Natural Law and the Gender Bimodal

Observing the world

Moral arguments based on natural law always begin by observing the world, because it is an axiom of natural law that God’s intended purposes can be discerned by careful study of the world.

It is therefore clear that doctrine derived from natural law will naturally develop as our observations of the world become more comprehensive and more detailed over time, and we discover aspects of creation of which we were previously unaware.

The ancient Israelites who wrote the book of Genesis, observing the world around them and interpreting the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through their cultural perspective, saw that humans, like other mammals, were anatomically differentiated between females, most of whom were for part of their lives capable of conceiving and bearing offspring, and males, most of whom were for part of their lives capable of siring offspring. Thus, their inspired creation myths declared that human beings were created by God in God’s own image and likeness, “male and female God created them” (Gen 1:27); and that the primordial human couple from whom the race must have descended were a man and a woman who came together to form an enduring, intimate relationship (Gen 2:24).

Twenty-first century Christians, observing the world around us with modern technology and the scientific method, can see things that were entirely unknown to humans until a mere century or two ago.

Anatomy is outcome, not ontology

Specifically, we know much, much more about human physiology and reproduction. We know about genetics and chromosomes. We know that a Y chromosome is necessary for the development of male anatomy. We also know that it is not sufficient: a human fetus with a Y chromosome that is not exposed to the proper hormones at the proper time will not develop male anatomy. We know that chromosomal differences give rise to hormonal as well as anatomical differences. We know that some humans have three or even four sex chromosomes instead of only two. We know that chromosomes can be damaged and that genes can mutate. We know that some humans are chimeras: their bodies contain more than one genetic signature, presumably the result of multiple conceptions, only one of which ultimately survived, after having absorbed material from the others.

Distributions, not binaries

We know that the anatomical differences distinguishing males and females, like most if not all human characteristics, vary within the population. If you measure human characteristics, including the genitalia of human infants, you’ll get bell curves, not delta functions.

It seems to come naturally to human thought, or at least to Western thought, influenced as it is by Plato and his successors, to think about the world in terms of ideal or prototypical forms: whether we’re talking about a bird, a cat, or a human, we imagine that there is some standard, normal form, and then that all the actual instances we see are interpreted as variations from that norm.

But that’s not how the world works.

The physical processes that give rise to the natural world are statistical in nature. The distribution comes first: the norm that our pattern-making brains perceive arises from the shape of the distribution. In a Gaussian distribution — which is called a “normal” distribution because it is the statistical distribution that occurs most commonly in the world around us — it’s the peak of the curve, the most frequently occurring value.

The Gender Bimodal

So it is really, factually, observably incorrect to talk about “the gender binary”, and label humans as if human gender were determined by the position of a single switch: on/off, male/female, penis/vagina. Human gender cannot be correctly represented by two delta functions. It must be represented as a bimodal curve, a distribution with two peaks.



The pink and blue colors are purely coincidental, but apt, aren't they?


And, as you would expect in a bimodal curve, there is some overlap.

Intersex Persons

Some human infants are born with anatomy that is neither clearly male nor clearly female. In some such cases, at least in cultures where childbirth is routinely attended by medical professionals, infants whose genitalia are deemed by those medical professionals to be disturbingly ambiguous are subjected to genital surgery — arguably, genital mutilation — sometimes without parental consent or even knowledge.

Any theological anthropology that does not substantively account for the existence of intersex persons is no longer worthy of serious consideration.

Transgender Persons

Given the complexity of the process by which human infants develop, and given the reality of the gender bimodal, it seems straightforward to me that when children persistently and passionately insist that something went wrong in mommy’s tummy and they were born into the wrong kind of body, then we should be prepared to believe them. When young people, after miserably trying for years to conform to their anatomical gender come to a point where they would rather deal with the risks of coming out as transgender than continuing as they were, then we should be prepared to support them. When adults, even adults who have married and raised children while living according to their anatomical gender, come to a point where they would rather deal with the wholesale upheaval of their lives and relationships than continue as they were, we should be prepared to support them and their loved ones.

Likewise, when we encounter persons who identify as gender-queer, or gender-fluid, or agender, or third gender, or something else that perhaps we’ve never heard of but is neither male nor female, then we should be prepared to believe them, support them, and respect their language preferences.

It’s true that we don’t have an independent means of verifying that, yes, thus-and-so occurred at thus-and-such stage of development that disrupted the usual process of sexual differentiation, and therefore this person’s claim is “legitimately physiological” and not “merely psychological” (supposing that such a distinction is itself legitimate). And we may never have such detailed diagnostic technology. But given what we do know, and given the tremendous social and physical risks of presenting as transgender or genderqueer in our society, it seems that accepting people’s self-identification in such cases is erring on the side of caution.

Modern Phenomenon?

One frequently heard critique is that trans people are a product of modern Western society; that no such people ever existed in the past; that no culture ever recognized them. This is in part demonstrably false; there are known cultures in which third gender or two-spirit persons were recognized. In part, I must wonder about the likelihood that a numerically small and likely socially despised minority population would have made it into the historical record at all.

From the perspective of natural law, I would argue that just because people didn’t know any better hundreds of years ago, that doesn’t let us off the hook now. We know more than they did; we are therefore responsible for acting accordingly.


Natural law begins by observing the world. Twenty-first century theologians and ethicists must not content themselves with naked-eye observations of the sort that humans of every age have been able to make; they must avail themselves of the full fruits of contemporary scientific investigation.

Such investigation has made it clear: there is no gender binary. There are humans who are demonstrably, physiologically, neither unambiguously male nor unambiguously female. This creates compelling probable cause for accepting that most, if not all, persons who identify as transgender or otherwise genderqueer are likewise naturally occurring variations within the human species.

Therefore, all theology and all doctrines that depend on or proceed from the assumption of an ontological gender binary are fatally flawed. They must be re-examined, and either reworked in light of a contemporary understanding of human physiology, or abandoned. They are no more viable today — which is to say, they are no more true — than are teachings that depend on a cosmology in which the sun moves around the earth.

Our faith becomes a matter of ridicule if any Catholic, without the necessary learning, presents as dogma what science shows to be false.
– St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church

This entry was posted in Feminist theology, Moral theology, Theological anthropology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Natural Law and the Gender Bimodal

  1. For further reading on the science in this essay:

    – See this article by biologist Robert Sapolsky for more information about the non-binary nature of humans and other sexed beings.

    – A tip of the hat to Andy, a regular commenter here, whose presentation at Balticon a few years back first got me thinking about the human tendency to reason based on prototypical forms rather than statistical distributions.

    The theological questions raised by this essay are broad, and a variety of approaches are possible. I explicitly do not claim that all church teaching pertaining to gender roles is completely wrong and must be thrown out. But further exploration of these matters must await future essays. πŸ™‚

    Let me also explicitly say that I neither advocate nor expect that the Catholic church should immediately change specific teachings or policies pertinent to intersex or transgender persons, any more than I advocate or expect changes to any other narrowly specific teachings or policies. Doctrinal change should proceed from theological development, if it is to be respected, reliable, and not cause additional problems due to inconsistencies with other teachings; and theological development takes time.

  2. Andrew says:

    “– A tip of the hat to Andy, a regular commenter here, whose presentation at Balticon a few years back first got me thinking about the human tendency to reason based on prototypical forms rather than statistical distributions.”

    Thanks. Here’/ the link to the first page of that talk and to the page where I start talking about distributions (and sorry about not getting those links to you sooner). I can also recommend Stephen J. Gould’s “Wonderful Life” for more about the not-Platonic nature of nature.

  3. Pingback: Blogiversary: Five Years Old | Gaudete Theology

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