Essentialism and Why It Sucks

Excellent point about sex and gender and the way we study them in a post on this article at Sex in the Public Square:
My frustration comes from the fact that researchers like Chivers insist on trying to pull apart the cultural from. What is it that drives the notion that our biology is where the "truth" about us would be found if only we could clear away the confusing layers of socialization and culture? I would much prefer to see research examine the intersection of the biological and the cultural giving equal "truth value" to both. This is a theme that comes up over and over, especially in relation to the discussion of Chivers's work. In fact if we could get past our desire for biologically essentialist answers we could see the variations in human experience that would allow us to start breaking down the false binary of male/female = boy/girl = man/woman.
I think she's absolutely right, that the nature vs. nurture argument is just kind of silly. When we get down to it, almost everyone agrees that it's actually some combination of the two, but the whole basis of the argument is really polarizing. It's like we're pushed into picking a side, and then everyone ends up ignoring compelling or interesting information that would favor the "other side."

I'm taking a class on gender and sexuality right now, and we've been talking about how our concept of two natural sexes each with a corresponding gender role is a fairly new one. Up until the Enlightenment with its emphasis on physical "truth" and the imperfection of anything metaphysical, the body wasn't that important in conceptions of sex and gender.

Philosophers like Aristotle and Galen, who both talked about sex and gender extensively, thought that "man" and "woman" were essentially gradients of one physical sex. Of course, under this model men were "more perfect" and women an incomplete or flawed version of the perfect male. Because women were metaphysically less perfect than men, their bodies came out differently. The spiritual essence of the person, made up of what we could now consider their transient gender characteristics, was actually their essential being. The body was only its physical manifestation.

This is precisely the opposite of how we measure things today. What I think Elizabeth Wood gets at very well in her post is the silliness of both ways of seeing things. There is no truth without both biology AND culture, the physical AND the metaphysical. Nature is informed by nurture to create who we are. There can be no studying one without admitting and looking at the other. Trying to isolate either is always going to present a skewed picture.


On living, loving, learning, and fucking with the materials I've got at hand.

Creative Commons License
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.