Anne Fausto-Sterling is a biologist who has written Sex/Gender for a non-scientist audience of students and faculty in the humanities and social sciences. This book addresses a wide variety of topics including infant and childhood development, genetics, gender identity, brain development and structure, sexual orientation, and the future of gender in an engaging style that neither talks down to the readers nor goes over their heads. She completely rejects and idea of eugenics, Social Darwinism or genetic or biological determinism, as well as the worn out Nature/Nurture debate in relation to human development. Instead she maintains that all living organisms are part of a fluid, dynamic developmental system in which culture, the environment and education all interact with biology and can even affect the structure of the brain and nervous system.
In Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, Anne Fausto-Sterling offers a biologist’s perspective to current issues in gender identity and sexuality, in a book written for non-scientists and non-specialists. As a biologist, she has often noted that even among other highly-educated and intelligent academics in the humanities and social sciences, there is little knowledge about the latest developments in the ‘hard’ sciences like biology. Either that or they think that biology is mostly irrelevant to the larger social, economic and cultural issues in the world, especially since sociologists and other social scientists long ago rejected any form of genetic or biological determinism for human behavior. With few exceptions, Social Darwinism and eugenics have been out of favor among most Western academics since 1945, for obvious reasons. Fausto-Sterling is certainly not attempting a revival of these outdated (and inhuman) ‘sciences’ and in fact accepts the general concept that gender identity and sexuality are not at all genetic or inborn, but rather dynamic and fluid, and affected greatly by cultural and historical factors. At the start, she advises the reader to forget the stale debate about Nature versus Nurture in human development since “living bodies are systems that develop and change in respect to their social and historical contexts” (Fausto-Sterling, 2012, p. xiii). Her main purpose therefore is to inform students, academics and general readers about how contemporary biology views these questions, and to do so in a lively and engaging style that does not appear to be overly dry and technical like a science textbook.
Growing numbers of people in the world today are claiming to be genderless, and refusing to be classified as either male or female in the traditional sense. There have even been court cases in Australia and other countries about whether a person can legally and officially be classified as “gender neutral” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 1). Fausto-Sterling doubts that the future will be truly genderless, either from a biological or cultural viewpoint, but there may very well be more than two gender categories. Within the gay and lesbian community, for example, there are already groups who claim a bisexual or transgender identity. Biologists have long been aware that even infants and fetuses can be transgendered or multi-gendered, such as those born with both testes and a vagina or with two X chromosomes who also have male sex organs. Usually the development of gender in the biological and genetic sense takes place in the fetus at 8-12 weeks (Fausto-Sterling, p. 4). Adults determine whether an infant is male or female according to the visible sex organs, and they treat infants and children as male or female accordingly. Physiologically the child will not always be either gender, of course, and psychologically they may go through life feeling they have been wrongly categorized, which is why sex change operations have been available since the 1950s. Fausto-Sterling is also aware that gender roles, sexuality and attitudes toward same-sex relationships vary greatly according to culture and historical period, and that environmental factors will always have an effect on infant and childhood development. Toxic chemicals and radiation are just two such factors, as are malnutrition, viruses and other epidemic diseases. So from both a biological and an environmental perspective, they is no way to make a simple, categorical declaration that all infants must be born male or female and that no other possibilities exist, and indeed there have been cultures throughout history that recognized more than two genders. Sexual orientation, desires and attractions are even more fluid, and may often change throughout the human life cycle (Fausto-Sterling, p. 98).
Given all these factors, Fausto-Sterling believes that biology and the social sciences should be cautious about making categorical pronouncements about the future of gender identity and sexuality. Even though the basic identities of male and female may not evolve too radically in the near future, “the development of sex and gender in humans is layered, and so too must be any answer about the future” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 119). Cultural, educational and environmental factors can alter the very structure and anatomy of the brain within a single generation, and science is now aware that “brain anatomy changes with experiential input” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 120). Few non-scientists may be aware of this remarkable information, since they tend to assume that the structure of the brain and nervous system are fixed and unchanging. This is not the case, however, and even the cerebrum and motor reflexes and be changed according to experiences and cultural factors. If this is true—and it definitely appears to be the case according to the latest scientific knowledge—then culture truly is in the driver’s seat even more than most experts in the social sciences and humanities ever realized. They have long since understood that culture is also dynamic and fluid, and can change greatly over generations, as do attitudes about gender and sexuality. This has in fact occurred in the Western world over the last forty years to an extent that few people alive in 1950 or 1960 would ever have anticipated. Now it appears that culture and environment can affect the very structure of the brain and the ways in which people think and behave, starting in infancy and early childhood, which means that there is room for a great deal of change and flexibility in matters of gender and sexuality.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, Routledge.