Questioning Assumptions

Jed Bland

Gendys Conference, 2000


Shortly before the last conference we heard of a child who we now know as David Reimer. Circumcised shortly after birth, something went wrong with the equipment and his penis was burned so severely that it sloughed off. I need to emphasise that it was totally ablated. Even now, and certainly then, it would be impossible to provide anything like a natural replacement. The dogma of the time which pervaded psychology, not to mention feminist politics, was that the mind is a blank slate at birth, and therefore anyone can be brought up to be anything, given the appropriate family and cultural learning. We must remind ourselves that, in fact, this was no more than a conceptual model from the behaviourist tradition which said, since the internal workings of the mind are not susceptible to quantitative objective study, they cannot be studied. As usual the less discerning members of the scientific establishment assumed that what had not been studied did not exist.

However, on Professor Money's advice, and described in a paper(1) in 1975, the boy was castrated and an attempt made to bring him up as a girl. In a paper by Diamond,(2) some twenty years later, it was clear that the conversion had been anything but successful. In fact it had been a disaster both for David and his family. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those involved, but it important to do remember that these were was not scientific studies in the usual meaning of the words, but case studies based on subjective accounts, in Diamonds case, retrospective.

Naturally it aroused great resentment about Professor Money's actions, but as usual in such a highly politicised debate, there was a degree of over reaction. The study is not evidence of causality, certainly not that, as one news story put it, "Gender identity is determined in the womb."(3) It simply described how the attempt to bring one boy up as a girl was a disastrous failure. On the other hand, it clearly refutes the idea that you can impose the gender role of your choice on a child, regardless of any physical or psychological factors.

There was, however, an alarming swing in the opposite direction, with an assertion by many writers that all children, whatever their feelings about the matter, who are diagnosed as boys should be brought up as boys, and vice versa, without actually specifying what the criteria should be.

The legal definition of sex is based on three factors, the chromosomes, the internal gonads and external genitalia (whether or not they have ever functioned). This is based on the decision by Lord Ormrod in the Corbett vs Corbett (1970) (4) case, based in turn on the medical evidence that was given.

But this ignores hormonal function in fetal development. Clearly the law can only take cognisance of what is known to be true and of physiological features that can be observed and measured. In assessing the effect of hormones, we enter the realm of psychology, of studies where the variables are not easily quantified, are subject to much controversy, often poorly carried out, with inferences that are drawn from them that have a strong political bias.

These studies have been mainly of three types:

  • Manipulation of hormones in animal subjects, mainly laboratory rats.
  • Intersex people.
  • Side-effects of medication in pregnant women.

These studies have been discussed in depth elsewhere, notably Fausto-Sterling(5) though mainly from a feminist viewpoint. However there is new influence abroad.

An example is a comment to a speculation in a press report(6) "This raised an evolutionary puzzle. Why would it be advantageous for males to be socially insensitive? If you wanted to recruit boys into an army, a hunting party or a football team, it is an advantage to have boys socially unskilled so the dominant male in that group can impose a set of social mores."

We could spend some time questioning whether assumed male dominance groups really do imply a lack of social skills, but my attention is drawn to the other assumption. Why should there be an evolutionary basis to the effect in question?

Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin have written at length about what they call 'Pan-adaptationism', the tendency to observe some particular human feature and assume that there must an evolutionary explanation for it - what they refer to as 'Just So Stories.'(7)

Evolutionary psychologists, themselves, are much more circumspect, considering subtle behaviours, that can be accurately quantified and tested.(8) There is of course no evidence from paleontology itself. The fossil record contains no soft tissue, such as brains, to study, and no DNA. The problems inherent in developing paleontological hypotheses is emphasised by Henry Gee in his book Deep Time (9)

Other evidence comes from comparing other cultures, looking for universal similarities, of which there turn out to be remarkably few,(10) and from comparing other species, notably the primates.

At various times, human behaviour has been compared, somewhat optimistically to gibbons, which form life-long pair bonds, baboons and gorillas. Once it was shown that human and chimpanzee DNA is remarkably similar, they have been referred to as "our nearest cousins" and great efforts have been made to show how like humans they are. Bonobos in fact are even nearer to us in their DNA, but, perhaps because their social interactions are through sexual behaviour rather than aggressive displays, there has been some diffidence about studying them, and few attempts to compare them with humans. The important point is that the only commonality is a long distant ancestor, since when all primates have evolved in their own particular way. Hrdy(11) has made a comparative study of a wide range of primate species in their various environments as a reply to what she sees as the androcentrism of sociobiology.

Which brings me to another speculation, which I came across in Diamonds paper: "The evidence seems overwhelming that normal humans are not psychosexually neutral at birth but are, in keeping with their mammalian heritage, predisposed and biased to interact with the environment, familial and social forces, in a male or female mode."

Note the words. He does not propose some sort of inborn Brain Sex module, similar to Chomsky's Language Box.(8) If there were such a thing, of course, it would be very convenient for human bureaucracy.

It has been said that the three species we know most about are a type of nematode worm, the fruit fly and a bacterium, Escherichia coli. However, the laboratory rat cannot be far behind. Unfortunately, the studies that are generally being quoted are rapidly becoming out of date, and it is becoming clear that, even for rats, socialisation effects are important. A significant problem occurs because they are laboratory rats.

Aware of these limitations, attempts have been made to overcome the Zuckerman trap(12) by looking at species in their natural environments. Studies have also been carried out on other species, notably the primates, and the situation is nothing like as clear cut. Ethologists themselves, are very wary of generalising across species and, since there is not time to discuss every study here, I will simply outline some caveats:

  • Most species depend far more on their sense of smell than we do, with our highly organised and complex visual system. Rats and mice in particular are very short-sighted.(13)
  • Any species that lives a fairly solitary existence may have rare opportunities to mate. It has to be done right first time. The young of many group living species, however, learn their mate choice.
    Most people know the story of Lorenz's ducklings. The process is known as imprinting, whereby the newly hatched chick fixes on the nearest large, moving object, which would normally be its mother. Less well-known is the process of sexual imprinting which occurs a few weeks or months later.(14) In this case, among species where there is prolonged maternal care, males (only) fix on their mother. There is therefore an inherited imperative for a sensitive period for the environment to provide a particular learning experience. In some species, the imprinting is more subtle - on females who are similar to but not identical to their mothers, thus avoiding inbreeding.
    For humans, there has been a great deal of work on maternal attachment, deprivation and privation, beginning with Bowlby.(15) Subsequently it has been shown that the child may attach to more than one care-giver, which may not include the mother. Moreover early experience of relationships unalterably affects the child's capacity for relationships in later life. The language is never as strong as that implied by the word 'imprinting' though all children have common cognitive developmental stages. Some abilities occur spontaneously, that is, they are done right first time, some improve with practice. There may be sensitive periods when new skills are easily assimilated, such as learning language, but for other abilities there may be no sensitive period at all.
  • Any animal must gain a sense of what it can or cannot do. Whether it can win a fight or whether it would be better to defer, which means that, in a group, it must not only be able to recognise conspecifics, but individuals. It may learn this through play-fighting. Would it be too much of a heresy to suggest that a mouse that likes play-fighting does so, not because it has a male brain, but because it is bigger and stronger than others? But then, increasing skill in play fighting will alter its brain. However, it is thought that only humans have a complex, introspective sense of self.(16)
  • While it may be argued that a number of species have gender behaviour (defining it as learned social behaviour, as distinct from sexual dimorphic behaviour as a result of physiological development) for none is their socialisation anything like as complex as that which humans have evolved. Whereas most species simply do sex, perhaps gender evolved when humans started thinking about it.
  • For most species, sexual and social learning is compressed into a few months, whereas for humans, the developmental stages are spread out over many years. Moreover, humans have added two dimensions, the sexual label, applied at birth, and a cognitive awareness of sexual and gender identity. Thus we may propose four stages: Sexual label, sexual/gender identity,(17) sexual relationship, sexual object(18) - and they may well gain developmental factors of their own.

Let me discuss item five in a little more detail, as it is a somewhat novel way of describing the process and, alas, no more than a hypothesis. Yet it would seem to me to be a good intuitive model. The psychiatric texts, that I have read, muddy the waters by conflating gender identity with sexual orientation. I would submit that the first task that an infant undertakes is not find a sexual partner, but to find a secure sense of self, of identity, of which its gender is a part.

Whatever the process of acquiring gender identity may be, it certainly is not simple. We no longer see a new-born baby's world as "buzzing, blooming confusion." Their hearing has been shown to be acute, and their vision soon develops. One can assume that their sense of smell is also acute.

One of their first skills is the perception and recognition of faces. Visual processing, perception and categorisation occupies much of the adult brain, and face recognition comprises a large part of this area. In time they distinguish complex facial expressions. It is reasonable to assume that, as time goes on, they assemble these into categories, and associate typical sounds and smells with them, and as their world expands as they leave the crib, the subtleties of behaviour. They learn the different ways different people are like them and different from them, the ways in which they like to interact and the responses they get.

From birth, the infant also tests strategies which ensure its perceived needs are met, not only nutrition and physical comfort, but of communication for its own sake. Writing of the attempts to teach chimps language, Budiansky(16) points out that whereas a chimp has a tangible goal, for instance being given an item of food, a small child may point to something and say "cat" for instance for no other reason but to communicate its interest in the object.

Many attempts to bring children up gender-free are quoted in the pop psychology literature, but parents and people still behave like men and women. Around the age of two, children of both sexes go through a period of interest in their father, and other close male family members, that verges on hero-worship, often to the discomfiture of their mother. Moreover anyone who has been transfixed by the unwavering gaze of a toddler in a supermarket will know that people are immensely interesting.

Since Money's time, we are beginning to see the child as an active agent in its own destiny. From this point of view, the idea that one can maintain a lie for over a decade seems naive. I will go further - it is an insult to the intelligence and perceptiveness of the child.

From the start, the child accommodates whatever inherent precursors of an individual personality it has, to the social world it is entering, and gender is a sub-element of this task. To do this it needs, not necessarily love, but certainly predictability and consistency. Is it possible that the root of neuroses is in relationships, where the data cannot be made to fit?

Clearly, for the pre-lingual child, it is something it does largely by itself - it is not something that can be directed but, skilled language users that pre-school children are, the subtleties, particularly of gender, are beyond communication. What we show to children is not the same as what they see. Moreover, it seems likely that these early mental constructions of its social world, self, personality, gender, are no more forgettable than learning to walk or talk.

Consider the boy who suddenly says "I'm a girl." (or vice versa) The whole world around says "No you're not." Having spent the whole of its life, so far, theorising about the subject, he, or she, is not easily open to contradiction.

The child may well, of course, adopt or even internalise the behaviours and attitudes expected of it, for at least some part of its life. There is nothing worse for a child than being 'different', whether it is behaviour, appearance, or simply living on the wrong street or being a member of the wrong family.

It is suggested that children are now dressed in unisex clothes, but we still cut their hair differently. Other parents have tried to make their offspring's toys gender free, but this ignores the influence of other children, who have different ideas. Other studies suggest that even two year olds show preferences for particular toy. While they may be aware of which toys are disapproved of, particularly by other children, perhaps they do not, yet, appreciate the full nuances of social significance.

This begins with more close involvement with the peer group, what Konnor(19) calls "that vast, intricate netherworld of primitive culture controlled completely by children." This is when the child experiences the wider world of personal relationships. Either he, or she, can accommodate to the role imposed, or cannot. Judith Rich Harris(20) quotes a Japanese Proverb: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." One feature that is worth mentioning that there is contact between age groups, where the younger children study what the older ones do. This overlap of the generations provides a continuity in cultural transmission.

There have been suggestions lately by certain people that perhaps transsexuals are a kind of intersex. I must make it clear right away intersex is not the same as transsexualism. They are from two different paradigms, like Newtonian physics and quantum theory. The former is a medical phenomenon, the latter a psychological one. In general, doctors do not involve themselves in the working of the mind, psychologists do not deal with the blood, flesh and nerve tissue that forms the brain. Thus the mind/body dichotomy is preserved.

Intersex thought does not recognise gender identity, the province of psychology. Children are expected to adopt the sex role determined by the legal criteria mentioned above. Yet it is clear that the simplistic and arbitrary way that we foist a particular sex role on a child is less than successful. Thus we are told that CAH people are women and are usually content to be women. So those few who aren't become invisible. Similarly the textbooks tell us that Klinefelter's people are male, which means those who identify themselves as female have to call themselves transsexual in order to find either professional help or support groups.

Until recently the only transsexuals that were publicly visible were male to female. Thus it was regarded as a psychosexual disorder, a paraphilia, a perversion or worse. A few years ago, a number of female to male people came out in the open, and there was a dramatic change. In spite of women insisting on a right to express their sexuality in recent years,(21) the public perception is still that women are not erotic beings. Similarly the psychiatric view was that, while men have perversions, women have neuroses, so it couldn't be a perversion. There was a sea change in the public perception of transsexuality.

Nevertheless the major weakness in the theory was that it was largely based on retrospective accounts of their childhood, by adult patients. More recently however, we have a number of children who felt able to talk to their parents, and parents who were prepared to take them seriously, and moreover talk about it in public. Thus we can observe directly, children whose gender identity does not conform to the rule book.

Diamond(2) suggests: "We believe that any 46-chromosome, XY individual born with a normal nervous system, in keeping with the psychosexual bias thus prenatally imposed, should be raised up as a male."

I have suggested that it is not simply a matter of the individual being XX or XY. What is a normal nervous system? How would we recognise it in a child, let alone a newborn? In spite of the libraries of academic papers, the deluge of papers, the usually ill-informed news reports, pop psychology books and feminist works, we probably know outer space more completely than the human brain.

Definitions of sex and gender vary, depending whose book you are reading, or who you are talking to. A geneticist will suggest that sex is of the genotype, that is to say the code held in the DNA, divorced from its actual physical form, while the phenotype, the actual developing fertilised cell has gender. A recent paper(22) concerned mice lacking a gene responsible for controlling the migration of cells in early development, where the male genitals were affected. Where the developing gonads located near to the kidney rather than the bladder, with the tubes fused that were rudimentary uterus or epididymides, the embryo was labelled "phenotypically female." The authors defined this as a sex change and earned a mention in the New Scientist. A more convenient definition might be that used by biologists: a male produces sperm, a female produces ova. But where would that leave sterile men and barren women?

The reader may well, at this point, feel that a human child is not phenotypically male or female until it announces its sexual identity at the age of four or five.

The merging of two strands of DNA is only the beginning of what Stephen Rose(12) refers to as a living process, the outcome of a multitude of interacting processes and non-linear feedback systems, that goes from conception to death. This was in my mind when I wrote my piece for the last conference,(23) though not being a mathematician, I was wary of actually using the words "complexity theory." But I suspect that, when the truth is known, it will be that you cannot accurately predict the gender identity of a child, any more than you can predict an earthquake or the weather.

Perhaps the only way to discover a person's sex is to ask them.


  1. Money, J., (1975) Ablatio Penis: Normal Male Infant Sex Reassigned as a Girl. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Vol 4, No. 1 pp65-71
  2. Diamond, M., Sigmundson, H.K., (1997) Sex Reassignment at birth: A Long Term Review and Clinical Implications, Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 151,298-304
  3. Science Study: Gender Determined in Womb, The Associated Press. May, 12, 2000
  4. McMullan, M., Whittle, S., (1995) Transvestism, Transsexualism and the Law, London: Beaumont Trust, Gender Trust.
  5. Fausto-Sterling, A., (1992) Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, New York: Basic Books
    Fausto-Sterling, A., (1999) Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, New York: Basic Books
  6. Genes say boys will be boys and girls will be sensitive The Guardian, Thursday, 12th., June, 1997
  7. Gould, S.J., Lewontin, R.C., (1979) The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme' Proc. Royal Society of London, Series B, Vol 205, pp581-98 (in Gee, H., (2000) Deep Time: Cladistics the revolution in evolution, London: Fourth Estate)
  8. Evans, D., Zarate, O., (1999) Introducing Evolutionary Psychology, Cambridge: Icon Books
  9. Gee, H., (2000) Deep Time: Cladistics the revolution in evolution, London: Fourth Estate
  10. Even the idea, beloved of sociobiologists, that males are universally aggressive and dominant in all cultures. Elle magazine in 1993, described the Zapotec women of Juchitan. They are the heads of the households, they control the finances and dominate their men. Not only that, but they have fought for five centuries to protect their way of life from the Catholicism of Mexico which surrounds them.
    Shakespeare.J., Rule of the Red-Hot Mammas, Elle, Sept 1993
  11. Hrdy, S. B., (1981) The Woman That Never Evolved, London: Harvard University Press
  12. Rose S., (1997) Lifelines: Biology, Freedom,Determinism. p79, London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.
    Sir Solly Zuckerman was a distinguished anatomist of the early part of the twentieth century. However, one of his studies reported extreme aggression among members of a baboon colony at London Zoo. The view of social behaviour it produced misled science for several decades until detailed studies were performed of wild baboons in their natural habitat.
  13. Studies into pheromones have only recently been taken seriously. One of those annoying facts that wouldn't go away is that women who live in groups, such as nuns, tend to synchronise their monthly cycle.
    Stern, K. & McClintock, M. K. Regulation of ovulation by human pheromones. Nature 392, 177-179 (1998).
    Nevertheless, the idea that rodents' lives are as centred on the sense of smell as ours is of vision, is supported by the relative disappearance of our olfactory centres during human evolution.
    Against this must be set a recent paper in Nature, that suggests that although humans do not possess the sensory organs that other mammals have, there may be some response to pheromones.
    Rodriguez, I., Greer, C.A., Mok M. Y. & Mombaerts, P. A putative pheromone receptor gene expressed in human olfactory mucosa. Nature Genetics 26, 18-19 (2000).
  14. Immelmann, K., uncited reference in: Hall, M., Halliday, T., (1992) Behaviour and Evolution, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  15. Bowlby J, (1953) Child Care and the Growth of Love, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  16. For more on this, see Budiansky, S., (1998) If a Lion Could Talk: How Animals Think, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
  17. Defining sexual identity as the label we are given and (usually) adopt and gender identity as how we feel about ourselves.
  18. Thus a man (say) may be gynephilic in the relationships he conducts, but might be 'turned on' by something quite different. As a case in point, I once read an account by, I think, a wife writing to an Agony Aunt. She and her husband had been happily married for a few years, and had, as I remember, children. However he could only become erotically aroused when wearing a motor-cycle helmet.
  19. Konnor, M.,(1991) Childhood, London: Little, Brown and Company
  20. Harris, J.R., (1999) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out They Way They Do, New York: Touchstone (Simon and Schuster)
  21. There has been an upsurge in female erotica (herotica) in recent years, with a public respectability not afforded to the male equivalent, which remains largely underground. It is published by leading houses, and by a respectable, otherwise largely non-fiction, book club. Consider this description: "Anna Caplin infiltrates an institute specialising in sexual experimentation and becomes hooked on games of submission and control."
    Le Verdier, Z., Undercover Secrets, text from a publicity leaflet by The Softback Preview, London, 2001.
  22. Colvin, J.S., Green, R.P., Schmal, J., Capel, B., Ornitz,D., (2001) Male-to-Female Sex Reversal in Mice Lacking Fibroblast Growth Factor 9, Cell Vol 104, March 2001, 875-889
  23. Bland, J., (1998) Autopoiesis, Gendys '98, The Fifth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, London: Gendys Conferences
Citation: Bland. J, (2000), Questioning Assumptions, GENDYS 2k, The Sixth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester, England.
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