The Biochemical Nature of Gender Identity
What do thoughts, feelings, blinking, smiling, and our preferences have in common? They’re each a unique set of bioelectrochemical reactions resulting from our deterministic biochemical programming set forth by a stochastic blend of genetics, entropy, and cumulative environmental stimuli. The integration of all sets of reaction sequences into a unified whole represents “us”, our identity. Or at least that’s the theory discussed herein.
If we’re going to understand ourselves, and especially others who are different than us, we first need to acknowledge that our interface with the physical world is first and foremost through chemistry. Feelings, thoughts, smiles, ideas…all unique biochemical sequences within our individual brains. Yes, nature and nurture both participate in forming these reaction sequences, but it’s their synergy that yields the unique You.
If we look back to our own personal beginnings, each of us is assigned a blend of chemistry (genetics) and entropy in utero, which defines the component of our identity referred to as “Nature”. The cumulative environmental stimuli we experience through time fulfills the “Nurture” component of our identity. I use the word fulfills because I think of the impact of nurture on identity in terms of resonance. Our ability to learn which responses (outputs) to stimuli (inputs) are in resonance with our programming (nature) allows us to fulfill our identity destiny, if you will. It allows us to become who we really are at our core, biochemically.
(Of course this doesn’t factor in severe negative environmental stimuli that leads to PTSD, and the resulting changes in identity/brain activity, for example. These intense, negative environmental stimuli are exceptional and require analysis on their own. See: PTSD Changes Brain Function for further reading)
Nevertheless, the manifestation of our identity is more than the sum of parts. The synergy created through the integration of Nature and Nurture yields a unique, individualized human-conscious-experience that is driven by our unique, individualized biochemical programming. The manifestation of our “selves” is driven by this synergistic output and defines our chemically-unique existence as A Human Being. A Person.
The Origins and the Motivation. Many ideas about the very nature of Who We Are permeate the scrolls of human history since the beginning of The Paradigm of the Self-Aware Human. Let’s briefly look at the two predominant historical frameworks that generated these early ideas about identity, namely philosophy (and by extension, science) and religion.
The question of “Who am I?” (translation: “What is identity?”) was relegated mostly to philosophy and religion before recent technological revolutions improved our understanding of, well, essentially everything. By distilling our natural world order down to the logical, physicochemical processes that govern matter, science has outpaced religion in verifiable truths of our world. The realization that everything in our world is driven, essentially, by physics and chemistry initiated a new paradigm in how we think about most everything. Why should that not include identity?
But back to the historical aspect. Philosophy tends to generate ideas about identity based around what it means to Be and Observe and Prefer and Interact. On the other hand, religion holds tightly to beliefs that describe the “creation” of our observable world with an intent toward manifestation of human reproductive dimorphism: male and female (which reunite to drive reproduction). Some religions further institute a systematic hierarchy where the male species yields dominance and authority over the female species.
Religion holds that each pole of the dimorphic model carries with it certain characteristics that are to be strictly observed by each sex, so as to live in Accordance with God and His Creation. These same characteristics, unfortunately, form the basis for assigning dominance/authority to men and submission to women. Nevertheless, these characteristics are general biochemical truths that emerge from the molecular drivers of our dimorphic template: testosterone and estrogen. It’s noteworthy to point out that these religious models are developed in a post-hoc analysis of collective observations that arise from the biochemical nature of the dimorphism: certain characteristics are innate to a human body depending on whether that body is driven by testosterone or by estrogen.
Even though this part of the discussion is historical, it’s amazing how much the dichotomous nature of empiricism and belief still defines a large part of our sociopolitical lives in the 21st century. Modern Evangelicalism is so rooted in anti-science dogma that consciousness itself is seen as a disparate, metaphysical connection with God. Even if consciousness *is* a portal to God, it is secondary to the nature of consciousness as a sequence of biochemical reactions. Therefore, *if* there is a connection w higher states of existence (re: God), it’s a consequence of, not a direct precursor to consciousness.
As a species the origins of our understanding of the world were provided by religion and belief systems. Thus, it’s not surprising so many would intrinsically see themselves as separate from the world, from the Universe, from the physical realm. In this view of reality, humans were “put here” by God to do God’s works, which nullifies any further thoughts about humans being a part of the Universe, or the Earth, not merely inhabitants. In this view, our identity is God given; He put us here as we are, and any deviation from that is a terrible sin that will lead to our eternal suffering and torture.
Aims and Objectives of this Essay. The aim of this essay is to look deeper than philosophical thought or religious belief for identity. I will platform most of my discussion on findings advanced as a result of modern medical technology. These advances have begun to elucidate the biochemical mechanisms that drive neuro- and anatomical-divergences from the expected dimorphic template. If we stop thinking of ourselves as existing outside of nature and, by extension, its fundamental physical laws, we can begin to see ourselves more simply as unique biochemical programs (see: MIT Discussion on Biochemical Origin of Thoughts)
I won’t usurp these maiden research efforts and repackage them as my own. What I hope to accomplish with this essay is an awakening within us that allows us to stop assigning personal blame to others who diverge from expected norms found in the dimorphic biological *template* that we are subjected to during fetal development.
While both neuro- and anatomical-divergences arise in utero from similar types of disruptions in our chemical programming, I want to focus on neurodivergences in this essay and utilize my lived experience as a transgender woman to exemplify the conceptual ideas presented. I am drawing on the broad utility of the term neurodivergence to describe every statistical divergence from the norm that isn’t anatomical (anatomical: siamese twins, polydactyly, intersex conditions). I realize this grouping lumps neuropathological conditions with non-neuropathological conditions. Being transgender isn’t pathological, while schizophrenia absolutely is, for example. However, I’m arguing in this essay that being transgender can be assigned space under the broad umbrella of neurodivergent conditions.
The argument that supports this classification follows from neuroendocrinology, which studies the impact of hormones on brain function. The neurodivergence for transgender people is a result of their neuroendocrine programming being in conflict with the gonad-driven hormonal profile that arises from the “sexing” of the fetus and subsequent development of gonads into ovaries or testes. I’d argue this dissonance between neuroendocrine programming and hormonal profile forms the biochemical basis of “gender dysphoria” experienced by transgender people. For ease of discussion, I hope you’ll allow me the latitude to utilize this vocabulary.
I also intend to discuss these topics more on the philosophical level and less on the geneticist/medical specialist level. Understanding genetics, epigenetics, and phenotype is not a prerequisite for this essay. However, my expertise is chemical & biomolecular engineering and chemistry, so I have a lot of tools at my disposal to articulate the human experience through the lens of interacting systems of bioelectrochemical reactions.
Gender Stereotypes: A Statistical Expectation of a Dimorphic Template. We hear a lot about gender stereotypes in feminism and, in particular, discussions of trans people. The detractor version sits like this: binary transgender people appropriate woman/manhood by observing gender stereotypes and aligning their identity with them; that their identity isn’t what they say it is; that transgender people are shifting their identity to live less authentic lives in the process of appropriation. (Non-binary trans people will be briefly discussed later within the context of this theory)
Usually, some sexually-deviant or fetishizing theory is projected onto transgender people to support this idea. The irony is that as a transgender woman who pretended to be a man for 30+ years, the only time I’ve actively tried to fit into gender stereotypes were those years where I had to “act like a man”. When a dissonance exists between one’s gender identity and the societal expectations of one’s identity based on the assignment of your sex at birth (and the conflation of gender therein), all one has at their disposal to survive is learning and deploying the gender stereotypes of the sex you’re assigned at birth. For some like me, it’s in response to physical abuse by the adults who see reinforcing the alignment of expected behaviors with assigned sex at birth as their duty.
One thing I believe is often missed in the arbitrary fight against gender stereotypes is an acknowledgement of their biochemical foundation. To be clear, the hypothesis from which I’m working is as follows: both identity and stereotypes originate, albeit independently, from the interaction of our unique biochemical programming with the molecular drivers (Estrogen and Testosterone) of the dimorphic system from which we are cast.
I realize I may catch a lot of flak for seemingly defending gender stereotypes. A lot of people experience a knee-jerk reaction to that phrase because, let’s face it, gender stereotypes have historically been used to fuel sexism and violence against women while justifying their oppression. But, it’s important to realize the oppression arises through the reinforcement of expected gender roles that are derived from observable gender stereotypes. Before you burn my essay and use the ashes for fertilizer, I hope you’ll first consider this theory for the origin of gender stereotypes and why our post-hoc analysis of reality leads us to erroneously cast them as a choice. Recognizing gender stereotypes as natural manifestations of opposing molecular drivers acting on a dimporhic template will help us focus on the fundamental driver of sex-based oppression — the insistence that everyone stick within their assigned gender roles based around the observable gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes are defined by nature and nurture and their impact on our biochemical brain programming. Gender roles are defined by man, post-hoc.
A couple of quick definitions.
Male/Female — assigned at birth based on genitalia
Norm/Expectation — I’m using the statistical definition of the “normal” or “norm” or “expectation”. Essentially, the norm is the average or the mean in a normal distribution (bell curve). The norm is the expectation of obtaining, in a random sample, the characteristics that arise with the highest frequency within the population sampled for said characteristics. In this essay, I’m making the assumption that the set of human gender identities can be modeled by a normal distribution. If we model males in a normal distribution, the traditional stereotype of a man is centered at the top of the distribution. Maybe we assign the right side as “more masculine behaviors” and the left side as “less masculine behaviors”. Using this model, we can see how Toxic Masculinity generally shakes out to the right of the norm and AMAB non-binary characteristics to the left, with transfemmes far to the left. In fact, if we created the same distribution for females and aligned the distributions side-by-side with some overlap, we can see non-binary identities are situated in this region of overlap of AMAB with less masculine behaviors (to the left of the norm for male behaviors) and AFAB with more masculine behaviors (to the right of the norm for female behaviors). See Figure below.
Entropy — I use the term entropy to denote the universal randomness that is generated when we utilize the energy of the universe to produce order in molecules to form bigger things out of them. Entropy quite literally drives mutation in DNA and evolution of species by “whoops-ing” the reproductive process in a given species relative to its *template*, or blueprints if you will.
Nature Hacked My Blueprints! AKA: I’m Transgender. So let’s consider the biological dimorphic template we’re stuck with at this point in evolution: male and female. It’s instructive to quickly address fetal development in utero.
We all begin as an ambiguous blank slate with only x chromosome expressions (which is why some studies suggest we begin as females, even including the brain). At the point where sexual differentiation begins, a defined biochemical reaction sequence is triggered by the gestation host to first “sex” the fetus. This biochemical reaction sequence involves hormones delivered to the fetus in a certain ratio and concentration, usually in pulsatile fashion. The fetus then embarks on the remainder of its development sexed as either a female, a male or anatomically-divergent intersex.
If the reaction sequence yields a fetus sexed as a female, the gonads remain in place and mature into ovaries. If the reaction sequence yields a fetus sexed as a male, the gonads shift and develop into testes. If the reaction sequence experiences a statistically-significant interference effect from entropy during this part of the fetal development (in any number of possible ways, whether random/universe entropy or deterministic disorder driven environmental stimuli like mutagens or teratogens), a spectrum of intersex individuals arises. And to be clear, intersex conditions are not always “seen” as ambiguous anatomical anomalies on the exterior.
The next important point of fetal development is some 6–8 weeks later. The brain has begun to develop much more, and a new biochemical reaction sequence is triggered to “gender” the brain. This “gendering” of the brain is nothing more than a fancy way of saying the brain’s hormone receptors are populated according to the directions provided in the second hormonal signaling at this point in time. When these triggers proceed in accordance with the dimorphic template, a cisgender person develops. However, this syncopated assignment of sex and gender to the fetus in utero underpins predominant theories of the biological origins of transgender people.
In essence, transgender people are “sexed” with one set of hormonal triggers while their brains are “gendered” with a second set of hormonal triggers that are incongruent with the initial sexing. A binary transgender person is sexed opposite their “gendering” of the brain. The gender “spectrum” or other “non-binary identities” are based in the fact that there exists a whole SET of ways the individual biochemical reaction SEQUENCES can be disrupted that don’t lead to strict gender binaries. These mixed-disruptions lead to gender identities that are more generally not in congruence with the expectation/norm of males OR females.
The sheer number of chemical reactions that must be carried out to grow a human is immense. In fact, it’s rather amazing to observe how effective humans are at reproducing “normal” humans when we consider how many things must go *right* for us to resemble the behavioral norm of a male or female.
This “behavioral expectation” or “behavioral norm” of males and females at its essence is what I define as gender stereotype. In the manifestation of the dimorphic template of male/female, gender stereotypes merely represent an average behavioral collective based on the observables of each group. The term “Binary” itself is nothing more than the polar expectations of a distribution of behaviors in males and females.
Consider the behavior of the billions of males and females currently alive. Now imagine each group being mapped onto two different normal distributions; one for males, one for females. The top of the bell curve represents the average behaviors. The tails of the distribution represent the many divergences we observe in the world relative to our expectation of behavior according to observed gender stereotypes or norms. When people push those who identify outside of the norm into behaving as the norm, this is oppression based on expected gender roles. Gender roles are the transposition of natural gender stereotypes into forced behaviors arising therefrom.
The oppressive gender roles assigned to males and females are societal constructs formed around the simplistic view that all males and females are supposed to behave accordingly. Not coincidentally, these particular characteristics that arise in high frequency and represent gender norms form the essence of gender stereotypes. This means that gender stereotypes are actually defined, observationally, in real time, as the average/expectation/norm of gendered behaviors based on how all other people of the same *sex* are currently behaving.
Society has decided, for a variety of reasons ranging from homogeneity or patriarchy or religion or fascism, to shame gender-divergent people, whose identity is NOT coincident with their sex-based norm, back into the gender roles constructed from observed gender stereotypes. To be clear, this is oppression. But it’s not always sinister. In fact, according to the model I’ve presented, a large number of people would be expected to exhibit gender stereotypes, the “gender norm” according to their assigned sex at birth, since the behavior of men and women define the stereotypes in the first place! You’ve probably met a stereotypical male or female who *were* being authentic! According to this model, there should be lots of them.
So far, we’ve only utilized post-hoc observational analyses to arrive at a meaningful definition of gender stereotypes. But, as I said at the opening, gender stereotypes themselves arise as part of the dimorphic template we’re operating within.
Identity & Biochemical Programming. Consider the drivers of the human dimorphic system — estrogen and testosterone. If we position these molecules at opposing poles based on the characteristics they impart on a “normal” human body (read: one that matches well at completion with the starting template), how can we not expect a high frequency of certain characteristics? We’re all unique, but we’re also built as a species from a very well-established blueprint honed over thousands of years, which means estrogen and testosterone should act on the brain to yield similar characteristics within the many “normal” modes of programming that are possible.
The spread of the distribution is relatively small for humans, believe it or not. A tight distribution merely speaks to the ability of the human machinery to reproduce itself with a great deal of consistency, in spite of entropy! Divergences form non-normal modes of human programming in a multitude of ways. Regardless of the vocabulary we use to denote them (birth defect, anomaly, divergence from the norm, etc.), these non-normal programming modes exist and arise naturally.
Even those who reside about the norm experience their own relatively small degree of divergence from the norm. Society defines the threshold we use to determine who is not obeying the norms, but even those within the range of normal modes of programming deviate from the precise norm in small but real ways. (See Figure below) Otherwise, those humans who fit about the norm would all be exactly the same. Entropy keeps us all unique; but for some of us, it sends us far enough outside the norm to facilitate lifelong battles with those within the societal-defined norm about behaving like the norm.
Thus, based on statistics, there exists a “normal” programming mode, all of us are running unique chemical programs that were designed in utero, and entropy sends some of us (like myself) outside the norm to the extent that our identity matches that of the sex opposite our own assigned at birth.
To be fair, environmental factors can increase the entropy during fetal development. For example, we steer pregnant women away from alcohol, benzene, lead paint, stress, trauma, smoking, medications, and all sorts of enviro-chemical influences to the body’s biochemical stasis. We do so because we understand that these chemicals can disrupt the body’s biochemical signaling system and lead to an array of various neuro- or anatomical divergences being introduced during fetal development.
Estrogens and testosterone are powerful molecules that act to impart very specific, yet polar opposite sex-based characteristics on our bodies (let’s exclude the brain momentarily). We generally (excluding certain insensitivity disorders) contain the genetic information in every cell in our body to develop secondary sex characteristics of the opposite sex with proper hormone replacement therapy. One who will argue there isn’t a biological basis to the observable high-frequency stereotypes in a dimorphic-templated species would appear a bit naive, or maybe just not very knowledgeable about advanced biology.
While research shows no *major* differences in male and female brains of dimorphic species, there is empirical evidence to suggest the distribution and type of hormone receptors is different. (You can start here and work through the references if you’re interested.) Studies have documented similarities in both brain chemistry and functionality between transgender people and the cisgender counterpart with which they identify. (The brain of a transgender woman assigned male at birth would more closely resemble the brain of a cisgender woman in terms of activity and hormone receptor type and density.) While I don’t advocate for medical research of transgender people for the sake of diagnostics, I do appreciate the awareness this fundamental knowledge brings to those who find it difficult to relate. For diagnostics, the fact that we can speak with transgender people as part of their diagnosis is extravagant! I wish my lab samples could’ve spoken with me during my Ph.D. work. Just sayin’!
Nature employs entropy to mutate DNA and genes in search for a mutation that thrives better than the wild type. From this, we can make sense of people who are healthy, reside at the norm of the dimorphic distribution, yet produce children with neuro- or anatomical-divergences without a genetic or DNA foundation. Remembering that nature screws up on purpose to drive mutation and evolution helps us recognize the role entropy plays in the manifestation of these norm-divergent humans.
What about Nurture? Nurture has a profound effect on shaping the initial mold produced by our in utero programming in regard to stereotypes and identity. Self-reinforcement of gender roles is an unavoidable, society-based stimulus that happens through the mimicry of what we observe in our worlds, be it through media or any other source, and it begins when we’re young. Male/Female-Socialization occurs in locker rooms, beauty salons, and even from commercials on TV.
Ideally, we absorb these observations, determine whether we resonate with them or not from our Nature foundations (programming), and either discard them or integrate them into our identity as new parts or reinforcement/refinement of parts integrated into our identity earlier. In our non-ideal world, these projections of gender stereotypes onto the populace directs them into obeying the gender roles, even if subconsciously. We hear about negative advertising for teens all the time. We have to build our fellow humans up enough to live authentically by differentiating which stimuli they authentically resonate with from that which is subconsciously forcing them into gender roles.
Physical child abuse, as in my case, was strong enough to direct me into male gender roles out of fear of pain and rejection. Whether my “identity” was forcefully shifted biochemically as a result of accepting gender roles that didn’t “resonate” with my Nature Programming (it’s own form of PTSD) is another topic for science.
At this point, hopefully I’ve convinced you of the strong possibility that everything we use to define “identity” arises from a fulfillment of the resonant sequence of biochemical reactions according to our individual nature and nurture programming. A lot of the discussion regarding gender stereotypes resides around the observable norm of the male and female behavioral frequency distributions. Forcing others to behave in accordance with gender stereotypes is oppressive and is the origin of the idea of gender roles. No one should be policing others whose behaviors and/or characteristics fall outside the societal-defined norm, unless those behaviors impinge upon personal liberty and freedom. (i.e. the idea of consent: pedophiles, rapists, etc. should be policed and punished. This is another topic about consent and liberty.)
- Humans are created following a male/female dimorphic template, a blueprint of instructions contained within DNA and genetics.
- Syncopated development in utero of the fetal sex and fetal brain gender can lead to miswirings, which originate in entropy and the mutations that drive species-level evolution.
- Hormonal Profiles (Testosterone and Estrogen) are generated according to the gonadal development in utero; the sexing of the fetus yields hormone engines.
- Hormone receptors are populated 6–8 weeks following fetal sexual differentiation. When hormone receptors differ from those expected by the gonad-driven hormonal profile, gender dysphoria arises.
- Gender stereotypes are the natural expectation or average response of estrogen acting on a “normal” female and testosterone acting on a “normal” male.
- Gender roles are a post-hoc analysis of observational gender stereotypes and are used to oppress divergence in gender identity. This oppression manifests when society (both willfully and not) demands strict adherence to gender roles, which are ironically defined by naturally-occurring gender stereotypes.
- Transgender (binary and non-binary) people are valid and a natural consequence of living in a world governed by entropy, evolution, and mutation.
- Sex does not define gender.
Conclusions. This appears to be developing into a chicken-egg riddle. Are gender-stereotyped behaviors reinforced by society simply because they *are* the expectation/norm of the dimorphic human template, based merely on the way testosterone acts on the “normal” male brain and the way estrogen acts on the “normal” female brain? Or do they *become* the norm through the reinforcement of gender roles that are subconsciously created from our observations of naturally-occurring gender stereotypes?
The latter is the dangerous false equivalent that feminists fight to abolish. And rightfully so. There’s a difference in the manifestation of similar characteristics in women that are driven by estrogen acting on the female brain (gender stereotypes) and a woman being forced, irrespective of desire or consent, into behaving in accordance with expected gender roles, defined by society through the projection of determinism onto gender stereotypes. The same can be said of men and the toxicity that accumulates from their competition-induced, testosterone-driven positive feedback loops that end up creating game-show caricatures of themselves trying to Out Man each other with masculine gender stereotypes.
Religion can be dangerous because of the amplification of gender roles without acknowledgement of the origin of gender stereotypes. Religion paints gender roles as divine. So much oppression of women can be traced back to religious belief systems and their dangerous idea that identity is God-given. And it’s one or the other; male or female. With so many tools and so much accumulated knowledge available to understand the human experience, it’s well past time to let go of ancient religious constructs that deny empirical reality.
My goal in writing this essay was to say: Science supports gender identities that diverge from the norm. The only reason people are forcing themselves into norms to begin with is out of the fear of the societal response, which with complete irony, results from their complete misunderstanding of the natural, biochemical origin of human gender identity.
No. It’s not because we’re gender rebels. It’s because NATURE is a rebel by proxy through entropy.