Over at Medium, Alex Byrne, who happens to be a professor of philosophy, and chair of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has written an article criticizing Anne-Fausto Sterling’s NYT Op-Ed, “Why Sex is not binary.” Click on the screenshot below to see Byrne’s take, which is pretty sensible.
I also criticized the NYT article, as did psychologist Debra Soh. My own criticism concluded that sex—defined as either “male” or “female”, each of which has a correlated suite of primary and secondary sexual traits connected with (and the evolutionary result of) the production of large or small gametes—is pretty much binary, and certainly strongly bimodal, with only a very small fraction of people who don’t fit neatly in the slots. For all practical purposes, sex is a binary, and it should be, since evolution produced (in most animals) two sexes that must mate to produce offspring. If you’re neither, or an intermediate, you don’t leave offspring and you don’t leave your genes.
Gender, on the other hand, is perhaps a bit less binary, as there are more people who identify as either an intermediate, something else, or a sex that wasn’t their birth sex. But gender, too, is bimodal.
The shameful part of all this is that the scientific journal Nature, as well as three evolutionary biology/ecology societies, who should know better, made statements or editorials that neither sex nor gender are binary. That’s a flat-out abnegation of both their responsibility and of science itself. Evolution itself produces a binary of sex! To be anthropomorphic, evolution wants a binary of sex.
Why, then, do people harp on the non-binary nature of sex? It’s clear: because if they see sex as a spectrum, then that supposed continuum will help eliminate discrimination against transgender people (who still, I should add, adhere to one biological sex or another) or against those rare intermediate folks who don’t fall into the sex binary. But, as Byrne points out, you don’t need to twist biology to construct a caring and inclusive morality. But have a read:
Byrne’s definition of “sex,” which leads to his binary, is that of Simone de Beauvoir herself in The Second Sex, one of the founding documents of modern feminism: the sexes “are basically defined by the gametes they produce.” Big gametes = female, small gametes = male; these are, in our species, eggs and sperm, respectively.
But what about those who produce no gametes? Well, Byrne, being a philosopher, has already thought of that:
There is a complication. Females and males might not produce gametes for a variety of reasons. A baby boy is male, despite the fact that sperm production is far in his future (or even if he dies in infancy), and a post-menopausal woman does not cease to be female simply because she no longer produces viable eggs. Female worker honeybees are usually incapable of producing eggs because their ovarian development has been inhibited by chemicals secreted by the queen. (In one species of bee, the female workers are all permanently sterile, even in queenless colonies.)
In the light of these examples, it is more accurate (albeit not completely accurate) to say that females are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of large gametes — ovarian differentiation has occurred, at least to some extent. Similarly, males are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of small gametes. Definitions in biology are never perfectly precise, and these are no exception. Still, they give us some traction in examining whether there are any humans who are neither female nor male.
He concludes that yes, there are some intersex conditions, but also that, arguably, “there are no clear and uncontroversial examples of humans who are neither male nor female”. By that that he also means that there are no humans who are both male and female, though I’d think that if there are true hermaphrodites and intersexes—which there appear to be—those would qualify.
But it doesn’t matter. If you adhere to the gamete-based definition used by most biologists, sex is effectively binary. In his footnote #2, Byrne argues that intersex individuals have a frequency of 0.015%, or about 1 individual in 6700. That would be the number of individuals falling in the “valley” between the male and female frequency peaks, making sex almost a pure binary. And that frequency, or even the 1% touted by Fausto-Sterling, neither effaces the binary nor should have any bearing on how we treat transgender or intersex individuals.
That’s the main point here, and one that Byrne emphasizes. I can’t say this too often: you should not base human rights on biological facts, for then those rights become susceptible to changes in scientific thinking. Of course some morality must be informed by biology (abortion is one example), but whether or not a class of people should be afforded equal treatment and equal opportunities should have nothing to do with biological differences. If you think otherwise—if you think that sexes and ethnic groups must be equal in all respects, genetically, behaviorally, in brain structure, and so on, because otherwise we succumb to sexism and bigotry—then you’re leaving yourself wide open to the finding of differences that would undermine your scientific claims, and hence your biologically-based morality.
And so Byrne, as a philosopher, points out the obvious (my emphasis below to make it even more obvious):
That sex is not binary is evidently something that many progressives dearly wish to believe, but a philosophically sound case for treating everyone with dignity and respect has absolutely no need of it. People with intersex conditions have historically been subject to ethically dubious genital surgery as children, or deceived about their medical status by (usually well-meaning) doctors. It would be a huge mistake to think that such surgery is unjustified because the patients fall outside the binary, and so should not be surgically fashioned to appear to be within it. The main arguments against surgery (there are risks with little compensating benefit, and patients are too young to consent) have nothing to do with whether the patients are female, male, both, or neither.
Further, the issue of whether sex is binary, although of academic interest, is of no relevance to current debates about transsexuality and the changing models for treating gender dysphoria. To those struggling with gender identity issues, it might seem liberating and uplifting to be told that biological sex in humans is a glorious rainbow, rather than a square conservatively divided into pink and blue halves. But this feel-good approach is little better than deceiving intersex patients: respect for autonomy demands honesty. And finally, if those advocating for transgender people (or anyone else) rest their case on shaky interpretations of biology, this will ultimately only give succor to their enemies.
As a (former) scientist, it’s distressing to me to see my fellow progressive scientists twist and deform biology out of all recognition so that it buttresses their ideology. We don’t need to do that. Our ideology is a good one—much preferable to discriminating against groups based on (supposed) biological differences—but we should ground it in reason, not biology. And the reason is simple, recognized long before biology became a discipline: we should, in a good and caring society, treat all people as we would wish to be treated were we in their position. (This reciprocity is embodied in the ethical philosophy of John Rawls.)
Of course the Authoritarian Left will demonize people like Byrne (I can already anticipate him being called a “transphobe”), and it’s not pleasant for me to criticize the Society for the Study of Evolution, of which I was once President, for distorting biology in the interest of social justice. I share their goals, but as a biologist I don’t share the “scientific” assertions cooked up to buttress those goals.
Wary of all this, Byrne put this on his MIT webpage: