Is Gender Unique to Humans?

The journal Nature publishes an article on sex and gender.

Coyne takes them to task for conflating the two:

And I find a really good article that asks of gender is unique to humans:

This summer, in the introductory course I teach on the evolution and biology of human and animal behavior, I showed my students a website that demonstrates how to identify frog “genders.” I explained that this was a misuse of the term “gender”; what the author meant was how to identify frog sexes. Gender, I told the students, goes far beyond mere sex differences in appearance or behavior. It refers to something complex and abstract that may well be unique to Homo sapiens . This idea is nothing new; scholars have been saying for decades that only humans have gender. But later that day I began to wonder: Is it really true that gender identity is totally absent among nonhuman species—even our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos?

Before tackling this question, it is necessary to define “sex” and “gender.” Sex refers to biological traits associated with male and female bodies. Sex isn’t a perfect binary, but it is relatively simple compared to gender.

Gender is multifaceted, complex, and a little abstract, and not everyone agrees on exactly what it means. That said, there are a couple of aspects of gender that most experts say are essential. The first is the existence of socially determined roles. Gender roles refer to the range of behaviors that society deems normal or appropriate for people of a particular gender based on their designated sex—the norms that (at least in many Western cultures) cause us to expect men to be assertive and brave, and women to be caring and accommodating, for instance.

Have you looked into this at all @NLENTS?


I’m shooting from the hip here (having not read the link yet), but I prefer the definitions for sex/gender in non-human animals advanced by Joan Roughgarden and others… sex refers to which gametes you make, the big one, the little one, or both. Gender refers to behavioral patters related to reproductive strategy. The classic case she uses to define this is the one female gender and three male genders of blue gill. I’m happy with that distinction, knowing full well that these are labels/categories that we are attempting to nature which is oblivious to such categories.


Inasmuch as your behavior is completely determined by your brain, why is gender not also a biological trait that is associated with the male and female bodies? After all, your brain is part of your body.

I like @NLENTS’s definition more, because it specifies that sex is something assigned based on a particular trait of your body, not the entire body but the brain.


Humans appear to have extraordinary talents in the arenas of sapience, sentience, and empathy. IMHO, when the biology of sex is played out through the human consciousness you get gender. On top of that, it is impossible for us to know how other individuals in other species view gender. How do dolphins view gender? We simply don’t know.


How does testosterone, estrogen, androgen, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals interact with a person’s unique brain structure and unique life experiences? We already know that experiences in childhood can directly affect how the emotional side of the brain develops, so there is probably a combination of nature and nurture.

I don’t know how it works, I am not a biologist. However, I believe that all one’s behavior is encoded in one’s physical body. Anything else would mean that there is something beyond the physical world that is controlling the physical world. I do not subscribe to this hypothesis. Therefore, in my view any behavioral patterns is ultimately reducible to some physical state of the purely physical body.

If I follow what you are saying, I would tend to say “it depends on what you mean.” After all, I immediately applied what you are saying to various other creatures.

For example, I used to raise tropical fish and one could change the sexual morphology and behavior of various livebearer species by modifying the water temperature and pH. This sometimes happened in my tanks somewhat accidentally, and I had a bunch of adult female swordfish develop the distinctive elongated sword-tails of males. If I recall, they not only developed male anatomy and behavior, they acquired normal male fertility.

I supposed that one could say that if this is “encoded” behavior, the code includes lots of IF-THEN programming statements.

Obviously, I’m not saying that humans are equally as malleable and in the same ways. But surely we humans are not just what is “encoded in one’s physical body”. Doesn’t environment, for example, have major effects? Is that “ultimately reducible to some physical state of the purely physical body”?

Speaking of “extraordinary talents in the arenas”, does anybody else remember seeing that Vietnam-protesting folk-singing trio from the 1960’s—Sapience, Sentience, & Empathy—when they performed in Madison Square Garden? Rimshot

[Sorry, folks: The inside joke which will only be appreciated by a few forum participants.]

I agree that the environment has a major effects. However, the effect of the environment is in changing the physical body. In the end every behavior is encoded in the physical body.

For those interested in the philosophical perspective, here is a recent article by Alec Byrne.

I think the philosophical perspective is more useful when considering the social and political aspects of LGBT issues .

The philosophical consensus position agrees with the position expressed by Schwartz in his linked article. That is, the concept of gender connotes a social construct that involves more than sex-correlated behavior. Instead, it requires evidence that the animal possesses the concepts** of male and female, that “adults are actively treating male and female infants and juveniles differently, and actively [socializing] them differently”, and that individuals have an internal sense of identity which allows a subjective perspective of their gender.

The Byrne article has a summary of the philosophical idea of of social category that provides more detail than the linked article.

The Byrne article deals mainly with a non-consensus philosophical position, associated with some feminist philosophers, that both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ connote social categories. The bulk of the Byrne article details that position and some counter-arguments to it.

** Some philosophers might argue that non-human animals cannot possess rich concepts like gender, because, lacking language, they cannot use the concept in a way that meets the Evans generality constraint for possessing a concept. More on that constraint here. Not for the philosophically faint at heart.


I’m more inclined to the view that non-human animals lack the social structures for which gender is an appropriate concept. But I do wonder about ants, bees and naked mole rats.

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I’m not clear on how you think your view differs from the consensus philosophical view on gender versus sex.

If the concept of gender requires a cultural/social addition to biological sex-correlated behavior, then the requirement of a social structure seems to me to be assumed in that defining ‘gender’ that way.

Maybe your are emphasizing that social structure has to be an affordance for the species to make it possible for individual members to learn a concept in the sense of discriminating behavior. I agree with that.

I’d add that some researchers believe some of these more primitive concepts can be innate. Perhaps that would address your concerns with bees and naked more rats.

In that case even naked mole rates would know it when they see it, and from birth.

The main difference is that philosophers tend to emphasize the role of language, while I prefer to emphasize the role of culture and society.

Of course, language is a huge part of human adaptation to social living. I want to hold opt the possibility that other eusocial species might have similarities but perhaps with something different from what we would call “language.”


That’s a fair point.

I was wrong to equate language and the generality constraint. The GC only requires systematicity, not eg productivity as language is taken to require. So for an animal to possess the concept “Jane is gender female and John is gender male”, the animal must also be able to possess the concept “John is gender female and Jane is gender male”.

See the introductory section of this paper for details…