I do not think it proves what you think it proves

Newsflash: nature is full of all sorts of sex-bending diversity.  (I will go to my grave refusing to consciously use “gender” for biological sex, though I sometimes slip up without noticing.)

A one-hour elementary school lesson on gender diversity featuring all-girl geckos and transgender clownfish caused a stir in Oakland on Monday, with conservative legal defense organizations questioning the legitimacy of the topic and providing legal counsel to parents who opposed the instruction.

On Monday and today, Redwood Heights Elementary School students at every grade level were being introduced to the topic of gender diversity, with lesson plans tailored to each age group.

The lesson on gender differences was one small part of a much larger effort to offer what parents last year said they wanted at the school: a warm, welcoming, safe and caring environment for all children, said Principal Sara Stone.

The school also teaches students about the variety of families at the school and takes on the issue of bullying.

“If we don’t have a safe, nurturing class environment, it’s going to be hard to learn,” she said. “Really, the message behind this curriculum is there are different ways to be boys. There are different ways to be girls.”

So, fourth- and fifth-grade students learned about the crazy world of gender within the animal kingdom with lessons about single-sex Hawaiian geckos, fish that switch genders and boy snakes that act “girly.”

“That’s a lot of variation in nature,” Gender Spectrum trainer, Joel Baum, told the students. “Evolution comes up with some pretty funny ways for animals to reproduce.”

And that same kind of diversity applies to people too, said Baum, the education director for the San Leandro nonprofit. For example, some boys can act like girls; some girls can have boy body parts; and some biological boys feel like a girl inside their hearts, he said.

“It turns out that there are not just two options,” he said.

Well, that’s true.  There are hermaphrodites and other sexually anomalous phenomenon to be found in homo sapiens.   But that’s not really the point, is it?

First, fish don’t switch genders.  They switch sexes (and behavior follows with the biological change in sex).  There’s usually a really good evolutionary reason for that: many schools of fish only have one male in them at a time, some fish in the deep sea are quite isolated from each other and so need to be able to “switch hit” for chance matings, etc.

This is absolutely not where you want to plant your flag if you’re trying to convince people — kids or not — that somehow transsexuality or the breaking of sex-based behavior (i.e., “gender roles”) is somehow natural.   In the first place, what fish do sexually is completely irrelevant to what we do; it’s the same as an argument that we should all have unisex bathrooms because bacteria don’t have sex.  It’s ludicrous.

Furthermore, trying to make these arguments in support of a tolerance agenda is a losing battle.  If natural evolutionary sexual behavior is where you want to have your battle, those who argue against such things have nature pretty squarely on their side: the fact that other species have three sexes, or whatnot, means very little.  Humans appear to have evolved to be sexually dimorphic, and with certain broad behaviors that signal masculinity and femininity.  The fact that fish change their sex naturally just emphasizes the fact that humans don’t.

I rather think that what you should do, if you’re wanting to argue these things, is have your battle someplace else.  A stronger argument is that things like transexuality and gender-bending are part of our cultural apparatus, acts of individual self-determination and will that are part of what sets us apart from animals.  (I reserve the question on homosexuality and sexual behavior; it seems like there might be really good evolutionary reasons for that, particularly among men.)

Trying to teach kids that the behavior or fish means that it’s OK to “feel” a certain way is one of the stupider things I’ve ever come across.  Teach values in schools if you want; just decide what values to teach and then teach them.  That’s what community meetings are for, after all.  But don’t try to hijack science into supporting your agenda when it’s completely irrelevant.  That just turns out bad scientists with community-appropriate values.  We want good scientists with community-appropriate values coming out of our schools.

Comments

  1. “This is absolutely not where you want to plant your flag if you’re trying to convince people — kids or not — that somehow transsexuality or the breaking of sex-based behavior (i.e., “gender roles”) is somehow natural. In the first place, what fish do sexually is completely irrelevant to what we do; it’s the same as an argument that we should all have unisex bathrooms because bacteria don’t have sex. It’s ludicrous.”

    Although you began your post by carefully acknowledging the difference between “sex” and “gender,” you quickly confused them again. “Sex-based behavior” and “gender roles” are NOT the same thing. Gender roles are culturally determined behaviors and, while they are sometimes informed by some sex-based behaviors (for example, girls are socialized to play with dolls in part because of the mothering role they are sexually capable of taking on), they can also be informed more by power structures than by biology.

    Breaking gender roles IS natural, or at least there’s nothing in our biology to preclude our behaving in some ways that may offend some people who have more traditional views of gender expression. Masculinity and femininity, remember, are culturally determined.

    Plus, it’s not a bad idea to emphasize some of the similarities between humans and nature. Maybe it can help children be more inclined to respect and protect our environment.

  2. You make perfect sense, Michael, but God bless Oakland.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    AM saith:

    Breaking gender roles IS natural, or at least there’s nothing in our biology to preclude our behaving in some ways that may offend some people who have more traditional views of gender expression.

    Perhaps it’s natural — more on that in a moment, but it has f***-all to do with transsexual fish. That’s poetry, not science.

    But let’s talk about whether we’re biologically determined into gender roles.

    First, perhaps because I was not as clear as I might have been, you misconstrued what I meant by “sex-based behavior”. I didn’t necessarily mean specific, individual sex-caused behaviors, but rather behavior that can be accurately (for the most part) categorized on the basis of one’s sex.

    Second, I want now to be clear that I certainly am not asserting that some particular behavior is naturally tied to sex — I’m thinking specifically of Scottish kilts right now. What I am talking about is that, within cultures the world over, people signify their sex by adopting certain behaviors. Girls “act girly”, whatever that means in their particular culture. Boys “act boyish”.

    That’s simply how we operate, as a species. It’s not the patriarchy at work, and it’s not some confining social convention. It’s just a fact. You say “Masculinity and femininity, remember, are culturally determined.” Well, sure, if you’re talking about some specific cultural manifestation. But merely because something is culturally determined doesn’t mean that the determination itself isn’t entirely natural.

    Which is why, if you want to argue that we shouldn’t be tied by our cultural determinations, “nature” is very unstable grounding for your argument.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Michael’s argument sounds a lot like the one made by that noted right-winger Noam Chomsky. We are all biologically determined, says Chomsky, to speak a language. Different cultures will have languages that are different on the surface, but all human languages will have the same deep structure.