Race, Sex and Gender: The Last Days

Biology and genetics have established quite firmly that “race” and even “sex” (the chromosomal kind, not the hanky panky kind) are artificial constructs based more on society than science. Knowing this hasn’t eliminated either concept - yet. We still talk about racists, inter-racial (or mixed) marriages, males and females. Gender duality, in the behavioral sense, is becoming recognized as a false construct, and gender identities are proliferating. Where will this lead us in the decades to come? Is there any utility in continuing these divisions?

Gender and sex have been strongly coupled for most of human history. Much of this comes from obvious reasons such as procreation and physical differences in male and female anatomy. Similarly, we’ve made the distinction of “race” primarily based on outward physical appearance. With the discoveries of modern genetics, we’ve realized that our genes don’t always correlate with how we look, and our chromosomes don’t always express themselves in male/female binaries. Life in general, and humanity in particular, is more continuous than discrete.

Our society has spent millennia sorting itself into tribes and setting up rules of conduct. This was necessary for the foundations of law and order (no special units), and we’re continuously figuring out improvements for both of those. Most people agree at this point that owning another human being is fundamentally wrong. In recent decades, many people are also coming around to the concept that it’s unfair to discriminate against a person based on outward appearance and, for some people, the person’s sexuality or gender.

This social progress has been accelerating in much the same way that Kurzweil models technological progress. Coincidence? Probably not. Much of the social change has been motivated by increases in scientific knowledge which are the bases for technological change as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if an in depth study revealed a strong causality and, therefore, correlation between the data curves.

The implication here is that as our technology begins to outpace biology, social change must also accelerate. With each passing generation, the acceptance of new mores will become faster. We are already seeing this with the internet and the rapidly shifting attitudes toward the LGBT community and toward the empowerment of women.

What, then, do we make of the increasing strength and political power of social conservatism? I’d posit that it’s a temporary oscillation, the push-pull between progress and regress that seems endemic to human history. Some people adapt quickly while others find change to be threatening. Some are forward looking: the future is bright! Others look back and see a lost golden age. In the long reach of history, though, change has always prevailed. Our knowledge base is ever expanding, and our dissemination of it as well. As humanity becomes better informed and better educated, the only way to stop progress (at least temporarily) would be to enter a modern dark age - an informational blackout.

Barring such catastrophe, I expect that social progress will continue apace. So far, change is coming in the oblique direction of biology and psychology, that is, in terms of race, sex, and gender. This doesn’t seem directly tied to the usual visions of science fiction: cyborgs, artificial intelligences, space exploration. And yet it is directly tied to the rapid increases in computing power. Without that, we wouldn’t have high speed communications, massive data storage, and social networking. It’s that trinity which is driving much of society’s transformation right now.

The web is altering the way we identify ourselves. In some ways, it has reduced our gross differences by masking physical characteristics. In other ways, it has refined our categories into ever narrower specialties. If you have an interest, however obscure, you can probably find a group for it somewhere on the internet. What relevance does our gender, sex, or race have in this digital environment? Without those broad markers (no pun intended), the standard ways of identifying and categorizing the people around us are meaningless. On the internet, you can define yourself by the parameters that you find personally important. You can escape the shackles of your DNA.

Anyone who’s played an online, multiplayer game has likely had the experience of changing sexes virtually. In many of these games, the first thing you do is generate a character, and a primary aspect of that is to choose: male or female. Plenty of real-life XY-chromosome people choose female, and vice versa. Some do it out of curiosity; some do it to stare at a figure they find attractive. In-game chat is marked only with your character name so that, too, is ambiguous. I’ve personally experienced another player not believing my stated actual gender because of my in-game behavior: “You don’t play like a girl,” a lovely backhanded compliment. From what I’ve heard, my story isn’t particularly unique. On the other side, real life men have been propositioned or cat-called (in game) when playing as females. In many ways, the virtual environment emphasizes the irrelevance of physical appearance.

The implications of the virtual world for the real world are far reaching. If any of the theories about the singularity are valid, if we end up as digital beings as much or more than we are flesh, then we will be able to mask or reshape our appearances to the point that they become irrelevant. Our identities will be based on commonalities of thought and interest,  philosophical groupings of the mind rather than the superficial traits of the body. Is this a good thing? An increasingly vocal segment of humanity is saying no. Being free of gender or sex defined roles is frightening for many people, for some of the same reasons that racial bias is so challenging to eradicate. Where is the ground to stand on? What are the rules for right behavior? Why deny our biological imperatives?

The last question is easiest to answer: we overcome our biological imperatives in many ways already for the betterment of ourselves and society. That’s primarily what childhood is all about, after all. The other two are more challenging, but still addressable. The ground we will stand on is culture, as we’re already seeing today. As for right behavior, everyone should be subject to the same standards and laws once they reach adulthood.

Even if you don’t agree with these answers, it’s undeniable that our digitized future will continue to blur the lines of gender, sex, and race. Regardless of the moral judgement about this, we will have to deal with it. Well, maybe not us, but our children possibly, and our grandchildren definitely. The day is coming when our DNA will be nothing more than an initial condition.