Researchers have found that it is environmental factors that actually determine more stable gendered behaviours, rather than biological factors.
By
Simon Copland

8 Sep 2017 - 1:54 PM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2017 - 1:54 PM

New research has challenged the idea that ‘gender specific behaviours’—or the tendency for men to be masculine and women to be feminine—are due to our genetics. The study Sex-Linked Behaviour: Evolution, Stability, and Variability, conducted by Cordelia Fine from the University of Melbourne, John Dupré from the University of Exeter, and Daphna Joel from Tel-Aviv University, argues that our social environment allows for the transfer of some gender-specific behaviour traits between generations. 

John Dupré spoke with SBS Sexuality about the research, noting that the impetus behind the work was to challenge a continued tendency within scientific circles that assumes our gendered behaviours are determined by our genetics.

These sorts of biological arguments are common both within science and popular discourse. They are often based on an assumption that gendered traits are inherently linked to the needs of human reproduction, linking our behaviours with a ‘fundamental’ drive to reproduce. Dupré says that his team wanted to challenge this assumption. 

"The constructionist argument (one which argues that behaviour traits are determined by social environments) is by no means universally accepted in scientific circles,” he says. “One reason it isn’t is that it is assumed that reliable transmission of gender-specific traits across many generations is only possible by biological - that is, genetic - means.  We specifically criticise this assumption."   

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While these sorts of criticisms are already common, both within science and in gender theory (see Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble), this research challenges the assumption in a new way.

The researchers use evolutionary biology to examine how gendered traits are transferred across generations, arguing that “it is assumed implicitly or otherwise that the cross-generational transmission of traits is largely mediated by genetics, with the environment being a source of variability in the development”. In this assumption, those traits that are ‘stable’ across generations are determined by biology, while those that are ‘variable’ are more determined by environmental factors.

Using evolutionary biology, the researchers flipped this assumption on its head. John Dupré explains this through the concept of ‘niche construction’:

"There is a general idea that is increasingly accepted in evolutionary theory that inheritance can work through the construction of environments by parents - “niche construction”.  Birds develop in a certain way because their parents build nests, and this includes developing a tendency to build nests,” he explains. 

"Humans take this process to a new level.  Schools, hospitals, etc. are key parts of complex infrastructures that scaffold the development of human young. If the schools, nurseries, etc. systematically treat boys and girls differently, through different clothes, toys, games, and more, it is to be expected that they will develop differently."

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Mixing this evolutionary perspective with neurobiology, the researchers found that it is environmental factors that actually determine more stable gendered behaviours, while our biology provides the capacity for ‘plasticity’ – that is, for those behaviours to change across generations. Dupré continues:

“What is most novel, I think, is the suggestion that plasticity of behaviour may actually be what is better explained in biological terms, and reliable transmission in social/environmental terms.

“Genetic inheritance continues to be critical for the capacity to quickly learn an adaptive behaviour, but environmental factors that are stable over generations remove any selective pressure for the development of parallel genetic mechanisms.”

Brought together, the research highlights the importance of social environment on gendered behaviours, highlighting the huge role that norms, social expectations and social systems have on the way we express our gender. For Dupré this is important, as it provides at least some avenues to challenge gendered norms in our society.

“We aim to reinforce existing critiques of the idea of gender differences being biologically fixed.  Of course one important reason for doing this is that we want to defend the possibility that assumptions about gendered behaviour can change. It is easier to change the social environment than to change our genomes—though neither is easy!”