The Knot of Natural Difference

‘Female’ and ‘male’ are biological categories arising in a specific system of reproduction. Humans share this division with a vast array of animal and plant species. Non-sexual reproduction is characteristic of simpler life forms, and some relatively complex ones up to the fungi, algae and sponges. Some more complex species, like strawberries and orchids, alternate between sexual and non-sexual reproduction. On the whole, however, the more advanced species reproduce sexually. It seems that the sexual division of function in reproduction has been a major feature in

the evolution of life-______ …________ .—■— ——————

f Tnour culture the reproductive dichotomy is assumed to be the ( absolute basis of gender and sexuality in everyday life. TThis is not Srtrtr uf alhcultures. but it is so strongly marked in ours that biological or pseudo-biological accounts of gender relations have wide popular credibility. Books like The Naked Ape, The Imperial Animal and The Selfish Gene carry rival versions of this message to a very large public. For many people the notion of natural sex difference forms a limit beyond which thought cannot go. Debates about sexual politics often end with the assertion that men and women are ultimately different, as a self-evident proposition that closes off further discussion. It is seen as a knock-out argument by many opponents of feminism.

So powerful is this assumption that it has been able to co-opt intellectual currents initially unsympathetic to biologism, such as role theory, psychoanalysis and feminism itself. For instance, in Maccoby and Jacklin’s The Psychology of Sex Differences it is striking

how different are the authors’ attitudes to biological and social explanations of observed differences in traits like aggressiveness. Biological explanations clearly have priority, when they are available, and social explanations are residual. Freud’s method pointed the way to one of the most radically social analyses of sex and gender yet proposed. Yet Freud believed in ultimate biological determinism and his followers have repeatedly drifted towards that view. Theodore Reik, for instance, rests a very long essay on ‘the emotional differences of the sexes’ on a simple biological determination; while Robert May in Sex and Fantasy can think of no other organizing principle for his studies of schizophrenia, imagination and myth than the natural difference between women and men.

Early second-wave feminism often implied that all sex differences are socially produced. During the 1970s, as shown in Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine’s The Future of Difference, a good many Western feminists again began emphasizing difference and celebrating what was specifically feminine. And a significant number abandoned the idea that what was ‘specifically feminine’ was socially produced. Notions of ineradicable difference have proliferated: the idea that men are mutants from the true (female) stock; the idea that men are ‘biological aggressors’ or ‘natural rapists’; the idea of‘metaphysical difference’; the idea that women as nurturers must save the world from male wars and technology.

In this chapter I will argue that doctrines of natural difference, whatever their political complexion, are fundamentally mistaken. This is not to contest the facts of reproductive biology, nor to deny their interest and importance for understanding human life. What I will challenge is the assumption that the biological make­up of our bodies is the ‘basis’, ‘foundation’, ‘framework’, ‘essence’, or ‘mould’ of the social relations of gender. The argument accepts that there is a strong relation between social practice and biology; indeed ‘gender’ would be inconceivable without it. I will propose that this relation has a very different character from that assumed by theorists of natural difference.

There are two main versions of the doctrine of natural difference. The first takes society to be epiphenomenal to nature, the second sees the two as additive.

In the first type of theory, biology (or ontology as its surrogate) determines gender. Society registers what nature decrees – or becomes sick if it doesn’t. The best-known examples are the pseudo-evolutionary accounts of masculinity and femininity in texts like Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, Lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups and The Imperial Animal, George Gilder’s Sexual Suicide – the literature dubbed by Marshall Sahlins ‘vulgar sociobiology’. The basic point of view is neatly summarized by Morris:

Behind the facade of modern city life there is the same old naked ape. Only the names have been changed: for ‘hunting’ read ‘working’, for ‘hunting grounds’ read ‘place of business’, for ‘home base’ read ‘house’, for ‘pair-bond’ read ‘marriage’, for ‘mate’ read ‘wife’, and so on. … It is the biological nature of the beast that has moulded the social structure of civilisation, rather than the other way around.

Tiger and Fox’s imagery is different but the idea is the same:

Natural selection has produced an animal that has to behave culturally, that has to invent roles, make myths, speak languages and form men’s clubs. … Agricultural and industrial civilizations have put nothing into the basic wiring of the human animal. We are wired for hunting. … And we are wired basically on a primate model.

I have called this literature ‘pseudo-biological’ because it does not in fact rest on serious biological investigation of human social life, as for instance ecological studies of industry do. Rather it rests on a series of loose analogies, which, as Marie de Lepervanche notes, are changed by logical slides into taken-for-granted facts. The basic logic is exactly the reverse of what it is claimed to be. The argument starts with an interpretation of current social life (in Morris’s case an interpretation that is sexist, ethnocentric and often factually wrong) and reads this back into a speculative prehistory. ‘Evolution’ is called in to justify the social patterns these authors advocate, under the guise of explanation. Tiger, for instance, ends up talking about which social arrangements are and are not ‘biologically healthy’ – by which he means that they conform to his view of human evolution as a hunting species.

It is difficult to take this literature seriously as science. The social analysis is crude in the extreme. The understanding of ‘evolution’ itself is obsolete. The fundamental problem of understanding the shift from organic evolution to history is obliterated by the biological reduction. Yet these arguments are
extremely popular. This is partly to do with a touch of salacious humour (breasts as buttocks, the corporate executive as anthropoid ape). More fundamentally it comes from their mirror construction. They reflect what is familiar back as ‘science’, and justify what many readers wish to believe.

A serious attempt to repair these deficiencies has been made by the ‘scientific sociobiologists’ led by E. O. Wilson. In a chapter of On Human Nature Wilson applies the calculus of genetic advantage to show how ‘human sexuality can be much more precisely defined with the aid of the new advances in evolutionary theory’. It is curious how traditional the ‘new advances’ turn out to be. Wilson’s argument recites differences in athletic performance, studies of twins and the like to reject a ‘totally environmental explanation’ of sex differences, proffers the universality of the family, and tries to show that homosexuality has a genetic explanation – thus assuming that homosexuality is a unitary trait and reverting to concepts that became obsolete in sexology seventy years ago.

The conceptual confusions underlying ‘sociobiology’ as a school of thought are now reasonably well understood. An impoverished understanding of biology, and of the process of evolution itself, underlies the slides between social institutions and biological advantage. As Sahlins shows for Wilson’s general argument, and Janet Sayers shows in Biological Politics for gender specifically, the sociobiologists’ arguments ignore the facL-i&a^-ku-rnan action is highly structured in a collective sensefitis constituted interactively, not by context-free individual predispositions. A war, for instance, is a^sociaT-arid—тШШГ і on al process _ wfiTm, iris tory^- nо t-the aim total of several hundred thousand genetic predfspasitions-towards,. aggressiwn-esST’Mpst strikingly, sociobiology for all its claims to scientific explanation cannot produce for inspection the mechan­isms of biological causation. Wilson, for instance, in his essay on sex, is reduced to speculations like this: ‘Sexual love and the emotional satisfaction of family life can be reasonably postulated to be based on enabling mechanisms in the physiology of the brain that have been programmed to some extent through the genetic hardening of this compromise.’ The triple caution (‘reasonably postulated’ – ‘enabling’ – ‘to some extent’) shows, as clearly as language can, that Wilson here is simply guessing. And guesswork is what this literature mostly offers on the actual determination of social life.

Подпись: £<f (U, І/ ck: Подпись:This gives a particular interest to Steven Goldberg’s version of

biological determination in The Inevitability of Patriarchy. Though somewhat dated, it is a serious attempt to do what Wilson and others avoid, providing a detailed account of the mechanisms linking biological difference and social inequality. It is worth xamining as a type of argument.

From physiological research Goldberg takes the finding of differences in average blood concentrations of particular hormones, especially testosterone, between men and women. From psych – opharmacological research he takes the findings of some differences in average performance, on certain tests, of animals and people with differing levels of these (or other) hormones in their bloodstream. He deduces that these hormones cause differences in social behaviour which give an ‘aggression advantage’ to men over women. This explains both the sexual division of labour and patriarchal power structure. In competition for jobs of any importance, men have the edge in assertiveness. It is rational for women to accept a subordinated position rather than exhaust themselves in a competition for power where they are constantly dragged down by their hormones. Therefore we have social arrangements that allocate home-making to women, competitive striving in the world of business to men.


‘ The logical error in the later stage of this argument is easy to see. Goldberg postulates a situation of open competition in order to explain institutional arrangements that prevent open competition. In fact, as far as real historical evidence goes, a situation of free соmpetHibn-between-women and men – or among rrten~r^jias-.never – existed; it is_a rhetorical device constructed by social-contract theo^ts in-ahe sevenJua^n-h century. A more complex slide occurs earlier in the argument. Goldberg’s argument moves from (average’)differences in hormone concentrations to ‘feateporicaldifferences in social behaviour.

A difference between two groups on average is compatible with a great overlap in distributions. So far as mainstream psychologists have succeeded in measuring traits like aggressiveness, a great deal of overlap between women and men is exactly what they do find (see chapter 8). It is not credible to start from a-small – average-difference-within-a-large-overlap and deduce the insti­tutional exclusion of women as a group from major political authority or economic power that is evident in the data on state and business elites in chapter 1. This problem is sufficiently serious to lead sociobiologists sometimes to speak of society ‘amplifying’ natural ’sex differences, and thus to move towards the additive framework

to-he discussed shortly. —————–

(ТЪе biological-reductionist argument! then, is too weak for at least~5OTne" ol tTTC~-stTdnjTphenomena~ it tries to explain. In other respects it is too strong. The idea that differences in hormone levels reach out through the complex situational, personal and collective determinants of individual behaviour to remain the ultimate determinants of its social consequences, supposes a lechariism-QiLhormonal control far mor£_pawe^fid-than physiologi – _researcb—has—aetualhyjound. A typical conclusion by the physiologists is stated by Anke Erhardt and Heino Meyer-Bahlburg in a recent review of research on the ‘effects of prenatal sex hormones on gender-related behaviour’ – an area where hormonal effects might reasonably be expected..Some hormonal influence is probable, they conclude, but the effects are subtle. The social events of a child’s upbringing are plainly the major influencdHthe development of gender identity seems to depend largely on th<* spyTgTrpfirlrTgA not on hormonal dlsTTTrmnation.

Tins might lead to a doctrine of weak’biological determination of social patterns; but even that would be speculative. It is worth noting that over the last century a whole series of attempts has been mounted to prove the biological determination of various forms of social inequality. Arguments for racial differences in courage and intelligence, the heritability of IQ, the heritability of mental disorder, parallel the arguments for innate sex differences in temperament and ability. In none of these cases has a mechanism been discovered that would translate the proposed biological cause into complex ^patterns ofTmiiyiduaPbeliaviour. let alone social institutions. In all of them, serious questions have been raised about the validity of the data used to establish a significant biological effect at all.

f It is possible that there are some innate differences in tempera – I ment or ability between women and men. The hypothesis cannot / be ruled out entirely. But if they exist, we can say quite confidently / that they are not the basis of major social institutions. We can j also say that in terms of human evolution they pale into insignificance beside the common capacities of women and men. These are the human ‘species characteristics’ of capacity for language, intellect and imagination, upright stance, thumb oppo­sition and manipulation, tool-making and tool-using and extended childhood and parenting, that mark us off from other species and

are constituents of the evolutionary jump to human society. These characteristics are shared between the sexes, and there is no good reason to doubt that the shift from biological evolution to history was also a shared accomplishment.

Once this shift was accomplished – and it would seem we are talking about a process taking two or three million years – the basis existed for a relationship between the body and behaviour that was radically different from relationships governed by organic evolution. [Biological reductionism, in essence, is two or three million years out of date:~f~^————————————— ‘——————————— —

A variant of reductionism sees biology not as fixing individual characteristics, but as setting limits within which social arrange­ments may vary. All societies, a familiar argument runs, must reproduce themselves and their members, and therefore must accommodate and sustain the sexual and social relationships that produce new people. All societies, therefore, must accommodate themselves to the biological facts of sex. It is usually inferred that all societies must be based on the nuclear family or some variant of it. The functionalist tone of this argument is not hard to detect, and its classics are found in American social science in the heyday of functionalism, such as the work ofTalcott Parsons and Margaret Mead. It is textbook orthodoxy (a) that the nuclear family is universal, (b) because it is the social form that responds to universal biological demands for sex and reproduction. A society that wanders beyond these limits will collapse, or come under terrible strain. Therefore – according to Parsons – every society has sanctions against homosexuality, so as to reinforce the differen­tiation of sex roles and protect the family.

This version of reductionism may sound more plausible than sociobiology; at least it sounds more social. Its difficulty is that the biological constraints proposed are so feeble that they explain almost nothing. An enormous range of social arrangements are consistent with the occurrence of enough heterosexual intercourse to reproduce the species. An enormous range of economic arrange­ments are consistent with giving children enough care for them to survive and grow. On the issue of sexual object-choice it is simply not true that all societies prohibit homosexuality. In quite a number of societies homosexuality is institutionalized as part of the social and religious order, for example in the New Guinea culture studied by Gilbert Herdt. The real force of the limits-to- variation version of biological reductionism is that, like sociobiol-

ogy, it is a mirror structure, reflecting familiar social arrangements back to the reader as what is required by nature.


The second major type off natural-difference! theory drops the notion of constraint in favour of an additive conception of society and nature. Biology, in this line of thought, establishes a certain difference between human females and males, but this is insufficient for the complexity of social life. It must be added to, built upon. Society therefore culturally elaborates the distinction between the sexes. Clothing is a familiar example. There are modest differences in average physique between men and women. Society exaggerates them, for instance with garments that emphasize women’s breasts or men’s penises and makes them categorical, for instance by putting women in skirts and men in trousers. Different societies elaborate the distinction of sex in different ways. Research into the variations produces the ethnography of exotic clothing, kinship and sexual customs that has titillated Western readers since anthropology began.

Sociobiology sometimes tilts towards an additive conception, as in Wilson’s remark that ‘the physical and temperamental differences between men and women have been amplified by culture into universal male dominance’. Most commonly, however, additive conceptions of gender are found in sex-role theory and liberal feminism. The now very large literature on sex-role socialization proceeds with impressive unanimity along additive lines, tracing out the ways society improves on nature’s handiwork in shaping little girls and little boys. The very term /‘sex/role’/sums up the additive approach.

This may be turned in a critical direction, because some room for social choice is implied. Liberal-feminist sex-role theory condemns the way the addition is currently done, especially the imposition of derogatory stereotypes and submissive behaviour on women. Maccoby and Jacklin put this critical view with particular clarity:

We suggest that societies have the option of minimizing, rather than maximizing, sex differences through their socialization practices. A society could for example, devote its energies more toward moderat­ing male aggression than toward preparing women to submit to male aggression, or toward encouraging rather than discouraging

male nurturance activities. In our view, social institutions and social practices are not merely reflections of the biologically inevitable. A variety of social institutions are viable within the framework set by biology. It is up to human beings to select those that foster the life styles they most value.

The most striking thing about this passage is the contradiction between the notion of ‘a society’ as a freely choosing agent and the underlying sense of biological constraint. If social arrangements are ‘not merely reflections’ of biological inevitability it is still clear that Maccoby and Jacklin think they are substantially so. This passage comes from an argument against Goldberg’s hormonal version of biological reductionism. But the difference at this point is slight: it is mainly that Goldberg thinks social training should reinforce natural difference while Maccoby and Jacklin think it should not. The framework is not greatly different. Indeed Wilson, the high priest of sociobiology, reproduces almost exactly Maccoby and Jacklin’s argument about societal choice on a basis of natural difference; he professes neutrality.

The critical content of liberal feminism, then, is consistent with the concept of natural difference. It presumes that a kind of base – level gender distinction is left when we strip away the pancake make-up or the Playboy philosophy. This basal difference is taken to be unoppressive because it is natural. So, for instance, Betty Friedan in The Second Stage can look to a post-feminist future which takes the comforting shape of the family. For her and many others the underlying reality includes an unchallenged heterosexuality as the taken-for-granted shape of sexual attraction. It begins to look as if we are in the land of mirrors again.

Objections to the idea of natural difference usually take the form of extra emphasis on the social end of an additive conception of gender. This is what happens when sex-role theory is used to combat crude nativism. A notable example is the 1970s literature on masculinity, where ape-man reductionism was challenged by role theorists.

This line of argument runs into two main difficulties. Because the underlying conception of gender is additive, the effect of this extra emphasis on the social is to minimize the importance of the body. Therefore the argument loses its grip on what people do find central in their experience of sex and gender: pleasure, pain, body-image, arousal, youth and ageing, bodily contact, childbirth and suckling. Second, the correct relative weighting of social versus biological determinations is never accurately established in practice. The ‘addition’ remains an aspiration. And the weighting cannot be assumed equal in all departments of life. So this objection always remains a statement of opinion with no logical force.

There are, nevertheless, two arguments against the doctrine of natural difference that cut deeper and apply to all its forms. The first is developed in a brilliant though little-recognized book by the American sociologists Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna. Tn Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach they demonstrate that the scientific as well as the popular literature on sexuality and gender works within a cultural framework in which the ‘natural attitude’ (in the technical sense of ethnomethodology – i. e. the everyday stance) is to take gender as strictly dichotomous and unchanging. What they call ‘gender attribution’, the social process ‘by which we construct our world of two genders’, is sustained despite the failure of human reality on almost any count to be strictly dimorphic. Perhaps the most striking part of their argument is where they examine the biological literature on gender, which so much social analysis takes to be holy writ, and show that this research too is founded on the social process of gender attribution. And following this social logic, biological research continues to create newjdinhetcrm4es_ яч old ones become untenable. A striking exanrfplels the effort to reconstitute athletics as a strict dichotomy. Chromosome testing was introduced to international athletics in 1967 and used on a large scale at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The International Olympic Committee defines people with intermediate chromosomal patterns as men, disqualifying them from women’s events.

So far the argument is negative, simply pointing out that our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender dichotomy are not forced upon us by nature. The positive side of the argument is about the social process itself. Kessler and McKenna re-examine the anthropological literature on berdache, institutionalized transves­tism among American Indian societies particularly. They show that when the anthropologists’ perceptions based on dichotomous gender attribution are allowed for, the research reveals cultural worlds where Igender is not dichotomous and is not necessarily assigned on biolngi^r~criteria.7|It can, for instance, be chosen.


Michel Foucault makes the same point in his essay on the case of Herculine Barbin. At an earlier period in the history of Western European culture, a strict dichotomy of sex and a lifelong commitment to membership of one, was not presupposed in the way it is now.

Studies of transvestism and transsexualism in contemporary Western societies provide an exceptional insight into the social construction of gender in everyday life. Harold Garfinkel, one of the first to explore this issue, in his case study of ‘Agnes’ stressed the amount of work that had to be done to sustain an identity as a woman by someone starting out as a boy. Much of this is also done by people who start out as girls, but in that case it is hardly noticed as work – it is taken for granted, or as being natural.

Kessler and McKenna argue that transsexualism is itself based on the natural attitude that assumes dichotomy; what transsexuals claim is that they are ‘really’ members of the other sex, and seek ways of correcting the anomaly. The studies of Sydney transsexuals by Roberta Perkins show that the situation is more complex than this. For some that is true; but others are much more uncertain about where they belong and why. Further, the growth of a commercial subculture of transsexual prostitution and show busi­ness has created a new option. ‘Drag queens’ can make a living as transsexuals In effe£l_a^iew gender category is-heing constructed. ^ Its history, some case studies indicate, has roots in the ambiguous situation of homosexual men in the 1950s and 1960s. This in turn points back to a tradition of thinking about homosexuality as an intersex status – the ‘third sex’ in one version. Even in modern Western culture, it seems, the cultural construction of gender has repeatedly failed to produce consistent dichotomies.

To sum up, our conception of what is natural and what natural differences consist of, [is itself a cultural construct, part of our specific way of thinking about^ gender. Gender is, in Kessler and-McKenna’s^ terrri^ a practical accomplishment – something accomplished by social practice., fWe might add, not a completely consistentone.) This is not a matter of some bias or error in our ideas that might in principle be corrected by future biological research. It is a fundamental feature of the way we have knowledge of human beings.

The second basic criticism of the concept of natural difference can be stated more briefly, as it is a general point about the character of human life. The idea of natural difference is that of


a passively suffered condition, like being subject to gravity. If human life were in its major internal structures — gender being one – so conditioned, human history would be inconceivable. For history depends on the transcendence of the natural through social practice.

This point holds good without the bland optimism about progress that has usually accompanied it. In a period of rising awareness of environmental disaster and nuclear threat, it is easier to see the negative side of the human rupture from the non-human. It is also possible to see an expanded meaning in the idea central to the work of Gordon Childe, the pioneer of global history as a science, that the relation between nature and history is one of practical transformation. This means both the transformations of the natural world by human practice (domestication of plants and animals, smelting of metal ores, invention of steam engines, etc.) that have sustained each stage of historical development; and the changes of practice itself that have made great shifts of social structure possible. Practical transformations open up new possi­bilities, which are the tissue of human life. But they do this by creating new social pressures and risks.

As shown by the title of one of his books, Man Makes Himself’ Childe was not exactly sensitive to issues of gender. Nor is gender much registered in the recent reworking of these themes by Jurgen Habermas. But this is, I would argue, more a consequence of the influence of sexual ideology on social theorists, than any logical sense in which the social processes of gender are exceptions to the principles that apply to other social processes. There is no reason to make this exception. The body is implicated in the processes of gender, certainly; but then the body is involved in every kind of social practice. The natural world is implicated in class relations, for instance through the labour process and the function of the body as tool. This does not prevent class relations from being historical. No more should the implication of the body in gender relations through sexuality prevent us from seeing the historicity of gender.

To make these points is already to imply a relation between the social and the natural that is different from biological determination in any form. I will now try to spell out how this relation might be understood.