This little piece attempts to weave together two different arguments. One is about how we likely evolved sexed pronouns for good evolutionary fitness enhancing reasons and the other is about a concerted strategy to advance a political ideology through exploiting most people’s ignorance about the relationship between grammatical gender and sexed pronouns. For those interested, I’ve disentangled the latter of those two arguments for an article in Quillette. For those interested in having a go at the original, more tangled approach, please read on.
For some years now there has been a movement afoot in the social constructionist schools to separate gender from sex: the non-binary from the binary. This debate has occasioned the recent pronoun controversy, where in dozens of “gender” pronouns have been advanced as required by tolerance — or even compelled by law. A common response to this has been to insist that gender is in fact not separate from sex or at the very least to deny the claim that there is no correspondence between them. This seems to be a compelling approach considering that the best estimate at the moment, by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, is that transgender people constitute just .3 percent of the U.S. population. Take note that lesbians, gays and bisexuals, who constitute just over 3 percent of the population, do not dispute the correspondence of their sex and gender: the point of distinction is being sexually attracted to the same sex (and gender?) So, this transgender group is an extremely small percentage of people. Using it to claim a non-correspondence between gender and sex is to appeal to a statistically anomalous set of data points.
It is not an unreasonable question to ask why such a cultural upheaval has been initiated across all of society over linguistic practices relevant to less than a third of one percent of the population. Advocates of pronoun diversity, such as A.W. Peet, claim it is simply a matter of expanding the circle of compassion, being more and more inclusive and tolerant. Those who resist this expanded pronoun movement, such as Jordan Peterson, argue that transgender people have been coopted as the thin end of the wedge in a broader project of cultural Marxism that aspires to undermine the traditions and values of modern, Western society. And, indeed, some, such as Camille Paglia, have gone as far as to suggest that transgender mania is a harbinger of civilizational collapse. I have my own thoughts on these matters; but, rather than get into the weeds of that, here, there’s another dimension to this topic that I’d propose.
Pronouns are a form of language; if we’re to have a biologically realistic understanding of what’s involved in the pronouns dispute, it is necessary to be clear about the function of language. All biological function is the product of evolution. We know of no other non-supernatural force that molds biota into functions. And these functions result from the selective pressures that sieve options for their contributions to fitness: success at getting one’s genes into subsequent generations. Direct sexual reproduction is not the only means of achieving this, but it is the most common and immediately effective means of doing so. In this sense, pretty much everything comes down to sex. That is to say, pretty much everything comes down to sex as the ultimate cause of function. There are of course proximate causes, such as the attraction to symmetric features; dispositions to accumulate resources, achieve high status, and build coalitions; same sex rivalry; cooperation; reciprocal altruism; intellectual and creative achievement; love; and property rights. All these human characteristics, and much more, are ultimately traced back to their impact on sexual success. Language hardly can be expected to be different.
And, indeed, after a long period mid-20th century of denial, it seems pretty widely accepted today that our human languages are products of evolution. So, what is the function of language, besides the banal obviousness of communicating? (I have argued at length for the evolutionary significance of human communication.) What is communicated and how? Certainly a central function of language, possibly its original one, is to categorize the world around us. And such categorization, insofar as Chomsky is correct about the human possession of a universal grammar adaptation, will be molded around the disposition to categorize the world in ways that advance our fitness. If that’s true, though, why do we speak different languages? Wouldn’t one universal language, over the eons of evolution, gradually have been sculpted from the flux of human linguistic diversity?
It’s not impossible that that could be the long term fate of our language, aided by the recent rise of global communication technologies. Perhaps language just hasn’t been around long enough. But, there’s plenty enough good reason to doubt that outcome, too. The point of the concept of the phenotype, in evolutionary biology, is that genes can and do express themselves differently in response to different environmental cues. The specific unique local ecology, and the history generated by past iterations of that unique local ecology, create particular, different phenotypes. And, indeed, genotypes are molded in unexpected ways by these ecological conditions. That’s natural selection.
As I’ve noted in past posts, here for instance, there’s very good biological grounds for females, by definition, to always be the higher investing parent and therefore for dimorphism to provide them the standard physiological and psychological characteristics of the higher investing parent. This is at the very biochemical logic of sexual reproduction. And, yet, rare though it is, there are several dozen species in which it turns out that post-conception it is the males who invest more in the offspring and they who take on the dimorphic qualities of the higher investing parent. Something in their unique local ecology, and history generated by past iterations of that unique local ecology, have given rise to these anomalies.
Language seems no different in this regard. Plus, of course, there is an element of randomness involved. After all, the importance of distinguishing categories doesn’t designate what words need to be used for the categories: a fact obvious from the many different words used in different languages for the same categories: e.g., dog, perro, chien, hund. So, to claim the fact that a particular categorization may not appear in every language doesn’t refute the operative assumption that wherever it is recurrent and enduring it might be expected to possess fitness enhancing qualities. To make full sense of the importance of these observations immediately above, take a moment to consider the relation of gender to language.
English speakers familiar with any of the Romance languages will know that there’s at least two senses in which we use the term gender in language. In English the usage is pretty much restricted to the pronouns; in French and Spanish, though, all nouns are gendered: e.g., they require one of two different articles for a grammatically correct sentence. Put le fromage on la table. Those only familiar with English and the Romance languages, though, may be surprised to find out that masculine and feminine are not the only way of gendering nouns. Some languages gender them on the basis of whether they refer to animate or inanimate objects. According to Pinker, in The Language Instinct, the Kivunjo language has sixteen genders. This is confusing to English speakers because we’re used to thinking of gendering exclusively in relation to our personal pronouns, distinguishing the sexes.
It turns out, though, that grammatical gender, categorizing nouns, is the older of the two practices. This will make more sense if we think of gender’s etymological roots, in genre and genus, indicating type, kind or origin. It was only later that the term was applied to a categorical distinction between the sexes. And, it seems that the usage’s persistence was rooted in the appeal of having a euphemistic term to distinguish the sexes, without getting too biological. If this history, which is also supported by Pinker in The Language Instinct (he actually says here he refuses to use gender as a euphemism for the proper term of sex), is accurate, then it would appear that those who insist upon a decoupling of gender and sex have a good point. The term gender would seem to be in no way intrinsically bound up with the sexual binary, but was merely a grammatical imposition in the interest of etiquette.
However, another conclusion follows from this same observation, which seems rather glossed over by those advocating non-binary gender pronouns. After all, the pronoun distinction between the sexes predates the application of the grammatical category of gender by some uncertain thousands of years. It certainly is known that grammatical gendering in language in general dates back at least to the dawn of the Indo-European languages. Before the advent of writing, knowing anything about grammar practices is rather dicey, indeed. What is clear though is that while an insistence on the coupling of gender and sex may be unwarranted, the binary pronoun distinctions in such languages were never about identifying gender in this more contingent sense, but precisely about categorizing and distinguishing the sexes.
And, after all, what form of categorization is more fitness enhancing than establishing the distinction of the male and the female? It is true that a lot, maybe most, human languages do not have male-female pronouns. Though a more interesting metric, which I’ve been unable to find, is what percentage of people speak a language that does make such distinctions. There’s obviously no suggestion here that those using languages lacking sexed pronouns (which is what they should be called, to alleviate confusion) where incapable of figuring out how to have sex. However the presence of such pronouns may suggest consciousness of and practical attentiveness to sexuality in early ancestors that are indicative of institutionalization of mating. And such institutionalization may well have provided fitness advantages. In any event, as has been established, given unique local ecological circumstances, phenotypes and genotypes can produce anomalous and yet successful structure and behavior.
Whatever one makes of these evolutionary speculations, though, what is clear is that the very logic that justifies decoupling gender from sex also militates against the misguided attempt to hijack the language in the name of such a decoupling. Our pronouns are sexed, not gendered (in anything more than an grammatical sense): and whatever gender non-binary identifiers claim, they are likely still one sex or the other. And if someone is intersex, a population the size of which the American Psychological Association says in unknown and hard to determine, and have not opted for either male or female, maybe there is some validity in asking for a single third category. However, conviction in the existence of gender fluidity is not valid grounds for a demand to reinvent the pronoun structure of the language.
All this gender pronoun debate seems to be based on a category error. It’s a bit like if some group were to insist we separate the terms do and verb: after all there’s a whole fluid spectrum of verb which mustn’t be chained to the binary of do or not do. That sounds silly, but it’s essentially what’s going on, here. Gender is the system of categorization; sexed pronouns are the material being categorized. Gender describes pronouns; pronouns do not describe gender! Confusing the name of the category with the name of the thing being categorized is an error — at best. At worst, the appropriation of “gender” in “gender studies” or “gender activism” is an ideologically driven confusion, willfully blurring grammar and biology. Whether or not sex pronouns have any fitness advantage, it is a bit much expecting everyone else to blindly pantomime dictates generated from a conceptual muddle.