Nature and nurture and why it’s a bogus debate

Let’s talk about love, just for a second, because it’s kind of complex and unknowable and I want to make a point about complicated things being turned into dumbed-down theories . . .

So, we know a few things about love. We know that it may be partially socially constructed (from Hollywood movies and songs, and suchlike) and partly biological (from hormones like oxytocin). We know that sometimes the concept of love is used in subtle ways to oppress women. I’m pretty certain, though, that if we saw it as only these things, we’d be accused of reducing something of value and importance. We might not really want other people’s definitions and theories imposed on our own experiences; love has a transcendent quality, that we “just feel” or “just know” in a way that can’t be reduced to biology or construction.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Yep, I’m drawing a comparison with gender. There are no proven definitions of what gender is, nor of where sex ends and gender begins, nor of how much gender is constructed and how much it is biology. Aspects of gender are oppressive, and for some, aspects of gender are valuable and meaningful. There is an endless and pointless nature/nurture debate over gender, and I’m getting a little weary of this unwinnable and pointless back and forth.

Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender, talks about the “sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.” Personally, I have something a little more pithy to say about the nature/nurture debate:

It’s both. Get over it.

What troubles me is when people turn their own experience of gender into theory they apply to others, without taking into account their own subjectivity. Often, folks who experience themselves as monogender tend to follow “nature” theories whereas more androgynous or genderqueer people tend to think of gender as less real and innate, more fluid – this would make sense for people who don’t have a profound inner sense of gender, but they are disregarding those who do, by muddling people’s genuine sense of who they are with something that has merely been enforced by society. It would be like someone who has never been in love telling the rest of the world love does not exist, or someone who has been hurt by love saying it should not exist.

So some genderqueer or agender people assume theirs is the “real” experience and monogender people are somehow deluded; for them, gender cannot be real because they don’t experience it as real themselves. Monogender people are equally defensive of their own perspective, and can sometimes dismiss or cut across genderqueer or non-binary experiences, or say that explorations of social construction are deliberately eradicating of trans narratives.

When people disagree this much it’s probably because there are elements of truth on both sides, and a lack of empathy bridging the space between – the same thing happens with sexuality; bi people often think that “everyone’s bi really” whereas gay and heterosexual people tend to be suspicious that people could (or should) really be bi.

If we move in our heads from “either/or” to “both/and” maybe we can breathe a little easier with this nature/nurture conundrum. Everyone can have their identities and we can still talk about gender oppression, and challenge our social constructions around gender. We can get behind deconstructing an artificially reinforced gender binary but still accept gender diversity and natural difference.

We don’t need to forcefully maintain gender or forcefully eradicate it. Here’s a truly radical idea – what if we simply accept people’s self-experience and self-expression, and don’t privilege or validate some identities over others? Biology may well be the dominant factor in some but not all people’s experience of gender. Having a strong sense of gender identity or not feeling gendered at all are equally valid individual experiences that could be natural or constructed or a mix of both. The individual balance of nature and nurture is impossible to measure. More importantly, “natural” does not make something more valid; if we learned the idea of love from Shakespeare that doesn’t make it meaningless when we fall head over heels.

We are all the sum of our nature and nurture and the result, however mundane or unique, should be accepted as authentic.

43 thoughts on “Nature and nurture and why it’s a bogus debate

  1. Jonathan

    What troubles me is when people turn their own experience of gender into theory they apply to others, without taking into account their own subjectivity.

    Absolutely. It’s such an easy mistake to make. Our own truths are often so hard won, and we’re so sure of their correctness for ourselves, that we assume they must be correct for everyone else too. Guess what: they’re not 😉

  2. Heather Downs

    surely this is the whole debate? is gender a subjective experience of choice or is it a hierarchical system enforced to the detriment of one gender? The subjective experience is the consequence of the system

    1. Jonathan

      In other words (if I understand you corrently): Is gender in itself hierarchical? Or is gender a neutral attribute with hierarchy imposed upon it? I’d say the latter, but that’s not a fixed opinion.

    2. Sandy Hope Post author

      “is gender a subjective experience of choice or is it a hierarchical system enforced to the detriment of one gender?” – Yes. Both/and. And much more besides.

      In other words, we need to get out of our binary, either/or thinking. Just because we have socially constructed a false and oppressive gender hierarchy does not mean that there is no natural experience of gender underlying – this artificial ideological fight that positions trans* identities in opposition to the mission to end gender oppression is really damaging – going back to my love analogy, it would be like saying the only way to stop Hollywood images of love being used to control women would be for the entire human race to agree that love doesn’t exist, and that people walking around gazing into each others’ eyes are reinforcing an oppressive regime and should be campaigned against.

  3. Jamie Ray

    Gender is an infinite spectrum. What is harder to explain is that two people who might be very close together on that spectrum may have competely different ways of describing their identity. This is fine. There is no reason to try to browbeat anyone into naming their place on the spectrum according to some political, academic, or psychoanalytic theory.

  4. Vron

    Not wishing to detract from another good post, but I have a small quibble, with “bi people often think that “everyone’s bi really””. Since I came out into the bi community 13 years ago I don’t think I’ve heard a single bi person say that. Oddly, I have heard it from quite a few people who don’t identify as bi, usually when coming out to them. I think some of them think they’re being supportive, but it often feels like a way of dismissing bisexual people. If “everyone’s bi really”, suddenly we’re invisible again, and my coming out is irrelevant. Perhaps you have met bi people who thought that way, but I don’t think it’s a common view amongst bi people in general.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      Thanks for that clarification, Vron. Yes, I was speaking from my own experience of bi people saying this and similar things, but clearly anecdotal evidence is not quantitative research, I stand corrected 🙂

  5. thatlesbianteacher

    So true! I struggle so much with these lines drawn in the sand by our society. I don’t see it as one or the other – to me, it is all determined on a case-by-case basis. I teach culture and history so I constantly run across indigenous and tribal examples that prove this very point. Check out the tales of North American tribes that were revered for having “two spirits” – one for each gender!

  6. Lady Fancifull

    Couple of things you say which go ‘ping’ in all directions :

    ‘and a lack of empathy bridging the space between –’ It seems to me this is where pretty well ALL our problems come from – how do we negotiate the space between self and other – or, as you beautifully put it, later

    If we move in our heads from “either/or” to “both/and” maybe we can breathe a little easier with this nature/nurture conundrum.

    Again it seems to me that so many of our problems are to do with the either or nature of our thinking on most things, and actually, the world is continuums, more than polarities. The Eastern Yin Yang symbols express this, beautifully and visually. Everything is relative, this only exists in relation to that. Great post!

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      Hi Harrypeat 🙂 This post is a response to a big debate in feminism about what gender is. Some feminists say that gender is entirely “socially constructed”, that is that we learn about gender from other people and there’s nothing natural about it at all. So, for instance, we know that girls perform badly in maths tests when they are reminded about the belief that girls are not so good at maths – this is just one example of how socialisation affects gender behaviour. But at the same time, the existence of transgender people suggests that gender is a bit biological too – if gender was all socially constructed, we’d all be the same and nobody would be trans*. The problem I’m highlighting in this blog is the tendency for people not to be able to wrap their heads around the idea that “it’s a bit of both” and instead, they argue rather too strongly for it to be all one thing or the other, and nobody gets anywhere, which is frankly frustrating. I hope this helps but if not let me know what’s got you foxed 🙂

      1. harrypeat

        The fact that there are more than three genders (male/female/other) was news to me, let alone the fact that there’s a societal construct. Ignorance was bliss.

  7. vonleonhardt2

    This issue is rooted in the scientific community itself from terms and politics no-one remembers. You had the landmarkist who believed only in nurture and where backed by communist (no hero’s is part of their ideology), and you had the mandolins who were backed by the West/Nazi’s who blame everything on genes. The real issue now-a-days is that alleles, shifting expressions, and considerations like opportunity to develop, etc. have really pointed out how narrow minded the debate was. But due to eugenics, fertility treatments, and the cold war the positions are culturally entrenched.
    That said identifying as trans- is an English idiom and culturally encapsulated in the language. It’s hard to find any scientific backing for any conclusion in what is primarily a linguistic debate. You can’t be “trans” in Kenyan and you can’t say any equivalent word “?” is exactly the same in meaning/nuance. Such baseline observations would promote a cultural and thus “nurture” bases of a specifically trans identity… simply because it’s not available to identify with in other languages. That doesn’t discount, however, that there could be a genetic disposition to identify with another gender… but with the idea of gender being so fluid… it’s a VERY unlikely gene that rebels against cultural morays or always chooses the opposite gender. On the face of it a nature argument here is statistically unlikely.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      sorry halfcrazedcalvinist but I had to delete your other comment as it contained some pretty triggering stuff – for me personally, arguing with logic only uses a fraction of our human capacity and is potentially dangerous, please remember gay and trans* people are reading this and they have feelings. I’m not sure what the fruits of such an abstracted discussion could possibly be – we don’t know any of these answers, however, you focused on genetics but genes aren’t the only potential mechanism here – you forget epigenetics.

  8. ichyse

    Why do we have to “get over it”? It might be one, it be the other, it might be both, it might be neither. I wouldn’t think it was the latter, but since there’s no way of knowing, you can’t rule it out.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      I guess I’m sufficiently satisfied by some of the science on both sides of the debate to feel that aspects of gender are both biological and constructed

  9. yourbabynanny

    Great Post! I was just recently re-reading some of Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler, I think the first chapter relates pretty well to what you are talking about. Butler has, a kind of back and forth, about gender construction and anatomical sex: which came first? gender or sex? how do we know that gender, i.e., “man” “woman” came after biological sex? Maybe the distinction of biological sex was founded because of peoples ideas of gender.

    I think what you write about here, and what Butler discusses in her book, should call for people to dialogue, productively, and sensitively about gender, and know that there is no “right” or “wrong.”

  10. danielblaylock93

    I would tend to agree with what you’ve said. I don’t get into this debate in my psychology and sociology courses because the conversation goes around in circles. You expressed my feelings on the topic right here.

  11. Sharp Little Pencil

    A-freakin’-MEN from the progressive pastor’s wife who’s been an ally of the LGBTQs since age FIVE and a PFLAG mom for 10 years, since my daughter came out.

    We have trans members in our congregation. The point is, as Michael Franti of Spearhead sings, “It’s not about who you love… it’s about DO you love?” I know many who were born in the wrong body, who were sexually reassigned at birth… there is a growing awareness in America of what transgender means, plenty of kids being born girls but whose parents are allowing them to be boys… Keep the faith and thanks again. Amy, Madison (poet)

  12. layshrink

    I know it is not a direct answer to the blog here, but nonetheless find a copy of “The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris. Despite the title it is a work that says things like this are “both”. Extrapolating what is says, genes influence it, your parents influence it, society (local culture) influences it and even you more immediate peer group influences. It is all one giant mess that we try to simplify so it doesn’t hurt our brains. Think about it, it is the root of all the “-isms”; because we don’t have 6 billion individual pigeon holes in our mind, one for each person, we bunch things together, because we have limits, and sometimes it means we get things wrong.

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  15. Pingback: Nature and nurture and why it’s a stupid debate | Hope – Counselling – Training – Gender – Trauma

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