The title of Richard Dawkins’s new article in Areo (below) is one I pretty much agree with, and in his analysis he covers a lot of ground. His main point, though, is that determining one’s “race”, which is said to be a social construct with no biological basis (that part isn’t true) is far more difficult, and in many cases impossible, than determining one’s biological sex. For example, what “race” are Barack Obama and Meghan Markle, both having one white parent and one black parent? You can say, “mixed white and black”, which is correct, but society—and especially the media—don’t like that ambiguity, and so tend to observe the “one drop” rule: if you have one “drop of blood” (i.e. relatively few genes) that are more common in blacks than whites, or one great-great-grandparent who is black, you can call yourself “black.” That this doesn’t hold in the reverse direction puzzles me a bit, but surely has to do with the original use of the “one-drop rule” to denigrate and enslave blacks. (A similar construct was used by the Nazis to designate “Jews.) (Now, however, adopting a minority identity has become somewhat of an advantage in the days of affirmative action.)
At any rate, the main point is correct: sex is a binary (with very, very few exceptions), especially when defined as we biologists do: males make (or have the potential to make) small mobile gametes, while females have larger and immobile gametes (or have the potential to make them or used to make them). At birth you see over 99.99% of people fitting this binary, while the remainder are not some intermediate “sex” but represent developmental anomalies. The assertion that sex is not binary is what drove me away from the Society for the Study of Evolution, which declared that both sex and gender are a spectrum; to wit:
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.
Among all people, evolutionary biologists should most understand that sex in humans and many other species is not only binary, but that binary-ness is the product of natural selection. So be it: this is part of the fulminating wokeness of many scientific societies (see previous posts), in which ideology now trumps scientific truth.
But I digress. Click on the screenshot to read:
There are multiple point in Richard’s article: I’ll group them into a couple of classes:
His tweets are often misunderstood.
Were I Snopes, I would investigate this and say “true”. Yes, sometimes his tweets are hamhanded, and he should have realized the potential for misinterpretation, especially when you’re Richard Dawkins and half the world is gunning for you. But ones like the following are, as he said, Socratic exercises.
This first one got me thinking, as it was intended to. I wrote Richard explaining to him why he was wrong, and then, after some correction and a LOT of cogitation, I realized that he was right:
Conjecture: “There must be a moment in history when two siblings born to the same mother were destined, one to become the ancestor of all humans and the other to become the ancestor of all wombats.”
Is the conjecture necessarily true? Discuss.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) November 14, 2021
If you don’t see that conjecture as true, read The Ancestor’s Tale.
This one was more problematic for Richard, though I agree with the bit about race, and would agree with the “literally” part so long as “literally men” means “biologically men”, and the same with women. This shades into point 2.
2. He’s been accused of being a transphobe. This is one of the tweets that led to that:
In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 10, 2021
I happen to think that if a white person honestly identifies as black in the same way as someone with gender dysphoria identifies as a member of the opposite biological sex, they should be considered black. That idea is anathema to many, and is why Dolezal was ostracized and kicked out of the Spokane NAACP. The idea that transexuality might have similarities with trans-racialism was also what got the gutsy philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in trouble, and led to mass resignations at Hypatia, the journal that published her paper. But I think it’s a valid philosophical question, and I don’t see why it’s impossible that someone like Dolezal could have identified as black. It’s the racial ferment in America, of course, that has prompted people to try to buttress transsexual identities but reject transracial identites.
As for saying that you should be denigrated if you deny transwomen as being real women, I would agree with Richard so long as the definition of “women” is “biological women” and not “transwoman” or “gendered woman.” But the point is the same as Tuvel’s point in her paper: this is an interesting philosophical issue with real-world ramifications, and should not be seen as taboo or forbidden to discuss.
For those who claim Richard is transphobic, have a look at this part of the article:
If I chose to identify as a hippopotamus, you would rightly say I was being ridiculous. The claim is too facetiously at variance with reality. It’s marginally more ridiculous than the Church’s Aristotelian casuistry in identifying the “substance” of blood with wine and body with bread, while the “accidentals” safely remain an alcoholic beverage and a wafer. Not at all ridiculous, however, was James Morris’s choice to identify as a woman and his gruelling and costly transition to Jan Morris. Her explanation, in Conundrum, of how she always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body is eloquent and moving. It rings agonizingly true and earns our deep sympathy. We rightly address her with feminine pronouns, and treat her as a woman in social interactions. We should do the same with others in her situation, honest and decent people who have wrestled all their lives with the distressing condition known as gender dysphoria.
Sex transition is an arduous revolution—physiological, anatomical, social, personal and familial—not to be undertaken lightly. I doubt that Jan Morris would have had much time for a man who simply flings on a frock and announces, “I am now a woman.” For Dr Morris, it was a ten-year odyssey. Prolonged hormone treatment, drastic surgery, readjustment of social conventions and personal relationships—those who take this plunge earn our deep respect for that very reason. And why is it so onerous and drastic, courageously worthy of such respect? Precisely because sex is so damn binary! Changing sex is a big deal. Changing the race by which you identify is a doddle in comparison, precisely because race is already a continuous spectrum, rendered so by widespread intermarriage over many generations.
Are those the words of a transphobic?
3.) Sex is binary.
I’ve defended this proposition so many times that I won’t do it again; just do a search on this website. Richard’s correcct take is that sex is biologically binary, and for good evolutionary reasons. Even Darwin noted the binary-ness of sex in animals. Richard delves back into the history of science, discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, and Mendel, to explain why, though all inheritance is particulate, race appears to be a spectrum and sex a binary—yet both are based on genes. Here we have an interesting take on the history of biology. Richard’s ending:
The reason inheritance often seems to be blending—the reason we seem to be a mixture of paternal with maternal, and the reason racial intermarriage leads to a spectrum of intermediates—is polygenes. Though every gene is particulate, lots of genes each contribute their own small effect to, for example, skin colour. And all these small effects together add up to what looks intermediate. It isn’t really like mixing paint but it looks that way if enough particulate polygenes sum up their small effects. If you mix beads it looks that way too, if the beads are small, numerous and viewed from a distance.
Anyway, the point that is relevant to this essay is that particulate, Mendelian, all-or-none, non-blending inheritance was staring Darwin, and Jenkin, and everybody else in the face. It was staring them in the face all along, in the form of the non-blending inheritance of sex. Sex is pretty damn binary. Male versus female is one of surprisingly few genuine dichotomies that can justly escape censure for what I have called “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.”
Have a read; it’s free. I meant this post to simply call attention to Dawkins’s piece, but, as usual, I wrote more than I intended.