A discussion of gender and sex

October 17, 2022 • 11:15 am

The conflation of gender and sex continues, so that the two are often used as if they were synonyms (e.g., the statement “gender and sex both form a continuum/spectrum”).  I was thinking about clarifying my own usage of these terms, and thus offer these definitions, which are tentative, for reader comments.  I intend these to apply only to humans, though in other multicellular organisms they also apply widely though not universally (for example, many plants and some worms are hermaphrodites with functional gametes of both types, and might be considered a third “sex” because they’re cross-fertile with either males or females—or sometimes themselves).

Again, I offer this for readers’ comments; they aren’t yet my own final definitions. I say this because the subject is touchy and though I want to be biologically accurate, I also want to be civil. And we should recognize that there are diverse definitions of the terms below, though nearly all biologists adhere to the gametic criterion for “biological sex.”

So, here goes:

Sex:  Classes of individuals in a species that have the potential to fuse their gametes with those of individuals from a different class, producing a zygote.

Humans (like all mammals and most metazoans) fall into two classes:

Biological Male: Individuals having the capacity/biological equipment to make small, mobile gametes: sperm.

Biological Female: Individuals having the capacity/biological equipment to make large, immobile gametes: eggs.

Under this definition sex is based on gamete type, which nearly always (but not always) correlates with chromosome type or bodily morphology (e.g., secondary sex characters like breasts and body hair). For example, some individuals with Turner syndrome (XO females, lacking one X instead of the common XX females) can make eggs and become pregnant), while some males with Klinefelter syndrome (XXY rather than XY) have motile sperm, though most are usually sterile.  Regardless, these individuals fit into the biological “male” or “female” categories above, and do not constitute new sexes.

Likewise, many individuals with ambiguous genitalia can nevertheless make viable sperm or eggs, and thus fit into one of the two classes above.

Under this definition of sex, nearly all individuals fit into a biological sex binary, as there are only two gamete types. There are not three or more types of gametes seen in humans. Thus we can say that assignment to a biological sex is binary, and that biological sex does not form a continuum (though gender does; see below). There are a very, very exceptions that I detail below, but no individual makes gametes other than sperm or eggs, and no individual makes more than one of these types.

There are also individuals with “disorders of sex development” (DSD) who, due to various biological anomalies, physically resemble members of one sex (i.e., they have the genitalia and/or secondary sex traits of males or females), but lack the capacity and equipment to make viable gametes. Rare individuals with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, for example, have the XY chromosome constitution of males but are insensitive to testosterone and other male sex hormones.  Most of these are born with female genitalia, but some with male genitalia, and genitalia are often atypical. They usually have female versions of secondary sex characteristics.  As they lack the capacity to produce gametes, one could say that they could be seen as belonging to the following two classes based on appearance. Note that these classes are based on phenotypes rather than gametes:

Phenotypic Male (individuals with genitalia or secondary sexual traits of males, but which lack the ability to make sperm).

Phenotypic Females (individuals with genitalia or secondary sexual traits of females, but which lack the ability to produce eggs)

We are not referring to prepubescent individuals or postmenopausal females here, which can be considered biological males or females because they had the evolved equipment to produce eggs or sperm, but didn’t use the equipment to produce offspring or had minor developmental problems that rendered them sterile (e.g., very low sperm count). Do remember that there will be rare exceptions to any generalization, or caveats like, “What about women after they go through menopause?”. but that is not the issue that the whole sex/gender kerfuffle is about.

Alternatively, as does Sax (2002; see below), these “phenotypic” classes could be counted as intersex.  But they do not constitute new and different biological sexes.

There are also cases of hermaphroditism in humans: individuals who produce both ovarian and testicular tissue. Only about 500 such individuals have been described, with no more than 11 individuals being fertile, but fertile as only either males (producing sperm) or females (producing eggs). (As far as I know, we need more data on these individuals.) Those hermaphrodites who produce viable gametes could be regarded as biological males, and those with viable eggs as biological females. The rest of these individuals, since they produce no gametes but have tissue associated with production of both types of gametes, could be seen as intersex.  While their appearance could slot them into the categories of phenotypic males or phenotypic males, they are again not members of not a “third sex”.

Sax estimates the frequency of these true intersex individuals as 0.018%, or one individual in 5600. Even if all individuals’ sex were plotted on a frequency graph, about 5999 out of 6000 individuals would fall at the “biological male” or “biological female” modes, with the few exceptions being intersex (or, if you wish, “other”).  This means that biological sex is effectively a binary and not a spectrum, since exceptions to the first two classes given above are vanishingly rare.

Gender, however, is different. I see it as the “sociosexual role assumed by an individual”, that is, where an individual sees themselves as fitting on the spectrum of sexuality of male or female, a position that is self-determined and self-defined. Many of the behavioral “sex roles” of males and females that are seen as “typical “(difference in body size, aggression, sexual “pickiness”, and so on) were molded by sexual selection over millions of years, and many are seen in our relatives.

Note that, since some people identify as partly or fully animal (see here for an example), they need not fit within the spectrum of human sexuality.  Most, however, do, and the huge variety of sociosexual roles does mean that, contra sex, gender does form a spectrum.  There is an infinite number of ways to combine “male-typical” and “female-typical” traits, as well as inventing new traits.

Because I see gender as being fundamentally different from biological sex, this causes a problem for using terms “transgender” and “transexual”.

Humans, unlike clownfish, cannot change their sex, so they cannot really be transsexual—not in the biological sense.

On the other hand, a biological sex does not absolutely stipulate a given sex role or gender; sex-associated behaviors and appearances are variable. This means that a biological man who adopts or evinces some phenotypic or behavioral aspects of a woman cannot be said to be “transgender”, either, for sex is not gender. Such a person is assuming a gender not usually associated with their biological sex, but there is no diagnostic difference in behavioral or most morphological traits of biological sexes. Thus biological men can be aggressive or not, sexually promiscuous or not.

There are, however, behaviors and phenotypes more associated with human males than with females, and vice versa, with many of these differences due to natural selection.

Because of this, I would prefer to use the terms “transgender” than “transsexual”. This is simply because it’s impossible to change one’s biological sex, but at least tenable to change behaviors and phenotypes typical of one’s biological sex to behaviors and phenotypes typical of the other sex. Thus, a biological female who has a double mastectomy, takes hormone therapy, and has a phalloplasty operation to construct a penis is not changing biological sex, but assuming secondary sex phenotypes of biological males.  I would see such individuals as “transgender” rather than “transsexual.”

I welcome comments, questions, and clarifications here. What I’m trying to do is find some terminology that would avoid the conflation of “sex” with “gender”: a conflation that is not only leads to misrepresentation of biology, but also results in people talking past each other.


Sax, L.  2002. How common is Intersex? A response to Anne Fausto-Sterling. J. Sex Research 39:174-178.

98 thoughts on “A discussion of gender and sex

  1. I like your naming draft. I would suggest that hermaphrodites are both sexes. This should not be an issue for categorizing humans If no human has produced offspring as both male and female. This keeps reproduction simple. The reproduction of organisms (not viruses) is either asexual or sexual. If it is sexual, it involves male and female gametes.

    1. A quibble: unicellular eukaryotes, fungi and some chlorophyte algae reproduce sexually (2 haploid gametes or nuclei –> one diploid zygote) without any phenotypic difference in the gamete cells or nuclei. They are said to be ‘isogametic’. Sexual reproduction in general probably evolved from an isogametic system.

      Does Not Apply to Humans

        1. Sorry, I should have learned by now to address other commenters directly. I was not referring to the OP.

  2. Ran across this accidentally (over my head, apology if too long but easier than twitter link)
    by Rebecca Helm
    Assistant Professor | University of North Carolina Asheville

    Friendly neighborhood biologist here. I see a lot of people are talking about biological sexes and gender right now. Lots of folks make biological sex sex seem really simple. Well, since it’s so simple, let’s find the biological roots, shall we? Let’s talk about sex…
    If you know a bit about biology you will probably say that biological sex is caused by chromosomes, XX and you’re female, XY and you’re male. This is “chromosomal sex” but is it “biological sex”? Well…
    Turns out there is only ONE GENE on the Y chromosome that really matters to sex. It’s called the SRY gene. During human embryonic development the SRY protein turns on male-associated genes. Having an SRY gene makes you “genetically male”. But is this “biological sex”?
    Sometimes that SRY gene pops off the Y chromosome and over to an X chromosome. Surprise! So now you’ve got an X with an SRY and a Y without an SRY. What does this mean?
    A Y with no SRY means physically you’re female, chromosomally you’re male (XY) and genetically you’re female (no SRY). An X with an SRY means you’re physically male, chromsomally female (XX) and genetically male (SRY). But biological sex is simple! There must be another answer…
    Sex-related genes ultimately turn on hormones in specifics areas on the body, and reception of those hormones by cells throughout the body. Is this the root of “biological sex”??
    “Hormonal male” means you produce ‘normal’ levels of male-associated hormones. Except some percentage of females will have higher levels of ‘male’ hormones than some percentage of males. Ditto ditto ‘female’ hormones. And…
    …if you’re developing, your body may not produce enough hormones for your genetic sex. Leading you to be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally non-binary, and physically non-binary. Well, except cells have something to say about this…
    Maybe cells are the answer to “biological sex”?? Right?? Cells have receptors that “hear” the signal from sex hormones. But sometimes those receptors don’t work. Like a mobile phone that’s on “do not disturb’. Call and cell, they will not answer.
    What does this all mean?
    It means you may be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally male/female/non-binary, with cells that may or may not hear the male/female/non-binary call, and all this leading to a body that can be male/non-binary/female.
    Try out some combinations for yourself. Notice how confusing it gets? Can you point to what the absolute cause of biological sex is? Is it fair to judge people by it?
    Of course you could try appealing to the numbers. “Most people are either male or female” you say. Except that as a biologist professor I will tell you…
    The reason I don’t have my students look at their own chromosome in class is because people could learn that their chromosomal sex doesn’t match their physical sex, and learning that in the middle of a 10-point assignment is JUST NOT THE TIME.
    Biological sex is complicated. Before you discriminate against someone on the basis of “biological sex” & identity, ask yourself: have you seen YOUR chromosomes? Do you know the genes of the people you love? The hormones of the people you work with? The state of their cells?
    Since the answer will obviously be no, please be kind, respect people’s right to tell you who they are, and remember that you don’t have all the answers. Again: biology is complicated. Kindness and respect don’t have to be. [end of thread]

    1. “Except some percentage of females will have higher levels of ‘male’ hormones than some percentage of males. Ditto ditto ‘female’ hormones.”
      “Some percentage” is pretty vague, and it conceals the fact that that percentage is excessively small, even parts of a percent is still “some percentage”.
      There typically is very little overlap.
      If you had carefully read our host’s post, you would know he uses the biological definition of sex, which is about the sizes of gametes, which do not overlap at all.

      1. You are assuming, for example, that i can fit the bit about gene jumping into our host’s narrative.

      2. Agreed here. Society isn’t good on overlapping or non-overlapping definitions for some reason. Like exponentiality, or randomness – things we don’t get.

        And it is weird this issue of gender garners so much attention when it effects such a miniscule population – THAT, to me, is the interesting part.
        NYC https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

        ps I meant to write yesterday in response to your comment Dr. Stempels – Al Franken could have indeed beaten ANY Republican maniacs from Trump to …anybody. So….. thanks (my) Senator Gillibrand for piling on a dumb assed metoo b/s witch burning, destroying our winning ticket. I avoided voting for her b/c of this issue alone even though I think Al doesn’t run anymore because he doesn’t want to run. He’s too damn smart to want the job. Our loss.

    2. Once again it’s the subtle substitution of epistomology for ontology.
      Yes in animals there are various ways of determining and developing sexes, and yes lots can go awry in these processes, but that only makes it difficult, in a few specific cases, to know which sex a particular organism’s body is. Including humans.
      None of this challenges in any way the existence of the two sexes.

    3. I’m a little confused here. Are you suggesting that the rare exceptions to biological sex you claim here makes it too complicated to use the definition cited by Dr PCC(e)?

      I think I may have misread you (and if so, I apologize) but the argument is similar to ones made by HIV deniers in the bad old days of the AIDS epidemic who claimed that there was no proof the virus was the cause because HIV couldn’t be purified. People pointed out it’s like saying you can’t distinguish a poodle if it happened to be in a pack of saint bernards. Just so; the presence of (very rare) exceptions doesn’t mean that biological sex among humans isn’t binary.

      BTW, some of the “complications” you cite are not complications at all. People who are “hormonally male” with 5-alpha-reductase defciency for example, like Caster Seminya, may have ambiguous external genitalia but they have testicles (that’s why they have high testosterone levels). They are biological males, so these “hormonal males” don’t fit into an exceptions to the defintion of sex proffered here.

    4. You are reminding us that there are other biological uses of the term ‘sex’ other than gametic sex. There is genetic sex, anatomical sex, and so on, and sex by one criteria can be contradicted by other criteria. All that is true enough. But gametic sex is still special since it is essentially binary, and so Jerry is arguing that it alone gets the special term ‘biological sex’ even though that term seems rather broad at first. I believe that describing biological sex as being defined by gametes is not new.

    5. I am also a friendly biologist and as such I don’t want to pull the wool over people’s eyes – sexes are indeed binary. Sex definition (gamete type: large or small) is different than sex determination (chromosomes, genes, temperature, size). In evolution sexes are quite simple indeed. The kinds of chromosomal abnormalities you mention will do not go forward in evolution, unless they lead to functional gametes (sometimes such successful mutations lead to a change in sex chromosomes – such as neoX and neoY in some Drosophila species). Chromosomes are not the definition of sex, so it does not matter if you “saw” your chromosomes. It would matter if you saw your gametes, which people with kids actually have (even if through a successful reproduction). But this is a moot point – because sexes are highly correlated with the phenotypic sex. Chances that someone will not have the gamete type of their sexual characteristics is minute, often manifesting as a sterility. But that does not make a “new sex”, it is sadly just an abnormality which will not be passed on. To show respect is not to fool people into thinking that sexes are a continuum, and that somehow under hormone replacement they will start to produce the other kind of gamete. This has nothing to do with “respecting people’s right to tell me who they are”. People can tell me they are a fish, I do not need to believe in that, all I need is to treat them with humanity, not to feed their delusion.

    6. Biology is really not that complicated. Mammalian sex requires the fusion of egg and sperm. Virtually all humans follow a body plan that makes one or the other. This is a simple fact. “Be kind, respect people’s right to tell you who they are” is good policy. But since human body plans decisively impact performance in sport *on average*, moral judgements about how to group humans fairly in competition will be required, insofar as humans remain a competitive species. The ‘right’ answers are open for us to debate, without eliding reality.

  3. I think you are fighting a losing battle here for reasons well described by John McWhorter in his Words on the Move. The nouns “gender” and “sex” have passed the tipping point of becoming synonyms.

      1. I too object to the manufacture of new misleading synonyms that enable misleading statements. The problem is, that to a lot of people, left and right, enabling misleading statements is a feature, not a bug. [Don’t get me started on “slave” versus “enslaved person” – they are not synonyms.]

    1. Carl, world-wide? Even America-wide? It is only a tiny cohort that wants this mashup and lives it as normal, usually in a bubble. I bet 99% of seven billion of us do not consider a man who claims he is a woman … is a woman. I even believe “gender” in humanity is rarely considered important around the world.

      1. I’m still stuck on “gender” being a linguistic term, but my education began 70 years ago. I never use “gender” where “sex” is the appropriate word by Prof. Coyne’s standard (PCS). However, it’s a losing cause. More and more often we will encounter this misuse (according to PCS) from people who have no woke, political, or activist intentions at all, they will have no clue about the controversy we are discussing.

      2. The term ‘sex’ has been commonly used in place of ‘gender’ for a very very long time. Marilyn Monroe would be described as being of the female sex, and nobody would have raised an eyebrow or asked to check whether she had eggs. We have only more recently been given cause to defend its use in the biological sense, since there is an effort (from a small but vocal minority) to completely cancel its use for anything other than declared identities.
        I rather like Jerry’s specification of biological sex as being a way to carve out a special place for using the term in a stricter context. We need that, or something like it, to clearly communicate about this area of very basic biology.

    2. I disagree that the language battle has been lost. I would better describe the situation as one of confusion and conflation, perhaps intentionally so by some activists, but one where people of good faith can appreciate the distinction once clarifications are made. At least, this has been my experience with my students.

      1. I don’t feel strongly that synonymhood will be achieved, but I lean that way. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary already takes this position.

        I agree that among “people of good faith” many things can be reconciled, but “people of bad faith” abound in my experience.

        1. The alteration of many dictionaries, including OED, was not due to a general, peaceful, gradual recognition … it is due to a specific proactive project, a fierce assault by activists. This can and should be confronted and reversed. Woke has a mission to Occupy Language.

          The word “phobia” is a prime example. For thousands of years, it meant “irrational fear of.” Now, a secondary meaning has been forced in by activists, “strong dislike.” That’s why when you hear “you are transphobic” you might think, “What? I am not afraid of transsexuals.” Woke wants you to be cancelled at the slightest sign of challenge or disapproval or even a request for information. They want any dislike, repulsion, displeasure, or judgement on trans to be equivalent to a diagnosable and horrible mental deficiency, with a claim of moral condemnation attached because ‘you don’t have to hate trans people.’

          In the case of “homophobia,” I challenge “Hmmm, have you ever listened to conversations in the homosexual community about the “yuck” factor towards straights?” Strong dislike, for sure. For some.

          1. I think that largely stemmed from the old trope that people who violently disliked gay people, did so because deep down they were afraid of being gay themselves. Thus they were homophobic, which was more a fear of homosexuality itself, and what it represented, than of specifically gay people. It got expanded out to mean general dislike of anything for no good reason.

            1. “It got expanded out to mean general dislike of anything for no good reason.”
              Alt: deliberately seized upon and exploited by Woke, enabling them to label/cancel anyone who lifts a finger, even an innocent one, as a hater.

          2. Dictionaries are snapshots of the words in a language. Language changes continuously. So “alteration” is to be expected.

            1. I beg to differ. Concepts are objective, derived by induction. They have a specific meaning. Perhaps there was innocent ‘drift’ in the past, and dictionaries might acknowledge them, but with an advisory.

              Deliberate proactive forcing by a tiny cohort of activists to mutilate a concept is not “a snapshot.”

              1. Are you fluent in Shakespeare’s English, Middle English, Old English, and proto-Indo-European? Languages drift – a lot – as any Linguist will tell you. Your “differing” is akin to insisting the earth is flat.

          3. As far as I know “transphobia” is the only “irrational fear and dislike” applied to rejecting an explanatory framework. If you believe gay people choose to be gay, that in itself would only mean you’re mistaken, not phobic. Genderists assume the theories around gender identity are so well established that disagreement can only be motivated by hate. It’s like Christians assuming atheists must be mad at God.

  4. Yes, she makes it complicated by defining “sex” in different ways: chromosomes, physically, and phenotypically. As your friendly neighborhood biologist, I’d say she is not using the definition biologists use and, even if you accept that there are several ways to determine sex, the exceptions are so rare that it’s risible to say that “sex is a spectrum”.

    1. She also makes the fundamental mistake of concentrating on just one species which is one of my pet peeves about this whole debate. Other species indulge in sex, not just ours!

    2. And the exceptions are errors, what physicians and patients think of as diseases, not on the spectrum of “normal”—in scare quotes because it is a loaded, fraught word used carefully. But we have to make normative judgements—that’s why people see us, to find out if there is anything wrong with them. This isn’t to say that normative judgment is never wrong, or that some treatments aren’t harmful (like some surgery aimed at “normalizing” appearance of genitalia.) But no parent of a newborn with ambiguous external genitalia regards her child as just part of Nature’s majestic spectrum of variation.

  5. Unlike objects with properties that can be clearly observed and measured – gametes, chromosomes, genes in the “sex” section – the “gender” section, though I agree with it, will have criticism on the grounds of “stereotypes”. What is the distinction between observed traits and stereotypes? I don’t know, but observations are observations.

    … one funny add-on I puzzle over sometimes, I toss up for the heck of it

    Facial features. Sometimes we might see how some female facial features might be shared with males. Is this an important difference? Is it surprising, given that there’s somewhat of a limited facial feature space? I don’t know. But this could be important with one’s self-concept in the gender dimension.

    1. Talking about stereotypes, I’m always struck by how many trans-women activists show so much stereotypically male behaviour.

  6. I have stopped using “biological” as part of the identifier of a person. It infers there
    “might be” a sex other than biological. This is a wedge in the door. I contend the door must be slammed shut.

    Also: there will have to be an elimination of attaching the nouns ‘woman’ and ‘man’ when associated with gender because “Trans Woman” / “Trans Man” is a corrupt formulation. Toxic. It hijacks the objective definitions of man and woman — which refer to sex — in order to impart validity onto purely constructed identity. A woman CANNOT transition into a man.

    1. “A woman CANNOT transition into a man”, at least in mammals, that is. In some vertebrates, such as some fishes, they can.

    2. > I have stopped using “biological” as part of the identifier of a person. It infers there
      “might be” a sex other than biological.

      I like your argument. To put it succinctly, the phrase ‘biological sex’ is redundant, so we should avoid it; continuing to use it implies that the phrase is not redundant and opens the doors you mention. Unfortunately, I have personally found it necessary to use the phrase to allow me to stress that sex is biological. I think it might be time for another reading of Strunk and White, though.

      And, sorry for this, John, it should be ‘implies’ (=sends), not ‘infers’ (=receives), above.

      1. John, upon re-reading your comment, I misunderstood part of it. You’ve presented a great reason not to use the phrase ‘biological sex’ (it’s redundant). I’m still on the fence about the phrase ‘biological man’, especially given other meanings ‘man’ has (‘man’ as in ‘mankind’; ‘man’ as in ‘passenger’ or ‘teammate’, etc.).

      2. correction on infers/implies is accepted.

        I found it necessary to include “biological” for a while, for the reason you gave. No more. Woke is militant about colonizing sex with gender, with no asterisk, apology, courteous explanation, or modesty. They are rude, and that’s the mildest word I’ll use.

        So, sex is sex. Period.

        1. I think it would just be healthiest to treat sex and gender as totally separate domains, like religion and science. Wall them off. Religion – and the religion of gender – can’t actual inform true scientists. like your line that the New Left is now ‘colonizing sex with gender’; it mirrors how the Right has been colonizing science with religion. The New Left and the New Right keep acquiring each other’s techniques.

          When society is finally post-gender and post-segregation, I hope we still have a path to continue scientific research into biological sex. The next generation will be rough, though.

    3. The simple solution is to use “male/female” for sex and “man/woman” for gender. In that sense, a woman most certainly CAN transition into a man while we still retain the binary understanding of biology.

    1. … one reason I say that is – and I apologize, I’m talking / riffing it out here – it seems to me that what one has settled on as their gender, or in the old days, they are male or female, .. well … that was cemented in a different age, where “girls were girls and men were men” as the old song goes.

      That means – my own raw impression here – the modern conception not only is different, but in many ways seeks to overturn one’s own previously settled notion. That somehow everyone was wrong all along – including you personally. That if you think you are male, if you think you are female, well, it is not certain and probably wrong.

      It is not clear – but can the 100% male gender or 100% female gender count as much in our modern world? And does it have some morality to it if so?

    2. Is it? It’s touchy because people who have a stake in the trans movement make it touchy in order to shut off debate and discussion.

  7. Sorry for the length of the post, but I think these points are relevant to various comments you make, and I hope they help you refine your definition.

    I offer this for readers’ comments; they aren’t yet my own final definitions. I say this because the subject is touchy and though I want to be biologically accurate, I also want to be civil.

    After Professor Hammer’s recent difficulties, I can see why. It makes sense to have a philosophically rigorous working definition. I don’t see matters getting any easier. And people who politicize gender will still reject or ignore it out of hand.

    Under this definition of sex, nearly all individuals fit into a biological sex binary

    I’m comfortable with that, but would maybe like to see an estimate of the percentage of individuals who do not fit into the binary. You list other people’s estimates much further down. I am generally content saying that well over 99.9% of humans fit into one of two biological sex categories, and most who think they don’t are wrong.

    As pedantic as it is, it might be useful to clarify which beings you categorize as ‘individuals’, and whom you exclude, from fetuses to corpses to … cutting-edge experiments going on halfway around the world.

    We are not referring to prepubescent individuals or postmenopausal females here, which can be considered biological males or females because they had the evolved equipment to produce eggs or sperm

    I mentally transposed ‘had the evolved equipment’ to ‘had evolved the equipment’, and inferred that individuals were evolving organs. I know this is not the case. I might recommend tweaking wording to prevent that misreading – not that I am blaming you for what is inherently my fault.

    Do remember that there will be rare exceptions to any generalization, or caveats like, “What about women after they go through menopause?”. but that is not the issue that the whole sex/gender kerfuffle is about.

    It’s not what the issue is about, but it helps us develop a clearer picture of necessary and sufficient conditions for the philosophically rigorous definition of a biological sex. Of course, the people who want to put gender at the forefront of matters won’t care about it a rigorous definition.

    Sex: Classes of individuals in a species that have the potential to fuse their gametes with those of individuals from a different class, producing a zygote.

    The ugly questions:
    Do human fetuses have a sex? I would say ‘yes’ in well over 99% of cases. Do human fetuses have a gender? I would say ‘no’. Are human fetuses human? I would say the issue is semantic; they are human (the adjective), but not human (the noun). (Similarly, I would also argue that dead humans are both human (adjective) and human (noun) – but not ‘persons’; but that is not relevant here.)

    Those questions lead down some ugly roads, so I’d recommend wording definitions in such a way as to leave no openings to people who want to return to the abortion question.

    People on the New Right and the New Left will abuse your definitions when not actively ignoring them.

  8. I still struggle regarding the extent to which I should care or have to care about someone’s “gender” outside of a personal relationship, and whether is a primary attribute that should be considered along with sex and race and given protected status.

    1. I think we should all care particularly wrt to single sex spaces eg trans men in female prisons or woman only gyms etc etc. for woman and children it is a critical safety issue

      1. But in those situations you care about keeping men out of women’s spaces because of their sex. Their gender matters only in terms of the false signalling the predators employ to gain access. I think that’s Dr. B’s point: the gender these people adopt is irrelevant and should not be a criterion protected under human right codes, for the very reasons you mention.

        The way they bamboozle us with language is shown by your reference to trans men in women’s spaces. It is actually the trans women you have to watch out for because they are the ones with penises, testosterone, and male muscles.

  9. It’s interesting how so much of the radical rhetoric today has as its function not the overturning of the old conservative paradigm of thought, but the liberal one that had been replacing it in the post-WW2 decades. Wasn’t one of the mantras of the feminist movement that sex and gender were two very different things, and while sex was sex, gender was fluid. Those same feminists today are more likely to be ostracized as TERFs if they espouse that line. It’s amazing that people don’t recognize more that modern Wokeism is as much an attack on the Left as the Right when it comes to sex and race.

  10. I really appreciate this post and Professor Coyne’s willingness to add clarity to this issue. As it happens, I just watched John Oliver’s latest episode on trans rights ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ns8NvPPHX5Y ) and while I agree with his broad point about compassion and acceptance of all individuals, he glossed over what I think are real concerns about puberty blockers and hormone therapies. The endocrine system is enormously complex and I’m not sure that “informed consent” is even possible given how much we don’t know about long term consequences of developmental disruptions. I’ve also been reading an eye-opening book by Helen Joyce (Trans), and she makes a strong case that there is indeed a gender-identity ideology behind the sharp rise in trans youth, especially in girls transitioning to boys. I’m about halfway through the book.

    1. Helen Joyce’s Trans is an excellent book.

      Our host’s definitions work for me. When it comes to the ridiculous “sex/gender is a spectrum” argument – even if it were, so what? Age is a spectrum and yet we still restrict things like consent to sex; buying alcohol: competing in sports; driving a vehicle; drawing a pension, etc. by age for very good reasons. If sex were a spectrum it would still be ridiculous to say that there should be an unrestricted free-for-all in terms of sex-based rights, e.g. access to prisons, rape counselling services, public changing rooms and bathrooms, and so on.

      1. “Age is a spectrum and yet we still restrict things like consent to sex; buying alcohol: competing in sports; driving a vehicle; drawing a pension, etc. by age for very good reasons.”

        If an elementary school-age student has the cognitive wherewithal to competently ascertain his/her/their gender, then it seems that they are competent to make a contract, which U.S. law currently declares void or invalid. I wonder if the Woke have been making noises about “reforming” contract law?

  11. Lots to say here. Thank you for your continued focus in this important topic.

    A few comments regarding your definition of sex, pasted below:

    Sex: Classes of individuals in a species that have the potential to fuse their gametes with those of individuals from a different class, producing a zygote.

    The strength of this definition is that it refers to the production of gametes. Sex is determined by the fusion of the parental gametes and is invariant through life. A small nit is that the definition does not incorporate all of the meanings of the word. For example, sex can refer to the act of sexual intercourse. (“He or she had sex last Thursday.”) And, sex can refer to the biological concept of sex itself, as in John Maynard Smith’s book “The Evolution of Sex.” So, the definition you propose covers just one of the meanings of the word.

    I would try to avoid using the word “class” as it may have connotations that can muddy the waters. Maybe “categories” is better. I admit that this is a distinction without much of a difference.

    Biological male and biological female: Your definitions are spot on.

    On phenotypic male and phenotypic female, pasted below:

    Phenotypic Male (individuals with genitalia or secondary sexual traits of males, but which lack the ability to make sperm).
    Phenotypic Females (individuals with genitalia or secondary sexual traits of females, but which lack the ability to produce eggs).

    I’m not in love with these because you build into them the *lack* of the ability to make sperm or eggs, respectively. A biological male who *has* the capacity to product sperm will most of the time also have male phenotypic traits. In other words, the “traditional” male has both male secondary sex characteristics and can product sperm. Your definition would seem to hold that typical men are not phenotypically male, which is counterintuitive. The same argument holds for phenotypic female. A fertile biological woman will usually have female phenotypic traits, but your definition seems to hold that typical women are not phenotypically female. Maybe I’m missing something.

    I do agree that “transsexual” is a problem, as it is not possible to change one’s biological sex. We’re probably stuck with it. “Transgender” is better but has its own problems.

    Overall, I like what you’re doing, but I think that there need to be “shorthands” for the concepts of sex and gender. I would suggest that “Sex refers to a binary state that is fixed by genetics and biology” whereas “Gender refers to a state along a continuum that is specified by a person’s sociosexual role.” I’m just looking for something simpler that we can use freely but that doesn’t distort.

    Hope this helps.

  12. With all the chemicals dumped into the environment, many of them endocrine disrupters, I wonder how they might disturb developing embryos. With this sudden uptick of gender dysphoria one has to think there may be a connection. Are there any studies?

    1. Exactly – consider BPA – not sure but I’d start here :

      Girls on the Edge
      Why Gender Matters
      Leonard Sax

      Can’t recall years precisely.

  13. Perhaps the sex definition could be even more better if the slash was clarified. Back in the old days, the slash was rarely used in text, except things like “and/or” which was better than “and or or”. Now I mainly see it used (and use it myself) as a way to avoid longer phrases that would be harder to craft; so I would think/hope that my meaning was grasped by her/him/them without fussing with technicalities/picky grammar.

    But here I wasn’t sure whether “having the capacity/biological equipment ” was an and or an or statement. It also points to the problem of who all is included in the back half of the slash set; traditionally, we use an en dash instead of a hyphen if there is a 1-2 word set and an em dash if a 2-2 word set, but we haven’t settled on a way to do that with slashes.

    Since this sex definition is, as I understand it, to be offered in discussions and debates and duels to the death common these days, it would be most beneficial to eliminate any sources of confusion and/or targets for irrelevent pickiness — which I hope I am not to be accused of here.

    I have no editorial suggestion because I’m not yet sure whether you mean to require “equipment” (and wasn’t sure which equipment was included) or how broadly “capacity” extended, i.e., whether it didn’t already include “equipment” or perhaps whether “equipment” didn’t didn’t already include “capacity”, and as of right this instant, I think I would have mostly understood it if it had only said “biological capacity”.

  14. I think you nailed it, Jerry. I especially like your analysis of cases of complete androgen insensitivity. Because these infants (or fetuses by ultrasound) even if XY, will usually look like typical baby girls with the usual inspection that delivery room staff and parents make, and develop as girls up until their menarche never happens, they are “entitled” to be called (phenotypic) females, I.e., women. Full disclosure of their medical condition will result in their knowing that their genotype is XY but this is immaterial in how they live their lives except to understand why they are the way they are, including being infertile. Most will want to take female hormones for bone health and surgery may (or may not) be necessary for their desired sexual function.

    This is the only condition I’m aware of where a baby is born with normal-looking genitalia that are opposite to the genotype. You’ve helped a lot here in explaining how they don’t constitute an exception to the sex binary.

    1. > they are “entitled” to be called (phenotypic) females

      I am wary whenever I hear people using passive verbs, especially when speaking of entitlement or imperative. Who entitles certain individuals to be called ‘female’? Society in general? Language users? A language academy (like the Académie Française)? The non-existent gods? Governments? If it is a government or a social group, then aren’t those groups free to reassign words?

      1. Good call on the passive voice, Linguist. I just mean that they are entitled in my eyes to represent themselves to me as women. I am doing the entitling in the active voice. I can’t speak for anyone else.

        If I was in a developing relationship with such a woman there would come a point where she would disclose her infertility and any anatomical barrier to sexual intercourse. Even if I decided not to pursue the relationship—say I wanted my own children desperately badly—I wouldn’t accuse her of false signalling even once I sussed out—or she told me—the reason why. Some men clearly do form satisfying relationships with women with CAIS and there is no sin in her, as a straight woman, attempting to find such a man. No need to wear it on her sleeve for all the world.

        In other social interactions—the draft, women’s prisons, even talent-spotting programs to fast-track women at work, women with CAIS can present themselves as ordinary women, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever find out.

        In sport, her XY genotype will be picked up in sex screening. But elite sport has long known that women with CAIS have no testosterone effect that would give them advantage over XX women.

        So the two entitlers that matter: me, in an intimate relationship, and the rule-makers in elite sport, both agree that she is a woman. It’s not anyone else’s business.

  15. This is a very good start and I agree with most of your “draft”. Any such cool headed discussion genuinely attempting to clarify things is welcome.

    However, I would like to highlight how one thing that contribute greatly to the confusion are the words “man/woman” (or boy/girl). On the one hand, “man” designates the biological male of the human species and “woman” the biological female of that species, just as we use “drake” for a mallard male and “hen” for a mallard female. However, we usually use “boy/man” and “girl/woman” to designate a gender as well. In everyday life we have no true knowledge of the biological sex of people, most of the time, and rely on secondary sexual characteristics as a shortcut to call someone a man or a woman because secondary sexual characteristics are (by definition) highly correlated with sex in most people. I note that secondary sexual characteristics (not genitalia) are what is most often modified in trans-gender (not trans-sexual) individuals (facial hair, breast surgery, etc.). So as not to confuse the discussion, what words should we use then to designate the two most common genders? It seems to me that we do not have words for that or am I missing something obvious? Sir/madam (monsieur/madame in French, my birth language) do not really work. You can use them to address someone but it makes no sense to say the sir gender. Or do we restrict the use of “man/woman” to genders and use only “male sex” and female sex” when talking about biological sex?

    As for the definition of gender, just a quibble with your statement that it is “…where an individual sees themselves as fitting on the spectrum of sexuality … a position that is self-determined and self-defined.” That is part of it of course but just as important is the part about “how others (or society) see the individual fitting on the spectrum of sexuality”. It seems to me that most of the problems and struggles of trans-genders, queers, non-binary individuals, is about this second part. It is the same in some respect with “race” for instance. I can declare myself to be first-nation (American Indian) ethnically, but if the government, first nation groups or people around me do not recognise that fact, then it is meaningless. This being said, I note that you also first defined gender as “sociosexual role assumed by an individual” and in this respect I presume that definition includes how society sees the individual.

    Also, while I am ready to accept that a gender-spectrum exists, I believe it is important to keep in mind that if presented on a single axis, the distribution would still be very largely bimodal with some smaller bumps in the middle. Clearly the vast majority of people (including the vast majority of gays/lesbians) see themselves as man or woman gender-wise. In reality, the distribution would have to be multidimensional and presented graphically as a 3-D principal-component analysis plot and you would still end-up with two very large clouds of points (man and woman) and a bunch of smaller clouds all over the place. I always thought that one of the great accomplishments of the feminist movement had been to convince our society that you don’t have to conform to a particular ‘traditional” stereotype to be a woman (or a man for that matter) and that within the “woman” ensemble there is room for significant variation at the individual level while still being significantly different on average from the “man” ensemble. Do we really need a new word for more “masculine” women and more “feminine” men? On a side note: If there are multiple genders, how many is it useful to refer to? That is all fine and well if woke college students want to define 100’s of genders but is this really helping anyone one in any significant way?

    In that vein, it also seems to me that some of the confusion around gender is that in many discussions (as in the acronym LGBTQIA2S+etc.) it encompasses aspects of “gender expression” as well as “sexual preferences” (or “sexual attraction”) but they are completely different things. There are very macho gays and very effeminate gays, yet they are both sexually attracted to “men” (I use “gay” here as gay males, the opposite of lesbian). Do we really need to differentiate between these 2 groups? I know that the gay community has names for its different subcultures but how do they actually represent different genders and how would it be useful for society to have such terms used by the government bureaucracy for instance? It seems to me the real goal is treating every person with respect and humanity no matter what their individual characteristics are.

  16. Despite the quibbles regarding congenital abnormalities, the definition of “sex” is more detailed, specific, scientific, and ultimately comprehensible than the definition of “gender.” That’s because the term (sociosexual roles) takes on new meaning when it’s used in “gender identity” — and that new meaning isn’t spelled out. It can’t be, because it seems to me that attempting to do so undermines the work the word is supposed to do.

    … the huge variety of sociosexual roles does mean that, contra sex, gender does form a spectrum. There is an infinite number of ways to combine “male-typical” and “female-typical” traits, as well as inventing new traits.

    Perfectly reasonable— except that’s apparently not what people who advocate for transgender identities mean when they say “gender is a spectrum.” Or rather, though they often revert to this sexist ordering in some situations ( such as when trying to explain gender to children) mainstream advocates insist, over and over, that they are rejecting these sexist boxes. Transmen aren’t necessarily masculine and transwomen aren’t necessarily feminine. They often take on the signs and signals of their targeted sex/gender so other people will know whether they’re a man or woman,sure. But, like everyone else, most trans people are a mixture of male-typical and female-typical traits. Gender, they agree, is a social construct. However, transgender identities, we are told, move beyond these socially-constructed restrictions.

    So why are they using the term “gender?” If a Gender Identity isn’t sex and it isn’t sociosexual roles, then what is it? What’s the gender spectrum?

    This is my take: the ‘gender” in “gender identity” is a way of knowing. From what I can gather, it’s an indescribable, content -less inner conviction that you’re a man or woman. We’re all born with it, so it must have evolved. The spectrum doesn’t involve sliding up and down a scale of masculinity and femininity. It’s just man, woman, both, neither, and whether and when you switch between them.

    Because if it means sex, they run up against biology. And sex is restrictive and unscientific. But if it means gender, then they’re not breaking stereotypes, they’re endorsing them — if only in order to measure where they are. Plus, they can’t use single-sex spaces, which is critical.

    In my opinion, the inchoate sense of Knowing that you’re a man or woman falls somewhere on the spectrum of mystical experiences of a God that goes beyond concepts. It sounds impressive, but nobody worships that. For practical reasons, the gender in Gender Identity means sex, except when it means sociosexual role.

    1. Those are good points, and I wanted to make many of them myself before reading this comment – in particular, Dr. Coyne’s ‘gender’ definition doesn’t really have a place for masculine women or feminine men – people who, in their personalities and interests, match the stereotypes of the opposite sex better than their own, but still see themselves as belonging to their biological sex, and want to be seen as such.
      I think you point out a key to the whole ‘trans’ issue (and, being ‘cis’, this is speculation). There is something related to, but going beyond, sex-typical personality and interests. Pieter Hintjens wrote that humans have different ways of treating men and women, of communicating with them, of applying taboos – as a computer scientist, he called it the ‘male-male’ protocol, the ‘male-female protocol’, and the ‘female-female’ protocol. Trans people want to use (and be treated according to) the protocol that doesn’t match their sex, for a variety of reasons, and some apparently cannot decide.
      That partly explains “transphobia”. When meeting another person, and it’s unclear what protocol to use when dealing with them, that can cause all kinds of awkward situations and elicit a respose of “why does this person have to make it so hard?”

      1. Some people just like being difficult due to a sense of grievance about the world. In most social and employment situations, being difficult gets you ostracized or fired. But if you adopt a sick role (as with such invisible disabilities like chronic fatigue syndrome), or invent a new human rights-protected category, society and your employer have to walk on eggshells around you and can’t boot your sorry ass to the curb.

        Medical historian Edward Shorter wrote about this in From Paralysis to Fatigue: Psychosomatic Illness in the Twentieth Century.. The sick role exempts people from having to contribute to the economy in order to eat. A widening concept of human rights entitles people to force others to accommodate their chips on their shoulders. In both cases we dare not push back.

      2. Your idea on being treated by the opposite sex’s protocol might be expressed by the metaphor of the yardstick:

        “A more illuminating object to metaphorically represent gender identity can be found in a yardstick.
        In this view, men and women are measured according to two distinct sets of standards… When examined this way, the distinction between “gender identity” and “gender roles” becomes more clear: gender identity is the selection of one’s yardstick, while gender roles are the markings on the yardstick that you measure yourself against. With this idea in place, respecting another person’s gender identity means measuring them according to the yardstick they prefer.”


        It’s an illuminating metaphor, because it explains so much —including why Genderists think they’re not advocating sexist gender roles. It also reveals the flaw:

        ” … it presupposes the need for sex-based yardsticks in the first place — and even presupposes that the desire to be measured by one or the other is inherent to human beings, perhaps more inherent than their own organs of generation…. (yet) the entire idea of gauging human personality differently according to sex is a symptom of sexism and patriarchy, not an inherent human desire.”

          1. No, society labels one yardstick “For Measuring Females” and the other is “For Measuring Males.” Your Gender Identity purportedly gives you the right to pick whichever yardstick you’re comfortable with. A masculine straight male who personally sees themselves as male uses the male yardstick: standard guy. A masculine straight male who personally sees themselves as female uses the female yardstick: butch lesbian. Cool.

            It ignores biology and focuses on people taking their personalities and deciding which sex it belongs under. I think any theory of Gender Identity which can’t explain the transwoman butch lesbian is flawed.

        1. This has always been my issue with the increasing importance of gender identity – it reinforces the sex based yardsticks. Given how few situations in which the sex based yard sticks matter (elite sport, prison) I think a fairer society in the future would be one that tries to do away with them not reinforce them.

        2. Actually, I disagree with the notions in the last paragraph. I strongly suspect that humans do have a built-in need for gender roles, and that if you could somehow raise a group of children without imprinting existing gender roles on them, they would spontaneously come up with their own (which would, in all likelihood, be completely dysfunctional).
          Also, I think that carefully calibrated gender roles can be helpful to bring out the best in people and avoid the excesses and dysfunctions that come with stereotypically male or female temperaments.

          1. And this works best I think if we promote many roles for men and women, rather than deciding who’s a man or woman based on what role they fulfill.

  17. As with your comments about hermaphroditism, intersex, etc., my first question to people who always use these as defenses of the idea that sex is not binary is, “is a person born without legs evidence that humans are not a bipedal species?” Of course, the answer to that question is “no,”; that person’s lack of legs is a congenital deformity and, moreover, a maladaptive one.

    This allows me to tell a story I always love telling, just because it’s heartwarming and shows what people with disabilities are capable of doing. I knew a guy in college who was born without arms, up to his elbows. Now, I don’t know how many people here have played fighting video games, where people play one-on-one with an opponent, but this guy was king of the campus when it came to these games. He would hold the controller between his legs and use his, well, “stumps” (for lack of a better word) to control the two joysticks and eight buttons. People with normal hands use their thumbs for the joysticks and four face buttons, and their index and middle fingers for the triggers on the far end of the controller, but he had none of these. The stumps at his elbows seemed far to wide and flat to hit even a single button with any precision, and he lacked any digits to press the triggers while also manipulating the joysticks and/or hitting the face buttons to perform combos.

    And yet nobody could beat him. He was the fastest, most precise, most overall amazing fighting game player I’ve ever seen to this day. And fighting games like he used to play — Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, etc. — are seriously complex at higher levels (there are worldwide tournaments). Whether or not someone wins comes down purely to skill at the level he played. He was absolutely unbeatable. We would have nights where we’d gather around in his dorm room and everyone who played these games would challenge him, and we’d all just watch in amazement as he masterfully destroyed every challenger. Nobody ever came close to winning a single round.

    It just always makes me feel good to think back on him. He was the king of something that seemed should have been impossible for him. He got the attention of dozens of people every week, not to watch some freak show, but to marvel at his skill level and truly pay tribute to phenomenal skill. I hope that he’s happy and just as successful at whatever he’s doing now. I have a feeling he is extremely successful, as the amount of practice it must have taken him to master games that people with normal anatomy never manage to master must have been enormous. I’d love to know what he’s up to, but I have no social media and don’t remember his name (I’m not good with names). I’m sure he’s doing well, wherever he is…

  18. I think adults should have no real problems with any of this.

    The problem arises when we consider at what age a child is ready for such topics. One might argue as soon as they are born – and that is what started the problem in the first place.

    1. ^^^ I mean that it could be argued that because children were oblivious to this in past generations it led to social problems.

  19. I’d revise the definition of sex this way:

    “Classes of individuals within a species for those species that reproduce when gametes of an individual fuse with a different type of gamete from another individual, producing a zygote.”

    This wording removes the reproductive function of an individual, which can have exceptions, and places the reproductive function into the species as a whole. It also specifies that there are different types of gametes.

    Haven’t read all above comments, don’t know if I’ve been ninja’ed.

  20. (I’m a linguist)

    The notion of Gender is currently the source of some confusion. In the history of English, for example, the word “gender” was originally (and still is) used in the domain of linguistics. Many languages have markers that divide their nouns into different categories, sometimes based on semantic properties of the object, but oftentimes not. While many languages have a profusion of genders (for example, the Bantu languages of Central and Southern Africa; the Sinitic languages of East Asia), many others have only three, or even two (and some may have none). Many two-gendered languages are divided along “animate” and “inanimate’; such gender systems clearly wed gender to semantics. Others use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” (sometimes, also, a third, “neuter”), although assignation to one or another category is usually semantically arbitrary: there is, typically, no inherent property of an object or concept that determines whether it is linguistically masculine or feminine (or neuter) gender. Rather, the terms “masculine” and “feminine” here are just arbitrary markers, and bear little or no relation to men or women, male or female.

    In English, grammatical gender is only present in the pronoun system (along with a small set of inanimate noun classes, for example, transportation vehicles take the feminine), and it is here, in both English and certain other languages with (often more pervasive) masculine-feminine gender systems, that there is currently confusion, disagreement, and even some utterly distasteful hostility. As the word “sex” became ambiguous between denoting the male-female distinction and, later, the procreative/recreational activity, it has fallen out of favor in some circles when referring to the former, and the word “gender” stepped in to replace it, “sex” being used primarily for (sexual) activity itself. Most recently though, the term “gender” has been cleaved from the male-female system and deployed for a new one, that of how one feels “on the inside”—as a man (boy) or as a woman (girl)—independent of sex. This new usage, in a state of linguistic flux, is now somewhat controversial psychologically, socially, politically, and yes, scientifically. But despite its scientifically unsettled status, there is little reason for controversy elsewhere.


    Regarding pronouns, languages’ pronoun systems—unlike their noun, verb, and adjective inventories—are extremely resistant to change. In English for example, singular gendered pronouns will, in all likelihood, remain in place for individuals: “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers” (“it/it/its” for neuter); plural pronouns (“they/them/their”) will likely be reserved for referring to more than one person. Although some individuals want others to refer to them with “they/them/their”, these individuals have not replaced “I/me/my” with “we/us/our” when referring to themselves—an obvious first step—and so, their expecting others to change their usage without their first changing their own is suggestive of the stubbornness of linguistic inertia. But most fundamentally, this probably won’t happen regardless, because a gender designation marked by a number designation is quite likely unprecedented by nature, and is certainly unprecedented by diktat. No one dictates how language changes; language change is passive and natural. This is not a statement of policy; it is a statement of fact. Since attempts to change the pronoun system will probably fail, then perhaps, in those (typically, secularized and technologized) societies where “masculine”-“feminine” gender nomenclature has become contentious for some, new gender labels can be suggested, say, “Class A” and “Class 1″. (Recall, noun inventories are readily subject to modification.) If, over time, in the very unlikely event that these new terms catch on, any linguistic controversy all but disappears.

    (Singular “they/them/their” has, over the centuries, crept into use in some contexts. For example, “Someone forgot their keys” may be encountered when (1) the sex and gender of the person is unknown [as when reporting this information to a clerk], and even (2) when the sex [and, presumably, gender] of the person is known [as when teasing or scolding the friend who returns to fetch them]. This second usage is probably a consequence of analogy with the first. But in neither case is the plural [used to mark number] deployed as a mark of gender.)

    more here:

    1. Can you tell us (probably just I am interested, vide infra) about “binary”?

      I looked up binary here :


      And I take it to mean “two fold”, or of having a pair of significantly related objects.

      Bivalve : two valves
      Bicuspid : two cusps

      So far so good.

      Then we come to :

      Binary number : base 2 representation with a “0” or a “1”. Never both. The language is generally from the Boolean algebra of sets.

      Still fine, really. But I remain puzzled about “-nary”. What is “-nary” doing there? Why not say “binumeral”, or “binumber”? Is it because binary code is base 2?

      I originally surmised “-nary” means numeral, only because it looks and sounds like that, but apparently not.

      So why not “bisex” for the gamete types in apes and other mammals?


      1. Hi sorry I guess I didn’t quite answer your question. I honestly don’t know the detailed etymology of the word.

        1. Thanks anyhow – bini is new to me – I’ll have to find a good book – internet findings are ok, but…

    2. Thanks for your detailed comment. This part interests me:

      “No one dictates how language changes; language change is passive and natural. This is not a statement of policy; it is a statement of fact.”

      Perhaps this has been the case because there weren’t systems powerful and far-reaching enough to change language as a matter of policy. Now, we have the internet, 24 hour news networks, government institutions that can regulate what every public school does, and entire ostensibly apolitical institutions that can be taken over by a single faction (e.g. academia, Wikipedia). So, the fact that language hasn’t been changed by dictate previously does not necessarily mean it can’t be now. It will be interesting to see if wider culture continues to resist such changes, or if, eventually, the threats of being labeled “transphobic,” or of being fired by your HR department over your refusal to follow their new pronoun policy, or of being punished in various ways by your university for not following their policy, will be sufficient to force change. Heck, I’m just talking about the US in the previous sentence; in a country like Canada or the UK, you can even be reprimanded by the government itself (via the police).

      So, we now have means of communication and organization between parties from all over the globe ad websites that collectively have a near-monopoly on mainstream discourse coordinating, coupled with institutions that are willing to push a change in linguistics and increasingly punish those who refuse to change. I think it remains to be seen whether or not this will ultimately lead to the enforcement of new language norms by sheer force (both political and physical).

      1. Hi. My own research program (I retired a few years ago, just as the ideological fit was about to hit the shan) involved harnessing basic evolutionary biological proposals to account for the structure and change of linguistic sound systems. Now, in genetics we certainly have the means to effect changes not even imagined by Darwin: gene therapy and all sorts of technological and medical innovations I barely know anything about. So, you’re asking can the same be said of language change: can we now, given technology, change language in a top-down way….which is a really good question. But I’m gonna stick with “no, we can’t.” First, certainly, there have been (and are) far more draconian political systems than ours that have tried (and failed) to do this, apart from introducing some new nouns and verbs into daily use (not pronouns!), an occurrence that is ubiquitous regardless of a society’s freedom. Second, even as technology proceeds apace, I simply can’t imagine that it will have the power to effect change in the components of language that have never shown even the slightest tendency to undergo such change, e.g. pronoun systems. Obviously, this is my opinion; maybe some other linguists would disagree.

    3. “no one dictates how language changes.”
      Oh yes they do. Woke has a major project to force change by law, down to the ‘corruption of dictionaries’ level.

    4. Just putting this here – suggests there might also be a French influence :

      word-forming element meaning “two, having two, twice, double, doubly, twofold, once every two,” etc., from Latin bi- “twice, double,” from Old Latin dvi- (cognate with Sanskrit dvi-, Greek di-, dis-, Old English twi-, German zwei- “twice, double”), from PIE root *dwo- “two.”
      Nativized from 16c. Occasionally bin- before vowels; this form originated in French, not Latin, and might be partly based on or influenced by Latin bini “twofold” (see binary). In chemical terms, it denotes two parts or equivalents of the substance referred to. Cognate with twi- and di- (1).


  21. Honestly, I feel like conflation and confusion of the terms is intentional. There was a time not so long ago that gender and sex were indeed synonyms, which is why your gender was listed on your birth certificate and drivers license.

    Regardless, I think the provided definition for sex is the correct one. I have always preferred a reference to gametes than to chromosomes. With regards to intersex individuals, I find it best to point out the difference between in-principle and in-kind. Biology is messy, and the existence of twilight doesn’t disprove night and day.

    Towards gender, I am generally accepting of the idea that gender refers to a social identity of some kind. Connecting it to sex seems arbitrary and only useful as a tool of obfuscation, designed to allow anything to be possible for anyone – it’s a special kind of narcissism. I think my biggest frustration here is that social identity gender appears to be almost indistinguishable from what we used to call personality or style.

  22. Typo here? This means that a biological man who adopts or evinces some phenotypic or behavioral aspects of a woman cannot be said to be “transgender”, either, for sex is not gender.

    The main question, of course, is whether a transgender man or (usually) woman (following the usual usage of the noun being the gender transitioned to) should, as a result of hormones, surgery, etc., have the right to be treated as that gender by society. I see it as progress if we don’t treat different genders differently, so that aspect of transsexuality is inherentlty regressive. Usually, the more progressive a society is, the less discrimination there is based on sex or gender. Should there be separate schools, offices, swimming pools, public transportation, public saunas, changing rooms, public toilets, (sections of) churches? Societies differ. But IF there is some distinction, it is usually based on sex (not gender). I MIGHT be willing to think that it is OK if some man who has been castrated and is taking female hormones and really tries to appear female to be treated as such in some situations (even though I think that the idea is inherently flawed; I am an atheist but I acknowledge that not everyone is—same idea), but—and this is the main debate—such distinctions should not be considered not to apply to people who merely self-identify as the other sex. (Although one can’t change one’s sex, most would say that they self-ID as the other sex, not the other gender).

    One can’t physically change sex. Changing gender relies on the concept of regressive gender roles. Self-ID means that the corresponding term (usually “woman”) ceases to have any meaning. NONE of it is rational. Like religion. I don’t advocate genocide against the religious; people have a right to be deluded. But they don’t have a right to expect others to play along.

    I even go so far as to think that respecting non-standard pronouns is part of a slippery slope. Not only is it playing along, but the more accepted this becomes, the more people are excluded who don’t play along. Tell the woke that you feel excluded if asked about your pronouns, or even if others advertise theirs, and ask if they can be more inclusive.

  23. Thanks for writing this Jerry. It seems it would be extremely useful for many biology faculty to understand the evolutionary basis of sexual reproduction. Many of the ideological treatments on this subject continue to treat sex as though its fundamental function is social identity rather than reproduction. The gamete definition and focus is a corrective to that important misunderstanding (I’m being charitable). The stability of two (and only two) sex types in virtually all eukaryotes is a fascinating topic. I know there is quite a bit of theory on this subject, including relatively new ideas about how two sex types facilitate mitochondrial and nuclear genotype compatibility. Would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this fundamental theory topic. At any rate, thanks again!

  24. Those of us who have been doing this for a while use “bodies that are organized around producing large/small gametes” instead of “capacity/biological equipment ” to avoid people saying well what about children/menopausal women/infertile people/intersex/etc.

  25. Hi Jerry, I think I see a couple of typos in one paragraph:

    There are also cases of hermaphroditism in humans: individuals who produce both ovarian and testicular tissue. Only about 500 such individuals have been described, with no more than 11 individuals being fertile, but fertile as only either males (producing sperm) or females (producing eggs). (As far as I know, we need more data on these individuals.) Those hermaphrodites who produce viable [small?, sperm?] gametes could be regarded as biological males, and those with viable eggs as biological females. The rest of these individuals, since they produce no gametes but have tissue associated with production of both types of gametes, could be seen as intersex. While their appearance could slot them into the categories of phenotypic males or phenotypic [fe]males, they are again not members of not a “third sex”.

  26. All these definitions make good sense, but I think something important has gone unsaid. Biologists need to define sex the way Jerry does (modulo some fine details like those mentioned in comment #27) because, well, evolution. And gender, the sociosexual role assumed by an individual, is important for obvious reasons.

    But a great deal of social concern and contention is over phenotypes. “Men’s” and “women’s” sports categories being the prime example. It doesn’t really matter how binary biological sex is, when phenotype is the focus of concern.

    Jeffrey Lockhart is right:

    The second obstacle is that what science can tell us about sex is often far removed from what we actually care about. Biologically, one could say the core of human sex is anisogamy: one large gamete (an egg) joins with one smaller one (a sperm) … But anisogamy is not a very useful definition of sex unless we are trying to make a baby. When we talk about equal opportunities in education and the workplace, sexual harassment and discrimination, the division of household labour, or sport and bathroom access, we are not talking about gametes.

  27. I share your insistence on separating sex and gender, but now that many in the public talk about the “gender” on one’s birth certificate, I have little hope for sense to reign. I do see value, however, for a better term to describe those who, whether through use of surgery or chemicals, alter their bodies in a way that we now colloquially talk about as “trans”: your distinction between changes in behavior and phenotype is useful here. I could readily understand the word “transphenotypical” as applied to those who have surgically or chemically altered their bodies, particularly if various categories indicated the precise nature of the change(s): transphenotypical type 1, etc. I would hope the clinicians have already developed such terms.

    But this leaves open the behavioral aspect, arguably of more importance in general language usage. I continue to hold the seemingly-now-quaint understanding that a “man” is, as a necessary condition, also a “male”, but that there is more to being a man than just being a male—chiefly, as you point out, the roles and other social expectations, which can vary across time and culture. But as to what constitutes “manly” (or “womanly”) behavior and identity, I increasingly wonder whether we need an umbrella term—let alone a proliferating array of descriptors—for something that exists on a continuum. It is one thing, in a theoretical sense, to describe the concept of social and sexual roles and desires existing across a continuum and call this abstraction “gender” (more appropriately, perhaps, “gendered” roles and desires); it seems an entirely different matter for people to claim that “I have a gender”, as though the abstraction has become something concrete and readily self-identifiable, something, like, sex—and thus the confused and misapplied use of gender and sex as synonyms.

    If we need “gender” terms to describe what behavioral type of man or woman one is, then what other categories need similar linguistic expansion? Relationships? Professions? There is, for example, much more to being a father or mother than simply having reproduced or adopted. One might say that “fatherly” and “motherly” behaviors exist on a continuum of personal choice, biological influence, and the social expectations of a given time and place. Do we need a term—let alone dozens of new and ever-changing terms—so that each of us fathers and mothers can publicly self-identify as the type of parent he or she is or hopes to be?

    For whatever marginal value the concept “gender” once held, I fear that its varied and oftentimes incoherent usage confuses more than it sheds light. (In some ways it reminds me of the “aether” of pre-Einsteinian physics and astronomy or the then-fashionable Freudian terms of the mid-20th century.) So, I applaud your definitional distinctions and found them helpful. But I wonder whether we might have been better off had the word died of neglect. Might this make me “gender nonconforming”?

Leave a Reply