Transgender part two: Subtle contributions and connections
In my previous essay, I argued that transgender people:
- Can be both honest and accurate when they identify themselves as a member of the opposite sex.
- Might have a biological basis for such a claim.
- Might be worth having around, as members of the population.
There are a couple of valid points that have been raised with me that I want to address, and one valid point that I’m not going to explore. The valid point that I’m not going to explore is that my presentation of intersex people was superficial, not in line with the best science, and potentially misleading. I accept that as true, but there are only so many things I can attempt to get right at any one time. (Intersex people deserve a champion: odds are, that champion is not going to be me.)
The points I’m going to address in this essay are:
- That if you don’t procreate, you’re not going to pass on your genes, therefore transgender people are a dead end
- That social factors play a role in the formation of a transgender identity
The Procreation Problem
There are two answers to the procreation problem, a cheap answer and a complex answer. The cheap answer is that “There’s no great shortage of lesbians trapped in a man’s body” (and similarly, gay men who live in women’s bodies). By identifying homosexuality (and asexuality) as phenomena that are not the same as transgender identity, it’s possible to side-step this issue. However, many transgender people do not have a sexual preference that is going to produce children, so we need to look at the complex answer.
The complex answer considers the birds and the bees. Specifically, the territorial behaviours of birds, and the altruistic instincts of bees. Bees are especially fascinating, because they are biologically programmed to sacrifice themselves in order to defend the hive. Their stingers are barbed, so a bee sting is fatal to the bee who stings. And yet they sting creatures that attack their hive. (There are many other examples of bee altruism, but this is the most dramatic.)
Can a bee that stings another creature pass on its genes? To answer that question, we have to have a rigorous definition of “its genes.” If the bee’s genes are the molecules of DNA that it carries in its body, then the answer is clearly ‘no’, those molecules are going to decompose. However, if the bee’s genes are the genetic instructions that are encoded in those molecules of DNA, we have to consider whether those instructions are more able to survive when the bee sacrifices itself.
Bees are a dramatic and simple example of evolved social behaviour. In a typical bee colony, all of the bees have the same mother (the queen bee). Therefore, we can say that 50% of the genetic instructions carried by those bees are identical (50% is a simplification, but it’s near enough to be good enough). So the instructions carried by Alice the bee have a lot in common with the instructions carried by Betsy, Charlie and Donald (sibling bees from the same hive).
If Alice’s death saves the lives of Betsy, Charlie and Donald, then she has effectively preserved 150% of her own genetic instructions (because the other 3 each carry 50% of the instructions Alice carries). Therefore, if Alice could have survived on her own by leaving the others to die (a 100% preservation of her genetic material), that’s actually less efficient from a genetic point of view than sacrificing herself for the other 3. And that assumes that she could have escaped instead of dying alongside the others.
A weaker, but similar, phenomenon can be observed in birds, who warn each other when predators approach. A social bird who senses danger will cry out when they see a predator. This increases the chance that the predator will detect and kill the individual who gave the warning, but increases the chance that their genetic instructions will survive. But they’ll only do this if they’re a bird who lives in the company of their family. (The formula for this is “k > 1/r”.)
To summarize: genetic evolution isn’t a process of passing on your molecules to the next generation. It’s a process of protecting the survival of the instructions represented by those molecules. Sometimes, the interests of the instructions are best served by sacrificing some of the molecules.
One sentence version: Procreation isn’t actually a problem, once you understand the science.
Social (and other) factors in forming a transgender identity
The previous essay argues that transgender identity might be founded in a biological reality. This is not the same as claiming that it’s genetically determined, and it’s not the same as denying the existence of social influences. When I wrote that essay, my point was that the human genome can make transgender people (and that this is a feature, not a bug). However, the mind abhors a vacuum, so let’s examine how transgender people do (and don’t) happen, a bit further.
There’s a claim out there (credible, but lacking citations) that 1% of Thailand is transgender, while 0.6% of Malaysia is transgender. For the United States, there’s high-quality numbers indicating that 0.6% of the population identifies as transgender, ranging between 0.3% in North Dakota and 2.6% in the District of Colombia.
Assuming that the breeding habits (hur hur) and genetic pools are largely consistent within the United States, and between Thailand and Malaysia, it seems likely that there’s a non-genetic factor or two at work. What explanations might there be for the difference between North Dakota and Washington DC?
Is it that people in North Dakota are more religious? 77% of them identify as Christian, 2% as atheist. Whereas DC is 65% Christian, 4% atheist. So maybe people are less likely to identify as transgender in North Dakota because they’re influenced more heavily by Christianity in the area.
But there’s a lot of alternative explanations that should be considered, here’s a starting point:
- Maybe trans people don’t like it in North Dakota, so they leave.
- Maybe trans people are disproportionately interested in federal politics, so they go to Washington DC.
- Maybe people who would otherwise identify as trans don’t form that identification when they live in North Dakota.
- Maybe people who would not otherwise identify as trans do form that identification when they live in Washington DC.
- Maybe the high murder rate in Washington DC results in pregnant women being more stressed out than in polite North Dakota, resulting in higher levels of fetal adrenaline and testosterone, which epigenetically modifies males so that they’ll stay home to protect the women, and/or epigenetically modifies females so that they’re more likely to go exploring and leave the area.
And that’s just top-of-the-head candidate explanations at the population level, which is far simpler than explaining the case of any given individual. Generally speaking, when it comes to human beings, the answer to the ‘nature or nurture’ question is ‘a mixture of both’.
And there’s no denying that there’s some component of ‘making a decision’ involved, given that 2.2% of people who have transition surgery report that they regret the decision to do so. It’s not entirely clear how many people who don’t have the surgery are changing their mind about their identity, or simply deciding that the expense, pain and risk of surgery isn’t for them. Detransition is a complex topic.
For some people, there’s a strong element of choice in their trans identity. For others, there’s no experience of choice. If you think about that whole business of ‘predicting gender based on behaviour’, it’s not hard to imagine that a person who is a 55% match for the opposite sex will feel a mild tug towards a trans identity, while a person who is a 99% match for the opposite sex will feel something much stronger.
So there we have it. Genetic mechanisms don’t have to advantage every individual for them to confer a survival advantage to the species (and therefore be a natural feature, as opposed to a disease). The existence of biological influences towards being a trans person doesn’t mean those are the only influences.