Bioethics Blogs

Sex/Gender: Part II: What’s Fixed, Changeable, Changing? by Constance Cummings

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

FPR-UCLA 2016 Conference Summary

Part 2 of the FPR-UCLA conference on sex/gender, which was chaired by cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, explored aspects of brain and behavior that are “fixed” by evolution and biology and other aspects that create, reflect, and respond to human social and cultural environments. Speakers in the first session addressed, in Darwin’s phrase, the “entangled bank” of biological, evolutionary, and cultural contexts of sex/gender differences in brain and behavior, while the second session offered a closer examination of “intimacies”– partnerships, marriage, sexual orientations, desires, and practices. A common theme throughout was the instability of the sex/gender binary or, as Carol Worthman observed, the “loss of easy dichotomies” more generally. Perspectives varied widely depending on level of analysis, but there was a general willingness to “work with and speak across difference” (Worthman).

For neurobiologist Donald Pfaff, who presented experimental research focusing on autism, sex is a biological category/variable. Other speakers were more willing to extrapolate from biology, and in so doing, challenge what Sarah Richardson referred as our “essentialist” understandings. For social neuroendocrinologist Sari van Anders, even a “quintessential” male hormone like testosterone can be deconstructed (van Anders, 2013). Another common theme was gender-role and sexual fluidity, addressed from evolutionary (Fessler), hormonal (Rilling, van Anders), and situational/contextual (Diamond) perspectives. Finally, field research by anthropologists (Borgerhoff Mulder and Boellstorff) in non-Western and virtual settings underscored human flexibility and adaptiveness.

The talks revealed significant advances in our understanding of the underlying mechanisms and dynamic aspects of sex/gender-related behavior and their exquisite attunement to historically and culturally specific environments.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.