The public has responded swiftly and strongly against the Obama administration’s demand that public schools admit transgender students into the showers, locker rooms, and sports teams of their choice. But to be successful, the response must also be informed. Where did transgender ideology come from, and how can we respond more effectively?
The answer may surprise you. If we dig deeply, we discover that the turning point, historically, was Darwin’s theory of evolution. It had a lasting impact in at least three ways.
Matter Does Not Matter
Let’s tease out its impact through the language of the transgender movement. California set the tone in 2007 when it changed its education code to define gender as “a person’s gender identity and gender related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s assigned sex at birth.”
What’s the key word here? “Assigned.” As though a person’s sex at birth were purely arbitrary instead of a scientific, biological fact.
What such language implies is that biological facts do not matter. The law is being used to impose a worldview that denigrates the physical body as inconsequential, insignificant, and irrelevant to gender identity. It is a worldview that alienates people from their own bodies. As Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes, transgender ideology implies that “the body is an accident that has befallen the real me; the real me has a true sex” apart from my body.
Where did such a negative view of the body come from? From Darwin’s rejection of purpose and design in nature. Both classical Greek and Christian philosophy regarded the natural world as teleological – from the Greek telos, meaning purpose or goal. It is evident that eyes are for seeing and ears for hearing; fins are for swimming and wings for flying. The only reason molecules are arranged in those particular configurations is to achieve a purpose.
Because the human body is part of nature, it too was recognized as having a purpose. The sexual differentiation of male and female was not some cosmic accident. It showed that the human body is oriented toward opposite-sex pair-bonding for emotional attachment and procreation. Teleology is the basis for naturallaw ethics: It tells us how to fulfill our true nature, how to become fully human.
Darwin did not deny that nature appears to be designed for a purpose. But he wanted to reduce that appearance to an illusion, the result of a purposeless material process. The two elements of his theory, random variations sifted by the blind automatic forces of natural selection, were proposed expressly to eliminate plan or purpose.
As historian Jacques Barzun writes, “This denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention.”
The implication of the Darwinian worldview is that the biological differentiation of male and female is a cosmic accident. The body was reduced to raw material that can be manipulated and controlled to serve human needs and preferences – like any other natural resource. Gender identity is strictly in the mind, even to the point of overriding biological identity. Matter does not matter.
This was “Darwin’s dangerous idea,” says philosopher Daniel Dennett in a book by that title. He describes Darwinism as a “universal acid; it eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.”
Darwin and Foucault
The second way Darwinism feeds into the transgender movement is the elevation of evolution into an overarching philosophy – evolutionism or historicism. The philosophy itself preceded Darwin, but he gave it the scientific credibility needed for its widespread acceptance.
The source of the philosophy was Hegel, who taught a form of spiritual evolutionism. Hegel said that all ideas – law, morality, religion, art, philosophy, political ideals – are products of the gradual “actualization of the Universal Mind” over the course of history. All are partial truths in the upward progression of Mind, the evolution of consciousness.
Long before Darwin, then, Hegel was teaching people to interpret history in an evolutionary paradigm. Nietzsche even said that “without Hegel, there would have been no Darwin.”
How does evolutionism or historicism play into transgender ideology? It implies that there is no stable, enduring, universal human nature – and therefore no stable, universal sexual morality. As the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre put it, “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” Just as species are constantly changing and evolving, so individuals must leave behind all stable standards of behavior and immerse themselves in the ceaseless flux of life, constantly creating and re-creating themselves.
As postmodernists put it, the self is fluid. There is no blueprint for what it means to be human. Morality is reduced to a social convention, the product of a constantly evolving history.
Sexual theorists like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler vigorously deny that the claim that any moral ideal – say, heterosexual marriage – is built into our nature because they deny there is any human nature. Any such claim, they say, commits the fallacy of “naturalizing,” defined as treating a behavior as natural when they know it is merely a social construction.
Sex as Identity
Finally, how did sex come to be seen as the core of human identity? Foucault points to biology. In the past, he explains, biologists treated sex and reproduction as just one among the many functions of an organism. But today they treat it as central to life itself. In Foucault’s words, “geneticists ceased to conceive of life as an organization strangely equipped with an additional capacity to reproduce itself”’; now “they see in the reproductive mechanism that very element which introduces the biological dimension: the matrix not only of the living, but of life itself.”
Foucault does not name names, but this shift, too, was a product of Darwinism. The theory made reproduction the linchpin of evolutionary progress. Because there is no independent criterion of success, Darwin’s theory boils down to “differential reproduction” – whoever has the most offspring wins.
Consequently, Foucault writes, in the space of a few centuries, sex has gone from being regarded as one activity of life to being our core identity. Sex is treated as the “master key” to knowing who we are: “Sex, the explanation for everything.”
Giving Dignity to the Body
If we draw these strands together, they form the philosophical underpinnings for transgender ideology: Sex is the core of our identity, but there is no stable human nature, so all concepts of gender are social constructions. We cannot derive our gender identity from our physical makeup because the body is just a piece of matter with no purpose or meaning in itself. It is a hunk of raw material whose meaning is imposed on it by the autonomous self.
We must help people to see that this is a very negative view of the human body. It grants no dignity to our physical, anatomical, biological identity. It drives a wedge between the body and the authentic self. And therefore it alienates people from their own bodies.
We would do well to retrieve the ancient wisdom that nature is teleological, just as people have long recognized. A teleological worldview leads to a positive view of the body. It acknowledges that there is purpose and dignity in being male and female. It leads to harmony between biological identity and gender identity. And it leads to respect for the body/person as an integrated unity.
Matter does matter.
It is important to protest the latest government overreach. But this positive message has the best chance of winning people’s hearts and minds.
Bio: Nancy Pearcey is a professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, editor at large of the Pearcey Report, and author most recently of Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism & Other God Substitutes.