Richard Dawkins sticks up for the “bad” old biology words

February 16, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Just look at this headline in the Torygraph! Isn’t that guaranteed to get nearly everyone to look, woke or not? The short newpaper article may well be paywalled for you (see by clicking on the headline), but you can see it archived here on the Wayback Machine.

What appears to have happened is that Richard read the article below from a recent issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution, an article I posted about on February 8. You can access that article below (for free, I think) by clicking on the screenshot.

As I noted, that article, like several others that have recently appeared, argued that we should purge scientific language of words that are “harmful.” There were two problems. First, the authors hardly gave any examples of harmful language: really just three: “superpredator”, “gypsy moth” and “invasive species”/”alien species”, though I’m sure more words will come pouring out when the Pecksniffs start combing our argot like a chimp looking for lice. Second, the authors give absolutely no evidence—save one person who said they were tired of hearing about “invasive species” as an undergraduate—that this language harms people, drives people out of ecology and evolution, or keeps people from going into ecology and evolution. Those claims are in fact risible. Yes, there may be some terminology that could do these things, but I haven’t seen any.

Oh, I forgot one potentially demonized term: “citizen science.” The article below says this about that:

Relatedly, the academic research community is also discussing the implications of using the term ‘citizen science’, a practice whereby members of the public collect or process data, because ‘citizen’ can frame science in terms of national belonging. While ‘community science’ has been adopted by some as a replacement, others have noted that this replacement co-opts an existing term, highlighting potential unintended consequences of language revision and the importance of engaged and reflective processes. These examples teach an important lesson: community-centered work provides critical insight and momentum for long-lasting, disciplinary reflection about scientific language that is too often considered neutral, normal, or fixed.

The only rational response to that is, “Give me a break!”

My summary of the new attempt at changing scientific terminology was this:

I doubt that this mass bowdlerization will make ecology and evolution more welcoming. Nor will there ever be a test of that: what we see are people making clams about what words are offensive, and I wonder why they should have the power to dictate what words we should or should not use. (This is similar to Hitchens’s question about who would you trust to decide what books you can and cannot read.) If there were palpable evidence of people running for the STEM egress because of ecological and evolutionary language, I’d change my tune, but that’s just not happening.

The authors beefed as well that English is the lingua franca of science, and presumably that’s not inclusive.  My response was to jokingly suggest that we all write our papers in Esperanto. Otherwise, there’s no beef in that beef.

Back to Dr. Dawkins, who’s vowed to use every word singled out (remember, only three words or phrases were mentioned). This is what the Torygraph says:

Richard Dawkins has vowed to ‘use every one of the prohibited words’ that scientists have called to be phased out because they are no longer inclusive.

On Tuesday, academics working in ecology and evolutionary biology called for the avoidance of using words such as male, female, man, woman, mother, father, alien, invasive, exotic and race.

Instead, they encouraged the use of terms such as ‘sperm-producing’ or egg producing’ or ‘XY/XX individual’ to avoid ‘emphasising hetero-normative views’.

But Professor Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and the God Delusion branded the suggestions ridiculous.

“The only possible response is contemptuous ridicule,” he told The Telegraph. “I shall continue to use every one of the prohibited words. I am a professional user of the English language. It is my native language.

“I am not going to be told by some teenage version of Mrs Grundy which words of my native language I may or may not use.”

That’s pretty funny, though I have no idea who Mrs. Grundy is.

Others weighed in:

Other experts also branded the alternatives ‘absurd’ and argued it could cause confusion in scientific fields.

They also pointed out that the terms ‘egg producing’ and ‘sperm producing’ were simply synonyms for male and female, and continued to confirm that sex is binary.

Cancer expert Professor Karol Sikora said: “I certainly do not agree and such language will not be appearing in any of my scientific work.”

Commenting on the research on GB News, Francis Foster the comedian said: “As always with these things it’s completely meaningless, it’s going to obfuscate what we are actually talking about and it’s laughable, it’s beyond parody.”

Now I can’t find the suggested substitutes for “male and female” in the TREE article; perhaps they were discussed elsewhere as words to be banned.  But I agree with using “male” and “female” when you are talking about biological sex because, in virtually all animals and vascular plants, sex really is binary.

It’s clear that Richard is pushing back hard here. He’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more.  As for the words he mentions, or the ones in the TREE article above, I’m pretty much on his side. When I do see a word that genuinely offends someone who’s not looking to be offended, or if I find a word to be bigoted or stigmatizing a group, I won’t use it. But there are precious few of these, and I note that several of my colleagues are still saying “Gypsy moth.” (Some readers noted in the comments to my earlier article that the word “gypsy” is not offensive to some groups of Roma people.)

The Torygraph article mentions two more phrases that I will continue to use. It’s simply ludicrous to try to change these as they are not offensive except to a few people whose plaints deserve to be ignored. These terms aren’t mentioned in the TREE article (the Torygraph is a bit confused on this), but come from other places:

Even the phrase ‘double-blind’ which is often used to describe trials in which neither the participants nor scientists know if they are on a drug or placebo – has been deemed potentially offensive to those with disabilities, as has Darwin’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.”

Believe me, there will be more of these articles, and the list of demonized terms will grow ever longer. As ever, we might scan them to see if some are genuinely offensive to many people of good will, and, if so, stop using them. But such phrases, I’ve found, are precious few—almost nonexistent.

53 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins sticks up for the “bad” old biology words

  1. Miss Grundy was the straight-laced teacher in Archie comics.
    According to Wikipedia the term “Mrs. Grundy” has been used to describe a prudish woman since the 19th century, so I suspect that was Dawkins’ source.

      1. Perhaps “Grundy” might be a good substitute for “Woke,” since the latter word has been taken over by the right and driven into the ground. Furthermore, “Grundyism” is a good word to throw back at those who eagerly accuse others of various “isms”. “Grundy” is also more comical-sounding and less high-flown than “woke.” Down with the Grundys and boo to Grundyism!

        1. That is a brilliant idea, I heartily second the motion to use Grundy as the label for performative SJ/woke. Also handy to put some distance with less savoury users of the word “woke”.

    1. Good job, Ken, you beat me to it. Miss Grundy was also scarecrowish and usually crabby Archie teacher and I’m very surprised that JAC didn’t recognize the reference. I guess he’s not an octogenarian!

    2. Come now, Mrs Grundy is a bit older than the Archie comics. She was an off-stage character in Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough. She was a neighbour who would have a conventional and censorious opinion on everything, and caused much concern for the rest of the cast as they were afraid of her disapprobation.
      Richard uses ‘Mrs Grundy’ much as our host uses ‘Pecksniff’ (although that Martin Chuzzlewit character was notable for hypocrisy rather than censoriousness.

  2. This is such an obvious observation, but once again, I’m struck by how often current “woke” (for lack of an easier label) controversies turn on language issues.

    We human critters are mighty haughty and certain about this funny skill we have, aren’t we? But much of the “debate” feels like the proverbial angels dancing on the heads of pins: pointless navel-gazing by people with nothing better to do.

    1. Yes, it seems that the move away from traditional religion is just resulting in new forms of annoying BS and self-righteousness.

    2. We need a term for the phenomenon where these variety of people exert considerable energy policing everyday language while making sure people are watching, as if that does a damn thing about any real problems.
      Performative wokeness seems about right.

      1. Yep it’s performative. The shocking flip side is the lack of self-awareness. When the authors tell me in their paper that a phrase like “invasive species” reminds them of undocumented human migrants, I think maybe the authors are the xenophobic bigots.

    3. It’s an outgrowth of PoMo thinking. If you control the language, you can control the “discourse”. And discourse shapes reality. Or so they belive.

  3. It’s not clear from their long winded explication of “citizen science”, but perhaps if I was on a game show and they asked me I’d say it is worth giving at least one example : astronomy has the largest number of discoveries or observations made by amateurs, and I believe they are proud of it.

      1. … As far as I know IN biology .. in the field of biology…

        I do know a tad of biology simply by osmosis from this website!

      2. Ecology, and the wider fields of “phenomenology” – which organisms live where ; when they do certain things (flowering, migrating for examples) – are in very large part a product of skilled amateurs doing their own things for decades and decades – but completing report forms accurately and submitting them to (for example) the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), where a relatively small number of professionals have been digesting them into distribution maps, rates of change and other grist for the academic mill.
        By comparison, my geological field is highly professionalised – very little survey work is done by amateurs, and that has been the case since the mid 1850s (for the UK). Fossil-hunting OTOH has a long history of amateurs finding “summut odd” and bringing it to the attention of professionals.

        astronomy has the largest number of discoveries or observations made by amateurs, and I believe they are proud of it.

        you can’t say things like that without mentioning Hanny’s Voorwerp, if only because it’s so splendidly an un-English word, without relying on 17-consonont-long strings or pictograms.

      3. Famous amateur scientist in biology? How about a certain Charles Darwin (if by “amateur” you mean someone who was not paid as a scientist)?

        1. “amateur” to me means uncredentialed, at least in a given field. “citizen” to me incorporates that idea – sort of DIY enthusiast.

          Note that it does not mean unskilled, unintelligent, or anything else but simply not professional or professionally trained.

  4. I am delighted yet not surprised to see Mr. Dawkins, other scientists, and many commenters on this site pushing back against this leftist excess. But I am curious: has anyone seen a left-leaning politician of national prominence in the Anglosphere similarly (or even meekly) push back publicly against extremes driven by gender or DEI ideology? I have seen many facilitate it, but who publicly opposes it?

  5. [T]hough I’m sure more words will come pouring out when the Pecksniffs start combing our argot like a chimp looking for lice.
    That’s a wonderfully evocative phrase, thanks!

    1. Oh my, comparing people to chimps. If some Mrs. Grundy doesn’t complain about that, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!

  6. I have a theory about which words are alienating people from and driving people out of STEM. They are “intelligence”, “hard work”, and “persistence.” I wish these words were far more inclusive than they currently are.

  7. The ban on “male” and “female” comes from the authors’ web site

    The whole effort is an idiotic farce. Even the authors can’t do it right: on one line they propose banning “man” and “woman” and replacing them with “male” and “female”, but six lines down they propose banning “male” and “female” and replacing with “sperm-producing” or “egg-producing”.

    That howler has already appeared on twitter and elsewhere so check soon before the authors memory hole it.

    1. Idiotic farce is right. And what about prepubescent girls and post menopausal women? In my lifetime, I have: not produced eggs, produced eggs and not produced eggs. Perhaps in my non-egg producing phases, I was actually a non-person. I have had a child, whom I breast (not chest) fed. I am female, I am a woman and I am a mother. These people really do need to Fuck Off!!!, (immediately, and with extreme prejudice, as is said).

      As an afterthought, my child’s father was male (duh!). He was once a boy and became a man. So, the Pecksniff Grundy-ites need to fuck off yet again.

      1. According to the biological definition of sex, the females are the egg-producers and the males are the sperm-producers; but this mustn’t be read as meaning that females are producing eggs and males are producing sperm throughout their entire lives.

    2. Yes I caught that one as well. These kind of emotive-ideological attempts at revisionism generally has a tendency to end up eating their own tail, becoming more convoluted, contradictory and ever-less explanatory.

  8. “…as has Darwin’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.”

    I was going to point out that this was not Darwin’s phrase but Herbert Spencer’s, but I see from looking at the linked article just now that the Torygraph has corrected that since Jerry quoted from it, so someone got there before me.

  9. I do think there is at least one additional rational response to this, beyond “give me a break.” It involves an anatomical impossibility (he says….) and is NSFW (or a family website).

  10. I stand with Richard, and intentionally use all of the standard terms. McCown’s Longspur forever (both males and females)!

  11. I personally dislike the term “citizen science”, not because of the innane reasons the authors of the article provided but simply because it sounds patronizing. Sticking a label like “citizen/community science” onto amateurs simply demonstrates their discomfort (and ignorance) of the word as well as their idea that “amateurs” need to be managed by a “real” scientist. Most taxonomy in entomology for example is done by amateurs and though some are dodgy, many are the preeminent experts in their chosen groups. I have no need to be annointed by sophistry busybodies.

    1. I don’t really think it’s patronising. I agree that there are many amateur enthusiasts in fields such as entomology who have professional-level expertise in their field of interest but there are also huge numbers of enthusiastic volunteers who are happy (and sufficiently skilled) to collect basic data but have no aspirations or capability to then analyse this data themselves. There are lots of projects running in which professional scientists recruit amateurs in this way so they can generate large data sets that could not otherwise be attained. ‘Citizen science’ seems a good term to describe such projects and I can’t think of a succinct alternative that would be less open to being considered patronising. I would agree with you that the reasons given in the TREE article for rejecting the term do not merit consideration.

  12. I wonder if using XY and XX individuum doesn’t break their own rules. It may include the vast majority of human beings but do they suddenly consider these terms as being inclusive. And they surely don’t fit for all forms of life and not even all mammals e.g., the Platypus.

    1. I noticed that too. Defining sexes as XX or XY (instead of female or male) is just wrong, a step backward in understanding. The so-called “sex chromosomes” don’t map perfectly with sex as defined by gamete size or even phenotypic appearance of external sex organs. The indisputable fact that not every human is XX or XY causes some people to assert incorrectly that sex is therefore not binary. One wonders if these people promote chromosome complement as a “gotcha” because as soon as we nod along in assent, they spring on us the multitude of well-characterized chromosomal abnormalities or other disorders in embryological development.

  13. “Biological sex certainly cannot be defined by chromosomes. Many species, such as crocodiles, have no sex chromosomes, because their sex is not determined genetically. Chromosomal definitions also fail for species that change sex during their lifecycle, since their chromosomes, of course, remain unchanged. Chromosomal definitions do not work even when restricted to species with genetic sex determination and no sex-switching. In humans and most other mammals males have two different sex chromosomes (XY) and females have two identical sex chromosomes (XX). But in birds it is the other way around: males have two identical and females two different chromosomes. Biologists know which chromosome pairs are ‘male’ or ‘female’ because they know which animals are male or female, using the gametic definition.”

    (Griffiths, Paul E. “What are Biological Sexes?” 2021.)

    Moreover, what many people don’t know is that…

    “…the existence of a well-defined sex binary is perfectly compatible with large amounts of within-sex variation in anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Indeed, sexual selection often amplifies individual variability in sex-related traits, and can favor the evolution of multiple alternative phenotypes in males and females.”

    (Del Giudice, Marco. “Measuring Sex Differences and Similarities.” In /Gender and Sexuality Development: Contemporary Theory and Research/, edited by Doug P. VanderLaan and Wang Ivy Wong, 1-38. Cham: Springer, 2022. p. 4)

  14. The woke language games distort our sense of reality, and that makes them dangerous. If you want to remind yourself of the basic biological facts, I recommend this short new paper (open access):

    * Goymann, Wolfgang, Henrik Brumm, and Peter M. Kappeler. “Biological sex is binary, even though there is a rainbow of sex roles.” BioEssays 45/2 (February 2023):

    “ABSTRACT: Biomedical and social scientists are increasingly calling the biological sex into question, arguing that sex is a graded spectrum rather than a binary trait. Leading science journals have been adopting this relativist view, thereby opposing fundamental biological facts. While we fully endorse efforts to create a more inclusive environment for gender-diverse people, this does not require denying biological sex. On the contrary, the rejection of biological sex seems to be based on a lack of knowledge about evolution and it champions species chauvinism, inasmuch as it imposes human identity notions on millions of other species. We argue that the biological definition of the sexes remains central to recognising the diversity of life. Humans with their unique combination of biological sex and gender are different from non-human animals and plants in this respect. Denying the concept of biological sex, for whatever cause, ultimately erodes scientific progress and may open the flood gates to “alternative truths.””

    1. Thank you for the reference!

      The last sentence is a really important one, as is the subtitle of the paper:

      “Denying biological sex is anthropocentric and promotes species chauvinism”.

  15. As it has been noted, it stems from the EEB Language Project (canadian isn’t it?).
    I think I found one word that qualifies as objectionable: Indian (when referring to native americans/indigenous population of the Americas), and that’s because they collectively do not identify with it, do not want to be called it nor consider it even remotely a correct naming for them as a biogeographical population (and in this, they’re certainly correct).

    1. During native protests it is quite common to see plywood signs spray painted , “Indian Land. Keep off.” posted on vandalized or illegally occupied private property.

      Canada’s Indian Act of 1876 defines certain aboriginal people as “status Indians”. It entitles them to special race-based rights, money, and entitlements not available to other citizens. (Original provisions that placed restrictions on Indians in exchange for these entitlements making them wards of the state have been repealed over the years or deemed unconstitutional.). It also insulates band leadership from both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and from provincial and federal Human Rights Codes that would otherwise prohibit race-based governance. Yes, a settler person might lose his job for referring to aboriginals in general as Indians but that would be punishment for the Wrongthink of not respecting the shibboleth that aboriginals style themselves as sovereign “First Nations”, all 632 of them. It is not an ethnic slur per se like calling someone the n-word or the like.

      Yes, the Indian Act is racist on its face but not because of its name. Attempts to repeal it have been resisted by a storm of protest from entrenched aboriginal rent-seekers who don’t object to the name of the Act as long as it drives their gravy train.

      While most settler Canadians don’t refer to aboriginals as Indians in public, the term does have legal meaning as long as The Indian Act remains in force. The best reason not to use it is that Canadians of actual Indian descent might feel that ill feeling against “Indian activists” was being directed at them.

  16. I believe the authors of this paper in TEE are really making a fool of themselves, not because of the intention of these kind of actions (because, as stated here more times than I can count, the intention is usually well-meaning) but because it looks as though they haven’t thought all the way through the implications of such proposed changes. OK, let’s assume the community ditches the terms male and female (even though they *are* biologically meaningful), what should we start using for what used to be called male-male competition? sperm-producers-sperm-producers meeting? Is the “sex” in sex chromosomes offensive? Is X and Y (or W/Z) offensive because they also “[emphasise] hetero-normative views”? What about sexual selection? (oh, double harm here I guess) Please, don’t tell me that sexual selection is also a sociologically construct (the world and biology don’t revolve around humans).

    If some common names are offensive, then yes, don’t use them and try to educate people that do on better terms, but those are very local and I don’t think they are deserving of a TEE paper.

  17. ‘The only rational response to that is, “Give me a break!”’

    I respectfully disagree. I think there are dozens of rational responses, most of them employing scatalogical terminology.

  18. And subsequently expressed that he regretted doing so. (At least according to some book I can’t remember the name of right now).

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