Saturday, July 2, 2016

Gender Identity in the Light of Evolutionary Biology

Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari.
The distinction between genders: masculine and feminine, is more of a social construct than it is an immutable physical division. A tigress is as good a hunter as a tiger. But the complexity of human existence is very different from all other species. We, as social beings, have developed advanced social institutions and culture.

The distinction between males and females is based less on their physiological traits and more on their respective mindsets. And these mindsets, in turn, are an outcome of social expectations of behavior in a cultural milieu. It is expected from the male members of a society to behave in a manly fashion; and similarly it is also expected from the female members of a society to act in a supposedly feminine manner.

But the emphasis on this binary distinction in a rural-agrarian society served a purpose: the division of functions between the male and female members; where the females were expected to do housekeeping and nurture the offspring. This distinction is still maintained, to a lesser or greater extent in an urban and industrialized society. But a distinction based on the division of functions is a hypothetical imperative: as means to achieve certain ends and not an end in itself.

Moreover, it is erroneous to assume that before the onset of monotheistic civilizations, women were somehow equivalent to men. That was an age of hunting-gathering, agriculture and strenuous physical labor and it is a known fact that women are physically a weaker sex, that’s why we have separate sports and athletics events for men and women.

Women attained the status of equality after the onset of industrial revolution, mechanized labor and then the beginning of “The Information Age,” when the focus shifted from physical labor to intelligence and information; and when it comes to cognitive faculties, women are just as intelligent as men, if not more so. Thus, blaming organized religions for sexism and misogyny in the medieval times is a bit unfair; the subjugation of women in that era had more to do with divisions of functions based on economics than religious beliefs, as such.

Regarding matriarchy, I believe, that it was a fringe phenomena; though, matri-lineage might have been a norm in some primitive societies but matriarchy -- the rule of the women -- was only an exception in the age of physical labor for the abovementioned reasons.

Additionally, while I agree with the feminist view that in egalitarian societies the role of women is just as important as men’s, if not more so, considering that they perform the pivotal job of raising children and families; however, I generally shun taking a normative approach towards scientific facts, because the treatment of disorder depends on the correct diagnosis of the problem. Romanticizing the past and singling out pieces of uncorroborated evidence that conforms to our preconceived biases will serve no other purpose than self-deception.

In the primitive tribal societies women, as a weaker sex, were treated as slaves and personal chattels. The organized religions gave them rights and the status of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. The modern feminism dates back only to the First World War when most of the male labor force in Europe either perished or became incapacitated for labor; it was only then that the force of circumstances necessitated the “liberation” of women and they began performing duties which were previously the sole prerogative of men.

Moreover, retrospectively applying modern standards to the millennia old social systems is very unfair; in their time the organized religions contributed to elevating the status of women. In modern times a rethink is definitely needed to bring about parity in the status of men and women but we must not underestimate the role played by the organized religions for the empowerment of women in the ancient times.

Notwithstanding, instead of taking a binary approach to the classification of genders, the modern feminists now favor to look at the issue from the lens of a whole spectrum of gender identities. The way I see it, it should not be about being “manly,” rather, it should be about being “human,” which is the common denominator for the whole spectrum of gender identities.

When we stress upon manliness, it’s not “manliness” per se that we are glorifying, but the presence of feminine attributes in the socially-elevated male gender is something that we, as the agents of patriarchal structure, frown upon. But such machismo is not a natural order of things, because more than the physical attributes the rigid segregation of genders is an outcome of social constructions that manifests itself in the artificial social engineering of the male and female mindsets.

In our formative years such gender identities and their socially-accepted attributes are infused in our minds through the technique of gender “Othering,” but this whole heteronormative approach towards the issue of gender identities is losing its validity in a post-industrial urban milieu, where the gender roles are not as strictly defined as they used to be in the pre-modern traditional societies.

More to the point, what are the virtues that are deemed valuable in women separate and distinct from the ones that are deemed desirable in men? If meekness, diffidence and complacency are disapproved in men then why do we have double-standards for separate genders? Self-confidence, assertiveness and boldness should be encouraged in both genders without discrimination.

However, the trouble is that the mindsets of the individuals and gender-roles are determined by the society, but if the society itself is patriarchal and male-dominated then it tends to marginalize and reduce women to a lower status. Therefore, a social reform is needed which can tweak with the definition of "virtue" and the qualities which are deemed valuable in human beings should be uniform and consistent for both genders.

Regardless, if we study the behavioral patterns in the animal kingdom, the females of most species are generally more violent than their male counterparts; because they fight not only for food but also to protect their offspring. But how often do we find a violent woman in the human history, or society? It’s a very rare exception. Thus, by nature women are just as violent as men; but the patriarchy-inspired nurture and the male-dominated culture have reduced them to an extent that they have even unlearnt their essential nature.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this fact: firstly, that it’s always the nurture and culture which plays a more significant role in determining human behavior compared to some far-fetched concept of essential human nature; and secondly, that essentially human nature is quite similar for both genders, it’s only the behavioral process of social construction of gender identity that defines and limits the roles which are deemed proper for one gender or the other.

Additionally, it is generally assumed about males that due to the presence of testosterone they are usually more aggressive and competitive compared to females. If we assess this contention in the light of global vs. local character traits theory, however, testosterone only promotes a specific kind of competition, i.e. competition for mating. When it comes to competing for food, however, as I have mentioned before, that males and females of all the carnivorous species exhibit similar levels of aggression and competition.

Therefore, it would be reductive to assume that the distinction between male and female attitudes and behaviors is more physiological and hormonal than due to the difference of upbringing and different sets of social expectations of behavior that are associated with the members of male and female sexes.

Finally, there is no denying of the obvious fact that testosterone is primarily responsible for secondary sexual characteristics in the males of all species. Through the process of natural selection only those males that have succeeded in mating were able to carry forward their genes, which proves beyond doubt that males with higher testosterone levels do have a comparative advantage in the competition for mating, but its effect on attitudes and behaviors of animal species, and especially the human beings with their complex social institutions and cultures, is tentative and hypothetical, at best.