Jed Bland

Gendys Conference, 1998


Every so often a new word fires my imagination. In this case, it appears in Stephen Rose's Lifelines. (1) I offered it to Alice as the title of my piece, which has landed me in embarrassing position of having to say something about it. My next-door neighbour, as an author and ex-English teacher, also has a fetish for words, and spent a week searching in vain through every dictionary he could find. Consequently, I'm not even sure if I'm pronouncing it correctly.

Even more embarrassing, early in the preparations for the conference, an 'i' was lost. As the word was copied from document to document, so the error spread, like one of Dawkins' 'memes.' In fact, the word-ending does appear in the dictionary:

-poiesis n. combining form. indicating the act of making or producing something specified; hematopoiesis. [From Greek poiesis, a making, see POESY](2)

Autopoiesis, then, is self-construction.

As Rose puts it: The central property of all life is the capacity and necessity to build, maintain and preserve itself.

But what does it mean to us here today? Why does it turn me on so? I feel it expresses all I am trying to say about the human condition and biology and environment. It is the final answer to the nature/nurture argument. It is the real science of gender studies.

This decade's easy answer to anything that is too complicated is "It must be genetic." Dean Hamer is credited with discovering a "gene for homosexuality". Others have tried to discover genes for everything from intelligence to criminality. To set the record straight, Hamer made it clear in his paper, that he expected it to be one gene among many, none of them more than predisposing factors. Steve Jones's In the Blood (3)carries a long list of "human disease genes". By the year 2003 we are promised that the whole human genome will be codified as a long string of letters. Will that be all there is to it? Not really. Letters make words, words make sentences, and sentences need to be understood. Pollack(4)uses this analogy to good effect in his book Signs of Life, where he likens the genome to a work of great literature which is very old and has informed countless generations in different ways throughout history.

There is a problem with words with which all writers are familiar. We codify our understanding of the world around us into words and their meaning is subtly altered by the context in which they are written. Our hearers translate them into thoughts by their understanding of their world. Consider how differently a simple fact, such as "transsexuals win right to be included on hospital waiting lists." may be reported in the Court records, on BBC Television and the various newspapers. I have, from to time, been taken to task about what I have written by those who have imposed their own political agenda on their interpretation of it. When John Money first started writing he was accused of being a biological determinist. Now the political agenda has turned through a half circle, and he was recently accused of being a 'mentalist', whatever that is.

The only function of the genes is to make proteins. The letters of the DNA bases form the words of the genes, which are translated into proteins, the meanings of which are understood in the context of the cellular environment and its history. Proteins are often extremely stable compounds. Each is a unique long chain of amino acid molecules which, once formed in an aqueous environment at exactly the right temperature and acidity, adopts a unique three dimensional shape. A reaction occurs when another molecule of exactly the right shape fits to it.

We have succeeded in reproducing some of those reactions in isolation in the laboratory. The cell however, is not the closed environment of the laboratory bench. What the genes do can only be properly understood in terms of their context, how their proteins behave in an open environment, subject to unpredictable interference, in the presence of the other myriad interactions within the cell. Their activity may be influenced by relatively distant phenomena, even the environment outside the organism of which the cells are a part. The organism may, for instance, have been drunk the night before.

To quote Rose(5)again, from his caustic review of Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow, (6) autopoiesis "sees life as a self-constructing process in which . . . the four dimensions - three of space and one of time - of an individuals's lifeline, their trajectory from conception to death, are not immanent within DNA but reflect the emergence of complex forms of dynamic order."

One of the main objections to deterministic models is that they did not allow for free will. Yet our relative freedom from fixed behaviour patterns, and rigid thought processes, is exactly what our genes encode.

The idea of Darwinian theory as being solely concerned with genetic variation is misleading. Such variation occurs through random mutations, which may be lethal, often have no effect but occasionally by chance, may be useful. No new gene appears in anticipation of the future. Many species have, however, developed, in varying degrees, the ability, to record the present, in the light of what has happened in the past, to attempt an appropriate response in the future. Added to this, many species live in groups, which in humans have developed with an unprecedented degree of complexity and variability. In effect genetic evolution has made the gene, as a determinant of behaviour, at least partially redundant. In human development Darwinian evolution virtually ended centuries ago. That is at once our blessing and our curse. Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (7)sets the life of Darwin against a counterpoint of the behaviours that humans in common exhibit. There is an inference in the book that the behaviours themselves evolved, though it might be better to suggest that we have the ability to learn certain things in certain ways.

The extreme complexity of our social environment, in which we are immersed from the moment we are born, is an intrinsic part of our genetic evolutionary path. That human biology and socialisation are so closely interconnected is the reason why there is no answer to the nature versus nurture argument - it is a meaningless question.

Have I then exchanged biological determinism, and the equally destructive reductionist socialisation view, for the determinism of some arcane mathematical equations on the behaviour of complex systems? Not quite.

Self organising systems are part of the way science is beginning to understand the real cosmos in a way that traditional science cannot. They are open to and are a part of the wider environment. They arise from component parts which are too numerous to be able to establish one-to-one causal relationships between them, and they are interconnected by feedback loops. Contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they achieve order and stability. By the cosmos I mean not just space, but the planet Earth and its thin skin of living organisms, right through to the way patterns of order arise in communities.

Free will is an intrinsic part of that dynamic order, not only for humans but for many species as well. When my cat gets up from her place in front of the fire, she will sit for a moment. Then she will choose whether to go to her food, or go out into the garden. A reductionist explanation would contrast the competing demands of her bladder and her appetite. Nevertheless she makes a choice. Is it a conscious choice and, if so, what do we mean by a conscious choice? The challenge for the next millennium is to discover exactly how individual free will operates within the overarching tendency of populations towards dynamic order.

I am sure that the Beaumont Society never realised the significance of its use of a butterfly as its symbol. It was not, of course, the only group to flap its wings in the 'eighties. Only ten years ago, however, Press for Change was no more than a gleam in one or two people's eyes, and SHAFT was busy shafting itself.

There could have been violent repercussions, as often happens when people try to change society. Gender roles, in fact, seem to have settled back to their traditional ways - the popularity of Men Behaving Badly, and Claudia Schiffer stripping as she walks downstairs, may betray a reaction against the gender-blurring of the 'eighties - yet nothing is quite the same. A transsexual woman is a popular character in a mainstream soap opera. Unconventionally gendered people are heard in the European Court and talk with ministers of State. The other day, I heard a snatch of conversation between two builders: "Do you think I'm a transvestite?" - said as an everyday piece of conversation in a way that would have unthinkable a few years ago.

The central problem with any scientific study is that it has to take some single aspect and isolate it in order to measure it. Any outside influences, even if they may be vital to true understanding, are discarded as experimental error. The results may be unequivocal by themselves, at that moment in time and at that place, but somehow the intrinsic meaning gets lost. What is being studied becomes like a butterfly pinned to a collector's board - the form is there but the essence is gone.

Moreover, because we look for the central tendency in the statistical analysis, it becomes 'normal' and tall women and short men become almost pathologised. As Eysenck and Keene(8) warn us of cognitive psychology "One of the most obvious weaknesses . . . is the reluctance to take individual differences seriously." Clearly, we have to reduce any topic to its elements in order to analyse it, and to develop simple one-dimensional cause-and-effect models and hypotheses to get the theoretical show on the road. We must be wary, however of letting such models become dogma, as happened with behaviourism, which paralysed the study of psychology for nearly thirty years.

Real life is not one-dimensional and static, nor is it entirely predictable. In the beginning, the genes produce proteins which become an embryo, which becomes a fetus, which becomes a baby, which becomes a child, and so on. Life always moves forward, everything is a state of both being and becoming.

Living in closely knit groups, whose behaviours are not rigidly coded, introduces new levels of unpredictability. Much of human psychology may be viewed in terms of the ways we set out to reduce unpredictability to an acceptable level. We form in groups of like-minded people, and we expect certain behaviour patterns in those who would join our groups. The infant surveys the world from its mother's arms, but it greets each new individual with immense interest. As it grows older it makes ever more adventurous forays into the wider world, at family gatherings and playgroups for instance, always able to draw back to the safety of its mother's knee, or some other person whose predictability it can trust.

In so doing it internalises ways of expressing itself which elicit favourable responses, responses which can be predicted. In turn, it learns the way others have internalised predictable response patterns, which eliminates the need for a detailed assessment of each individual which it meets. Yet no person is entirely predictable. In crowded situations, which may anyway be fraught with tension, where our personal space is being encroached upon, we all may feel a sense of panic as the threat of an unpredictable encounter increases.

Where individuals are brought together in such close proximity, particularly where the group has not formed spontaneously, or has other tensions, such as a school, the workplace or some deprived areas of the community, very rigid codes of behaviour may be set up, leading to rejection of individuals who are perceived to be 'different', even scape-goating. There are many studies which show how adults react to babies, in response to their preconceptions of sex. Such studies invariably measure how adults treat babies, not how babies feel about it. Child psychology is almost all about adult behaviour towards children, not the other way round, and especially not about the child's innate capacity for self-determination.

From birth, we develop a sense of our inherent abilities and skills, and measure them against what is expected of us to develop a secure sense of self with which we can feel comfortable. It is a stable internalised picture of who we are, from which we can attempt to portray the appearance of different personalities to suit each situation in which we may find ourselves.

This view of life puts psychology and psychiatry in a real quandary. Nothing in the classical approach to their theory equips them to work in a person-centred way. Psychology applies tests, psychiatry applies diagnoses, to identify 'conditions', pinning them down like a butterfly, and 'treating' them - rigidly linear causal relationships.

No two individuals are born with the same aptitudes, and no two have the same lifelong set of personal interactions. It is a tribute to the normalising effect of culture, that we can build order out of chaos in our lives. Yet it is the fact that we are all unique products of our individual histories, that leads to the central dictum of counselling that "Clients are the experts about their lives."


  1. Rose, S., (1997) Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.
  2. Hanks, P., (ed) (1979) Collins Dictionary of the English Language, Glasgow: Collins
  3. Jones, S., (1996) In The Blood: God, Genes and Destiny, London: Harper Collins
  4. Pollack, R., (1994) Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  5. Rose. S.,(1998) The Selfish Gene Goes Ape, London: The Guardian. 17th., October, 1998
  6. Dawkins. R., (1998) Unweaving the Rainbow, London: Penguin Press
  7. Wright. R., (1994) The Moral Animal, London: Little Brown and Co. (UK)
  8. Eysenck.M.W., Keane.M.T., (1990) Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook, p500, Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Citation: Bland. J.,, (1998), Autopoiesis, GENDYS 98, The Fifth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester, England.
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