Plastic Gender

I felt that I ended my last blog post without elucidating the reasons for my concerns about the extremes of each position. I presented it, perhaps unfairly, as a nature versus nurture paradigm, although neither side would probably represent themselves this way as neither side really concerns themselves with biology. Queer and feminist theorists, for example, base much of their efforts on the premise that biology has almost nothing to do with our behavior, and that norms are created through cultural performance, including the measurement of this behavior. Structuralists, like Lacan and those that follow, come from the Freudian position and look for fixed elements within human psychology beginning with birth and often surrounding the Oedipal complex. To me, it’s interesting that Freud began his career as a neurophysiologist and then developed his terms to describe what he was observing, but much of the philosophy rooted in psychoanalysis makes little use of neuroscience.

I can only think of a couple of options if we accept the premise that the mind, or our psychology, is a function of the brain. This is still a point of contention, and even the great philosopher Thomas Nagel has taken a serious misstep, in my opinion, by trying to declare mind a fundamental force of the universe. From my own point of view, rooted as it is in biology, the mind is a product of the brain. So if there are fundamental, maybe it’s better to say recurring, structures within the human mind, then it is because there are fundamental structures in the brain. Of course, this idea is neither novel nor new.  then they are neural and physical in nature. If they are there, then evolution has acted upon them. But there are two reasons that the brain could have fundamental structures. One reason could be genetic blueprint for the brain, and the other could be its plastic nature and interaction with culture. While there have been many books written about the former, I don’t think the ramifications of the latter have been fully recognized.


The brain is a very plastic structure, which means that you can grow two very different brains even if they have the exact same genes. This is because genes are only part of the story for many things. The environment is the other part of the story, and it can shape gene expression in tremendous ways, especially neurologically. Think of how things like nutrition, home environment, and access to education can affect the human brain, regardless of the genes, and you get a sense of the brain’s plasticity. Our interactions with infants shape their brain from the moment they’re born, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of how this works.

I can see an argument here for the perpetuation of cultural paradigms through the ways in which we teach our children to think early in life. I’m not thinking of care giving per se, but deeper. Gender expression, for example, is learned through numerous acts and patterns seen as children. I doubt even as adults we are aware of the ways in which we gender each other, yet most children deeply internalize this concept. But is gender itself a fundamental structure of the mind? This would imply that it’s also a fundamental structure in the brain and genes. Another option, however, is that the concept of gender was invented very early in human society, and that this concept then deeply patterned onto the brains of each generation until it became fundamental to human culture. Depending on how early this was adopted in our history and how many resources were tied to believing in this concept, there could then have been evolution that gradually increased the frequency of humans who were susceptible to this type of pattern. I am definitely not saying that this is what I think happened, but I do think that there is much further room to explore the intersection of gender and biology without taking either extreme of nature versus nurture. Or maybe I’m just too much of a doubting Thomas to commit to either one.