The biology of sex and gender

What it would be foolish to do – and what many WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) people in the 21st century are doing – is to pretend that sex equals gender, or that gender has no relationship to sex, or that either sex or gender is not wholly evolutionary.” These are the words of Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein from their book ‘A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century – Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life’.

Now Bret Weinstein is not a safe choice for a quote on sex and gender. He is considered to form part of the intellectual dark web and his resignation from the Evergreen College in the aftermath of the protests around the Day of Absence is surrounded by controversy. On the other hand, Weinstein and his wife Heying are evolutionary biologists, so they should be pinning their arguments to the evidence. The real reason why I chose to use this quote, however, is that I think there is a lot of truth in it, and that it is through truth that we can try to make sense of the world.

Before Maltese podcaster Jon Mallia invited me to be one of his first guests in April 2021, and to talk about sex differences, I had little interest or motivation to delve into the biological meaning of gender and gender identity. When he popped the question about definitions, and asked me to explain the difference between sex and gender, I felt that I had been taken by surprise because I had forgotten to do my homework properly. In the difficult 3 to 4 minutes that followed, I tried to rely on the wisdom of one of my favourite evolutionary psychologists, David M. Buss, and the introduction to his 2021 book ‘When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault’ in which he explains that whereas sex is defined by the size of the games – males being the ones with the small gametes (sperm), and females the ones with the large gametes (eggs), the term “gender” includes many meanings – cultural, social constructions, and psychological identities.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the relationship between sex and gender and what this means to different individuals. One of these occasions was the conference ‘Gender 360° – A Multidisciplinary Approach Towards all Genders’, organised by the mental health and counselling service Willingness in March last year, where I delivered a workshop entitled ‘The Biological Roots and Truths of Sex, Gender, and Equality.’ This is where I talked about sex role and gender expression as the behavioural expression of sex; how the usual rules of sex roles are ones of male display and female choosiness – males tend to put more effort into what happens before sex, as opposed to females who are more invested in what happens afterwards; and that as humans and compared to other animals we are able to ‘switch’ gender, or change our sex role (our gender) much more easily. I guess this is where the terms ‘fluid’ and ‘gender fluidity’ come from.

Here, with no camera or videographer in the hall, in front of an audience of people who had willingly chosen to sign up for this workshop, and secured by the thickness of the stone walls at Razzett Antik in Qormi, I was still not entirely in my comfort skin. The idea for this workshop was to present some of the ‘biological realities’ – such as that in humans, fertilisation occurs internally within women, that it is women who carry the metabolic costs of pregnancy, and also women who have breasts capable of lactation – and then use these fundamentals to illustrate what I called the three inequality chapters:  inequality in parenting, in working, and in sexual mating strategy. So when one of the participants – a highly-qualified person with years of experience in academia – remarked that although they agreed with what I said and felt it was all very true, they would not dare repeat any of this stuff elsewhere, it felt as if my fears were being confirmed.

This is the fear of saying something that sounds dangerous, and that can be propagated heavy with the burden of misunderstanding, irrespective of whether the original message is supported by science and has been shared with noble intent.

Frankly, I get the sensitivity around sex and gender identity. Together, these two speak of who we are at our deepest core, that intimate space which we guard with force.  I also understand the conflict that comes from wanting, on one hand to keep such signatures private, and a desire on the other to express ourselves and signal to other people.

What I do not understand, however, is how it be can convenient or beneficial to ignore the biology, disconnect either sex or gender from their biological basis, or to confound the relationship between sex and gender. Let me give an example. The first question that you provide on a survey looking into the determinants of mental health at the workplace is titled ‘Gender’ and you can choose from 1) male; 2) female; 3) prefer not to say; and 4) other. I’m assuming that in a study of this sort, what you are really interested in is the sex, because that will help you analyse the data in a meaningful way and address the gap in data and in research. I’m also assuming that you are not really interested in the respondents’ behavioural expression of sex, but if that were the case, it would be good to have a separate question.

This is why I feel it is time to at least start the conversation about the biological truths of sex and gender. It is not because I believe that biology is the only truth. I think that, as for other aspects of our human nature, biology is an essential part of the equation without which we will have trouble constructing a coherent narrative of our life and our identity. Biology, along with the realities it relays, is a powerful element that shapes our story and gives us the confidence to thrust ourselves into the world with pride and positivity.