Back to the Basics: “Biological Determinism”

There appears to be a serious lack of understanding in many arenas about what constitutes “biological determinism” and what is meant by a “social construct”. I’m going to attempt to make a clear explanation so that I never have to do this again, ever.

Let’s start with some basic ideas which most people seem to understand.

  • Sex – The categorization of people into classifications, based upon at-birth* physical attributes generally related to reproductive role, including genetics, the presence of gonads, and internal and external genitalia. As the concept of sex originated in researching reproduction, it focuses upon males (who generate sperm) and females (who generate eggs). Female plants, or the female portions of plants, are typically those which produce the fruit and seed; female birds, fish, insects, and members of other egg-laying species, are typically the ones who lay the eggs; female mammals are the ones who gestate the young in utero, give birth, and lactate.

    The classification system generally has difficulty with animals or people who are (1) incapable of reproduction or (2) who have a wide variety of biological features which may make them “intersex”. Typically, they will still be classified as “male” or “female” depending on the sex category to which they are most similar. For example, “worker” honeybees are typically considered female even though they are biologically incapable of reproduction.

    Since the classification is based on at-birth characteristics, and is focused on genetics and reproductive capacity, most species are not considered to change sex. A male cat who is castrated is considered a “neutered” male and likewise a female animal who is spayed is considered a “spayed” or “neutered” female.

    * One large exception to the at-birth classification are certain amphibians, most notably some frogs, who have the capacity to change their reproductive organs. In certain circumstances, a frog can dissolve female reproductive organs and grow male reproductive organs (but not vice-versa). The new reproductive organs are then capable of producing viable sperm.

    The concept of sex is therefore an imprecise means of differentiating based on biological attributes.

  • Gender – a method of social classification based on sex, i.e. “woman”, “girl”, “man”, “boy”; this may include, but is not limited to, behaviors associated with the sexes, attributes assigned to the sexes, and social roles based on sex; the association between human femaleness and nurturance, for instance, constitutes gender and is not a part of the definition of the female sex

    However, as gender constitutes beliefs regarding and associations with the sexes, human societies (including all modern societies) typically see aspects of gender as inherent parts of a sex – for example, the oft-cited examples that females are “weaker” than males, are less “hairy”, or possess a desire to reproduce.

    One important thing to note is that regardless of how the gender which is associated with the female sex (the “female” gender, or “woman”) is crafted, throughout recorded history it has always been considered subservient to the gender associated with males (the “male” gender, or “man”). Further, separate concepts of a gender may exist for the same sex classification based on other social constructs, so that the social constructs are often intersectional (to be discussed a bit more below).

So we are dealing with two things here – a social construct, and certain minimal biological factors on which they are based.

Biologically, at birth I possessed ovaries, a uterus, a cervix, a vagina, a labia minora and labia majora, a clitoris and clitoral hood, and my sex-differentiating genes are (to the best of my knowledge) XX. I am therefore considered “female”.

Because I am “female”, the fact that I am shorter than the average human is considered to be due to my sex. Because I am “female”, it is presumed that I am innately inclined to experience emotions more strongly than men because of my “female” hormones. Because I am “female” it is presumed that I feel less comfortable with competition than men. These are all aspects of gender.

Biological determinism is the idea that people’s attitudes, behaviors, affinities, and other qualities are determined – in part or in whole – by their biology.

Quoting from the Wiki article:

Consider certain human behaviors, such as having a particular taste in music, committing murder, or writing poetry. A biological determinist would posit that such behaviours, and personality traits in general, are mediated primarily by biological factors, such as genetic makeup. An extreme variant of biological determinism might assert that an organism’s behaviour is determined entirely by biological factors, and that all of these factors are innate to that organism e.g. DNA. By asserting that biological factors are the primary determinants of behaviour, biological determinism implies of course that non-biological factors, such as social customs, expectations and education, have less or no effect on behaviour. Similarly, a variant of biological determinism might consider non-innate biological factors, such as the biological aspects of an organism’s environment, to have a lesser effect on the organism’s behaviour than innate biological factors.

Let’s consider a few other biology-social construct pairings.

  • Economic class: It is an uncontrovertible fact that some people possess (though that is a social construct itself) more assets than other people. The concept of wealth, or richness, or being wealthy, is a social construct. Consider how they are all relative – a person who possesses US$60,000 in Haiti occupies a very different relative social standing than someone possessing the same amount of currency in the United States; similarly, a family with an annual income of US$100,000 may be considered only middle or upper middle class in New York City, but they would constitute one of the most wealthy families in the small, dairy-farm community where I grew up. People’s behaviors often change radically based on their real or perceived economic class, and people think nothing of classifying themselves or others based on an upbringing as “rich” or “poor” or “middle-class”. If you were doing a sociological study and doing otherwise it would probably be considered irresponsible data-gathering. But the assets themselves do not alter people’s behavior.

    And, like gender, the social construct serves to differentiate between the “haves” and the “have nots”. In general, positive qualities are associated with wealth, and while some positive qualities may be associated with the poor they are typically of the “backhanded compliment” sort (ie, regarding the poor as “simple” or “pure” in some way, suggesting ignorance and a lack of inner complexity and/or mental acuity) – in short, this construct is set up to reinforce a hierarchy in which people who have more assets are seen as superior to those who have fewer assets. In the US, they are also thought to sometimes have trouble controlling themselves, particularly in the context of their purchasing decisions. To that end, many people argue that the poor need to be protected or shepherded.

  • Race: another uncontroversial biological fact is that there is a wide range of pigmentation variation in the human species. However, the concept of “race” is a social construct. There is nothing inherently, biologically real about “whiteness” or “blackness”; however, race is often a fundamental part of a person’s identity, because it can be of the most influential social constructs in many societies.

    Like economic class, race was crafted (in Europe and European colonies – other areas differ in the nature of “race”) to enforce a hierarchy of “white” and “non-white”. The “positive” traits associated with non-whiteness in the US, including simplicity, honesty, or being “community” or “family” focused, are likewise backhanded compliments meant to convey a sort of intellectual inferiority, or a lack of individualism and cutthroat ambition (both attributes prized in and associated with white men). Non-whites in the US are often thought to have trouble with controlling themselves, particularly in the context of emotions (ie, black people get “angry”, Latino/as are “passionate”, Native Americans are “crazy” and alcoholics, folks of Asian descent are almost OCD about “honor” and family pressure to “succeed” which burns them out and ruins their families, blah blah bullshit)

  • Childhood – again, uncontested biological reality in that human beings age from newborns to as much as 110-120 years old; however, the definition of what constitutes a “child” (not yet a full member of society due to age) or an “adult” (old enough to be a full member of society, barring disenfranchisement based on other factors), are arbitrary. Societies have placed those marks from the onset of puberty until nearly the age of 30; several societies, such as the US, have categories between childhood and full adulthood, usually during puberty (“teenager”/”adolescent”).

    As with the previously discussed social constructs, this creates a hierarchy. At the preeminent position are adults (sometimes with the elderly occupying the most respected slot, sometimes with the middle age occupying that position), with children or those considered child-like beneath them. And again, as with other social constructs, the people on the lower level have certain “positive” attributes associated with them – children are to be protected because they are “innocent”, for example, have a “child-like” wonder and are “carefree” (= “simple”). They are also thought to be unable to control themselves, to be overly emotional, to have poor judgment control, and so forth.

It is not biological determinism to state that these social constructs are associated with particular physical attributes such as skin pigmentation, age, the possession of assets, or genitalia.

What would be biological determinism would be to argue that these social constructs are a reflection of biological realities.

Now, why is “feminism” so often thought to be against the idea of biological determinism based on sex? That is because gender, like every other social construct I listed, is a hierarchy. Gender is not simply used in the hierarchy to classify, it constitutes the hierarchy.

Take a look at the attributes I mentioned which are associated with each of the “bottom” tiers in the social constructs above. They are also all associated with women. Those will not necessarily be true in every society, but if you find a society which values peacefulness and love and artistic endeavors above all other things, and that society includes gender, then I’d bet my life that women-as-a-class will be seen as having violent dispositions, an inability to effectively raise children or engage in meaningful intimate relationships, and/or a lack of appreciation for artistry.

It is interesting to note that in many societies, there may be more than one possible gender for males – consider, for example, the social roles played by eunuchs in some societies. There is typically a male-gender which is considered more dominant and a male-gender which is considered more submissive; the latter is sometimes associated, but until the present day not typically conflated with, the female-gender (as the capacity for reproduction was typically the focus of female-gender classifications, whereas today, with the advent of birth control, the focus of female-gender classifications is sexual availability to “men”; there is now no question but that females who will never reproduce can be “women”, because they can still be sexually penetrated).

In the US, the classifications of gender, race, and economic class are such that the more “low” categories a person falls into, the fewer acceptable means of behavior there are. It becomes harder and harder to thread the needle of acceptable behavior and still remain protected from (legal, social, economic) punishment.

A rich, white man can do virtually anything without significant social sanction; a poor, black woman can do almost nothing.

Every social construct in which we exist heaps expectations on us; they alter how we are treated by others, which in turn alters our own perception of self and our experiences. For example, females-at-birth are assigned a series of traits and interests, in which they are encouraged and which are reinforced through various means ranging from social shunning to physical abuse. These traits and interests include a preoccupation with physical appearance, aesthetics, approval by authority figures, a lack of physical bulk, physical grace and aesthetic movement, a focus on the sex act in making our self-definitions and maturation, and emotional inter-dependency. These constitute the gender “woman” in my society. Females and those assigned “female” at birth are raised in this way; we usually behave more-or-less in line with our conditioning by adulthood, at least enough so that we can pass as “women”; this then reinforces the social beliefs held by many that females “innately” are associated with these traits and behaviors.

So, let’s start almost back at the beginning: what makes someone a woman?

Is it possible to answer that question in any way without engaging in biological determinism? IE, without saying that “woman” has some “innate” quality or qualities?

The only way to define woman without being a biological determinist is to say that “woman” is a hierarchical social classification assigned to people based on the perception of “female” genitalia and gonads. Outside that context, the word has no meaning; to ascribe it meaning beyond that narrow recognition of class-based oppression is to be a biological determinist.

Are there certain attributes which are associated with the possession of female-classed gonads/chromosomes? Maybe. It’s possible, for example, that females are on average shorter than males as a result of innately different average ratios of hormones during certain key growth periods; it’s also possible that much of the differences in height could be attributable to differences in parenting behavior towards female and male babies/children which result in growth differences, or that the ratios of hormones in females and males during childhood or adolescence are as (or nearly as) affected by sociological factors as biological factors.

We simply don’t know.

And until somebody studies these types of things without presuming that there are “natural” sex differences as a first principle, we won’t ever know.

Housekeeping matter:

I will be without computer access from this afternoon until Saturday or Sunday.

So, in lieu of a Freed Pen Friday, I’ll sign off with this poem from US “suffragette” poet, Alice Duer Miller:

Father, what is a Legislature?
A representative body elected by the people of the state.
Are women people?
No, my son, criminals, lunatics and women are not people.
Do legislators legislate for nothing?
Oh, no; they are paid a salary.
By whom?
By the people.
Are women people?
Of course, my son, just as much as men are.

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3 Responses to Back to the Basics: “Biological Determinism”

  1. berryblade says:

    I can’t really articulate anything else to say on here other than wow. I love how much thought you’ve put into this.

    “And until somebody studies these types of things without presuming that there are “natural” sex differences as a first principle, we won’t ever know.”

    This! A million times this!

  2. Pingback: Men Without Women, Part 6: Conclusion « 2nd Wave Man

  3. Pingback: …the pink/blue divide – gender and childhood | … she wonders

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