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With regards to the gender question, I advise feminist revolution June 23, 2010

Posted by Summerspeaker in Feminism, The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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Over on the IEET website, Kris Notaro contemplates the sex distinction. We need to see more on this subject within transhumanism. Reminiscent of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body, Notaro focuses on biological complications that undermine the binary. The piece charmingly avoids the common pitfall of simplistic genetic determinism. Notaro optimistically concludes that the scientifically demonstrated complexity of gender identity will soon lead to a postgender society. Sadly, I don’t think male supremacy will politely stride off into the sunset. Dudes benefit too much from the privilege. Nor is the scientific establishment universally interested in queering things up. Popular evolutionary psychology appears hellbent on bolstering the binary.  I suspect we’ll have to take an old-fashioned approach.

It’s not as if we have the time to wait, anyway. The patriarchy is a global human rights crisis.

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1. Valkyrie Ice - June 24, 2010

Don’t know if you read it, but I was violently offended by a post at the Futurist blog made back in Jan. It was titled the “The Misandry Bubble”

So violently I had to write a complete breakdown pointing out exactly how misogynistic the entire post was: http://valkyrieice.blogspot.com/2010/01/this-is-in-response-to-post-made-on.html

The response? “Oh, well you’re a Trans, and you only defend women because you’re one. It’s a pavlovian response to the logical truth that women NEED to be dominated by men to be happy!”

Utter effing BS. It still makes me fume. The sheer inverted tesseracts of logic a normally sensible person had to go through to justify his misogny as “right and sensible” was bad enough. THE NUMBER OF IDIOTS AGREEING WITH HIM WAS EVEN WORSE!.

True gender neutral equality can’t get here fast enough, I just wish I thought it would occur prior to the ability to change sex as easily as changing clothes.

2. Summerspeaker - June 24, 2010

No, I wasn’t familiar with that post until now. What a horror story! I’m surprised the Futurist published the piece. I wish I had noticed at the time as my views match what the author so fears. The notion that feminism has gone too far makes me shake my head. Rape, misogynistic pornography, and sex trafficking remain commonplace. The patriarchy hasn’t gone anywhere.

As for the connection between easy body modification and a postgender society, as I said I think a cultural movement will be required in addition to the technological change. Have you read Trouble on Triton by Samuel Delany? In it the protagonist is a sort of male supremacist despite the ubiquity of shifting sex. It’s one of my favorite works of science fiction.

3. Valkyrie Ice - June 24, 2010

I think the social change will come basically because the novelty will wear off, and once it has, gender will gradually simply become a dead issue. It might take a decade or two, but eventually people will become so used to having a choice that it will become a big SO WHAT?

And no, I haven’t read that one, will have to track it down.

I couldn’t believe the Futurist was so vehement in defense of his misogyny, I’ve found him to be fairly logical, if a bit too conservative in his politics, in the past, but this just kinda went off the deep end. To claim that women had a NEED to be subjugated was absolute lunacy.

I’m a strong believer in the need to understand the biological instincts we have as humans, not to cater to them, but because we MUST understand them in order to find ways to cope with them in the modern world. Those instincts worked fine on the savanna when we were cavemen, but they are harmful to humanity as a whole at present, and ignoring them, and their obvious effects in day to day life simply leads to disaster. We have to find methods to minimize their effects, choose which ones we want to encourage, and which need to be compensated for.

Gender roles are one of the absolute worst next to the drive to seek status at all costs.

I’m also sadly disappointed that even AFTER he posted that hate-filled rant against women that called for a war to re-establish male supremacy, he’s still linked to by numerous serious science sites like Foresight.org.

4. Zack M. Davis - June 24, 2010

I sympathize with your aims, but on my honor as an aspiring rationalist, it is my sad duty here to disagree with the implication presented in this post, that innate psychological sex differences are trivial or unreal. (I choose the word innate after some hesitation; the word has unsavory historical connotations, and I do not wish to be construed as defending a more extreme thesis than the facts merit; hopefully my intentions will be clear by the end of this comment.)

Could you be more specific about exactly what findings constitute a biological complication that undermines the gender binary? Of course the gender binary is unreal in the trivial sense that human bodies and brains aren’t imbued with irreducible spiritual essences of maleness or femaleness, but any materialist will agree to that. Given that everything and everyone are just different configurations of matter anyway, when we say that “innate psychological sex differences are (respectively are not) real,” we must mean that there are (respectively are not) sufficiently robust statistical regularities in human behavior such that it is predictively useful to classify the vast majority of humans as male xor female, and furthermore, that these statistical regularities are (respectively are not) to a nontrivial extent robust to generic cultural drift.

I’m sorry if that was hard to parse, but as you rightly note, these issues are very complicated. But just because the truth is complicated, doesn’t mean you can immediately stop and declare victory for our side. I agree that the crudest essentialist fantasies of misogynists who once read a couple of popular-level evopsych books are quite easily falsified, but there’s still a wide swath of other hypotheses that have a greater or lesser “essentialist” element to them, which are not so easily dismissed. It’s important to remember that the true theory of human nature has to be able to predict everyone’s experiences: both the diversity we see, and the a priori possible diversity that we do not see; both the fact that many people are unhappy with the status quo, and the fact that the status quo should take the particular form it does.

Of course I shouldn’t make this comment even more unreasonably long than it already will be: I suggested the binary was real; such a claim demands evidence, and so I must cite my reasons. Let’s start by noting that we do observe physiological sex differences (else surely we would have no concept of sex): the extreme bimodality in genitalia, as well as the less extreme differences in mammaries, facial structure, vocal pitch, height, body hair, and musculature. Next, note that although we humans have our moral reasons for evaluating mental traits differently than we do strictly physiological traits, evolution itself does not: the brain is an organ subject to selection pressures like any other. Thus, if we accept that there is a biological foundation for sexual dimorphism in the distribution of human bodies, then we must accept that it is at least plausible that there might be a similar bimodality in the distribution of human brains. Next, notice that we do observe sex differences in behavior across a wide variety of cultures: men are more likely to be violent, women are more likely to take care of children. Then consider the personal accounts of transsexuals who experience mood and libido changes upon starting hormone therapy. Then consider subtle differences in psychometric tests that are hard to explain by cultural conditioning (e.g., greater male variance on a number of tests, better female performance on relative object locations, better male performance on spatial rotation) …

No one piece of evidence is decisive in itself, but altogether, it looks to me like psychological sex is real, even if I don’t personally think myself masculine, even if I don’t like it, even if it has disasterous consequences.

It might be objected that all of the differences I list are merely statistical, that there is a lot of variance within sexes and a lot of overlap between sexes. Even genitalia are statistical, for there exist intersex conditions. And of course, I quite agree. However, this does not undermine the predictive usefulness of the sex distinction in the sense that I outlined earlier, due to a nonobvious mathematical phenomenon: two groups might overlap on one dimension, and yet be perfectly distinguishable when more than one dimension is considered at the same time. (Consider an illustrative diagram on this point.) There are exceptions to any generalization, but not an arbitrary number of arbitrary exceptions; the true theory predicts distributions, not static archetypes.

Of course all this should not be taken to imply that the status quo is inevitable, for the space of possible cultures given current human biology must be unthinkably vast, and on a transhumanist blog I hardly need mention that there’s nothing sacred about human biology as it currently is. And it should go without saying anywhere that male violence does not become any less horrific just because it has a cause.

It’s not that the postgender feminist anarcho-utopia that you envision can’t exist, but there are reasons why we do not yet have it already.

5. Summerspeaker - June 24, 2010

Could you be more specific about exactly what findings constitute a biological complication that undermines the gender binary?

Have you read the linked piece and/or Sexing the Body? I was giving my condensation of Notaro’s argument more than weighing in myself. I don’t believe any of us make the extreme claim that physical sex differences are unreal. I certainly would not; radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, whom I treat as a guide, considered biology central in the story of gendered oppression. Working on the foundation of Marxist materialism, her The Dialectic of Sex gives the deterministic progression of male supremacy resulting inexorably from female status as the means of reproduction. She advocated feminist revolution at the time (1970) specifically because of the technological change that had occurred. I consider her an early transhumanist and will write more about her vision in the future.

I believe the materialist perspective has considerable merit but also downplays the remarkable cultural flexibility we humans posses. Studies of mental differences I find especially problematic. I’ve seen too much trumped-up research in this area to accept the claims at face value. One my comrades studying in the field of psychology described the consensus position on sex disparities in metal tests as trivial; I echo his sentiments while acknowledging there’s far more to be explored.

It’s not that the postgender feminist anarcho-utopia that you envision can’t exist, but there are reasons why we do not yet have it already.

I agree completely. My interest in coming technological change as an opening for radical social transformation stems from the materialist approach.

6. Zack M. Davis - June 26, 2010

Have you read the linked piece and/or Sexing the Body?

I did read the linked post. (For the record, I found it vague and poorly-written. Part of me wants to give Notaro a C-minus, but the rest of me is a fanatical unschooler.) I haven’t read Sexing the Body, but I did read Myths of Gender a couple years ago, so I think I have a decent idea of where Fausto-Sterling is coming from.

I believe the materialist perspective has considerable merit but also downplays the remarkable cultural flexibility we humans posses. Studies of mental differences I find especially problematic. I’ve seen too much trumped-up research in this area to accept the claims at face value.

I’m interested if you have any specific reaction to the argument (I rephrase in an attempt to be more explicit): “Because natural selection has no means for treating the brain differently than any other organ, the observation of physiological sexual dimorphism gives us fairly strong theoretical reasons to expect the existence of psychological sexual dimorphism of roughly the same ‘magnitude,’ and furthermore, this remains the case even if our psychologists are not trustworthy or competent enough to say what the specific mental differences are.” (Magnitude is a problematic concept in this context, hence the scare quotes, but I have an intuition that the problems are ultimately resolvable; I can explain in a future comment if desired.) Humans are so bad at empiricism that it’s probably a healthy mental habit to be very suspicious of any such nonconstructive (!) arguments in science (contrast mathematics, where nonconstructive proofs, at least, are routine), and yet all the same I find the reasoning here rather persuasive.

Again, I don’t think this conflicts at all with the remarkable cultural flexibility which I agree we humans possess, because the particular way in which an organism is sensitive to environmental influences depends on the organism’s makeup.

As an illustrative thought experiment, suppose we were to meet a species of intelligent aliens. We might reasonably expect the aliens to also exhibit a remarkable range of cultural flexibility, and yet (I submit) we would still expect it to be a very different range than that observed in our own species. Suppose the aliens have evolved with a mode of interpersonal communication that uses radio waves—let’s call it speech* (read speech-star). Then an alien that was raised by analogues of wolves in a barren environment without hearing* alien speech* might miss a critical developmental period and never be able to speak*. However, it would make no difference to a human child’s development whether she was exposed to alien speech* or not, because humans can’t hear* radio waves.

A similar principle could apply within our species in a much less extreme way. Just because girls and boys are products of their environment, doesn’t mean they can’t be products of their environment by means of different developmental processes. If girls were more sensitive on average than boys to some classes of environmental stimuli but not others, then we would expect to see lots of apparently innate sex-typed behaviors within cultures (with individual variation, of course), and differences in sex-typed behaviors between cultures, and we reach this prediction without making any vulgar appeals to genetic determinism or “hardwired” behavior.

Sadly, arguments with this degree of subtlety tend not to make it down to the popular-level evopsych books. Thus it is very important to make a sharp distinction between the political issue of how the dominant culture will use or abuse reputed scientific findings, and the scientific issue of how the world actually in fact works.

One my comrades studying in the field of psychology described the consensus position on sex disparities in metal tests as trivial

Janet Hyde’s metaänalysis supporting that thesis seems relevant here, although I attach the caveats that what constitutes an important difference depends on what you care about, and that the nonobvious mathematical phenomenon I mentioned earlier is highly applicable.

7. Summerspeaker - June 28, 2010

For the record, I found it vague and poorly-written.

I agree with you about the vagueness. When I first read the piece I thought I grasped what Notaro was getting at, but I’ve become less and less sure.

“Because natural selection has no means for treating the brain differently than any other organ, the observation of physiological sexual dimorphism gives us fairly strong theoretical reasons to expect the existence of psychological sexual dimorphism of roughly the same ‘magnitude,’ and furthermore, this remains the case even if our psychologists are not trustworthy or competent enough to say what the specific mental differences are.”

I don’t really buy this. If you’re treating the brain as just another organ, it’s strange to compare it with the entire rest of the body. By the same logic you could find a strong theoretical reason to expect sexual dimorphism in the stomach. The reproductive system accounts for the vast majority of the physical difference. Function matters; other organs are awfully similar. As such, this isn’t a sufficient reason to assume significant psychological differences. (Such differences, of course, may exist anyway.)

Just because girls and boys are products of their environment, doesn’t mean they can’t be products of their environment by means of different developmental processes.

This reminds me of what Alison Gopnik contributed to the famous Pinker/Spelke debate on sex and mathematical ability. We should always remember to look at the interaction between genes and environment rather a simple either/or or percentage division. As folks my field like to say, it depends and it’s complicated.

If girls were more sensitive on average than boys to some classes of environmental stimuli but not others, then we would expect to see lots of apparently innate sex-typed behaviors within cultures (with individual variation, of course), and differences in sex-typed behaviors between cultures, and we reach this prediction without making any vulgar appeals to genetic determinism or “hardwired” behavior.

Yes, and there also might be certain environments that produce psychological differences connected to sex and others that don’t. The range of possibilities has yet to be fully explored.

Janet Hyde’s metaänalysis supporting that thesis seems relevant here, although I attach the caveats that what constitutes an important difference depends on what you care about, and that the nonobvious mathematical phenomenon I mentioned earlier is highly applicable.

Considering how culture could account for the variation in the few areas major difference, Hyde’s piece seems quite convincing. Thanks for linking that.

8. Zack M. Davis - June 28, 2010

If you’re treating the brain as just another organ, it’s strange to compare it with the entire rest of the body. By the same logic you could find a strong theoretical reason to expect sexual dimorphism in the stomach. […] Function matters; other organs are awfully similar.

You’re right.

This criticism of my argument as stated is sufficiently obvious such that I’m embarrassed that I didn’t spontaneously generate it myself before posting. I should worry that my attempts to correct for the “pro-egalitarian” confirmation bias that I used to display have themselves coagulated into a mild “anti-egalitarian” confirmation bias.

Analogy to physiological dimorphism works as a plausibility argument for innate mental differences, but in my previous comment I tried to jump the gap between plausibility and likelihood, which was, as you point out, wrong. Thank you.

This reminds me of what Alison Gopnik contributed to the famous Pinker/Spelke debate on sex and mathematical ability. We should always remember to look at the interaction between genes and environment rather a simple either/or or percentage division. As folks [in] my field like to say, it depends and it’s complicated.

I’d guess that you’ve also read Pinker’s response at the top of the linked page. Of course it does depend and it is complicated, but being content only to say this much is not a useful habit of thought; progress requires an explicit effort to say what it depends on, the specific aspects in which it is complicated. (I’m saying this because I think it’s worth emphasizing; I don’t actually expect you to disagree. Let me know if you think I should stop wasting my keystrokes belaboring the obvious.)

Thus, heritability statistics are useful and informative as long as one knows why the technical term heritability is not the same thing as geneticness. (E.g., the heritability of “having two legs” is zero because all the variance is due to environmental factors such as landmines, but we wouldn’t say that genetics have nothing to do with bipedalism; Gopnik gives other examples.)

Suppose by way of analogy that we want to understand a function of two variables f(x,y). It’s true that it is nonsensical to talk about the independent contribution of x to the function value, but it would be unhelpful to spend time dwelling on this when attacking the problem, and many important properties of the function might be inferred from looking at the partial derivatives df/dx and df/dy.

9. anti-porn anti-feminist - June 29, 2010

Matriarchy/Feminism is a global crisis.

10. LW - July 1, 2010

Uh, you do all know that sex is biological and gender is how we expect that sex to act right?

Sex = biology
Gender = expectation

A lot of you seem confused and think both words are interchangable.

11. Summerspeaker - July 1, 2010

By the theory I’m familiar with, gender is social division of people into the classes of men and women while sex means biological difference. I try to maintain this distinction, but common usage has gender mean the latter as well as the former.


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