Talking about the Biomedical Aspects of Humans without Hesitation | Sakino Takahashi

by Critical Asia

Talking about the Biomedical Aspects of Humans without Hesitation

by Sakino Takahashi, June 2021】

COVID-19 has clarified that biological and biomedical matters are at the base of our lives.  “How is the PCR test going?” “How is the vaccination going?” Not a day passes without hearing about the pandemic. As residents of Japan living in Tokyo, we are also acutely aware of the close relationship between biology or biomedicine and politics because of the Olympic Games.

However, this biomedical context is not necessarily in step with the humanities and social sciences, and, in particular, with gender studies. While the concept of gender itself is of biological or biomedical origin, even this origin seems to have been forgotten. The situation is even worse in the case of the concept of sex/gender difference(s), and one would hesitate to touch this topic even when talking about gender for fear of evoking biological determinism; that is, deterministic arguments based on biology. As a matter of fact, biology is a topic rarely referred to in gender studies by researchers other than those who have a biological background. This discrepancy between biology and feminism should not be left as it is, especially in the era of the pandemic when biology and biomedicine are so important and popular. In view of such a situation, I will discuss the issue of sex/gender difference(s) from scratch.

Have we talked enough about sex/gender difference(s)?

As mentioned above, sex/gender difference(s) is one topic that may be avoided when talking about gender for fear of evoking biological determinism. In view of such a situation, in the field of feminist science or feminist critique of sciences, we were obliged to explain what biology is supposed to be whenever we had to refer to sex/gender difference(s).

Typical explanations had been i) criticism of the reasoning used in the particular context of the biological deterministic argument; for example, by pointing out deviation of such reasoning from standard modern biology, or ii) criticism of modern biology itself; for example, by pointing out its intentional or unintentional intrinsic bias. As a researcher/translator in this field, I have also written a number of articles along the lines of i) and ii).[1]

However, a more straightforward discussion is required since arguments regarding sex/gender difference(s) are unavoidable. One way of examining the “sex/gender difference(s)” may be decomposing the “sex/gender difference(s)” into “difference(s) in/of sex/gender” and starting from consideration of such difference(s). In Japanese, however, there is a one-word established term 性差 (seisa) corresponding to the English “sex/gender differences”, with the first Chinese character 性 standing for sex and the second character 差 standing for difference. Since this term cannot be decomposed into two words, examination of the term by such decomposition had been rather difficult.

As a translator, definition of a term is deeply related to translation; namely, how the word is translated, or how the word is explained in another language. Apart from the general translation principle that a word should be translated in various ways depending on context, the word “difference(s)” can be translated not only using the standard line of 違い (chigai, a typical word corresponding to difference) or 差 (sa, also a typical word corresponding to difference) but also by using 異同 (idou), the first Chinese character of which means “different” and the second character of which means “the same”.

Since dictionaries are part of a translator’s body, I would confer with dictionaries.[2] Typical definitions of “difference” in English (English-English) dictionaries include “The difference between two things is the way in which they are unlike each other” (Collins COBUILD) and “Something that makes one thing or person not the same as another thing or person” (Macmillan). In the case of COBUILD, “difference” is defined by using “unlike”, and in the case of Macmillan, it is defined by using “the same”.

The situation is similar in Japanese (Japanese-Japanese) dictionaries. Kojien (広辞苑), a representative middle-sized Japanese-Japanese dictionary, defines 違い (chigai, a typical word corresponding to “difference”) as “ちがうこと. 同じでないこと. また、その程度 (being different, being not the same, or degree of the difference)”.

These definitions are referenced not to condemn their tautology but to focus on the overlapping or mutual indispensability of the “difference” and “sameness/being alike”; namely, the inevitable aspects involved in contrasting or comparing two or more objects.

I might also introduce a translation example in the dictionary, and this time, in a popular dictionary used in high schools (Kenkyusha’s New College English-Japanese Dictionary or 新英和中辞典) that uses the word 異同 (idou, which, as mentioned above, comprises the Chinese characters meaning “different” and “the same”).

Why are male and female compared?

As stated above, there is a tendency to keep away from the topic of the sex/gender difference(s) due to the fear of biological determinism. However, discussion about the sex/gender difference(s) between male and female should not be evaded since it is an indispensable topic as long as the male/female binary system exists. It might therefore be necessary to go back to the starting point regarding the reasons why male and female are compared.

One can compare A and B only when there is certain likeness or sameness between A and B, and one is motivated to talk about the difference between A and B when the degree of likeness or sameness is so high that extraction of the difference is easy. This basic point seems likely to be overlooked, and I have found technology-major students to respond to the topic strongly within the classroom.

In the classroom

In the following section, I will reproduce the argument used in the classroom, hopefully with no sacrifice in terms of stringency.

The simile I use in starting the argument about the sex/gender difference is a plane figure, and I ask students about the type of figure that is compared with, for example, a triangle. In the case of a triangle, the figure normally compared or contrasted would be some polygon, and not some complex figure surrounded by a curve or a three-dimensional figure. If the figure selected for the comparison is another polygon, students can readily trace the course they have gone through in choosing the particular polygon—a process that might have been completely forgotten if no one had asked them why they chose that polygon and not some complex discrete figure. This way, they can realize that they have thought about likeness/sameness before or simultaneously with thinking about difference. 

A human or an animal, however, is not a polygon, and there are more aspects than sex/gender that I would like the students to be aware of. A typical aspect is age, which is a critical factor in considering the life of a biological being.

In the case of babies, while there are pros and cons for blue and pink baby clothes, one can hardly tell whether the newborn is a boy or a girl if the baby is wearing a gender-neutral cloth. A male baby and a female baby usually look far more alike than a baby and an adult of the same sex, and the situation is similar for elderly people (needless to mention the popular Sphinx’s riddle: What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?). In the class, I usually also refer to babies of different animal species such as human and chimpanzee.

In the case of a biological being, there are at least two time-related concepts that may be discussed with regard to the aspects of sex/gender and age.

One concept is the co-evolution of male and female, whether that co-evolution is harmonious or antagonistic. In the case of male and female, evolution in one sex often inevitably affects evolution of the other sex, and the result of such reciprocal affecting is co-evolution. A typical example would be the male penis and the female vagina, which are traditional organs imparted with symbolistic meanings. The co-evolutional process of these organs is readily imaginable, and in the course of such imagination, a definition of these organs in terms of their morphology—for example, “an organ having a shape that fits with the corresponding organ of the other sex in sexual intercourse”—may also occur to one’s mind. This in turn means that what had been the symbol of sex/gender difference along the aggressive-passive axis could be defined by the same language. What is important in this case is that these organs can be simultaneously described as being utterly different and having several features in common.

The other concept is development, or more particularly the process of sex differentiation that continues not only to the moment of birth but at least well into adolescence. The complicatedness and ambiguity of the developmental process are currently becoming clearer at an increased rate. While I will not discuss this aspect in depth in the present article, progress in the research is swiftly reflected in Developmental Biology edited by Scott F. Gilbert et al.—now in its 12th edition (2019) and a representative textbook in the field. Scott F. Gilbert is a developmental biologist, a historian of biology, and a long-time scholar in the field of feminist critique of science.  I should also mention a classic book in this field; namely, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) by Anne Fausto-Sterling, who is also a developmental biologist and a long-time scholar in the field of feminist critique of science.

Thus far, I have introduced some ways of not running away from the straightforward argument about the sex/gender difference(s), or some ways of saying “So what?” when the topic of sex/gender difference(s) is brought up as a way of silencing the people. I would also like to confirm that I have used the term “sex/gender difference(s)” and not the singular “sex/gender difference” in view of the history wherein differences of various types had been brought forward to say “No” to the argument based on the uniformity of male or female.

The pandemic we are facing has confirmed to us that biological and biomedical matters are at the root of our lives. If hesitation to talk about the sex/gender difference(s) is a burden as regards the relation of biology and biomedicine to the humanities and social sciences, we have to find constructive ways of talking about such a topic.

Sakino Takahashi, Ochanomizu University, Japan


[1] The books I have translated include Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature and When Species Meet by Donna Haraway.

[2] The dictionary definitions cited in the article are those in the current version of each dictionary.

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