Tag Archives: sex/gender distinction

Gender Identity as a Brain-in-a-vat


Gender critical feminists (henceforth “GCers”)  are often skeptical about a concept foundational to trans theory: gender identity, the sense of whether we belong to a particular sex/gender or not. GCers are critical of the very idea of having one’s gender be based on your identity as opposed to being grounded in the biological properties of your body. Thus, GCers often define “woman” as an “adult female” where “female” means having certain biological properties such as the capacity to bear eggs, or having the developmental program of egg-production in your DNA-makeup or something like that.

But imagine a GCer named Janice was asleep one night and a group of evil trans neuroscientists decided to kidnap her and whisk her away to a lab, where her brain was extracted from her body and placed in a vat where the biological functions of her brain are supported by a totally artificial body. All that is left of Janice is her brain. No vagina. No breasts. No ovaries or uterus. No capacity whatsoever to make eggs or get pregnant. In many ways her “body” is not gendered at all: it’s just a hunk of brain tissue hooked up to machines. An outside observer would have a hard time determining what the brain’s gender was without knowing its past history as Janice. Furthermore, the evil trans neuroscientists are clever enough as to provide artificial stimulation to the brain such that the brain falsely believes that it actually has a body and is interacting with the world in a normal fashion. Much like Neo being inside the Matrix, Janice would not necessarily “feel” like anything other than her normal self.

What happens to Janice’s sense of identity as a woman now? She once defined her womanhood entirely in terms of biological features which no longer exist. How can she hold onto them? Let’s assume she was given a theoretical knowledge of herself as a brain-in-a-vat by the evil neuroscientists. Perhaps she reasons that her brain still contains the DNA that carries the information needed to reconstruct those body parts she identified with. But in my opinion that’s a terribly flimsy sense of identity, being tied to the mere potential of the DNA in your body to produce something that doesn’t exist. That’s a negative identity, based on that which does not exist. It seems unlikely to be the basis for a strong sense of identity as a man or a woman.

One might think that the GCer would just say that her brain is sexed as female, that she has a “female brain” but the irony is that GCers typically are skeptical of the very concept of brain sex, because brain sex is a foundational concept in trans theory. The most common and mainstream explanation of trans identities is the mismatched brain sex explanation whereby a trans woman might say she needs to transition because she was born with a female brain in a male body. This mismatch of brain and body causes gender dysphoria and since we are infinitely more capable of changing the body rather than the brain the preferred treatment of both the patients and the doctors is to allow a gender/sex transition that helps reallign brain and body by changing the body.

GCers want to morally mandate trans people out of existence and prevent as many transitions as possible so they are opposed to the idea that there is even such a thing as a “female brain” or a “male brain” because that seemingly provides sufficient medical explanation for why transition is necessary. GCers typically believe that male and female brains are only different insofar as they are influenced by society. Otherwise they start off as identical but end up producing different behaviors because they are socialized to do so.

Personally, I feel like any legitimate answer to the nature vs nurture question of sex/gender will probably include at least some nature. In practically all other animal systems in nature there are evolved adaptations in males and females that make their brains distinct in at least some small way – it would seem incredible to me that humans are the drastic exceptions to the entire scheme we see in Nature. While yes it is plausible that nurture is very, very important for the development of brains it is equally likely that our evolutionary history also plays an important role in the sex differentiation of the body, including the brain.

The latest science suggests however that there is more overlap between male and female brains than difference and that your average female brain is composed of not just “female” parts but also many “male” parts. Each of our brains is a mosaic of male and female parts. But in trans people the mosaic is arranged in such a way as to radically mismatch with the body, suggesting that some people’s internal cognitive representation of the sex can be aligned so significantly with one gender/sex or another that it generates gender dysphoria.

Going back to Janice, my feeling is that Janice’s sense of womanhood would be as strong as ever as a brain-in-a-vat. In fact, I would wager that her sense of womanhood would remain almost entirely unchanged. Even if she has an abstract sense of herself as being a brain-in-a-vat the internal representations in combination with the artificial stimulation inside her brain fully determine her subjective experience, including her felt sense of identification as an adult female or woman. But without actually owning a vagina or a womb, can Janice’s claim to womanhood be based on anything other than what trans theorists call gender identity?

This is the great irony of Janice’s predicament: in order to maintain her self of womanhood, Janice’s brain must be creating an internal representation of which sex/gender she belongs to and an alignment of that  representation with the artificial inputs giving her a sense of body. But that internal representation is precisely what trans theorists mean when they talk about “brain sex” and “gender identity” – it’s the brain’s way of telling itself what gender/sex it should belong to, a sense we all have in some way or another, even if that sense is telling us we don’t belong to any gender (a-gender).


Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies