Seminar: Born that way - or not?

Jed Bland

Gendys Conference, 1994


What is the truth about our heritage? Are we really 'born that way,' as some biologists tell us? There is a dangerously attractive subset of knowledge called biological reductionism. It tells us that we are each a product of our genes, and that we are the products of our heredity and the amount of hormones when we were in our mother's womb. We are told that our brains are 'wired up' as male or female. Indeed you begin to wonder if there can be such a thing as a transexual. It tells us that we are the helpless victims of our biology and takes away our freedom.

Years have been spent in trying to prove that intelligence, for instance is inherited. There was a major storm when it was found that the books had been cooked. Personality, too, has come under the scrutiny of biological reductionism, but while there is some basis in the physiological properties of individual nervous systems, the truth is much more complicated.

Not too long ago, it was possible for certain people to prove, to their own satisfaction at least, that any perceived mental dysfunction was inherited, in what became known as the Eugenics movement. From applying the label to epileptics, it became possible to apply it to anyone who could be labelled 'feeble minded.' Very soon this was extended to anyone who was perceived as socially undesirable. In America, between 1932 and 1947, over 43,000 children and adults were forcibly sterilised. In this country, they were just locked up. (For instance, if they dared to complain about being sexually abused.) Hitler, of course, took up the idea with great enthusiasm.

It is with this background, that I view the emphasis in some quarters on cast iron guarantees that transexuals are one hundred per cent sterile with some misgivings.

Studies into gender differences have followed two paths. One was by comparing people's behaviour, and I don't want to spend time on this long-running controversy. While it seems obvious that the sexes do behave differently, among the multitude of studies that have been carried out on how they do so, few appear to have any real validity. The point is that, even if you can show correlations between behaviour and gender, no-one has yet satisfactorily proved any causes, whether biology or learning.

Secondly, studies have set out to show that one can induce changes in behaviour, especially in mice, by administering hormones in various ways. But mice and humans are vastly different creatures.

Rather than get involved directly in that debate, I want to try and explain how different mice and humans are.

Long, long ago a kind of jungle-dwelling ape found that the forest was dwindling, and moved out onto the open savannah. He already stood on his hind legs to reach food, and sometimes just for the hell of it. Out in the hot sun, he found that he was more comfortable standing up. He didn't understand physics, but he presented a smaller surface area to the radiation which was coming almost vertically downwards. In addition to the nuts and berries that had grown in abundance, he had also eaten the odd ground squirrel and maybe some larger animals. To go for the larger meat that he saw wandering around on the prairies, he clearly needed a co-operative effort between the members of his group.

In a relatively short space of time, this first human who had evolved in the scorching heat of Africa adapted to the icy wastes of the Arctic. He hadn't changed genetically - Darwinian evolution takes tens of thousands of years.

The great Panda colonises a limited niche in China, eating bamboo shoots. If the bamboo shoots are in short supply one year, it's in trouble. The human niche was the world.

What allowed humans to colonise practically every kind of environment on earth, within a few thousand years, rather than tens of thousands, was not genetic evolution, but the built-in adaptability of the human genotype, what is known as the phenotype.

In fact, the human phenotype shows a startling ability to adapt to quite extreme environments even in a lifetime. Sometime last century, a boy, believed to be about twelve years old, walked out some woods in France. Probably, he had been abandoned as a toddler. He had none of the learning of an ordinary child. He had not, for instance, learned to talk. What he could do was to survive naked in deep snow that might have given any other child hypothermia, in fact, he positively enjoyed it.

But, back in the past, among those early humans, something odd had developed, according to the newest theories - holes in the head - in the skull bone to be precise. Instead of having separate blood supplies to the brain and to the scalp, there were blood vessels flowing directly from the brain to the outside surface. Such an efficient cooling system improved survival in the heat. But it also allowed the evolution of a much larger cerebral cortex, one that in modern humans dissipates some 150 watts.

What this massive cerebral cortex gave us was a hitherto unimaginable ability to adapt, if you like from an ordinary Joe one day, to a spaceman in a matter, not of a hundred years, but one or two years. The adaptability of our phenotype has allowed us to colonise the earth in ways that other species could not, and in time, the universe itself.

I'm going have difficulty in finding references for what comes next. It is my own personal schema built up from many uncited readings and television programmes.

This new cerebral cortex improved the early human's chances of survival and his hunting ability no end. The reliance on learning fixed behaviours disappeared. This new brain could size up a situation in relation to remembered past ones. Acting more appropriately, it had a better chance of surviving.

Instead of passively waiting for food to turn up, this new ape could predict where and when it would turn up, and plan accordingly. It learnt to see the future and the past.

Different humans had different abilities and skills - it helped to be able to understand each other, and to do this one needed to understand one's self. Suddenly this pre-human became self-aware and personality was invented.

I can now dispose of cultural myth number one. The most successful human, the one who brought in the most food, was not necessarily the strongest fighter. All sorts of talents were valuable - if you could make a better arrow-head, the world would beat a path to your door - and you could support a larger family, spreading your genes further.

Besides this, sex was no longer a case of someone jumping on you, or you jumping on someone else. Personality included a awareness of others as male people and female people. With the extended care needed for the young, and the need to form a pair-bond, it was necessary to select someone you could live with for a number of years. So human beings invented gender.

What I am suggesting here is that gender is cognitive, not biological - and humans have been experimenting with gender roles ever since. I may be accused of a gender-reductionist explanation but, over the millennia, it has acquired a considerable amount of political baggage.

The genetic blueprint determines a specific organism, generation by generation, that has the stability to develop within its environment. Change occurs by natural selection over tens of thousands of years. There are plenty of species that have become locked into a relatively limited environment, where change in the environment means that the species cannot survive. In order to survive within a range of environments and to cope with short term changes, the specificity of the gene must be tempered with the plasticity to adapt to those changes.

What is the truth about our heredity? These are some facts:

About a third of the human genome, some 30,000 genes, determines the way the brain develops.

In the brain, there are some 10 billion neurones, each with 1000 going on 10,000 connections, or synapses.

What theorists are saying is that there are simply not enough codes in the gene to, as it were, provide the innate programming for even a new born baby.

Yet we know that, as the fetus develops, immense numbers of synaptic connections are formed, and immense numbers die. There must be another process involved and the latest lines of thought involve a new biology of unthought of complexity.

But, first, I want to turn to another myth - the idea that embryos start as female. If they're XX they're female, if they're XY they're male.For the first six weeks after conception they are undifferentiated, which is a different thing altogether.

Figure 1

We are all, I believe, familiar with Figure 1, first proposed by Money. He listed a series of stages in a continuing process through childhood and teenage, which later writers have compressed into the term psychosexual differentiation. Rather than spending the rest of the afternoon discussing this term, I will use the phrase Locus of Gender Development, as something that leads to gender identity, sexual identity and sexual turn-on in turn.

At each stage of the prenatal process, there is variation. At the first there are, of course, the XXY and XYY people and others. There was once an attempt to label XYY men as potentially criminal and I recently heard a Radio 1 Deejay call them supermen, because they had two Y chromosomes.

Within the first few weeks, a control gene fires in the Y chromosome, the SRY gene, which starts the differentiation into a male path. Sometimes, with an XY embryo, it doesn't, or an XX embryo has a has a fragment of Y, containing the SRY gene, that fires when it shouldn't. The result is a surprisingly large number of people who are XY women or XX men, and grow up to all intents and purposes as perfectly unremarkable people, except that they are sterile. There is a horror story of just such a woman, who only discovered the truth after hospital treatment after a diving accident. She then was made to live her next twenty years in abject shame. Her father rushed her into marriage, and her husband told her openly that he had married her because she was a freak. These, of all people should be able to claim that they were 'born that way' and they are an object lesson for those hoping to find respectability in a 'gay' gene.

From stage three, androgens come into play as the messengers of the SRY gene.

Unfortunately the idea of the male hormone has been translated in cultural myth into seeing it as the hormone of masculinity. Thus Muriel Grey, at the recent Design Awards, instead speaking of being among men, said she was "surrounded by testosterone."

As we go down the table the range of variation increases dramatically. At this point too, we are told that the presence or absence of androgens alters the 'wiring-up' of the brain. (figure 2)

Figure 2

After birth, and for a number of years, the difference in hormone levels between boys and girls is slight, so what the biological reductionists are telling us is that seven comes before six, that the locus of gender development as male or female is set once and for all before birth.

Successive studies are showing that the hormonal environment of the fetus does have an important effect. Though I still have the nagging feeling that some of the results are wishful thinking (technically known as observer bias), it is also clear that, in a very few people, there is a very great effect.

But, to my mind, it is simply another variable in the phenotype, a continuous range which might not be linear. I contend that the more a given culture requires its boys to become warriors, the more will rebel. You can work out a corollary for women. This leads to my hypothesis that the proportion of transexuals in a given culture or sub-culture is directly proportional to the degree of gender divisiveness. Nature makes the law, nurture determines how it will be implemented and transexualism and transvestism is a natural, in the true sense, part of Western culture.

However, it is only a part of the story, and we now go back to what I was saying about those millions of synapses forming and dying as the fetus matures.

What ineffable pattern is there to this process? What drives it, if not the gene? Edelman has come up with an astonishing suggestion - that, left to itself it would be random, but a special kind of randomness bounded by certain constraints, such as the physical body, which is already highly individual, and the things that happen to it and the things it does.

He is proposing what is known as a stochastic process which begins at the moment of conception, and continues long after birth.

There is much more work to be done, but I put it to you now, then, that in the schema that we have been looking at, there is a stage missing. (Figure 3)

Figure 3

What Edelman seems to be saying is that cerebral development is only predicted by heredity inasmuch as that heredity predicts an individual body, its physical form, the way it moves, what it senses and experiences. Moreover, if we equate patterns of synaptic connections with memory, then we are talking about learning.

For biological reductionists, particularly those that want to classify people as normal and abnormal, desirable and undesirable, it throws a real spanner in the works.

For the most that can be said is that we are each the product of an individual fetus, growing in an individual mother's womb, living her own individual life. We truly are individuals to the core - even monozygotic twins.

The locus of gender development is not one of two directions, but a probability distribution. A child may be more or less masculine or feminine, but that depends on what parents, peer group and society, in their turn, define as masculine or feminine.

As an example, a child who has little opportunity to explore, or little access to action toys, but is exposed to books, may become less spatially aware, but a good communicator, whether boy or girl. But the child may prefer one or other activity. On the other hand, boys and girls are taught to prefer one or other.

We don't just learn a pattern of isolated behaviours, but fundamental ways of thought, the personality and an individual gender identity, reflected in an individual pattern of synaptic organisation.

Whatever can be found in gender differences, finding causation is even further away, for neuronal group selection goes on after birth. While biology affects the way we learn, learning in turn changes our biology. What is inherited and what is learnt is becoming steadily less, rather than more, clear.

Moreover it is this that gives us unrivalled ability to adapt quickly to a vast range of environments. I'm willing to bet that the space children of the future, growing in the three dimensional universe instead of two dimensional earth, will have spatial abilities far in advance of ours, girls as well as boys.

But there are wider social implications. As Rose puts it, the debate is not about nature and nurture, but specificity versus plasticity - and more importantly, the dynamic that exists between them. One could use such a metaphor for personalities and cultures.

The person with rigid attitudes and values is thrown into fear and confusion when confronted by new experiences, new ways of living. Cultural studies tell us that biological beginnings may be universal, but social constructions vary widely. They also tell us that cultures need the specificity of attitudes and roles, but if they become too rigid they lose plasticity, stagnate and may die.

It is a sobering thought that psychology is a study still very much in its infancy, for all our pride in our discoveries. I can see constructions proposed in the future, far more radical than Edelman's.

But, those other writers still have valuable things to say. Dr. Desmond Morris's recent television programme suggested that certain behaviours are passed on down through the generations, tribalism, pair bonding, maternal and paternal attachment. The one basic need all humans always seem to have had is for company - we are communal animals. A human can adapt to a solitary life, but not without great cost. Such a person might not be lonely - there have been people through the ages who were happy with their own company, from hermits to explorers - and loneliness is based on expectations. Nor need such a person be dysfunctional within his, or her own, environment, even influencing it in way that makes it more comfortable. But such a person is unlikely to gain a real social identity, or to learn how to negotiate a pair bond.

Are ethologists, like Morris right, or is Edelman? Are the social interactionists right, or the cognitive developmentalists? The answer is probably somewhere between. The first great theory of psychology, that of Freud, was a biological one. He proposed two psychological entities: our animal selves, in the form of the id, and our social selves, the ego and super-ego. His theories, however, dealt with the dynamic between them.

Darwinian evolution has had little to do with human evolution in the last ten thousand years, it has been cognitive evolution. But it has come about because of our gene. Morris suggests that we share 99% of our genes with the chimpanzee. He does not suggest that our gene is the problem, but that we have created an environment with which, with all its adaptability, it has difficulties. Perhaps he should stress that 1% of our genes are ones that chimpanzees don't have. Genes that should enable us to solve our problems, if only we'd use them.

All this year, we have been reminded of the holocaust. Some say that, having happened fifty years ago, we should forget it. Unfortunately, we can't, because the thinking that led to it is still around.

We now have more sophisticated tools which Eugenecism might use. Genetics has come a long way, so has neurobiology. They may lead us to the truth if they are not used to label and catalogue people.

For we are still inventing cultural stereotypes then trying to prove they exist. Studies of gender, especially the BSRI, remind me of John Dewey's description of intelligence testing: "[like] the way they used to weigh hogs . . . . They would get a long plank, put it over a crossbar, and somehow tie the hog on one end of the plank. They'd search all around till they found a stone that would balance the weight of the hog, and they'd put it on the other end of the plank. Then they'd guess the weight of the stone."

The complexity and uncertainties of social and psychological studies, make simple, concrete, biologically reductionist explanations all too attractive.

Using the biological explanation we can say that women are unreliable employees on at least one week a month.

We can say that men have a 'natural' tendency to rape and sexual abuse.

When boys steal cars and go joy-riding, we can blame it on their hormones and ignore the frustrations of the social situation in which they are trapped.

There are no easy answers. There are certainly no simple solutions.

Let me show you two definitions: (Figure 4) Therapists among my audience may feel disturbed at such a definition of medicine, in which I include psychiatry and psychology, but bear with me.

Figure 4

Does not the definition of the law accord with how most of us see it?

We are told that we live in a democracy. The American Bill of Rights speaks of all men being free and equal, but it has been pointed out that when it says men it means men, and selected white Caucasian immigrants at that. It is a soft target, of course, but the same attitudes exist in Britain and Europe. We have the Sex Discrimination Act, and the Racial Discrimination Act, which we enforce with the power of the law. And we have the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Surely, in a democracy, these things would be taken for granted. People would react with amazement if you even suggested such things were necessary.

Meanwhile the assertion by a Department of Education official, responsible for the new National Curriculum, that "People must be educated once more to know their place." has an ominous ring. As John Stuart Mill puts it, "Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it is called."

There is a story that Ghandi was on a state visit somewhere, when some bumptious person asked: "Well, Mr. Ghandi, what do you think of our Western civilisation," he smiled gently and said, "It will be a good idea."

Let me show you two alternative definitions: (Figure 5)

Figure 5

The Courts do not merely assess the evidence put before them. They assess the validity of that evidence in the light of public attitudes and general professional opinion.

If we campaign on the basis of medical or psychiatric evidence, there are few people who understand us and most of them are here at this conference. If we campaign on a biological standpoint, there are few that will believe us.

But if we campaign on the platform of our right for individual self determination, we would attract the support of many people who share my distaste for the idea that 'biology is destiny' - not only psychologists and counsellors, but leading neurobiologists and geneticists. We would, moreover, be arm in arm with women, with ethnic people and the gay community.


It was felt that my view of true democracy was somewhat idealistic - but what's wrong with ideals? Perhaps our society has lost its way simply because we don't have enough idealists. The comment was made strongly that we have to join forces with the other minority groups for rights as individuals, for all of us to come out of the closet, even if we're only filling envelopes and sticking on stamps and fund-raising. Since the word closet has other associations in our culture, perhaps a better word would be ghetto. Not just the physical enclosure of the club and the area between the railway station and the bus station in Manchester, but the ghetto of the mind in which society seeks to enclose us.

A thought that came into my mind during the discussion was that, perhaps, people think that, if they can't provide a biological explanation, it might be thought that they can 'help' being who they are. But what Edelman is doing is confirming psychologists' long-held (though scientifically unproven) assumption that long term memory, and hence learning, is permanent. An important point here is that just because something isn't remembered, it isn't necessarily forgotten. The subject of choice was brought up by Prof. Gooren earlier in the conference - a bone of contention I have with my psychology professors. We all have choice but not necessarily free choice. At a given moment in time, we might have unlimited options, but our choices are limited by the choices that we made, or were made for us, in the past, and to an extent by our individual biology. It is the function of psychotherapy, not to 'cure' a transvestite or transexual, but help him, or her, to evaluate past choices, to make better present choices, to pave the way to a genuinely better future.


  1. Edelman. G.M, (1987-8) Topobiology: Neural Darwinism: The theory of neuronal group selection: The Remembered Present, New York: Basic Books Inc.
    Edelman's three books are now somewhat difficult to obtain, but a very readable critique of his work is contained in: Rose. S, (1993) The Making of Memory: From molecules to mind, Ealing: Bantam Books.
  2. John Dewey, John Stuart Mill and UK Dept. of Education quotations from: Meighan. R. (1994) The Freethinkers' Guide to the Educational Universe, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.
  3. Money J, Ehrhardt A, (1972) Man, Woman, Boy and Girl: The differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  4. Morris. D, (1994 reprint), The Human Zoo, London: Vintage (Arrow Books Ltd)
  5. Rose. S, Lewontin. R.C, Kamin. L.J, (1990) Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  6. Suzuki. D. (1994) BBC Television series: Cracking the Code. especially number 8, Freedom In The Genes, page 22, Transcript: London: BBC Broadcasting Support Services.
  7. Also: BBC television: In Search of our Ancestors; BBC television: Horizon -Some Liked It Hot; Channel 4: Secret History: The Lynchburg Story. BBC television Panorama: The Future is Female. 24th. Oct 1994.
Citation:Bland, J., (2003) Seminar: Born that way - or not? GENDYS '94, The Third International Gender Dysphoria Conference, London: Gendys Conferences.
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