Michael Shermer: What is a “woman,” anyway?

July 12, 2022 • 9:30 am

This is a free read by Michael Shermer at Skeptic, and I found it stimulating in several ways. The object is to pin down a definition of “woman”, if there is such a thing, and to see if there’s any common feature of the many definitions of the term (“fuzzy sets”, as Shermer calls them) that could give us a handle on its meaning. Shermer could have had an article called “What is a man, anyway?”, and it would have been pretty similar.

As we know, the word “woman” has changed meaning due to the burgeoning numbers of trangender women, and is, perhaps, even being eliminated.  Still, I retain my own definition as that of a “biological woman”: someone in principle capable of making large gametes (eggs) as opposed to those who make small gametes (“men”). But reading this piece, which relies heavily on a documentary film, did raise several provocative questions beyond that of defining “woman.”

Click on the screenshot to read.

Shermer gives an introduction to the semantics involved, invoking people like Wittgenstein, Steve Pinker, and social psychologist Carol Tavris, to show the difficulty of defining a term like “women” when many have a different conception of what the term means, or of “women” even exist. (Wittgenstein famously used the example of a “game”, which defies strict definition but we still know one is when we see one). He then introduces the film from which most of the article is drawn: a documentary film by Matt Walsh, a host at Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire called “What is a Woman”. I haven’t seen that film, as you have to pay for it on this site, and I’m not that keen to put money into the site’s coffers.

However, the excerpts given by Shermer do show how evasive people get when asked to define “woman.”  (Remember that Ketanji Brown Jackson punted when asked it during her Supreme Court vetting, saying, “I am not a biologist.”)

The problem is especially acute for LGBTQ+ or trans activists, who of course use the term all the time but don’t seem able to define it. Here, for example, is an exchange between Walsh and Patrick Grzanka, whose bio at UT Knoxville already shows that he uses scholarship to achieve social justice. In such a case, you might expect evasion.

Patrick R. Grzanka is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville. He is an applied social issues researcher who draws upon theory and methods in psychology, sociology, and science and technology studies to explore and intervene in systemic social inequalities.

Have a gander at this conversation between Grzanka and Walsh, with an intro by Shermer:

In a Borat-like series of conversations and encounters Walsh can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone, including the University of Tennessee Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender and Sexuality, Patrick Grzanka, who answered the titular question thusly: “When someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. If a person tells you they are a woman or a man they’re telling you what their gender is.” Unsatisfied with this answer, Walsh presses his subject: “What is a woman?” This exchange is emblematic of postmodernism’s turn to obscurantism:

Grzanka: “Why do you ask that question?”

Walsh: “Because I’d really like to know.”

Grzanka: “What do you think the answer is?”

Walsh: “I’m asking you, a college professor that studies this subject.”

Grzanka: “What other answers have you gotten?”

Clearly frustrated, Walsh explains that others he’s queried are equally obfuscating.

Grzanka: “The simple answer is a person who identifies as a woman.”

Walsh: “What are they identifying as?”

Grzanka: “A woman”

Walsh: “But what is that?”

Grzanka: “As a woman.”

Walsh: “Do you know what a circular definition is?”

Of course, Grzanka perfectly well knows the answer to that question, so he pivots: “You’re seeking what we call in my profession an ‘essentialist definition’ of gender.” That’s right, because essentialist definitions are examples of family resemblances, or fuzzy sets that must contain some agreed-upon characteristics or else the words are meaningless. But Grzanka’s dodge is not uncommon in academia today, and in exasperation with Walsh’s persistent questioning in search of the truth, Grzanka pronounces on camera, ”Getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.”

I don’t know what’s worse: Grzanka’s circular and evasive definition, or his claim that “getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.” That last sentence stuns me, for how can pursuit of truth be “transphobic”?  A search for meaning is not fear, hatred or dismissal of transsexual or transgender people. (I’ll take “transsexual” to involve those who undergo physical changes to comport with their new sex, and “transgender” to refer to those who feel that they’re of a sex—or gender, if you will—different from their biological sex.)

Here’s another evader:

Walsh next turns to Michelle Forcier, a consultant pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Rhode Island, who asserts that “Gender affirmation means listening to children’s story about who they think they are” because “Telling parents that a newborn is 100% a certain gender based on the genitalia is not correct.” A woman, Dr. Forcier explains, is “someone who claims that as their identity. It could be many things to many people.” Do gametes make someone a male or female, Walsh queries? “No,” she retorts, “sperm does not make you a male” because “some women have penises, some men have vaginas.”

She’s wrong: gametes, either existing, or having the potential to make them, or having made them, are indeed what makes someone a biological male or female. The claim that “some women have penises” (she means transsexual women, who cannot usually make sperm) and “some men have vaginas” (she means transsexual men, who once had the equipment to make eggs but can no longer do so) simply evades the issue.

But that brings up more interesting questions. If, as many of these folks profess, a “woman” is anyone who identifies as a women—gender being about psychology and not reproductive bits—why do transsexuals go to such lengths to transform their bodies? It surely means that part of being a transsexual man or a transsexual woman involves transforming your body into the body of one who was born with a different biological sex. In other words, you act on your transgender feelings to alter your body in specific ways. And that itself seems to make three points (this is my take on the issue, but it’s implicit in what Shermer/Walsh say):

a. There seem to be two sexes, i.e., sex is binary. There are transsexual men and transsexual women. While there may be a few transsexual hermaphrodites, generally we have people of one biological sex who feel that there are members of the other biological sex. This is a tacit admission that “men” and “women” are real biological classes, not arbitrary segments of a gender spectrum.

b. The morphology of the two sexes is different, and nearly always diagnostic of biological sex. That is, transitioning usually involves taking hormones that will turn your body in the direction of the biological sex that you weren’t born with, and having surgeries that comport with that biological sex. As I said, biological sex is really defined by whether you have large immobile gametes or small mobile ones, but in most animal species the biological sex goes along with a suite of “primary sexual characteristics“, including, in men the penis and the scrotum and the apparatus to make sperm. The primary sexual characteristics of a female are those connected with reproduction, including the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, clitoris, cervix, and the ability to bear children.

There are also secondary sexual characteristics: physical or physiological differences between the sexes that aren’t directly connected with reproduction. Wikipedia gives a list; in women they include enlarged breasts, wider hips, and labia minora. Secondary characteristics in men include facial hair, a larger larynx, and a heavier bone structure.

When someone transitions to the other sex, they often change these traits through surgery or chemicals (most often surgery on genitals or breast removal or enlargement). And they don’t change to a never-before-seen suite of traits, but to traits often used to diagnose biological men and women. So again we see that people have in mind a physical binary here.

c. The way that trans people often change their appearance to resemble the sex they identify with is both arduous and puzzling. For both sexes, surgery to transform the genitals is difficult, especially when becoming a trans woman. You’re not only sterile (that goes with hormone blockers and then supplements), but the genital surgery is dangerous and often reported to be damned inconvenient. The same goes for becoming a transsexual man with a penis. Walsh tells the story of one trans man who required 17 surgeries, has lifelong complications, and noted that “I’m probably not going to live very long.”

Now I can understand that if you are a woman who identifies as a man (or vice versa), you may want to go beyond just psychologically identifying as a member of the sex you weren’t born with, and try to look like a member of the sex you feel to be. But the fact that the changes are always in the same direction (breast removal and penis construction, as well as taking testosterone for trans men) show that people not only recognize that there are two sexes—not three, not five, and so on—but that changing sex means adopting diagnostic signs of your new sex: more hair, smaller breasts, acquisition of a vagina, etc.

At what point in this process does a trans man, for example, become a “man”? Some would say that the assertion by a biological woman that she is really a man is sufficient (in fact, that’s the most common answer of activists). Why, then, is it necessary to go through medical hell if you’re already a “man”? I have some tentative answers, but I’ll leave that to the readers. It’s sufficient to me that the way transitions are made tacitly recognizes the existence of two sexes that have their own biological characteristics. Although most trans advocates deny that sex is binary, they certainly act as if it is.

So those are the issues that arose when I read Michael’s stimulating article. I’ll give two more quotes from the piece, the first giving the correct biological definition of women and taking care of the usual caveats (“menopausal women can’t produce viable eggs”, “some women are sterile”, etc.), Shermer quotes biologist Carol Hooven:

What criteria should be used to distinguish females from males? The relative size of the sex cells or gametes, Hooven explains, echoing the definition agreed on by the vast majority of biologists. “Males produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), and females produce larger, immobile gametes (eggs),” although even here Hooven cautions readers not to take this definition too strictly, inasmuch as “my son doesn’t yet make sperm, but he’s still male. And although my ovaries are no longer regularly producing eggs, I’m no less female than when they were cranking them out on a monthly schedule. Rather, it’s the design plan for the gametes that counts.”

That design plan for producing two different types of gametes is what you would expect in a sexually reproducing species like ours, so that seems as foundational a conceptual category as we’re going to get in defining females and males, while still allowing for the rare outliers.

Hooven, by the way, who lectures on evolution at Harvard, has been pretty strongly attacked for even saying that there are two sexes.

And I’m adding this bit, which is by Shermer, to show that the man is not a transphobe for writing an article like this. Such caveats might seem unnecessary, but they are necessary because any discussion of what “men” or “women” really constitute is considered transphobic. You must simply accept the assertions of activists or suffer accusations of bigotry. But I refuse to admit that such discussions are transphobic, and Michael ends like this:

However the language games play out with this issue in the coming years, and whatever the science provisionally concludes about the actual rate of trans sans the social contagion element, it is good to remember that trans rights are human rights and that discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, along with sexual orientation and other protected classes, is both illegal and immoral. No one should be fired for being trans, much less treated as less than human. The fuzzy set of Homo sapiens includes all of us, regardless of how we subdivide the species.


66 thoughts on “Michael Shermer: What is a “woman,” anyway?

  1. Hoo boy – I’m with PCC(E) on this – gamete size. That is what science does – makes ideas clear so we can understand Nature.

    As for the real psychological factor, doesn’t it matter that a person changed or adopts a personality counter to what was predicted? That would be significant, I think, to know someone. I don’t see what the problem is. OK, so you’re a male(or female) that wants a female (or male) sort of style. Or you want a blend. Fine with me, and that gives some depth to the person.

    1. Ah “design plan” – excellent, important point. Development….

      … there are “environmental estrogens” and such, BPA is one that got a lot of attention – I worry about what all these other chemicals do to life, but also wonder if such things are affecting development in the “wild”, or at least “ex test tube”… “ex mus musculus”….

  2. ”Getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.”

    It’s interesting because the logical conclusion of this statement would seem to be that Grzanka thinks trans-sexualism is untrue.

    1. This statement is indicative of the Post-Modern rejection of objective truth, and an indicator that one side of this discussion recognizes that they are on the losing side of the argument from a factual basis. What I’ve most often encountered is the argument that something is not true, but it’s what should be true.

    2. Ironically, the motto of the University of Tennessee is “Veritatem cognoscetis et veritas vos liberabit.” IIRC Walsh used this line in the film. I decided to pay to watch it because good content is expensive. It was worth every penny – the film is hilarious, and the Borat comparisons are not all wrong.

      1. I haven’t watched the film, and like PCCE I don’t want to put money in their coffers. However, I’ve read critiques that compare Walsh to creationists. Some of those he interviewed claim that their quotes were taken out of context, that their interviews were heavily edited, and that Walsh filmed them under false pretenses – he claimed to be a grad student researcher. Again, I won’t pay to see the film, but I’m curious if anyone else has read these allegations.

        1. That wasn’t my impression at all. The film shows lengthy interviews with medical and academic professionals who make fools of themselves. It’s not based on trickery or editing. If people like Grzanka or Forcier claim they would have said something else if they had known they were being interviewed by Matt Walsh the Conservative Activist instead of Matt Walsh the graduate student researcher, that just speaks to their fundamental dishonesty.

          FWIW I’m not a Matt Walsh fan. He’s a fundie Catholic who believes in the same dumb sex stereotypes as the trans activists he says he opposes. The end of the film features Walsh’s wife in their kitchen at home, where she struggles to open a jar of pickles, and hands it to her he-man husband to open for her, and scene.

          His film is a blunt weapon against trans ideology, but a useful one. I’m still canceling my membership at the Daily Wire now that I’ve seen the film a few times. It’s very funny.

          1. Anecdotal evidence, but the many Gender Identity doctrine supporters that I’ve seen on Twitter unanimously seem to think the gender experts gave great responses and Walsh came off looking like a fool. I’m guessing then that the experts feel the same way.

    3. I somehow managed to see the film for free (someone had a link that’s probably not working anymore.) That said, I don’t specifically remember how that line was emphasized, but it’s quite possible that the phrase “getting to the truth” was meant to be in quotation marks and be itself the subject. That would mean that Grzanka was calling it a dog whistle, a seemingly innocuous phrase that some ideological group frequently employ with a specific meaning that insiders recognize.

      I’ve seen people make that charge against “free speech.” It’s presumably neonazi code for threats or something. If Grzanka was saying that he thought the phrase “getting to the truth” was almost always preceding people rejecting gender identity doctrine, it’s bad — but not as bad as if was referring to the concept.

      1. Yes sorry I meant that Walsh highlighted the UT motto. I’m sure you’re right Grzanka meant it as a dog whistle.

      2. I agree with you, based on his other statements, it seems that he was not claiming that “the truth” in general “is transphobic” but rather that he considers the way Matt is using the term to be “transphobic”.


        He also says “We pursue truth”.

        This video has some of the clips (although it does not seem to be the complete interview):


  3. I have Shermer’s piece bookmarked, but have only skimmed it. I must say that the more I read and think about this the more I feel that I don’t know what it means to identify as something (I don’t “identify” as male, I just accept that biologically I am), nor do I really think there is such a thing a gender as used in these discussions. (By the way it appears that Andrews Sullivan has begun using the term TQIA+ rather than LGBTQ.) What I am not seeing in the argument about the rights of transgender people is any actual discussion of what rights are at stake. As far as I know, a person who says they are trans can speak and publish freely, gather publicly, own property, get married, vote, enjoy habeus corpus, and even own guns. I see stories about people who are fired for questioning trans orthodoxy, but I am not seeing stories about trans people being fired for being trans. If they want recognition and respect, well, they can join the club. That’s a battle each of us faces each day.

  4. “You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”

    We could change that to:

    “You can’t search for truth here. This is a university!”

    1. Reminds me of the episode of MASH where they are trying to get an incubator: “This is a press conference. The last thing I want to do is answer a bunch of questions!” Vid.

    1. Yes, Mr. Eisken, I see. What exactly, does your comment add to this discussion save telling us that you don’t want to engage in this conversation. Yet you did!

      What if I said I was fricking tired of comments like yours that add nothing to a thread save call attention to the poster’s feelings?

  5. That was interesting! And the data on the rates of young people claiming to be in the trans gender dysphoria spectrum is rather shocking.
    But there is an arguable hole in the clever point that there really are two sexes because trans people identify as the opposite sex, and even arrange to get remodeled into that sex. The hole is that, though, is there are people on the dysphoria spectrum who identify as both sexes, or neither. So sex is more bi-modal, not binary. Now of course the flaw of that point should be that the term “sex” is supposed to be defined by the gametes. Now I am fully on board with that, but its not how most people will see or use it the term, try as we might.

  6. I’m right handed.

    But, I can write with my left hand too.

    Am I ambidextrous?
    Am I nonbinary handedness?
    Am I threatening left-handed handwriters?

    What does it matter if my handwriting looks worse left handed than right?

    Will I argue that I am left-handed?

    1. As a left hander, I feel you are erasing the identity of true left handers.

      Why do you want to be left handed anyway? Have you ever tried using a pair of scissors left handed? It sucks.

      1. “Have you ever tried using a pair of scissors left handed? It sucks.”

        You mean I can get rid of my vacuum cleaner?! Awesome! I never knew – just switch hands and the tool transforms!

        Technology – how do they do it?

  7. Shermer is interesting, as always, and the stories he tells of the struggles to define “woman” are fascinating. That said, he (finally) gets around to saying that a woman is one who produces large, immobile gametes and a man is one who produces small mobile gametes (or, more specifically those who are *built* to do those things—allowing space for pre-pubescent children and post-menopausal adults to still be boys and girls and women, respectively).

    One way of looking at the problem is to note that people are trying to use the word “woman” to mean something other than “one who produces large, immobile gametes,” arguing that a woman is one who simply identifies as such. This dual usage of the word creates confusion. Let’s take a moment to separate the concepts. Let’s call the type of person who is built to produce large and immobile gametes A (instead of “woman”). Now things get simpler. A and “woman” refer to different things. A refers to the sex of the person; “woman” refers to how the person self-identifies. Our problem (it seems to me) is that people are struggling to use the same word, woman, for two concepts whereas in the past—when few distinguished between someone’s sex and someone’s self-identification—such dual usage posed no problem. Maybe we need a sharper distinction between these two concepts. A “woman” could be what we call a person who identifies as such. “A” could be what we call a person who produces large, immobile gametes. Hah! Maybe we can simply call the latter a “female.” However, in practice, that too would create ambiguity because it would be difficult to break the existing bond between “woman” and “female.” Again, perhaps we need a new word, a word for “A.”

    I’m not so sure that we need the fuzzy boundaries that Shermer talks about, so long as we have a word we can use for those persons who are built to make large, immobile gametes. Of course we’d also need a new word for that other thing—the person built to make small, mobile gametes as well.

    I know. Too long, too many angels dancing on the head of this pin. Mia culpa.

    1. Agree.


      Science should be as simple as possible – but not simpler. We all know that quote.

      Then we can take on more complexity.

      But as you suggested, Orwellian debasement of the English language will never help that project.

    2. I think the confusion is part of the desired outcome on behalf of folks like Grzanka. If we wanted clarity, it seems the thing to do would be to reserve “woman” for the traditional meaning of large gamete producer, and develop a new term for others. That would violate the mantra that trans women are women, though, which, it seems, would be denying their reality, which is some sort of crime.

      1. “If we wanted clarity, it seems the thing to do would be to reserve ‘woman’ for the traditional meaning of large gamete producer, and develop a new term for others.”


    3. Let’s call the type of person who is built to produce large and immobile gametes A (instead of “woman”). Now things get simpler. A and “woman” refer to different things. A refers to the sex of the person; “woman” refers to how the person self-identifies. […] Again, perhaps we need a new word, a word for “A.”

      No! That is exactly the erasure of the word woman that many women are (rightly, in my view) fighting against.

  8. We are no longer shocked, or even surprised, when a a college professor asserts that ”Getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.” Such a statement is perfectly standard for the “Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender and Sexuality” at an institution which identifies as a university. Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose need not have gone to the trouble of performing the Sokal squared experiment, nor Alan Sokal the original one.

    And now, in a development of just the last few years, we have an expanding bureaucracy charged with imposing this view of “getting to the truth” on the entire academic enterprise, starting with DEI catechisms in the employment and promotion process. Getting to the truth is to be viewed as secondary to “social justice”, and in some respects inimical to it, and therefore proscribed.

    It certainly is fortunate that the species which identifies as human has no problems to deal with in what reactionaries used to refer to as the real world. Why, even suggesting that there is such a thing as the real world will soon get one in trouble with the Office of the Title IX Coordinator, the Associate Dean for DEI, and the Vice Provost for Thought Justice.

  9. … it is good to remember that trans rights are human rights and that discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, along with sexual orientation and other protected classes, is both illegal and immoral. No one should be fired for being trans, much less treated as less than human.

    I agree with Shermer’s sentiment, but unfortunately the phrase “trans rights are human rights” and the idea that we “should not discriminate on the basis of gender identity” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. It’s not about treating trans people with basic human fairness and not refuse to hire them, withhold service, accost them, etc.

    They mean that trans people have the “right” to self-define themselves into a sex class — they have the right to be believed. It means transwomen are women; transmen are men. They must now be granted legal access to any and all spaces and reserves that a natal woman or man can access, including sports, restrooms, changing rooms, prisons, rape crisis centers, etc. It’s not just a commitment to basic rights, but to a philosophical and political position.

    The current definition of “transphobia” includes the failure to accept a trans person’s gender identity. It’s the only situation I can think of where a controversial statement which contradicts normal categories and observations (such as “some women have penises and make sperm”) is considered the standard for judging mental health: not believing it is a “phobia.”

    1. Absolutely, Sastra. No-one, or only a prejudiced few, gives a shit about the gender identity of someone waiting next to them at the counter of a bar. But a man self-identifying themselves into the women’s toilets/restrooms is a whole different thing. Sex doesn’t matter in very many everyday situations,but when it does it REALLY does!

    2. “They mean that trans people have the “right” to self-define themselves into a sex class — they have the right to be believed.”

      Is there a literature behind this – akin to “Critical Race Theory” and the so-and-so school?

      There were some other comments in this regard – how these “rights” originate in from postmodernism.

      1. I don’t know. It’s my impression though that the putative Right to Be Believed About Yourself is derived from a combination of the Therapeutic Culture, in which concern over feelings can be overemphasized, and an analogy with Gay Rights, in which homosexuals who once hid their inclinations or pretended to be straight “came out” and wanted others to believe them.

    3. “It’s not just a commitment to basic rights, but to a philosophical and political position.”

      This confuses me – how can it be both basic rights and the other things?

      Maybe it is not basic rights, and only the other things – especially if this is intruding on women’s rights, if I follow.

      1. Trans ppl want the basic rights everyone else has — safety, lack of discrimination, etc. They don’t always get them. But they add in what they claim is a right everyone else has: the right to be accepted as your true gender. Most people wouldn’t think of this if they were coming up with basic rights, but the argument is that most people are privileged. Their inner self (gender) matches the outside. Since the only way to know whether someone is trans is if they tell you (and trans people can be trusted to be absolutely reliable in knowing what “gender” they really are) then they must have a Right to Be Believed.
        If gender is really more significant than sex, then women’s rights are not threatened. If it’s not, they are.

        1. I’m really not sure that trans people reliably know what they really are (and now I’m in serious trouble, TERF all the way down). Do I, a “natal” woman, “feel like a woman”? WTH knows. I feel like myself: I fancy men rather than women (well, I used to, when I had hormones), I follow the edicts of female gender to dress and present a certain way (much less so now that I’m older), but that of course is mostly cultural. What does it mean if a man thinks that he “feels like a women”? WTH does he know what that feels like if a natal woman such as myself can’t give an answer?

          Many of us, especially when were were adolescent, felt uncomfortable in our own selves, in our own bodies. That was, back then, a part of growing up. Now it’s become a “quick fix” that can be solved by expensive (and life-long expensive) medical intervention. Scary and sad.

          Of course Trans people should be respected and given human rights. Just don’t ask me to believe that all of this matches any kind of objective reality.

  10. A wonderful text by Michael Shermer.

    I am currently embroiled in a heated discussion about gender, sex and transsexuality on a German blog. There are some stubborn ideological walls to break down with people who are very attached to trans activism. I will link Shermans acticle there, even if I do not see a big chance to initiate a change of mind.

  11. To my mind, the real question is: Why does nobody ask “What is a man?” ??? It should be an equal issue in this debate about gender identity. The fact that it is not is telling.

        1. Christine: Yup.

          With a dash of the old medical definition of homophobia: a man’s psychic fear (often well-founded) that he is himself homosexual. This was once offered as an explanation for attacks on gay men by men, sometimes in gangs or with official support by churches or military organizations, who often turned out to be repressed homosexuals. It was these tortured men at whom conversion therapy was aimed and they often themselves pleaded to be cured, which of course we now regard as impossible. Coming out is easier than it used to be, thankfully.

          Viewed against this history, gender dysphoria is really just homophobia redux. Affirmation therapy is by this light simply the new conversion therapy, as Meghan Murphy and others have argued in reference to girls made to think they’re boys. And this new version actually works: homosexual men can now avoid confronting their homosexuality by becoming the opposite sex. Their unacceptable (to them) same-sex attraction simply disappears. We can update it and create the non-binary gender-fluid category but the mechanism is the same. (History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.)

          This would explain the stridency and anger displayed in the bizarre demand to be believed even when speaking nonsense. If you don’t believe that I am a woman, if you don’t play along with my pronouns and the rest of my charade, you are forcing me to confront my sad reality that I am just another unhappy gay man. (I’m not claiming as novel the insight that trans people are repressed homosexuals but I haven’t heard it offered as an ego-defence explanation for the anger.)

          The only problem with this new conversion therapy for homophobia is that it collides very obviously with the rights and traditional protections that women have justifiably claimed for centuries. It constrains and warps the space in which women can make their own successes. And its advocates care not the slightest that they are doing that.. No effort to seek admission and accommodation by women. Just: “We’re women. Get over it.”

          Shallowly narcissistic and yes, deeply misogynistic.

    1. Cf Quinn, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, uses a mononym and plural pronouns, presents as a man, but plays pro football with other females. They is (ha ha) problematic for the “trans men are men” style of sloganeering.

      1. But the thing is, nobody really seems to care about “trans men are men” (unless it’s to claim that men, just like `women’ [whatever they may be] can become pregnant). The entire kerfuffle around “transphobia” is geared to a male viewpoint (sorry, trans woman viewpoint): Men can be whatever they want, what “women” are is immaterial and irrelevant. As I said, misogyny all the way down.

      2. Yes totally agree it’s misogyny all the way down. TRAs don’t want to chant that Quinn is a man because they play women’s football. It’s just another way in which a “man” imposes themself on a women’s space.

    2. For many, its because trans rights activists have demanded their particular solution to some of the special sticking points involving trans women. That would be access to women’s rest rooms, even for un-transitioned trans women. Access to women’s sports, and some other areas. These things have dominated the conversation since there are strong reasons to object to them. The equivalent issue for trans men has not been so concerning.

  12. “A search for meaning is not fear, hatred or dismissal of transsexual or transgender people.” – J. Coyne

    Don’t you know that it is oppressive to try to create fixed, stable meanings through definitions? 😉

    “Queer Theory’s ultimate purpose is to identify the ways linguistic categories create oppression, and to disrupt them. It also uses the postmodern themes of the power of language (language creates the categories, enforces them, and scripts people into them) and the blurring of boundaries (the boundaries are arbitrary and oppressive, and can be erased by blurring them).
    Queer Theory values incoherence, illogic, and unintelligibility as tools to flout the norm in favor of the “queer,” which it proudly calls an “identity without an essence.””

    (Pluckrose, Helen, James Lindsay, and Rebecca Christiansen. Social (In)Justice. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2022. pp. 71-2)

  13. It has always annoyed me that they use the term non-binary. You can represent more than two things with binary notation. Even if you take this to mean only two things, if you are adding a third or more then we would all become non-binary.

    Good article and discussion.

    1. But when in biology was male/female claimed to be binary in the first place?

      Binary started, I thought, with von Neumann, et. al., in the 50s-60s or so.

      Google Ngram is interesting to look at this. Type words in here :


    2. Getting around to this :

      “The modern binary number system was studied in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries by Thomas Harriot, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, and Gottfried Leibniz. However, systems related to binary numbers have appeared earlier in multiple cultures including ancient Egypt, China, and India. Leibniz was specifically inspired by the Chinese I Ching.”

      “An example of Leibniz’s binary numeral system is as follows:[20]

      0 0 0 1 numerical value 2^0
      0 0 1 0 numerical value 2^1
      0 1 0 0 numerical value 2^2
      1 0 0 0 numerical value 2^3

      Other major figures:
      1854 George Boole
      1937 Claude Shannon


    3. And of course :


      “Scholars who study the gender binary from an intersectional feminist and critical race theory perspective[11] argue that during the process of European colonization of the U.S., a binary system of gender was enforced as a means of protecting patriarchal norms and upholding European nationalism.[12]”

      I do not see anything about gametes in that article. My impression is that it is all built on psychology. And nothing about use of the word “binary” having anything besides giving the category a fashionable scientific Truth gleam.

        1. I got the humor, so no worries there – but I can’t help but use this forum to get ideas up in the air – but I try not to overdo it – apologies for that.

          This seemed worth it though. Biology, mathematics, and technology fundamentals.

  14. Within the context of Shermer’s article it is important to mention the general distinction between kinds (species) with essences (essence kinds) and ones without essences (cluster kinds). The essence of a kind (species) is a set of properties the having of which is both necessary and sufficient for being a member of the kind (species) in question. Especially in biology with its concept of species, such kind-defining conditions are very hard or even impossible to come by; so theorists have developed another concept of a kind (species), which isn’t defined in terms of necessary&sufficient conditions of membership—namely “essenceless kinds” aka “cluster kinds” aka “polythetic kinds” (as opposed to “essence kinds” aka “monothetic kinds”):

    “Given the absence of kind essences for various things widely regarded as kinds, it is now common to relax the essence criterion in the demarcation of many scientifically sanctioned categories of objects. In such cases membership in a kind is usually described in terms of metaphors: clusters, family resemblance, or as Hacking (…) puts it, ‘strands in a rope’. These are polythetic kinds, meaning that the possession of a clustered subset of some set of properties, no one of which is necessary but which together are sufficiently many, entails kind membership. NE [The New Essentialism], which endorses the traditional appeal to essences in distinguishing kinds, is not surprisingly uncomfortable with cluster kinds.”

    (Chakravartty, Anjan. Metaphysics for Scientific Realism: Knowing the Unobservable. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. p. 158)

    “The polythetic species concept was introduced by [Morton] Beckner (1959 [The Biological Way of Thought]) to replace the classical notion of universal class. He gave the name /polytypic/ (later changed to /polythetic/) to classes that are defined by a combination of characters, each of which may occur also outside the given class and may be absent in any member of the class. The nature of polythetic classes can be illustrated by the following example (Sattler, 1986). Suppose a species is defined by a set of five properties Fl, F2, F3, F4 and F5. If these properties are distributed in the way shown in Table 2.1, the class will be polythetic. This example represents a polythetic class because each individual possesses a large number of the properties (i.e. four out of five), each property is possessed by a large number of individuals and no property is possessed by all individuals. Contrary to the situation with universal classes, no single property is either necessary or sufficient for membership in a polythetic class. The concept of polythetic class is extremely useful for dealing with biological entities endowed with intrinsic variability, since it can accommodate individual members that lack one or other character considered typical of the class. In this kind of class, certain elements may evolve and there is no difficulty in reconciling class membership with phylogenetic change. This makes a polythetic species similar to a fuzzy set (Beatty, 1982; Kosko, 1994) with boundaries that are modifiable and not uniquely defined. The view that species are sets has been elaborated by Kitcher (1984).”

    (Claridge, M. F., H. A. Dawah, and M. R. Wilson. Species: The Units of Biodiversity. London: Chapman & Hall, 1997. p. 21)

    1. Thank you for the link to the movie! This saves a good deal of time, as subscribing, then unsubscribing is usually my only choice. Even if I’m only interested in one particular article, my email is sometimes shared shared with other sites I really don’t want to hear from.

  15. As others point out, the transgender movement is a subset of what used to be called postmodernism: the claim that language is the only reality, while
    the concept of an independent reality described in language is illusory.
    A generation ago, we understood this to be a mere pretense, an affectation of professors who went to the dentist when they had a toothache but liked to prattle harmlessly in big words. But some followers took their act literally, to the point of insisting that anyone could be anything they said they were in words—a man, a woman, perhaps an armadillo or a shrubbery.

    Alan Sokal’s experiment in “Social Text” demonstrated how vacuous the postmodernist act was, but did not warn us of how disruptive it could become, once it escaped from the ivy-covered lecture halls. Within the groves of academe, the post-postmodernist outlook may have peaked, except within the bureaucracy. (See: https://www.city-journal.org/have-we-reached-peak-woke . )

  16. To previous commenters who stated that trans extremism is misogyny, You’re correct. Before I was banned from Twitter, I saved these two posts/quotes:

    “The fact that society believes a man who says he’s a woman, instead of a woman who says he is not, is proof that society knows exactly who is the man and who is the woman.” — Jen Izaakson

    “I believe that a man who professes to identify as a woman does not identify as a woman, because he has no frame of reference from which to do so. What he in fact identifies with are the social concepts and stereotypes that have been misogynistically applied to women…” — Allison Bailey [ellipsis in original]

    Allison Bailey is a pioneering British lesbian and barrister who has fought for LGBT rights for decades. Now she’s on trial for “hate speech.” Google her if you’re interested.

    1. One of the articles on Bailey has the tagline “Trans activists silence feminists and then play the victim” which seems to be accurate.

  17. I think it makes perfect sense to refer back to people’s own definition of woman and man when asked what it is – it points to the many chosen definitions and it isn’t a dodge. But if asked “what is a woman/man for you” responding with one’s own fuzzy set definitions is appropriate.

    We can distinguish between biological sex and (self) chosen gender, while we can observe that there is a strong correlation. But at the tails of the distributions there isn’t any overlap, so while a rough use would be either, I prefer to keep both in mind.

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