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Binary Gendered Biology and its Discontents

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

 

Abstract


The traditional arguments that transphobes use to justify their beliefs typically find their (apparent) strength through their appeal to biology, or biological categories. In this text, I will show why transphobes are unable to appeal to biology in order to further binary categorisations and sex reductionism. I will also show how a more realistic and informed use of biology opens up the conceptual space for trans* liberation.


 

Epistemological Premises


First and foremost, biology is an epistemic authority. This means that it offers a description of living beings that is understood to be true, its facticity resting on the living beings themselves (as opposed to other interpretations, such as religious, mythological, political ones, whose value rests only on our intentions). Since biological truth is scientific, we still find it within what is called ‘scientific consensus’, the agreement of scientists over certain propositions on the basis of their empirical and theoretical research. We therefore find biological (scientific) truth, a truth about what and how living beings really are, in the most advanced and up-to-date scientific literature.


For transphobes (and in all fairness, for a large part of our society) biology also has a normative authority: it does not just describe how things are, but also how they ought to be, or how they are supposed to be - usually bearing a moral, and therefore normative, value. These two considerations are often conflated - transphobes tend to believe that scientific descriptions are actually descriptions of ‘normal states’: that science describes how things are normally. Biological truth is therefore thought to describe and include ‘normal states’ and, subsequently, ‘abnormal states’. Abnormal states thus seem to fall outside the scope of truth, and therefore of the description of how things really are - in a sense, abnormalities are not, (and surely they are not what they seem to be, they are deceiving). In parallel, things are what they are only if they follow the norm. Because norm dictates the scientific truth about the world, exceptions are still integrated, but only as exceptions. The epistemic status of the exception (non-descriptive of truth, or only by opposition) mirrors the ontological (related to being) status of its object, an abnormality.


According to this interpretation of scientific truth, the distinction between normal and abnormal is an epistemic distinction even before being a normative one. It has an appearance of scientificity. The normality/abnormality distinction is thought to refer to actual states of reality. In this sense, things are, in themselves, normal and abnormal. Reality itself would thus seem to dictate the moral norm to follow.


Now, according to a certain venerable tradition tracing back to classical and mediaeval philosophy, science, and/or knowledge, is considered to be a mediation, a description of the relationship between individuals and universals (as already formulated during the quaestio de universalibus, the debate about the nature of universal categories that characterised part of the XII century European philosophy). Universalities are abstracted from observation of individuals, which are used to establish further induction (the formulation of hypothetical properties about objects on the basis of previous knowledge of similar objects, e.g. after making up a scientific idea of what ducks are, I will make assumptions about every new duck I see) and research. The individual is, having been observed from the perspective of the universal, a particular (as in, a particular instance of the universal). We must remember that the universal is an abstraction - the description of what normally or usually appears in the abstracted individuals. The ‘philosophy’ behind transphobic argument, however, sees the universal also as a norm - not only as a norm of induction (how we should see things), but also as an ontological norm (how things should be). The ‘particular’ who falls within the norm is finally normal - it is what it is supposed to be. Normality always refers to the process of falling into certain normative universalities.


Universals can, and have been, named in many different ways - universals, ideas, forms, species, ‘natural kinds’, so on and so forth. In scientific description of the world, we appear to search for such ‘natural kinds’, and to describe how things fall within them. To quote Plato, ‘dividing things again by classes, where the natural joints are, and not trying to break any part, after the manner of a bad carver’ (Phaedrus 265e).


If it were that every science is a natural science, then the search for the ‘natural joints’ of the world (what there really is, in and of the world itself) would always be legitimate. However, when ‘natural joints’ are established by means of abstraction and for the sake of induction, the ‘natural joints’ always harbour a level of arbitrariness. The ‘raw material’ (the individual) of our abstraction might be really there, but universals, while still residing on reality, are the product of our arbitrary choice of relevant features, arbitrary recognition of recurrences and normalities, and in general, of our pre-interpretation of reality. The particulars we see in the world are really there, but they’re never really what we think they are - that’s why, after all, we can be mistaken about things, and why something like ‘falsity’ exists.





When it comes to biology, the question of universals or natural kinds is particularly relevant. The most common view of the biological world still rests on a naïve carving of the world into joints, such as taxonomies, well defined species and (within them, when they’re present) ‘body types’ - phenotypic categories - in particular, sexes. We say that mammals come in sexes - usually two sexes, male and female. There may be an inkling of truth in this, but there is also a great deal of falsity.


Seeing sexes (two sexes) as ‘natural kinds’ begs the question: which properties do the two sexes include, and how do these properties affirm their sex? In answer, biologists classified sexual traits: primary, secondary, chromosomal, and so on.


The connection and the co-presence of these traits is neither obvious nor universally necessary. From a purely descriptive point of view, the binary categorisation of sexes as being determined by a full set of primary, secondary, and chromosomal sexual features is a gross approximation. This approximation is valid, to the extent that it is statistically highly descriptive, and yet it is still arbitrary. Most importantly, if taken abstractly - if we commit to its existence as having value and reality in and of itself -, such categorisation is simply false.


We should further discuss the meaning of ‘data’, this collection of instances we approximately categorise in two (or more) sexes. Any scientific categorisation or abstraction rests on ‘data’, much like the way a map is drawn by looking at the actual territory - after all, organisms (people included) have chromosomes, genitalia, and so on. However, such given materialities do not justify the commitment to a sexual binary system in itself - which is therefore far from being one of the ‘natural joints’ of the world. Any biologist worth their salt knows that data are always more surprising than their hypotheses and their fantasy. This is not to say, to put it bluntly, that penises and vaginas do not exist. It means that, no matter what certain ‘feminists’ believe, the world was not created ‘penised’ and ‘vagined’.


We should delve deeper into our epistemological argument, Our critique of the transphobic commitment to binary categories does not merely imply that some individuals do not fall into one of the two idealisations, and therefore that perfectly carving in two the reign of sexually reproducing species is impossible. Rather, individuals themselves (living organisms, living people) exist a priori, and before our idealisations of sex. The categorisation is false not because of the existence of exceptions, but because it makes exceptions exist in the first place. After all, the only true map is a map as big as the world itself (see Borges, On Exactitude in Science, 1946), and such a map is not only ‘not-a-map’, but it is also geographically useless.


It should not surprise us that scientifically useful categorisations are inherently arbitrary. While they allow us to give true descriptions de particularibus (about particulars), taken as a discourse de universalibus (about universals), they are false - or more reasonably, simply without any reference. This is because, with all due respect to Plato, individuals exist before the universals -not after, and certainly not thanks to them. Such true descriptions of particular phenomena and individuals can be more or less accurate, and the process of scientific progress is one with the search for more useful distinctions and new categories that allow us to see phenomena that old categories concealed. Perhaps the male/female distinction might have been a useful approximation for some, but for others it was as gross as the distinction was false. One thing is to describe the world by poor approximations, and another is to believe that such approximations cannot be changed because they have a right in themselves, that they are real in themselves, and more real than reality itself.


However, there is still a sense in which a binary system might appear to be true - almost self-evident -, not as an immediate categorisation of individuals (so that all normal individuals fall into one of the two sides of it), but as a description of how each individual comes to be. But does moving from a binarism of “categories” (aka males and females) to a binarism of causes (aka fathers and mothers) really support the transphobic cause? Hardly - as I will show, such a strategy is both logically inconsistent and ignorant of the most recent progress in biology.


As the story goes, with the exception of parthenogenetic individuals (which are, for all intents and purposes, ‘female’), every individual belonging to a sexually reproductive species indeed comes from two parents. More specifically, two gametes encounter in the context of a “sexual act”, which is characterised by the relative sexual dimorphism of the parents, and, within the embryonic bottleneck (the formation of one zygotic cell from two reproductive cells), the development of the new individual organism begins. Behind the one individual, there is a couple - the encounter of two gametes (genetic and epigenetic heritage included), coming from two distinct organisms, which met in a reproductive act in which two actors played two different roles. Sexual reproduction seems to justify a commitment to binarism - every new organism seems to stand on a binary, to have been caused by it.


And yet, to the extent that reproduction is something much more complex than the naïve story of sexual reproduction just told, the organism stands on much more than a binarism.

 

Reproduction and Binarism


If we try to ground a male/female system on the basis of reproduction - as transphobes usually do (‘we all have a mother and a father’) - we first have to define reproduction itself.


Before that, however, I’d like to show how the very deduction of a male/female universal system from reproductive strategies is logically problematic.


Reproduction is always the reproductive act that generates a developmental system, an individual organism. As such, the reproductive act is itself individual - the individual cause of an individual effect - and similarly individual are the reproducing actors. Their ‘reproductive compatibility’ can be effectively said only a posteriori, after the individual development of the reproduced new organism begins. It cannot therefore be determined a priori, and as such, it cannot constitute a universal system. Metaphorically, the biological world is not divided into platonic reproductive soulmates, à la Symposium (189d ff.), ready to re-join and reproduce. Sexual reproduction is an adaptation, and as any adaptation, it exists and is what it is as long as it works - nay, only after ‘it worked’. And indeed it worked - until now - and it probably will for a long time. But the billions of ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ that have existed do not justify the commitment to a binary universal rule of being. If anything, reproduction (or the binary biologist) might define the reproducer as ‘male’ or ‘female’ only retroactively, and only functionally - in virtue of its act, not of its primary, secondary or chromosomal sexual traits.


Considering how sex ratios can vary across species and across time within a single population (for example, it can reach a 3:1 female-to-male ratio in social Hymenoptera, (see i.e. Bourke, 1997) where the queen tends to be the only reproductive female, see i.e. Wallberg et al., 2016) it is hard to see how anything like an a priori binary system, determining what the existing organisms are and should be, can be deduced from sexual reproductive strategies.


Additionally, I will now present a way of understanding reproduction that deconstructs binary gendered, transphobic biological assumptions about, to use a tone appropriate to the arguments of transphobes, ‘how babies are made’. In doing so, I will introduce the contemporary extended view of inheritance systems, in accordance with the most recent theoretical progress in biology.


Inheritance is essential to reproduction. Every new organism, every new generation, is what it is within its lineage (and in perspective, within the evolutionary tree), and therefore in virtue of its inheritance. As we inherit more than just the genetic material of our parents, the reproductive act we come from is wider than just the meeting of two gametes inside one of our parents’ womb - much more than that defines us as organisms, in equally crucial ways.


In addition to the traditional genetic inheritance system, today’s evolutionary biology (more precisely, its most advanced and extended research program, the so-called extended evolutionary system) recognises a plethora of wider and richer inheritance systems. In particular, epigenetic inheritance, soma-mediated inheritance, behavioural inheritance, in the case of humans even symbol-mediated inheritance (see Jablonka, Lamb, 2020), and in a broader sense, niche inheritance (see i.e. Odling-Smee, Niche Inheritance, in Pigliucci, Müller, 2010).To put it simply, we are able to notice how all these systems constitute and contribute to the production of new developmental systems. The development of the organism stands on all these systems. Given such an expanded view of inheritance and reproduction, can we still say that the individual organism stands on the inheritance of two reproducing actors - on a binary?


Genetic and epigenetic inheritance is “mostly vertical” (Jablonka, Lamb, op cit., Table 1), but soma-mediated and behavioural inheritance (the transfer of priming factors, non-imitative and imitative social learning etc.) are both vertical and horizontal, that is to say, it is not defining of the parents-offspring relationship, but it concerns multiple unrelated individuals between peers and across generations, ‘families’ and even species. For example in the case of soma-mediated (or soma-to-soma) inheritance in rats (and many other mammals), behavioural characters can be transmitted through parental care, both by ‘biological’ and ‘foster’ parents, and even by the community where the organism lives. Such care, or lack of thereof, shapes the way the rat will take care of their offspring, thus affecting their chance of survival (see ivi, pp. 27-28). Imitative social learning, instead, is at the basis of songbirds, parrots and cetaceans vocal imitation, crucial for their survival and reproduction within the community (ivi, pp. 28-29).


The hereditary material transmitted through these recently recognised systems is development-defining, often adaptive and crucial for the survival of the organism (en passant, notice how they therefore play an important role in evolution!). The development, survival and further reproduction of the organism - logically speaking, its whole existence - stands on more than just two individuals: it stands on whole communities, societies, nests, hives. Extending such a view to humans, we could say that every individual stands on its whole culture and traditions. Taken in its most extended and rich sense, the reproductive system that makes a developing organism possible is always more than a binary system.


The argument can be extended even further. Every individual is never just the product of a singular reproductive act (or of a synchronic totality of hereditary practices), but also the result of a whole evolutionary history. Infact, as Ukrainian-American evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously stated, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution (see Dobzhansky, 1973). As the contemporary extension of the inheritance systems shows: no individual developmental system makes sense outside of the entire system of extended reproductions, transmissions, and communications by which it and its environment is sustained.


This is exactly what the concept of niche inheritance highlights. A developmental system is never an isolated individual, but always a dynamic relation with an environment and, therefore, with other organisms. What is inherited, in the broader sense, is exactly this relation - the ‘context’ of all the experiences of a living organism, what we call a niche. Generations after generations, what is really reproduced is not just the individual organism, but, in a word, its whole ‘world’, with its resources, community and possible experiences. In their development, ‘each offspring must actually inherit an initial organism-environment relationship, or “niche”, from its ancestors’ (Odling-Smee, op. cit., pp. 181-182), and such a niche ‘can be transmitted by other organisms in shared ecosystems that must be ecologically related, but need not be genetically related to the organisms receiving the inheritance’ (ivi. p. 181). We can only survive, live and eventually reproduce in a niche, and we inherit such a niche from a greater number of sources than just our parents - all of them shaping the very world we live in.


Given the richness of resources that are transmitted within a niche and through evolutionary time (the only light in which anything makes sense in biology, as the fundamental dogma of biology goes), it is hard to see how grounding the existence of an organism (let alone a niche) on a destitute binary reproductive system composed of only two sources of information is not tragically reductive. To put it bluntly, grounding the organism on a binary-sex reductionist view of reproduction neglects the richness of the whole organismal development. In other words, the binary-sex reductionist view ignores what the organism really is and does. This holds for every life form - naturally, humans included.

 

Sexualising and Gendering


Having discarded the value of any binary view of biological phenomena (if not in very narrow contexts, and possibly with reductive results), we can conclude that the exclusionary binary appeal to biology clings to an out of out date science, a defunct view of both biological categories and processes of reproduction.


Another prominent binary argument needs to be destroyed: the sex-reductionist interpretation of gender, or a certain interpretation of the sex/gender distinction itself.


Sex, or rather sexual reproduction, is first and foremost a function of living organisms, as much as photosynthesis, movement, immune functions or perception. According to their level of involvement in the process of sexual reproduction and subsequent embryogenesis (which, as we have seen, are only one aspect of the whole hereditary and developmental character of the organisms), we distinguish different sexual traits: chromosomes, gametes, reproductive organs, secondary characters, and so on. The question to be asked is now, to translate Borghini and Casetta (2012, p. 257): why is a gonad a sexual trait, yet a knee seldom is?


As we have seen, the reproductive value of an organism can be determined only a posteriori, after its involvement in the reproductive act. Similarly, whether a phenotype is considered a sexual trait mainly depends, for example, on its adaptive reproductive value (e.g. gametogenesis, bird of paradise courtship dances, etc.), and therefore on our theory of sexual reproduction. The question is thus reinterpreted: why and when does a gonad, or a knee, partake in sexual reproduction? If our sexual categorisations depends on the sexual value of phenotypes, not only could we divide human populations in males and females on the basis of ‘who offers the sperm and who offers the egg to make the zygote’, but we could just as reasonably distinguish between those who attract mates thanks to their knees and those who are attracted by knees (if it were the case that knees became sexually relevant through our evolutionary history). Irony aside - sex categories are arbitrary categorisations of reproductive strategies, and therefore need not to be narrowed down to only two sets of sexual traits. (Notice, en passant, how this argument does not equal to the deduction of genders from sexual orientations: here ‘sex’ and ‘sexual reproduction’ have nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation. While it is true that the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, aka ‘man’ and ‘woman’, are dependent on the ciswhiteheteropatriarchy, in biology ‘males’ and ‘females’ exist only in light of their reproductive role - the presence and modes of ‘sex’ are adaptive reproductive strategies.)


According to this view, a certain sex/gender distinction, or the reduction of the latter to the former, becomes problematic. It is impossible to define gender, or even to lay down the foundations for such a definition, in the small space of this text. We assume a negative definition: gender is what is ‘not’ sex. As we have seen, sexual categories are arbitrary, so that there is no reason why what is considered to belong to ‘gender’ cannot belong to ‘sex’. Vice-versa, what is thought to belong to sex can just as well belong to gender. Here, the arbitrariness does not reside in the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (after all, this distinction might be formulated a priori and through well reasoned philosophical arguments), but rather in what is sexual (and perhaps, sexualised) and what is gendered.


Now, the exclusionary argument tends to reduce gender to sex. According to it, the male (who has a penis) is the man and the female (who has a vagina) is the woman. As the male/female system is a superficially interpreted sexual strategy (to the extent that gender categories and roles are indeed part of the societal sexual strategies), it is fair to say that gender and sexes are the same - the ‘cultural’, or the non-sexual, is itself sexualised and included in the process of reproduction. This top-down interpretation is not wrong per se, but arbitrary and one-sided (and, as long as it pretends to be real and scientific in itself, false). In much the same way, however, it is possible to interpret ‘sex’ (a reproductive strategy, one’s involvement in societal reproduction, or even one’s sexual orientation) as relevant for one’s ‘gender’, in a bottom-up fashion. In this way, one’s sexual traits (or those traits that are recognised as sexual by more or less broad biological categorisations) can be gendered -whatever it means for anything to be gendered. Both top-down (sexualising gender characters) and bottom-up (gendering sexual characters) interpretations are arbitrary, and they are more or less harmful or innocuous according to how narrow or broad, ossified or flexible, and oppressive or freeing the categories themselves are. However, it is not the biologist’s job to determine the absolute validity of such categories, nor of the boundary between sex and gender. The biologist has to expand or reduce the number and the scope of their categories according to the needs of their scientific practice and the richness of their data. For example, traits typically considered as part of ‘gender’ can be included in appropriate sexual categories, so long as they have an impact on reproductive strategies (especially if the scope of the biological research is extended to cultural practices and their impact on human evolution, see i.e. Jablonka, 2016, and their concept of cultural epigenetics). The biologist has to be aware of the cultural bias that might be informing their pre-received scientific categories: for example, how an uncritical acceptance of the male/female distinction might be based more on the ciswhiteheteropatriarchal tradition than on the actual needs of biology. But the criticism of such bias on one hand, and of the sex and gender categories in general, and of the validity of the distinction itself, is a matter of cultural and philosophical critique.


The acts of gendering and sexualising traits that are never sexual or gendered a priori are to be valued on the basis of the used gender and sexual categories. For this reason, it is possible to attack and easily dismantle the exclusionary TERFist argument: not only does it reside on a one-sided, ossified view of the gender/sex distinction, but it also depends upon? narrow and equally ossified sexual and gender categories. Such categories become evident in the cliché appeals to ‘basic biology’ on the one hand (as any science, biology is never ‘basic’), and to the traditional man/woman distinction on the other. On the contrary, embracing the fundamental arbitrariness of gender and sex categories allow us to both study the role of gender categories in human reproductive strategies and include (or exclude) whatever biological trait within one’s understanding, interpretation or even performance of gender. Moreover, the emphasis on this arbitrariness implies that traits in themselves - we could say, one’s real materiality of having this or that gonad, endocrinological values, or knees, for that matter - impose no norm on the person’s reproductive strategy on one hand, and on the understanding of their gender on the other. In much the same way a trait is adaptive, contributing to the organism’s fitness, only insofar as the organism survives and is selected. Traits pertain to sex or gender only insofar as they are sexualised or gendered. Finally, it is the organism bearing such traits the one determining whether, when and how they are sexualised or gendered - the human organism, in its developmental freedom. Consequently, the duty is left to biology (and to the other scientific disciplines) of describing such freedom, and thus validating it as real.

 

Trans* Developmental Freedom


Through its appeal to biology and biological reductionism, binary-reductionism assumes that biology offers a basis to regulate, normalise, and therefore abnormalise, people’s sex and gender.


More precisely, it assumes that organisms follow norms - moral norms, and to be explicit, the moral norms of western 19th century white patriarchy. Such norms are thought to determine what the organism is a priori, so that in surviving and reproducing, the organism realises its own being, it realises an adaptive norm. A male whale is really a male whale when it survives and reproduces as a male whale. Similarly, a human is really and fully human only when they submit themselves to whatever reproductive and survival strategy is thought to be normal. Specifically, they are human only in the way of this binary submission: either by being a male or a female (whose role, as we know, is assigned at birth). This interpretation of biology is mistaken for at least two reasons: it fails to recognise both the nature of development and its role in evolution.



There are indeed (phenotypic) ‘norms’ in biology - for example, reaction norms, statistically frequent and usually adaptive phenotypic expressions of an organism’s genotype (see i.e. Pigliucci, Phenotypic plasticity, in Pigliucci, Müller, op. cit.). Today’s biology, however, recognises such norms as the result of long evolutionary processes, where the developmental plasticity of the organisms (for example, the organism’s plastic response to environmental cues) leads the way, and the norm is constituted only afterwards. A norm can be an epiphenomenon and a final effect of an evolutionary phenomenon, but it can only come to be in the first place because of the intrinsically adaptive and plastic character of the organism’s development. In other words, it is not the norm that dictates what the organism is and does, but rather the free activity of organisms that determines the norm - which is ‘normal’ until proven otherwise. Such norms clearly do not satisfy the normative character that binary arguments expect to find in biology. Rather, they can be established in evolution only thanks to phenotypic plasticity - a crucial character of organismal development, systematically misrecognised by binary-reductionism’s outdated interpretation of biology. In addition to this, their evolutionary relevance is mainly connected to their very disruption - evolution is set in motion when organisms freely respond to their environment and experiences in new, ‘abnormal’ ways - for example, by reinterpreting the function of an old phenotypic trait in a new context (as expressed by the concept of exaptation, see Gould, Vrba, 1982).


Finally, we see how the organism is an inherently free developing being, and abnormalities have fundamental evolutionary relevance. Consequently, we can imagine how freely sexualising and gendering processes fall into the scope of today’s evolutionary views. Evolutionary biology recognises the organism as central to evolution in virtue of its ‘abnormality’, or more precisely, its plasticity and developmental freedom. Equally, against binary, biology-appropriating views, we can recognise free interpretations of sex and gender as constitutive of the evolution of human sex and gender. Sex and gender, in other words, are human characters, and as such, they can be thought as evolving. If they evolve, then they are subject to the very freedom of the living organisms. On this basis - as if there was ever a need for one - biology authorises our recognition of the inherent dignity of human free sexualisation and gendering, and refutes binary normativity.


We can more easily see how binary normativity unrightfully appropriates the authority of biological sciences for its exclusionary goals by looking at its typical mantra concerning the concept of transition: generally understood as changing one’s sex. Because of sex reductionism, the change of one’s gender is seen as a superficial and ‘merely cultural’ practice - a ‘mere performance’, accidental and unsubstantial, which does not affect one’s true sex. The reality as described by science is considered to be unchanging and unchangeable. Consequently, whatever sexual reality is thought to be described by biology, is thought to be what one cannot change, no matter how much a person alters their social performance of gender, and - here the true intentions of transphobia are revealed - what one must not change.


The appeal to biology is again unjustified. It is said that ‘biology dictates that sex cannot be changed’. Firstly, a pre-interpretation of sex is assumed - one that includes some characters and excludes others: therefore arbitrarily relying on one scientific categorisation instead of another (for non-scientific purposes). Particularly, characteristics that are harder to change, such as chromosomes, are included in the argument more frequently than others - to give the impression of unchangeability. Secondly, and most importantly, it is criminally ignored how, if anything, biology - especially evolutionary biology - is exactly a science of change. Take the famous case of sequential ‘hermaphroditism’ in clownfish (see i.e. Casas et al. 2016). To put it shortly, when the ‘female’ in a couple dies, the ‘male’ changes its sex to ‘become’ a ‘female’. Is not this an exemplary case of developmental plasticity, the organism’s ability to change its phenotype (morphology, anatomy, organs and functions) in response to environmental cues, and according to its needs? As we have seen, contemporary biology values plasticity as a major cause in evolutionary adaptive processes. Evolution starts with plasticity and - as paid witness to by the great biodiversity of our world - produces more plasticity and phenotypic variability. It could be argued that humans are not clownfish. And yet, most of our adaptations - the fundamental biological functions of any organism - are not anatomical, but social, cultural, and technological. In the eyes of the biologist, changing one’s hormones through HRT is an example of phenotypic adaptive plasticity as much as the season-related changes in wing colours and patterns of Precis octavia butterflies (see i.e. Pfenning et al. 2010).


Is it not true that the the the very possibility of transitioning, changing one’s phenotypes (secondary sexual traits for example) so to speak, through HRT attest to the plasticity of the human body and its ability to develop phenotypes in an integrated and coherent fashion, according to the endocrinological inputs it is submitted to? Hormone therapies affect the development just as much as diet, experiences, genetics, epigenetics and so on - both external and internal environmental inputs. The ability of the body to maintain and conserve its integrity through structured changes rests on its originary plasticity, understood both as its relative ability to change, and resist disruptive change (see again Pigliucci on plasticity and buffering, op. cit., pp. 357-362). It is developmental plasticity, a cardinal concept in today’s understanding of organismal development and evolution, what allows a person to transition through HRT. To put it into as poetical as rigorous terms, the human body (in virtue of its genome as much as of its development) always already includes different possibilities of phenotypic expression - ‘male’, ‘female’, and anything in between or beyond. Such possibilities are actualised throughout its whole development, in its dynamic and plastic relationship with its environment, experiences, and history. Transitioning is far from being something sui generis, or even unnatural - it is an essential possibility of humans as biological beings, made possible also through the aid of medical sciences and techniques. And it is important to remember (given those transphobes’ comically old-fashioned obsession with the natural/unnatural distinction) how medicine would not be possible at all if humans were not organisms, natural beings, in the first place (gods and angels need no medicines, nor do they need to change at all).

 

Conclusion: Queer Evolutionary Driver


Queer theory often states that the battleground for liberation is the body. At the same time the body, in its most extended sense - as that organism that develops, entertaining a dynamic relation with its environment, both shaping it and being shaped by it (plasticity and niche construction) - is at the centre of today’s ecological and developmental evolutionary biology. What can we learn from this apparently strange conjunction?


Evolution can be understood as the change, in time, of the developmental experiences of the organisms of a population - of the way they live, behave, reproduce, construct their niche, their society, and finally the way all of this reflects on their bodies. Human populations are constantly evolving throughout their entire history, especially thanks to the induced change in the very environments in which they have been living through the generations. Diets, labour, migrations, class divisions, racism, and so on continue to shape our phenotypic expression through time - by means of epigenetic, social, and finally ecological inheritance. We have still to even begin to ask ourselves how the ciswhiteheteropatriarchy - assumed as natural and therefore remained unquestioned circa its own consequences - has shaped our (social) reproductive strategies, our inheritance, and therefore our development. Similarly, we can barely still wonder about the evolutionary significance of queer practices, environments and experiences - especially if they were more widespread (and therefore not stigmatised) and over greater timescales. I propose here a thought experiment, inspired by (something akin to) Mario Mieli’s exhortation to ‘raise ourselves to transsexuality, as a concrete process of liberation’ (Mieli, 2018/2002, p. 20), taking seriously ‘the transsexual “nature” that lies within us all” (ivi, p. 208). Imagine that practices such as HRT and alike, usually considered as constitutive of a process of ‘trans-sexual’ transition, were far more widespread and common. This is certainly a circumstance that would require a whole queer reinterpretation of humanity’s relationship with sex and gendered bodies both as a society and as individuals, Perhaps, we may finally decouple one’s changes of sexual traits from any commitment to gender-related issues, to the point that such practices would impact society and future generations as much as diet, vaccinations and so on do.


What would the impact of such a revolution on human evolution be? How would it affect societal reproduction strategies? How would development evolve in a niche so differently constructed? What kind of acquired characters would be transmitted via epigenetic inheritance? How would our human ecosystems evolve?


What is interesting here is not the answer to these questions (after all, it is hard to conduct empirical research over a reality which does not exist yet), but what the very possibility of asking questions means. The ciswhiteheteropatriarchy has been, and is, an ecological niche. It deeply affects the development, reproduction, and inheritance of every single human organism born and living under it. It is, by all means, deeply embodied in all of us. Similarly, we can wonder about the evolutionary path of a population living, existing, developing, and reproducing in what we could call a queer ecosystem.


On the final note of such wondering, we can conclude. Firstly, transphobes are to be finally deprived of the illegitimate authorisation of biological sciences. Most importantly though, we gain a different and progressive relationship with biology, a science used and abused by racists and patriarchs for way too long. Contemporary developmental and ecological evolutionary biology allows us to formulate a different sense of the embodiment of sex and gender - one which does not ossify them into arbitrary ‘normalities’, but grounds them into the intrinsic mutability of organisms. As modes of our very biological ever-developing and ever-evolving existence, sex and gender are constantly, quite literally, trans-muting.

 

Bibliography


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By Riccardo Cuciniello, ed. by Emil-Dorian McHale, published 05/05/2022.






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