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From Sex to Humanity: (Part 1 of 2)
How to be Human - A Guide in Two Parts Click Here for Part 2

Sex sums it up. You think about it, use your body for it, and your sexuality influences decision-making and life style choices. When trying to work out what it means to be a vibrant human being, your sexuality is a good place to start.

by Pete Moore

The biological mechanics of sex spliced together two lines of history and as a consequence formed you. It is also the means by which you can reach out and tie yourself into future generations of life.

But the biological affect of sex is much more than exercise between the sheets; a person’s sexuality is a vital expression of his or her being. It is more than our preference for one sexual partner over another. Our sexuality drives the way we interact in the office or lab, our determination to win in any encounter, our ability to strike up conversations with strangers. It goes a long way to shape our sense of self and self-esteem.

Don’t be surprised then that any mention of sexuality and sexual identity is going to be contentious. Any consideration of the way we relate with other people is always going to raise strong opinions and emotions.

You could see the task of making sense of humanity as similar to passing light through a prism. As it exits the glass it spreads, revealing many different constituent components. Conventionally we refer to these as colours and talk about the distinctions between red and blue, green and yellow. You can understand the original beam all the more by assessing its make-up.

So too with humanity. Looking at the various facets of humanity reveals a holistic understanding of who we are.


If you want to see the power of a person’s innate sexuality, then you need look no further than the stories of some of the people who have had their physical bodies surgically altered shortly after birth so that their gender has apparently been changed.

Courtesy of Digit - Image Source - Royalty Free

Christmas Parties are only one aspect of what it is to be human!

One of the most famous is that of David Reimer, a person who found himself in the public gaze after journalist John Colapinto wrote As Nature Made Him, a book telling David’s life story. To be fair, this wasn’t the first time that people had written and talked about him, as he had been the subject of public lectures and academic papers for many a year before. Only previously his identity had been hidden behind fictitious names - either John or Joan.

Soon after he had been born in August 1965, a botched circumcision left him with no penis. His parents sought advice from medical psychologist John Money. Money was a respected, if controversial, sex researcher who was convinced that sexuality was entrained by a person’s environment, and believed that if this little boy was surgically turned into a girl and raised as a girl, then he would adapt perfectly and develop a female sexual identity. The theory grew from Freud’s insistence that male identity developed as a boy learnt about his penis – remove the penis and ‘he’ would grow happily as a ‘she’.

His parents eventually agreed to the surgery and the boy was castrated in the summer of 1967. For years Money heralded the ‘success’ of this case as an example that sexuality is learnt and wrote and spoke about how well the child had adopted his given sex. David, however, felt different. Unaware of the surgical origins of his physique, he was fully aware that he didn’t like being a girl. And at the point he planned to take his life, aged 14, David’s parents spilt the beans.

Further operations and hormone treatment have wiped out the female aspects of David’s reconstructed body, returned much of his maleness and restored his understanding of who he is. Far from proving that sexual identity is something we add as we grow, David’s life shows the way that it is a powerful influence right in the centre of our being. It would seem that sexuality depends less on the genitals, and more on the brain.


Courtesy of Arthur White - Reproduced with permission of Wileys

Arthur White

Living out our sexual identity also influences the way we treat our bodies, and that in turn can affect the rest of our lives. Arthur White is a power lifter - in fact he is not just any old power lifter; he has won numerous international competitions and in 2002 became the world champion. Aged 51 he was old enough to be the father of some of the other competitors.

Arthur is a prime example of someone whose body has influenced his life. As a teenager he learnt two things fast. The first was that when the meiotic lottery dealt out his set of genes he landed up with tougher tendons than most people and the ability to build stronger muscles than anyone else he came across. He also found if he put the time into pumping steel in a gym he could hone his body until it not only worked well, it also looked good.

And this led to his second lesson - a good-looking body could get you a good-looking girl. He married young, but a mid-life affair with a receptionist at his gym almost cost him his family, and the depression that he sank into before he got his family life back together almost cost him his life.

For Arthur, life has moved on, and he now travels around UK prisons as a Christian evangelist - but still his body is the key to the door. He speaks only after he has pumped some steel - his body is still doing much of the talking.


Not everyone’s body would be considered as an instant asset. But like it or not, it is still a critical part of who you are. Take David Bird, for example. He was born with a facial deformity that has made one of his eyes slump down his face. The result could be to drive a person into hiding, and indeed David spent many of his teen years trying to keep out of sight. But now his face has become an asset. His appearance hasn’t changed, in fact the abnormality has probably become more extreme, but David has learnt to enjoy his body. As he has gained confidence he now uses his unusual appearance almost as a reason for going out and meeting people. Asked whether he would have an operation to change it, he answered, “No, my face is me, it’s what I’ve got”.

Reproduced with permission of Wileys

David and his wife Joanne

This is not naivety. Far from it. David is well aware that our current culture is one that places a lot of importance on appearance. There is, after all, the tendency to see the Hollywood film goddesses with immaculate faces as normal, and for people to think that any deviation from these icons is a slur on your character. It is a fashion sensation that has given rise to the high-street availability of injections of botulism toxin, which paralyses facial muscles, relieving tension and effectively ironing out wrinkles.

If you are ever in doubt that we live in a world where appearances count, just take a moment and scan the covers of glossy magazines in a newsagents. Most display a stunningly good-looking person in seemingly perfect health. Teeth lined up in stunning harmony. Editors use the images because they know that we will be reassured by, or drawn to, the image and buy the publication. It’s a technique that is not lost on the money-makers in big business. Flick through any financial end of year report and there again are the same reassuring images – faces of the directors and managers, sitting at pristine desks in clinically clean offices. Again the photos are carefully lit so that the end result looks more a photo of a supermodel than of a finance guru. The idea is that the face looks so strong that you trust them to protect your money, so honest that you would never doubt their motives, and so friendly that you wish you’d met them years ago and had been given the opportunity of ‘coupling’.

It all relies on the well-known fact that we judge people by their faces. Taken on its own, you could be forgiven for asking, so what? But the issue is that for well over a century people have been dabbling with the idea that the face is more than a mask, but that it reveals critical information about a person’s character. One of the most persistent researchers in this area was Francis Galton (1822-1911). This cousin of Charles Darwin became a pioneer of eugenics. He took hundreds of photos of people convicted of various crimes and analysed them, determined to produce a method of classifying them in terms of criminality. His ‘criminal type’ of person tended to be shorter than average, had a broader neck, and enlarged forehead and stunted face.

Sir Francis Galton

While the detail within Galton’s work is now looked at with more than a measure of amusement, the underlying concept has not gone away. We make judgements about the sort of behaviour we can expect from others by looking at their faces – and intriguingly that can influence the person they are, or the person they become. Some 1970s and 80s studies of classroom teachers showed that children who were perceived as uglier were punished more frequently and more harshly, than those who were rated as more attractive. So two children with much the same type of behaviour were treated differently on the basis of their face. You can see how one child might start to rebel, and then start living up to his or her label. Label someone as naughty and they start adopting the characteristics of naughty children. At the same time, less attractive children are more likely to be the victims of bullying than age-matched attractive peers.

Looks also have a tangible effect in the job market. Research from the London Guildhall University showed that the penalty for unattractiveness in men is a 15 per cent reduction in their pay package, and an 11 per cent drop for women. In addition, tall women earn 15 per cent more than do shorter ones, but tall women and short men were less likely to get married.

It appears that the sexual sorting of genes that established your physical frame has a number of curious ways that can influence the chances of your genes moving into the next generation.

So we have seen how the biological drives central to our existence as human beings not only affect our sense of self, but also influence how we are perceived by others. In the final part of this guide ‘How to be Human’ I will explore this social infrastructure and look at how understanding our role in society is pivotal to understanding ourselves. See you next week!

Click Here to Read Part Two

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First Science 2014