Can Transgenderism Be Explained With Genetics?

Siddhartha Mukherjee explores the genetics of sex and sexual identity in his new book, The Gene: An Intimate History.

Can Transgenderism Be Explained With Genetics?

We love simplicity. If during your gestational period you wind up with an X and a Y chromosome, you enter the planet male; two exes, female. Nature elegantly presents its basic arguments; like a yin-yang, balance is king.


But that Taoist symbol reminds us there’s a little black in the white. Much of existence resides beyond polarizing opposition—the grey is where many play. Our bodies are no different. English endocrinologist Gerald Swyer discovered this in 1955.

Certain women, he found, are born anatomically and physiologically female, though when puberty comes knocking, they do not reach full sexual maturity: breast development is stunted; the pelvis and hips remain narrow; menstrual periods are absent. As it turns out, every cell in their body is chromosomally male. If hormone replacement therapy is not offered, they might never reach womanhood.

Where does such a woman fall in the spectrum of sexuality? By society’s standards, female, at least through their teenage years. (Some develop ‘streak gonads.’ If not surgically removed they risk tumor development.) Perhaps more interestingly at this moment, how do they identify sexually?

In The Gene: An Intimate History, physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee contemplates the difference between sex identity and sexual identity:

Whether sex is innate or acquired in the one-in-two-thousand babies born with ambiguous genitals does not typically incite debates about inheritance, preference, perversity, and choice. Whether sexual identity—the choice and preference of a sexual partner—is innate or acquired does, absolutely.

With a ludicrous debate over transgender bathroom rights occurring at state and local levels following Obama’s bathroom directive—eleven states are now suing his administration—gender identity has become the media’s cause célèbre. According to Mukherjee, the nature/nurture debate, which has raged in the public discourse over the last century, is unwarranted.

It is now clear that genes are vastly more influential than virtually any other force in shaping sex identity and gender identity—although in limited circumstances a few attributes of gender can be learned through cultural, social, and hormonal reprogramming.

It is understandable why gender identity infuriates the religious mind, as it calls into question the design of our vessel. Throughout his book, Mukherjee examines step-by-step our ever-deepening comprehension of the building blocks of life. Many follies have occurred along the way—the debate over gender identity is only the latest.

Rewind 2,400 years and we discover Greek philosopher Anaxagoras claiming that semen production in the left testicle results in male babies, while the right produces a girl. While such a theory is absurd, Mukherjee notes that it did place a seed into public consciousness: sex identity is random and not chosen, an important cognitive step forward from the chains of determinism. Jump ahead six hundred years to find the influential Greek physician Galen claiming that ovaries were merely internalized testicles.

Oddly, in all those millennia some still have not come to terms with the randomness of evolution. Initiatives like ‘praying the gay away,’ illegal in many states, still inspires forlorn parents to send their children to deprogramming camp. This is where the continual danger of genetics lives in the public imagination.

With many chapters devoted to the maturation and legacy of eugenics, most famously the Nazis (which actually did the world an unintended favor by making us aware of the lunacy of selective breeding), Mukherjee foresees dangers of tinkering with our microscopic software. While we do not yet understand the exact nature of the heritable elements that influence our sexual identity, that day is not far off.

What we do know now, as he explains to NPR, is that sexual identity is not an aberrant condition, but part of our genetic history. Environment can play some role, though Swyer Syndrome reminds us that a master regulator gene has the potential of influencing your identity.

Mukherjee compares the master regulator to an army commander. At top of the hierarchy is gender anatomy; countless variations exist downstream in the composition of the army, each with slightly different components. You might have male identity with differing sexual attractions, or you might have differing aspects of male identity. He continues,

The way that these genes—this genetic information percolates down into the individual, the way this hierarchy percolates down into an individual might be very different from one person to another and therefore create the kind of infinite ripples or variations in human identity that we experience in human life.

Early in his book Mukherjee warns of treating genetic mutations as mistakes. Mutations are responses to environments, internal and external. Thousands of years of believing in the formation of an ‘ideal’ race—the Spartans were especially keen on selective breeding—have resulted in chronic cultural wars and countless suicides, imprisonment, and social grief.

From single cells to the seemingly boundless array of life on this planet today, nature is our profound creator. Believing philosophical or moral programming lays behind the switches results in much suffering, as another Siddhartha warned. As Mukherjee told the New Yorker Radio Hour,

What we used to call fate, or destiny, is really a combination of random chance and environmental triggers impinging on the genome. 

This relationship is our actual inheritance. Celebrating it in all its varied forms will be immeasurably more beneficial on future genomes than constantly tinkering and thwarting the splendid diversity of our kind. 

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Image: Yasuyoshi Chiba / Getty Images

Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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