I’ve posted several times on the topic of gender — the social and biological aspects of what determines a man or a woman; the subject is one I’ve been interested in for a long time. Learning more about the topic has made it clear that the origins of gender and sex are not as simple and uncomplicated as some might believe.
There are generally two sides to the nature versus nurture debate of gender. There are those who believe that sex and gender are for the most part, biologically determined and that the two sexes think and act differently, often in opposing ways. This group also tends to believe that gender is fixed and not much changing across cultures and time periods.
On the other side of the debate are the nurture folks who hold that sex –the physical characteristics of a person– may be biological, but gender — the way that sex is shown in the outside world, is socially manufactured. They believe that men and women are taught explicitly and implicitly how to be men and women. This group also tends to believe that most gender stereotypes are false.
Nature via Nurture
Enter a third, smaller but growing group. Those who believe in the nature via nurture origin of gender think that both biological and environmental aspects combine to create what we recognize as men and women — the way they think, act, dress, and even how they look. Many who are partial to the nature via nurture explanation also assert that what is determined by a person’s sex chromosomes and what is determined by environment is not entirely clear and can’t be separated.
My thoughts tend to fall more within this group. Although I may view things differently in the future, I tend to think that nature and nurture both influence gender, possibly to the same extent. This is because most aspects of sex and gender, when looked at closely, either show both biological and social roots, and the entirety of them points neither to biology or culture, completely:
- Within gender, there is a range of behavior that spans time periods. Throughout history there have always been women who just weren’t ladylike enough, and men who weren’t tough enough. This suggests some biological roots, but not a binary one of two separate sexes determined by an X or Y chromosome.
- Traits that have largely been shown to be genetic can vary with surrounding factors. Height, for example, is influenced by environment and nutrition, even if it is inherited. So if gender is biological, this does not rule out culture playing a big role in how gender is shown.
- Gender stereotyping begins even before a baby is born — male babies are thought to behave one way and female babies another. With such stereotyping early on, it seems nearly impossible to say which behavior is actually biological and which are nurtured through beliefs about gender.
- Sex hormones have been shown to influence men and women to differ on things such as hearing and verbal fluency. This suggests a strong biological component, but hormonal levels also depend on environment, such as the mother’s surroundings, health, and nutrition.
- Attempts to raise children in the opposite sex –raising those who were born physically male as girls and children who were born physically female as boys– has turned up mixed results. Which could be taken to mean that both genes and environment ultimately create gender.
These, and more, leads me to believe that sex and gender, like many behavioral and physical traits, is a product of nature and nurture, often working together. Without one or the other, what we know as men and women wouldn’t be quite the same.
Where do you fall on the spectrum of nature and nurture when it comes to gender? And why?