September 11, 2011

Two bizarre science stories about sex and gender (2)

In my previous post I looked at how a parasite may actually hijack the mind of a male crab and make him behave like a female.

This is the kind of research that points in the direction of gender behavior being based in biology.

Nature: 1 point!

In this post I am going to give you examples of how the very structure of language shapes the way we understand gender.

Culture scores!

Bizarre example No. 2: The biology of jargon by gender

In a recent article The Scientific American reports on sex and the understanding of numbers. I'll come back to arguments raised in a minute.

The article reminds me a bit about the linguist George Lakoff's amazing book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things which explores the connection between the structure of language and how different societies perceive things in different ways.

Lakoff argued that the logical systems of languages are in now way as rigid and strict as formal logic, nor should they be. Hence the word "mother" can be used to refer to the woman who gave birth to a person, the woman who raised her, the surrogate "mother", or even a gay man raising the kid together with another gay man.

In other words: Normal language is not based on a one to one relationship between words and things "out there", but on metaphors.

That being said, there is an underlying structure of general principles that explains how concepts are classified.

The title of the book refers to the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which classifies everything into two groups. On the one hand there are women, fire and dangerous things, and on the other hand there is everything else, men included.

The Sun and the Moon

It is a fair guess that this kind of categorization influences the way you think about things.

In Norwegian the moon has the masculine gender (månen) and the Sun the feminine (sola), while in Latin languages the moon is feminine (la lune), while the sun is masculine (le soleil). 

This assignment of gender to non-human object does probably influence the way we think about these phenomena

A feminine moon may be considered  emotionally shifting (a 28 day "menstrual cycle") and weak compared to the sun. Or: If you have a positive view of womanhood: It represents life, death and rebirth. A masculine moon, on the other hand, can be understood as  a strong male fighting the feminine darkness.  The Norse moon god, Máni, was male.

A feminine sun may be understood as nourishing, while a masculine sun is illuminating (a symbol for the male intellect).

I am not 100 percent sure if we can see these differences in the modern Norwegian and French reflections on the Moon and the Sun. The original metaphors are probably lost.

Still,  the research referred to in Scientific American tells us that we even now may be influence by such unconscious metaphors.

Numbers are gendered

J. E. Wilkie and G.V. Bodenhausen argue that numbers are gendered, and may even be so in languages that lack grammatical gender (like in English).

They write:

"We examined the possibility that nonsocial, highly generic concepts are gendered.  Specifically, we investigated the gender connotations of Arabic numerals. 

"Across several experiments, we show that the number 1 and other odd numbers are associated with masculinity, whereas the number 2 and other even numbers are associated with femininity, in ways that influence judgments of stimuli arbitrarily paired with numerical cues; specifically, babies' faces and foreign names were more likely to be judged as 'male' when paired with odd versus even numbers. 

"The power of logically irrelevant numerical stimuli to connote masculinity or femininity reflects the pervasiveness of gender as a social scaffolding for generating understandings of abstract concepts."

So the number one is considered masculine, while the number two is considered feminine. If you are sensing some kind of implicit sexism here, it is probably because the underlying cultural logic is sexist.

What these researchers have done is to pair both foreign sounding names and baby faces with numbers. If a name is accompanied by the number 1, people tend to believe it is masculine. If a baby face is paired with the number 2, people believe the baby is a girl -- regardless of the baby's true sex.

"Our tendency to see gender in everything, even numbers, is a reminder of how fundamental gender is to how we perceive the world," the Scientific American argues. "When people are led to believe that an object possesses one gender or another, it changes how they relate to that object."

The machine

Stanford researchers Clifford Nass, Youngme Moon, and Nancy Green had people interact with a computer that was programmed to have either a male-sounding or female-sounding voice:

"They found that when the computer had a female-sounding voice, people saw the computer as less friendly, credible and knowledgeable, as compared to the male-sounding computer. People did this openly, despite knowing perfectly well that they were making judgments about a machine and not a real person."

This is why our culture's tendency of labeling kids with pink and blue markers are so important.

Our expectations towards a pink baby (a girl) are different from our expectations to the one in blue. Because of this we treat them differently, which again changes the way the kids understand their role in society.

Not even toxoplasma gondii  can change that.


  1. I suppose that instead of numbers someone could put different fruits and vegetables next to a baby's faces to prove that fruits and vegetables have gender... Or maybe they can try using different kinds of rocks to show how rocks have gender...

    Do people actually get paid to do this kind of research?

    No matter what our expectations are towards a baby in pink versus a baby in blue or what numbers are held next to their face, it does not and can not change the reality that the baby girl is a girl and the baby boy is a boy.

    Just because a parasite hijacks the mind of a male crab making him behave differently does not change the fact that he is still a male crab.

    And a computer does not have a gender no matter what kind of voice it has or even if it is named "HAL"...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The point is not to say that the boy and the girl is not of different sex.

    The point is that our expectations of how a boy or a girl should behave forces the kids that do not fit that mould to adapt.

    Hence an outgoing, aggressive and assertive girl learns that she has to be quiet and sweet, to get the praise she wants from her parents.

    If you change the social context, girls with an assertive personality will find it easier to express their true nature.

    The number experiment shows that people have been programmed to think of boys as "number 1" -- i.e. the first, the leading, the best, and they unconsciously give babies such values if they are accompanied by such a number. I find that both fascinating and depressing.

    As for the crab still being male. Yes, if you define male as having XY chromosomes or a penis. But if you do that, you must also argue that a transwoman is a man, given that she has been born in a male body. For me that makes the word "male" useless. It does not capture the complexity of the real world. The transwomen shows me that you may be a female, even if you are born in a male body.

    I have no idea about how the crab feels about this. I present this story to underline the complexity of it all. I do not think transwomen have been taken over by a body snatcher :)

  4. Your description of the Dyirbal language isn't quite correct. It has four grammatical genders:

    1) - most animate objects, men
    2) - women, water, fire, violence, and exceptional animals
    3) - edible fruit and vegetables
    4) - miscellaneous (includes things not classifiable in the first three)

  5. The linguistic term "gender" when referring to a noun class derives from Latin genus (also the root of genre) which originally meant "kind", so it does not necessarily have a meaning associated with biological sex or gender.

    For instance Swahili has sixteen grammatical genders none of which can be fairly labeled "masculine" or "feminine".

  6. @femslut

    This is true. And it gets even more complicated. Some Norwegian dialects are like Danish, there are two genders: masculine and neuter. Most dialects have three: masculine, feminine and neuter, but what noun is given what gender may vary. Still, given that men and manly things are normally given the masculine gender and women and feminine things the feminine gender, I am sure people do consciously or unconsciously associate some of these words with values associated with men and women.

    The most dramatic expression of this relationship in my country is found in the county of Trøndelag. The word for girl is "jente" in traditional Norwegian. In Trøndelag they will often use the word "Veikje", which means (hold on to your hats!) "the weak one".

  7. It's been posited by those who know something of parasitology, that that male homosexuality could be the result of the hijacking of the brain of the human male by a parasite.

    While many think it makes sense, it's usually true that we'd find the larval stage of such a parasite, unless it's a parasite unknown to us or unless it's simply not easy to find.


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