Men, Women, Sports and Souls | Michael McManus

William Blake’s 1808 illustration for a poem by William Blair shows a female soul leaving a male body.

The Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko died in 1976 but his politicised, pseudo-scientific authoritarianism is flourishing here in Britain.

Lysenko claimed that genetic inheritance of an organism’s characteristics, unchanged aside from mutations, was a false bourgeois theory that denied the truth of Marxism. Organisms did not compete through natural selection but worked together through natural cooperation, just as Soviet workers helped one another achieve the regime’s production targets. (It was unwise to say otherwise.) Plants, and therefore people, could acquire new characteristics and pass them to the next generation. One day, citizens would cast off their capitalist vices, and pass on acquired, socially useful traits to their children: year zero would be a return to the Garden of Eden.

Lysenko found evidence down on the farm. Through various techniques, planting seeds in snow and hybridisation of disparate species, he reported that a parent plant could pass on such things as resistance to cold to its seeds. Rye could even become wheat and wheat barley. Best of all, weeds could become food, human nourishment. For weeds (I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put this) read men, and for human nourishment read women. Legislation means we can now do this without being buried in the snow or undergoing any nasty hybridisation which involves having bits cut off (sorry again).

Lysenko met resistance and disposed of it. Deniers were sacked, imprisoned and in some cases executed. They were enemies of science were they not? Enemies of The Science, there being only one. Pretty soon Soviet biologists had their toes to the line. The alternative was a visit to the Lubyanka as a guest of the KGB who would put your toes in a furnace. In Britain we are only in stage one, sacking those who speak the truth, but we know from online contributions to enlightened debate that wannabe KGB are everywhere.

It was not until the 1960s that the USSR accepted that rye could not become wheat. The chromosomes in each cell’s nucleus carry genes that pass from parent to offspring unchanged. For this very reason a male cannot change into a female whatever our Lysenkoist Gender Recognition Act says. However, each of us carries within us something analogous to our genes that passes with us from cradle to grave and some say beyond: our selfhood, our intrinsic inner being, what philosophers, pagan and Christian, have called our souls.

Is the concept of soul a way to bridge the chasm between the militant trans-sexual lobby and those who refuse to accept that a man can become a woman? I think it is.

Suppose we postulate that our bodies and brains are separate from our intrinsic selves and regard them as we would any other feature of our environment. No philosopher or neurologist has ever provided a convincing explanation for our consciousness of self, our sense of personhood, how with every cell in our bodies replaced continually, we are certain that we are the same person who was once in a cradle. We can transcend our brains or whatever aspects of our mentation is responsible for our minds. We can hold the universe in our heads. We are conscious of the world and conscious of being conscious of it.

We are not our bodies or brains. We can imagine continuing to think, continuing to be certain of our existence, even if we had lost all bodily sensation. We distance ourselves from our brains when we rummage in our minds for a lost name. There’s nothing new in this idea. In 423BC Aristophanes, in The Clouds, has Socrates tell a puzzled character: ‘Look away from your thoughts for a while, then go back to your brain, set it going again and think it out.’

Self-puzzlement is all too easy. Is the soul separate from the self? Is it remade endlessly like Theseus’ boat, returning home with not one plank the same as when it set out? Philosophers have speculated on the location of the soul or psyche in the body and even tried to weigh it (21 grams). Is the soul the centre of our being? If so, it is more like the centre of a balloon than an apple. We speak of our rational, logical self and our emotional, passionate self. But what is holding the two aspects together? How can Many be simultaneously One?

That we are affected by upbringing, experience and our social and psychological milieu is beyond doubt: the external environment is a given. But what if our bodies and brains are an internal environment inhabited by our intrinsic selves or souls?  Neuroscience might accept that our innermost being is something separate from our physical person, not necessarily immortal, something perhaps forever unknown to us.

Could such a notion bring diverse viewpoints into harmony? Could souls have a sex or age or race? Could souls even have different levels of knowledge or intelligence? Do the concepts of time and place have any meaning for souls?  What would be the point? These unanswerable questions suggest that our intrinsic self, the soul of our being, is indeed something unknowable and separate from our body and brain.

Let us agree that we are intrinsically asexual but that our physicality, our body including our brain, drives us in one direction or another. Would this help people with traditional, all-female physicality and people with ambiguous physicality make peace over disputed areas like sports? Could we agree that keeping an individual soul in a born-man-body out of women’s weightlifting and rugby was not a rejection of that individual but merely the equivalent of preventing someone competing in the 1500 metres on a horse?  However much you modify the sex of a horse, it is still a horse.

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