and categorising things (something which also will only happen as we start to grasp the concept of ‘language’ for expressing ourselves as an independent, self-aware personality), and, again, the first thing we usually label is our own mother, or at least our parents, and then ourselves.
What happens at the very moment when, for the first time, our gender-recognition mechanism becomes functional? We will tag ourselves as one of the genders — we might not even be aware of how many there might be. And once that happens, we will want to ‘belong’ to the group of people of the same gender. We will quickly learn that one of the parents is of the same gender, while the other is not. Among our siblings, the same will happen. Our first experiences will immediately show us that, in general, there are only two possible genders, two possible groups to fit in, and we fit either into one or the other, and that is established irrevocably at the moment our gender-recognition mechanism ‘activates’ at the first time. And then we will feel the urge to join the group of people of the same gender, and, by imitation, do what they do; and at first we will shun the group of people of the other gender, but, of course, this relationship with the other gender will change as we grow…
This is the point where my conjecture stops claiming ‘innateness’. From this point onwards — but notice how crucial this point is! — everything becomes ‘acquired behaviour’, starting with the names we give to each gender, and culminating in the complex social roles that are ‘expected’ from us. So girls don’t innately ‘like’ to play with dolls; they do so because all their peers ‘like’ to play with dolls, and because they want to be accepted by the group (and that urge to be part of a group is innate behaviour!), they will learn what to ‘like’ and what to ‘dislike’. Of course, they play with dolls, because their mothers (who also have played with dolls) gave them dolls to play with. Here starts the whole social conditioning process; and of course this will change from society to society, from epoch to epoch, and even from family to family. If all boys in a family are given dolls to play with, then for them, belonging to the ‘boy club’ means ‘playing with dolls’, and that’s what they will do, and they will naturally have fun playing with dolls (although it will certainly involve trying to remove their heads, throwing them as far as possible, or hitting other objects with the dolls…) — until, in kindergarten, they suddenly realise that the other boys play with other things!
At around three years of age, the world may be much simpler, but it’s also a time when all those neural connections are furiously been made. It also means that what happens at that time will etch very, very deep grooves in our minds. Because we self-attribute a gender to ourselves at such an early age, we will have a very deep ‘sense of gender’ since our first memories. In fact, as said before, we don’t have any memories of ourselves before that age, simply because the required mechanisms for having self-identification are not yet fully in place. And ‘identity’ and ‘gender identity’ happen at about the same time — therefore, our ‘sense of self’ will be very closely, and strongly, related to our ‘sense of gender’.
Transexuals, of course, will correctly identify other people’s gender, but they will see their own bodies mismatching the gender they identify with. This hints at that mechanism not being merely visual; much more has to be involved in it. I believe that when we achieve what we could describe as self-awareness we also acquire the ability to look at our own thoughts, and this would explain that the gender-recognition mechanism would also look at the pattern of thoughts and recognise them as belonging to a gender different from the rest of the body, which is perceived visually; but I’m aware that such conjecture would ultimately mean that there would not exist examples of transexuality among animals, and we know that is not quite the case; on the other hand, we might speculate that there are some patterns of thought that are very primitive and exist at a very low level, therefore we pick up these patterns very early in our age, and they are not really ‘conscious thoughts’ in the sense of high-level cognitive abilities, but rather ‘movements of the mind’ at a very basic level, roughly at the level of emotions such as pain and hunger and the need to pee.
This would hint again at a ‘gender identity core’ that produces such low-level patterns in the mind, which would pretty much render my own conjecture absurd; I therefore prefer to consider that the gender-recognition mechanism is more complex than mere visual pattern matching. In fact, the discovery that one’s body does not match one’s gender is a consequence of the visual pattern matching; but that usually happens later in life, mostly because the awareness of the physical difference in genders is not totally present at that time, although it certainly is a few years later, i.e. with 5 or 6; and transexuals start getting horrified that their own bodies will develop ‘wrongly’ when they start to understand, perhaps somewhere between 8-11, that they will soon be subject to puberty which will transform their bodies into ‘adults’ of the wrong gender. So I would rather think that the gender-recognition mechanism, at around 3, is good enough to distinguish ‘boys’ from ‘girls’ in others, but probably not in our own bodies; this is based on some reports where transexuals are absolutely sure about their own gender and about other people’s gender, and are terribly confused why their own parents cannot figure out what their gender is, and are forcing them to ‘join the wrong gender club’, against their will, and for some reason they cannot possibly understand. Their rejection of being ‘assigned’ the wrong gender, the wrong clothes, even the wrong name, and so forth, may at that stage be simply very confusing because they still see themselves as physically belonging to the gender they identify with, and thus cannot understand why others see them differently. It’s just at some much later stage that they realise there are physical differences between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, it’s not just about what toys to play with, what clothes to wear, or what hairstyle to have; and transexuals will slowly understand that there has been a huge mistake with their own bodies, which somehow has failed to develop as the gender they identify with — and that things might even become worse (they will) once they hit puberty.
Now this is the extreme case, and the one that is perhaps better studied and known, because it also happens to be the case where it’s most easy to deal with the problem — i.e. going through transition as early as possible — and where the success rate is highest. But any good theory about the gendered brain must also be able to explain late on-set transexuals, and other kinds of transgender individuals, who are gender non-conforming in certain ways, but not necessarily in the same way as early on-set transexuals.
My reasoning is inspired by Felix Conrad’s suggestion, which I have already talked about, the ‘Drunken Irish Minion Hypothesis‘. A brief recap: Felix suggests that we are born with a switch which defines our gender and our sexual orientation (to whom we are attracted to). Usually, most of the time (i.e. about 90% of the cases), we are ‘wired’ for cisgender heterosexuality. Sometimes, however, the switch for sexual orientation is reversed by mistake (homosexuality) or broken (bisexuality or even pansexuality). Sometimes it’s the gender switch which has been reversed (transexuality) or is broken (non-conforming gender expression). But sometimes it’s even worse: the ‘Drunken Irish Minion’ responsible for that wiring is so drunk that he not only reverses the gender switch, but connects the sexuality switch so that it points to one’s own reversed gender: the result is someone, say, in a male body, who identifies as a female, and, worse, is sexually attracted to their own body image as female (what Blanchard would call autogynephilia, although the reasoning behind it is completely different than Felix Conrad’s). This explains how such people tend to live ‘normal’ lives, ‘passing’ as cisgender heterosexual males, because, as they are attracted by all things female, they will try to get female partners (and often have offspring — thus perpetuating the tendency for future ‘Drunken Irish Minions’ playing havoc with one’s genes defining gender and sexuality…); ultimately, of course, such people will become very confused at some stage in life and realise that perhaps their best choice is also transitioning, since they do identify as female, after all, they just have the wrong body and a completely ‘alien’ sexuality (these would be late on-set transexuals), although they might still have no problem whatsoever as to be romantically attracted to females, therefore potentially maintaining long-lasting relationships.
Felix Conrad, using that explanation, clearly also follows the assumption of the existence of a ‘gender core’ and a ‘sexuality core’ — it’s just that the genetical, biological, chemical, embryological, etc. conditions for their manifestation may not always fall into cisgender heterosexuality, but rather a disturbance of the fine balance between all those ‘cores’ may produce a vast variety of sexual orientations and gender diversity.
An alternative explanation would therefore be that the gender-recognition mechanism somehow is ‘broken’ at self-identification; this will mean that the person, at a very early stage, might not really be sure about their own gender, and generally ‘go along’ with what others assign to them. They might rebel against that once or twice, or even fall into depression (especially during adolescence) once in a while, because somehow, unlike their peers, they are not sure about their gender, and that often also means a conflict in their sexuality. They might identify with the gender assigned at birth but prefer the gender role of the other gender; or they might not even identify with that gender at all, just ‘go along’ because it’s expected from them, or it has been inculcated into their minds so strongly that they ought to behave as a different gender, that they have no choice but to obey. Think of those grooves in the mind again. But also think of what behaviourists have learned: you cannot condition gender. Ultimately, therefore, such people will have three options: transition; suicide; or suffering from severe mental issues, from depression through anxiety through compulsive behaviour, which is a way of their brains to tell them that something is seriously wrong with the way they behave, compared to how they ought to behave, according to the gender they identify with.
I need therefore to develop an explanation on how the gender-recognition mechanism can be ‘broken’, especially if I have been stressing to much the importance of that mechanism in successful reproduction which ensures the survival of the species. And here I have no option but to fall back to the best model we currently have on the way the brain works, at the biochemical and bioelectrical level: neural networks.
One of the fields of artificial intelligence studies precisely models of neural networks, simulating them in computers, and looking at what they can accomplish. We have no way of knowing if the models are actually modelling ‘reality’; we only know a few basic aspects of how neurons actually work, but we can only speculate that the way they store information is similar to how simulated neural networks work.
Basically, what we know is that neurons ‘fire’ packets of information (an electrical impulse) once the inputs they get (other electrical impulses) reach a certain threshold. This threshold, of course, varies from neuron to neuron; and neuroscientists assume that the thresholds, as well as the way the neurons are interconnected, are part of our learning process.
On simulations, we have basically a ‘digital’ neuron, which also ‘fires’ a packet of information (possibly just one bit — 1 saying that the neuron is firing, 0 otherwise) when a certain threshold is reached. Those thresholds may be set by the programmer, or the neural network might ‘train’ itself to adjust the values. Neural networks work with fuzzy logic — a type of logic where we have the values of ‘true’, ‘false’, and ‘maybe’, the latter being expressed in a percentage — a specific bit of information may be 70% true and 30% false, for example. Simulated neurons, therefore, can accommodate uncertain or incomplete information. They are especially good for being trained in pattern recognition, because sometimes figuring out key elements of a face in a picture depends on a lot of factors, namely, how the face is being currently lighted, if it is facing straight towards the viewer or at an angle, and so forth. By ‘training’ a neural network with subtle variations of how the same face looks like, it can establish neural connections with ‘maybe’ values, which establish limits in the recognition: for instance, if the distance between two eyes is slightly off what was measured from a mugshot perfectly centred on the nose, that can mean that the face is just slightly twisted, so it will still be accepted as the same person; but if the distance is a bit more (or less) than a certain threshold, and if the eye colour cannot be only accounted for the change in brightness, etc…. then possibly it’s someone else. We have a very solid understanding on how these things work in simulated neural networks, and a vast body of accumulated scientific results, besides a mountain of data from giants like Google or Apple, who routinely train neural networks to profile us — and we know how good they are at doing that.
Does the brain work in the same way? Honestly, nobody really knows. Simulated, digital neural networks most definitely exhibit a lot of functionality which we would expect to find inside a brain. The simulated neural networks can certainly ‘learn’, i.e. acquire knowledge, and that knowledge can be incomplete and be still useful for making decisions — characteristics that we know that our brain actually has, so there must be some similarity between reality and simulation. However, many neuroscientists (and many AI experts as well!) have pointed out that a human brain may have a much more complex way of acquiring information, since it’s not unlikely that the same neuron participates in several different functions at the same time. In other words, using a simulated neural network, if I wish to train two completely different things — say, recognising faces and fingerprints — then I need two networks, one for each. Even though the face-recognising neural network may be trained to recognise different faces (not easy to programme, but it’s feasible, at least from a conceptual point of view), it’s hard to imagine how that neural network now manages to recognise fingerprints as well, which have totally different key measurements! Nevertheless, this is what some neuroscientists believe that organic neurons are able to do — perhaps at a level of complexity that we cannot even dream, where each neuron is not merely a simple true/false/maybe cell, a small component in the overall picture, but rather that each neuron participates in millions of simultaneous ‘organic computations’ — being part of several millions of neural networks in the AI sense of the word — and therefore each neuron is much more like a supercomputing node than merely a simple cell. If that’s the case, of course, the brain would be several orders of magnitude much more complex than most optimists have thought it to be, who believed that artificial self-awareness was just a few years away, thanks to the ability of modern supercomputers to model billions of nodes in a neural network. But we might need, after all, billions and billions of supercomputers, all connected in the same network, to ‘simulate’ a human brain with self-awareness. Really, nobody knows; we can only speculate.
In any case, we know a little bit about how the neurons ‘fire’. We also know that the process is electrochemical, that is, the information carried along the neuron — some of which can be one metre long! — travels at the speed of light through electricity, but the connections made between neurons are chemical: the sudden electrical pulse will release some chemicals which, in turn, will activate a new pulse on the next neuron, and so forth. The ‘threshold’ is basically the amount of pulses (or the intensity of the pulse) necessary to release enough chemicals so that the next neuron is fired. We know how to tweak those neurons, both by increasing the conductivity of the neuron itself (i.e. making the electric pulse either travel faster or with more intensity), as well as making more chemicals be released, or inhibiting them totally (which happens during anesthesia, for example). In other words: because biochemical processes are analogue, and allow for so much variation, we also know that things can be way more complex than simulated digital neurons tend to imply; and we also know that things can go wrong.
So let’s assume for now that, through an unknown method, the information to develop an embrionary gender-recognition mechanism is triggered, and neuron after neuron is attached to each other according to a specific ‘blueprint’, so that, once finished, this neural network will be able to recognise gendered humans. We have to assume that such a blueprint exists, of course, and the reality is that we have no known mechanism which could ‘encode’ such information: that’s one of the biggest mysteries of the human brain, namely, how exactly it can start with pre-existing structures. They certainly are not ‘coded’ in the DNA — the DNA just produces proteins, which can be aggregated into cells, but that’s pretty much it. Rather, scientists think that the process is pretty much embryologically driven. In other words: when a human foetus starts to develop, because it is a human foetus, the cells that differentiate themselves to become future neurons are assembled in just that way, because the whole embryological environment pushes them to be assembled that way and not another… and ultimately, when the child is born, all neurons are in the ‘right’ place for the pre-existing structures to start working. This is a bit mind-boggling because it implies a lot of circular thinking: if it’s a human foetus, then it has to develop in a certain way and in no other; because it is developing inside a human womb, than the right conditions are created in the environment, so that the foetus can develop as a human foetus. There is nothing ‘magic’ in this, except in the incredible complexity: things have to start from a certain environment; as the foetus grows, it also changes the environment — and the mother, in turn, will react to those changes and also feed chemicals to the mix which will, in turn, push the development through a certain path, and no other. This precisely orchestrated balance of environment and foetus development has been ‘rehearsed’ by Nature gazillions of times; we humans have retained the precise combination which allows human foetus to develop as they should (if they don’t, well, they are usually discarded — a natural abortion — or reabsorbed).
But, again, we’re talking about biochemistry — not digital computers. There is some leeway, some margin for error. Sometimes, an extra neuron is developed, or goes into the wrong position. It will not matter much, if the end result is a viable, thinking human being; and a few cells off course is not significant. Obviously, if the wrong cells are all over the place, then the whole development will stop; but sometimes a few wrong things pop in, and they may or may not have consequences later. Again, there is a fine balance here: for the mother, as said before, bearing a child requires an incredible amount of effort, energy consumption, and time. There is a limit to how many children one mother can bear; and that means that the whole process must be efficient and reach a satisfactory finish (a viable human being that is able to reproduce themselves at a later stage). If the whole embryological process goes awry from the start, well, then there is not much to do than to abort (literally!) and try again later. But if just some odd cells here and there are not in the right place… well, then it might not make a lot of difference, and it’s better to deliver a slightly-less-than-perfect human being, so long as it can survive and reproduce, than expecting for perfection, aborting each time when it’s not perfect, and exhausting the mother in the process, so that she cannot bear more children afterwards.
Nature has it all balanced out. And, as we so well know, 90% of all human beings who are born are cisgender and heterosexual, all ready to reproduce themselves happily into another generation.
It’s conceivable, therefore, that during the embryological development some neurons from the gender-recognition mechanism are not in the right place to fire when they should; or they might not be correctly connected; or they might not have enough chemicals to trigger the next neuron… whatever might be the case, it might be just a tiny ‘defect’ that usually will not matter much (the brain is so plastic that it can easily reroute neurons at a later stage). Or it might make a difference, and not be able, at a later stage, to correctly identify the gender of the owner. And then we get a transgender person.
So Felix Conrad’s ‘switches’ and minions operating those switches are translated into very complex neuronal structures, which develop according to a precise plan with some leeway — because fine-tuning biochemical environments is not as precise as digital computers are — and which, in 90% of the cases, work out fine to produce a cisgender heterosexual human being. Sometimes, however, the gender-recognition mechanism does not work correctly,
Since we have no idea on how the gender-recognition mechanism actually works (or where it is!), we cannot say how it doesn’t work ‘correctly’. What interestingly seems to be the case is that it will always have the ability to correctly recognise the gender of others. In other words: I have not come across any statistics showing how many people cannot recognise the gender of others, but I think that the actual number of those people must be infinitesimally small (it’s just because there are so many humans on this planet that even billion-to-one chances are possible… for about seven human beings on average!). By contrast, recognising one’s own gender wrongly happens at least once in every 30.000 humans, or even 1 in 10.000 (depends on the studies); sexuality is even worse, with 10% of non-heterosexual humans out there. It’s clear that this mechanism, therefore, is prone to error, and it’s also clear that people are born with a ‘defective’ gender-recognition mechanism, it’s not something that gets ‘broken’ at a later stage, or that can be ‘changed’ somehow through training.
My own conjecture coincides with the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture in that point: both assume that, whatever has happened, it happened during embryological development; and whatever mechanisms or structures embody the actual concept, once they are ‘broken’, they cannot be ‘fixed’ by any means whatsoever. They’re fixed into place; they are innate, and therefore that points to something that happens before birth. Just like we cannot take medicine or do some training to develop an extra eye or finger, we cannot do anything about the way our gender-recognition mechanism works. In other words: for a transexual person, it will always recognise itself as a member of a gender different from the rest of the body. On most transgender people, this ‘recognition’ will not be conclusive. Remember the bit of fuzzy logic I spoke about? So the neural network, if that’s what it is, will answer ‘male’/’female’ with 100% certainty on cisgender individual. For early on-set transexuals, it will give the opposite answer that it should. For transgender people… it will be a ‘maybe’. In some cases, the answer will be different according to the time of the day: that would be a gender-fluid individual. In other cases, it will sometimes answer ‘male’ with 100% certainty, sometimes ‘female’ with 100%. This individual will be bi-gender, or gender oscillating. And sometimes, of course, it will come out with, say, 50% male and 50% female. Or 0% of each. Or any other possible combination. For instance, in my case, it answers 0% male but perhaps just 10 or 20% female, so that makes me wonder what exactly I should do about myself!
Advantages of pushing away from the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture
New ideas in science are supposed to either explain something better or solve problems that previous ideas could not solve. The gender-recognition mechanism that I propose may complicate a lot of things, but because it goes one step deeper than the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture, I believe it has more explanatory power. To be more precise, I can now answer the original question by formulating my conjecture in a slightly different way:
A woman is a woman when her gender-recognition mechanism recognises herself as a woman.
Pretty much circular, isn’t it? But it actually shows the whole point of my proposed mechanism. When transgender women try to argue with TERFs or other similar fanatics, saying that ‘they are as much of a woman as them’, they will always get at least one irrefutable argument back: no matter how early they might have transitioned, they have started their lives having the experience of living as a different gender. The older they transition, the more they have the gender role experience of a man. They can say that they ‘feel to be a woman inside’ but the simple truth is that they cannot know; before transition, they can only imagine what a woman ‘feels inside’. They can even express what they ‘feel inside’ in a way that mirrors so completely what a woman’s social role ought to be, that, from the perspective of an outsider (say, a doctor diagnosing gender dysphoria), there is no difference whatsoever between them and a cisgender woman who has been raised as a woman since birth. Nevertheless, TERFs will still insist that the experience of being a woman is different from what a transgender woman experiences, and their only valid argument is based on the life history of the transgender woman — and it’s true that there will be a pre-transition phase when she experienced the world as a man (against her own will), and the post-transition phase, when her experience is that of a woman. This argument seems to be irrefutable, even with the ‘gender identity core’ conjecture, because TERFs might even accept that a trans woman has a ‘female gender identity core’ (at least to a degree — but gender identity comes in degrees anyway), but will nevertheless insist that a real woman needs to have both a female gender identity core and a life experience, from birth, as a woman. That’s how they define a woman, and, clearly, this allows them to exclude trans women — but accept a woman with CAIS as a ‘real woman’ (even though, genetically, she isn’t one).
By the same token, the argument that TERFs make that even HRT and surgery will not ‘turn’ someone into a real woman, but just cripple a male to externally appear as one, is based on the same premises. Here, of course, the transgender community is on much more firmer ground: MtF transgender people do not go through HRT/surgery to change their gender, but rather they change their body to conform a little better to one’s self-image of a woman, and to be also socially more conforming with the image that others have of a woman. So in this regard, TERFs are completely wrong. Trans women do not become women after HRT/surgery. They have always been women; hormones and surgery are totally irrelevant for that. And, in fact, that’s what many countries (including my own) are now accepting for changing one’s name and gender marker on the ID cards — surgery and hormones are not necessary for the legal transition, except, of course, in more backwards-thinking and conservative countries. In other words: the body doesn’t matter, what matters is what one feels inside.
But here is where the problem lies. How can someone, before transition, claim to ‘be a woman’ or ‘feel like a woman inside’, if that’s not what their experience is? (no matter when they transition). All they can say, of course, is that they reject the male gender role, as said before; but since gender is not binary, rejecting the male gender role does not mean that the person is automatically female, as I’ve argued before; they are just ‘non-male’, that’s all. And this is exactly where TERFs can place a wedge in the argumentation.
I therefore suggest a different way of classifying someone as a ‘woman’. Clearly, the TERFs’ main argument is a temporal one, i.e., that there is a period of time in the life of a transgender woman when she was not in the female gender role, and this, ultimately, will ‘decide’ what she is. It’s obvious that the traumatic years leading to transition will have a huge effect in the person’s mind, but that’s not what the TERFs mean: what they are saying is that ‘real women’ start their experience in the female gender role at birth.
So, we have to push things back even more 🙂 and thus my suggestion: the gender-recognition mechanism is something innate, and that’s what ‘tells’ the person what gender she is. That, in turn, will trigger a lot of other neural circuits which will make the person identify with a specific gender; and this, in turn, will allow the person to be subject to external stimuli, learning, and imitation, of the behaviour expected of a certain gender role.
Now I will argue something a bit more controversial. I believe that the gender-recognition mechanism does not produce a result that can lie arbitrarily someplace along the vast spectrum of transgenderity. I think it’s much more simpler than that, because, biologically, for reproduction, we only need the gender-recognition mechanism to identify two genders. And I argue that based on evolution — we do not need an innate, inborn mechanism to recognise more than two genders, because, ultimately, as we complexify our society, we can add more gender roles to the society if we wish to do so (something I alluded at when talking about Japanese society), but all human societies recognise at least two very distinct gender roles, and those two, incidentally, will be tied to reproduction. I’m not an anthropologist, but I would nevertheless claim that the Japanese, in general, are not even aware that their traditional society allowed more than two gender roles; they have two main gender roles, ‘housewife’ (biologically female) and ‘household owner’ (biologically male). ‘Geisha’ (biologically female) and ‘Kabuki player’ (since the mid-1600s, biologically male) are just additional roles, which are recognised for those who do not conform to the ‘main’ roles. We can see similar examples in other societies as well. In general, therefore, there is a distinction between the two ‘main’ genders which are directly tied to reproduction, and the other — additional or auxiliary — gender roles which might exist, and even be crucial for the survival of the group/tribe/clan (like the shamans, for example) as a cultural entity, but who are not directly connected to reproduction (except accidentally, of course).
Thus, the gender-recognition mechanism is a simple neural network which will work in the following way: when estimating one’s gender, or someone’s gender, it will result in ‘highly probably male’, ‘highly probably female’, ‘both’, or ‘none’. I assume that the latter two cases will only exist in the self-gender-recognition mechanism of transgender people, and it’s also important to notice that so-called ‘classic’ transexuals will also get a binary result — just the opposite one that is intended (maybe they have a neuron in that neural network wired backwards?… who knows?). And now I’m even going to be more controversial: I seriously suspect that the gender-recognition mechanism can only give two results: ‘probably male’ and ‘probably female’. That’s enough, after all, to allow a species to reproduce sexually — they don’t need more than that.
This gender-recognition mechanism, unlike Felix Conrad’s on/off switches, does not require a very special configuration. It is, after all, just a neural network, which has been pre-trained to produce one of two possible outputs (‘probably male’ or ‘probably female’) based on a certain amount of inputs — patterns it tries to match. Now, we can only speculate about what those inputs might be, but speculation goes actually a long way in this case. Clearly, it needs to evaluate mental states as well as physical traits — because we know that ‘classic’ transexuals have absolutely no doubts about their gender, regardless on how they actually look like. So in their case, the gender-recognition mechanism has evaluated mental traits only, and achieved a satisfactory result.
This is not really surprising. While the gender-recognition mechanism is important to distinguish between potential sexual partners and potential competitors, this is just necessary after puberty. At the age when children acquire their sense of identity, their physical bodies are too much alike to have the gender-recognition mechanism rely upon an evaluation of their own bodies. And here is exactly where things become interesting.
I’ve addressed at the start of this long essay the issue of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning does not give us certainties, just probabilities. The more observed phenomena, the higher our probability of deriving the right conclusion. We use inductive reasoning a lot, because it is so powerful at reaching conclusions when we just have partial data; and the more data we have, the more accurate our conclusion will be. I have no doubt that the gender-recognition mechanism, like pretty much everything which uses pattern-matching in our brains, must use inductive reasoning — because that also happens to be one of the easiest way to train a simulated neural network in a computer, so we would expect that the same ought to happen with our brains as well.
What this means is that, at some point in our earliest childhood, the gender-recognition mechanism starts to work. It will be fuzzy at the very beginning, but it will try to figure out what gender we belong to. The gender-recognition mechanism, at a much later stage, will use visual input as well to make decisions faster, and with more data, more accurate. As humans, we also help children out visually, by dressing differently — mommy does not wear the same things (or the same colours) than daddy, so mommy must be a different gender than daddy. Am I more like daddy, or more like mommy?
But clearly, at that age, we don’t need visuals to figure out people’s genders — or our own. Clearly we still ‘get’ results. On the other hand, our mental processes and states are still very fuzzy. We still don’t know exactly what we ‘feel’; our identity is still being built, it’s not 100% operational yet, so it’s ridiculous to talk about ‘feeling like a boy’ or ‘feeling like a girl’ at this stage. So the only explanation is that the gender-recognition mechanism comes already pre-programmed with a lot of assumptions, and the first assumption, of course, is that people can belong to different genders, and that we belong to one of them (at least). The second assumption is that we can figure out if we belong to mommy’s gender, or to daddy’s gender. Because we have learned to distinguish between both, something is triggered in the gender-recognition mechanism which will tell us the difference between both ‘groups’, and we know exactly to which one we belong. I don’t really know what is triggered, or what rules the gender-recognition mechanism already has pre-programmed. But what I can speculate about is that the gender-recognition mechanism uses inductive reasoning, and, at our earliest childhood, it will have very little to work with. So it will assign one gender to ourselves — ‘probably male’ or ‘probably female’ — based on very little data, and that means that the probability will be very low indeed. How do we ‘get it right’ over 99% of the time? Well, because we also get encouraged by our parents to ‘learn the difference’, and here is where visuals start to become more important.
With time, the gender-recognition mechanism becomes more and more complex, incorporating more and more rules, and, at some stage, it is even able to deal with secondary sexual characteristics (women have boobs, men don’t), but also with much more complex and abstract mental constructs. One fascinating characteristic of human beings — and very likely of most hominid primates, and possibly of several other species as well — is the ability to try to imagine what others are thinking. In other words, we can simulate in our minds how we believe that others think. This is crucial for us as a gregarious species, because that’s how we learn about other’s emotions, how we learn empathy — because we can understand how others feel, by imagining how they must feel — and ultimately compassion and altruistic behaviour (because other gregarious species tend to do the same, biologists speculate that they have this ability too, even if not developed to the same degree as us humans).
Now this ability is important for the current issue, because clearly the gender-recognition mechanism will also use that ability to do the following reasoning: ‘I believe I know how mommy thinks; I can see that I think in the same way; so I must be of the same gender as mommy’. So my argument that the gender-recognition mechanism also acts upon mental states is because of this ability: we don’t merely ‘feel’ to be a certain gender, but we can watch and observe persons of that gender we identify with, project in our minds how we believe they think and feel, and compare it to our own thoughts and feelings. If there is a match, then the probability that we have guessed our own gender correctly increases.
In other words: when we are very little children, gender recognition is not crucial for reproduction yet, because we’re still years away from puberty. But the gender-recognition mechanism must start its training, that is, it needs to acquire more and more rules, so that it can predict gender more and more accurately. When we’re very young, it matters little if we ‘guess’ wrong, because parents will help us out. Even a clearly transgender child who has guessed her own gender with a low probability, when finding out at first that others do not recognise her as being part of that gender, might not immediately throw a tantrum all the time. We’re still playing with very low probabilities here. The child might be aware that ‘something’ is wrong, and see herself to be pushed to play with kids of the ‘wrong’ gender, but the details are still fuzzy.
As a few years pass, however, the gender-recognition mechanism becomes much better. It even starts evaluating much more complex abstract representations of what others think. So, through observation, and inductive reasoning, a MtF transgender child can simulate how girls think in her own brain, and identify with girls; while at the same time, she simulates in her brain how boys think, and utterly rejects it. At the beginning, such thought processes will be very simple and limited to obvious things like preferred colours, dresses, or what kinds of games are more fun. But it quickly will start to become more and more clear to which gender that child belongs; this just means that, at some point, the probabilities given by the gender-recognition mechanism start to become very high, and this happens during the very first years, since the brain’s neural connections are growing at an exponential rate at this time. Not surprisingly, it’s around 3-6 years of age that most transgender children are sure that they belong to a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth: they have, by then, accumulated enough knowledge, enough data about the world they interact with, that the inductive reasoning processes of the gender-recognition mechanism are giving pretty good results. And this will only improve with time. If left unchecked, it will come to a point where puberty hits, and this will completely crush the transgender person with intense dysphoria, since the last bits added to the gender-recognition mechanism — secondary sexual characteristics, and what to do with them… — are now giving such high probabilities in identifying one’s own gender, which is the opposite of the direction of development of one’s own body, that all the brain is signaling that something is terribly wrong.
This is the edge case, of course; other transgender people in the spectrum will just have their own gender-recognition mechanism giving out less probable results. Sometimes, they will give low probabilities for either male or female; some other times, it will give high probabilities for both; and, of course, sometimes the result will be ‘probably male’ and on different days (or hours, or weeks, or years) it may come out as ‘probably female’. And for many MtF transgender people who do not transition, but try to cope with their dysphoria, they will very possibly get a result of ‘0% male’ but just ‘40% female’ — high, but not high enough to make that person feel gender dysphoria at a very intense and acute level.
So… here is my point: this gender-recognition mechanism is (obviously) exactly the same for transgender and cisgender persons. There is not one mechanism for cis people, and another for trans people; or a ‘working’ mechanism and a ‘broken’ mechanism. In both cis and trans people, the mechanism works in exactly the same way. Of course, because people are ‘trained’ differently, each person will get different results. Normally, most people will accurately ‘guess’ their own gender correctly, and, over time, reinforce that ‘guess’ over and over again, so that it becomes a ‘certainty’. This is, if you wish, the ‘expected biological result’ — that most people in the species are good at guessing genders, especially their own gender.
Some, however, will guess differently, i.e. outside the ‘expected biological result’ — and that’s just because inductive reasoning doesn’t work with certainties but probabilities. This is crucial for transgender activists: religious fanatics, extreme conservatives, TERFs, etc. cannot say with certainty that there are only two genders. All they can say is that most people have a very high probability of belonging to just one of two possible genders. Anything more than that is not only philosophically (or ideologically…) false, but it’s also false in the biological term: we’re not equipped with a gender-recognition mechanism that works with certainties, because almost none of the brain structures that we know of work that way. We’re very strongly conditioned to use inductive, not deductive, reasoning. In fact, the reason why those extremists will claim that there are only two genders is because of inductive reasoning: they start with themselves, and see that they belong to one gender. Then they look around themselves, and see that everybody apparently belongs to one of only two possible genders. Thus — goes the inductive reasoning — everybody must belong to one of two genders. Well, as said, inductive reasoning only works with probabilities: what our logical circuits in our brain are saying is that most people belong mostly to just one of at least two possible, and different, genders. And we can say that this is true for, say, 99% of the cases. We cannot extrapolate to the whole of the human species, simply because that’s not the way inductive reasoning works!
According to my conjecture, therefore, there is really not a ‘broken’ system for transgender people, and one that is ‘fully functional’ in cisgender people, unlike what I have said before (remember lies-to-children? Yep, that was another one). There is just one system which is perfectly functional in both cis and trans people. The difference here is just in the threshold: there is a set limit along the neural network of the gender-recognition mechanism, possibly near the end of the long tree of neurons, where the network will say ‘yep, it’s a boy’ or ‘yep, it’s a girl’ — and because we are talking about probabilities for each neuron to fire or not, that ‘result’ is expressed in a percentage of certainty. In most cisgender people, such percentage is very high when evaluating one own’s gender, and that will give the strong conviction that cis people have of belonging to the gender assigned at birth; in transgender people, the opposite is true, i.e. the percentage of certainty is low, and therefore such people will question their identity; in transexuals, the neural network will actually give the opposite result, thus creating the strong (unshakeable) conviction that they have the wrong body for the gender they identify with. The degree of conviction, of course, is dependent on the percentage of certainty, but we know from extensive research on transexuals that their conviction about their own gender is as high as in cisgender people. Among the vast spectrum of transgender people, however, the percentage of certainty may be low, or high for both possibilities, and so forth.
We should also take into account two things:
- This mechanism can vary or fluctuate slightly in the results it gives, at least it certainly works that way for gender-fluid people of all types; this will also explain why certain transgender people start merely with crossdressing but still believe to be the gender assigned at birth, but, with further input, they start disbelieving that, and become slowly convinced that their gender identity is different from the one assigned at birth. This fluctuation, or change of the configuration of the neural network, happens in some cases but not in others; there might be many factors at play here, but also consider how some people are open minded (always eager to learn new things and question their own current knowledge) while others are not (their mentality and convictions are unshakeable, even in the presence of facts that clearly contradict their concepts and opinions): clearly we have an amount of flexibility in those neural networks, and some are more ‘frozen in place’ than others.
- Also, this mechanism is inborn, that is, we do not ‘learn’ to recognise gender, nobody needs to ‘teach’ us, but that’s something that comes with the package, like knowing how to suck at our mother’s tit, walk, or acquire language. The neural network is already in place at birth: we just need to fill it with data (and note that this is not just passive, sensorial observation; but it can also be physical sensations — like in walking — or mental states — like in learning at school or with parents), so that the neural network is correctly ‘trained’ and can produce inductive conclusions in face of new data. Parents, teachers, etc. will only reinforce the already-existing mechanism, by providing new ‘rules’ to identify the two different genders, through pointing out their different gender roles and presentation.
If we assume all that — which is reasonable for simulated, digital neural networks, but may not be the case for organic neural networks, we cannot know, just speculate, and compare the similarities between the simulation and the organic reality of the brain — then we can come to some extremely interesting conclusions.
First and foremost, of course, we can completely debunk any theories that
- transgenderity and transexuality are diseases. The gender-recognition mechanism is perfectly functional both in cis and trans people. There is no disease, or malfunction, or broken functionality, or missing functionality — nothing. It is just a question on how the neural network supporting the gender-recognition mechanism has been trained: and because neural networks work with probabilities, not exact numbers, it’s plausible that somehow this gender-recognition mechanism gives different results than expected;
- ‘becoming trans’ is a fad, or something we convince ourselves that we are, mostly due to the influence of the mainstream media and social media, or even due to some persuading by doctors. The gender-recognition just works as it does, and if the result is ‘transgender’ or even ‘transexual’, this is something that is set pretty much at birth, and nobody can change by sheer willpower how this mechanism works; thus, one cannot ‘become’ transgender, one already is one;
- because the underlying mechanisms are unknown, doctors might misdiagnose when applying their own bias and establish transgenderity where it doesn’t exist. Here we must be careful: usually, people only talk to doctors about their gender identity issues when they have gender identity issues, period. Now we know that some psychological conditions also trigger a disruption (or at least the questioning!) of one’s gender identity, but in my mind what is clear is that these other conditions can affect the self-gender-recognition mechanism, but such conditions are not permanent. It’s exactly the same mechanism that happens when we consume alcohol above a certain threshold: we know that alcohol will change the way the brain works (as I’ve thoroughly explained on a previous article), and that change is real and measurable through imaging devices. Nevertheless, once the alcohol leaves the organism, the brain reverts to its original state. The same happens with those conditions that might affect the gender-recognition mechanism. What doctors have to be careful about is to recognise those conditions first, and only if everything else is discarded, if symptoms of gender dysphoria persist, only then a positive diagnosis can be made. Such are the standards of care set by the WPATH, but, of course, sometimes doctors ignore them and commit mistakes (they are human, after all…);
- gender dysphoria, while a real issue, can be controlled or moderated, much in the same way that hypersexual conditions can be controlled thanks to medication (usually hormone treatments) and therapy; or that it can be seen as a similar condition to, say, depression, which some claim not to be ‘curable’ but certainly the patient can learn how to cope with it. Now this is a common argument coming sometimes from well-intended people, but gender dysphoria is really quite different than other mental issues (or it would have been bundled with them). We can trace some mental conditions like depression, anxiety (and ultimately even hypersexuality) to the release of certain chemicals in the organism, or the absence of such chemicals. While such conditions may only respond partially to medication (which attempts to regulate the release/absorption of such chemicals), usually therapy is necessary for learning coping mechanisms. But the cause is normally known, and it’s often biochemical in nature. Whereas gender dysphoria belongs to a class of issues where the structure of the brain does not fall within the parameters of so-called ‘normality’, and, as a consequence, there is no way to change the structure to a ‘normal’ way (we simply don’t have the technology yet). Now I’m aware that some incredibly sophisticated forms of brain surgery can, today, ‘cure’ people from their propensity for criminality, for example; therefore, it’s not completely unreasonable to believe that, in the future, neurosurgeons might be able to tweak the neurons of the gender-recognition mechanism so that it gives different results from those that were recorded at birth. However, we don’t have the technology for that yet, and that’s why the standard ‘treatment’ of gender dysphoria is to change the body to better fit the gender, simply because we don’t know how to change the brain that way, but we’re quite good at doing all kinds of gender confirmation surgeries;
- gender dysphoria has levels, or degrees, and it’s conceivable that its severity can be reduced to a ‘tolerable’ level. This argument is essentially a variant of the above, just expressed differently. We know that, indeed, the degree of gender dysphoria can vary during one’s life. It’s not a coincidence why so many males, when reaching what used to be called the ‘middle-age crisis’, suddenly cannot bear to live any more in their assigned gender and seek transition: their dysphoria has reached unbearable levels, mostly triggered by many other factors (i.e. insatisfaction with one’s current situation in life, which prompts depression and anxiety, which just intensifies the symptoms of gender dysphoria, etc.). Now, it should be obvious that the gender-recognition mechanism is not static: as I’ve described its presumable functioning, it gives very fuzzy and unclear results at the age of identity formation, and gets better and better in a very short period of time. So it must change. Now the degree of change is another story! For instance, we have a very strong sensation of being a ‘human being’. But when we were very young we would not really think much about it; later in our lives (but not that late!) we can figure out that animals, for instance, even pets, can be very cute and do lots of things, but the quality of what humans do is different, and we identify with ‘being human’ more and more. So the species-recognition mechanism (and possibly so many more!) may work with a high degree of fuzziness before our identity fully forms, but become, by stages, more and more refined, more and more adept at identifying human beings from other species based on relatively little data (i.e. at a certain age, no child will ‘confuse’ animals with humans…). Nevertheless, we cannot ‘stop being human’ (although there are people that claim that, their condition is a bit different: they claim to belong to a different species but nevertheless do all that humans do, like talking, walking on two feet, cognitive reasoning beyond the ability of the animal they identify with, and so forth; so, in those cases, the species-recognition mechanism is intact – and the person does develop as a human! – but the conclusion of that mechanism is wrong). Likewise, the same happens with one’s gender-recognition mechanism. For cis people it will clearly always give the same result with the same degree or intensity of certainty, and the result will match the assigned gender. For most transexual people, the degree of certainty is exactly the same but it is the opposite of the gender assigned at birth; finally, among the vast transgender spectrum, the degree of certainty varies, and it can vary for different reasons, and at different times (so that gender-fluid people will get different results from hour to hour, for example). The problem is that we have no idea how to affect the level of certainty produced by the gender-recognition mechanism. In fact, we can go further, and claim with some accuracy that scientists have tried all possible approaches (many of which are illegal today!) to affect the gender-recognition mechanism, and all attempts failed; in other words, affecting that change lies beyond the ability of current medical science, so it’s worthless to try any known mechanism, because we have conclusively proven that none of them work (and we have been very creative in the past!);
- finally, and this is what this whole article is about: all human beings feel the results of the gender-recognition mechanism in the same way. It does not matter if one’s cis or trans: the gender-recognition mechanism is there, and it is a part of our brain functions like any other mechanism, and we experience it in the same way. The difference is that trans people may feel gender dysphoria, because the result of the gender-recognition mechanism is in contrast with the way that person is treated socially (and, on top of that, their body might have developed wrongly according to the gender they identify with). But not all trans people have gender dysphoria. Many, in fact, don’t – and they are nevertheless transgender. In other words, ‘suffering’ because of the results of one’s self-gender recognition mechanisms is not a prerequisite for being transgender!
But I digress. The point I wanted to debunk is the assertion that trans women, having a different experience in life than cisgender women, are not ‘real’ women, since there was a period in their lives when they didn’t have the ‘female experience’, as they were coerced to live as men until they managed to transition.
Now the flaw in this argument is in claiming that ‘all real women have the same experience’. They clearly have not. A woman born with CAIS will never have the same experience as a woman without CAIS, because her genes do not allow it; she is nevertheless a woman. A Catholic nun will never experience maternity, or possibly not even sex (nor even masturbation!), but she’s not a ‘lesser’ woman because of that – her experience of life, however, will be crucially different from most women in society.
But we don’t need to look at extreme cases! In fact, every human being has a different life experience. We may share some events in that life experience: the majority of us, for instance, will have experienced having sucked at one’s mother breasts, or gone through similar pains in learning how to walk, even if we don’t remember any of that; but there are human beings who did not go through the experience of ‘walking’ (due to genetic disease or accident), for instance – and they will not only be human beings, but, if they are cisgender females, they will be as ‘real women’ as TERFs – even though they lack a crucial element in their ‘life experience’.
Obviously, some TERFs will have had boyfriends and sex, others might have had either but not both, others still may be lesbian and never had a boyfriend. Some will have had their first period at a very early age, others just experienced it first in their late teens. Some will have caught measles when they were very young; others, having been vaccinated, never went through that experience. Some will have never worn dresses or high heels and thus never experienced the difference that such apparel makes; some will never have seen snow, while others have never experienced a heat wave. Some will have tattoos and piercing; some will never had a cigarette or went to a rave party on the beach. And of course I could go on, and on, and on, listing example after example – even if I restricted myself to examples of events in an ‘average’ life experience of a woman – and obviously we would clearly see that not all women have had the same experience as women. In fact, the more we appreciate the diversity of the human species, the less likely it is that two women have shared exactly the same life experience – even if they are twins!
TERFs therefore cannot claim that ‘life experience makes the woman’, because that is not true for any two women; the more ‘life events’ we list for the ‘average woman’, the more we realise that there might not even be a single woman on Earth that had all those experiences, even though they might have shared several of them. Similarly, it’s not a question of genetics, or of biology, or if having some organs or lacking others; cisgender women can also suffer from all sorts of medical conditions (or accidents!) and therefore will not have gone through the same experiences as others. Even ‘motherhood’ is just a choice these days, and it’s a choice that any ‘real’ woman is allowed to make, and that doesn’t turn her into a ‘lesser’ woman – while a trans woman is allowed to adopt a baby and get the whole motherhood experience (except for the tiny detail of actually delivering the baby).
So they cannot argue about behaviour, past or present; and we have already established that they cannot argue about the biology. In either case, the stricter the definition, the more likely it will be that many cisgender women are also excluded from the category of ‘real women’!
What do cis and trans women have in common? Well, both will share at least one event, and that event is the one that ‘makes’ them a woman: and that is the moment their gender-recognition mechanism will finally become fully functional, start to analyse themselves, and conclude that they belong to the ‘female’ gender. This experience will be exactly the same for cis and trans women and it will happen at about the same time.
What others will do about this self-recognition as ‘a woman’, however, is another story: in the case of cis women, they will be raised as girls and become adult women; in the case of trans women, that depends a lot on the parents, but it’s very likely that they will not be raised as girls. But that is not the trans woman’s choice. At 3 years of age, they do not have the physical means of forcing their parents to raise her as a girl; they can attempt to persuade them with reasoning, but it’s obvious that they will have a huge disadvantage in that regard!
Arguing, therefore, that a trans woman is a ‘lesser’ form of woman, one that is ‘not real’, when what actually happens is coercion against her own will is the same thing as arguing that girls who were submitted to genital mutilation are ‘not real woman’, because their parents have mutilated them against their will (in almost all cases…), preventing them to have the same kind of life experiences than other girls of the same age, but living in different societies. Why, then, do TERFs actively promote the end of genital mutilation and take pity on the poor girls deprived of the integrity of their bodies, when exactly the same happens with transgender girls?
Failing to see the exact parallels is being blind! One might, of course, argue religiously, which does not require logic; or even ideologically, which most often doesn’t require any logic, either. But if human beings wish to engage in a rational argument they must conclude that ‘being a woman’ is the result of the gender-recognition mechanism applied to oneself and nothing else, and that this experience is exactly the same for all women, cis or trans. All other experiences, as well as the biological setup, might be different after that self-recognition as a woman – but that will be true for any two women, regardless if they are cis or trans, since each will have a completely different life experience, even though they share similar life events. But that’s the case of transgender women, too! In fact, if the argument is just one of ‘similarity’, then trans women, in their early childhood, will very likely have put on their first ‘adult dress’ (or heels, or makeup) at about the same age as cisgender girls do; the difference, of course, is that in one case such behaviour is encouraged, while in the other it’s discouraged (often with violence, both verbal and physical). But, again, these are circumstances beyond the transgender person’s abilities to control!
I conclude, therefore, that we need to better define what makes a person ‘be’ a certain gender. The gender identity core conjecture, while more than sufficient for doctors, the community, and even legislators, is not enough for fundamentalists, transphobes, religious people, and, of course, TERFs. For them, this ‘core’ may even exist, but what makes one person think that they ‘belong’ to a gender is far from clear. The argument from biology can be easily debunked, even though too many people disbelieve science in order to give clear, universal arguments, that can be accepted by everyone. But the argument that deals with mental states is much harder to accept and easier to reject, because we effectively do not know how the brain really works. Nevertheless, we have some idea of how some features of the brain may work: it’s not ‘wild guessing’ any more. In particular, we can say, in many cases, how the brain does not work, or how it’s cannot work. And obviously we can also apply both deductive and inductive logic to figure out if some ‘theory’ holds or not. The gender identity core conjecture, on the other hand, is based on two main assumptions: that such a ‘core’ exists and that it cannot be changed (it is inborn). Clever transphobes, of course, will try to argue logically against either of those assumptions.
I most definitely believe that the argument of ‘life experience’, based or not on biological issues, does not hold as sufficient ‘proof’ to define who is a woman and who is not. While it’s obviously true that cis and trans women will have different life experiences, the same is also true for two different cis women. Even if the ‘life experience’ of two cis women share a lot of common events, the same can be said of the life experience of trans and cis women. It’s not even a question of narrowing down the list of valid experiences that ‘make a woman’: when such a list is drawn, then it will exclude millions of cis women from the classification of ‘real woman’.
Ultimately, therefore, there is not an ‘ultimate test’ to figure out who is a woman or not; we can only rely on the gender-recognition mechanism to figure that out, and such a mechanism is inherent and innate in every woman, cis or trans, and works in precisely the same way.
Please note that this article, for questions of simplicity in writing, only mentioned one type of transgenderity; the same arguments can be made for any other type, of course. It’s just that MtF transgender people have whole feminist organisations actively fighting against them, using their own convoluted ‘logic’, which, however, attracts many followers, even outside the TERF camp. Otherwise, the argumentation around the gender-recognition mechanism conjecture holds true for pretty much any gender (or no gender at all).