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Feminist theory after sex and gender: The nature-nurture complex in contemporary feminism reconsidered in light of the Developmental Systems Theory approach to the philosophy of biology

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - FEMSAG (Feminist theory after sex and gender: The nature-nurture complex in contemporary feminism reconsidered in light of the Developmental Systems Theory approach to the philosophy of biology)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-06-30

Feminist Theory After Sex and Gender (FEMSAG) is a research action that aims to develop philosophical tools to clarify and refine the foundational concepts of “nature” and “nurture”, such as they bear on current understandings of gender and sexuality both in the narrow domain of academic gender studies as well as in the wider public domain. The nature vs. nurture issue regarding gender and sexuality relate attempts to identify the causal bases of sex differences in cognition, emotion, behaviour and interests, as well as in positioning in social, cultural, economic and political life. Typically, “nature” is associated with putatively biological factors, such as selective pressures during evolutionary histories, genetic and hormonal factors in development and behaviour, and brain structure and function. Conversely, “nurture” typically subsumes all factors acting in a given organism’s physical and social environments to incline its bodily, mental and behavioural development in a certain direction. This supposition of two sets of causal factors conjointly giving rise to extant sex differences among human subjects continues to inflect contemporary gender theory and politics, even as they also often find themselves contesting it.

FEMSAG engages with cutting-edge developments in feminist and gender studies concerning (the interrelations of) the concepts and interrelation of “nature”/”sex” and “nurture”/ “gender”, with a view to enhance the conceptual framework in terms of which new policies and reforms concerning gender- and sexuality-related issues have to be projected. Such issues may include male (sexual) aggression against women, female underrepresentation in key societal and professional domains, and current controversies over how best to promote sexual and gender health and justice for trans people and otherwise gender non-conforming populations.

The conclusions of the action are as follows:

1) What has been labeled "neurosexism" by leading scholars within the field of feminist criticism of neuroscientific research on sex, gender, brains and behaviour is a form of neurocentrism – the notion that human behaviour can be explained (predominantly) by features of the brain, which can be addressed using the tools of the embodied-enactive approach to cognitive/affective neuroscience (paper in WP1).

2) The embodied-enactive approaches to cognition and emotion might nevertheless be limited as a framework through which to account for such a phenomenon as gender identity, which seems to require some kind of neural representation in order to be fully explained (paper in WP3).

3) The so-called nature vs. culture problematic (with which the nature vs. nurture issue is often associated and also equated) needs to be dissolved into the lesser issues of humanity vs. animality, gene vs. environment (aka nature vs. nurture) and discourse vs. reality (paper in WP2).

4) Karen Barad's bid for a "thoroughgoing critical naturalism", elaborated on the basis of of Niels Bohr's complementarity principle, does not accommodate the nature vs. nurture challenge to feminist theory that mainline strands of naturalism have always represented for it (paper in WP2).
The work performed, with results so far achieved and disseminated, in Project FEMSAG is as follows:

1) Workshopping and writing of four scholarly papers. The first paper, belonging to WP1 and dealing with theoretical issues in feminist criticism of sex difference research in cognitive and affective neuroscience, is now the in final stages of being written up and made ready for submission to an academic journal. The second paper, belonging to WP2 and dealing with the significance and limitations of Karen Barad's proposal of a naturalist overhaul of feminist thought, has been through multiple rounds of journal submission, review and rejection. The third paper, also belonging to WP2, looks critically at the treatment of the nature/culture problematic in the so-called material turn in feminist thought (including that of Elizabeth Grosz) and suggesting some strategies for its resolution/overcoming, has been completed as a manuscript and submitted to an academic journal. The fourth and final paper, belonging to WP3, deals with how to reconcile the interrelated concepts of gender identity, gender incongruence and gender dysphoria with the fundamental theoretical claims of the embodied-enactive approach to (the philosophy of) cognitive and affective neuroscience. Its main arguments have been workshopped on repeated occasions, but it has yet to be written up as a complete manuscript suitable for submission to an academic journal.

2) Organisation of two events (WP4). The first event, intended for a wider, non-specialist audience, was a conversation with Dr. Victoria Margree of University of Brighton on the topic of (the contemporary relevance of) Shulamith Firestone's radical feminism, as developed in Margree's book, "Neglected or Misunderstood: The Radical Feminism of Shulamith Firestone". The conversation was originally scheduled to take place in person at the Bergen Public Library, but due to the corona-related disruptions of international travel it had to be moved to a digital platform, and was finally realised as a video conversation that was recorded and is now available on the library's Youtube channel. The second event was a 2-day academic seminar titled "Gender, Brain and Health", and featured 3 keynote speakers and 6 speakers in workshop sessions, invited from various fields of research, thus composing a cross-disciplinary group of scholars. Like the conversation with dr. Margree, this event also had to be run digitally, due to the corona situation and will soon be available as streamable video on the event site (

3) Written contributions aimed at a general, non-specialist audience (WP4). Two such pieces have been written and published in the online journal Salongen, and deal with the interrelations of brain, body and environment in the making of the life of the human person. A third piece on a related topic has been written and been submitted as a longer op-ed for a Norwegian daily paper. The ideas for a fourth such contribution have been worked out and will be written up and submitted as an op-ed for an appropriate outlet for general-audience dissemination of scientific and philosophical ideas around sex, gender, brain and gender. In addition, two pieces have been published as blog posts on the project website, explaining and elaborating on such concepts as "feminist theory", "sex" and "gender", all central to the project.
The nature-nurture issue is a perennial quandary that keeps returning in new forms through fissures in the conceptual apparatus with which we try to make sense of the nature of gender and sexuality. Yet there is hardly – and has never been – any consensus among gender studies scholars on how to conceptualize it. There is therefore no definitive state of the art in this matter in the same way as one might speak of a state of the art when it comes to the understanding of, e.g. the etiology of certain diseases. It is rather a site of continued contestation. FEMSAG has proposed ways, on a soundly naturalist basis, to elucidate foundational concepts associated with this issue in feminist thought, such as the brain/behaviour nexus and the nature/culture distinction.