Once again, Scientific American distorts biology, and now history, to buttress its ideology

August 29, 2022 • 9:30 am

For the umpteenth time we find Scientific American distorting empirical data for the sake of buttressing a “progressive” ideology. In this case the magazine has produced a short article as well as a video on “the sex binary” (there’s also an earlier article and video on sex, but on a different topic: sex-specific variations in health).

Both the video and the article below are devoted to debunking the idea that sex is a binary trait in humans. And they both reach the same conclusions:

  1. People with true intersex conditions are often subject to unnecessary and harmful genital and reproductive surgery when they are too young to consent.
  2. People with true intersex conditions are so common that one cannot say that sex is binary in humans. Rather, biological sex is characterized as a “continuum.”

I agree with the first point, which is an ethical one. Of course children with ambiguous genitalia or other deviations from the strict “male” and “female” dichotomy should not be subject to drastic surgical intervention until they’re old enough to consent, particularly when those conditions won’t cause irreparable damage before the age of consent. What rational person could object to that? And who could argue that intersex individuals, or any individuals who can’t immediately be placed in the sex binary, should be treated as inferior to other people?

No, my problem is with #2: the claim that sex in humans is not a binary.  This would be true if we had more than two sexes, and the other sex (or sexes) was quite common. But this is not the case.  We do not have more than two sexes: the “intersex” individuals, apparently considered by Scientific American (but not science itself) as “members of other sexes” are not. They are usually sterile, and do not constitute a “sex” in any meaningful sense. Rather, they are deviations, due to genetic or developmental anomalies, from the normal binary, just as many aspects of the development of other traits (limbs, brains, etc.) can seriously deviate from the “normal” condition.

Further, true “intersex” individuals are vanishingly rare. Scientific American distorts the data by quoting a figure of 1.7% of the population, a figure from Anne Fausto-Sterling and her colleagues that even she and a colleague later revised down to 0.4%. Anybody who can Google can find the backtracking of Fausto-Sterling—except, apparently, author Meghan McDonough and whoever fact-checked her piece. (I’m beginning to wonder if the magazine actually does fact checking.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click to read the article, and I’ve put the accompanying video below.

I won’t dwell on the instances of children subject to genital or gonadal surgery when too young to give consent. In nearly all cases, these are medically unnecessary but ordered by the parents so the infant can conform to what a “normal” boy or girl looks like. In that sense, the assumption of a sex binary does create a harmful situation.  But that doesn’t mean that there are more than two sexes: it means that there are morphological deviations from primary or secondary sexual traits of men and women that are often corrected without the subject’s consent. It’s analogous to saying that there is a “spectrum of palates” because 1 in 1700 American babies (about 0.06%) is born with a cleft palate (in such cases there is surgical correction when young).

Here’s a bit of what the article says:

Intersex is an umbrella term for variations in reproductive or sexual anatomy that may appear in a person’s chromosomes, genitals or internal organs, and it has been estimated to include about 1.7 percent of the population. There are more than 30 medical terms for different combinations of sex traits that fall outside of the typical “male” and “female” paths of development.

The 1.7 figure comes from a 2000 paper in American Journal of Human Biology with Fausto-Sterling (the big proponent of the “1.7% figure”) as one of six authors. But three years later, as I noted above, she and Carrie Hall, in a pair of letters in the same journal, noted that the 2000 paper was ridden with poor estimates and mistakes, and revised the figure of those having “nondimorphic sexual development” (i.e., deviations from “male” and “female” phenotypes) down to 0.37%, nearly one-fifth of the previous estimate. Nevertheless, the 1.7% figure is still used widely because it’s high—one indication of an ideological factor at play.

In 2002, however, Leonard Sax decided to apply clinical criteria for diagnosing the frequency of intersex individuals. His paper, published in the Journal of Sex Research, limns a different definition of intersex:

A more comprehensive, but still clinically useful definition of intersex would include those conditions in which (a) the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female, or (b) chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex.

Fausto-Sterling et al.’s  (actually Blackless et al.; Fausto-Sterling was an author) original definition of intersex was “any deviation from the Platonic ideal of sexual dimorphism,” which doesn’t seem particularly useful except that it yields a higher figure. Sax et al. wind up with a figure of clinical intersex constituting 0.018% of the population, one-twentieth of the revised figure accepted by Hall and Fausto-Sterling.

Depending on what you want to accept as a definition of “intersex” individuals, then, they fall between 0.018% of the population (one in 5500 individuals) or 0.37% of the population (1 in 270 individuals).

But we needn’t quibble about numbers, for nearly every individual who is intersex faces a tough situation, should be treated with respect, and should make their own decision about whether to get surgery.

My point is threefold. First, early estimates of nearly 1 person in 50 being intersex are grossly exaggerated, yet still propagated by venues like Scientific American, even though that figure was retracted by its own author.

Second, the figure is exaggerated deliberately, since if you know the scientific literature you would have stopped using the 1.7% figure ages ago. It’s still used because it’s ideologically convenient, artificially swelling the numbers of a stigmatized minority but also making the issue of a “sex binary” seem unpalatable.

Third, no matter what the percentage of intersex individuals is, they don’t constitute a third sex. That’s because “sex” in animals is determined by whether you make large gametes (eggs) and are female, or small gametes (sperm) and are male. Intersex individuals either make one of the two kinds of gametes, or no gametes (in which case they’re sterile), but they don’t make an intermediate kind of gamete. The sex binary, a result of natural selection, remains.

One more point: the article notes this:

There are life-threatening conditions in which genital surgery is required for infants and children. But “normalizing” their genital appearance to match a sex assigned in early age isn’t medically necessary and is still largely up to doctors and parents. Advocates have long argued that the decision should instead be delayed until individuals are old enough to give informed consent.

I agree with everything here except that sex is not “assigned in early age”. It’s observed in early age, and is observed to be male or female (the signs of gamete-size difference) except in the tiny fraction of cases in which genitals or other sex-related traits are ambiguous. The use of “assigned” here is another ideological tactic, meant to imply that sex is more or less subjective, determined by the whim of doctors who place individuals along a socially-constructed spectrum.

The video reiterates what I’ve said above:

What caused a big fracas on the internet, though, was initiated by Scientific American itself: its tweets advertising the article and video, particularly the second tweet below:

It is manifestly wrong and stupid to argue that until the late 1700s, “Western science” recognized only one sex: the male sex. Females, so the tweet implies, were also considered male, but an inferior type of male.

You don’t have to be a historian to see that the idea that only one sex existed is contradicted all the way back to ancient times. Yes, women were often seen as inferior in those bigoted times, but not as inferior versions of males. There may be one or two renegade historians who hold to the tweet’s claims—that there was an 18th-century shift to a “two sex model”—but in this case Twitter has the facts right and Scientific American doesn’t.

The responses to the Scientific American tweet are almost uniformly critical (I don’t suppose the magazine cares so long as they get clicks). Some people corrected the dumb assertion of the “one sex” model, others gave historical corrections, and still others defended a sex binary or noted that the idea of ethical surgery to change sexual traits has nothing to do with the sex binary. I’ve chosen a few tweets, presented as screenshots below, but if you go to this link and follow the many responses (keep clicking “show more replies”), you’ll be vastly amused. Sometimes Twitter, though often acerbic, is also a good corrective.

A nice tweet from Emma Hilton:

“DSD” stands for “differences in sex development“:

This is a snarky one, but appropriate:

Historical corrections:

And a figure about ideology:

78 thoughts on “Once again, Scientific American distorts biology, and now history, to buttress its ideology

  1. Definitely a case of ideology distorting the science. Also, I think it’s worth pointing out that borderline cases don’t in themselves invalidate binary distinctions. Alive / dead is a binary distinction that has a small but significant number of borderline cases (one of which was in the UK news recently – a tragic case in which the doctors and parents disagreed). What’s more, definitions of alive / dead have shifted over the years and are still not cut-and-dried. However, nobody has ever seriously suggested that we should drop the binary distinction between alive and dead or add other categories.

    1. Paul, your comment ignores the continuum of liveness which is so obvious in any municipal bus or faculty meeting. Such comments reflect the liveism which western biological science introduced in its campaign of colonialism. It is particularly harmful to those of the vitally challenged who are also BIPOC or LGBTQX+.

  2. Doesn’t #1 also mean that non-intersex children suffering from gender dysphoria should not be subject to puberty blockers and disfiguring surgeries until they are capable of giving informed consent, which from a legal perspective typically starts at 18? I wonder if SA would agree.

  3. Recognizing that sex is binary—that there are organisms that produce small gametes and those that produce large—shouldn’t be characterized as a source of “harm.” It’s simply a fact of evolution. Indeed there are those who don’t fall into those categories. Those persons deserve the same consideration and respect as everyone else.

  4. I’m not a biologist and may have missed it but I think that the term intersex should be restricted to chromosomal deviations from XX and XY, that is, the underlying genotype. Individuals with ambiguous or deviations in appearance (phenotype?) still belong to one of the binary categories XX or XY. Lumping radically different phenomena together makes “intersex” seem more common than underlying deviations in chromosomes would. I assume as well that the “options” for “treatment” are quite different in the two cases, whenever interventions occur. As for “normalizing” surgery, seems that is a decision best left to family and medical professionals given the variety of circumstances that could arise and the invasiveness of the procedure. Not sure that a “one size fits all” is appropriate.

    1. I must disagree with you there, as the vast majority of intersex births have nothing wrong with their chromosomes, nor even their sensitivity to sex hormones: they are simply embryological errors. After all, we start with one model of fetus and develop the same structures in two different ways to form typical male or female internal anatomy and external morphology. There’s a lot of things to go wrong in that process, and it’s no coincidence that the urogenital system has more developmental anomalies than other organ systems. When sex chromosomes go wrong (eg XO, XXY, XYY etc) they don’t usually present as intersex newborns, but later in life as infertlity cases. As for the disorders of sex hormones and sensitivity to them (eg congenital adrenal hyperplasia as an example of the first, or androgen insensitivity for the second), they can cause intersex confusion at birth but often do not.
      There still seems to be some sort of fantasy that not only intersex babies are dangled by their feet while a midwife or doctor attending guesses at a sex, but that much the same thing happens to perfectly normal babies. Believe me, it is stunningly rare to deliver a baby and have no idea whether it is a boy or girl because the external anatomy is so mangled and misshapen. When it does happen, guesswork is not the answer. A quick chromosomal swab and some androgen/oestrogen levels tells you what’s what. As for childhood surgeries without the child’s consent, well nothing is rushed, except for relieving any associated urinary obstruction. That is life-threatening and cannot wait. BTW, we don’t tell kids with appendicitis to tough it out until they are old enough to consent, so I’m not sure why we must decry parental consent as a substitute! A worrying trend is the inclusion of some people with urogenital anomalies that do not cloud their sexual status as being, somehow, “intersex”. Things like hypospadias gets counted when it ought not, and I’ve heard of people with quite normal but small penes being labelled as intersex (look out Japanese men – you’re all about to become intersex!) This is all to inflate numbers and concoct ‘evidence’ against the binary. And to add to the confusion, this is done to somehow justify transsexuals’ existence! Confusing anatomical anomalies of development with a psychiatric disorder presenting a decade or two later isn’t going to help anyone.

      1. I think we’re largely on the same page Christopher. The issue is “definition” and definitions can be too broad (inflated numbers) or too narrow (me). How do we draw what is inevitably a fuzzy boundary that will catch the desired conditions and save Japanese men? Appearance alone may not provide that, so what criteria do need to be met? Tricky enough on its own, let alone with the politics involved.

      2. I appreciate your detailed explanation very much, however I question your last sentence. What are you classifying as a psychiatric disorder? If you are saying all transsexuals have a psychiatric disorder, isn’t that the very reason people feel compelled to argue against the binary view of sex.

        I think it is unfair to argue for biological accuracy (as in there are only two sexes) without taking into account the very real discrimination, hatred and violence visited on transsexuals.

        1. If a human believed itself to be a horse, it’s likely that individual would have to deal with discrimination, hatred, and possibly violence. That is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean the human is actually a horse; it means the human has a psychological disorder.

          Scientific reality is not here for our convenience, and when we try to make it so, it stops being science.

          Also, name one psychological disorder that DOESN’T face discrimination, ignorance, and extra hardship. ADHD, Autism, Bi-polar, Depression, Narcissistic PD (everyone’s hating on them right now), Schizophrenia, and a slew of others, all have heightened levels of suicide and difficulty getting through life. Society works to help these people through public awareness, empathy, medication, and psychiatric support. Society has NOT tossed out the rulebook on human biology that stretches back millennia – specifically the one that allows our species to procreate.

          So why has this ONE issue become such a lynch pin of progressive morality?

          Call me a cynic but let’s follow the money:

          A. Did you know Elon Musk is investing in synthetic wombs?
          B. Did you know the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are both among the top 10 richest industries in the world? (Both known, of course, for their high degree of transparency and moral fortitude in the US.)
          C. Plastic surgery, in particular, is booming. Some fun facts about that –> https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/market-size/plastic-surgeons-united-states/#:~:text=The%20market%20size%2C%20measured%20by,to%20increase%202%25%20in%202023.
          Especially interesting is the bit about how the industry can be expanded: by
          “increasing the number of procedures that are available to clients on a commercial basis.”

          Now call me paranoid, but lets test for misogyny and sexism.

          1 A growing number of high functioning, autistic girls are starting to identify as male. In other words, female teens with thought processes and interests that have been historically (and sexistly) assumed masculine are confused about their identity (what teen isn’t) and have decided the must not actually be girls.

          2 Many of the most font and center trans activists are biological men, espousing a shallow, hyper-femine, and sexualized aesthetic to represent women.

          3 Biological males are pushing their way into women’s sports, competing in areas where they have an inherent physical advantage, and taking trophies and scholarships away from females. When their female competitors complain, they are ostracized.

          4 Biological males are also being given accolades that were specifically reserved for females to help make up for centuries of sexism and close the gender gap.

          5 Statistics necessary to understand social dynamics and health risks females face are being thrown off, and ultimately become useless, when someone can identify as whatever gender they wish.(For males too, btw)

          6 Biologically male predators are using gender ideology to gain access to their female victims, and PC media is helping them cover it up by indulging in there pronouns. Look up Jonathan/Jessica Yaniv, sex offender James/Hannah Tubbs, or the disturbing escapades of Ezra Miller.

          7. Womanhood is being redefined by biological males, as we are renamed “people who menstruate,” “people with wombs,” and “people with vaginas,” and told pussy hats are transphobic since not all women have pussies. (I must have missed men being redefined as “people who produce sperm. Did I mention Musk and his artificial wombs?)

          8. Meanwhile, women who dissent or express any trepidation over even the most radical trans ideology are cancelled, fired, vilified, ostracised, threatened, and unequivocally told to be silent on the matter. (What would we menstruators know about being a woman anyway?)

  5. Is it just me – the word “binary” for “male or female” irks me so. I can understand if “binary” was used in biology in this way, I do not fault biologists. But I feel a line was crossed when “binary” started getting used in the postmodernist way – I’d argue in an Orwellian way, as described in “Politics and the English Language”. “Binary” is a word for a base 2 numeral system invented by Liebniz in the 17th century :


    Boolean would apply for sets of things – like gametes.


    Call it pedantic, but claiming something (like sex) is “non binary” when it is not binary is strange.

    1. Yes, Jez, excellent article, one of the best I’ve read on the subject of trans activism. I’ve subscribed to Wright’s Substack. Thanks!

  6. “People with true intersex conditions are so common that one cannot say that sex is binary in humans.”

    Not true, because intersex conditions are NOT so common at all:

    “The available data support the conclusion that human sexuality is a dichotomy, not a continuum. More than 99.98% of humans are either male or female. If the term intersex is to retain any clinical meaning, the use of this term should be restricted to those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female.
    The birth of an intersex child, far from being “a fairly common phenomenon,” is actually a rare event, occurring in fewer than 2 out of every 10,000 births.”

    (Sax, Leonard. “How Common is Intersex? A Response to Anne Fausto‐Sterling.” The Journal of Sex Research 39/3 (2002): 174–178. p. 177)

    1. Agreed. But even if people with DSDs made up 17% of the population (instead of 1.7% per Fausto-Sterling, or 0.018% per Sax), each of those people would still be male or female. Each would have the structures and physiological potential to make either sperm or eggs but not some other type of gamete (cf. that excellent sperg/spegg meme). And a small proportion of them would not have the potential to make either of those gamete types, and would not be either male or female (but again not some third sex).

      1. each of those people would still be male or female

        Not necessarily. There is still an area of genotypic ambiguity, according to the Leonard Sax paper (accessible on the author’s website), which he refers to as “mosaics”:

        For example, some people are mosaics: Different cells in their body have different chromosomes. A 46,XY/46,XX mosaic is an individual in whom some cells have the male chromosomal complement (XY) and some cells have the female chromosomal complement (XX). If such an individual has both a penis and a vagina, then there is no mismatch between phenotypic sex and genotypic sex: Both the phenotype and the genotype are intersexual.

        1. Sure I see what you mean. But sex chromosomes are only correlated with sex; they don’t define sex. Gamete type defines the two sexes. Ontology vs. epistemology as Chas says below.

          There are no cases of individual humans that produce both sperm and eggs and can function as both male and female. XY/XX mosaic individuals show genetic differences among cells or tissues within the individual but do not have both functional testes and functional ovaries.

          This is the type of case that comes closest, but individuals like this case study are not both male and female. In this case the individual was mostly XY mosaic with some XX tissues and developed ovotestes (combination of both gonad types) that were functionally only ovaries and produced only functional eggs. She carried two babies to full term. Female.

          doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.01.104

          I hope maybe Leslie will comment further. Sorry I was away for most of the day so this is late.

  7. Ontology vs. epistemology. Once again: the ontology is clear: two (2) sexes exist. The arguments are always and can only be about epistemology: how do we know to which sex a given individual belongs?
    The concept of a ‘spectrum’ can only apply to a continuous variable. Not gametes (categorical and binary), gonads (categorical, binary unless abnormal), or chromosomes (categorical, a limited number of discrete possibilities).
    Therefore the only variable used for sex-categorization that is even potentially continuous and on-a-spectrum is the morphology of the external genitalia. It’s thus the only variable for which the term ‘intersex’ makes any sense.*
    At one time such externally ambiguous infants were in fact “assigned” a sex. But as nicely pointed out above by commenter Christopher Moss, karyotyping chromosomes and assaying hormones are now routine, and external genitalia are relatively unimportant even in contemporary sex epistemology.
    So sex is not a spectrum.
    Gender presentation certainly is, and gender identification may be too, but it’s unclear (to me) how much nature/physiology vs. nurture/psychology is involved.
    Not that it makes any difference practically, in terms of ethical and fair treatment for all. It does or at least should not.

    * (Actually it occurs to me now that hormone ratios, as a stand-alone variable, could also be continuous and therefore ‘spectral’.)

    1. “….that hormone ratios, as a stand-alone variable, could also be continuous and therefore ‘spectral’.”
      Well, not really: male testosterone levels in the majority of cases vary from 10 to 35 nmol/L and in an overwhelming majority of females from 0.5 to 2.5 nmol/L. No real overlap, therefore not really ‘spectral’. It could have been, but it ain’t.

  8. I can’t find the part relating to the supposed adoption of the two-sex model at the end of the eighteen century. Is that in the video? Do they just make the assertion, or do they cite a source?

    1. Well one of the tweets shown by our host mentions Cicero, Pliny and Seutonius. You could easily add the Yin/Yang philosophy or Indian Tantra, or the Dogon.
      As in Western world views, including the pre-eighteenth century scientific one, in most non-Western world views the dichotomy between male and female is an unquestioned and often essential element.

    2. Apparently in a book from around 1990 by Thomas Laqueur – Making Sex: Body and Gender from the GReeks to Freud.

      Because it is in a book it is seemingly unchallengeable. Wait till SCAM reads the Bible.

  9. The whimsical notion that sex is a continuous variable harks back to the pre-Mendelian concept of blending inheritance: all characteristics (what we now call phenotype) were thought to be determined by biological fluids which are blended together from each parent. What Mendel discovered was that inheritance is fundamentally binary, operating through particulate elements (we now call them genes) which come in pairs, and which segregate such that only one comes from each parent. Mendel’s discovery was a radical insight for the time. It has been hypothesized that this insight was suggested to Mendel precisely by the discrete, non-blending nature of sex: the mating of males and females does not generate offspring who are some kind of blended intermediate.

    1. “What Mendel discovered was that inheritance is fundamentally binary, operating through particulate elements (we now call them genes) which come in pairs, and which segregate such that only one comes from each parent. ”

      Did Mendel use the term “binary”? When did the term “binary” start being used to describe inheritance?

      What is being claimed is not that inheritance is or is not binary or even the result of pairwise combinations, but sex.

      It appears that operations on pairs is viewed as an algebraic computation.


      1. Outside mathematics, in vernacular, ‘binary’ means relating to, composed of, or involving two different things.

        1. I can understand that – and I know I’m in the pedantic nitpick bin here – so there are “binary complexes” in chemistry. I’m fine with that, really. Even in biology I was never bothered by the language.

          But is suppose it has to be made clear :

          Is the claim “sex is non-binary” a scientific claim? Likewise for counterpart question “sex is binary”. For it to be a serious claim, a thing must be called by its proper name. Boolean appears to me that proper name for humans, as there are sets of gametes – large immobile ones in small numbers, and small mobile ones in large numbers.

      2. Going on recollection rather than checking the text (but having taught a course on Mendel that involved a close reading of his papers, especially the ‘big’ one), Mendel does not use the term “binary”. Mendel is usually said (correctly) to have shown that inheritance is particulate, i.e. discrete “factors” (which is what Mendel called them) are passed intact from generation to generation, without blending in individuals who possess alternative forms of the factors. Much of later genetics, including things that are not usually ascribed to Mendel, is contained in germ form in Mendel, although Mendel’s terms have not been retained. (We call ‘genes’ or ‘alleles’ what Mendel called factors.)


      3. I’m going to quibble slightly. Sex might be binary in that there are two sexes, but inheritance generally is not binary. There are more than two blood groups. There are more than two eye colours.

        I think “discrete” is a much better term for inheritance in general.

        1. Yes, but you’ll never get a blood type not present in one or both parents (unless it’s a mutation), right? Similarly, each parent passes one of two chromosomes for eye color, the dominant/recessive interaction of the two results in eye color of the offspring.

          My daughter’s eyes are blue. Mine are green, my wife’s brown. I passed two green genes, my wife a blue and brown. My daughter’s blue eyes came from my wife — she got the gene from her father, even though her eyes are brown.

          1. The thought occurs to me : Punnett squares – and so on.

            I was reading about them earlier – turns out there’s work in algebra on combinations of this sort – but of course with more applications.

          2. My daughter’s eyes are blue. Mine are green, my wife’s brown. I passed two green genes, my wife a blue and brown. My daughter’s blue eyes came from my wife

            You have named three eye colours there. Eye colour is not binary.

            Your daughter received an “eye colour gene” from you and an “eye colour gene” from your wife. When I was at school my, no doubt grossly oversimplified, education taught me that the blue eye gene is recessive, which means that, if you had supplied your daughter with a dominant gene, her eyes would not be blue. So she got her eyes both from you and your wife.

            Anyway, “binary” means “two”.
            “Discrete” is a better description of how genetics work.

            1. Ah, I see what you mean — though in the instance of eye color and especially blood type it would appear to be binary because the blue phenotype is coming from my wife’s father, and not myself, my mom or dad. The gene expression is about interplay, but the expression is not that of either of my green genes.

              Blood type I think is clearly binary, unless I’m mistaken.

              But yes, I like your point that there are four sets of chromosomes in play when recombination occurs.

              Still, one or another will be selected.

              1. No, blood type is not binary. For the ABO blood groups, there are four main phenotypes A, B, AB, and 0, and even more genotypes. (For example, someone who is phenotypically A may be either AA or AO genotypically). And there are many other blood type groups besides ABO. We are diploid, meaning we have two copies of each genetic locus, one of which we get from each of our parents. However, the fact that each individual has two copies doesn’t mean the trait influenced by the genetic locus is binary (i.e. has only two forms).


  10. If anyone doubts the seriousness of the organized push to convince the public that biological sex is nonbinary, try googling “biological sex binary”. I try to avoid the word “conspiracy” nowadays, but this sure looks like one to me. I would like to understand the scale and level of organization of the push to foist anti-science on the public. The NYTimes’ 1619 project felt like a huge wakeup call to me- people who believe in the simple notion of factual truth being put on notice, as it were, that a new sheriff is in town.

    I wonder if someone were to write an article documenting this phenomenon, whether that might be accepted to Sci Am, and if not, what their excuses would be. I wonder what obstacles a scholar or scholars even attempting to do a scientific study of this phenomenon might encounter.

  11. One of the reasons modern Trans Rights advocates push sex-is-a-spectrum is that they think a “mismatched Gender Identity” is a form of intersex or DSD. The claim is that we are all born with something in the brain which tells us whether we’re male or female. For some people, however, there’s a bit of rewiring during fetal development which fails to align the mental sex with the physical sex. This isn’t considered a disability, but a difference — just as homosexuality is only a difference — and, like homosexuality, should be accepted and even celebrated. Treating gender dysphoria in hopes that the individual will be reconciled with their sex is therefore “conversion therapy.”

    Since there are supposed to be so many confusing factors in the “spectrum” of sex — and since people with severe forms of DSD are allowed to decide their own sex — the argument is that Gender Identity is the most stable and humane way to tell who’s a man or woman. No complicated chromosome test or any kind of test — you need only ask.

    I see lots of problems here.

    1. For this ‘wiring gone wrong’ model to be true, you’d have to believe there are female and male brains. But there seems to be no great evidence of such things, only small and inconsistent studies that identify difference in trans believing people and ignore all the countering evidence.

      If trans belief were founded in actual neurological difference, you should see trans rights advocates pushing for the identification and use of a neuro or biological test, because that would be proof. But you don’t…

  12. Activists playing fast and loose with numbers is so common and dishonest. Even with LGBT – the discredited 10% (Kinsey?) number has wide currency when apparently the actual science is 3.9% for men, (half that for women). Which doesn’t MATTER, really, in the way we treat people but it matters to those in the political arena.
    Thx to WEIT for pointing these kinds of things out.

  13. From 1991, “The Birth of the Two-Sex World”, Stephen Jay Gould

    “This unfamiliar world of the one-sex model expressed its view of sex and gender primarily by the implied notion that only one set of sexual organs exists, with the male facies as a higher form of expression. A woman, in this view, is merely a potential man—more accurately perhaps, an inverted man, bottled in by lack of vital heat. Laqueur writes: “In the one-sex model, dominant in anatomical thinking for two thousand years, woman was understood as man inverted: the uterus was the female scrotum, the ovaries were testicles, the vulva was a foreskin, and the vagina was a penis.”

    The “two-sex model” replaced this concept of woman and man as two clumps on a graded continuum with a notion of two fundamentally distinct entities, bearing different organs that imply divergent behaviors and aptitudes; (divergent perhaps, but still eminently rankable, for sexism is the one invariant in this history of transition). …”

    [This NOT saying nobody knew men and women were different!]

      1. A thought provoking review of King’s book by Lydia Matthews– thanks for the link! Although not mentioning the point, Matthews’ review shows that even proponents of the “one-sex” model (e.g. Herophilus) clearly distinguished the sexes, or else how could they have tried to prevent women from learning medicine, and how could Agnodice so easily prove she was a woman by raising her tunic? It seems that the terminology is defective. “One-sex” refers not to a claim that there was one sex, but rather to particular claims about what the anatomical and physiological relations were between the sexes in some ideal morphological (or ideal physiological) sense, often with a value judgment tacked on. From a modern point of view, both “theories” seem to be explorations of the developmental homologies (i.e. origins from common precursor structures in development) between males and females (e.g., asking if the glans penis is homologous to the clitoris, or is the fallopian tube homologous to the vas deferens). As a student of vertebrate comparative anatomy, the development and evolution of the urogenital system, especially the “plumbing”, is fascinating.


  14. It appears to me that one difference between wokeism and other pseudo-scientific belief systems is that the wokeists are largely asserting their claims on the basis of values, rather than asserting that those claims are scientific per se as did / do the “scientific creationist / intelligent design” crowd. They make use of the “moralistic fallacy”- “believe this not because it’s true, but because you will be a bad person if you don’t”.

    I suspect claims like this aren’t made in good faith, any more than the claim that this knowledge comes from “lived experience”. How could knowledge of the non-binariness of sex come from “lived experience”? And what about all the “lived experiences” that don’t support this claim? These aren’t valid arguments; they are conversation-stoppers.

    I am personally offended by such values-based claims. I have my own moral values, thank you very much, values I can articulate and defend such as the critical importance of seeking and believing factual truth, the importance of science not as *a* way of knowing factual truth but as the *only* way of knowing, and the importance of intellectual honesty. I find the wokeists’ stated values to be ad hoc and disingenuous.

  15. Great rebuttal, but I want to raise one issue: You wrote that the 1.7% incidence of intersex was retracted by Fausto-Sterling, but that isn’t quite accurate. I dug up the article you linked to and she doesn’t actually say that. She indeed commends the writer (Dr. Carrie Hull) for thoroughly re-examining her numbers and suggesting corrections, but she doesn’t go so far as to explicitly retract her own statements. I will quote her here:
    I intended, of course, that the piece be as accurate as possible, but in synthesizing such a large and dispersed literature it would not surprise me if we made mistakes in interpretation or imperfect judgments about which articles to include. We purposely made our data sources clear, however, so that others could check our findings. That is why I am so pleased with Dr. Hull’s response. It suggests correctives (the validity of which other readers can judge for themselves) to our synthesis and advances the discussion. I am not invested in a particular final estimate, only that there BE an estimate and that in making an estimate we can see where the available data are poor or completely absent.

    Clearly, she seems amenable to the new analysis, but she doesn’t actually say anywhere that she is signing on to them, so while from her wording it wouldn’t surprise me if she were to be in agreement with Hull, I think that definitively saying that she retracted her original statements is a bit of an overstatement.

    1. Thanks for the clarification flogus. Dr Hull’s letter is paywalled, and from the first page I too formed the impression that Fausto-Sterling was the co-author of a correction. ” I am not invested in a particular final estimate” is good. Meanwhile, the figure of 1.7% is still widely quoted as gospel, and Dr Hull’s correction largely ignored. One interesting link I did find while searching is hre:

  16. I just have a question about the definition of male and female.

    ““sex” in animals is determined by whether you make large gametes (eggs) and are female, or small gametes (sperm) and are male. Intersex individuals either make one of the two kinds of gametes, or no gametes (in which case they’re sterile), but they don’t make an intermediate kind of gamete.”

    What about intersex people who make BOTH kinds of gametes?

    As Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine writes: “When it comes to gametes, these are strictly binary – egg or sperm. However, even here there are intersex individuals with “ovotestes”, some of which can make both eggs and sperm.”


    1. “When it comes to gametes, these are strictly binary – egg or sperm. However, even here there are intersex individuals with “ovotestes”, some of which can make both eggs and sperm.”

      In that SBM post I urge you to click through to the paper behind the link in the phrase “intersex individuals with ‘ovotestes'”. It leads to a paper about crustaceans…

      SBM has become famously comically misleading on questions about human gender and sex.


      1. Thanks. It’s a shame that SBM has become ideological on this issue. Still, ovotesticular disorder does occur in humans.

        1. Cheers!

          I’ve over-commented already but see this link for an example of ovotesticular disorder. This person was mostly XY but mosaic with some XX tissues including ovotestis. This person was female: made only functional eggs, carried two babies to full term, could not inseminate another person.

          doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.01.104

            1. That there should be variations in sexual phenotypes is not at all surprising, after all there are lots of things that can go wrong in the ontogeny of an organism. What matters is that every sexually reproducing organism has a father and a mother, and if it produces offspring does so either as a father or as a mother. Any phenotypic variation from that pattern will produce a genetic dead end and thus be strongly selected against. Taking rare anomalies as examples that sex is on some kind of continuum seems to me like an extreme form of cherry picking.

            2. I wasn’t able to see any mention of true hermaphroditism in humans in the abstract. All it said was that there was no autofertilization in the literature (which would also lend credence to the idea that human beings cannot produce both gamete types).

              I’m open to definitive evidence of the contrary, I’ve heard it alluded to but never confirmed upon inspection.

  17. Prior to reading the article, I held the belief that SciAm and other such outlets are sowing confusion rather than helping me understand the subject better. That’s pretty damning, but oddly easy to write these days without a hint of polemic. I frankly don’t know where to begin here.

    Let’s start with the headline. What I would need is a clean and good overview of the consensus of experts in enlightening language. What I get instead is an article that starts with a conspiratorial bent, calling out the “fixation” of “medicine” and later, obfuscation. Either, the article reports on a consensus but misrepresents their story as more controversial than it really is, which is terrible, or vice versa. It could also be in the “not even wrong” territory. Why not calling out the “fixation” on climate change next time? Or the “fixation” on the poor health outcomes from smoking, or inhaling asbestos? The same author has another SciAm article with a similar conspiratorial take, titled “Science Still Doesn’t Understand How Our Sex Affects Our Health”. Are we teaching distrust in the scientific methods and institutions now? The author says there that “Sex […] does not exist as a binary but rather represents a spectrum—with typical male and female individuals on either side”. And yet, nobody can produce the paper that shows what’s on the spectrum and how it is arranged.

    I read a German article on intersex, and it reports that medical ethics guidelines changed in 2007 advising against medically unneccessary treatments or surgeries. However, parents and doctors didn’t heed that advice often enough, believing a more conforming child would have it easier to find acceptance. However, they found intersex individuals forced into roles are bullied, whereas those that are openly different find support and encouragement. If that’s applicable in the USA, too, SciAm-style reporting is harmful through their fear-mongering. It would be yet another damning entry in an already long list where alleged “social justice” quote-unquote activism is sabotaging what it claims to support.

    Even without the negative framing here, you’d notice something is off. They open with a documentary from 1996, citing a person who underwent treatment as a “young child”. You can look her up, and find out that she was born in 1961. As is typical for the genre, we are right in 1960s Stepford and pretend nothing changed. In reality, progress was indeed slow, but nontheless happened years ago, ancient news by internet standards.

    In this article, the author Meghan McDonough asserts there where “more than 30 medical terms for different combinations of sex traits that fall outside of the typical “male” and “female” paths of development”. However, actually almost all of these terms in the list are classified as either male, or female disorders of sex development. The author’s wording is purposefully obfuscating and tendentious, and can be read as if these conditions are not male or female, but something else. But the wording is also technically correct, as they are not “typical” male or female. That’s how the sausage is made.

    And so we find 1) counterproductive fear-mongering, by presenting a windmill threat-narrative to tilt against, to 2) advocate for broader, but controversial ideology, 3) obfuscation and obscurantism. When people then disagree with 2, claim they are evidence for 1, and hide everything under 3.

    1. One more thing: “While international human rights groups widely condemn medically unnecessary intersex surgeries on minors, science has been slow to follow. Genital surgeries on intersex […]”

      That sentence alone is stunning how it could ever be published in a scientific magazine. What is “science” here, exactly, and why would “science” follow activism? Not to touch on questionable assumptions there, see Positivism Dispute.

      1. A late comment that no one is likely to read. 🙂

        I get the impression that increasingly many so-called science writers get their primary contact with science through “critical”-themed polemics against science, thus knowing essentially nothing but convinced they know everything. The Dunning-Kreuger effect spreads like wildfire through once-respectable journals like SciAm, a recipe for a rise in serious ignorance in a world desperately in need of a broad public understanding of science. The writers’ appropriation of the hard-earned credibility of such journals, harming the journals themselves and those who depend on them for information, damaging their long term viability, is a pretty exact description of parasitism. They harm and reduce the genetic fitness of their host, they produce nothing of value themselves, they spread themselves to new unsuspecting hosts via the spread of academic appointments, DEI departments and teachers out of college ready to spread their gospel of social change to children as young as kindergarten (and earlier if Kendi has his way).

        Here’s hoping the hosts wise up and evolve some defenses against this parasite. One bit of hope I feel, real or imagined, stems from my belief that a solid understanding of science depends on gaining a solid understanding of pseudo-science, and how the latter fundamentally differs from the former while bearing a superficial resemblance to it. This could be a great teaching opportunity when and if the “sleeping giant” of science wakes up in time.

        1. Comes to mind :

          I just read The Two Cultures (1959) and The Two Cultures – A Second Look (1964) by C. P. Snow. A worthwhile read, especially to gather the historical background of these ideas of … miscommunication, shall we say, suggested by the discussion here.

        2. I read all the way to your last comment. Thank you for these insights. I think we’re in serious trouble on many fronts here in large part because we can’t even have discussions about scientific evidence if it offends people. That and extreme tribalism are causing a world of harm to young people. I think we’re tragically a long way off from righting this ship.

  18. The treatment of true intersex individuals is medically interesting in the same way as is the separation of conjoined twins.
    With that given, it does not really have much to do with trans people, very few of which were born intersex. The typical trans person grew up as a completely normal member of their birth sex, displaying the typical behaviors that people of their sex display in childhood, and undergoing normal puberty at the normal time.
    I don’t have data on the next point, but the majority of the trans people I have encountered were not even gay prior to transitioning. They become gay afterwards.

    Nobody in the trans community seeks to be somewhere in the middle of the fictional sex spectrum. They generally dress and behave as an exaggerated stereotype of their desired sex.

    Nobody in the trans community wants to get a cloaca, or whatever the human equivalent might be. They want convincing facsimiles of normal genitals of the opposite sex. One or the other. Binary.

    This whole topic is surely being used to distract critics from obvious truths. They use “gender” in much the same way, insisting that gender and sex are unrelated. If they were, nobody would ever want gender reassignment surgery. Or gender affirmation surgery, or gender confirmation surgery.

    One becomes a trans person the same way one joins a cult or signs up for a timeshare. Someone convinces them do do so, usually at a time when they are vulnerable. And they invariably use deception and outright lies in their sales pitch.
    Urgency of commitment is part of the strategy as well. Very few timeshares would be sold to people who had time to reflect on the terms for a few days before signing.
    Kids being targeted by trans activists are told that time is critical as well, and that the earlier they start their transition, the better the end result will be. They are discouraged from discussing the issue with their parents at the early stages, just as a timeshare salesperson would not want you to call your cousin the accountant before signing the papers.

  19. “Third, no matter what the percentage of intersex individuals is, they don’t constitute a third sex. That’s because “sex” in animals is determined by whether you make large gametes (eggs) and are female, or small gametes (sperm) and are male. Intersex individuals either make one of the two kinds of gametes, or no gametes (in which case they’re sterile), but they don’t make an intermediate kind of gamete.”

    I really find it shocking how people fluent in biology and evolutionary theory can find the concept of non-binary sexes so difficult to understand. In just this paragraph, you clearly demonstrate at least one additional sex: one that does not make either the large or the small gamete. Just because that sex type is infertile does not mean it does not constitute a sex type.

    Furthermore, the basis for which gamete an individual makes is determined by its own sex and sexual development. If an individual does not fall within the parameters for making either the large or small gamete, that also does not mean that person does not have a sex; they do have a sex, it just doesn’t produce a large or small gamete. Does a 23rd chromosome of XXY simply cease to exist because that individual does not produce eggs or sperm? Of course not. It is a sex type of its own, one that does not make for an adult which produces large or small gametes. That’s all. That is not an earth-shattering or pseudoscientific concept. It’s perfectly within the laws of evolution and should be predicted to exist in small if not very small percentages in any dimorphic species.

    Why should we think that a system dependent on and defined by variation could not possibly result in variations of sex types?

    1. Men with XXY karyotypes are not a third sex. They do produce small male-type gametes from the appropriate gonad. Numbers and motility are too low for usual conception but with modern technology their spermatozoa can fertilize eggs and they can thus father children. (If you required gametes to be motile in every individual case for their producer to be called male, then fully potent XY alpha men with isolated disorders of sperm flagella would fail the test, which would be absurd.)

      You also have to respect the affected individual’s common-sense point of view. People who have an XXY karyotype do not consider themselves to be a third sex, nor do their families and sex partners. They are usually subtly effeminate-looking men who grew up as not quite typical boys and who went through male puberty. They may not have looked different enough to prompt their parents to seek medical investigation, especially at puberty when boys don’t want their parents to see them naked. The diagnosis is often not made until an adult couple seeks investigation for inability to conceive a child. (Or recreational genomic testing today.). Only a minority of XXY babies are severely affected with malformed genitalia. In the delivery room their sex may be unclear but the XXY karyotype establishes them clearly as male.

      There Is no evidence that gender dysphoria, the mental conviction that one’s brain was born in the wrong-sexed body, has anything to do with any of these disorders of sexual and reproductive anatomy. Even if you did establish a consensus that some mosaic people truly cannot be categorized as male or female, this would not take you very far in understanding trans-genderism. Efforts by the trans activists to find a true non-binary sex condition, either a non-discrete or shifting male-female continuum or a third sex altogether, even if successful, would not support their political goals because they are barking up a different tree. They are trying to argue by analogy, which is a logical fallacy. The trans folk would have to show that they themselves have these biological differences if we are to take them seriously. And they can’t.

      1. “They are trying to argue by analogy, which is a logical fallacy.”

        Overall excellent comment, although I must disagree with this one sentence. Analogical reasoning plays an important role in human understanding as long as the analogy is based on a true shared similarity between a pair of constructs. Case-based reasoning has a long and honorable history in AI, as well as in legal reasoning based on relevantly similar legal precedents.

        A good example IMO is the analogy between biological and computer viruses. The description of the biological virus, stripped of biology-specific terminology, turns out to be a fair description of a computer virus stripped of computer-specific terminology- both are cases where packets of information in some form effect their own replication using a host’s code copying function, then have a “phenotypic effect” of spreading themselves to other hosts via established communication pathways, e.g. coughing / sneezing in humans and internet pathways in computers. This analogy in turn allows the description to be applied to other relevantly similar constructs such as “memes”- viruses of the mind. One must be careful, obviously, not to push an analogy beyond its usefulness. Skill with the correct use of analogies is an important element of critical thinking.

        Bad analogies are of course fallacious, and can be worse than useless- they create the illusion of understanding without the substance. One characteristic common to “postmodern” arguments is the undisciplined use of inapt analogy and metaphor. Sandra Harding’s (earlier pioneer of “feminist science”) use of metaphors of sexual assault as descriptions of what science is and how it works is a prime example. Hannah-Jones statement in the Times’ 1619 project that “racism is baked deep into our DNA” is a mixed metaphor apparently standing in for a more literal description such as “racism runs deep in this country and its institutions”. The inordinate use of analogy, including metaphor, is indeed logically fallacious in that sense- it conveys a sense of meaning while really saying very little that couldn’t have been better said without it.

        1. That, too, is an excellent comment. I appreciate the refinement. It would be better to say that the analogy between sex and gender is inapt than to say that resort to analogy is a fallacy, per se.
          I try to restrict my own use of analogy to illustrating an argument that I believe is already shown to be sound. The analogy between computer viruses and biological viruses is indeed strikingly vivid.

    2. “I really find it shocking how people fluent in biology and evolutionary theory can find the concept of non-binary sexes so difficult to understand. In just this paragraph, you clearly demonstrate at least one additional sex: one that does not make either the large or the small gamete. Just because that sex type is infertile does not mean it does not constitute a sex type.”
      You just made up your own definition of ‘sex type’ and then evinced shock–Shock!!–that people fluent in biology and evolutionary theory haven’t already internalized your personal concept.
      ‘Sex’ has a meaning in biology, and ‘makes no gamete at all’ is not it. I wish you luck with the remainder of your bespoke dictionary of biology.

    3. Sorry, but you don’t know what you’re talking about; a sterile result of developmental accidents is not a “sex”, at least not according to biologists. See the comment responding to you below.

      Your second paragraph is rude and unwarranted. Either apologize or leave this site.

  20. I guess I find the whole idea argument about whether sexes are binary or not a bit confused since it usually seems to assume that there is an objective fact independent of the choice of definition. Of course, there are definitions of sex (indeed useful ones used in other scientific contexts) in which there are only two sexes. You want to define it in some other way you can make the answer whatever you want.

    Any argument in which you can’t just replace the word sex with the definition being used is probably confused. Looking at it this way avoids the whole issue (and evicerates most attempts to draw normative conclusions from the science here).

    1. Yes, I agree. Although I feel that some definitions carve the fabric of reality at the joints better than others. But when people say “trans women are women” as if there’s a fact of the matter, I neither dissent nor assent – they just seem to me to be confused.

  21. I would love to get some thoughts on the following from you folks:

    I have been arguing not just for the fact of a binary sex, but also that even the sex of “intersexed” individuals can be deduced by observing where the deviation occurred in development and the gamete type or corresponding structure present.

    Much of this argument is in a dialectic with trans activists who co-opt the intersex condition (for which they overwhelmingly do not have) in order to make the argument that sex itself is subjective.

    I often find the argument that there are two sexes — but that the there is also a small percentage of people who are ambiguous — to be too vulnerable to the “spectrum/continuum” theory. They demand (I think quite rightly) that ALL data points be accounted for in anything resembling a definition of sex. If we can’t talk about the “sex” of intersexed individuals I fear the sex binary argument to be unsound.

    My argument comes strictly from the fact that sex is evolved and — while not “reducing” the gamut of human experience and worth to constituent parts — exists only for the purpose of reproduction. Downstream morphological and behavioral sex differences are certainly associated with sex, but also enter in gradations into the sociological and normative (and on this point a great many misunderstandings of where sex ends and gender begins fuels the activist perspective).

    My thoughts are that when an individual produces a gamete type, regardless of any subsequent morphological inconsistencies, that person’s biological strategy for turning resources into offspring (my functional definition of sex) is evident, by definition. (Do you disagree?)

    In instances where there is no gamete, reverse-engineering the person’s development to find the moment which began the chain-reaction which resulted in ambiguous morphology should likewise tell the story of how the organism attempted to turn resources into offspring (sex). (Do you disagree?)

    Admittedly this last carve-out demands that we get more specific about what sex is… If it is indeed about reproduction strategies and their downstream effects, it leads me to question whether organisms which are BOTH, a) infertile (producing no gamete), AND b) truly morphologically ambiguous beyond parsing, actually have the property we call “sex” at all?

    I must qualify (inevitably) that I do not believe this extends merely to the infertile or to those who are past (or pre-, for that matter) reproductive age, as the strategy/architecture for reproduction is still ostensibly evident in both cases.

    Lastly, to grapple with the social questions of what constitutes a sexed identity, I am interested in the case of the Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) DSD. These are people who are XY males, who have internal testes, yet whose cells are completely unresponsive to the androgenizing effects of testosterone during their development, both natal and pubertal. This extends to the androgenizing effects on the brain, which seem to account for a great deal (I’m unclear if it’s total or partial) of the sex differences in behavior we see broadly in animals and people.

    In my estimation, by the definition I’m working with (sex as a reproductive strategy, the nature of which can be deduced by which way the organism was attempting to optimize itself for reproduction), these individuals are male. And yet they are virtually indistinguishable from “women” (in the social sense), in both mind and appearance.

    In this way I would consider them male women, in the narrowest of exceptions to an otherwise binary distinction of what “men” and “women” constitute (adult human males/females).

    I’m also curious about the so-called “univariate fallacy” that holds that there is no one defining trait which could neatly define male and female, given the totality of traits and characteristics which evolve together simultaneously that make reproduction or sex possible/identifiable. This point is most often employed by sex binary proponents to undermine the activist’s attempt to deconstruct the definitions of sex, but I also wonder if it couldn’t be used by the activist perspective to further deconstruct useful sex distinctions.

    Anyway, thank you for reading, and I would very much appreciate your constructive feedback about some of these assertions and how workable you find this to be.


    Isn’t sex strictly to do with reproduction at its basis? (And shouldn’t this be the only definition worth parsing?)

    Isn’t a person’s reproductive strategy almost always if not always knowable if we understand where deviations in the pathway occur?

    Are some (very) rare people simply not sexed if this is the correct definition? (Those who are both infertile, and present no discernible & cohesive reproductive strategy upon examination of pathology). I’m most dubious on this point.

    Are CAIS individuals male women?

    Is sex “univariate”?


    1. Please do not write such long posts, and I ask that you not post a whole string of questions, asking people to answer them, as that is a way to dominate and direct the discussion for your personal enlightenment. One question is fine, five are not.

      1. Wow, alright.

        I don’t think one can talk with clarity about this subject if we don’t confront a few pivotal questions. Every discussion on sex returns to these cruces, somewhat in order, which is why I asked them that way. I figured this would be a community of thinkers who would have something considered to say to the questions, most of all yourself.

        Disappointed you think the post was a waste of time or a way for me to “dominate” anything…

    2. I’ll bite on one:
      “Are CAIS individuals male women?”
      I can’t even think of a scenario in which that makes any sense at all.

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