An editorial (yes, an editorial, with the byline “BY THE EDITORS”) in the new online issue of Scientific American,”The new science of sex and gender“, is not only biologically misleading, but philosophically unsound. Its purpose appears to be that the “new picture” of sex and gender, which is no longer “simple” but supposedly confused by a variety of factors like social construction of gender, intersexuality, and so on, somehow means that women’s rights have suddenly become more important and more justifiable. But the science is right out of Everyday Feminism, and the social lesson commits a naturalistic fallacy, implying that women’s rights are somehow connected with recognizing that gender is “nonbinary”. In other words, they make a biological case for women’s equality, when the real case is a social and ethical one.
Here’s the totality of the science in the article:
Sex is supposed to be simple—at least at the molecular level. The biological explanations that appear in textbooks amount to X + X = and X + Y = . Venus or Mars, pink or blue. As science looks more closely, however, it becomes increasingly clear that a pair of chromosomes do not always suffice to distinguish girl/boy—either from the standpoint of sex (biological traits) or of gender (social identity).
In the cultural realm, this shift in perspective has already received a wide embrace. “Nonbinary” definitions of gender—transfeminine, genderqueer, hijra—have entered the vernacular. Less visible perhaps are the changes taking place in the biological sciences. The emerging picture that denotes “girlness” or “boyness” reveals the involvement of complex gene networks—and the entire process appears to extend far beyond a specific moment six weeks after gestation when the gonads begin to form.
To varying extents, many of us are biological hybrids on a male-female continuum. Researchers have found XY cells in a 94-year-old woman, and surgeons discovered a womb in a 70-year-old man, a father of four. New evidence suggests that the brain consists of a “mosaic” of cell types, some more yin, others further along the yang scale.
This of course conflates biological sex with gender. There certainly is a “binary” in biological sex. What we see if we plot the frequency of chromosomal constitution, production of sperm or eggs, or secondary sex characteristics like genitalia, is a bimodal distribution with two modes: one at XX (with female secondary sex characteristics, the biological equipment to produce eggs) and one at XY (male sex characteristics, biological equipment to produce sperm). In between we have a “valley” of intersexes, but they’re of a low frequency. As I wrote previously:
Yes, there are a few exceptions, like AIS [androgen insensitivity syndrome], but the various forms of that syndrome occur between 1 in every 20,000 to 1 in only 130,000 births. Is that “too many examples” to allow us to say that biological sex is not connected with chromosomes? If you look at all cases of intersexuality that occur in people with XX or XY chromosomes (we’re not counting XOs or XXYs or other cases of abnormal chromosomal number), the frequency of exceptions is far less than 1%. That means that, in humans as in flies, there is almost a complete correlation between primary/secondary sex characteristics and chromosome constitution.
If you include chromosomal abnormalities, that adds another 0.1% or so. No matter how you look at it, since biological sex shows a bimodal distribution, it can be taken as largely “binary”. If you include those who identify as members of the other biological sex (transgender people), the height of the valley between the peaks rises a bit, but a bimodality still remains in the “gender spectrum”. Shame on Scientific American for not even giving an accurate picture of the facts. But, as do many people, they tend to ignore they facts when they see them—usually wrongly—as going against their ideology.
But so what if there is a “binary”? The equal rights of women and transgender people, as well as intersexes, should have nothing to do with a supposed “spectrum” of either biological or socially-constructed sex. People should have equal rights and and opportunities because, morally, one can’t justify giving any person’s or group’s interests precedence over those of anyone else. Equal rights do not depend on biology.
Yet somehow Scientific American says they do:
These findings have far-reaching implications beyond just updating the biology textbooks. They have particular bearing on issues of personal identity, health and the economic well-being of women. That is because arguments about innate biological differences between the sexes have persisted long past the time they should have been put to rest.
But there are surely innate biological differences between the sexes if you see them as the big bimodal “modes” of distribution of genitalia, chromosome constitution, equipment for making sperm and eggs, and other traits like body size, upper body strength, and hair distribution. And is Scientific American denying from the outset any “innate biological differences” in behavior, too? On what grounds?
It appears as if “Scientific” American is ignoring what the data say in favor of an ideology, presumably because they think that any genuine biological differences between the sexes can be used to justify mistreatment of women, as they have been. The proper stance, however, is to deal with what is true, or what might be true, and construct a moral rather than a biological case for equality.
The rest of the article is devoted to recounting the sordid history of sexism resting on the presumed different “natures” of men and women, and women’s innate “inferiority”. And yes, that happened: even Freud considered women biologically inferior in some respects. But again, women’s equality in the social and political sense, and in the opportunities they should be afforded (this also applies to transgender people) should have nothing to do with biological differences between the sexes. Probably some jobs will attract more members of one sex than of the other based on interests that may be innate, but again, that doesn’t militate against equality of treatment and opportunity.
Indeed, Scientific American, admitting things have gotten better about sex and gender equality, itself has a hard time connecting the “sex and gender spectrum” with women’s rights. In fact, the editorial admits in the penultimate paragraph that women and men are different biologically (my emphasis below). Rather than saying that biology has nothing to do with the kind of equality most of us want, they claim that the “gender spectrum” and “new science of sex and gender” will help turn people towards women’s rights. That’s dangerous, because it’s an admission that such rights in some way depend on biology. What if science finds out that there are innate differences between men and women, not just in chromosomes or appearance, but in behavior, interests, abilities, and preferences? To me that seems likely, but so what? With equality of opportunity and treatment, these differences become meaningless, and are of no value in determining how to treat someone socially and politically.
Here’s the editorial’s last paragraph with the damning admission:
Since Championnière wrote for Scientific American, women’s status has undeniably improved. Globally, in countries rich and poor, women have made strides in education and reproductive health and taken on more decision-making roles. It’s not enough, though. Economic barriers persist that prevent women from gaining access to capital and jobs and getting paid a decent wage for the jobs they do find. More energy must be devoted as well to researching how diseases affect the sexes differently—and to adapting medical treatments to women’s needs. For an interlinked world to thrive, women must be further empowered to hold up their half of the sky—an issue that should demand as much attention as climate change and nuclear arms control.
Change will only continue if the institutions that matter stay open to it. The assault on women’s health by Republican lawmakers in Washington looms as a formidable obstacle. Women’s well-being needs to be seen as an issue for everyone, regardless of political affiliation. The new science of sex and gender holds the prospect of helping shape public perception and policy making to acknowledge this reality.
Admirable sentiments, except that they say these views are supported by science. They’re not—or shouldn’t be.
The bit in bold is almost certainly an admission of innate biological differences between the sexes, unless sex-specific diseases are based purely on culture. (They can’t all be: the incidence of breast cancer is much higher in women than men!) But that doesn’t matter, either. If Scientific American wants to make a moral case for sex and gender equality, go to it. After all, I’m 100% for that. But don’t base the case on science, because by so doing your notion of “equality” becomes vulnerable to future discoveries in science that may actually reveal some of those “innate differences.” And is there any finding of innate differences that would make us consider the sexes unequal as groups, and deserving of different “rights”? I can’t think of any. So forget the biology!
Reader Amy sent me the link to this misguided editorial, and she was incensed, adding her take in the email (quoted with permission):
As a woman, I’m outraged about this. Women’s rights matter because. . . a man was found to have a uterus and a woman was found to have some XY cells? How about women’s rights matter because women matter??? (And if this is a “new” science how did I learn about people with single-X or XXY chromosomes in 1976?)