By Robert Sapolsky
Somewhere in the middle of the night in a Central African rainforest, a chimpanzee gives birth. Soon after, as the sun rises, mother and newborn sit there, dazed, amid a coffee klatch of friends and relatives. Inevitably, at some point, virtually every member of the group will come over, pull the kid’s legs apart and sniff: Boy or girl?
It’s the most binary question in biology, producing an answer that is set in stone. But in reality the binary nature of gender isn’t all that binary after all. Biologists have long known about exceptions to the boring, staid notion that organisms are, and remain, either female or male. Now our culture is inching toward recognizing that the permanent, cleanly binary nature of gender is incorrect.
In fact, it’s headline news. Bruce Jenner, a male gold medalist in the 1976 Olympics and a cover boy on a Wheaties box, is now Caitlyn Jenner, a 2015 cover girl on Vanity Fair. Laverne Cox, a transgender actor, is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding actress. America has seen openly transgendered individuals serve as a mayor, state legislator, judge, police officer, a model for a global cosmetics brand, and a high school homecoming queen. Even amid the appallingly high rates of discrimination and violence against the transgendered, there is a growing recognition that gender designation need not be permanent.
Many people are questioning whether there is even such a thing as “gender.” These are individuals whose psychosexual self-image may be of both genders, a third gender, no gender, or whose visceral perception of the social world does not include implicitly seeing people as gendered.
This new continent was formalized by as august and ancient an institution as Facebook, which offers 58 gender specification options on one’s profile page. These include Agender, Bigender, Intersex, Gender Fluid, Gender Questioning, Non-binary, Pangender, and my two favorites—Two-spirit, with a vaguely Native American grooviness to it, and Other, which basically implies that, Whoa, Nellie, we’ve barely scratched the surface!
In many ways the most radical departures from a binary gender system comes with gamers who spend virtually their entire lives role-playing as their avatars in a virtual world. Be whoever you want—male, female, neither, a hybrid. Be whatever you want—bonobo, parakeet, centaur, Lord Vishnu. Heck, pick the right site and you can spend years online as some paramecium trying to evolve multi-cellularity. And have relationships with other people’s avatars in the process. All easily done, since the physical, phenotypic reality of what kind of body you have is irrelevant online.
Given all this—permanent, binary gender designation becoming increasingly fuzzy—one might expect it won’t be long before it will be non-existent. Unfortunately, society is only going to get so far down that road before it’s stymied by a cognitive feature of our brains. Before we hit that roadblock, though, let’s review just how far our knowledge of gender has come.
Picture: xJason.Rogersx [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons