WHO'S IN YOUR GENES »
Depending on who you're talking to René Descartes is remembered for his mathematics (Cartesian geometry),
his philosophy or, at the very least, his famous quip;
"I think, therefore I am." Among his contributions to Western History was his establishment of a mind-body duality. In fact, it can even be said that Descartes' Dualism has been as long lasting as his oft parodied existential quip. The Western world has not yet snapped out of its dual trance handed down by Descartes.
To this day it isn't clear if mind is merely
a symptom of the brain, or if brain is
merely a vehicle for the mind.
Furthermore, perhaps the body
is just a mechanical container
for both. A shell.
A major blow (literally) to the mind-brain duality arrived in the year 1848 when 25 year old Phineas Gage,
a railway track layer, suffered unbelievable head trauma after an explosion that resulted in an iron
bar piercing his cranium, jutting through his brain. Gage's frontal lobe was completely removed and his
life was saved. However, the absence of this area of his brain altered his personality in the most polarizing
of ways. Whereas before Gage was unanimously described as an affable person; after
the injury he was described as obnoxious, noisy, unstable and impulsive. Gage's
doctor illustrated him as giving "scant respect to his colleagues...becoming impatient
and occasionally very stubborn." Personality had long since been believed to be
a product of the soul, but it seemed that Gage's accident became unwitting proof
that behavior, personality and even emotions were anatomical in nature.
Of course, there's always the possibility that Gage's change of personality was more a change of heart than a change of brain. After all, there is an experiential consequence from having an iron bar slammed through one's head that must be factored into the equation. Affable people who lose their arms or legs to accident or disease are also described as having abrupt changes in temperament.
Whatever the case, Gage's situation shifted the conversation on mind-brain duality. It would seem that there was no duality. They are one and the same things.
A century after the Gage accident, British born Laura Dillon would undergo 13 surgeries that would forever transform her into the person he really was: Michael Dillon.
"She" would have been a designation that Dillon would have disagreed with even while he had the anatomy of a woman. Even when he was Laura Dillon, Michael Dillon knew, without a doubt that he was not a woman. He just happened to be in the wrong body.
What Michael didn't know was that he was re-opening the old case of the duality between mind and body. In fact, the term "Trans-Sexual" had yet to be coined when he first woke up and realized that he was wearing the wrong body. The only word during his time was "homosexual" and that didn't quite describe Michael. While he was "Laura" and still outfitted with breasts and a vagina, "Lesbian" was not quite the descriptor for his attraction to women. Inside, Laura was a man with a heterosexual attraction for women. Dr. Henry Benjamin, a German endocrinologist who became famous for his work with Christine Jorgensen, was praised by the New York Times as "the first student of transsexualism to discern that it was different from homosexuality or transvestism." Laura, and others like him, were simply in the wrong body.
Dillon was himself a physician who had managed to smuggle himself into medical school as a man, though at the time he was still anatomically a woman. Having been born in 1915, he was a product of the emerging consensus of man being the sum of his biological parts. While working at a research lab in the South West of England, Dillon handled dissected brains and came to question the certitudes that any particular part of the brain accounted for someone's identity, especially as it pertained to their gender. As long as it was believed that Dillon's male-mind was an anatomical glitch - a symptom of the brain - then the clinical solution would continue to be changing his mind about himself through psychiatric treatment. In Dillon's own words, the "body (must) be made to fit his mind." Not the other way around.
Michael Dillon took on a new body exactly 101 years after Phineas Gage became a new person following injury to his brain. Dillon would be the first person to switch his body from woman to man; a surgical procedure that he began in 1946 and concluded in 1949. He may have even been the first person to pop testosterone pills for such a purpose, which he began doing as early as 1938 at the age of 23, almost the same age as Gage when he sustained his brain-changing injury. Testosterone pills gave Dillon the trademark "manly" voice and swelled his body into something more indicative of a man. All of these effects, including the eventual penis, were just symbols of manhood just like the signature pipe that trademarked Dillon's manliness. They were there more for society than himself. Without them he was a man. Trans-Somaticism was born. In 1946, the year Dillon began his surgery, he would publish his book on altered bodies titled, Self.
So where does this leave the divide the between Self and Body?
Eugen Steinach, a physiologist and endocrinologist, showed that switching the sex organs on guinea
pigs also switched their behavior. Was this proof that maleness
and femaleness were hormonal in nature? The hallmark of science and medicine
is to describe in great detail what something does. But does that also describe what something is? Or more to the existential point - who someone is? Laura Dillon's genes said, unequivocally, that he was a woman. His body did everything that a woman's body is supposed to do:
It produced estrogen, it grew breasts, and it ovulated.
His genes did everything to make Laura's body into a woman. They just forgot to apply the same programs to Laura the person.
In other words, the body will not tell us who a person really is. They are separate entities. Genes will tell us everything we need to know about the body but not much about the person. The secrets of person and personhood are not found by the poking or prodding of the surgical knife. To find out who a person is, we need only follow the simple advice posed by Michael Dillon: