Should Biology Follow Society or Society Follow Biology?

Subject: Should Biology Follow Society or Society Follow Biology?
Date: Sun 19 Jul 1998 - 17:10:06 BST

Technically, SRS is considered cosmetic surgery. It's elective, and while it
may contribute incredibly to the patient's quaility of life, their own
satisfaction with their body, and in doing so, may avoid depression and
suicide, it is not, in itself, a life or death matter.

SRS is one of many forms of social biology, the reconstruction of the
biological world to meet social needs. That may be anything from self-tanning
creams to nose jobs, to altering the genetics of bacteria to eat oil. It is
humans getting involved in the work of the creator so as to alter it for our
own purposes.

I suppose we have almost always done this, even by simple genetic selection of
plant stock, choosing which species to encourage and which to discourage by
having our own way with natural selection. This was the entire premise of the
eugenics movement, a movement that inspired Hitler's image of the master race,
tinkering with biology to get a "better" kind of human.

Today, though, our intervention in the biological process is a big deal with
lots of pressing questions. Cloning, genetic mapping/testing, all these and
more bring pressure on the question of who decides what social goals are
fostered by this social biology, the expression of social needs though
biological manipulation.

People like Martine Rothblatt and Dale Gray are very concerned about the
processes that make decisions to change biology to meet social norms rather
than changing social norms to meet the facts of biology. What are the
consequences, both to the ecology of the planet and to indviduals who are
found to be biologically deficient? How can we know what the costs of this
manipulation will be?

If we could determine that children were strongly predisposed to have
homosexual desire before birth, should we consider that a defect to be
corrected or even eliminated? How would conservative moralists handle the
choice of abortion or the elimination of homosexuality?

More than that, what would be the hidden costs of the choice to change queers?
What other atributes would be eliminated? How would that affect social
balances that have been developed over years? William Dragoin has postulated
that transgendered people make good shamans, and that they exist because they
offer a social benefit to tribes. He theorizes that tribes with good shamans
do better, and therefore, transgendered people become a part of the gene pool
because they are a long term survival benefit to cultures.

People have been practicing this social biology for years with body
alterations, from the expanded lips of some African Tribes to the bound feet
of Chinese women to tattoos, piercings & scarification, even to self-
castration and breast removal. I was on a panel once with a therapist who
said that those self-castrations were the first medicalizations of
transgender. I disagreed, noting that medicalization demands a diagnosis and
cure perscribed by an outside medical entity, not just personal choice. While
body alterations may be old, the medical model is new, a model designed to
provide a context for the radical advances we make in the manipulation of

The key question behind any type of this social biology is how we determine
what the benefits are to society. That's easy to see when a new technique
addresses life and death situations, curing diseases that would be fatal or
severely damaging. It's harder to see when the intervention is for some
social benefit, some intangible. What are the implication of the choice of
Asians to have their eyes changed to appear more caucasian?

All of this is crucial to consider when we theorize about transgender and the
tools we use to help transgendered people live in the world.

Do we speak first for an acknowlegement that a study of the biology says that
some females are manly, some males womanly? Do we speak first for a belief
that, for example, some male bodies are deformed into normative female bodies
even though the inner body is male, and that by interevening surgically and
hormonally, we can set right this defect of biology?

In other words, do we speak for society making space for the biological fact
that some people present as transgendered, feminine in male bodies, masculine
in female bodies, or do we speak for biology making space for the social fact
that women should have vaginas and men should not have breasts? Do we attempt
to alter society to fit nature, or to alter nature to fit society?

Humans will always intervene in their own biology. From diets to haircuts to
elective surgery, we construct the natural in our lives, often by constructing
the biology though personal choice. I believe that choice and power to alter
our bodies is a good thing.

When society as a whole intervenes in biology as a system, though, I have
greater concerns. How are the needs of the individual, the needs of nature
considered against the pressure to enforce social norms? This is the great
concern people have about socially structured intervention in the death
process -- if euthenasia is widespread, will marginal people feel social
pressure saying that they have an obligation to die?

I keep remembering John Stossel's interview with Janet Aiello(?) the Hoboken
Fire Captain who transitioned on the job. "You look like a man in a dress
with breasts. Shouldn't I be uncomfortable about that?" Riki shot back in
her flyer, "Could you imagine someone saying 'You have dark skin, steel wool
hair and a big flat pushed in nose. Shouldn't I be uncomfortable about that?"

The point was that Stossel was saying that because Ms. Aiello didn't have the
biology he expected to see, she was less than what he wanted. He was applying
social pressure that told her to change her biology to comfort him, rather
than responding to the biological truth of who she is by changing his social

This demand that we intervene in biology just because we can is becoming more
pervasive. In her book "Venus Envy: A History Of Plastic Surgery", Elizabeth
Haiken notes how the attitude about intervention has changed by comparing the
noses of Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand. "In 1923, Americans clamored for an
explanation of why Fanny Brice, beloved vaudeville actress, successful
comedienne, and star of Florenz Ziegfeld's new Follies, had bobbed her nose.
Forty years later ... When Barbra Streisand emerged on the national scene,
Americans wanted to know why she had not." The book explores changing
American attitudes toward the body and unspoken conflicts over racial
characteristics that have been played out in changing the body.

As indviduals, we each have a split obligation, both to ourselves and our
choices and to social structures that determine the shape and direction of
culture. It's not enough for our stories to be self-serving, rather they must
also serve larger and longer term goals that are heathy for culture. You can
call those longer term goals spiritual principles or just sense, but it's
important that when we talk about the social power to demand biological
changes we see this in a bigger context.

What should we ask the medical people who manipulate human biology to cure?
transsexual feelings? Homosexual feelings? Distinctive racial
characteristics? ADD? How should we think about intervention in human
biology? Should biology follow society, or should society follow biology?

It seems to me to be an important question to ask.





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