Is Being Transgender a Spandrel?

| Aug 12, 2019
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One goal of this post is for you to learn a new useful word—the spandrel. Spandrel refers to an inherited trait or characteristic which is not particularly useful to have but is a byproduct of some other trait that is evolutionary advantageous. The two most sensational examples are male nipples and female orgasm, the latter of which is hotly debated among evolution scientists. Male nipples seem to be a byproduct of the developing fetus, which has default female characteristics. Likewise, some scientists maintain that the female orgasm does not help fertility, but this has been the subject of numerous investigations. By the way, it has not exclusive to humans, our anthropoid ape female cousins seem to have the reflex complex.

The term spandrel comes from architecture. In architecture, every structure has a name. A spandrel is the space between the upper corner of a rectangular arch and its oblique brace. The rectangular arch and the brace form a triangle which has no other function except that it can be decorated. Such structures also occur in arches. Next time you go to an ornate church you will probably be able to find one.

Of course, what we are concerned with here is the genetic gender behavior predisposition that is a factor in being transgender. I have blogged and written about this incessantly. So, the question is, “does being transgender involve a spandrel behavioral tendency. Do trans women have a feminine spandrel that is common in females which some males inherit? Likewise, do trans men have a masculine spandrel which is common in males but some females inherit?

Do these behavioral predispositions useful from evolution or are they, like male nipples or the female orgasm mere byproducts of evolution. To put in the vernacular, do these behavioral predispositions have a purpose?

I can suggest a possibility or hypothesis but there are no empirical studies that I can find. The purpose of generating hypotheses is to put them to the test, assuming them not to be true unless proven otherwise with data.

So, here goes. Humans are gregarious and for long period of time lived in hunter gatherer groups, just as our ape cousins do. These groups shared the same genes and kept close track of family relationships. They helped each other but they especially helped those close to them in terms of genes. Continuation of genes is the driving imperative in evolution.

Having a diversity of behavioral traits may have helped the groups to survive because in subsistence mode, flexibility in behavior may have allowed the group to survive and thus their common genes to continue.

Later, when humans started organized agriculture and formed societies, fitting into culture became important because of the benefits it provided, even though people grouped into families with similar genes. It is a good question whether there has been enough time or genetic events for these behavioral assignments have influenced survival and thus genes and behavioral evolution. It is clear that fitting into culture was important but the family did not disappear. In many such gender systems the categories were based on birth sex assignment and not on gender behavioral tendencies, but in some cultures up to 5 categories developed.

In Western culture, a combination of Abrahamic religious beliefs and European pagan beliefs shaped the gender system into one that is binary, cisgender and inflexible, punishing those who violate the system. This system was superimposed on people, regardless of their biological behavior tendencies. Culture creates the gender system and gender categories, biology forms gender behavior tendencies. Culture influences all societal institutions including the legal, economic and religious. Transgender people are those who violate this system, causing obvious problems for individuals and ultimately culture and society.

So, is being transgender a spandrel? There are no animal models for being transgender, so we cannot use them as examples like we can for female orgasm. Today there are few hunter-gatherer groups but many have been influenced by Western culture. The exception is in the Amazon Basin where there are a few tribes have not been influenced by outsiders. They have only waved or shot arrows at airplanes as their only contact. If we want to study these groups without influencing their behavior, we will have to get really creative but science progresses by solving such tough instrumentation problems.

It remains to be seen whether being transgender is a spandrel or actually has some purpose that continues the human species.

Dana Bevan has a new book titled Transgender Health and Medicine. It’s available from ABC-CLIO in eBook format. Dr. Bevan will be at Phoenix and Dragon bookstore in Atlanta signing print copies of her book, and at DRAGONCON in Atlanta this month, and at the USPATH science convention in D.C. in September. Like to make a comment? Login here and use the comment area below.

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Category: Transgender Opinion


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at

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