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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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Overcoming Gender

George Dvorsky


Sentient Developments


http://sentientdevelopments.blogspot.com/2008/01/overcoming-gender.html

January 07, 2008

Your gender is a constraint. This is an inalienable truism, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.

We can no longer deny that males and females are profoundly different. The hallucination is over. Scientists and behaviorists are discovering that men and women differ not just physically, but cognitively and emotionally as well. These differences are not merely the result of gender-specific socialization; they are innate—the result of thousands of years of sexual competition and selection.

Your gender assignment and sense of sexual identity is an imposition. Like many of your other characteristics, you are largely the result of a genetic lottery that happened beyond your control. Consequently, you are in no small way predetermined. Your physical and psychological capabilities are very much constrained and dictated by your genetic constitution.

Sure, the environments that we find ourselves in and the ways in which we are socialized play a contributing factor to our health, personalities and broader perspectives. But let’s not fool ourselves, each and every one of us has characteristics that are forever limited by our genetic code.

Barring the application of enhancement biotechnologies, I will never be able to conceptualize music as profoundly as Beethoven, nor will I ever be able to visualize numbers like Pierre de Fermat. No amount of studying, hard work or dedication will ever change this. I am physiologically incapable of acquiring these capacities.

Similarly, my gender plays an integral role in determining who I am, what my preferences are, and ultimately what I’m capable of.

And that bothers me.

Gender is a disease

Like the work being done to bring about a radical life extension revolution, and whose proponents argue that aging is a disease, we likewise need to change our perceptions about gender. There are a number of areas where we can see how our genders work to our disadvantage and why we would want to do something about it.

Men have the double-edged sword of being, in general, physically advantaged. While this tends to contribute to male dominance over women, it has also placed men in dangerous situations and environments. Males are conventionally the members of society who are sent into combat and are expected to perform hazardous—and sometimes sacrificial—work.

Aside from the overtly obvious physical dimorphism that separates men from women, there are also a number of cognitive and behavioral differences that work to stratify humans along gender lines.

Threats, physical assaults and homicides are an indelible male feature across all cultures and typically the result of male-male competition over resources that work to increase reproductive fitness.  Males tend to have more accidents than females across their entire life spans. For every girl that is injured on a playground, four boys are likewise injured.  Boys burn themselves more than girls. Roughly twice as many females across all ages suffer from significant levels of anxiety and depression than their male counterparts; women are more prone to suffer from eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Looking at latent cognitive abilities, boys and men have slightly higher average IQ scores than girls and women. Females across all ages consistently outperform boys and men on tests that assess the speed of matching arbitrary symbols to numbers. In measures of sensitivity to verbal cues, females almost always outperform males.

Needless to say, these gender differences are general tendencies. Men and women do not all fall within these parameters. But what these statistics reveal is that across the entire population males and females are stratified in a non-trivial way.

Sex differences also impact on occupational interests and achievement—differences that contribute greatly to the wage and social status advantage that men enjoy in most (if not all) industrialized nations.  The acquisition of the educational credentials required for a lucrative career in a field such as engineering – a math intensive field – is made easier for men by virtue of cognitive factors that are less pronounced for women.

And of course, as long as women carry, give birth, and nurture their offspring, they will be set at a social disadvantage and even face subjugation. As cyberfeminist Donna Haraway noted in her Cyborg Manifesto,

“...control strategies applied to women’s capacities to give birth to new human beings will be developed in the languages of population control and maximization of goal achievement for individual decision-makers. Control strategies will be formulated in terms of rates, costs of constraints, degrees of freedom. Human beings, like any other component or subsystem, must be localized in a system architecture whose basic modes of operation are probabilistic, statistical.”

Consequently, Haraway saw true female liberation occurring through the application of cybernetics and the subsequent alleviation of biological pressures on women. As Haraway famously noted, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”

The end of immutable sexual characteristics

While reproductively necessary, the ongoing presence of gender has proven problematic over time. Humanity is far removed from its evolutionary heritage and environment. Moreover, evolution makes for a poor moral compass. We value fairness, non-arbitrariness and egalitarianism—even in the genetic sphere; the ongoing presence of gender should therefore trouble us. We should strive for a post-Darwinian condition.

We are, often at a subconscious level, working to become postbiological. Most of us are in denial about or in opposition to this, but the level of control that we seek over our minds and bodies is in tune with this goal. We are perpetually working to transcend our biological vulnerabilities and constraints. This will eventually get us to the oft spoken and quasi-mythological posthuman condition.

Most efforts to achieve a postgendered state have largely focused on non-biological solutions, namely through social, educational, political and economic reform. While environmental strategies can be effective and important in their own right, they will continue to experience limited results on account of their inability to address the root of the problem: human biology.

Transhumanist postgenderism, as differentiated and further elucidated from mainstream feminism and postmodern/deconstructionist cyberfeminism, calls for a more equitable distribution of gendered traits across the two sexes and the elimination of those gendered characteristics that are deemed disadvantageous. Postgenderism in this form calls for actual reproductive and medical interventions for the achievement of these ends.

People deserve access to biotechnologies that will help them control their morphological, cognitive and reproductive characteristics. In a postgendered world, individuals will have the option to remain gendered, to experiment with their sex and sexuality, to mix and match gendered characteristics, or to reject gender altogether. The idea is to exact control over our bodies and minds. A postgendered condition does not necessarily imply the end of all gendered characteristics, it merely signifies the end of fixed and traditional gender assignments wrought by evolutionary processes. In this sense, persons who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery are humanity’s first postgenderists.

There are other postgender biotechnologies in existence today. Birth control pills are a well established method that thwarts our reproductive natures, and menstruation suppression has all but arrived. Other physiological factors, such as hormonal influences and neurotransmitters, will soon be addressable.

Looking ahead to the future, there’s the possibility for male pregnancy and neurological interventions to normalize male and female cognitive functioning. More radical solutions to help persons become truly postgendered include the advent of artificial wombs, virtual reality and whole brain emulation.

At the social level, the broader suppressive and controlling social megastructure that exists and thrives on gender differences will be undermined by the postgenderist agenda. It will mark the end of sexual politics.

Thus, it is through the application of substantive and real biological interventions that the problem that is gender will most meaningfully be addressed. Postgender-tech will be an integral component to the larger collaborative struggle to achieve a genetically egalitarian, posthuman, and postbiological condition that works to the betterment of both individuals and society in general.


George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.

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