In my opinion, scientific societies shouldn’t issue political or ideological statements except under two conditions:
1.) The government is trying to gut science or has other policies that would impede our understanding of nature or the functioning of the scientific society. (This includes, I suppose, policies that wreck the environment when organismal biology is concerned, for without an environment and its species there’s nothing to study.)
2.) The government is misusing scientific data to enact policy, in which case a scientific society (without endorsing or denigrating the policy) should correct that knowledge—when that knowledge is in the ambit of the Society. This is one function of the National Academies of Science: to inform government policy with scientific data.
There may be other circumstances for societies to intervene, but the two areas above are on my mind as I write this.
What I do oppose is scientific societies taking political or ideological stands as if they were a person. That’s because there’s surely a diversity of views among members of a society, but mostly because the purpose of scientific societies is to promote the doing of science and advancing our understanding of nature, not to function as political entities. Examples of statements that I think are misguided include endorsing or denigrating political candidates, or making statementsthat science and religion are compatible (several science organizations have made such statements).
It is, of course, fine for individuals within societies to express their views on political and social issues—but not as representatives of societies. A while back I was President of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), and, as such, thought that the SSE shouldn’t take stands that didn’t have anything to do with evolution.
But now it has, opposing the Trump administration’s proposed policy that gender must be defined as a binary, based on the appearance of an individual’s genitals and as recognized on that individual’s birth certificate. I disagree with this policy because gender, which to me means the sexual identity claimed by an individual (including transsexuals, those whose identity doesn’t correspond to their biological sex, transgendered people, polysexual people, and so on) doesn’t correspond to biological sex in many cases, and there’s no reason not to respect an individual’s self-definition (except, perhaps, in sports).
My view, which I’ve explained before, is that while gender may form more or less a continuum, although there are still self-identity modes at “male” and “female”, it forms more of a continuum than does biological sex, which is almost completely binary (again, male and female), but is also strongly bimodal, with just 1 or 2% of individuals falling between the male and female spikes. (See my recent post “Sex in humans may not be binary, but it’s surely bimodal.”)
The Council (the officers) of the SSE, however, has issued a statement—almost certainly motivated by liberal political views—that claims to show that the Trump administration’s policy is not supported by science. In so doing, it conflates gender and sex, and winds up making the specious claim that “sex should be viewed as a continuum.”
Well, gender can be viewed that way if you wish, but biological sex, especially in humans, cannot be viewed as a continuum. Here’s the SSE’s statement (my emphasis):
Policy: Letter RE: Scientific Understanding of Sex and Gender
We, the Council of the Society for the Study of Evolution, strongly oppose attempts by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to claim that there is a biological basis to defining gender as a strictly binary trait (male/female) determined by genitalia at birth. Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum. Indeed, experiments in other organisms have confirmed that variation in traits associated with sex is more extensive than for many other traits. Beyond the false claim that science backs up a simple binary definition of sex or gender, the lived experience of people clearly demonstrates that the genitalia one is born with do not define one’s identity. Diversity is a hallmark of biological species, including humans. As a Society, we welcome this diversity and commit to serving and protecting members regardless of their biological sex, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.
Sorry, but in most animals, at least the ones I’m familiar with, and those includes H. sapiens, has two sexes, male and female. There is a low frequency of individuals who don’t fit into these classes at birth, but the frequency is so low that, for all practical purposes, sex can be regarded as a binary. (To be more accurate, it’s “strongly bimodal”.) And there’s a reason for this: evolution favors well-demarcated sexes that can recognize each other for purposes of reproduction. That means male vs female genitalia and male vs female gametes, all produced by male vs female chromosome constitution. The XX/XY (or ZW/ZZ) chromosomal sex-determination system evolved to promote the production of a sexual binary and a roughly equal sex ratio.
Divergence from this system, while it has occurred in some animals—in some reptiles, for instance, sex is determined by the incubation temperature of eggs)—is maladaptive. A male duck that has a penis and male coloration, and has ZZ chromosomes (in birds the male is the sex with identical sex chromosomes), but who also produces eggs rather than sperm, or no sperm at all, would be selected against, as it wouldn’t leave offspring. Likewise if said duck has sperm but female genitalia and so cannot inseminate females, it’s an evolutionary dead end.
Every day during my research career I examined thousands of flies, and I found exceptions to the male/female binary only very rarely: once every couple of months. Yes, there were some males who had testes but lacked sperm, but those, too, were selected against. And as it is with flies, so it is with humans. For flies, though they don’t have self-identified gender, do have biological sexes.
As for the models predicting that “variation should exist within males and females”, I don’t know which models they’re talking about, but it’s easy to show that deviations like those mentioned above would be maladaptive. The whole mess that the SSE has gotten itself into involves conflating gender and sex, and then pretending that sex is “a continuum”. Well, if you squint very hard you can say that. But the implication that biological sex is not strongly bimodal—and that the vast majority of individuals are not born as “male” and “female”—is just wrong and unscientific.
Of course people’s “lived experience” (that phrase, of course, is social-justice jargon, as there cannot be “unlived experience”) does justify more of a continuum for gender than for sex. But criticizing the Trump administration’s proposal, which is really about gender and not sex, is in my view not the brief of a society like the SSE. And what particularly bothers me is that the statement above pretends to use science, which in humans shows the opposite of a “continuum” of sex, to show that there is indeed such a continuum. Here we have an example of ideology trumping—excuse the pun—the scientific data.
The point is that we shouldn’t use science to strongly buttress a moral stand: in this case the proper view that individuals identifying as other than their birth sex should be allowed to do so and above all should not be the object of bigotry and vilification, but treated with dignity and given the same opportunities as anyone else. (Again, sports is a possible exception). For what if sex WAS a pure 100% binary, with everyone easily recognizable as a male or female using the criteria above, and with no exceptions. Would we then have to treat individuals who identify in ways not corresponding to their biological sex differently? I don’t think so. Such is the danger of resting morality and ideology so firmly on biology. But in this case the biology doesn’t even support the ideology with respect to sex.
I note that, at the link above, the Presidents of the SSE and of two other organismal biology societies, the American Society of Naturalists and The Society of Systematic Biologists, have sent a copy of a nearly identical statement as a letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which would be implementing this new policy. As I said, the government’s policy is misguided, but so is the act of scientists using the authority of science but in a misguided way.
The statement that “diversity is a hallmark of biological species, including humans” gives the game away. First, it’s not so true for some traits like sex in humans, and, most egregiously, it’s a prime example of the naturalistic fallacy: because diversity is supposedly ubiquitous, it must be good, and should be promoted in society. Scientific societies should not be in the business of buttressing social policy by saying that it corresponds to nature. If we want to either promote gender diversity or refrain from criticizing it, we should not be looking to science for a justification.