The false dichotomy of nature-nurture, with notes on feminism, transgenderism, and the construction of races

Caitlyn Jennerby Massimo Pigliucci

This is my third essay on what has become an informal series on socially relevant false dichotomies (the first one was on “trigger warnings” [1], the second one on Islamophobia [2]). On this occasion I’m going to focus again on nature-nurture [3], perhaps the motherlode of false dichotomies (as well as my area of technical expertise as a practicing biologist [4]).

The occasion is provided by recent controversies concerning the delicate concepts of gender and race, where once again — as in both the cases of trigger warnings and of Islamophobia — I see well intentioned progressives needlessly (in my mind) and harshly attacking fellow progressives, or at the least, people who ought to be their natural political allies. (As in the other two cases, I will ignore contributions from the right and from libertarians, on the ground that I find them both less constructive and less surprising than those from the sources I will be discussing here.)

Let me start with gender. I read with fascination a New York Times op-ed piece by feminist Elinor Burkett entitled “What makes a woman?” [5] explaining why a number of feminists have issues with certain aspects of the transgender movement, and in particular why Burkett had mixed feelings about the very public coming out of Caitlyn Jenner [6].

First, Jenner: Burkett says that of course she supports a member of an often vilified gender minority when that person makes the sort of courageous statement that Jenner did by appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. But, asks Burkett, did Jenner really have to embrace what from a feminist point of view (and yes, I’m perfectly aware that there are different types of feminists, with different points of view) is the stereotype of the babe with big breasts, revealing cleavage, and an unhealthy degree of concern with getting her nails done?

I sympathize with both here. On the one hand, feminists have fought hard to distance themselves from the babe stereotype of women which has characterized (and, frankly, still characterizes) much of popular culture in the US and elsewhere. Then again, plenty of women do enjoy the sort of “persona” that Jenner chose to come out as, so it’s not exactly surprising she did too.

Which brings us to the broader, and far more interesting, point raised by Burkett: she is uncomfortable with the common transgender talk of being “trapped in the wrong body.” Why? Because it hints at some kind of strong biological component to being transgender. (For the purposes of this essay I will not further distinguish “biological” into genetic and developmental / epigenetic components: it is both difficult to do empirically and irrelevant to the point being made.)

Admitting the possibility of a significant role of biology in gender identity (and sexual orientation, while we’re at it) goes contra to the “nurture only” narrative of much feminist literature, so you can see why Burkett isn’t happy. But what other way is there to make sense of the self-reported psychological experiences of so many transgender and gay people? It’s not easy to conjure scenarios where they felt “in the wrong body” (or in the case of gays, attracted to the culturally “wrong” type of sexual partner) because society pushed them in that direction. On the contrary, still today most societies, including Western ones, very much push against such choices.

Burkett further says that she feels more than a bit of discomfort hearing claims by transgender individuals who have recently undergone physical changes, like Jenner, about being full fledged “women.” Here, interestingly, she has a point from a straightforward cultural perspective: being a woman isn’t, I think we will all agree, just a matter of having a certain biology, or a particular type of physical appearance. It is very much also the result of lifelong experiences of discrimination, put downs, harassment, and sometimes aggression. Burkett argues that Jenner may feel and look like a woman, but that she hasn’t had any of those experiences. On the contrary, for much of her life she has been treated as a white male, with all the privilege that this entails in American society.

There is an obvious way of making sense of all this, which however is inaccessible to Burkett qua feminist committed to a strong nurturist position: if gender (and perhaps sexual orientation) is the result of a complex interaction of nature (genes and epigenes) and nurture (mostly, one’s social and cultural environment), then it is perfectly possible for Jenner to feel strongly that she was previously trapped in the wrong body, wanting to be a woman, and yet at the same time finding herself only at the beginning of that process, once her appearance started to expose her to a new set of reactions and treatment by others.

A second recent case pertinent to this discussion of nature-nurture involved the very public resignation of Rachel Dolezal [7] as President of the Spokane (WA) chapter of the NAACP. That, of course, was about the arguably even more sensitive issue of race [8], and made a number of my fellow progressives very uncomfortable indeed.

The issue they faced is this: if race is entirely a social construction, then in what sense should we criticize Dolezal for “deciding” that she is black, ancestry and genetics be damned? But if we allow that sort of facile self-membership, where do we stop: could I suddenly decide that I “am” black too? Conversely, could a black person declare that she is really white?

One elegant way out of the dilemma was offered by my CUNY colleague and former President of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division) Linda Alcoff. In a Democracy Now! interview [9] she put forth the eminently reasonable suggestion that race is a social, not an individual, construction. So whether people belong or don’t belong to a particular “race” is not really up to the individuals themselves.

I greatly sympathize with Linda’s take, but I don’t think it goes far enough. It doesn’t acknowledge the “ancestry” component, which of course is biological. I hope it is clear from my other writings on this subject that I don’t think there is any deep genetic identity to races. Rather, in a paper co-authored with Jonathan Kaplan [10] we put forth the suggestion that races tend to be superficially, and inconsistently, identified in popular parlance on the basis of biological markers that have very low relevance, chiefly skin color. These markers tell us nothing about any other characteristic of the alleged races, especially behavioral or cognitive ones. And moreover, “black” populations of humans, for instance, have evolved multiple times in different places on the planet. Nonetheless, when we say that someone is black it is because that person looks black (at the least by comparison with other ethnic groups), which means that biology does play a (again, extremely superficial, literally skin deep) role when people talk about races.

(Here is a trivial example: I’m writing this on a plane. I’m sitting in a row of three people. The guy next to me is black, the other one Hispanic. How can I tell, since they have both been largely asleep since boarding time and I’ve had no interactions with them? Because they look, respectively, black and Hispanic, just like I look Caucasian. Any further inference on our respective characters, behaviors, or cognitive abilities, however, would be wholly unwarranted, and will have to await until such time as they wake up.)

That role, however, is overwhelmed by the effects of social construction, which explains why someone like Dolezal could legitimately “feel” black despite not having the ancestry to back it up. If only we were able to get past the unnecessary false dichotomy of nature-nurture we would be able to make much more sense of these cases, rejecting someone’s self-selected label while at the same time managing to be sympathetic toward their motives.

Let me now zoom out from these two cases and consider the big picture. From my standpoint as a biologist it is hard to conceive of any major aspect of being human that is not the result of nature-nurture interactions (as opposed to straight influences of either nature or nurture), even though these are hopelessly complex to disentangle empirically. We know this to be the case for pretty much every other species on the planet that we have been able to properly study, so why should it be different for Homo sapiens?

The problem with the extreme naturist position, then, is twofold: on the one hand, it is based on often shaky science — consider for instance neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s masterful debunking of what she calls neurobiological “delusions of gender” [11]. On the other hand, far too many naturists, while claiming the (alleged) objective mantle of science, reveal themselves to be sympathetic to sexist or racist, and certainly politically regressive positions (for instance Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the infamous The Bell Curve). Even when this is not the case, their research provides easy cover for the most vicious sexist and racist sub-cultures of our society.

Then again, the problem with the extreme nurturist position is that, while its exponents are typically politically well intentioned, it just flies in the face of everything else we know about biology: yes, culture is a potent molder of human affairs, but we are not ethereal creatures entirely detached from our mundane animal nature, and to pretend otherwise is bending reality in the service of an ideology.

Moreover, all of this, it seems to me, is entirely unnecessary: from a philosophical, and particularly an ethical, perspective, the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings. Whether women, or gays, or transgenders, statistically adopt certain behaviors because of culture, genes, epigenes or — again, more likely — an inextricably complex interaction among those factors, who cares? As far as I can tell this has no logical pertinence whatsoever on issues like gay marriage or gender equality. Indeed, it is dangerous for some of my fellow progressives to link the debate to (alleged) empirical facts: what if science will eventually show, for instance, that Burkett’s take on what shapes gender identities is incorrect? Should we therefore abrogate laws on, say, equal pay? Similarly, gays say that their sexual orientation is not a choice (thereby, again, implying a strong biological component), but what if it was a choice? Should we thereby forget about marriage equality? I don’t see why, since these laws are about treating our fellow humans equally regardless of their differences, just as, in theory at least, the law treats poor and rich, or sick and healthy, in the same way. Culture (whether one inherited one’s parents wealth or debts) and biology (whether one is genetically predisposed to contract a certain disease or not) simply don’t enter into the equation. Nor should they.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Scientia Salon, and his latest books are Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press, co-edited with Maarten Boudry) and Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (Basic Books).

[1] The false dichotomy of trigger warnings, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 May 2015.

[2] The false dichotomy of Islamophobia, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 27 July 2015.

[3] Human nature, a Humean take, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 14 April 2014.

[4] Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture, by M. Pigliucci, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

[5] What Makes a Woman?, by E. Burkett, The New York Times, 6 June 2015.

[6] Caitlyn Jenner, Wiki entry.

[7] Rachel Dolezal Leaves N.A.A.C.P. Post as Past Discrimination Suit Is Revealed, by R. Perez-Pena, The New York Times, 15 June 2015.

[8] On the biology of race, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 29 May 2014.

[9] Linda Martín Alcoff on Rachel Dolezal: Race Not an Individual Construct, Democracy Now!, 17 June 2015.

[10] On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans, by J. Kaplan and M. Pigliucci, Philosophy of Science 69 (3):S294-S304, 2003.

[11] Cordelia Fine on Delusions of Gender, Rationally Speaking podcast, 13 March 2011.

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64 replies

  1. Nick Pappas was my dissertation advisor. Top notch scholar. Wrote one of the best books on Plato’s Republic.


  2. My colleague Nick Pappas recommended the following as a general technical analysis of the Socratic dialogues:

    About the Euthyphro specifically, I went into some details (for a general audience) on the structure of the argument in my Answers for Aristotle, where I also took on the standard theological objections, up to Swinburne included.


  3. Robin Herbert,

    If you hold D false, but B true, then you must define ‘the good’ either with reference to god, in which case B reveals as circular, or you define good without reference to either god or any other standard (since god-independent standards are D-supported), and B reveals as incoherent. (This is quite clearly implicated in the original dialogue.)

    “As I also said, such analysis ends up calling into question the whole concept of an objective standard of.morality.”

    It calls into question any moral realism, but not moral objectivity per se, as was recently discussed here at Scientia.

    Without going back to that discussion, I’ll merely give an instance: Where I live we have a well-defined *objective* code of public ethical conduct by which most abide, called the Laws of the State of New York. ‘But what is the standard acting as foundation to those laws?’ Well, there were elections, and elected representatives got together and decided, for many reasons – some personal, some having to do with the public interest – that these laws would be pretty desirable to have on the books and properly enforced.

    Those laws are not universal or eternal, nor do they satisfy my own search for an ethics I can own intellectually or emotionally. But I do own citizenship here, and so agree to follow the laws.

    (It should be remembered that all ethics are enacted within a given actual community. Even allowing the commands said to be given by god to Moses et al., these were intended to be enforceable laws within the Jewish community of the day; apparently god didn’t much care what the Greeks or Persians were doing at the time.)

    “If the concept (of objective morality) is coherent then there is no reason at all that God could not be that basis” – true, but how do you slip out of the correlate, that there’s also no reason that god might not be that basis? In other words, your argument is compelling only if assuming god is not only sufficient but necessary for determining morals. And as I’ve explained, I see no such compelling necessity; and rejection of Euthyphro, even if successful, certainly doesn’t get you that.

    What it does get you, unfortunately, is very close to Divine Command Theory, and I gave an instance of where this could lead – to rejection of reason, and reliance on religious authorities as we see in much of Islam today. (Our native Christian DCTs are clearly uncomfortable with that, since it suggests that the Reformation may have been a mistake; after all, having rejected the authority of the Papacy, what have Protestants ever done but look for authorities they could trust for guidance and proper interpretation?)

    ‘But we can rely on our own guidance and interpretations!’ – Yes; in which case you will have to provide adequate definition of the good, and why it is good, and whether god must submit to it or not – and welcome back to Euthyphro!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha! Males do male things and men do manly things! Eunuchs, are they male or female? Male dogs are not manly as much as they are dogly, even though similarities are apparent. In the 21st century, Bruce, a male man, can indulge his fantasy and flesh himself out as a woman. As such he could be confused with a female; maybe that is what he wants: the frisson of what is and what could be. In Hollywood that seems like a lot of fun – sort of like a masked ball at the court of Louis XVI.

    Society now has a new reality to deal with because, as always, there may be serious issues involved. So we can thank Bruce for this bit of body performance art. And who better at “elucidating the logical consequences of what they do believe” than analytical philosophers. Is there a limit to the usefulness of obsessive slicing and dicing? We will only know when all is said and done. In the end we should have a better understanding of the human in this (neo-)humanist world. Our understandings of reality are changing profoundly, but reality-as-it-is is also changing in ways we don’t understand, here on our little planet – it always has, but now it might be getting serious.

    The simple truth is that the biological realities underlying our impressions are way too complicated. Biologists do not understand them well at all and they are continually being surprised by the astonishing complexity of life’s processes. This highlights a methodological problem inherent in philosophy: using an imprecise tool, language, to arrive at greater certainty. Less certainty and more confusion are more likely outcomes. We must therefore proceed with caution because misreading of texts happens all the time – we all have blinders on.

    Will society in general ever find the clever distinction between sex and gender worth the effort? That is an economic question, very similar to the economic question of whether it will ever be worthwhile to implement changes necessary to ameliorate the human contribution to global warming. Probably not. The best we can hope for is a general improvement in understanding of and respect for the radical differences amongst us.

    There are thousands of beautiful, intelligent, well-adjusted, ‘desirable’ women of a certain kind. They may marry, it has even been said that, as a group, they are less likely to be homosexual. These women are not female and their troubles in life start when they try to have children or when they notice that they are not having periods. These ladies are XY with a mutation of their androgen receptor. What they are told and how they manage the fact of their sterility requires the best that humankind is capable of. We do have great responsibility for each other, it is just not as simple as the priests would have us believe.


  5. Massimo:

    Well, that’s the problem with going to Wikipedia and ignoring a more technical meaning. I have consistently being making a distinction between the biology (male/female) and the culture (man/woman) ….

    “More technical meaning”? Like, maybe, from PLOS? Sorry, but that looks a little disingenuous. From the American Heritage dictionary, although many others make the same connection – joined at the hips – between “female”, and “woman” [1]:

    wom•an (wo͝om′ən)
    n. pl. wom•en (wĭm′ĭn)
    1. An adult female human.
    2. Women considered as a group; womankind: “Woman feels the invidious distinctions of sex exactly as the black man does those of color” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton).
    3. An adult female human belonging to a specified occupation, group, nationality, or other category. Often used in combination: an Englishwoman; congresswoman; a saleswoman.
    4. A female servant or subordinate.
    5. Informal
    a. A wife.
    b. A female lover or sweetheart. See Usage Notes at chairman, lady, man. ….

    While I can sympathize with and largely agree with you about not wanting to deal with the FTB Rape of the Lock, it seems that that question highlights the apparent fact that many transpeople, transwomen in particular, rather problematically and quite dogmatically want to claim whatever “rights” or “cachet” attends being a biological female. While it is probably moot how much justification there is for the principle of “(biological) women only spaces” – kind of sexist in a way, the same way that segregation was racist – it still seems rather dogmatic and categorical to insist, as some apparently do, that there are no cases where that shouldn’t reasonably apply.

    1) “_”;


  6. Very interesting article, Massimo. Beyond the false dichotomy, I think there is a false assumption undergirding a lot of identity politics (not that I don’t find myself mostly in support of their goals). It’s really a false hope. It is the assumption that one can feel “at home” in one’s gender or race. Who every said that was possible? In highbrow popular literature you almost daily find an essay along the lines “My mom is black, my dad is Asian, but where do I fit in?” Essays about caucasian parents agonizing about how to raise their non-caucasian adopted child also abound. Under all of this is the assumption that there are people walking around feeling one hundred percent good about themselves. Supposedly it’s the privileged cis gender white male who lives in a blissful state of complete identity coherency. I like to apply the famous Fermi challenge to this notion: “If that’s true, where is everybody?”

    If we are, in fact, a kluge of evolutionary strategies, a welter of overlapping and often competing drives, shouldn’t we feel conflicting senses of identities most of the time? I don’t mean to imply that gender reassignment isn’t worthwhile (I don’t have enough knowledge to make that claim) but I think a more stoic tamping down of expectations could lower the amount of feelings of illegitimacy people seem to carry around. How could you feel at home in a body that doesn’t always share your higher goals and wishes? It seems unreasonable of me to ask the world, society or even your own body to give you perfect harmony, you’ll just have to settle for some dissonance.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Steersman,

    no, not from PLOS, but from the context we are talking about: cultural studies. It is pretty straightforward there to make a distinction between the biological aspect of womanhood or manhood (to which one applies the terms female and male) and the cultural one (woman and man). I’m not sure why you are making such a big deal out of this: I think I used the terms in a very clear manner, defining them explicitly, and putting them in the context of a very specific discussion. Do you disagree that one should distinguish between the biological meaning of female and the cultural meaning of woman? On what grounds?


  8. “You must have missed the ‘plenty of exceptions’ qualifier in my sentence”

    Meaning what? That there’s a biological component for women who wear high heels, but not for women who don’t?


  9. Massimo:

    … no, not from PLOS, but from the context we are talking about: cultural studies.

    While “cultural studies” might be the context you’re referring to, it seems that, fortunately or not, that isn’t the context that most everyone else has in mind when trying to deal with this issue. Somewhat surprised if not nonplussed by your reliance on that since that discipline seems to partake of no shortage of both “nonsense on stilts” – to coin a phrase – and pseudoscience as many of the terms, “gender” in particular, seem to have as much falsifiability, and utility, as do “proletariat” and “id”.

    I’m not sure why you are making such a big deal out of this

    Surely you’ve read Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature which expends some 500 pages, including almost 50 for the bibliography, demonstrating the problematic consequences of that denial. On the off-chance that you (or others here) haven’t, there’s an online version of his chapter 18 on “Gender” [1] that elaborates on that specific and quite problematic issue in some detail. But it seems the all-too-common if not pernicious subtext behind the rather paradigmatic question that was put to Benson – “do you believe trans women are women, yes or no?” – is a rather studious denial that our biology makes any contribution whatsoever to our genders; the question apparently entails a rather dogmatic insistence, suggesting it is more an article of faith, that gender is defined only by our “feelings” or the perceptions and actions of all other members of the society we are part of, i.e., “nurture”. “Not in our genes”, indeed.

    While I think you’re to be commended for taking the proverbial bull by the horns in trying to address the dichotomy underlying both that question and that denial, it seems that you’re unwilling to consider that the proximate cause, the reason why that train has gone off the track and into the weeds – at least in the case of gender – is a careless if not politically motivated use of “woman” – and “man” – to mean or refer to something other than biological sex. “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    Do you disagree that one should distinguish between the biological meaning of female and the cultural meaning of woman?

    That seems to beg the question, asserting that “woman” denotes a cultural meaning that I largely reject. If you insist on that definition then it seems, for one thing, to rely on very subjective and nebulous arguments and attributes – “feelings” in a word; hardly scientific or falsifiable. And, for another, if you define it, more or less, as a gender, as seems the case, then it seems to readily encompass both those who “produce ova” (females) and those who “produce sperm” (males). Not a term then of much utility – presumably words are of value precisely because they differentiate between and denote the differences in attributes of various “persons, places, and things”.

    1) “_”;


  10. Let’s try to simplify matters in order to reveal their real complexity.

    Biologically, the difference between female and male reduces to genetics – xx and xy – and their is no escaping that. We can change the physiognomy but that doesn’t change the genetics.

    There may be genetic factors that we don’t understand as yet, but admitting this, are there genetic factors that lead certain males to want to adopt the cultural signifiers of the (socially determined classification) ‘woman’ (and females with like feeling to be ‘men’)? Such a claim could only be made if we accept primary tenets of Socio-biology/ Evolutionary Psychology; but such tenets include presumption that gender arises from evolutionary needs for sexual selection for procreation, and trans-sexuals are not reproductive.

    We can conceive of a re-write of Socio-Biology and Ev-Psych and related genetic inquiries, but at the cost that these would probably read very ‘post-modern’ mythification and mystification of the basic science (and Socio-Biology and Ev-Psych already have some of this problem, anyway, IMO).

    Is there really some genetic component to the desire to play with dolls? Do we really want to go down that path?

    No one is saying that a person should not pursue his/her desires or beliefs. But to insist on a biological component every time someone gets a bee in their bonnet about wanting to change themselves or the world to bend to those beliefs/desires, is simply fatuous.

    Does this have anything to do with sexual preferences as having a possible genetic component? I don’t know. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters. The insistence that sexual preference had genetic components was rhetorically useful at some point, since it was clear (and remains so) that there is little recourse for change in preference, whether genetically originated or no. But I hope we are beyond that, or should be.

    This indirectly leads to a question that needs to be raised, even if so touchy, it is rarely (ever?) raised in public discourse on such issues: As posed on the cover of Vanity Fair, Jenner’s semiosis promises viewers of the pose, of sexual desirability as a woman. So the question is fair to ask of viewers, defenders and protestors alike – ‘would you have sex with this woman?’ And a fairly correlate question then must also be asked: ‘Would you have had sex with Jenner as a man?’ Finally, let’s extrapolate those questions further – ‘would you consider marriage with Jenner now? Would you have considered marriage with Jenner then?’ These questions, to be meaningful, should be asked of male viewers of the pose; female answers to the questions would be interesting, but have limited value.

    Is sexual attraction a matter of gender? Is romantic love?

    CAUTION: What we know as (engendered) ‘romantic love’ has a history; it originated in the early Renaissance, not existing in the West previously (although similar cultural phenomena are to be found in India, China, and Japan of the same era).

    Murky waters, indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A few impressions: It’s a bit of a truism, but no human trait is either entirely genetic of entirely environmental. Ten-fingeredn-ess is strongly influenced by genetics but requires specific environments (e.g., the absence of thalidomide). Speaking fluid Latin is strongly environments but requires a range of genetically provided biological features.

    One reason people are interested in deciding if some human trait is (largely) “by nature” or “by nurture” is the idea that genetic traits are more central to the question, “Who am I?” particularly as it applies to “How should I behave differently from the many others?” Here are some claims: A person who is ethnically Jewish is morally required to supports Israel. A homosexual who “passes” betrays his people. My child has been a mathematical genius since birth but wasted it being a folk singer. Parents of a child born deaf have no right to arrange for a cochlear implant just as parents of a black child have no right to whiten her skin. These are all versions of essentialism, the idea that unchosen traits create obligations and and/or rights that those who share the trait have and those who do not share it do not have. It’s difficult to think of an idea that, throughout history, has and still does created so much human misery.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Interesting post. It seems like, in tackling this as a pervasive false dicotomy, you’ve taken a lot on board, and thus a lot seems to be falling over the sides (and into the margins!).

    First, your approach to taking apart the extreme naturists and extreme naturists, while laudable, reads a little misfired. Specifically, while I think there is actually quite a lot wrong with Burkett’s piece, using her as the introduction for your takedown doesn’t seem to connect. Stripped of all its troubling content and aggression at trans experiences of gender, her objection is against putting women’s brains, hearts, bodies, and emotions “into tidy boxes” (the thing Burkett misses, IMHO, that expanding the binary of gender to include trans experiences untidies the boxes). It is not a claim, as far as I read, that there is “only nurture”. Instead, it is an objection to the penetrating biomedical generalizations about all women that seem to carry great weight in our society despite the paucity of evidence that they matter in any situation where commonplace judgement on sex matters (education, employment, discipline of study, etc).

    That leaves, as far as I can tell, very little to see in terms of who’s spouting this “‘nurture only’ narrative of much feminist literature”. Quite a lot of “strong” (or strong enough for me) social constructionist positions have developed in the past two decades. But none of them, since Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work at least, resemble the “extreme nurturist” position you’ve put forward, and I can’t think of one that doesn’t preemptively put down the nature-nuture distinction as an unhelpful roadblock. Who are these false dichotimists in the feminist literature you talk about?

    Rather, in a paper co-authored with Jonathan Kaplan [10] we put forth the suggestion that races tend to be superficially, and inconsistently, identified in popular parlance on the basis of biological markers that have very low relevance, chiefly skin color. These markers tell us nothing about any other characteristic of the alleged races, especially behavioral or cognitive ones.

    Maybe I need to read your paper, but this left me a little confused. What are “behavioral and cognitive” markers of races?

    From my standpoint as a biologist it is hard to conceive of any major aspect of being human that is not the result of nature-nurture interactions (as opposed to straight influences of either nature or nurture), even though these are hopelessly complex to disentangle empirically. We know this to be the case for pretty much every other species on the planet that we have been able to properly study, so why should it be different for Homo sapiens?

    It seems to me that you’ve made a kind of leap here that at the very least needs to be unpacked. While it’s geniunely hard to think of a part of human life that doesn’t fall under the rubric of those disciplines that study life, I don’t understand the linkage here. In what way do biologists study race in other species which is comparable to the object of race in human life? I know that biologists who study animal behavior regularly weigh in on the farrago of contemporary gender and sexuality in people. But in terms of race, what precisely is the analogous thing that is found in “pretty much every other species on the planet”?


  13. Massimo,

    This was a very enlightening exchange, thanks for the time. Last thoughts.

    “we know that plasticity cannot be infinite…it is impossible in principle”
    I’d love to hear more about this because I have never heard this before. But of course I can always play my not zero but low enough to be uninteresting card. You seem willing to do this with race so I assume it does not offend evolutionary theory.

    I don’t think we have been talking at cross purposes so much as I now see we are working with quite different notions of gender. You seem to think that what I have been calling gender roles are a kind of overlay on more basic characteristics which determine our gender. I very much doubt that they are so separable. There is much more reading I could stand to do but I suspect genders are identities in much the sense that Korsgaard uses the term. And (with the same caveat) I think social psychologists are working with a similar notion. Consider identifying as a musician. You start by committing yourself to a bundle of norms (what a musician should be). You then behave according to those norms and by behaving in this way acquire characteristics. You practice, develop skills, an ear etc. Note that this theory explains why simply identifying as a thing does not make you that thing. Saying “I am a musician” does not make you a musician. Also once you become a musician, you cannot un-become a musician barring something drastic. (You can run this example for stoic if you like!) I agree that basic cognitive-behavioral traits and reactive attitudes determine gender. Yet I do not think “gender roles” are some kind of separable overlay over and above these traits, rather the latter are typically parasitic on the former. One is not born but becomes a woman. Becoming a woman has a great deal to do with what a society thinks women should be. Those basic cognitive behavioral characteristics reflect the social norms for a gender. There is a classic social experiment in which a single baby was dressed first as a girl, second as a boy and it was recorded what the subjects who held the baby said to it. In the former they referred to the girl as “pretty”, in the latter as “big” and “strong”. These imply norms about what a woman or man should be. At first the children are trained to conform to these norms, later they will be taught to follow them. The sum total, think many psychologists, of these cues (governed by implicit norms) and the cognitive and behavioral traits they create is gender.

    “Plenty of women are “masculine” (and plenty of men are not), but they still very clearly self-identify as women and men, respectively.”
    Sure but presumably those women who identify as women but are “masculine” in some respects are “feminine” in others (perhaps more fundamental ones) otherwise they just would be trans-gendered.

    Again, really great exchange.

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  14. Both race and sex are biological kinds with evolutionary histories, in particular histories of natural and sexual selection, respectively. The cluster of properties that defines each of these categories makes them rather penumbral just like most other categories, but that doesn’t mean that they’re invalid. The notion of ‘gender’ is either superfluous or greatly obfuscates its underlying biological cum evolutionary reality.

    At most, any given member of either kind (race or sex, in this case) possesses more or less of the properties that make up the cluster, which define the kind. All of this, of course – and in virtue of being a cluster kind – is perfectly consistent with lots of overlap in the distribution of any given property among individuals of various races or either sex (no essentialism here). Jenner doesn’t suddenly become a woman just because he made a few ostensible changes to his appearance and demeanor (etc.). At best, he has a few more of the properties that belong to the much larger cluster of properties that define women as a natural kind. The same approach applies to Dolezal.

    “certainly politically regressive positions (for instance Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the infamous The Bell Curve).”

    Similarly, research that pushes a hardline nurturist perspective provides ammunition for activists and others who advocate and enact policies that harm countless people. Think, for instance, of the fact that men are now discriminated against in the STEM fields when it comes to hiring and promotion. Or the ways in which boys are medicated simply for acting differently than girls in elementary school. Or the discrimination that many whites face in university admissions because of affirmative action, which is based on decades of extreme nurturist narratives.

    “Even when this is not the case, their research provides easy cover for the most vicious sexist and racist sub-cultures of our society.”

    Sorry, but what you call politically regressive about Murray and Herrnstein’s position, whatever that’s supposed to be (you don’t say), could just as easily be seen as politically progressive to someone else.

    “Then again, the problem with the extreme nurturist position is that, while its exponents are typically politically well intentioned,”

    No, it doesn’t automatically follow that someone is “politically well intentioned” just by dint of taking up a nurturist position. The 20th century saw massive carnage unleashed by communist dictators with nurturist positions. By your reasoning they, too, were politically well intentioned – because, hey, nurturists!

    Also, there is now very strong evidence against the extreme nurturist position with respect to many of the most interesting sex differences in cognition and behavior: they are actually larger in countries with more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity than they are in more traditional societies, which is precisely and unequivocally the opposite of what the (now non-scientific, ideological) nurturist position predicts:

    PS In his recent book on the philosophy of biology, Peter Godfrey-Smith actually defends the existence of human nature. So apparently he’s changed his mind?

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