Gender biology, Aristotle and theology

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have a dear friend who developed leukaemia about 20 years ago. He is a male of the species. Or is he? His leukaemia was treated by a bone marrow transplant, the donor being a woman. Were he to commit some heinous crime, ‘his’ blood cells left at the crime scene would appear to have come from a female. What delicious opportunities abound for him to exact revenge on those who have offended him, and yet evade detection. Has this possibility yet been explored by a crime novelist? This man has the body of a male but the blood of a female. How do we define gender?

Some species change sex mid life. Males become females—and I’m not talking man-boobs here. Clownfish do it, though that’s something that Finding Nemo didn’t explore. Things can go the other way too, female to male. These phenomena seem to happen naturally when a population deems it necessary (how?) to restore a particular male/female ratio. Do you think this might happen in say, primary school teachers, where men are woefully under-represented? Some hormonal diseases cause men to develop female characteristics, and others cause women to develop male characteristics. Is the more laid-back outlook that some men acquire as they get older a result of falling levels of testosterone, a kind of natural feminization? Are we males being feminized by the increasing oestrogen levels in the water supply?

It’s widely held that the ‘default setting’ of the mammalian embryo is female: the embryo will develop into a female unless male things are switched on a certain time of development. The female, then, is the basic form, the male the experimental (more advanced? less stable?). SWMBO says this explains why flu is more ‘serious’ in a man, since he is the less robust sex. We all have within our bodies male and female bits and pieces in various stages of development. The ovary and testis come from the same thing. The penis and clitoris likewise.

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens

Then there’s the matter of psychological gender—what we think we are, what we feel like in our heads. How does it affect our personalities, the way we express our sexuality, the way we respond to art, for example? What does a generously proportioned Rubens nude broad do for you? or one of Michelangelo’s representations of God, looking for all the world like a steroid-crazed bodybuilder who pumps iron in a spit-and-sawdust gym? What do your physical and/or emotional responses to these images say about you and your psychological sexuality? Our knowledge of how psychological sex is determined in the brain is very sketchy indeed. A spectrum is more likely than either/or.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that things are not as simple as some would wish. I think there’s a bit of both in all of us. Hermaphrodites (functioning male and female organs in the same creature) are common in plants and animals. Homosexuality occurs in nature. And so do intersex states—organisms that are neither male nor female, but somewhere in-between, to put it crudely. Physical abnormalities of the penis are common in humans, and nearly all of them reflect a kind-of intersex state in which there is some degree of reversion to the basic female anatomy. Some human newborns appear to be of indeterminate gender, and the nature of their upbringing is a matter of choice by parents/professionals. And God loves all her creation.

The church gets into a terrible tangle about this. The reason is, I think, that it hasn’t quite grasped the fact that  biology has moved on from Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. Aristotle apparently knew less than those who went before him. The role of semen as seed (and no more than seed) was appreciated at least as early as about 1400 BC. Later on, Hindu scriptures of the sixth century BC accept that the female is essential, with menstrual blood (from the mother, of course) forming the basis of the embryo, and semen merely the provoking agent for things to happen. Then along comes Aristotle in about 400 BC who thinks that the sperm from the male contains the miniature human, and that all the woman provides is the ‘oven’ for incubation. This faulty biology might at least in part explain the Vatican’s aversion to condoms. In the Aristotelian view, I suppose the used condom is full of miniature humans desperately clamouring to find an oven in which to bake. Extending this, the catholic view should be that intercourse is permissible only when conception is likely. Using the safe period for contraception, therefore, should be frightfully sinful.

070522_sharks_hmed_5p.grid-6x2It gets even better! New Scientist, 2 March 2013 tells us that virgin births are commoner than we thought. Though not yet recorded in mammals, except once about 2000 years ago in the Middle East, sharks, snakes, and turkeys, to name but three, can do it, and in the wild too. If this is a sign of things to come, men will no longer be required. Perhaps—and this is a long shot, I know—clerical celibacy is actually prophetic, pointing to the ultimate biological uselessness of the male of the species. In the Garden of Eden when the snake was talking to the woman, as they do, the man was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was in his garden shed, recovering from surgery. Well now, lads, you can stay there. Is this not good news? I urge you to read Consider Her Ways by John Wyndham, and The Children of Men by P D James.

Fascinating stuff, raising all sorts of questions. There are doctorates to be written on the theology of gender and reproduction. Theology has to fit biology, not the other way round.

About Rambling Rector

Church of England Parish Priest
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2 Responses to Gender biology, Aristotle and theology

  1. Pingback: Registering intersex | Rambling Rector

  2. Pingback: Sex talk | Rambling Rector

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