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How We Come to be: Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, and the Role of Experience

To what extent is a person’s sexuality due to genetic factors, and to what extent are they the product of individual experience? How should an individual’s self identity influence how other people should behave towards them? A professor of psychology looks at the fascinating cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal.

by W. David Stahlman, Ph.D.

The past couple of weeks has presented a fascinating and instructive juxtaposition in two case studies of human identity. Caitlyn Jenner, despite having a Y chromosome and despite presenting to the public world as a man for all her life, declared publicly that she self-identifies as a woman. Rachel Dolezal, despite a decidedly Caucasian genetic heritage, has lived her life as a black woman for years, and today indicated that she has identified as black since she was a child.

It is interesting to note the different reactions these events have garnered. In Jenner’s case, the reaction from liberal quarters has been nearly-universally positive, with many lauding her courage in coming out publicly as whom she really is “inside.” In the case of Dolezal, there has been a far less positive response. For example, both Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore independently suggested that Dolezal was lying about her blackness. Stewart approached the story with a heaping dose of exaggerated confusion, going so far as to title the relevant segment, “Whaaaaaaat?” Wilmore approached it with a bit more irritation, labeling Dolezal a “crazy-ass white lady.”

Much of this seeming incongruity may be related to the degree to which people assign causes for others’ behavior. Humans are typically very interested in explaining why humans do the things they do. A very small collection of ultimate explanations is invoked to cover enormous swaths of human behavior. For example, a common conversation amongst both scientists and laypersons is the ancient “nature versus nurture” debate. A similar kind of discussion is often characterized by a clear distinction between genetic explanations (i.e., “nature”) and free choice. And here is where a potential distinction arises between Jenner’s and Dolezal’s cases. If people are apt to see Jenner’s transition as the uncontrollable product of an immutable genetic state, and Dolezal’s living as a black woman as something she freely “chose,” the differing judgments are unsurprising.

A similar kind of debate has raged with respect to the existence and judgment of gay people. Presidential candidates in the 21st century have been asked whether they believe a person’s sexuality was a choice or that it was genetic.  The implication is thus: If gay people are born, it is not fair to discriminate against them. The converse and odious implication that homosexuality shaped after birth may be justly punished does not need to be considered so long as we agree that people are blameless at the dictates of their genetic disposition. Suggesting that individuals freely choose to be gay is precisely as ludicrous as suggesting that straight people are so by choice.

The genetic case is the essence of the most common liberal argument for wider gay acceptance. Irrevocably linking homosexuality to one’s genetics is a tidy and powerful argument that has likely furthered civil rights in America. Well-meaning and persuasive though it is, it is wrong. The popular argument conflates, erroneously, the qualities of innateness and assailability. So it goes, the degree to which a trait is genetic is inversely related to the degree it can be seriously criticized. It is easy to see why the two components have become linked. It seems exceptionally challenging to believe simultaneously that A) sexual preferences are innate, and that B) they should be a criterion by which a culture treats its citizens. To simultaneously accept these two platforms is not unlike advocating purposeful discrimination against blue-eyed individuals.

It is evidently more challenging to suggest that sexuality is not innate but should still not serve as a criterion by which we treat individuals. Nonetheless, this is almost certainly the truth. An individual’s sexuality is neither purely genetic in origin, nor is it anything that a reasonable person would consider a choice.

The questions that we should be asking with respect to politically charged matters of human sexual identity are at least twofold. Rather than ask whether a certain kind of behavior, or a certain preference is either genetic or a choice (which is a false dichotomy), we ought to ask the following:

1) Questions about causes. For example, to what extent is a person’s sexuality due to genetic factors, and to what extent are they the product of individual experience? This is a scientific inquiry and ought to remain free from political meddling.

2) Questions about morality. For example, how should an individual’s sexuality influence how other people should behave in relation to him or her? In contrast with the first question, this is a philosophical question and one that is probably easier to answer.

Regarding Question #1, a scientific inquiry:

The scientific literature clearly indicates a role for learning when it comes to establishing the value of biologically relevant events. Dr. Bernard Balleine at the University of Sydney and Dr. Anthony Dickinson at the University of Cambridge have examined a phenomenon they call incentive learning. Laboratory rats that are exposed to a particular kind of food (e.g., chocolate) only when they are not hungry show a reduced inclination to work for it (e.g., by lever-pressing), even when they become hungry before their lever-press session. In other words, the shift in a primary motivational state (from “sated” to “hungry,” akin to a person’s shift between the end of lunch and the start of dinner) is not enough to get the rat to lever-press for the food item. A hungry animal that has only tasted chocolate when in a sated state will not increase their work rate for chocolate… unless and until they experience the chocolate again in a hungry state. Colloquially, it is as though the rats do not know that chocolate is delicious and worth working for until they experience it while hungry.

If you like chocolate, you probably like it because you ate it in the past when you were hungry. Neither your enjoyment of chocolate nor your willingness to work for it is innate, but was instead rapidly learned. You probably do not remember when you first tasted it, and so it may seem to you that you have always liked it, but this is less the truth than it is a failure of memory. And the fact you learned to like chocolate does not in any way suggest that your current preference for chocolate ice cream should be fought by those that prefer vanilla, nor that the community of chocolate ice cream eaters should be marginalized and persecuted at the hands of vanilla-eaters. Simply put, “liking” chocolate is not a choice, not purely genetic, and not a criterion by which other human beings can sensibly be judged. Liking chocolate is the inevitable result of a specific kind of experience that you had at an earlier point in your history. That you would tend to seek out chocolate following such an experience is similarly predictable, and even mundane.

There is little reason to suspect that the reasons for one’s identity are not analogous to those of gastronomic preferences. Incentive learning has been shown to be critical for animal behavior with respect to a wide range of motivational states, including those related to hunger, thirst, disgust, thermoregulation, and yes, even sex. With atypical (but important) exceptions, sexual congress is rewarding for human beings. Just like with ice cream, the degree to which sex will be enjoyable in a particular future is directly related to the emotional feedback experienced when earlier having sex in a relevant motivational state. And just like with ice cream flavors, there is little reason to doubt that one’s preference is shaped by the specifics of the individual’s experience.

For a number of reasons, we know far less about the development of human sexual and racial identity-related behavior than we do about the establishment of food preferences. In terms of finding causes, this work is undeniably more challenging. There are decided limitations in what can be done with non-human animal models in the study of sexual incentive learning; there are critical, delicate ethical matters when working with human participants and a comparative lack of experimental control; and there are massive political and social forces that may work to stymie scientific progress. It would be irresponsible at this point to suggest simple causal events that may produce individuals selectively straight or gay, cis- or trans-gendered, or maybe even cis- or trans-racial. However, it is far more irresponsible and dangerous to suggest that genetic variation is somehow needed as an all-encompassing causal explanation for the existence and broad acceptance of those individuals whose sexual or racial identity is dissimilar to that of the majority. It is profoundly irresponsible to suggest that behavior or identity shaped by experience, rather than concretized by their genome, is somehow less deserving of protection.

And this brings us back to Question #2. This question is not of the other’s behavior, but of our own. It is a question regarding moral behavior. How should an individual’s self-professed racial or sexual identity influence how other people should act in relation to him or her?

I mentioned that this type of philosophical question should be comparatively easy to answer, but it is a common criticism within philosophy that a universal answer is often unverifiable, unlike in empirical science. I would wager that answers to the question will likely break along political lines.

Caitlyn Jenner has professed that she relates to this world as a woman – that is to say, the kinds of experiences she has in the world and the kind of feedback she receives from the world make more sense to Jenner as a woman, rather than as a man. Other cases of atypical self-identification (e.g., Rachel Dolezal) may well function the same way. As such, it seems inappropriate and inconsistent to respond to these cases differently.

For me, the only satisfactory answer to Question #2 is a timeless one. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Professor W. David Stahlman is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Mary Washington