Bioethics Blogs

Sex/Gender: Part I: Why Now? by Constance Cummings

A Critical Moment: Sex/Gender Research at the Intersections of Culture, Brain, and Behavior

FPR-UCLA 2016 Conference Summary

Emerging theories in neuroscience – fueled by new technologies in brain imaging and recording along with torrents of new data – offer a profoundly different view of the human brain – part of a “tangled skein” of extended brain-body-behavior networks that are dynamic, plastic, adaptable, and “in constant dialog” with the environment (Rebeiz, Patel, & Hinman, 2015; Byrge, Sporns, & Smith, 2014). At the same time, shifts in how we think about sex determination, sexual differentiation, sexual orientation, and gender identities, as well as significant changes in the ecologies of sex and gender driven by globalization, are forcing us to reconsider our theoretical ideas and categories. These shifts have sparked entirely new sets of questions, debates, and tensions both between the neuro- and social sciences and in terms of addressing sex/gender disparities. The organizers of the FPR’s 6th interdisciplinary conference at UCLA (October 23–24, 2015) identified this juncture as a “critical moment” for integrating ideas from different fields on sex/gender in culture, brain, and behavior. Co-chaired by biologist Art Arnold and anthropologists Gil Herdt and Carol Worthman, the conference sought to address the following questions: Why now? What’s fixed, changeable, changing? What’s at stake, what makes a difference and why?

Anne Fausto-Sterling (Brown University), who gave the keynote talk (“Gender as Process Not Trait: Dynamic Approaches to the Origins of Difference During Infancy” link to video), studies infants from a dynamic systems theoretic perspective, with a focus on the processes underlying the emergence of male/female differences in “the big three” – language, motor activity, and toy preference – by age three.

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