Some smart people have confused the issue
Both major POV's in general on the subject have some validation, but most are focused on a very narrow minded question that think implies large meanings. This topic is in the Metabiology realm that includes psychology as the major founder, philosophy, biology, religions, both metaphysics and quantum physics, Chemistry, and a slew of theoretical studies. All that combines into morphological theo-socio-psycho-neuro-immuno-psychology metaphysics. Meaning I agree with both POVs to some degree, but the POVs need to move away from biological evidence vs not biological. The entity controlling my human body cells are have a societal and reproductive biological gender, but the cells themselves do not have a gender identity or sex depending on definition unless you redraw the defining lines which is not always advisable especially in times of social flux. However consider this, if we start redefining how we view our bodies and who is in control of all those cells, then airborne skin cell and aromatics from deification in a bathroom can be considered assault and even sexual assault. Biological sex can differ from the society role that one might want to play in the form of gender identity that doesn't always conflict in theory but does cause a lot of internal and external friction or division that normally leads to a break down in the strength of the pattern holder or soul. Love yourself enough to embrace your born sex either chosen by divine choice or self choice into existence, which is your part of your identity as male sex are males and to say otherwise is to be in conflict with yourself. Imagine, if I was born a buffalo but identify as a lion, how long with it take them eat me even if I had a symbiotic relationship where I lured other buffalo into traps and tried to eat them as well. My body would probably reject that type nourishment and I would probably be the backup meal if I survived that long unless you subscribe to the cultivation propagation vegetation theories in which living things that are helped to procreate in masses by those who eat most of the offspring (veggies in this case) some call harvest and the other POV is culling like Hitler attempted.
“The key point to remember is that cells, genes, or molecules don’t have gender identities any more than your lungs or liver can fall in love.”
Every cell in my body has a sex. No cell in my body has a gender identity. I find the sex denialism embedded in this social contagion of gender identity particularly egregious and intolerable.
This is a great article! The relationships between brain phenomena and experiential states of mind is articulated here more clearly than in any other literature I have read on the meaning of "gender identity."
I would like to suggest a couple other ways that one's mental identity is connected to one's physical being. For most people beginning before birth, there is active interaction with ones own body, consisting of mouthing, manipulating with fingers, looking and so on. In normal development individuals feel that their bodies are themselves. They respond to loss of body parts through injuries and diseases with fear, horror and grief.
When people get into puberty, especially in current American culture, they pay a lot of attention to what their body looks like. This is a very big deal for adolescent females and is a major contributor to self-image, self-esteem, ability to enjoy one's body, and to specific positive or negative self-evaluations of one's attractiveness to peers. So, the concrete reality of a person's body and one's ability to connect with it as "self" are central to identity, and in this area many if not all trans-identified people do not value their bodies or regard them as the basis of their identities, but instead they want to "get rid of" body parts that "are not me" and not "how I want to look."
Another area where I often see confusion involves the degree of linkage between behavioral traits, preferences and so on that we might regard as masculine or feminine, and sex differences. There are significant differences between men and women in some behaviors, such as differences in kinds of aggressive behavior that males and females do, especially when they are young. I don't agree with the theory that all "gendered" behavior is entirely socially constructed, because I think that there are factors like testosterone and estrogen that influence sex differences in preferences and behaviors, when they occur.
I was lucky enough to be a copytaker (specialist audiotypist taking dictation over the phone from reporterss in the field) during the last gasp of mainstream media profitability and viability.
Good reporters had a technique for surviving the ideological biases of their newspapers. Some lurid declaration would go into the first paragraph, followed by the facts. Which were sometimes in opposition to the supposed line they were taking.
It wasn't ideal but an attentive reader could still get an accurate picture. But you had to know how to read it.
Similarly, I've read that in Soviet times, reporters would write: "Capitalist provocateurs have been apprehended stirring up false rumours that there are bread shortages in Murmansk," and everyone who read it understood that there were bread shortages in Murmansk.
Is that what's going on in the Academy now?
We may be a little closer to identifying the neural networks associated with a transgender identity. See
"Possible Neurobiological Underpinnings of Homosexuality and Gender Dysphoria" https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/29/5/2084/5062356 They made two observations: 1) That brain morphology (physical structure) of transgender subjects was indistinguishable from their natal sex, once homosexuality was taken into account. 2) That brain connectivity (functional connections) in the self-referential network was weakened in the transgender subjects. This means that transwomen and transmen showed a unique brain feature that was not present in cis heterosxual or cis homosexual people. However, it's unknown whether this weakening of the self-referential network precedes GD or is the result of rumination associated with GD. And it's difficult to parse out with this particular research dataset because 80% of participants were childhood onset and 20% were post-pubertal onset. But there's something there ... listen to the stories of trans-ID people and detransitioners and you'll see that rumination and obsessive thoughts are a common to both.
Note also that self-referential brain network they studied here is also weakened in people with conditions like anorexia and body dysmorphia. And that network is part of the default mode network which is altered in ADHD, anxiety, and self-referential processes like rumination, craving, and avoidance.
Thank you, thank you for hosting this site and writing this piece. It takes work to find the underlying research, read, understand, and then objectively summarize. It takes time for readers to then read what you write to better understand the findings AND what the inconsistencies in the media are. You make us think better. So thank you.
I, too, began many years ago before Substack to be bothered by the misalignment btwn actual reports or legal opinions or research papers and public popular media summaries. https://seethegaps.org/2018/10/05/gaps-in-information/. So glad Substack and thoughtful writers and readers like you are finding their way to each other.
This is very interesting and I really appreciate your article. There are a lot of people misusing biology to promote their views. The traditionalists (both left and right wing) want to use a simple high school level biological definition of sex where chromosomal make-up determines whether you are male or female. They will argue that since you can't change your chromosomes your sex is immutable. But we know biology is much more complicated. Sex can be viewed as a species level strategy for reproduction. Each species that reproduces sexually combines gametes using a male and female strategies. However, each individual does not need to fall into either binary category for the species to reproduce. There are many species where individuals can be male and female simultaneously or sequentially. Perhaps it makes more sense to talk about each human as having one of two sexual strategies that is immutable (at least currently) but not necessarily tied to sex of the individual. I don't know if innate sex is immutable but it does appear to be extremely resistant to change. Most people would be horrified if you persistently treated them as anything but their birth sex or forced them to change their primary or secondary sex characteristics in some horrible experiment. They have an innate sex that matches their birth sex. Only a very small minority has an innate sex that differs from birth sex. I don't think we have very good numbers but I have seen it estimated at around 0.3 percent. This minority would be considered trans. So when we talk about sex being binary it makes sense for the species to have male and female strategies but not necessarily only one way to be male or female at the level of the individual. Clearly there are trans females who can have a male sexual strategy (transmitting sperm to impregnate). Conversely there are trans males who can have a female sexual strategy (become pregnant and give birth). We can be a lot more flexible in defining sex at the individual level if we don't limit ourselves by linking sex to sexual strategy. We can for example include such things as innate sex as a key attribute of sex along with many other attributes including chromosomes.
Wonderfully written. It's a shame how sexist this movement is. If a child isn't a stereotype, they're told there's something wrong with them. Not to mention it targets those who have mental conditions or are otherwise unstable.
I escaped from this cult a while ago. The road to freedom is a bumpy one, but it's better than being a toxic, angry, sad, manipulated--and ultimately delusional--clergyman of the Church of Gender.
Great essay and discussion of the science. I wonder, though, by making gender ideology “science-y” we aren’t missing the point. Has anyone tried to see if there are Hindu biomarkers or Christian fMRI signatures? I seem to remember that the latter has been attempted. And what about “studies” of self-reported well-being after religious conversion? I would bet good money you could justify encouraging kids to convert (on stronger statistical evidence) to a particular religion if you repeat the procedures outlined in the first paper, but substitute gender ideology with any other world religion in the right environment. Say, conversion to Mormonism while living in Salt Lake City.
At the end of the day, transgenderism is a cult. And people can have their cults, what do I care. Unfortunately this is a mutilation cult that is destroying kids lives and families (including my own - I wouldn’t be commenting here if it wasn’t affecting me.) It has as much “biological basis” as any other cult or religion. Indeed, if we ran a transgender study with conversion to Evangelical Christianity as a control, I bet all the “biological” benefits would point to better improvements with established religion (provided it was done in the right social context)
Thanks for your careful unpicking of erroneous "facts" and conflated concepts in the limited research available on the claimed biological underpinnings -- or not -- of gender "identity", pushed as gender ideology. It brings a refreshing clarity to issues too often wrapped up in impenetrable deconstructionist word-salad, often as misogynist polemics: and puts such flimsy assertions firmly in their place.
If I'm understanding you correctly, what you're doing here is highlighting the oft-overlooked interplay between environmental (I would argue that the distinction between environment and culture is fuzzy) and biological factors where the topic of gender identity is being discussed.
Fair enough, but I'm pretty apprehensive about the way in which you've described our epistemology around the whole phenomenon. You're very nearly excusing a lack of epistemic rigor by attributing almost irreducible complexity to the system (i.e. we'll never have a test for these things) and sort of suggesting that the proposed mechanism simply isn't an important part of the hypothesis(?) Admittedly, this is an ungenerous read and I don't think that's what you were honestly trying to imply, but the read is there and - in my submission - it's lower hanging fruit than the more nuanced parse.
Anyway, that's just a bit of feedback regarding my experience with the article. Overall, I appreciate the point that you're making and spent a good while traipsing through the hyperlinks. Perhaps, eventually, with enough effort, empathy and patience we'll discover the secret to unlocking cross-ideology conversation on this thorniest of subjects.
When I first started reading, I thought this was disingenuous - of course your thoughts are biological in the sense that they are electrical signals within your physical brain, but clearly there’s a distinction between that and a trait like eye color. But as I read, I realized the point I think you were making - it’s very difficult to separate what’s nature from what’s nurture. Traits that we consider psychological can have a strong genetic correlation. A propensity for violence, for example, seems to have a genetic basis according to some studies. Every thought you have, then, is due to some combination of your genetic makeup and your history and environment, and is expressed as electrical activity within a physical brain that’s been shaped by your past experiences.
But I do think it’s useful (if difficult) to try to draw a line between things that can change and things that can’t. There are primary genetic characteristics like eye color or a predisposition to diabetes, that are completely unchangeable. There are things like height, or actually developing diabetes, that are influenced by a combination of genetics and environment but which are physically measurable and result in changes to your physical body that can’t be changed after the fact. And then there are emotions, thoughts, states of mind, which can’t be observed. Evidence shows that some of these rarely if ever change after maturity (sexual orientation, IQ), while others change frequently (mood, romantic feelings, opinions on political topics, religious beliefs). It seems likely that the previous category is based on the physical structure of your brain and the chemicals in it, that could be measured if we knew where to look, while the latter category is based on the electrical impulses. You can think of it as the difference between computer hardware and software. The hardware is fixed, but if you run a different program or input different data into it, you’ll get different results.
The core debate here is which of these categories gender identity falls into. Of course the activists treat it as fact that it’s akin to eye color - an immutable characteristic that we could measure if we only knew which gene and brain structure to look at. It’s the hardware. But there’s a lot of evidence that’s not the case (the meteoric rise in cases, the clustering of cases, and the switch from it primarily occurring in males to being far more prevalent in females). So how do we characterize it? I think it falls into the last category - along with political and religious beliefs. Evidence shows it’s an opinion that can change.
If I understand you correctly, your point is that of course biology creates gender identity, because biology creates everything we feel and think about ourselves. Without our neurons and neurotransmitters and all the other concrete features and functions of the brain and body, there would be no thought, no identities, no concepts, no nothing.
However, I wish you had been just a bit more concrete and specific regarding the ways (or any way at all) that biology creates gender identity. Is it a side effect, or an extension, of circulating hormones and the way they affect the brain? Or whatever. I would have appreciated just a bit of actual biological science related to the issue.
Unless your point is that it's impossible to be any more specific, because the brain and personal experience of each person is too complex and unique to codify in general terms?
A very well written essay with which I strongly agree except for a limited if yet important caveat.
For instance: these are irrefutable!
It just means that your self-perception is your self-perception. It’s unknowable to anybody else until you reveal it.
Every individual should be respected, accepted, included, and have the opportunity to live the best life that they can.
The following however are true with an important caveat:
Hence, “gender identity” is a product of biology because brain activity is biology.
There are no factors other than biology, environment, and culture that could influence gender identity.
The important caveat - if scientistic materialism is true, then these statements are true as is. If, however, transcendent spirituality is reality beyond nature per se, then the true understanding would state ‘gender identity is a function of biology, environment, and culture as these influence spiritually embodied male or female persons’. In a world understood to be created by God (a view of reality that transcends science which is only able to see nature and not natures Creator), then human persons must be understood as spiritually embodied souls whose self perceptions are influenced importantly by their Creator’s designs.
I feel like philosophy is the way in and you've muddied rather than clarified. Cohn is pointing out that gender identity theory requires something innate distinct from an internal sense of identity. The GIT claim is that there really is a core gender identity which we can know about, embedded in our biology but distinct from our sex. There needs to be a real independent gender identity to be able to make a claim that people are born in the wrong body.
If it's just an internal sense of ourselves, as a psychosocial interaction (already covered by the existing ideas of gender btw) then there could be no justification for altering bodies because this construct is influenced by many different factors (including psychotherapeutic treatments), could be mistaken (are all our internal senses of things true?), or would naturally be impacted by our culture, peer group etc. This is just what we already know about the self and identity and does not require a special gender identity.
The only thing I think you didn't cover is the sizable number of people such as myself who would say, "What gender identity?" We tend to think of "gender identity" as so much made-up crap.
And endocrinologists! These people would happily kill me as they know nearly zero about hypothyroidism and its treatment. The endocrinologist my partner saw about his blackouts / seizures wanted him to go to a lab for a glucose tolerance test. I told her he would black out if he had to fast for any length of time then be subjected to sugar in the form of orange juice (and, of course, with no proper supervision). She still couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. A hospitalist heard the symptoms and knew right away what was wrong; he has acute metabolic encephalopathy. You don't want to know what I would like to do to endocrinologists and surgeons.