Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gender is two overlapping bell curves


When the gametes that eventually turn into you split and determine your sex, mother nature casts a die for each characteristic or trait you could conceivably link to sex.  On some of them, you will exemplify your gender's side of the spectrum to an even greater extent, on some of them you'll be pretty much normal, and on some of them you'll probably fall even below (or above) the other gender's average.

I'm talking only of genetic tendency toward something, not necessarily actual manifestation of those traits.  I don't intend to imply that genetics is the sole determinant of our behavior or even inclinations.

And of course, not every distribution of traits are going to look like a bell curve.  The same arguments hold whether we're talking about a power law distribution, a bell curve, or a ton of the other statistical models I'll get around to wikipediaing eventually

The point is that gender is neither ontology nor destiny, but probability.

So men tend to be more athletic on women than average.  Surely this is influenced by socialization, the way we encourage boys to participate in sports more than girls, and a ton else.  We can't be sure since we can't really control the variables- it's not clear how we would even raise a cohort of children with n gender roles thrust upon them even by accident- but I don't think it's absurd to think that this is at least partially genetic.  Nevertheless, outliers and exceptions smack us in the face all the damn time.  I'm 5'8", weigh 130 pounds, and have very little upper body strength.  Outside of cardiovascular endurance, where I'm significantly above the norm even on my gender's bell curve, I probably fall below most women's athletic prowess.  Conversely, Abby Wambach and Marta outperform all but the best men in their field.  We can hem and haw over whether a woman's ceiling in these kind of sporting contests are the same as men's, but the existence of diversity is undeniable.



I keep coming back to this formulation of sex, which is the only one that I can see that squares with the facts of the matter, whenever I read something like,

Humans are a part of nature and gender roles are natural roles. If being expected to carry my moms shopping because I’m naturally stronger than her is 'oppressive' to you, then you’re a useless banana.

and I can't help but think, "which women, which men, under which circumstances?"  Sure, it makes the most sense for me to bring in the groceries on most nights, but it wasn't really true a few months ago, when I had to use a walker for a few months after getting hit by a drunk driver.  Nor would it particularly make sense if mom were a professional soccer player.  A gendered division of labor might have made sense when most employments were backbreaking, but don't make much sense in an information economy.  It's just absurd to say that this kind of utility maximization is a fundamental fact of the universe rather than a contingent response to fluid and ever-changing circumstances.

And I think this holds true for the implicit as well as explicit claim in that linked post- that such roles are not simply answers to utilitarian questions but ones of fundamental meaning and identity.  That, to borrow from Meno, the virtue of a woman really is fundamentally different from that of a man- as is the virtue of a dog from a lion.  But if 1.) genetics at least partially influences our potential, 2.) virtue is about the fulfillment of that potential, and 3.) the genetics of gender works as I say, that it influences but does not entirely determine that potential, this cannot be true.  It becomes clear that the ideal versions of ourselve are very similar to the actual manifestation of characteristics as influenced by gender.  Gender becomes, I say again, neither ontology nor destiny, but probability.  Our virtuous, actualized selves will be correlated with but not determined by our sex chromosomes.

The evidence for this is pretty obvious, too.  Just take a jaunt down to your local gay bar and have a chat with one of those happy, productive, and charismatic drag queens- if you keep looking, I'm sure you'll find at least one.

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