I began dipping into the science of the sexes this spring. It was an instinctive antipathy for the tenets of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (such as the much-popularised idea that men adapted to be promiscuous while women have inherited genes for choosiness) that set me in motion; one day I found I couldn’t dismiss them out of hand anymore, but felt I had to investigate for myself.
My reading has taken me through alternative evolutionary psychologies (for example, that it is equally advantageous for women to be promiscuous, evolutionarily speaking, and that if left to themselves they would behave rather more like our bonobo relatives and copulate with gay abandon), the development and sexual differentiation of the gonads (including the truly wonderful occurrence in some individuals of combined ovo-testes: gonads with both egg- and sperm-producing tissue1), and endocrinology (the study of hormones, featuring thrilling tales of testosterone fluctuation in fish).
I’d like to share some of these discoveries here, in dribs and drabs, the idea being to disseminate not only information but some of the tools that I’ve acquired for critical analysis of “scientific” studies; I’d like this to be an interactive process, with readers commenting on material as we proceed. For instance, I’ll post outlines of studies and invite you to offer your opinions and criticisms before I go on to share the analyses that I’ve developed.
As an English graduate I have no qualification for this work other than my ability to read and to think critically, but I have spent the last seven months reading (almost full time) the works of other more eminent scholars, and theirs are the ideas I want to share. My principal guide has been Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor Emerita of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. In case you were wondering, her laboratory work has included studies of the genetics of development in fruit flies and the developmental ecology of flatworms. She is best known, however, for her work in which this “hard” background is brought to bear upon the science of sex differences in humans (although, importantly, she would argue that even the hardest of sciences, such as chemistry and phsyics, operate within cultural and political frameworks and can never be “completely objective”2).
In brief, her theories bridge the nature/nurture divide in the debate on human development: the dichotomy is false one, she argues; instead, she offers a model for the way in which environment and biology interact to coproduce bodies and behaviours. Her current work takes Dynamic Systems theory, which others have applied at the level of cell biology and to the development of motor skills in infancy, and applies it, in her own words, “at different levels of human organization (organ physiology, sex differences in behavior, human sexuality and gender identity)”.3
That’s enough introduction: we’ll come back to Anne Fausto-Sterling later, but for now let’s look at a hot new topical example of how sociobiological ideas are used.
1Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York, 2000), pp. 51, 54, 64, 93, 111, 117 and 174.
2Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men, 2nd edn (New York, 1985), pp. 9-10.
3Fausto-Sterling, Dynamic Systems Theory, http://www.annefaustosterling.com/fields-of-inquiry/dynamic-systems-theory/ [accessed 9 June 17]