The left has a terrible fear of biology. While bemoaning the execrable oped by Elinor Burkett in the New York Times, the academia-influenced left can’t even muster the clarity to affirm Caitlyn Jenner’s assertion that “My brain is much more female than it is male.” Why on earth the reluctance to acknowledge a very substantial biological component to gender identity? In other shocking news, sexual orientation is largely inborn. Do the people that dispute these things cast even a passing glance at neuroscience literature? We still have only a pretty rudimentary understanding of the brain but we know enough for these things to be reasonably clear. Some people seem to think biological science is the home turf of the Larry Summers and Charles Murrays of the world. If you won’t engage on the science do you even truly believe your own arguments?
My argument is that from accepting a biological basis for gender identity, it does not at all follow ipso facto that biological just so stories rationalizing institutional disparities are a consequence. We don’t dismiss evolution just because of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement. I think both the second and third wave are really fumbling this. There’s a thread of the left that comes out of academia that was influenced by the post-modernist nonsense. Human nature is a blank slate and all that crap.
Sure, I think tolerance of queer identities would be more enlightened even if I thought identities were all about arbitrary social constructs. But I think that’s a far less compelling argument than the biological one, which happens to also have the virtue of being correct. I think it follows from both intuition and the available science that gender identity has a biological basis. This notion that brains are born gender free was something cooked up in the 1950s by the psychologist John Money during the era when B.F. Skinner’s reactionary tabula rasa thinking was the dominant paradigm. Money was responsible for ruining more than a few lives through his advocacy of sex reassignment surgeries on infants.
Understanding is a crucial component of empathy. Consider the work of the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran on the condition of people suffering from apotemnophilia — seeking the amputation of a health limb. Turns out the brain has a detailed map of the body, a map that is occasionally wrong. This is also why injury amputees sometimes report phantom limb syndrome. (Lots of articles on the web about him and he gave a TED talk on it.) These people aren’t crazy for wanting a limb hacked off. Knowing what’s behind their desire makes it much harder to dismiss them as nuts. There are some striking similarities with the situation facing transgender individuals (and who also often report phantom genitalia sensations).
Since my post above the New York Times ran an excellent letter on Sunday:
Elinor Burkett claims that male and female brains are identical and that gender identity is therefore socially determined. This hypothesis, originally pioneered by the psychologist John Money, has long been discredited by the biomedical community. There is now plenty of evidence that male and female brains are wired differently, producing different innate reproductive behaviors.
The compelling need of transgender people to change sex is easily explained by such innate differences. Lawrence Summers was indeed excoriated because he wrongly and harmfully argued that differences between male and female brains were relevant to scientific abilities. The question is not whether male or female brains are different, but why society insists on labeling male brains as better.
In any case, transgender people like me have a right to live openly as who we are and define ourselves how we wish regardless of whether Ms. Burkett approves.
Palo Alto, Calif.
The writer is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University.