Freshwater will be the new oil. Vint Cerf

The Classification of Reality

The nature-versus-nurture debate cuts straight through contemporary discourses on gender and gender roles. But it’s based on a misunderstanding of how the world works.

The nature-versus-nurture debate is currently raging in the context of two separate but related discussions: Gender equality and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Two questions are being posed: One, can we discern significant differences between the preferences and behavior of males and females? Two, if those differences exist, are they rooted in biology or the result of social conditioning?

The continuation of this debate – I say “continuation” because we cannot expect a conclusive outcome anytime soon – will have far-reaching effects that neither side can fully foresee. Indeed, it’s reasonably certain that the debate will produce a fair share of unintended consequences: Feminists, who often side with social constructivists and argue that “femininity” is an invented norm, will have to admit that the “white male heterosexual” is an interest-driven construct as well. And those who argue for biological differences between the sexes will have to concede that, if their arguments are correct, discrimination on the basis of biological features might be permissible. For example, if it were true that men are born with a higher level of natural aggression, the state could be tasked with providing special protection to women and could institute a regime of preferential treatment that compensated women for their supposed aggression disadvantage (for example, on the job market).

A leap from evidence to conclusion

The problem with these debates is that the adversaries often talk past each other – sometimes willingly so, at other times because they fail to recognize the disconnect. Of course, one person’s penis and another person’s breasts are real biological features and not social constructs. But it’s certainly a social construct to say that “a boy should be like this” and “a girl should be like that.” This is equally true for statements like “boys don’t cry” or “boys grow beards but girls don’t.” If we took the time to seriously discuss those constructs, and also recognized that they aren’t “conventions” in the sense of mutual agreements, but descriptions of social realities, which are the result of complex discursive processes, the acrimonious debates would presumably stop.

One example: It’s possible to determine empirically whether boys are more aggressive than girls. Maybe it’s even possible to link those behavioral differences to specific genetic sequences. But it’s quite a leap from those scientific observations to the conclusions that anyone who doesn’t fit the aggressiveness scheme isn’t a “real” or “typical” boy. What makes a boy “real” is the result of convention.

Once we become aware of the logical leap, it’s possible to re-think our definition of “aggressiveness.” For example, is aggressiveness the same as physical violence? Maybe it should not be defined in such a way that yields higher rates of aggressiveness for boys, all other things being equal. Or we could ask why studies of biological differences should be broken down along gender lines and not along differences in height, weight, or hair color. We might ask: What is it that makes gender the most appropriate analytical category?

What is “science”?

The current gender discussion is the n-th edition of the “Science Wars,” which got started with the publication of the book “The Social Construction of Scientific Facts” by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. The mere fact that we’re still disagreeing shows that some differences of opinion cannot be solved by lengthy debates. The rift runs deeper than the level of evidence: It goes to the heart of what we mean by “science.”

The debate is sustained by the competition between two different scientific credos: On one side is the credo of the natural sciences, which posits that objects of study exist independently of their context and that we can thus discern the essence of a “real boy” and “true aggressiveness.” On the other side of the debate, the credo of gender studies recognizes that interests and methods of inquiry, which are often socially determined, may have a significant impact on how we see the world. Because the natural scientific credo is currently the credo of the mainstream (and the easiest explanation for the success of scientific arguments), it’s tempting to ridicule and dismiss gender studies.

An alternative view would start from the basic realization that each category and “type” presents a simplified view of reality even if it can be supported with empirical evidence. Experiments that produce empirical evidence are always selective: A certain methodology is employed, certain assumptions are made, certain interpretations of experimental data are pursued. The claim that scientists follow standardized procedures doesn’t negate the fact that each decision could also be made differently. “Doing science” implies the perpetual classification of the world according to paradigmatic cases: the classification of stars, planets, animals, genders, or sexual preferences.

Could we live without those types? A first step would be to accept that the world isn’t composed of discrete classes of objects. It’s filled with individuals who, strictly speaking, don’t quite fit into either category. Individuals form a complex continuum and differ from each other in a myriad of ways. We might still require a system of classification to make sense of the world – for example, by grouping humans into “men” and “women” –, but no typology can undo the real diversity of the world.

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