McGill’s Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives Initiative: Integrating Social Context into Neuroscience Research

By Constance A. Cummings, FPR Project Director

In a recent collection of essays, anthropologist Gisli Palsson suggested we’re on the verge of a “post-disciplinary” era of academic collaboration (Palsson, 2015). Signs were very much in evidence at an inaugural workshop exploring ways to integrate social context in neuroscience research at McGill University on June 6–7, 2017. The workshop was sponsored by “Population Neuroscience and Brain Health,” one of the four core themes within McGill’s new Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives (HBHL) initiative, in collaboration with HBHL’s Social Science Subcommittee. HBHL “aims to leverage neuroinformatics and open science to advance our understanding and treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders.” The program is unique among large-scale brain-based initiatives[1] in its interdisciplinary emphasis on individual variation/developmental trajectories and, more generally, understanding the brain in context by integrating genetic, epigenetic, neurophysiological, imaging, behavioral, environmental, clinical, and social data.

Moderated by McGill cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer, chair of the HBHL Social Science Subcommittee, the workshop brought together neuroscientists, social scientists, and health care professionals to share information – theories, tools, datasets, insights – that can help guide the direction of research themes related to the HBHL initiative over the next seven years.

This post summarizes Day One of the workshop, specifically three presentations from philosophy of psychiatric neuroscience (Ian Gold), cultural neuroscience (Shinobu Kitayama), and cultural psychiatry (Roberto Lewis-Fernández), which were followed by a panel that sought to bridge the various perspectives. Several insights emerged regarding how we theorize the brain, how our cultural differences emerge, and how we classify disorder across cultures when development goes awry.

Gold discussed drawbacks to neuroreductionism and the benefits of an overall theory or simulation of brain functioning that encompasses top-down and bottom-up perspectives. Kitayama described several lines of evidence from neuroimaging, neurophysiology, and genetics that relate differences in brain structure and functioning to broad cultural differences in concepts of selfhood, behavior, and practices. The talk also underscored the extent to which this work is rapidly evolving toward greater specificity. Regarding how these differences emerge during development, for example, Kitayama’s discussion of “plasticity alleles” (Belsky et al., 2009; Belsky & Pluess, 2013) suggested a mechanism whereby certain common genetic mutations within a population can amplify environmental influences “for better or worse.” Finally, Lewis-Fernández’s talk covered various, “partial solutions” to the current crisis in psychiatric nosology (DSM-5, RDoC, ICD-11). A main point was that classification systems depend on the “uses, purposes, histories, and constituencies for whom they are designed.”  He ended with an appeal to “de-reify mental disorders across all uses.” For Lewis-Fernández, mental disorders are “confluences of dimensions and processes” that require a more interdisciplinary approach.

Neuroeducationism and Context in Neuroscience

The workshop opened with a talk by McGill philosopher Ian Gold. Gold began by describing a “strong” form of neuroreductionism in analytic philosophy and cognitive neuroscience popularized by Patricia Churchland, David Eagleman, and others. The strong form isolates the brain as an object of study. For example, according to Churchland’s seminal work on neurophilosophy, the brain (“that miraculous mound of excitable cells lodged in our skulls”) makes us “what we are” (Churchland, 1986, p. 10). A blurb for cognitive neuroscientist David Eagleman’s PBS series asserts that, “[b]y understanding the human brain, we can come close to understanding humanity” (The Brain with David Eagleman, PBS, 2015).

The Importance of Context

Gold provided some historical context for a corresponding rise in neurocentrism within psychiatry. He described how the effects of drugs such as chlorpromazine and lithium on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder altered psychiatry’s “narrative” (Berrios & Markova, 2015). The mid-century biological turn led to immense efforts to decontextualize mental disorders from lived experience, beginning with the publication of DSM-III in 1980 (Andreasen, 2007), and correlate them with biomarkers (Abi-Dargham & Horga, 2016; Woo, Chang, Lindquist, & Wager, 2017). Ultimately, this form of reductive “physicalism” (Parnas & Gallagher, 2015) assumes that mental disorders, the mind, even consciousness, will be solely explained by neuroscience.[2]

Reductionism takes various forms (Kirmayer & Gold, 2012). On the whole, it is intuitively appealing in its simplicity, but inadequate, Gold said. He made an analogy with earthquakes. Our explanation of earthquakes relies on an understanding of plate tectonics, not atomic physics. Just as our earthquake theory can’t be reduced to the behavior of electrons and retain explanatory adequacy or predictive power (it has to address “objects of a certain size and complexity”), so a theory of mind can’t be reduced to “the interactions of nerve cells” (Crick, 1994, p. 7).[3]

Theorizing the Brain in Context

The next part of Gold’s talk focused on what we can learn from a nonreductionistic way of understanding the brain. He described the work of computational neuroscientist David Marr (1982), who perceived visual perception as an information processing task. Marr’s framework involved three representational stages of increasing complexity, ending in a 3-D representation of objects in their environmental context, and three different levels of description: (1) computational, (2) algorithmic, and (3) implementation. The computational level addresses the question, “what is the problem [in the world] that the system is trying to solve”; the algorithmic and implementation levels can be considered the hardware and software. For our purposes, the point is that incorporating salient features of the environment in a dynamic way – which an informational processing approach attempts to do, either representationally (Marr) or almost wholly mechanistically (e.g., Piccinini, 2016) – is critical for achieving an adequate theory of how the brain functions in context.

But, in regard to process, it’s important to recognize the “tremendous diversity” within neuroscience, Michael Meaney, head of HBHL Population Neuroscience and Brain Health, pointed out in the course of the discussion. (Biologist Allan Tobin, another workshop participant and former head of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, had similar concerns.) A minority, those with a background in psychology, might appreciate Marr’s top-down or computational approach, Meaney said. Some have even addressed multiscale problems like “emotion” and related philosophical perspectives in their work (LeDoux & Brown, 2017). But the majority of cell biologists and other basic neuroscientists interested in localized brain function don’t think like this, according to Meaney. They are solely focusing on the relationship between “the genetic blueprint and the elaboration of a specific cellular pattern.”

While Gold’s talk set the stage for the rest of the workshop by framing our understanding of “the brain” as physically, socially, and culturally “situated” in a context with which it dynamically interacts, the concerns expressed by Meaney and Tobin identified some conceptual issues any interdisciplinary collaboration with basic neuroscience must address.

Cultural Neuroscience: Culture, Gene, and the Brain (Shinobu Kitayama)

The next presentation, by cultural neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama, focused on differences in brain structure and function related to culture. The first part of the talk covered behavioral and neural evidence for cultural differences. The second part discussed the influence of environment and plasticity alleles.

Kitayama’s seminal work with Hazel Markus argued for a fundamental psychological difference in individuals living in “Western” and “Eastern” cultures based on an “independent” vs. “interdependent” view of the self  (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The Western self is perceived as “bounded, unique . . . organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background (Geertz, 1975, p. 48). Easterners view the self as “embedded more deeply in social contexts [in which] relationships are more salient or primary than individual preferences,” Kitayama said.

Brain Plasticity

The cultural neuroscience research program grew from Markus and Kitayama’s core assumption of an independent or interdependent model of the self (and, relatedly, individualistic or collectivistic cultural contexts), coupled with evolving technologies for studying the brain that gave us a better understanding of brain plasticity as a function of experience. Over time, the program has incorporated various methods to examine how culture and biological processes interact and affect thought, feeling, and behavior. These methods include non-invasive measurement of the brain’s electrical activity (EEG), with special focus on event-related “potentials” (ERP) generated in response to a specific stimulus, whose exquisitely time-sensitive components (to the millisecond) are associated with distinct mental operations; functional neuroimaging (fMRI), which computationally identifies the location of brain activity on the basis of blood flow 4–6 seconds after presentation of a stimulus; the measurement of physiological (i.e., neuroendocrine and immune system) responses; and genetics. Research topics have ranged from visual perception, attention, emotion, and social explanation.

Kitayama briefly summarized various studies supporting the dichotomous model of selfhood. For example, several behavioral studies indicate a difference in visual perception and attention (e.g., the “framed-line task”) between European Americans and East Asians. In general, these differences are thought to underlie East Asians’ tendency to perceive the “full context” of a scene, that is, more holistically than Americans, who tend to zero in on specific objects and their attributes rather the contexts in which these objects appear (Kitayama, Duffy, Kawamura, & Larsen, 2003; Ishii, Tsukasaki, & Kitayama, 2011). A 2011 ERP study suggests that an “independent” (but not “interdependent”) self-construal mediates a “spontaneous” tendency, or “dispositional bias,” to “infer a personality trait from another person’s behavior” (Na & Kitayama, 2011), rather than ascribe behavior to situational constraints. An fMRI study suggests that East Asians and Americans differ on attentional control or effort when performing simple visuospatial tasks with different demands (some tasks required making relative/contextual judgments; and others absolute/context-independent judgments; Hedden, Ketay, Aron, Markus, & Gabrieli, 2008). For each group, the culturally non-preferred task (e.g., relative/contextual judgments for Americans) elicits above-threshold activation in prefrontal and parietal regions, both of which are implicated in cognitive control of attention and working memory.

Kitayama’s brief sampling gave the audience a good sense of “robust and systematic” cultural differences in functional aspects of brain with respect to social judgement, attention, emotion, self-evaluation, motivation, and so on, based on a methodologically rich and productive research program. The independent/interdependent model of self-construal has emerged as a reliable “signal.” But it’s important to note that the literature suggests there may be substantial individual differences on independence/interdependence within any given culture based on, for example, interaction with socioeconomic factors or migration and acculturation. The literature also suggests a significant ability among people living in multicultural environments to dynamically shift cultural values of individualism or collectivism in one direction or another in response to priming (see, e.g., Chiao, Harada, Komeda, et al. 2010), which could extend to life outside the laboratory setting.

Environment and Gene x Culture Interactions

In the second half of his talk, Kitayama shifted to how persistent cultural differences might arise via the environment or gene x culture interactions. He described a recent co-authored Science article on the relationship between farming patterns in China and individualistic or collectivistic tendencies (Talhelm et al., 2014). Wheat and rice farming emerged almost ten thousand years ago in northern and southern/eastern parts of China, respectively. Wheat is a resilient crop that could be grown in a variety of climatic zones. Rice farming, which arose in the south and east, is both extremely seasonal and a far more intensive process that requires complex irrigation systems and much higher levels of social coordination.

The Science authors found broad psychological differences among 1162 Han Chinese participants that aligned with a subsistence-type theory – that is, whether they lived in historically rice or wheat farming areas – but not with theories based on modernization or pathogen prevalence. The population-level study used several measures: style of thought (analytic or relational), implicit individualism and loyalty/nepotism. The authors also considered divorce rates and number of successful patents for new inventions as crude markers of individualism. Rice farming putatively created ecological pressure for more interdependency, holistic thinking, and loyalty/nepotism. More broadly, Kitayama suggested that environment – rice versus wheat farming – might at least in part explain the persistence of a variation in styles of thought between collectivistic/Eastern and individualistic/Western cultures.

Regarding gene x culture interactions, Kitayama described how variants of a well-studied gene implicated in reward sensitivity (DRD4) – the alleles modulate dopamine signaling efficiency – may play a role in an individual’s susceptibility to cultural influences, including social norms for ingroup cooperation. In particular, Kitayama discussed recent studies on self-centric motivation. An ERP study in which European American and Asian participants tried to earn points for oneself and a close, same-sex friend suggests that the self-centric preference (vs. a close other) is inhibited in Asians with an interdependent self-construal (Kitayama & Park, 2014). And separately, according to an unpublished whole-brain structural neuroimaging study, adult Japanese carriers of DRD4 variants (the 7- and 2-repeat alleles) exhibited thinner orbitofrontal cortices (OFC) than Japanese noncarriers and Westerners. The OFC is implicated in reward and other value-based behavior, and the suggestion is that the mutations amplify environmental effects. That is, Japanese carriers might be “more cognitively attuned to others and various social events in their surroundings while down-regulating their personal goals” (Kitayama et al., 2017).

Plasticity Alleles and Real-World Implications

Some workshop attendees seemed to feel that cultural neuroscience currently operates within a fairly narrow theoretical framework based on the independence/interdependence model of selfhood and the use of broad categorizations for different groups of people. But concepts such as “plasticity alleles” deeply resonated. And the implications seem to go well beyond identifying different styles of thought. For example, Michael Meaney mentioned a common allelic variant of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene (the Met allele of BDNF Val66Met polymorphism), which has been implicated in susceptibility to pain. Another workshop attendee, Laurette Dubé, cited a recent JAMA Pediatrics paper co-authored by Patricia Silveira, Michael Meaney, Dubé, and colleagues, which suggested that carriers of the 7-repeat allele of the DRD4 gene are not more likely to be obese, but rather more susceptible to local environmental conditions (e.g., limited food choices for girls in low SES neighborhoods; see Silveira et al., 2016).  The cultural neuroscience piece, especially the structural brain changes Kitayama and colleagues have recently identified, fits in with the work at McGill by widening the lens to consider how evolutionary history as well as environmental context may be interacting with common allelic variations during development.

Culture and Context in Psychiatric Nosology (Roberto Lewis-Fernández)

Next, cultural psychiatrist Roberto Lewis-Fernández, who has been involved in both DSM-5 and still-ongoing ICD-11 revisions, discussed the uses and limits of descriptive nosologies. The main problem is that the classification systems, which are based on signs and symptoms, are “increasingly considered invalid.” He discussed the “solutions” offered by the DSM (American Psychiatric Association; APA), ICD (World Health Organization; WHO), and RDoC (National Institute of Mental Health; NIMH) and made suggestions for a more “integrative” psychiatry. He also referred attendees to the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which reviews related issues.

The Crisis in Psychiatric Nosology

According to Lewis-Fernández, the “crisis” relates primarily to our lack in understanding the neural circuitry of mental disorders and their different manifestations across cultures (“the true or authentic ways in which people in particular settings express their distress”). The DSMs (starting with the operationalization of diagnostic criteria in DSM-III; APA, 1980) are to a certain extent a reliable, but not valid, means of classifying psychiatric illness for its multiple uses.

The problem is that the “signs and symptoms” of DSM psychiatric categories are somewhat arbitrarily arranged, according to Lewis-Fernández. Also, given the absence of well-understood etiologies, the signs and symptoms are reifying or “constitutive” in the sense that the criteria have come – through the manuals’ various uses – to “define the disorder” rather than provide “fallible indices” (Kendler, 2017), a Hacking-esque looping effect. To summarize, Lewis-Fernández said that “diagnoses do not represent discrete diseases.” They constitute “labels or more complex maps,” a focus on which “ignores the dimensional nature of psychopathology, obscures variations, minimizes pathogenic social structures, [and] hinders the discovery of illness mechanisms.” The result in limited therapeutic efficacy.ab

Lewis-Fernández reminded us that the ICD and DSM manuals evolved from the need to categorize various causes of death, which led to attempts to classify morbidity. By the time of ICD-8 (1967) and DSM-II (1968), efforts had “harmonized” in the sense of outlining a hierarchical progression from neurosis to psychosis. But the two systems diverged again when DSM-III aimed to increase reliability by operationalizing criteria and DSM-5 decreased emphasis on strict diagnostic hierarchies by recognizing significant comorbidities. Furthermore, as an instrument of the WHO (rather than an American professional association with a substantially different/economic appetite for volume sales, as Allan Tobin pointed out), the ICD serves broader interests and in general tends to incorporate more context. Lewis-Fernández also felt that the way it’s structured avoids a certain amount of “diagnostic creep” (medicalization of social predicaments) and the DSM’s “pseudo-precision.”

NIMH’s RDoC framework for research (2009– ) has been promoted as a long-term solution to the DSM’s lack of validity, with a primary focus on neural circuitry, from which the various psychiatric classifications could arise (and these may cluster quite differently). It identifies five broad domains of psychological functioning that cut across diagnostic categories: negative valence systems, positive valence systems, cognitive systems, social processes, and arousal and regulatory systems; and eight levels of analysis: genes, molecules, cells, circuits, physiology, behavior, self-report, and experimental paradigms. (This is vastly different from how a cultural psychologist would organize the levels of analysis, workshop attendee Andrew Ryder remarked. He would put “behavior” and “self-report” in the middle, and interpersonal relationships, governmental structures, and so forth, on the right.)

Under the then-leadership of Thomas Insel, a behavioral neuroscientist, the RDoC framework appears to represent a certain amount of what Lewis-Fernández described as “thinking inside the box,” which attempted to balance animal and human research interests (Kirmayer and Crafa considered it “impoverished and conceptually flawed”; see Kirmayer & Crafa, 2014). But a recent redesign now incorporates two “additional aspects” to its units of analysis: neurodevelopmental trajectories and interactions with “environment,” albeit narrowly conceptualized on the NIH web page as external stressors, such as “early child abuse.”

The problem with RDoC is the emphasis on neural circuitry and more broadly “discovery science” to understand “how the brain works,” according to Lewis-Fernández, although there was some debate between Michael Meaney and Laurence Kirmayer on the NIMH’s original intentions and motivations (e.g., the absence of “observable, objective predictive indices,” such as changes in an EKG in the context of chest pain (Kendler, 2017). Nonetheless, Lewis-Fernández felt the focus on neural circuitry runs the “high risk” of the kind of reductionism Ian Gold described earlier in the day, such that “every component or level of experience of human suffering could be reduced to brain function.”

In the final part of his talk, Lewis-Fernández described the problem of capturing multiple causes and interactions in any meaningful classification system. Both ICD and DSM have included limited information on biological etiology and DSM-5 has expanded its treatment of culture and gender. Critical issues include the classification of psychiatric disorders as dimensional or categorical (or both, on analogy with light as particle and wave) and the identification of “thresholds.”  DSM-5, for example, no longer includes subtypes of schizophrenia and also established symptom domains (such as reality distortion) that cut across psychotic disorders, but it lists a prodromal “attenuated psychosis syndrome” as a “condition for further study.”  The DSM, unlike the ICD also “backed away” from clinical significance criteria, such as level of distress or impairment.

A bulleted list in his last slide described future directions: “addressing both transdiagnostic and disorder-specific elements of psychopathology; fully integrating environment and development into RDoC; identifying the best dimensions and cutpoints; developing behavioral and biological measures for clinical use; overcoming implementation barriers; and de-reifying mental disorders across all uses.” According to Lewis-Fernández, we have moved from a “descriptive” psychiatry based on phenomenology to a more “mechanistic” psychiatry based on underlying neurobiology, but the hope is for a more integrative approach that incorporates both biology and environmental and sociocultural contexts.

Thinking Through Context in Neuroscience and Psychiatry (Panel – Ian Gold, Laurence Kirmayer, Shinobu Kitayama, Roberto Lewis-Fernández, Michael Meaney, Patrick McGivern, Allan Tobin)

The purpose of “Population Neuroscience and Brain Health” is to use different kinds of data to understand how the brain functions, which necessarily involves how it interacts with the social world. To advance the discussion, Kirmayer posed two questions to the panel: How can we conceptualize and measure social context? And how can we foster interdisciplinarity?

Levels of Explanation

Gold referred to the “situatedness” movement in cognitive science, which requires understanding mental life as a phenomenon that emerges from the dynamic interaction of brain, mind, body, and environment in a non-representational way (i.e., one that does not involve the need for structured mental representations, such as symbols). Gold felt that little of this framework (the embedded, enactive, extended mind) has been exploited in neuroscience. One suggestion for HBHL would be to think of “the situated brain” as a possible theme, particularly since McGill excels in research on the social environment. Gold also felt the hottest topics in the social and cultural neurosciences, in particular, “cry out for interdisciplinarity,” in such a way that that the social world is not merely taken as a given.

Philosopher of science Patrick McGivern thought that the problems described in psychiatry neuroscience are similar to the kinds of “multi-scale problems” that physics addresses. In this view, levels don’t necessarily align with different disciplines, and no level takes precedence over the others. Knowledge accrues from the different ways in which “explanations and models at different scales interact and support each other, as well as provide context for each other.” Referring to Gold’s example, “you could ask, why is it that tectonic plates are stable forms of matter, and to understand that you would need to look at quantum effects.”  A possible question when addressing the “all-encompassing box” depicting environment in the RDoC framework becomes, “how might context appear in our research?”

According to Shinobu Kitayama, cultural neuroscience emerged from efforts to address similar questions. Ten years ago, researchers at Michigan began by positing a simplified scenario based on the identification of two broad cultural groups, but the field has evolved in its understanding of how context can be internalized at even non-cognitive levels of neural processing or expanded to include evolutionary history. Cues to environmental context can also be found at the level of biology. For example, biomarkers may track subjective experiences better than subjective reports (based on midlife studies in the US and Japan; MIDUS and MIDJA). Kitayama noted how certain traits, such as neuroticism or conscientiousness, can have positive or negative consequences for health, depending on culture.

Michael Meaney emphasized the HBHL’s unique emphasis on the individual brains and developmental trajectories, rather than assuming that there are normal and abnormal brains. Each brain “adapts to the early environment and performs and deals with the problems that emerge from the context in which development occurs.” Most of the genomics work does not take environment into account, and yet environment can have significant effects. For example, in certain contexts, IQ is highly heritable, in other, less advantageous contexts IQ heritability is severely limited. Environment has to be stratified. Further, the peak age of onset of most psychiatric disorders is around puberty, putting more emphasis on the need to understand how development goes awry, including in the early family environment or the in utero environment.

Roberto Lewis-Fernández discussed DSM-5’s inclusion of the Cultural Formulation Interview, which attempts “to get a sense of context, as well as a person’s interpretation of that context.” This is relevant for future research in psychiatry since many of the problem sets clinicians encounter are “fundamentally contextual” (Kirmayer). Lewis-Fernández and Kitayama’s approaches tell us two very different things, Kirmayer noted, which are based on how problems are articulated in context versus how the world is experienced at levels that may not be available for conscious reflection.

As the discussion wound down, Allan Tobin urged the group to look for ways to engage and challenge one another. In his experience, the drive toward inter-disciplinarity or multi-disciplinarity comes from what is fun for scientists and/or in response to external pressures from society to solve a problem. In either case, workshops can lead to the creation of networks composed of highly engaged researchers and people who have experienced the conditions that are being studied. This seems especially relevant. As Lewis-Fernández argued, it’s critical to address a person’s “context of meaning” in the case of mental illness in order to assist with their flourishing.


[1]E.g., the Human Brain Project (EU), the BRAIN Initiative  (US).

[2] In philosophy, reduction of a higher level (a mental state such as depression) to a lower level (neurobiology), is achieved via “bridge laws” linking the two theories. The “levels” argument, attributed to philosopher Jerry Fodor, is as follows.

  • The mind is nothing over and above the functioning brain.
  • The science of the brain is neuroscience.
  • So a theory of the mind must be a neuroscientific theory.

[3] The full quote is, “The scientific belief is that our minds – the behavior of our brains – can be explained by the interactions of nerve cells (and other cells and the molecules associated with them)” (Crick, 1994, p. 7).


Abi-Dargham, A., & Horga, G. (2016). The search for imaging biomarkers in psychiatric disorders. Nature Medicine, 22, 1248–1255.

Andreasen, N. C. (2007). DSM and the death of phenomenology in America: An example of unintended consequences. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 33(1), 108–112. doi:

Belsky, J., Jonassaint, C., Pluess, M., Stanton, M., Brummmett, B., & Williams, R. (2009). Vulnerability genes or plasticity genes. Molecular Psychiatry, 1–9.

Belsky, J., & Pluess, M. (2013). Beyond risk, resilience, and dysregulation: Phenotypic plasticity and human development. Developmental Psychopathology, 25, 1243–1261.

Berrios, G. E., & Markova, I. S. (2015). Toward a new epistemology of psychiatry. In L. J. Kirmayer, R. Lemelson, & C. A. Cummings (Eds.), Re-visioning psychiatry: Cultural phenomenology, critical neuroscience, and global mental health. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bombay, A. (2015). A call to end mental health disparaities for Indigenous people. Lancet Psychiatry, 2, 861–862. doi:

Boylan, J. M., Tsenkova, V. K., Miyamoto, Y., & Ryff, C. D. (2017). Psychological resources and glucoregulation in Japanse adults: Findings from MIDJA. Health Psychology, 36(5), 449–457.

Churchland, P. (1986). Neurophilosophy: Toward a unified science of the mind-brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Crick, F. (1994). The astonishing hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul. New York, NY: Scribner.

Doucerain, M. M., Segalowitz, N., & Ryder, A. G. (2017). Acculturation measurement: From simple proxies to sophisticated toolkit. In S. Schwartz & J. Unger (Eds.), Oxford handbook of acculturation and health. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hedden, T., Ketay, S., Aron, A., Markus, H. R., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2008). Cultural influences on neural substrates of attentional control. Psychological Science, 19(1), 12–17.

Kirmayer, L. J., & Gold, I. (2012). Critical neuroscience and the limits of reductionism. In S. Choudhury & J. Slaby (Eds.), Critical neuroscience: A handbook of the social and cultural contexts of neuroscience (pp. 307–330). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kitayama, S., & Park, J. (2014). Error-related brain activity reveals self-centric motivation: Culture matters. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 62–70. doi:

Kitayama, S., Yanagisawa, K., Ito, A., Ueda, R., Uchida, Y., & Abe, N. (2017). Reduced orbitofrontal cortical volume is associated with interdependent self-construal. PNAS, 114(30), 7969–7974. doi:10.1038/nrn.2016.56

Krieger, N. (2014). Discrimination and health inequities. International Journal of Health Services, 44(4), 643–710.

Kwan, M.-P. (Ed.) (2014). Geographies of health, disease, and well-being: Recent advances in theories and method. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lederbogen, F., & al., e. (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature, 474, 498–501. doi:10.1038/nature10190

LeDoux, J. E., & Brown, R. (2017). A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness. PNAS. doi:

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224–253.

Na, J., & Kitayama, S. (2011). Spontaneous Trait Inference Is Culture-Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence. Psychological Science, 22(8), 1025–1032. doi:10.1177/0956797611414727

Palsson, G. (2015). Nature, culture, and society: Anthropological perspectives on life. London, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Parnas, J., & Gallagher, S. (2015). Phenomenology and the interpretation of pspychopathological experience. In L. J. Kirmayer, R. Lemelson, & C. A. Cummings (Eds.), Re-visioning psychiatry: Cultural phenomenology, critical neuroscience, and global mental health. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pedersen, C. B., & Mortensen, P. B. (2001). Evidence of a dose-response relationship between urbanicity during upbringing and schizophrenia risk. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58(11), 1039–1046.

Piccinini, G. (2016). Physical computation: A mechanistic account. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sampson, L., Dasgupta, K., & Ross, N. A. (2014). The association between socio-demographic marginalization and plasma glucose levels at diagnosis of gestational diabetes. Diabetic Medicine. doi:{Kirmayer, forthcoming #39}

Talhelm, T., Zhang, X., Oishi, S., Shimin, C., Duan, D., Lan, X., & Kitayama, S. (2014). Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture. Science, 344(6184), 603–608. doi:10.1126/science.1246850

Teicher, M. H., Samson, J. A., Anderson, C. M., & Ohashi, K. (2016). The effects of childhood maltreatment on brain structure, function and connectivity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17, 652–666. doi:

Vinkhuyzen, A. A. E., Eyles, D. W., Burne, T. H. J., Blanken, L. M. E., Kruithof, C. J., Verhulst, F., . . . McGrath, J. J. (2016). Gestational vitamin D deficiency and autism-related traits: The Generation R Study. Molecular Psychiatry.

Wasfi, R. A., Dasgupta, K., Orpana, H., & Ross, N. A. (2016). Neighborhood walkability and body mass index trajectories: Lognitudinal study of Canadians. American Journal of Public Health, 106(5), 934–940. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2016.303096

Woo, C.-W., Chang, L. J., Lindquist, M. A., & Wager, T. D. (2017). Building better biomarkers: Brain models in translational neuroimaging. Nature Neuroscience, 20(3), 365–377. doi:10.1038/nn.4478


FPR Sex/Gender Conference Summary: Part 3 – What Counts as Adequate Function?

The sex/gender conference succeeded in bringing together people “with different ideas and skills, different ways of thinking, that are actually transforming the field,” observed Carol Worthman, chair of Part 3 (“What’s at Stake?”). The earlier sessions (see Parts 1 and 2) provided us with a better sense of the complexities of sex/gender; we also learned some ways to usefully deconstruct – and form new ideas about – old questions. But there’s a lot at stake, Worthman continued. In the following session, speakers addressed the theme (“What counts as adequate function?”) from a variety of perspectives and from individual to macro levels of analysis. The question regarding adequate function is critical, Worthman reminded the audience, “because a lot of what is lurking in the background is frequently this question of ‘not good enough’ or ‘not a real person,’ both exogenously, in terms of how people are viewed, and endogenously, in terms of how they view themselves” by internalizing cultural norms. This suggests the importance of recognizing culture-mind-brain “intra-actions” (Barad, 1998, p. 96, noting “the inseparability of ‘objects’ and ‘agencies of observation’”) that can perpetuate shame, fear, and other forms of suffering.

This post reviews two films shown at the conference (Bitter Honey and Tales of the Waria) and three talks by neuroscientist Melissa Hines and anthropologists Hillard Kaplan and Marcia Inhorn.

Bitter Honey

On Day 1 and 2 of the conference, FPR founder and president, Robert Lemelson, a documentary filmmaker and psychological anthropologist on the UCLA faculty, screened Bitter Honey. Shot over a seven-year period, the film explores polygamous marriages through the lens of three Balinese families headed by Sadra (2 wives), Darma (5 wives) – both working class, and the elderly Tuaji “of royal blood” (10 wives). The film addresses seven themes: love and marriage, power, violence, children, lust and infidelity, divorce, and endurance and freedom.

In Bali, 10 percent of registered marriages are polygamous, although the percent of unofficial unions is likely higher. As the film illustrates, many of these unions are formed and maintained through deep-seated power dynamics that justify men’s infidelity and restrict women’s abilities to leave. For instance, when Sadra’s second wife, Murni, finally discovered his marital status, she was already pregnant and had decided to “[accept] it . . . [because she] took the risk and . . . had to take the responsibility.” This simple statement masks a grimmer reality. Tricking women into polygamous marriages appears to be all too common. To varying degrees Sadra and Darma’s wives have learned to adapt to their surroundings, maintain jobs to support the men’s lifestyles, and raise their children (Tuaji’s wives appear to lead more comfortable lives). But the film wordlessly and beautifully unveils the pain, isolation, and sense of confinement in the wives’ situation in ways that written ethnography cannot (Lemelson & Tucker, 2015).

Hints of infidelity and domestic violence permeate the three men’s marriages. Both Sadra and Darma frequent the red light district. Brothels catering to tourists have sprouted across rural areas of Bali and are also frequented by local men. Although an estimated 25 percent of Balinese sex workers are infected with HIV/AIDS, use of condoms appears infrequent, and the risk of transmission to the men’s wives is high. Regarding domestic violence, at one point in the film the documentary team – along with Dedung, Sadra’s boss, and Anggreni, a women’s rights attorney in Bali – are compelled to stage an intervention to attempt to stop Sadra from beating his wife.

Karma is an excuse many men use to escape from their responsibilities, as Degung Santikarma ­– Balinese anthropologist – explains in the course of the film. In Bali, it is commonly believed that men gain more power from having more wives; this draws from the Hindu concept of Bhairawa in which lust should not be restrained, but rather allowed full expression. However, men’s power is not the only force that constrains women’s abilities to leave these marriages. While in many regions of Indonesia the divorce rate is approximately 50 percent, it is less than 10 percent in Bali. In Balinese culture, the soul of the wife is thought to belong to that of the husband’s family, into whose lineage she will reincarnate; upon divorce, women lose not only their inheritance and custody of their children, but also their soul. (An exception is a nyentana marriage in which the man marries into his wife’s family and takes on the role of the eldest son, in which case the woman retains her inheritance and custody of the children after divorce.)

Bitter Honey poignantly documents the ways in which polygamous marriages in Bali are deeply embedded in cultural dynamics that are disadvantageous to women and trap them in an iterative cycle of vulnerability. In doing so, the film challenges universalistic paradigms that depict women as “coy choosy females” looking for well-resourced mates (Brown, Laland, & Borgerhoff Mulder, 2009) and resonates with Herdt’s documentation of change among the Sambia and Borgerhoff Mulder’s work among the Pimbwe in demanding cultural and historical specificity. While a scholarly accomplishment, Lemelson’s film work is also notable for the additional sensory experiences and, in particular, the sense of emotional intimacy with others that only a filmic medium can convey. Lemelson, who also trained as a clinical psychologist, feels that the use of more cinematic elements in the construction of his films – in combination with the deep, mutually respectful relationships he enters into with his subjects, who frequently participate and provide feedback during the editing process – have allowed him “to tell richer stories about fully fleshed out individuals” in “the multiple cultural and environmental contexts that suffuse any experience” (Lemelson & Tucker, 2015, p. 17, 29). His films push us to confront human suffering and re-consider the more engaged form of anthropology of many long-term practitioners (another example of which is Afflictions, Lemelson’s series on mental illness in Indonesia). Refusing to look away, Lemelson and his team have also begun working with local organizations to set up the first gender-based violence program in Indonesia.


Tales of the Waria

The conference program also included Kathy Huang’s documentary Tales of the Waria, which focuses on four “biological men” in Makassar, Indonesia  – Tiara, Mami Ria, Suharni, and Firman – who self-identify as women. The men are known locally as waria –“ a combination of the terms wanita (woman) and pria (man), which can be roughly translated as ‘male transvestite’” (Boellstorff, 2004, p. 160). Waria live openly as women, mainly engaged as performers (Tiara), in some form of salon work (Mami Ria, Suharni, and Firman), especially bridal makeup and hair styling, or as sex workers; thus, they are far more visible (and, as a “recognizable continuity” dating back to the early 1800s, far older in origin) than Indonesians who identify as gay or lesbi (Boellstorff, 2004).

Being a waria is not a matter of sexual orientation; according to Tiara, “waria exist to make this life more beautiful.” Further, “waria almost never describe themselves as a “third gender” but see themselves as men with women’s souls who therefore dress like women and are attracted to men” (Boellstorff, 2005, p. 57). Although they may take estrogen in the form of birth control pills and use injectable fillers, Tiara explains that “most warias don’t want a sex-change operation because of the teachings of Islam. We believe that we were born as men and must return to God as men.”

The film offers a humanizing portrait of the warias’ pursuit of love with a man (“every waria’s dream”), and in doing so, movingly depicts the dual sense “of belonging to (and exclusion from) national society and popular culture” (Boellstorff, 2004, p. 161) given their visible positions in society, including in the political sphere. At first glance, the love lives of the four warias “flow simply into the mold of [male] power,” to paraphrase Catherine Malabou (2015). Tiara is a performer who likens herself to Madonna or Beyoncé. Despite the general tolerance for warias in Indonesia, Tiara’s family does not openly welcome their son’s adoption of a waria identity; a former boyfriend refused to marry because Tiara wasn’t a “real” woman and couldn’t give him children (“I was just a place to stop until he found a woman”).

Younger warias, like Suharni, juggle achieving financial security and maintaining a relationship with their boyfriends. In Suharni’s case, her boyfriend Madi remains committed even after learning of her HIV-positive status (according to Suharni, “HIV/AIDS is the most feared disease in Indonesia”), but neither is able to make enough money living in Makassar, and Suharni decides during the course of the film to relocate to Bali. The oldest of the four, Mami Ria faces a different challenge in maintaining the interest of her partner Pak Ansar, who is married with children. Pak Ansar thinks warias are “creative” and “really have a passion for life,” and his wife, Ety, appears complacent with the arrangement. But as Mami Ria has gotten older and feels less inclined to wear make-up and maintain long, feminine hair, she believes Pak Ansar’s love has waned. By the end of Huang’s film, Mami and Pak Ansar had not spoken in more than three months.

“I walk two paths”

Some warias, like Firman, opt to marry heterosexually. In an opening scene, Firman prays to God to “change [him] into a real man” because it was “impossible to go back into being a waria,” which was “a terrible [past] mistake.” Firman said his family was ashamed of him as a child (“They always got angry at me and beat me”). His father hit him hard with a rattan switch and told him “to be a man, but I wasn’t able to.” Firman is now “respected” by his family and in-laws for being a good father and husband. Though his wife Mimi has heard stories of his past, she said she accepts him because she believes “he’s left his old ways behind” and is now committed to “making a future together . . . [and] wants to change.” Through tears, she adds, that Firman continues to go on late outings with his waria friends; though he brushes it aside as work, she cries and worries, not sleeping until he returns. Although Firman reaffirms his commitment to his family, he tells Huang that he nonetheless misses the warmth of a male body and contrasts the “ecstatic” feeling of “soaring into the sky” with the reality of waking up next to his wife and children.

Together, the four narratives illustrate the multiple ways in which warias pursue love in Indonesian society – not as a “third gender,” but occupying “a gendered subject position haunting maleness” (Boellstorff, 2004, p. 183) – and, like the wives in Bitter Honey, have learned to deftly negotiate the marginalizing social and cultural dynamics that continue to bound their experiences.

Our “volatile” anatomy

Most warias recount “atypical play” for as children (“I hung out with the girls and played jump rope, played with dolls”; Boellstorff, 2004, p 166), either because their parents didn’t prohibit it or, as many attest, they were simply born “with the soul of a woman.” Their various reflections – in some cases, biologically oriented; in others, social – for the basis of their childhood toy preferences resonated with neuroscientist Melissa Hines’s talk (“Early Androgen Exposure and Human Gender Development: Outcomes and Mechanisms”). Hines focuses primarily on the role of testosterone in influencing human gender development; part of her research program explores gender typical play.

According to Hines, the brain is not hardwired to be male or female. But neither is gender identity wholly a function of “self-socialization or socialization by others” postnatally. Both viewpoints are partial and thus “flawed” because neither takes the other into account. Our anatomy, as Elizabeth Wilson (2015) argues in Gut Feminism, is “volatile enough” to produce many “multifaceted . . . destinies.”

Four factors influence human gender development: genetic factors, gonadal steroids (particularly testosterone during early development), social reinforcement, and self-socialization, Hines continued. Her remarks focused on the influence of testosterone on brain and behavior, whose “enduring masculinizing and defeminizing effects during early sensitive periods of rapid brain development” have been well-studied in non-human animals (Hines et al., 2016a).

Prior to puberty, testosterone is higher in males than in females during two periods of rapid brain development: prenatally (from about 8–24 weeks) and postnatally (also referred to as “mini-puberty,” from about 1–6 months; Hines et al., 2016b). In humans, evidence suggests the first (prenatal) elevation influences three main behaviors that differ by sex (1) gender identity, (2) sexual orientation, and (3) gender-typical play. The second elevation contributes to later gender-typical play in particular.

How can we study the influence of hormones in human development?

The strongest evidence comes from studies of individuals with genetic conditions. Hines’s research focuses mainly on congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a genetic disorder. CAH disrupts the adrenal glands’ ability to make cortisol. The resulting dysregulation in cortisol-mediated adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) secretion by the pituitary gland causes the overproduction of adrenal androgens, beginning prenatally. Despite some gender ambiguity in external genitalia at birth due to prenatal exposure to high levels of testosterone, girls with CAH, who are treated postnatally with glucocorticoids, are usually raised as girls. But girls and women with CAH show differences in all three gendered behaviors.

Hines discussed toy preferences, which her research has related to both prenatal androgen exposure and gender-related models (persons of the same or opposite sex choosing gender-neutral objects) and labels (being told certain objects were “for girls’ and others were “for boys”; see Hines et al., 2016a). Girls with CAH spent more time with the boys’ toys and less time playing with girls’ toys than their unaffected relatives. To determine whether the effects were due to socialization (e.g., parent support of children’s toy preferences), Hines and colleagues also studied toy preferences among vervet monkeys and found similar sex differences (Alexander & Hines, 2002; see also Hassett, Siebert, & Wallen, 2008). Further, girls with CAH appeared to be less susceptible than other children to same-sex modeling and to gender labels. To Hines and colleagues, this suggests an interaction between prenatal androgen exposure and cognitive processes related to gender identity. Her group also measured urinary testosterone in infants during “mini-puberty,” which predicted male-typical play behavior at ages 3–4 (Hines et al., 2016b). Hines concluded that testosterone contributes to the development of human gender-related behavior, but “there are many dimensions of gendered behavior and different dimensions are influenced by different combinations of factors,” including self-socialization in response to same-gender models or gender labels as wells the influence of parents and peers.

Next, the focus widened as anthropologist Hillard Kaplan (“Embodied Capital and the Sexual Division of Labor: Evolution of Multiple Time Scales”) presented data on societies that practice hunting and gathering or a mix of foraging and horticulture. These societies offer “one particular lens on the evolved biology of our species,” according to Kaplan. “Comparisons with modern societies can shed light on the interactions of genes, environments, and lifestyles on behavior, health, and longevity and, in particular, . . . modern health conditions.”

Kaplan briefly reviewed fertility, mortality, and net caloric production (“how much food you produce less how much you consume”). Marriages in hunter-gather societies are mostly monogamous, reflective of “some strong complementarities in the life history of the two sexes,” which is relatively rare among other mammals. Women are primarily committed to maternal caregiving and men to learning- / skill-intensive hunting (the peak in male muscular strength well precedes the peak in men’s hunting ability). Men provide most of the surplus calories in the form of hunted meat, a new and valuable resource from an evolutionary standpoint, but one that is “very expensive in terms of care.” Kaplan’s talk helped us understand how men’s and women’s pursuits are delicately balanced (“the value of what women do for their families depends upon what the men do, and vice versa, and their life histories become linked”). The sex difference results because childbearing women have less time (between births) to acquire the necessary skills to be successful at hunting.

The remainder of the talk focused on the Tsimané of Bolivia, a foraging-horticulturalist population that still follows a “traditional subsistence pattern.” In particular Kaplan discussed various adaptations as men and women age. Beyond the mid-thirties, men tend to hunt less and farm more. As women age, they also engage more in agricultural activities, becoming major contributors to total caloric production. Overall, resources flow downward from grandparents to their children and grandchildren – or, with fewer dependents, to closely related, frequently younger households (Hooper, Gurven, Winking, & Kaplan, 2015). Kaplan uses a unified model (time-path of production and inclusive fitness theory) to account for these “exquisitely patterned” flows. Elsewhere he has likened them to a form of “indirect” reproduction, “which has allowed selection to favour the evolution of significant post-reproductive lifespan” (Hopper et al., 2015). He particularly emphasized the role of grandfathers (as well as grandmothers) in the downward flows to grandchildren; these men tend not to seek out new reproductive relationships. Like Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, he stressed the importance of marriage (and the relative rarity of polygamy), especially the importance of choosing a good partner, and of cooperation between the sexes and in terms of intergenerational investment. The final segment of his talk focused on the adaptability of the division of labor to changing social and economic contexts and gendered effects on health and mortality. Today, women tend to live longer than men but report worse health, reflecting the interaction of ontogeny and selection for certain “physiological and psychological pre-commitments.”

Cultural and medical anthropologist Marcia Inhorn’s talk (“Male Infertility, Assisted Reproductive Technologies [ART], and Emergent Masculinities in the Arab World”) focused on the globalization of technologies addressing male infertility, which Inhorn argues has been accompanied by the “emergence” of new forms of manhood in the Arab Muslim Middle East.

Inhorn’s work challenges stereotypes of Middle Eastern men as “fanatically religious” and “brutal oppressors of women.” Her long-term ethnographic research illuminates transformed attitudes about love, marriage, and fatherhood. Inhorn’s large amount of data, which is pooled from more than 330 Arab men from 14 Arab countries over 15 years, demonstrate a reality that bears no resemblance to caricatures of Arab Muslim men in the media. For the most part, the men are family-oriented, seek love/partnership in marriage, and highly value fatherhood.

Regarding the reproductive piece, in vitro fertilization (IVF), a “platform technology,” has been joined by an “unbelievable array” of ARTs, including third party reproductive assistance, gestational surrogacy, cryopreservation (freezing or vitrification), preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, and even the possibility of human reproductive cloning. Inhorn’s talk focused on intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a variant of IVF designed specifically to address male infertility, which she described as an “underappreciated global reproductive health problem.” Across the world about 9–10 percent of couples are infertile, and about half of those cases are due to male infertility. In the Middle East, however, male infertility rates are much higher, primarily for genetic reasons due to high rates of marriages among kin (sub-Saharan Africa has even higher rates due to reproductive tract infections and various other complications, according to the World Health Organization). Before ICSI, male infertility was highly stigmatizing, due to the conflation of infertility and sexuality, as well as incurable. ICSI addresses low sperm count by directly injecting a single spermatozoon into the oocyte.

In the Sunni-majority Muslim countries, which prohibit the use of donor sperm (or any third party insemination), the advent of ICSI in the early 1990s was “a watershed event.” After years of struggle, men in the Middle East view ICSI as a “hope technology” (although Inhorn pointed out that it also shifts the genetic burden onto their male offspring). The “double” emergence – ICSI and “emerging changes in gender relations and, ultimately, masculinity” – arises by making long-term love-marriages and reproduction viable for more men.

Overall, the collection of talks and films presented human life on multiple time scales. The film Bitter Honey suggested a disintegrating past (the children in the polygamous families seem averse to the practice), while Tales of the Waria and Marcia Inhorn’s talk provided glimpses of a more generous future that for some – like Mami Ria and Sadra and Darma’s wives, with few social anchors –remains out of reach. Hillard Kaplan and Melissa Hines grounded us in evolutionary and biological histories that deftly wove the social and biological together. While all the elements may not fit together perfectly, the composite picture addressing what counts as “adequate function” drawn from many disciplines and interdisciplinary programs, is far richer and more dynamic than we anticipated. Our final blog post addresses what’s at stake.


Alexander, G. M., & Hines, M. (2002). Sex differences in response to children’s toys in non-human primates (cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 467479.

Barad, K. (1998). Getting real: Technoscientific practices and the materialization of reality. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 10(2), 87–128.

Boellstorff, T. (2004). Playing back the nation: Waria, Indonesian transvestites. Current Anthropology, 19(2), 159–195.

Boellstorff, T. (2005). The gay archipelago: Sexuality and nation in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brown, G. R., Laland, K. N. & Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (2009). Bateman’s principles and human sex roles. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24(6), 297–304.

Hassett, J. M., Siebert, E R., & Wallen, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Hormones and Behavior, 54(3), 359–64.

Hines, M., Pasterski, V., Spencer, D. Neufeld, S. Patalay, P., Hindmarsh, P. C. . . . Acerini, C. L. (2016a). Prenatal androgen exposure alters girls’ responses to information indicating gender-appropriate behavior. Philosophical Transactions B, 371, 20150125.

Hines, M., Spencer, D., Kung, K. T.-F., Browne, W. V., Constantinescu, M., & Noorderhaven, R. M. (2016b). The early postnatal period, mini-puberty, provides a window on the role of testosterone in human neurobehavioural development. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 38, 69–73.

Hooper, P. L., Gurven, M., Winking, J., & Kaplan, H. S. (2015). Inclusive fitness and differential productivity across the life course determine intergenerational transfers in a small-scale human society. Proceeding of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1803), 20142808.

Lemelson, R., & Tucker, A. (2015a). Lemelson, R., & Tucker, A. (2015). Steps toward an integration of psychological and visual anthropology: Issues raised in the production of the film series Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia. Ethos, 43(1), 6–39.

Malabou, C. (2015). One life only: Biological resistance, political resistance. Critical Inquiry. This essay was originally published in French as Catherine Malabou, “Une Seule Vie: résistance biologique, résistance politique,” Esprit (January 2015), 30–40.

Wilson, E. A. (2015). Gut feminism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


FPR Sex/Gender Conference Summary: Part 2 – What’s Fixed, Changing, Changeable

Part 2 of the FPR-UCLA conference on sex/gender, which was chaired by cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, explored aspects of brain and behavior that are “fixed” by evolution and biology and other aspects that create, reflect, and respond to human social and cultural environments. Speakers in the first session addressed, in Darwin’s phrase, the “entangled bank” of biological, evolutionary, and cultural contexts of sex/gender differences in brain and behavior, while the second session offered a closer examination of “intimacies”– partnerships, marriage, sexual orientations, desires, and practices. A common theme throughout was the instability of the sex/gender binary or, as Carol Worthman observed, the “loss of easy dichotomies” more generally. Perspectives varied widely depending on level of analysis, but there was a general willingness to “work with and speak across difference” (Worthman).

For neurobiologist Donald Pfaff, who presented experimental research focusing on autism, sex is a biological category/variable. Other speakers were more willing to extrapolate from biology, and in so doing, challenge what Sarah Richardson referred as our “essentialist” understandings. For social neuroendocrinologist Sari van Anders, even a “quintessential” male hormone like testosterone can be deconstructed (van Anders, 2013). Another common theme was gender-role and sexual fluidity, addressed from evolutionary (Fessler), hormonal (Rilling, van Anders), and situational/contextual (Diamond) perspectives. Finally, field research by anthropologists (Borgerhoff Mulder and Boellstorff) in non-Western and virtual settings underscored human flexibility and adaptiveness.

In addition, on Friday afternoon, FPR founder and president, Robert Lemelson, a documentary filmmaker and psychological anthropologist on the UCLA faculty, screened Bitter Honey. Shot over a seven-year period, the film explores polygamous marriages through the lens of three Balinese families (Sadra, Darma, and Tuaji). Next, filmmaker Kathy Huang presented her film Tales of the Waria, which focuses focused on a group of biological men who self-identify as women—known locally as waria in Indonesia. Part III of our series reviews the two films in depth.

The talks and the two films revealed significant advances in our understanding of the underlying mechanisms and dynamic aspects of sex/gender-related behavior and their exquisite attunement to historically and culturally specific environments. As conference keynote speaker Anne Fausto-Sterling reminds us, “neither the body nor experience is prior, but each acts continuously upon the other as individual patterns of behavior and of neuronal connections appear” (Fausto-Sterling, 2014, p. 315).



Prenatal and perinatal factors, including maternal stress, profoundly influence brain and behavioral development. Neurobiologist Donald Pfaff (“Neuroendocrine Mechanisms Underlying Prenatal Stress in Effects and Sex Differences in Autism”) focused on one way in which iterative development can go awry. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) involve motor, language, and social deficits, with the latter considered “the core concept” of the diagnosis. ASD is both highly heritable and sex-related (4:1 male-to-female ratio, increasing to 11:1 “with the highest levels of intellectual capacity; Gillberg et al., 2006, as cited in Schaafsma & Pfaff, 2014). Pfaff and colleagues study the sex-differentiating factors underlying male bias in ASD.

Pfaff briefly outlined several non-mutually exclusive pathways to sex-differentiation in brain function that may have possible implications for sex-specific susceptibilities in or protection from ASD: (1) via Y-linked genes, such as Sry, which, as Art Arnold explained, has both direct and indirect (via gonadal hormones) effects – i.e., some are directly expressed in the brain and play a role in catecholaminergic functions; (2) X-inactivation “in the service of dosage compensation,” which can be balanced or skewed; (3) genetic imprinting – the epigenetic silencing of one of the two working copies of a gene inherited from parents; and (4) other epigenetic-related factors (see Schaafsma & Pfaff, 2014, for more detail).


Male sex and the “3-hit” theory of autism”

Pfaff described the “3-hit” theory of autism as an interaction between: (1) androgenic hormones; (2) early stress; and (3) one of the genetic mutations associated with autism in males, such as the CNTNAP2 mutation. Regarding Steps 1–2, testosterone affects arousal neurons in the forebrain; which results in greater activity in their ascending pathways, especially increased deposition of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the amygdala. The amygdala becomes “supersensitive” and responds more acutely to social stressors, pre- and postnatally. Chronic overactivation in response to stress leads to social anxiety and ultimately the social avoidance characteristic of ASD.

Pfaff and colleagues use a mouse model to test exposures to prenatal stress/no stress on a 0–3 event scale in Cntnap2 knockout and wild-type mice. (NB: They used maternal immune activation for prenatal stress because infection in pregnancy predisposes to autism.) The researchers found differences between the 0-hit and 3-hit mice based on three tests: ultrasonic vocalizations, social recognition (a series of home-cage exposures to an intruder mouse, followed by an exposure to a novel mouse), and social approach in a three-chambered cage. Interestingly, there was a slight increase in social approach for the 3-hit mice, and no differences in anxiety between wild-type no-stress females and the male mice in an open field test with various numbers of hits. The researchers sacrificed the animals and found significantly lower expression of mRNA receptors for stress-related corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH-R1) in the left hippocampus in the 3-hit mice. In the final piece of the story, the researchers harvested mRNA and found developmental sex differences in mRNA levels of connexin-36, which is important for mediating electrical synapses and promoting neuronal synchrony. Males express more connexin-36 in the amygdala than females, which has possible implications regarding the sex-related (male) amygdala hypersensitivity of the 3-hit model.

This emerging body of research focuses on the underlying neuroendocrine and epigenetic causes of the sex-related differences in ASD and also links the social behavior consequences (e.g., anxiety) to the number of “hits” over time, underscoring the iterative nature of sex-differentiation, a major theme of this conference.

Biocultural anthropologist James Rilling (“Neural, Hormonal, and Genetic Correlates of Human Paternal Behavior”) shifted the morning’s focus from mother–infant dyads to fatherhood. As Ruth Feldman (2015) observed in a recent review, parenting may be the most delicately poised among all social phenomena between evolutionarily conserved components on the one hand and “the greatest plasticity” on the other. Fathers are less well studied, but Rilling’s research suggests significant plasticity in adult male as well as female brains in response to caring for offspring.


“Mothers and others”

Some biologists refer to humans as “cooperative breeders,” that is, the source of care and feeding of offspring comes from both “mothers and others” (Hrdy, 2009), albeit with significant cultural and interfamilial variation. According to Rilling, in modern Western societies that often consist of isolated nuclear families, fathers are often the greatest source of help to mothers. Emerging evidence indicates that paternal involvement is associated with “multiple positive developmental outcomes in children” in Western settings, he said.

Rilling’s talk addressed two questions: “Why is it that some men are more involved as fathers than others? Can we identify variables that are correlated with or influence paternal involvement?” His biocultural approach is based on an evolutionary and life-history perspective, more specifically for the purposes of his talk, on variation in and tradeoffs between investing energy in mating and in parenting.

Rilling’s research focuses on the hormonal (testosterone, vasopressin, oxytocin, and prolactin) and neural (mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway) mechanisms regulating behavior in fathers of young children (ages 1–3). In rats, the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of the hypothalamus, which is subject to the influence of steroid hormones, regulates parallel systems for pup approach/avoidance. Bathing the area in hormones activates the mesolimbic dopamine system (including the ventral tegmental area in the midbrain, the nucleus accumbens [part of the ventral striatum], and the medial orbitofrontal cortex), “a classic reward system pathway,” enhancing maternal motivation to nurture.

Rilling and colleagues recruited three groups of men: nonfathers, more involved fathers, and less involved fathers of children (ages 1–3) to study both hormone levels and brain function in response to visual child-related and sexual stimuli in order to explore tradeoffs between mating and parenting. Fathers had lower levels of plasma testosterone than nonfathers. They were also about 20 pounds heavier than nonfathers, putatively reflecting a significant negative correlation between testosterone and body fat. Fathers also had significantly higher levels of plasma oxytocin than nonfathers. In fathers baseline plasma oxytocin appears to enhance certain aspects of caregiving, such as stimulatory parent-infant contact (Feldman, 2012; as cited in Young & Rilling, 2014).

Rilling and colleagues also compared the more and less involved fathers (using the Parental Responsibility Scale). They noted weak negative correlations between testosterone and instrumental caregiving and testes size and caregiving, although the relationship between testosterone and testes size was not statistically significant.

In terms of brain function, fathers viewed images of their own children (with happy, sad, and neutral facial expressions), unknown children, unknown adults, and sexually provocative stimuli. The investigators also primed an empathic response from the fathers by asking them to “try to share the emotions of the person in the picture.” Across the board, fathers had stronger responses than nonfathers to the images of unknown children in such areas as the medial orbitofrontal cortex (part of the “reward” system) and the temporoparietal junction, which plays a putative role in theory of mind, or the ability to make inferences about the mental states of others. Across the board, the nonfathers had stronger responses to the sexually provocative visual stimuli, particularly in brain regions related to goal-related motivation and reward (e.g., the nucleus accumbens).

More involved fathers had higher activation of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), part of the network motivating approach to offspring in the rat studies, when viewing own children. There was also a more robust relationship – a negative correlation – between testes size and VTA response to viewing images of own children. Finally, fathers listened to infant cry stimuli, which among fathers notably activated the anterior insula (AI) bilaterally. Among other functions, the AI tracks sympathetic autonomic arousal. “Less involved” fathers had a lower or higher AI response, respectively, than fathers who were “most involved in instrumental caregiving” suggesting empathic under or over-arousal in the less involved group (Young & Rilling, 2014).

The final speaker of the afternoon, anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder (“Gender Roles in Mpimbwe: Re-evaluating Bateman’s Gradient”), explored the effects of environment on intra- and extra-marital relations among the Pimbwe of the Rukwa Valley in western Tanzania. Her data challenge universalist gender roles drawn from standard sexual selection theory.

Due to conservation strategies, Pimbwe men can no longer legally hunt or fish in what is now Katavi National Park, and job scarcity makes education an unsatisfactory strategy for making a living in the Rukwa Valley. As a result, Pimbwe women are relatively powerful players within the marriage market. Not only do women control much of the gardening, environmental factors – such as unreliable rainfall, agricultural pests, depredating wildlife, and theft from other villagers – have compelled them to engage in other economic activities that can help offset intermittent food shortages. “Under these tough economic, ecological, and environmental conditions “marriage is problematic,” Borgerhoff Mulder continued, and finding a good provider is critical. Marital decisions are particularly important because Pimbwe are increasingly unable to rely on cooperation from neighbors and kin (Kasper & Borgerhoff Mulder, 2015); cooperation with a marital partner becomes key, placing a lot of pressure on this relationship. Against this background Borgerhoff Mulder analyses the considerable variability in gender roles and a strong prevalence for marital systems that are “very flexible.” Monogamy, serial polygyny, and serial polyandry are common arrangements; extramarital affairs also abound (if a pregnancy results, it typically leads to marriage), and there is increasing polygyny.


“Why do Pimbwe men suffer from multiple spouses?”

Networks of various marriages (which the Pimbwe effectively define as pairs who cohabit), divorces, and extramarital mating patterns produce outcomes that provide an exception to Angus J. Bateman’s (Arnold 1994) foundational claim that number of mates will have stronger effects on the fitness of males than females. This famous “Bateman’s Third Principle” follows from his first two principles – that males will have higher variance in fitness (measured as number of surviving offspring) than females, and that males will have higher variance in the number of their mates than females. All of these differences are predicated on the fact that, by definition, males have smaller gametes than females.

Using longitudinal, cross-sectional, demographic, and economic data for all households in one village in the Rukwa Valley, Borgerhoff Mulder examined variation in reproductive success (Bateman’s first principle) and mate number (his second principle), before modeling the effects on reproductive success of the number of an individual’s mates (the third principle). Regarding reproductive success below age 40, the variance for men and women was “pretty similar.” In accordance with Bateman’s theory, as they aged beyond 40, men had a higher variance than women. Similarly mate number was equally variable between the sexes. But regarding Bateman’s third principle, Borgerhoff Mulder found that having multiple spouses had a positive effect on mating success in women (i.e., production of surviving offspring) and a negative effect in men.

The Pimbwe challenge the “conventional view of promiscuous, undiscriminating males and coy, choosey females” (Brown, Laland, & Borgerhoff Mulder, 2009).  Some Pimbwe women can “discard” – and benefit from discarding – husbands who are not good providers, in poor health, or just considered “lazy.” According to Borgerhoff Mulder, these women tend to be hard workers who can afford “to cycle through multiple marriages.” Despite the fact that some Pimbwe maintain successful polygynous marriages over a number of years, many Pimbwe men face the opposite fate. Reproductive success falters as they cycle through marriages, unable to keep their spouses from leaving them; they seem to make poor fathers. Borgerhoff Mulder theorized that the constant shift between multiple spouses by females, and the higher variance in mate quality that accompanies it, reflects the value system around pair bonding. That is, rather than aligning with conventional accounts, which suggest that in societies where divorce occurs, “pair bonds” must not be “very important,” Borgerhoff Mulder proposed the opposite: “Divorce may actually be an indicator of the importance of pair bonds” rather than their non-importance. That is, in societies where pair bonding is valued highly, stakes are higher, and therefore there is higher pressure to cycle through multiple spouses until the best one is found.

Evolutionary anthropologist Dan Fessler (“An Evolutionary Perspective on Sexual Orientation, Same-Sex Attraction, and Affiliation”) opened the second day of the conference with an evolutionary puzzle. Given the role of reproductive success in natural selection, “if there is any heritable contribution to sexual orientation, how have alleles for exclusive same-sex attraction persisted over evolutionary time?”

Human and animal studies find substantial heritability in sexual orientation, including same-sex attraction, which is most likely the effect of a number of genes and/or epigenetics, both of which are subject to natural selection. Existing (partial) explanations, such as pleiotropy or kin selection, focus on male homosexuality and “leave lots of variance unexplained.” Fessler focused on “overdominance,” or the “heterozygote advantage” of having different alleles of the same gene, theorizing that human sexuality is multifunctional. Here, Fessler was careful to distinguish between sexual orientation – “[culturally] patterned sexual desire that may lead to sexual behavior with members of one or the other sex” (Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians, 2015), which is closely related to gender, and same-sex attraction, his primary interest, which may or may not align with sexual orientation.

It is difficult to get precise numbers on same-sex sexual behavior; there are “huge” cross-cultural differences. For example, in some cultures same-sex sexuality is unknown, in others it is widespread, and in still others – as in the case of the Sambia – it is “required ritually.” He suggested that, “in the absence of norms prohibiting same-sex behavior, it apparently arises spontaneously,” often during sexual development.

Same-sex sexual behavior occurs across species, although regularity and context vary, and may have two primary nonreproductive functions: one signifying affiliation (e.g., the alliance-enhancing same-sex bonds among the bonobos) and the other dominance (e.g., dogs mounting). Further, Fessler argued that “plasticity and flexibility” in sexual behaviors and corresponding attraction can be subject to natural selection. Returning to the concept of overdominance and particularly “multifunctional sexuality,” he cited work suggesting that same-sex sexual behavior supports the kind of alliance formation Herdt described in his talk. And note, he continued, that “this is compatible with existing evidence suggesting that sexual orientation and sexual psychology are separate things” in that the “target has shifted” to the same sex but the sexual psychology remains the same. Fessler also discussed the fitness-enhancing aspects of affiliative bonds. In nonhuman primates, “social bonds enhance survival and reproductive success.” Alliances were also vital in small-scale human societies for a number of reasons (for enhanced success in violent coalitional conflict, as a buffer against food shortfalls, to facilitate alloparenting, and as insurance against illness and injury), Fessler said.


Where are all the bisexuals?”

Using Darwin’s finches as an example, Fessler showed how three allele pairs yield seven genotypes and a continuously distributed trait, or bell-shaped curve. He also noted the extent to which environment affects the expression of genes: “when the effect of each locus is small, environmental variation will blur genetic differences.” Given the multiple genetic contributions to same-sex arousal, the normal distribution of phenotypes would assume a bell-shaped curve, ranging from a committed same-sex phenotype with no reproduction “but lots of allies” to a committed opposite-sex phenotype with reproduction, but “fewer allies.” According to Fessler, most people would be “flexible” between the two. The “flexible” phenotype “accrues benefits of both same-sex contact and reproduction, depending on context.” Cultural pressures tend to shift normal distribution toward the right. His take-home message was that, aside from “obligate” same-sex and opposite-sex individuals on the far left and right of the bell curve, “for most people, the cultural context and the socialization experiences probably do profoundly influence their self-concept and their experiences of sexuality.”

The next speaker, social neuroendocrinologist Sari van Anders (“Social Neuroendocrinology, Gender/Sex, and Sexual Desire: Testosterone as Socially Constructed and Evolved”) emphasized the iterative or bidirectional relationship between hormones and behavior and, above all, the importance of context. Their dynamic interactions occur within “a space that is both social . . . and responsive to evolution.” Van Anders’s approach to “gender/sex” focuses on the interaction of the two constructs. “We can think of sex as relating to femaleness, maleness, and sexual diversity,” she said. “[S]ex falls into the part of the equation that is evolution. And we can think of gender as falling into the part that is social context and that has to do with gender diversity, femininity, and masculinity. . . . [B]y gender/sex, I mean I’m studying whole men or whole women or whole gender/sex diverse people.”

Van Anders stressed the importance of studying “human specificities,” which often get overlooked, particularly the integration of social constructions (“shared cultural understandings that vary by place and time”) and biological constructions (including contextually sensitive steroid hormones like testosterone), which modify one another. The remainder of her talk focused on testosterone and sexual desire. She described “testosterone” as both a biological material and a social construction. Her point is that “the stories we tell ourselves” about testosterone pretheoretically influence how scientific research is conducted. For example, one of the tacit assumptions of testosterone is that it promotes masculinity and is negatively related to femininity. Van Anders proposed a different model for understanding variability in testosterone based on a broader definition of sexuality that extends beyond reproduction. Her model (the Steroid-Peptide Theory of Social Bonds) suggests “an overarching social role [that is] similar in women and men,” one in which low testosterone is linked to nurturance (“loving, warm contact”) and high testosterone to competition (“acquiring and keeping resources”; see van Anders et al., 2011; van Anders, 2013; Goldey & van Anders, 2015), which brought to mind James Rilling’s earlier talk on life history tradeoffs.


“There are many constructions of desire”

Van Anders discussed the concept of “sexual desire,” taking apart some of its socially constructed assumptions (e.g., sexual desire is prototypically male, dyadic, orgasm-focused, and testosterone-fueled) and drawing out its extraordinary sensitivity to context and particular functions. A straightforward link between testosterone and sexual desire in men or women is tenuous at best. Instead, “there are many constructions of desire,” which have both positive and negative correlations with testosterone. In her nurturance–competition model, nurturance/low testosterone is linked to closeness, pair bonding, and self-comfort, whereas competition/high testosterone is linked to erotic pleasure, power, orgasm, and jealousy. The idea is that “the expectations of erotic pleasure and orgasm actually can differ based on social location and sexual experience and other factors.” For example, in heterosexual women, researchers found a negative correlation between dyadic sexual desire and testosterone, suggesting the women’s “desire” is more closely related to nurturance than expectation of orgasm. The researchers found no correlation between sexual desire and testosterone in men, which also ran counter to our pretheoretical assumptions.

Next, developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond’s talk (“Where Does Sexual Orientation Reside?”) challenged the once-entrenched belief in a binary, innate, and stable distinction between same and other-sex “orientation” (“the general predisposition to experience sexual attraction”), beginning with the observation that individuals who are sexually oriented to the opposite sex are capable of having same-sex desires, and vice versa. Longitudinal studies have uncovered considerable “plasticity” or “fluidity” in same-sex and other-sex attractions and behavior (Diamond, 2012), particularly among women. Diamond defined sexual fluidity as “situational and contextual variability in the experience and expression of same-sex and other-sex sexuality over the life course.” To address this greater complexity, Diamond conceptualized same-sex sexuality in terms of “constitutional same-sex sexuality” and “facultative same-sex sexuality.” The former is rooted in “same-sex desires stemming from one’s orientation.” The latter refers to “same-sex desires facilitated by situational or environmental factors, which can vary significantly in women over time. Elsewhere, Diamond has argued that this variability “may constitute a fundamental feature of female sexual orientation” and may be particularly amenable to a dynamic systems theoretic approach (Diamond, 2012).

Diamond pointed out the difficulty of differentiating between constitutional same-sex sexuality (a “gold star lesbian”) and a situational lesbian or “lesbian until graduation” on the basis of behavior. Even physiologically, “most women possess ‘nonspecific’ patterns of genital arousal” to same-sex and other-sex stimuli, “regardless of their own self-reported sexual orientation” (Diamond, 2012, p. 76; citing Chivers & Bailey, 2005; Chivers et al., 2004; Suschinsky, Lalumiere, & Chivers, 2009). (It’s important to note that “women are more likely than men to show discrepancies between their physiological and subjective arousal [for review, see Chivers et al., 2007],” and these discrepancies are not well understood.)

Diamond’s recent study looked at a different measure of desire: shifts in the responses of women of various self-identified orientations to sexual stimuli during ovulation, when estrogen levels peak. The diversity of responses by women of various sexual orientations suggests the need for a “biopsychosocial understanding” of how genetically influenced constitutions “interact with facultative environments, which range from microlevel processes – individual and dyadic relationships – to broad cultural environments, to produce different phenomenologies of desire, arousal, and behavior and then the pleasure that is taken from behavior.” She characterized “each individual desire” as “its own phenotype because it represents a very specific and dynamic interaction between genetically influence processes, biologically mediated processes, and, obviously, socioculturally facilitated and embedded processes. . . .  [S]exual orientation is neither the genetic part of same-sex sexuality nor the socially categorized part,” she continued, “If [we] want to make a distinction between constitutive and facultative desires, we have to understand the constellation of these different inputs and outputs over time.”

Cultural anthropologist Tom Boellstorff (“Technology and Globalization: Emergent Intersections of Culture, Brain, and Behavior”) discussed two long-term research projects focusing on globalization and technology: one on gaylesbi, and waria Indonesians and the other on culture in virtual worlds (in particular, in the virtual world Second Life). Boellstorff began by remarking on the “inability to fuse or separate sexuality and gender,” which reflects the broader issue of the nature/culture or biology/culture dichotomy that “still dogs us.” For Boellstorff, “long-term engagement with a field site” in Indonesia “allows you to track forms of change . . . how forms of movement and mobility are shaping culture and shaping sexuality and gender.” Both people and ideas are “moving.” The language is incorporating new words (gay, lesbi) that suggest homogenization but also “new forms of difference.” However, like sex/gender being “gay and Indonesian” or in most cases “gay and Muslim” “never fuse but they never become separate; “[i]t’s about the juxtaposition that nonetheless becomes part of everyday experience.” For example, gay and lesbi Indonesians are often married heterosexually – the two worlds needn’t resolve into one, though forms of oppression shape these dynamics. The fragmented globalization of sexual identities is exemplified by the fact that the “coming out” metaphor is quite rare in Indonesia: the more common term, “opening” to the gay, lesbi, or heterosexual “worlds,” has different implications for selfhood and community.


What is changing? Space and place

For Boellstorff, technology, and engagement with digital media in particular, serves as a means to challenge binary thinking, not only sex/gender, gay/straight, real/virtual, but also – as van Anders reminded us – biology/social constructions. His second research project is an ongoing ethnography of Second Life, a 3D virtual world whose members – via avatars – can fashion a less socially or physically encumbered identity, interact with one another in real time, immerse themselves in a range of social activities, and grow socially meaningful communities. In his 2015 preface to Coming of Age in Second Life (Princeton University Press, 2008), Boellstorff writes about an 85-year-old friend with Parkinson’s who is also a Second Life resident. For Fran, both bodies are real – her physical body (with Parkinson’s) and her virtual body, which “made it possible to wear a ball gown,” whirl around a dance floor with Tom, and run a support group in a wooden cabin on Namaste Island for other Second Lifers living with Parkinson’s. Although Boellstorff urged the audience to look beyond the binarism of real/virtual worlds, neither do they resolve into one. Instead, he stressed their coexistence and equal importance to ethnography.

Overall, the transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary sex/gender perspectives in Part 2 challenged many of our theoretical presuppositions about what is fixed by nature and shed light on what is changeable and changing, including how we study sex and gender. As one of the speakers observed, bringing biology and culture together “makes for transformative science.”





Arnold, S. J. (1994). Bateman’s principles and the measurement of sexual selection in plants and animals. The American Naturalist, 144(Suppl).

Boellstorff, T. (2015). Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human, 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brown, G. R., Laland, K. N., & Mulder, M. B. (2009). Bateman’s principles and human sex roles. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24(6), 297–304.

Diamond, L. (2012). The desire disorder in research on sexual orientation in women: Contributions of dynamical systems theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 73–83.

Eisnegger, C., Naef, M., Snozzi, R., Heinrichs, M., & Fehr, E. (2010). Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 463, 356–359.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2014). Nature. In C. R. Stimpson & G. Herdt (Eds.), Critical terms for the study of gender, pp. 294–319. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Feldman, R. (2015). The adaptive parental brain: Implications for children’s social development. Trends in Neurosciences, 38(6), 387–99.

Fleischman, Fessler, D., & Cholakians (2015). Testing the affiliation hypothesis of homoerotic motivation in humans: The effects of progesterone and priming. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(5), 1394–1404.

Geschwind, D. H., & Flint, J. (2015). Genetics and genomics of psychiatric disease. Science, 349, 1489–94. 10.1126/science.aaa8954

Gillberg, C., Cederlund, M., Lamberg, K., & L. Zeijlon, L. (2006). Brief report: “The autism epidemic”: The registered prevalence of autism in a Swedish urban area. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(3), 429–35.

Goldey, K. L., & van Anders, S. M. (2015). Sexual modulation of testosterone: Insights for humans from across species. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1, 93–123.

Hobson, J. R., Hong, C. C.-H., & Friston, K. J. (2014). Virtual reality and consciousness inference in dreaming. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1133.

Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kasper, C., & Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (2015). Who helps and why? Cooperative networks in Mpimbwe. Current Anthropology, 56(5), 701–32.

Metzinger, T. (2015, December 28). Virtual reality goes mainstream: A complex convolution. Edge.

Schaafsma, & Pfaff, D. (2014). Etiologies underlying sex differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 35(3), 255-71.

Van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: Testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context [Invited contribution]. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 34, 198–210.

Van Anders S. M., Goldey, K. L., & Kuo, P. X. (2011). The Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds: Integrating testosterone and peptide responses for classifying social behavioral contexts. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36, 1265–1275.


FPR Sex/Gender Conference Summary: Part I – Why Now?

Emerging theories in neuroscience – fueled by new technologies in brain imaging and recording along with torrents of new data – offer a profoundly different view of the human brain – part of a “tangled skein” of extended brain-body-behavior networks that are dynamic, plastic, adaptable, and “in constant dialog” with the environment (Rebeiz, Patel, & Hinman, 2015; Byrge, Sporns, & Smith, 2014). At the same time, shifts in how we think about sex determination, sexual differentiation, sexual orientation, and gender identities, as well as significant changes in the ecologies of sex and gender driven by globalization, are forcing us to reconsider our theoretical ideas and categories. These shifts have sparked entirely new sets of questions, debates, and tensions both between the neuro- and social sciences and in terms of addressing sex/gender disparities. The organizers of the FPR’s 6th interdisciplinary conference at UCLA (October 23–24, 2015) identified this juncture as a “critical moment” for integrating ideas from different fields on sex/gender in culture, brain, and behavior. Co-chaired by biologist Art Arnold and anthropologists Gil Herdt and Carol Worthman, the conference sought to address the following questions: Why now? What’s fixed, changeable, changing? What’s at stake, what makes a difference and why?

Anne Fausto-Sterling (Brown University), who gave the keynote talk (“Gender as Process Not Trait: Dynamic Approaches to the Origins of Difference During Infancy” link to video), studies infants from a dynamic systems theoretic perspective, with a focus on the processes underlying the emergence of male/female differences in “the big three” – language, motor activity, and toy preference – by age three. She discussed some preliminary findings using data from a longitudinal study of videotaped interactions between mothers and infants aged 3–12 months. Fausto-Sterling and colleagues examined “moment by moment” interactions (from randomly selected 5-minute segments) using a mix of analytic approaches, including three-dimensional functional landscape analysis (Scarpino, Gillette, & Crews, 2014) from computational systems biology.

Fausto-Sterling theorizes that a missing piece to the gene-environment interaction model is the understanding that development is an iterative process, one that builds on prior experience. She described a kind of looping effect – a constant “spiraling, building, of behaviors and bodies and brains that work with the material at hand,” which leads to the question of “how bodies become engendered” and specific developmental pathways are formed. She likened this process to a corrugated landscape with peaks and valleys. Initially, infants are “pretty similar” at birth. “The landscape . . . begins to be differentiated both by parental behaviors and also by the actual physiology of the infants themselves.” Infants, influenced by a variety of internal and external factors, follow the sinuous, downward slope of one “attractor” valley or another. (The ridges between valleys – which are “unstable” places – are referred to as “repellers.”) Valleys in turn bifurcate and the possible pathways multiply. According to Fausto-Sterling, if we think of the different “attractor basins” each infant occupies at T2 as “variable gender expression or identity formation we can begin to develop a theoretical notion of what might be happening in early development.” Unlike the ridges of the corrugated landscape, these basins are often “quite stable” – not “fixed,” but balanced at any given moment in time between stability and change. (Valleys are of different depths and events or experiences can easily shift an infant’s pathway from one basin to another.) According to Fausto-Sterling, sensory and emotional factors relating to touch, affection, speech, motor stimulation, and so on, “all contribute to reshaping the landscape.” By 18 months, as the valleys deepen, “children have begun to acquire gender preferences.” She warned, however, that “developmental time tables are tremendously variable and . . . will move around.” The hypothesis is that “small cumulative events have large effects.”

Even the briefest interactions between mother and infant involve complex ensembles of sensory, motor, and vocal activity. To illustrate, Fausto-Sterling showed a short clip of a mother interacting with a four-month-old infant, rich in detail – vocalizations, affectionate touch, assisted rolling and sitting, motor play, and repetition. In total, her dataset contains 600 observations of mother–infant interactions from 30 families (15 boys and 15 girls with their mothers) with a focus on 50–60 specific behaviors or sub-behaviors (infant activity, vocalization, maternal play type, maternal vocalization, etc.). A key question arises, how does a complex behavioral interaction like assisted standing, which differs between mothers of boys and the mothers of girls (the former encouraging more movement and using body praise), “get under the skin,” that is, contribute to sex/gender embodiment?

In addition to standard statistical analysis, Fausto-Sterling and colleagues use a variety of other approaches. In landscape analysis, for example, data from different behaviors are normalized and visualized on the same scale. Interestingly, much of the behavior that differed between mothers and male infants (more lifting and rocking) and mothers and female infants (more caretaking) at 3–4 months disappeared by one year, with the exception of assisted moving for boys. The other methods included 3D developmental analysis, cluster analysis, state-space grids, and longitudinal analysis.


“A tangled web of mutual, concurrent relationships”

Longitudinal analysis, in particular, is useful for examining how these subtle maternal responses to the infant become embodied. In maternal affectionate touch, for example, we see a decline in number of events and duration with age, although this behavior is still higher toward male infants. In gross motor simulations, the rate for male infants is also higher, while the decline with age is steeper. The question arises, does infant behavior at T1 shape mother response at T2? Using vector autoregression modeling combined with impulse response function, Fausto-Sterling found that male infants who walked more independently at T1 were more likely to experience greater maternal touch, greater response to infant movement, and greater maternal motor assistance at T2. On the other hand, there were “no effects of any sort for girls,” that is, mothers were not responding more to female infant movement. Such differences reconceptualize how we think about socialization – how at least some gender stereotypes are covertly nurtured in young infants and become embodied – and suggest greater need for collaborative research that can examine these processes longitudinally, multidimensionally and multimodally. “We need to understand gender as a developmental process,” Fausto-Sterling concluded, “which can be assessed at different points in the life cycle, but cannot be measured as a fixed or archetypal trait.”

In the next talk, biologist Arthur Arnold (“Recent Discoveries and Opportunities for Improved Understanding of Sex-biasing Biological Factors”) described some of the ways in which new developments in biological research are also reconceptualizing how we think about sex/gender differences in the context of, for example, neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, which disproportionately affects more women than men. There are two main and continuously interacting factors underlying these differences: genes and environment. Changes in one cause changes in the other and vice versa; hence the two factors are “often confounded.” Recent developments in epigenetics suggest an explanation for the confound. Epigenetic mechanisms, such as the attachment of methyl groups to pieces of DNA itself or modification of the histone proteins around which DNA is wrapped, control the expression of genes in response to environmental context or events within and even across generations. Examples of exposures or events that can lead to epigenetic changes include intrauterine levels of testosterone, stress, diet, exposure to pesticides, and – referring back to the Fausto-Sterling presentation – parental rearing. Since procedures studying epigenetic effects involve manipulating genes or altering the environment, much of the research is based on animal models.

In the second half of his talk, Arnold focused on the complexity of interactions between genes and hormones, illustrated by the case of androgen insensitivity syndrome (a female-appearing genetic male lacking functional androgen receptors due to a genetic mutation). In sex-based research, “the central dogma” contends that the Sry gene on the Y-chromosome initiates a cascade of events that causes the primordial gonad to differentiate into testes, which bathe the developing male fetus in testosterone. (For male infants, a smaller peak of testosterone occurs postnatally before flattening until puberty.) These early hormonal effects are considered “organizational” and result in permanent masculinization of the body; the hormonal effects occurring during puberty are considered “activational,” inducing reversible effects on already established structures. But animal research indicates that sex chromosome genes are also expressed in nongonadal tissue, including the brain, and contribute to sex differences. In songbirds, for example, administration of testosterone in females does not result in changes in a brain region allowing male birds to sing their courtship song; similarly, removal of testosterone in males has no effect.


Understanding sex-biasing biological factors

The “four core genotypes” (FCG) mouse model has begun to tease out the effects of genetic and hormonal sex. In this model, the Sry gene is deleted from the Y chromosome and an Sry transgene is inserted on a non-sex chromosome (an autosome), producing XX and XY mice with testes and XX and XY mice with ovaries. XY denotes the absence of the testis-determining factor – these mice are gonadal females. Mice with the Sry transgene, denoted XYSry, are gonadal males. When the latter is mated with an XX female, the end result is four types of mice: XX mice (with ovaries), XXSry mice (with testes), XYmice (with ovaries) and XYSry males (with testes). Experiments using FCG and other models have challenged parts of the central dogma. For example, gonadal males weigh more than gonadal females after puberty, suggesting a hormonal effect. After removing the gonads, mice look the same. But at two months post-gonadectomy, mice with a second X chromosome had higher body weight and more fat tissue than mice bred with a single X chromosome (Chen, McClosky, Itoh, Reue, & Arnold, 2013). Other advances in biological research, including studies on X inactivation and Sry expression in the brain, have similarly complicated our understanding of sexual differentiation. Arnold postulated “a combined and often antagonistic” effect of sex chromosome genes and hormones, with an impact on disease phenotypes and implications for the discovery of protective factors in sex-related disorders.

In a thoughtful reflection on the powerful biological turn in understanding sex differences, the next speaker – historian and philosopher of science Sarah Richardson (“Conceptualizing Sex Differences in the Human Genome”; link to video) – agreed that this was a “critical moment” in biology, not only because of methodological advances in the field, but also because of changes in the ways we think about the biological concept of “sex.” The focus has shifted downward from hormones to the molecular level. At the same time, the concept of distinct male and female sexes is no longer confined to the X and Y chromosomes, but has extended to the genome and, more recently and even less reductively, the sexome. This new understanding involves “complex causal pathways”; gene networks “pulsating with activity”; and dynamic interactions “that lead to emergent phenotypes,” including epigenetic processes, which on first view seem to challenge previous understandings of brain sexual differentiation as hardwired and female by default. But taking a step back, the goal of Richardson’s talk was to reflect on “the oddity of sex as an explanatory category in the life sciences.”

For feminist science studies scholars interested in the embodiment of sex and gender, the concept of plasticity inherent in epigenetics in particular offers a provocative framework that extends beyond academia. In this view, variability in gene expression promotes tolerance for “marginalized forms of gender expression.” Richardson mentioned the TV show Orphan Black, which regularly evokes epigenetic mechanisms to explain how eight characters with identical genomes are able to assume such different personalities/lives. Such visions “form an imaginary that has historically animated feminist intrigue with plasticity in biological theories of all sorts.”

Yet, Richardson argued that “we need to be realistic.” On closer examination of the assumptions underlying epigenetics in a recent paper (Nugent et al., 2015), plasticity is a necessary process to help “program” and ultimately stabilize sex differences in the brain. This aligns with three themes drawn from recent sex difference research: (1) epigenetics is involved in the “canalization and maintenance of sex”; (2) plasticity is itself sexually dimorphic; and (3) “sex is ubiquitous in the molecular architecture of the body” (i.e., “every cell has a sex,” which Richardson refers to as the “omnirelevant” concept of sex). The gendered brain may be considered by some a “heterogeneous mosaic,” to borrow Daphna Joel’s term, but a closer look at the actual ways in which epigenetic findings are interpreted in lab settings seem only to “multiply the signs and signifiers of sex at the molecular level.” According to Richardson, sex difference research could be considered just as much a reiteration and even amplification of an essentialist understanding of sex and gender as a broadening and blurring of categories.


“What is ‘sex’ and what do we want it to be?”

As governmental agencies both within the United States and Canada call for inclusion of females in all biomedical studies, Richardson urged us to think more closely about the concept of “sex”; its multiple conceptualizations; and the various “tasks” such concepts perform (Haslanger, 2000). From a biological perspective, “sex” ranges from an essentialist conception (egg and sperm) or a more functionalist one (reproduction) to the current “omnipresentalist” understanding (“every cell has a sex”). Richardson offered several reasons for the current understanding (e.g., combatting androcentrism, capturing “the full range of biological diversity,” addressing health disparities). But, she argued, an omnipresentalist understanding also “represents an extreme instance of synecdochally ascribing sex to the factors and parts of the body. It contributes to a notion of sex as a ubiquitous or pervasive sign or signifier and to a conception of bodies as divided in a thoroughgoing way into maleness and femaleness.” There are ethical, political, and social dimensions to how we operationalize sex, she continued. Given these complexities, Richardson encouraged us to reflect “on the ethics of our ontologies of instantiating sex at a molecular level.” This is a critical moment, she continued. The concept of the genome is potentially essentializing our concept of sex. We should approach discourses about plasticity and programming critically and analytically, and we should consider the concept of sex as a biological process or social fact “critically, conditionally, and reflexively,” leaving open the possibility of a different ontology.

Conference co-chair and cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt gave the session’s final talk (“From Ritual Sex to Sexual Individuality: Sambia Sexual Culture Change over 50 Years”). Herdt’s presentation was based on long-term (1974–2010) anthropological fieldwork among the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, with a focus on the extraordinarily rapid changes in sexual behavior and expression.

Herdt’s early work focused on subjectivity, gender identity, and the Sambia’s absorption in “the polarity of maleness and femaleness in themselves and nature,” which became the subject of Guardians of the Flute (1981, p. 295). In Sambia society, “A man’s only certain protection against [constant warfare] is his own unbending masculinity” (p. 204), which was reinforced through ritual initiation, male-dominated arranged marriages, and secret homoerotic practices involving oral insemination to masculinize boys. Maintaining the male life force in adulthood necessitated continued vigilance, including avoidance of semen depletion and menstrual blood pollution. According to Herdt, precolonial Sambia language lacked terms for sex as a noun or verb or for sexual desire or identity, and so forth. There were also no concepts “for personal privacy or private space,” places in which to challenge society’s taboos (these concepts were developed under Christian missionization).

“Virtually all these absences and silences privileged male pleasure,” Herdt said. He noted the sharp contrast between the rigid system of male hegemony and ritual secrecy and the early world of boys, which was “almost solely populated by women,” creating “extraordinarily close emotional bonds,” before separation and male initiation at 7–10 years of age. The process of growing boys into men by fostering maternal separation/male attachment included nose bleeding as well as ingestive rites, threat of castration, and a conscious effort to “redirect erotic interest away from women to boys” in middle childhood, the aim being “mastery of aggression in war and control of male competition.”


“We sleep under the same blanket”

Following his first period of fieldwork (1974–1976), Herdt returned many times. His close observations, insights, and empathy as Sambia society refashioned itself – in contact with evangelical Christian practices, including primary schooling for boys and girls beginning in the mid-eighties – have deeply enhanced a more person-centered ethnography over the years. But Herdt’s talk also suggests a profound cultural transformation (“we [men and women] sleep under the same blanket,” is a common epithet), as well as the loss of certain “ineffable qualities,” such as aggressive tendencies, within a single generation. Much of the change can be attributed to evangelical Christian missionaries, their influence is evident everywhere – in the construction of square houses with multiple rooms in lieu of crowded round houses and the bestowal of Christian names on children. The prevalence of “luv” marriages, and the blurring of male-female responsibilities mark a growing female sexual autonomy, male and female sexual individuality, and sexual intimacy that have entirely replaced the deep beliefs, symbolic power, and ritual secrecy around Sambia’s construction of masculinity.


The conference opened with the elegant science of Fausto-Sterling and Art Arnold, particularly the epigenetics of phenotypic variation and the structurating idea of a “sexome.” As biologists, Fausto-Sterling and Arnold share a concept of sex/gender differentiation as a biocultural, iterative process, perhaps best addressed from a systems biology perspective. On the other hand, Sarah Richardson’s critique of epigenetics urged us to question the tacit assumptions and essentialist tendencies underlying a focus on mechanistic questions. Finally, Gil Herdt’s talk demonstrated just how deeply culture interacts with embodied individuals and shapes sex/gender-related expression and behavior, and its mutability over time.

On Friday afternoon, FPR founder and president, Robert Lemelson,  screened Bitter Honey. Shot over a seven-year period, the film explores polygamous marriages through the lens of three Balinese families (Sadra, Darma, and Tuaji). Next, filmmaker Kathy Huang presented her film (Tales of the Waria), which focuses focused on a group of biological men who self-identify as women—known locally as waria in Indonesia. Part III of our series reviews the two films in depth.

On Friday afternoon, FPR founder and president, Robert Lemelson, screened Bitter Honey. Shot over a seven-year period, the film explores polygamous marriages through the lens of three Balinese families (Sadra, Darma, and Tuaji). Next, filmmaker Kathy Huang presented her film Tales of the Waria, which focuses focused on a group of biological men who self-identify as women—known locally as waria in Indonesia. Part III of our series reviews the two films in depth.

Part 2: What’s Fixed, Changeable, Changing?

Part 3: What’s at Stake?




Byrge, L., Sporns, O., & Smith, L. B. (2014). Developmental process emerges from extended brain-body-behavior networks. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(8), 395–403.

Chen, X., McClusky, R., Itoh, Y., Reue, K., & Arnold, A. P. (2013). X and Y chromosome complement influence adiposity and metabolism in mice. Endocrinology, 154(3), 1092–1104.

Herdt, G. (1981). Guardians of the flute: Idioms of masculinity. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Nugent, B. M., Wright, C. J. Shetty, A. C., Hodes, G. E., Lenz, K. M., Mahurkar, A., . . . McCarthy, M. M. (2015). Brain feminization requires active repression of masculinization via DNA methylation. Nature Neuroscience, 18(5), 690–7.

McCarthy, M. M., & Nugent, B. M. (2015) At the frontier of epigenetics of brain sex differences. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9, 221.

Rebeiz, M., Patel, N. H., & Hinman, V. F. (2015). Unraveling the tangled skein: The evolution of transcriptional regulatory networks in development. Genomics and Human Genetics, 16, 103–31.

Reddish, P. (Producer). (1994).  Guardians of the flute [Documentary film]. UK: BBC.

Scarpino, S. V., Gillette, R., & Crews, D. (2014). multiDimBio: An R package for the design, analysis, and visualization of systems biology experiments.


Mapping Out a Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 1)

Doing Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders from KT on Vimeo.

Bio: Dr. Sari van Anders is an associate professor of Psychology & Women’s Studies and affiliate faculty member of the Program in Neuroscience; the Reproductive Science Program; and the Science, Technology, and Science Studies Program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She is also the incoming editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research. Dr. van Anders earned her PhD in Biological and Cognitive Psychology at Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab, she conducts feminist-informed research on the social contexts of hormones and intimacy. She has received grants from the National Institute of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender Program, the American Institute of Bisexuality, and many others. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Psychology and Sexuality, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. We are very pleased to have her here with us.


KT: What is feminist neuroscience? Methodologically, what would a feminist-informed research program in neuroscience (or psychology) entail?

SVA: It’s a great question, and I get asked it a lot. A key thing is in defining what we mean by feminism. One of the ways I define feminism, which is built off of many feminist scholars, is that feminism pays attention to gender equity and related social identities or social locations. You can ask what that has to do with science, and I think the key is that feminism also argues that most of our cultural infrastructures, our structures, and our endeavors are part-and-parcel rooted in underlying issues, including gender equity. Since science is a human endeavor, one of the issues in doing science is thinking about how gender inequity (and inequity relating to other intersecting identities like race/ethnicity, class, ability, nation, sexuality) may be implicated. Some feminist science scholars have looked at how gender bias or other biases affect how people do science; some have examined how it affects the ideology or rhetoric we use in science, and some people have looked at how they affect the topic choices scientists get to. Although we talk a lot about random selection in science, scientists aren’t randomly assigned to their topics, and we pick things that interest us and resonate with us. In fact, that’s one of the things people think  makes science so successful, because scientists seek out their curiosities (shaped by ethical guidelines, granting agencies and so on.)

What would a feminist neuroscientist look like?

A feminist neuroscience would have us keep in mind gender equity and equity based on intersecting social locations.

How might that play out? We recently saw in the NIH’s call for incorporating females, as well as males, in studies. People had been ignoring females, or not including them. That’s a really basic but fundamental way to think about inequity; if we think females aren’t important, that they’re too different, too variable, or too problematic and messy, then we don’t include them. That’s a very obvious example of what we might call bias in science. But we might also think about the way we communicate our science, what happens at breaks at conferences, how we recruit research assistants, or in underlying ideologies. There have been a lot of assumptions about hormones and gender that has really colored the way we do our research but that might not be rooted in empirical thought.

KT: Given the epistemological differences that may exist between different disciplines/approaches, how might someone not already in a strong feminist science lab begin incorporating such elements into their research while keeping it readable/acceptable by their diverse audiences?

SVA: That’s a good question, and I think there’s two things in there: how do we do feminist neuroscience and how do we communicate feminist neuroscience. One useful way of thinking about doing feminist neuroscience in the lab, particularly if you’re in a lab that isn’t rooted in feminism, is to think about small incremental steps you can do. For instance, when I was doing my graduate work, we asked questions with check boxes; we had maybe two, three options. One of the small incremental changes I made was to make sure there was a way for people to self-identify, that is, making sure people were able to provide their options, to self-name, rather than limiting their choices. For instance, people of color who identify as biracial or multi-racial have articulated their discontent and discomfort with having to choose racial identity categories that don’t match onto their own. So, allowing people to write their answers could go a long way in doing work that maps onto reality, the reality of people who identify as mixed race, for instance, but also can engender good feelings. Small incremental changes can be big changes, and trying to overturn everything in a lab you don’t run is probably not a recipe for success!!

In terms of communicating to other people, I was actually reading a book, Writing Science, and one of the things the author does is really make clear how you need to think about your audience and the schemas they hold; by schemas the author means ideas and beliefs. For instance, if you’re talking to people who know what pre-theory is, you don’t necessarily need to explain it. If you’re talking to people who don’t know that concept, you need to step back and explain it before you go on. As you can imagine, we live in a world that is neutral to feminism at best and generally anti-feminist. I’ve been thinking more about this lately, thinking about whom my audience might be. It’s usually people who are not fluent in feminism and who might actually be hostile. So knowing these are the schemas I’m working with, I can think about how to slowly introduce language that might be less contestable, that might be less trigger-y for a scientist, and which might be more bio-legible.

I want to use language that they’re going to understand and sometimes to bridge what they do understand with what I want to introduce through feminist scholarship because of course, feminist scholarship has its own technical language that is very useful, but that needs to be contextualized to be comprehensible.

KT: I think you’ve achieved such great success with that. You’ve talked to behavioral neuroendocrinology people, psych people, and sociology too!

SVA: I’m actually very excited about that. On the one hand, it’s like I’ve been able to move forward on that in terms of doing interdisciplinary work and speaking to audiences. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s been a lot of work, and I’ve made a lot of missteps along the way. I’m sure I’m going to keep doing that (not on purpose!), but it’s become so much easier the more I try. It’s as though the more I work at it, the more I’m able to speak to different audiences. But one of the pitfalls actually is the more fluent I become in languages, the more I forget how one group will be so enraged at the jargon (and that’s usually scientists at feminist scholarship), and I’ll just forget who knows what. It’s not like I’m trying to assume everyone knows the same thing, but sometimes it’s hard to keep track of; for example, “context doesn’t have a meaning for this group, and it’s entirely loaded with meaning for this other group.” It’s been very exciting to see myself making progress and seeing all the ideas feminist scientist scholars are trying to introduce gaining a foothold. The further I go and the more fluent I get, different challenges come up. That’s exciting.

KT: I noticed in your papers that you occasionally use the term “gender/sex,” as opposed to “sex” or “gender” separately. Can you tell us when and why you this term?

SVA: I’m happy to. I’ve been using gender/sex, or trying to, for quite some time, and editors often won’t allow me to; they’ll get annoyed by it. But the reason I do it is that I’m looking at hormones in adults, and I’m typically looking at a snapshot. I don’t know if what I’m studying has to do with gender or sex. By which I mean if I see a hormone associated in women but not men, I don’t know if that association exists because of innate, evolved, hormonal factors or if it’s socialized, experiential, and culturally specific.

I use gender/sex because I don’t mean gender or sex; I mean some amalgam of both.

I think what’s been interesting is a lot of people use race/ethnicity to mean that we’re talking about a social construct that is sometimes seen as phenotypic or biological, as well, but trying to bring it together so that we’re never just talking about racial differences (which would be really problematic). I want to bring that to gender & sex, so I use gender/sex to remind us that we are usually studying both for any difference that we find, even in biology. If I find a biological difference between women and men, I have no idea whether this is a biological difference that resulted from social experiences or from genetic difference. Gender/sex is shorthand reminder.

That’s not to say that we can’t use sex or gender. Sometimes we do mean one or the other. If we’re talking about XY versus XX, we might be talking about sex, and I think that’s perfectly appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate though when we use sex as shorthand for when we’re talking about differences in neural activation because then we are implying that these are sex differences, that they are inborn or genetic (and the public certainly understands that implication). I do think gender/sex is a nice shorthand to get across that we usually don’t know whether we are studying gender or sex.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 7.16.42 PM

(Mesquita, B., Barrett, L.F., & Smith, E.R. (Eds.). (2010). The Mind in Context. New York: Guilford Press.)

KT: You have a chapter in The Mind in Context where you talk about the role of social contexts in modulating hormones and the place of evolution in understanding why they do. What is the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds and what paradoxes does it help resolve in sexuality research?

SVA: One of the things I’ve been trying to communicate lately is the importance of involving social construction in our research, even in biological research. Obviously, science is pretty antagonistic towards incorporating social constructions because people see social constructions and biosciences as orthogonal. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is show how paying to social constructions matter.

Some of the arguments I’ve used, for example, are that we need to pay attention to all species specificity. Anything that is specific to a species, we need to pay attention to, even when we’re interested in how it crosses over. For example, if we’re studying an animal model, we need to know what’s specific about it so we can know what trends travel to humans. If we’re doing comparative research, studying all kinds of animals, we need to know what generalizes and what doesn’t. When we study humans, I would say that one of the things that separates humans apart is social constructions. All sorts of animals have social behaviors, social contexts, social groups, social experiences, but social constructions are pretty human-specific. For example, I study human sexual desire. One could think, when I study sexual desire what am I studying and is this the same thing across the people I study? For example, for heterosexual women who have been socialized to think of desire as something for their partners, are they experiencing desire in the same way their heterosexual male partner is experiencing desire?

Another way to think about it—we know that in penis/vagina intercourse, men are much more likely to experience orgasm than women.

Is intercourse the same even when both men and women are engaging in intercourse? Are they having the same sex or are they engaging in a person-specific, gender-specific experience?

Paying attention to the ways in which social experiences and messaging changes those experiences—sexuality, desire—can be useful to understanding how hormones may be related to them. For instance, if we think that testosterone may be linked to pleasure, not all sexual experiences are equally bringing pleasure for heterosexual men and women. We should not expect sex to be associated with testosterone (T) in the same way across genders.

I find that bringing social constructions into my research makes sense of paradoxes. You asked about the paradoxes, so for example, people have found that hearing infant cries increases testosterone, but we tend to think as a culture—and as scientists—that anything to do with parenting should be associated with low T. So we have this schema—this social construction of parenting—that it’s all lovey-dovey and warm, but parenting can also involve challenging behaviors, like defending infants, if we think about it cross-species or even when we see our kids getting threatened by someone else. We would feel not like “I need to hug my kids,” but “I need to go defend my kids.” We can imagine how understanding the ways we envision these behaviors and whether they are really one things or multiple types of things held under the same umbrella but are actually different things, may be associated with hormones in different ways, while this overarching umbrella concept might not be.

Is parenting associated with low T or are certain kinds of nurturant, warm kinds of parenting associated with low T, while infant defense is associated with high T?

Again, thinking about social constructions is really helpful in teasing out hormone-behavior associations, but I would also argue that anytime we’re studying human behavior we need to understand how social constructions are implicated.

KT: Testing this S/P model, you’ve challenged the traditional “pre-theory” association between testosterone (T) and masculinity, providing a more nuanced perspective as to the role of T in parenting behavior, for instance. Can you tell us a little more about these findings?

SVA: With the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds, what I’m trying to do is clarify how the empirical evidence doesn’t suggest that T is linked with behavioral masculinity, but instead suggests T is linked to competition and nurturance, positively with competition and negatively with nurturance. When we looked at maleness and masculinity as the frame, that’s actually resulted in very messy results, like with the parenting studies I talked about and with some things with desires.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 7.11.07 PM(van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: Testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 34(3), 198–210. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2013.07.001)

One of the key things that as scientists we don’t always think about is that we have hypotheses that are derived from theories, but theories need to be built from observation. How do you get observations before you have theories? What comes before the observations? The notion is that it’s pre-theory, which are these cultural/social stereotypes we have about the world. Articulating those can be useful because they push us to realize the biases, the assumptions, that might be driving our science that we haven’t tested. People usually don’t formally test pre-theories; they often use it as assumptions to build other theories.

In the S/P Theory of Social Bonds, I try to articulate the pre-theory that T drives masculinity, so that we can actually show through an alternative theory—which is the S/P theory—that T is linked to competitiveness and nurturance instead, and how empirical evidence actually supports one versus the other.

What I’ve done is to marshal the evidence. I’ve done many of the studies myself. I didn’t really set out to show this; instead, what I kept finding were results that didn’t fit our dogma or pre-theoretical notions about how T and behavior were linked. I kept doing studies teasing it out and making more sense of it, and so the S/P Theory grew out of a lot of studies that I was doing and drives a lot of studies that are ongoing or about to happen in our lab because it makes so much more sense of the findings. I think the interesting thing is that articulating pre-theory can help us make better scientific theories and generate better scientific hypotheses.

KT: What about the role of T in sexual desire and intimacy?

SVA: Sure. I’m focusing more on T right now. We have found that T is positively correlated with solitary sexual desire, which is the desire, for example, to masturbate, and that’s the direction a lot of people would think. But we have found that it is negatively correlated with dyadic desire, or the desire to be with another person. One of the things we’ve been doing to understand this because it replicates a lot of other findings. We’ve been trying to understanding how that could make sense and that relates back to what I was saying before.couple
(Public domain clipart from ClipartPal:

What are women wanting when they say they want to engage in sex with a partner? The assumption is that they want pleasure or orgasm, but as I was saying, heterosexual activity is actually not the greatest way for women to experience orgasm, or at least orgasm is not frequently a part of it. Now of course pleasure and orgasm are not the same thing, and there’s a lot of ways to experience pleasure, but we’ve been interested in this disconnect. We’ve been theorizing that one of the reasons why dyadic desire is negatively correlated with T is that sometimes desire, even sexual desire, is actually meaning desire to feel close to a partner. We don’t think that women naturally only want to feel close to their partners and don’t want orgasm at all, but just that given the limited options (and given that women, like men and all gendered diverse people, are rational beings), what they may be wanting out of intercourse or sexual activity with a partner may actually be what they are getting. This may be the closeness, as opposed as orgasm or as much sexual pleasure as we might expect. That’s one part.

Another part that’s interesting is that bringing in the S/P Theory of Social Bonds and thinking about social constructions is helping us understand that intimacy has many forms, so when we think about sexualities, some form of sexualities are partially erotic, (genital pleasure), some are more nurturant (closeness, warmth), some may be about power.

There’s so much going on when we’re talking about sex that even when we measure sexual desire, which we think of as a very specific construct, we need to be more detailed and operationalized it more to understand what we’re actually measuring and what people are actually answering.

See Part 2 for more on the implications and future of gender/sex research.