Challenging the biological basis of sex and dispensing with the nature vs. nurture opposition
ANNE Fausto-Sterling is professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University. In books like Myths of Gender and Sexing the Body, Fausto-Sterling pioneered the application of a feminist critique to biological studies of gender, adding to the growing literature on the social construction of scientific knowledge. We spoke about our current cultural moment and its movement away from binaries of sex and gender, and the ways in which science has shaped and sometimes lagged behind this conversation. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How did your academic path lead you to studying the development of sex and gender?
My original start was as an embryologist in developmental biology and not developmental psychology—that was a long path. But I basically got my start in college. I took an embryology—a development—course, and I saw a 1930s film of gastrulation. It basically blew me out of my chair. I said, This is what I’ve got to study. It was so phenomenal watching these cells flow in sheets and turn themselves into these three-dimensional topographies where they basically refolded themselves from a ball into a gut tube and then a mesoderm and then an epidermis and a neural tube and all of the things that went to form the basic body axis.
Basically I did embryology, and then I got involved in feminist theory. Then I wrote Myths of Gender, which was sort of aimed at trying to use my skills as a biologist to look at scientific claims about what women can and can’t do. I was also teaching embryology, and one of the things you teach in embryology is the development of the urogenital system, and that led me naturally into intersex and the work of John Money, because that’s part of how you lecture on the development of the urogenital system.
Only, at some point, with feminist theory in my head, I began to look at that story more critically. I began thinking about well, how does science actually work? It moved me away from being able to claim that science was sort of neutral and objective, because here I was finding with Myths of Gender, all these ways in which that clearly wasn’t true, in which culture became woven into the fabric of scientific knowledge.
And that was the same thing people were finding in other fields of women’s studies. Gender was neglected or treated in particular ways in science, gender was neglected or treated particular ways in history, and so on and so forth. The people who were doing feminist science studies, of whom I was one, began looking at gender as cultural knowledge that became part of scientific knowledge.
That was through the 1990s. There was a huge amount of intellectual ferment going on then in terms of the theory. I was interacting with Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, and all these people, half a dozen of whom I’m leaving out, who were doing feminist theory.
By that time my lab seemed to be winding down because I was just more engaged with the feminist theory, but I knew I had to write Sexing the Body because I had to show how it was that prevailing ideas about gender became unconsciously woven into biological knowledge.
In the process of doing that, I discovered Esther Thelen and dynamic systems theory, and I became very irritated at the constant reiteration of the nature versus nurture paradigm. I thought, Well, this is what has to happen to the study of gender and development.
Can you walk me through what exactly the dynamic systems model is?
It has several pieces to it. First, it’s developmental. Bodies always build on what’s come before. So if you find that women and men in their 30s have a different disease pattern, you can’t just say it’s because one group is male and one group is female, you have to ask, How did that disease pattern come into being? One of the experimental tenets of dynamic systems is that you study patterns or difference as they emerge, so you start before there’s a difference and then you watch it emerge, so that you can begin to see what the components of it are. A dynamic systems approach always has to be developmental and longitudinal. A cross-sectional bit of data is just the starting point to ask where does it come from.
Another piece of it is that the body is always understood as being embedded in the world, and it’s a social and sensory world. You can never partition the body from the world it’s embedded in. One saying among people who do developmental systems theory is that everything is always 100 percent nature and 100 percent nurture at the same time. You can’t do the kinds of things that geneticists like to do where they say it’s 50 percent due to genes and 50 percent due to the environment—that’s a false way of looking at what the body is and how it works.
You got very involved in the intersex activist movement in the 1990s. What drew you to that in particular?
I was lecturing on intersex in my embryology class. And I looked and it and I thought, Wait, this is a really clear example of what that phrase “medical construction of gender” means. When that little insight came to me, I was like Oh, this has to be clarified and documented.
The resistance to the notion of the social construction of scientific knowledge was, and to some extent still is, pretty fierce. A lot of people at first can’t imagine what that would mean. To some people at first it means, well, you can just make anything up. And of course that isn’t true. But the intersex story was just such a clear example of what it meant and how preconceptions about gender shaped medical knowledge about gender, and how starting with a particular point of view then you found a certain kind of data, and then that reinforced the structure that you came into it with in the first place.
There was a certain amount of serendipity because within an eye blink of the time that I was working on this stuff there were half a dozen books out on the topic, all saying the same thing from one view or another. Alice Dreger’s historical work, the sociologist Sharon Preves—there may now be a half a dozen books out on intersex and the medical construction of sex and gender from one angle or another. Plus there was an activist movement that was specifically aimed at trying to change medical practice, so those really all came together at the same time.
What was the reaction from within the scientific community when you started applying a feminist critique to science?
From my colleagues and peers, for those who bothered to read my work, and who read for example Myths of Gender, their response was one of the things that drove me to write the second book, which was that they were like, “Of course what you’re saying is right, but this is just bad science. Good science wouldn’t draw these silly conclusions about gender!”
And I knew that wasn’t right because historically it’s always been the good scientists who have been at the forefront of everything. Darwin writing about gender—he wasn’t a bad scientist, he was a brilliant scientist. In each generation, crazy ideas about sex and gender are put forth by very good scientists. So their “bad science” response was one of the things where I realized I had to show that this is science as usual, where the things you don’t acknowledge or admit become part of your knowledge structure.
In terms of how the community responded to you, there was a Nature article recently that went over a lot of the ideas you’ve been pushing for a while—that biological sex, like gender, is not a simple binary. Can you speak to the lag in terms of how the academic community—and elsewhere—have begun to accept ideas you’ve been putting forth for decades?
I think it’s kind of an interesting sociological or historical question to ask, and I don’t have a good explanation of it. Except that it wasn’t like there was nothing, nothing, nothing, and then it happened. There was lots of things going on, but they weren’t universally known or acknowledged.
There were trends within standard science, and there were trends within medicine, that were acknowledging this work, it’s just that they weren’t showing up in Nature and the authoritative journals—they were in Pediatric Endocrinology. So there were lots of little local strands that eventually coalesced into this bigger story.
How much has the nature vs. nurture dichotomy changed since you started your work?
I think it’s beginning to change! It’s the same sort of uneven development where you’ll have cohorts or groups or intellectual communities of people who are looking at the world as a dynamic system now and who are starting to think about gender that way. And for others—I mean, it is a paradigm shift! You have to sort of switch how you view the world. It’s like looking at an Escher drawing or something, you’re staring at a pattern—you see fish, and then suddenly you see birds.
I think the ideas are starting to trickle out into the world, and every new empirical paper that comes out pushes that.
What do you make of the cultural jump that’s happening right now with trans issues? Obviously some gains are being made while many others aren’t, but how do you see that interacting with the work that you other scientists looking at sex and gender do?
I think it’s really interesting, and I do think it has the potential to really push people’s ideas about complexity of gender and multiplicity of gender.
When I look at geneticists like Eric Vilain’s work, I think, How can he still be constructing the world this way in the face of this huge change in popular culture? It’s not just Vilain—he’s just sort of the stand-in for the old-timey sexologists who have these very rigid, dualistic paradigms of how they structure the world and make their categories.
It’s also highly debated within the trans community whether to have a scientific explanation at all for how their identity is shaped. But it’s also increasingly becoming a thing that people do want to work to understand.
Right, and this concerns me because I do feel like the trans community—where there are many, many different voices—I think that one of the narrative lines in the trans community is pretty biologically determinist and therefore quite compatible with the world view that someone like Vilain would have.
And it bothers me, I have to say! It’s not how I understand the world to be. That “born this way,” “it’s in my genes” or “it’s in my brain” thesis—not necessarily with a sort of coherent biological narrative—says there is something in my body, it was fixed before birth, and it can’t change. That sets up a narrative where maybe you have male, female, and trans, but then maybe you’ll have two kinds of trans, but then it turns out there are more than two kinds of trans. It’s not a very coherent narrative, I don’t think. It’s one that some individuals really cling to as a way to understand their own journey.
I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago who said this same thing happened in the gay community with sexuality but has kind of gotten passé in the past five years or so.
Yeah, it’s so interesting because at the national level, this is now what’s clung to. Chris Matthews’s big narrative now is that gay marriage is right because people couldn’t help how they were born. So ironically it’s become the sort of dominant, Supreme Court–style narrative that’s allowed freedoms or the rights that many of us think are a good thing, at the same time that the community itself is loosening up on that point of view a bit. It’s kind of interesting.
Shifting gears, the National Institutes of Health announced in 2014 that they were finally going to have formal requirements for sex parity in terms of experiments they funded. What did you make of that? I think that opens up similar questions sometimes in terms of assuming that there is a difference.
Absolutely. I think it’s one of those, “It’s really good news and bad news at the same time.” So I do think that it’s important—just stepping away from causation—it’s important to think that men’s and women’s bodies develop differently in the world, and that’s partly because there are biological differences and partly because they have daily experiences that lead to whole systemic different responses to drugs and stress and whatever.
I think it cries out again for using a dynamic systems approach to understanding how gendered differences in the body come into being. To the extent that the NIH call is based on the idea that it’s just differences in the X and Y chromosome that lead to all differences in medical issues, it’s problematic. To the extent that it might eventually force people to have a dynamic systems approach to gendered medicine, it could be good.
Regardless, it is true that there are some differences between men and women, no matter how they got there, in terms of drug responses and disease formation, and it’s important for the health of women to know about that.