Sex and Gender

The female is softer in disposition, is more mischievous, less simple,
more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young;
the male, on the other hand, is more spirited, more savage,
more simple and less cunning. The traces of these characteristics are
more or less visible everywhere, but they are especially visible where
character is more developed, and most of all in man.

from Aristotle’s Historia Animalium,
in Barnes, J. Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 1: The Revised Oxford Translation, Princeton University Press, 1984.


Sex for recreation: a product of encephalisation?

Biologists have shown that we evolved from unicellular organisms that reproduced asexually and displayed no sex/gender. Sexual reproduction confers certain evolutionary advantages and has thus proven to be successful across a large range of animal species. In more encephalised species, we see a marked departure of sexual intercourse from solely reproductive purposes. Sex has evolved a component of tenderness between couples, a behaviour mediated by oxytocin release in the brain, which enhances social bonds. Novel sexual practices are most fully developed in those animals with larger cerebral cortices. Bonobos, Orangutans and Bottlenose Dolphins are frequently cited species (see Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.p. 59). Bisexuality, homosexuality and mutual masturbation has been noted in species of almost all phyla, most notably in the primates, birds, various cetacea, and some of the terrestrial and aquatic carnivores.

‘While homosexual behaviour is widespread among our primate relatives, aggression specifically directed toward individuals that engage in it appears to be a uniquely human invention’
Paul L. Vasey in Bagemihl 1999:54

The development of sexual reproduction and sexual dimorphism occurred well before humans developed language skills, labeled their environment and constructed concepts of gender. Bones of the Australopithecus afarensis, an early human ancestor, indicate that males were nearly twice as large as the females ( Lynn Margulis,  & D. Sagan, Mystery Dance, On the Evolution of Human Sexuality, Summit Books, New York, 1991:14).  If these anatomical dimorphisms were associated with behavioural dimorphisms, then it could be contended that language in Homo sapiens sapiens arose well after male and female roles became established. That isn’t to say that gender and sexuality hasn’t been evolving and changing since then, but I would like to entertain the suggestion that a delay between socially engendered concepts of sexuality and the appearance of language has influenced the tendency to strongly dichotomise gender roles, (such as the view demonstrated by Aristotle in the opening quote above). Winick’s 1961 Dictionary of Anthropology (publ. Philosophy Library), defines Gender as: ‘A syntactical classification of words most often evident in the Indo-European and Semitic languages. Nearly all of these languages show the difference between a masculine and a feminine gender, some have a neuter gender as well, and some have an animate and an inanimate gender’ (p228). Despite socio-perceptual and socio-linguistic pressures, some cultures have come to understand gender on a continuum, and hopefully our culture is becoming one of those.

Sex and gender are different and sometimes unrelated terms. ‘Sex is unambiguous unlike gender’ (Michael Potts & Roger Valentine Short, Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1999. p56). Sex is an objective biological term used to describe ‘our anatomical and genetic make-up — our chromosomes, our gonads and our genitalia’ . Gender is a subjective term, it ‘is the sex we perceive ourselves to be and how we express our sexuality in our dress, our gait, and our very name. Gender is society’s stereotype’ (Potts & Short 1999, p51). 

Interdisciplinary approaches such as sociobiology have cast ‘new light on the whole question of sexual behaviour… [and have] created the possibility of a synthesis of biological and psychoanalytic insights into human sexuality’ (Christopher Robert Badcock, Oedipus in Evolution: A New Theory of Sex. Blackwell Publishers, 1990. p18). Any astute neuroanthropologist would suggest that an interdisciplinary approach is required to understand the biological evolution, the cultural history and social contexts that have come to influence our understanding of sex and gender.

‘Homosexuality has assumed many guises across history, cultures and social situations. Thus, while homosexual desires and activities are probably ubiquitous, the specific forms that they assume are intimately shaped by particular socio-historical contexts’ (Bagemihl p44). 

Throughout his book, Oedipus in Evolution, Badcock’s underlying premise is that many gender-roles, including male and female homosexuality, have evolved through sociobiological adaptation. Sometimes I feel that we have neglected to study how the prejudices, homophobia and other sexual stigmata, have evolved through sociobiological adaptation in particular socio-historical contexts . But maybe I’m just ignorant to the research. 

‘Racial minorities … can claim a biological basis for their difference, yet this has done little to eliminate racial prejudice. Religious groups, on the other hand, can claim no such biological prerogative, and yet this does not invalidate the entitlement of such groups to freedom from discrimination. It should be clear, then that whether homosexuality is biologically determined or not, whether one chooses to be gay or is born that way, or whether homosexuality occurs in nature or not—none of these things guarantees the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality or in itself renders homosexuality “valid” or “illegitimate”. ‘
Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance, St. Martin’s Press, 1999. p77.

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Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1
Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash
Girls gone guilty: Evolutionary psych on sex #2
Four Stone Hearth #44: Everything fine on the 4th
Real Beauty and Why Women Want
Culture and Inequality in the Obesity Debate
Wednesday Round Up #27
Women on tests update: response to stress
Video Games, Brain and Psychology Round Up
Video Game Round Up #2
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Neurocriticism Round Up
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Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

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