Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why Can't a Woman Be Less Like a Man?

“Wouldn’t the males in the room like to think that the Y has some more enduring contribution to maleness?” It is 2001, in Bethesda, Maryland. Y chromosome geneticist David Page looks out at the audience’s young men—high school honors students. In the beat following Page’s question, they visibly twinge with anxiety and anticipation. With a beaming smile, Page breaks the tension, reassuring the boys that new research in his lab has, fortunately, “intellectually rescued” the Y from “years and years of misunderstanding.” The faces relax and nervous giggles titter around the room.
This anecdote comes from Sarah S. Richardson's Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, 2013, p.149 of the Kindle version).  It's followed by another anecdote from five years later, in which another researcher retails a newer improved model of the Y chromosome, thereby putting "broad smiles" on the faces of the women in the audience while "the blokes are shifting uncomfortably, unnerved by the prospect of their fundamental redundancy."  Which supports what I've been saying for a long time now: it's not a good idea to hitch your self-esteem or your politics to scientific claims, which have a way of changing with the winds of fashion.  That's especially true since as Richardson herself insists repeatedly in the book, the X and Y chromosomes have nothing to do with the social status or value of men and women, nor do they determine our behavior, gender expression, or much of anything else.  That young scientists and scientist-wannabes are being encouraged by their elders and teachers to think otherwise is not good news.

Why would "the males in the room" be stricken with anxiety if the Y chromosome doesn't make "some more enduring contribution to maleness"?  Males are males, and females females, regardless of what role the Y chromosome plays.  I presume, going by other quotations from Page in Richardson's book, that he means that the Y chromosome causes in some obscure fashion the stereotypical masculine traits and behavior that he casts as caricatures when he's not advancing them himself.  (This is common coin in masculist propaganda, of course: if you criticize male violence, you're stereotyping men unfairly and subsisting on their tears; if you celebrate male violence, you're ultra-cool and recovering primal male energy.)  So, for example, when talking to the laity, Page 
is quoted saying that “the Y married up, the X married down,” and “the Y wants to maintain himself but doesn’t know how. He’s falling apart, like the guy who can’t manage to get a doctor’s appointment or can’t clean up the house or apartment unless his wife does it [Richardson, 159].
But even in one of his journal articles:
Figures depicted X-transposed genes as pink, X-degenerate genes as yellow (representing an ancient mix of male and female—presex, neutral, or neither-nor), and Y genes as blue. X genes were characterized as "housekeeping" and "ubiquitous" while Y genes "acquire" and "maintain" male-specific functions and experience "abundant" palindromic recombination [Richardson, 162; boldface added].
That, remember, is a professional publication, aimed at his critical-thinking scientific peers, not throwing dust in the eyes of the credulous and irrational sheeple.

One of the funniest symptoms of male anxiety Richardson discusses is the reaction to a prediction, by the Australian geneticist Jennifer Graves, that the Y chromosome is degenerating and will go extinct -- in about 14 million years.  That is a prospect to keep you up nights, isn't it?  Graves seems to be Page's mirror image, with her equally loaded descriptions of the Y chromosome as a "wimp," a "genetic wrecking yard," and the like (Richardson, page 170).  The disappearance of the Y chromosome wouldn't mean the extinction of males, by the way: there are mammalian species without Y chromosomes, but they still have fertile males.  The curious thing about this emotional reaction -- you'd think they were facing execution the next morning -- is that extinction is as much part of evolutionary theory as the change of species itself.  Everybody dies, and most species eventually go extinct.  If men vanished from the planet, it would simply mean that we had lost the struggle for existence, that Nature had weighed us in the balance and found us wanting and blah blah blah. 

The ascription of sex/gender stereotypes to genes and chromosomes as if they were fully-developed organisms is about as ridiculous as anthropomorphizing subatomic particles.  (Our Friend, The Quark.)  Evidently it doesn't keep people like Graves and Page from doing valid scientific work.  Richardson argues: 
Perhaps Graves’s and Page’s research on the Y has been lively and productive at least in part because of the gendered models they have drawn on. We have here a case of competing biases, each productive in channeling particular programs of Y chromosome study. As these biases are the subject of active and open debate, they do not carry with them the same threat to scientific objectivity as do biases shared by an entire research community and thus invisible to its participants [174].
She points out, though, that Graves is avowedly feminist, while Page casts himself as a neutral, objective, just-the-facts-Ma'am "nonideological scientist" (173). The lack of self-awareness on Page's part, given how freely he throws around the most cliched Blondie/Dagwood gender stereotypes, is troubling, but also old news to anyone familiar with the history of sexism in the sciences.

One of the first things I thought of when I read about this controversy was the attitude expressed by one of my readers, that the idea that he was born gay appeals to him emotionally.  I'm not sure what that appeal is.  I'm weird, as we all know, but my own change of heart, when I was twenty, had nothing to do with any theory of why I'm gay.  It was inspired (though not caused) by the writings of people like the lesbian writer Jill Johnston, which helped me to decide that my desire for another young man was as valid as desire for a young woman would be.  I say "decide" instead of, say, "realize," because it was a decision about how I was going to regard my homosexuality, rather than an objective claim about its nature or status.  A moral decision, which is what is at issue.  Thanks to other reading I'd done, notably Martin Hoffman's The Gay World (Basic Books, 1968), I knew about the then-current dominant theory of the origin of male homosexuality, that it was due to faulty relationships with one's parents; I also knew that this theory was flawed and invalid, and that homosexuality was not an illness or disorder.  I believe I also knew about the born-gay theories of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, and that they had been discredited too.  But it doesn't seem that I cared why I was homosexual; what mattered to me was that it was all right to be attracted to other males, and to try to find one who'd be attracted to me.

It appears that not everyone considers the born-gay doctrine emotionally appealing.  In An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago, 1999) Jennifer Terry wrote:
Among those gay men who are economically and socially powerful in the world, conceding that nature makes them gay is apparently less damaging than it might seem to working-class gay teenagers. A social worker who works with gay suicidal teens recently remarked that the biology-is-destiny line can he deadly. Thinking they are "afflicted" with homosexual desire as a kind of disease or biological defect rather than thinking of it as a desire they somehow choose is, for many gay teenagers, one more reason to commit suicide rather than to live in a world so hostile to their desires.
If you're born that way, after all, it's incurable.  I've noticed before how bleakly many born-gay dogmatists portray gay life: we are hated by all, rejected by our families, persecuted by the law and religion, and so on.  It's remarkable how similar this is to the 1950s' pulp cliche of the Third Sex, doomed to a life of loneliness in murky bars, trapped in the Twilight World Between the Sexes ... Far from replacing the moralizing judgments of the religious and legal approach to homosexuality, the medical model merged with them, like the joining of an egg and a sperm.

What it would mean if it were proved that we are born gay is simply that we are not morally or legally responsible for our condition.  But no one would claim seriously that inborn conditions are necessarily positive: the same science that produced the born-gay theories also "discovered" genetic causes for schizophrenia, alcoholism, and other disorders.  ("Discovered" is in quotes because those discoveries are as dubious as that homosexuality is inborn.)  When a child is born with a disabling, congenital condition, no one but perhaps a member of Donald Trump's administration would argue that it should be left untreated.  And, of course, being born dark-skinned or female has never shielded African-Americans or women from discrimination or oppression.  Facts, let alone theories or speculation about causation do not establish anything about the moral status of the condition involved.  Yet it appears that many people do feel that as long as they can't help themselves, they are not only exempt from blame but from any criticism at all -- hence the bluster of masculists like David Page: not only is the refusal to ask directions, or to put their clothes in a hamper rather than on the floor, in their genes, it is a sign of male nobility.

It's easy enough to see why people who know nothing about science would fasten onto media reports that sex/gender cliches are "natural" and therefore unchangeable, and wouldn't blink at the ascription of those cliched traits to chromosomes and genes.  Personifying the inanimate and impersonal is a widespread (perhaps inborn and natural, who knows?) human tendency, so it's not surprising that scientists succumb to it too.  But I still don't understand the emotional appeal of seeing men and women as natural (at the genetic level) opponents, even enemies.  (Richardson also discusses the claim by some geneticists that men and women are more different genetically than Homo Sapiens and chimpanzees.  In addition to the flaws she finds in this claim, it seems to overlook the fact that men also have an X, or Lady, Chromosome, so we have the genetic difference right in our genes.  The Enemy Within, I guess.)  The War Between the Sexes, contrary to some propaganda, is not an invention of radical man-hating feminists, but a cherished fantasy of gender traditionalists; and as with American Exceptionalism, Male Exceptionalism demands that the Other always lose.

Given that genetic manipulation is the Holy Grail of the genetic research establishment, the biology-is-destiny fatalism of people like Page is rather curious.  Surely Science will someday make it possible for men to ask directions, wash dishes, and get their own beers from the refrigerator, thus freeing them from dependence on the women they want to view as an alien and malignant species?  Instead it appears they want to remain as they are.  That's up to them, but Natural Selection never sleeps.