Synthesizing Gender

A Biologist Moves Past The Nature Vs. Nurture Debate

Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the preeminent thinkers advancing how we understand gender, sexual orientation, and other human categories of difference.


Anne Fausto-Sterling
Brown University

With emerita appointments in Brown University’s Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry and Gender Studies departments, she applies scientific expertise to social and cultural questions and, in turn, explores how culture influences the creation of scientific knowledge. Her research has often challenged scientists’ fundamental assumptions about gender, demonstrating that many of the “natural” differences between the sexes are in fact culturally rooted.1 She helped establish Brown’s Science and Technology Studies program to promote cross-disciplinary research on how scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated.

On the heels of her retirement from teaching after 44 years at Brown, she spoke to Footnote about her research, the nature versus nurture debate, and why academia makes it hard to think outside the box.

Throughout your career, you challenged the concept of “nature versus nurture.” What does your recent research on infants and toddlers suggest about the role of genetics, upbringing, and other factors in human development?

Saying that everything is 100% nature or 100% nurture is kind of an old-fashioned, erroneous and not very helpful way of looking at how organisms develop. It’s not “nature versus nurture,” it’s “How is nature changing under certain kinds of nurturing events?”

For example, there is a belief that boy infants are more physically active than girl infants. There have been studies that have shown this, but what we are doing [in our current research] is analyzing videos taken under naturalistic conditions in the home. We are doing second by second analyses of what’s happening, of free play and free interaction between mother and child. The mothers are spontaneously, in the course of the daily events of care, moving the little boy infants more than they are moving the little girl infants – picking them up, helping them sit up, and touching them a lot more physically.

The gender-differentiated pattern of behavior on the part of the mothers also becomes part of how the infants’ sensory systems develop. So the actual development of the motor and neuromuscular connections, the synapses, all of what you think of as biology is being influenced by behaviors that are differentiated according to culture. You can’t partition nature from nurture. They are a developmental unit.

Why is it important to examine how sex-related differences develop early in life?

[These studies] are a part of trying to switch our notion of gender as something that is fixed and inherent to something that is always changing. Gender is not a thing, it’s a process. Finding a sex-related difference is simply an invitation to ask, “What is the process by which that difference emerged and what are the ongoing processes that maintain it as a stable difference? Does it stay forever? Does it disappear later?” To answer these questions you have to do what psychologists call longitudinal studies, which is you have to follow individuals through time. To get a sense of what the dynamics of development are, you need to go back early in childhood [and ask] “What are the things that lead up to the emergence of this difference?”2

Why do you think some scientists still cling to the notion that gender is a fixed set of characteristics rather than an ongoing developmental process? Would having more women in the sciences change that?

It is very hard to make a generalization that men have certain ideas and women would have different ideas because it is more complicated than that. There is such a pressure towards conformity of ideas in the sciences that it is hard for anyone to break out of the paradigm. It might even be harder for women because they already have a couple of strikes against them. It is dangerous for your future [as an academic] to have an original idea unless it fits within the mainstream. If you have a contrary idea and take a couple of years to pursue it, if it is against the mainstream, you won’t get funded and you won’t get tenure.

Why do you think academia is so resistant to radically new ideas?

It comes from several different places. Funding is more and more vulnerable; for the last three or four years, some Republicans have been trying to remove all social science funding from the National Science Foundation, for example. The tightening of funding means that there is not enough money to go around and the way funders deal with that is to fund things that they already think will succeed. They are not very willing to take a risk on someone who looks bright and interesting and has a kooky idea, because it could fail.

Then you have the universities which are trying to raise money for themselves and the way they have moved into the 21st century is to develop a very corporate hierarchy. Universities are behaving more and more as corporate entities and less and less as intellectual entities. To make ends meet, [a university feels pressure] to show how stellar its people are. This idea of excellence is enforced or read as two types of things: certain kinds of funding [and publication in top-ranked journals].

Junior faculty, maybe they have published ten methodologically groundbreaking papers that will have a huge impact in the next decade, but a methods paper doesn’t usually get published in a high-impact journal, it will get published in a medium-impact journal. Some of them do not end up getting tenure because they haven’t published in Science or Nature. The corporate mentality where you have these metrics you substitute for the quality of mind or quality of work, it promotes a certain kind of work and it discourages more methodical and longer-term thinking.

What claims about biological differences that are still widely believed do you look forward to seeing discredited?

People still feel pretty convinced that biology is at the heart of gender identity and sexual preference. With gender identity, the majority of biologists think that it’s inborn and related to whether you have an X or Y chromosome. [In the case of] transgender kids, you have a lot of people still using this language of, “the brain is female, but the body is male,” or vice versa. There is no attempt to study gender identity starting from infancy.3  

I am proposing that we think about how from birth, or even before birth, identity begins to emerge. Again, I am pushing for a process-oriented understanding to think dynamically about development. People can have very deep drives or feelings that don’t present themselves as “choices”, but that doesn’t mean that they are genetic or that they are fixed.

This interview was condensed and edited by Diana Brazzell and Leanne Tyler.


  1. Fausto-Sterling’s best-known books on these topics include: Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000), New York: Basic Books; and Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World (2012) New York: Routledge.
  2. Anne Fausto-Sterling, Cynthia García-Coll, and Meaghan Lamarre (2012) “Sexing the baby: Part 1 - What do we really know about sex differentiation during the first three years of life?Social Science and Medicine, 74(11): 1684-1692.
  3. Anne Fausto-Sterling (2012) “The Dynamic Development of Gender Variability,” Journal of Homosexuality, 59(3): 398-421.