Steve Novella gets sex wrong; gets corrected twice

March 26, 2023 • 1:15 pm

The folks over at Science-Based Medicine (SBM) have decided that the hill they’ll defend (if not die on) is that sex in humans is a continuous trait, though there might be modes at “male” and “female”. This of course flies in the face of biology, which argues that there are only two sexes in vertebrates: i.e., sex is binary). While there is a low percentage of people (and presumably animals) having “disorders of sex development”, these individuals are not “third sexes” or “new sexes”, but simply those in which the developmental system has gone awry, and they are either sterile or produce sperm or eggs (but not both in a functional way).

I believe the denial of the sex binary is motivated by ideology—to show people who don’t adhere to a “male” or “female” identity that that’s okay because there are different sexes in nature, too. If you think about that argument, though, you’ll find that it’s not only fallacious but also pretty irrational. Nevertheless, Steven Novella makes it in this article from last year. I’m writing a bit about it because only recently has the second of two rebuttals of Novella’s piece appeared (see below).

You may remember that a while back SBM removed from its website Harriet Hall’s positive review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, a book that argued against a rush to “affirmative care” for gender dysphoric youth and also speculated that the rise in transgender youth (mainly girls claiming a male identity) could be partly attributed to social contagion. That rubbed Novella & Co. the wrong way, so they removed Hall’s piece and explained why. You can read about that here and here; Jesse Singal also criticized the SBM take on Hall (see links)

Click below to read Novella’s article from last year.

Novella gets it wrong right at the outset (below); no, the notion that sex isn’t binary is controversial, and not held by any biologist I know, though some of the “progressive” stripe have claimed this. But even their arguments rest on the same fallacies as Novella’s:

The notion that sex is not strictly binary is not even scientifically controversial. Among experts it is a given, an unavoidable conclusion derived from actually understanding the biology of sex. It is more accurate to describe biological sex in humans as bimodal, but not strictly binary. Bimodal means that there are essentially two dimensions to the continuum of biological sex. In order for sex to be binary there would need to be two non-overlapping and unambiguous ends to that continuum, but there clearly isn’t. There is every conceivable type of overlap in the middle – hence bimodal, but not binary.

And here is one of the big problems of Novella’s take: he wants to take sex as a multifarious but nebulous and undefined combination of many traits: gamete type, genitalia, chromosomes, and even stuff like gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation! No wonder that the bimodality of sex (based on whether you have small mobile gametes–sperm–or large immobile ones–eggs–) becomes confused. Here are a few quotes from Novella’s piece:

. . . .First we need to consider all the traits relevant to sex that vary along this bimodal distribution. The language and concepts for these traits have been evolving too, but here is a current generally accepted scheme for organizing these traits:

  • Genetic sex

  • Morphological sex, which includes reproductive organs, external genitalia, gametes and secondary morphological sexual characteristics (sometimes these and genetic sex are referred to collectively as biological sex, but this is problematic for reasons I will go over)

  • Sexual orientation (sexual attraction)

  • Gender identity (how one understands and feels about their own gender)

  • Gender expression (how one expresses their gender to the world)

. . . This is another concept that many people get caught up on, thinking in evolutionarily simplistic ways. The argument often goes that “sex is only about reproduction”, and since gametes are binary, sex in total is binary. This is incredibly reductionist, and misses the fact that traits often simultaneously serve multiple evolutionary ends. Sex, for example, is also about bonding, social relationships, power, and dominance. Think about this – what percentage of the time that humans have sex is the express purpose reproduction? How many people have no desire to ever have children, but still have an active sex life? Can there be romance without sex? Why are there so many aspects of sex that are not strictly reproductive?

We’re talking about gamete types, but Novella drags in bonding, parental care, and other traits—traits that ultimately flow from a difference in gamete types but are not definers of sex themselves.

And why is “reductionist” always used as a pejorative word? In fact, sex is reductionist, because evolution has worked on the gametes themselves to turn them down two pathsways–and only two pathsways, and from that everything else flows, including sexual dimorphism in appearance and behavior, difference in parental attentiveness, hairness and other secondary sexual traits, and so on.  Male vs. femaleness can rest on chromosomal constitution, rearing temperature, environment, the sex of others around you, and other factors, but it in the end it always results—in all animals—in just two outcomes: individuals with the reproductive equipment to produce eggs, or the equipment to produce sperm. We know why, too: evolution will take a system beginning with all gametes the same (isogamous) and turn it into a system into which there are two, and only two, types of gametes. The two-gamete system (“gonochorism”) is then stable against the evolutionary invasion of new sexes. That’s why there are just two sexes. All vascular plants, too, produce sperm and eggs, and more often than animals in fertile hermaphrodites, but you won’t see botanists claiming that plants have three sexes.

The website Quackometer has published two critiques of Novella’s misguided take in a pair of articles called “The muddling of the American Mind” part I and part II. They’re both by Andy Lewis; the first appeared of July of 2022 but the second just came out: on March 22 of this year. They’re not too long and can be read as a pair. Together they totally demolish Novella’s claim that sex is bimodal, showing that Novella really doesn’t understand the biology of sex (he even relies on Anne Fausto-Sterling’s ancient claim that there are five sexes in humans with the “new” three comprising 2% of the population—a claim that Fausto-Sterling herself later repudiated).

I’ll give just a few quotes from Lewis, but, as always, I urge you to read Novella’s claims, Lewis’s rebuttals, and decide for yourself. (I’m clearly in Lewis’s camp).

Steven Novella rejects idea that sex is “binary” and claims that is it ‘not even controversial’ that sex is “bimodal”. In doing so, he is saying that we can characterise an organism’s sex, not by a discrete classification, but by some degree along a continuum of maleness or femaleness. There is in essence no such thing as 100% male or female, but all organisms are some sort of amalgam of features and function from both ideals. It is though quite difficult to understand quite what Novella means by “bimodal” as his explanation is, at best , somewhat vague.

The killer:

The claim sex is bimodal suggests we can make a measurement on an individual and use that to plot them along a distribution. The most basic question you can ask about a bimodal distribution is “what is the measurement you are taking that leads to this bimodal distribution”? We are not told this in Novella’s blog. At least, not one that defines “sex”. If you are going to claim “sex is bimodal” you need to say what measurement characterises sex. No-one ever has.

About Novella’s conflation of sex dimorphism (the different appearance of males and females) with sex itself:

Perfect dimorphism is rare though in any given feature. There are very tall women (I have worked a lot in the Netherlands). There are males with small hands. But being a small handed male does not make you a lesser male on some sort of spectrum. A male is a male regardless of the size of your things. Morphological variation does not create a spectrum of sex and bimodal distributions of sex related traits does not make sex bimodal. The idea that you are a lesser female human for being more flat chested is as offensive as it sounds.

The dichotomy of sex is not equivalent to dimorphism in sex. These are two different concepts. Just because dimorphism may be low in humans, does not mean the sex dichotomy is weakened.

And although there are disorders of sex development in humans, there is one intermediate morphology we don’t see: one of  single individuals that produce both types of gametes, or hermaphrodites. These exist in some animals and many plants, but again: they are not a third sex, but a mixture of two sexes. Still, we don’t see them in humans; I’ve scoured the literature, and though I’ve found individuals that have both types of sex tissues, they are never fertile as both males and females, and I’ve only found one case each of a fertile male and fertile female hermaphrodite:

What is not observed is an individual who is fertile both as a male and female. If fertile at all, it will be as one sex. The cross-sex tissue is typically under-developed. No human is a true hermaphrodite (in the biological sense as being able to reproduce as both a male and female). Unfortunately, medicine also uses the term “true hermaphrodite” to describe people with these very rare disorders. Do not be fooled by this equivocation.


What we have seen is that biology understands how sex is a strict dichotomy of male and female based on anisogamy (two distinct gamete types). No peer reviewed biology paper has ever characterised sex as bimodal and shown how to create this statistical distribution from measured data of sex. At best the bimodal idea is a metaphor. At worst, it is handwaving nonsense. The idea has not come from biological science but from academics in “gender studies” with explicit political agendas.

. . . We have seen how in order to support the bimodal idea, various specious arguments about sex are made. We see muddles about sex determination and karyotypes. We see conflations of sex and development disorders. We see muddling of the continuous and varied nature of dimorphism in species with the categorical nature of sex. We see how exceptionally rare ambiguities of sex development are used to justify the idea we cannot classify any person with any rigour or objectivity.

And from the newly published part II. First, on Novella’s claim that sexual orientation is one factor involved in determining one’s biological sex:

But we can only recognise sexual orientation if we recognise sex first. We can only recognise, for example, homosexual behaviour if the male sex of the individuals is independent of their behaviour. Your sex comes first: as male or female. Your sexual orientation does not shift your sex – they are orthogonal concepts.

What is Novella trying to say here? That your sexual orientation shifts you along his “bimodal distribution”? That being gay makes you less of a male? A lesbian female is not as female as a heterosexual female? We used to call such ideas homophobic. I am willing to apply Hanlon’s Razor here and just put this down to deep muddle.

Lewis discusses at length Novella’s conflation of sex with gender (a quite common error), and I’ll give just one more quote as you should read the stuff for yourself. This is on the use of “reductionist” as a pejorative term, something that infuriates me because it’s arrogant and, usually, dead wrong. Yes, there are emergent properties that cannot be predicted a priori from lower-level properties, but they are always consistent with lower-level properties. The wetness of water is a famous example.

Novella’s dismissal of sex being about reproduction as “reductionist” is at the heart of his failure to think clearly about the science of sex. His explicit approach is to never let us look at the many aspects of sex as resolvable phenomena in a hierarchy. He is always pushing to mush back together sex and reproduction, sexuality, orientation, identity, variation and disorders into one “bimodal” fog. We are never allowed to see any of these aspects in their own terms.

In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins said,

For those that like ‘-ism’ sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably ‘hierarchical reductionism’. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that *reductionism’ is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it.

To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against. The nonexistent reductionist the sort that everybody is against, but who exists only in their imaginations, tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts! The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on.

Novella is comparing hierarchical explanations of sex based in evolution, development and reproduction to this imaginary baby eating monster. We cannot hope to understand the complexities of such things as the human experience unless we are prepared to create a hierarchy of explanations. Your body existing as an evolved reproducing organism that is male or female is a perfectly good hierarchical place to start for so many conversations. To dismiss this explanation as missing out on the “complexities of human experience” is to fall into Dawkins’ Baby Eating Fallacy.

Novella’s distortion of biology in the service of ideology does nobody any good, for it involves the fallacious idea that what you think is ideologically correct is what must be seen in nature. Sadly, nature does not conform to gender ideology, and sex is not a spectrum, nor even bimodal. It’s ineffably sad that Science-Based Medicine, a real goldmine of attacks on quackery, is no succumbing to a form of ideological quackery.

I’ll have more to say about this when our Big Paper comes out in late June, but embargos prevent me from saying more.

66 thoughts on “Steve Novella gets sex wrong; gets corrected twice

  1. Dr. Coyne writes:

    “…there is one intermediate morphology we don’t see: one of single individuals that produce both types of gametes, or hermaphrodites. These exist in some animals and many plants, but again: they are not a third sex, but a mixture of two sexes. Still, we don’t see them in humans…”

    Do any mammals, or even vertebrates, have the capacity to produce both types of gametes? I don’t have a background in science, but have an interest and am aware of traits that run deeply across many organisms.

    BTW, has anyone read “Time to Think” by Hanna Barnes on Tavistock gender clinic in the UK?

    1. No vertebrates are simultaneous hermaphrodites although corals and some insects are. A few vertebrates can, like the (Nemo) clownfish, be SEQUENTIAL hermaphrodites, changing sex over time, but they’re still only males or females, producing a single type of gamete. Plants, of course, are often simultaneous hermaphrodites.

      1. Just wanted to comment that there are actually simultaneous hermaphrodites among vertebrates! As expected, all are fish and as even more expected they are rare. According to this review article ( only 55 species are simultaneous hermaphrodites. These include some moray eels, deepsea tripod fishes, a single cichlid and a genus of groupers known as Hypoplectrus or hamlets. I write this not to support the “Sex is a spectrum” hokum but to highlight the reproductive diversity found within fishes. It is fascinating stuff, particularly the courtship and mating found within the hamlets.

    2. I’ve read Time to Think. I found it to be an extremely balanced look at the history of GIDS, although the repeated failures to collect even the most basic data and to address the genuine concerns of practitioners within the service are alarming. No wonder GIDS will be closing very soon.

      1. Balanced? Having read this book and thought about its message together with the sources and analysis used I find it extremely biased. It tends to focus on the dissenting voices rather than giving equal weight to those that support affirming care. It is also selective about the information used and the lack of wider perspectives from the peer reviewed literature. Given that this text was several years in the making underpinned by resources from the BBC the fact there are only 100 of interviews is appalling. The book has a reach greater than its quality would suggest it should have.

  2. I’m wondering (if I hadn’t commented here already) if essentialism /runaway skepticism is at play, which I found in a Dawkins book – the notion that while we might want to discuss a triangle, for example a 3 4 5 perfect triangle, perhaps measured in meters, there is no other triangle like it in theory. However, when we draw the 3 4 5 triangle in the sand at the beach, on a piece of paper with a pencil, or on cardboard with a magic marker, those are, in a definite sense all different .

    But there is, in theory, only one 3 4 5 mm triangle.

    So in theory – in the sound, sensible theory – there is either male or female of certain species, and one excludes the other. We make measurements of various things (including gametes), or in different species, and find all sorts of things to make us think wonder if, perhaps, there is variation to that theory – variation in things that are different, but associated with, sex as defined by gametes.

    Is that confusing one thing (gametes) with unrelated things (personality or choices)? Is it driven by a runaway skepticism, aware of essentialism, such that the observed variation calls into doubt a basic theory of Nature, when there is no reason to? As if drawing a 3 4 5 triangle in the sand would call into doubt the Pythagorean (or Gougu theorem, if you like)?

    1. The perfect 3 4 5 triangle reminds me of Plato’s idealism philosophy. We supposedly can hold the idea of this triangle, but all actual triangles in this world are unique in some way and also less than ideal.

  3. I posted these links as a comment on the Hilli Dialogue the day the second part.was posted. I hope that is what made you read them, and I am glad you liked the pieces. It’s really quite disppointing to me to see Novella get this so badly wrong. I am (was?) a long-term fan of his podcast, though I don’t listen any more.

  4. Novella denies the continuity of biology across plants and animals. This universality is *the* reason why it’s possible to learn about and understand the biology of humans by studying the biology of laboratory model organisms. Denying this universality is absurdly irrational.

    How is this denial? Because the sex binary is starkly obvious in many thousands of other animal species that have no secondary sex traits: sponges, corals, anemones, sea urchins, starfish, polychaetes, clams, and thousands of other weird obscure invertebrates that reproduce by spawning gametes into the plankton for fertilization. Males and females in all those species are identical in form and behaviour, but have one of two different gamete types. Ontologically we all know this is true (and deep down so does Novella). Sometimes (as in humans) it’s hard to tell who is who, but in many cases there is no epistemological problem either because the animals have transparent bodies and one can just look at the gonads and see the gametes. Those animals are male or female in exactly the same way that humans are male or female. Novella denies this in order to tell the rest of us that human sex is a continuously varying spectrum, trans women are women, it costs you nothing to be kind, and why do you care so much about this anyway?

    And don’t get me started on “sex is not just for reproduction”. If Novella was a serious biologist, he would know (and say) that sex is for genetic recombination. Lots of animals reproduce without sex, and bacteria have sex without reproduction. Bah.

    1. Mike, ”Sex is not just for reproduction” was a catch phrase coined after The Pill was released to tell people they needn’t feel guilty for wanting to screw (the other sense of sex) when pregnancy was not the goal and indeed could now be reliably avoided. It had the unintended consequence of denying a woman one good reason to say No. Novella twists that meaning here buy using sex to mean maleness and femaleness instead of a social pastime. As you say, sex is for genetic recombination.

    1. I listened to the first 700 episodes or so (no exaggeration). I stopped listening regularly in about 2017, as I felt the show had seriously dropped in quality, and the Harriet Hall incident was the last straw for me.

    2. I stopped listening to it when R****** W***** was a co-host. It was impossible to take it seriously. Back then though, Novella seemed legit. However, he’s completely lost it in recent years.

      1. I listened during the Rebecca years, and I even mostly agree with her over Elevatorgate. I am against her because she is an insufferable activist, and not a skeptic in any way that I recognise. She just supports ‘Team Skeptic’, which is very much not the same thing as practising actual skepticism and critical thinking.

    1. No, I don’t know him quite well though we exchanged a few emails when I started writing here. I’ve never met him in person, and inshallah, I never will. If you’re trying to say I’m exaggerating, well, I’m not. And Myers views, I argue, are deeply rooted in his woke ideology.

      1. It’s not meant as a criticism, and I disagree with Myers too, for the same reasons you do. I just mean you are both university professors in similar subjects and also notable skeptics, so it is entirely possible you have met in person. So I was right that you are aware of Myers, and have spoken to him before.

        I would not want to meet him either, he is someone else who has trashed his reputation over this issue, same as Novella.

  5. You’re asking us to do a lot of homework on this one. 🙂

    After reading the original article and the two rebuttals, I have to conclude that the Novella piece is a muddle. It conflates sex, which is binary, with the many physical and behavioral *correlates* of sex, which often do vary across a spectrum. Novella barely mentions gamete size—which is how biologists define sex and what they mean when they say that sex is binary.

    Since most of his claims relate to the *correlates* of sex and not to biological sex itself, it seems that most of Novella’s paper doesn’t relate to biological sex at all. I’m not sure who Novella is criticizing. If he’s criticizing those who think that the *correlates* of biological sex are binary, he’s attacking a straw man.

    I’m glad that Andy Lewis was energetic enough to take on the task of disentangling this rat’s nest. He did an amazing job!

    Thank you Jerry, for keeping this topic on the front burner.

    1. Yeah, it’s a muddle. Another tell, for me, that Novella’s motivations have overcome his rational skepticism is how he routinely uses more than one meaning of a word, this meaning there, another meaning here, sometimes both at the same time. Most prominently the word “sex.” One moment he uses it as it is used in biology, genetic recombination, and the next he uses it to mean the physical activity of intercourse. Unfortunately many people have no problem with this sort of smearing together of concepts or bait and switch. Many probably see it as a plus, very deep, in touch, empathetic.

      1. Indeed. I try very hard to believe that this kind of conflation is innocent. But given the large literature on the distinction between gender and sex, it’s hard to view it as anything but purposeful.

        1. I’m not sure I buy this, I have had a hard time finding concrete evidence for such a thing as a ‘gender identity’ in the neuroscience literature. Do you have a good list of well constructed studies that demonstrate that different people have different gender identities that are distinct from the social stereotypes we assign to members of each sex?

  6. There’s a large amount of talking past each other in the politics here.

    A big problem is that certain phrases have acquired an intense political valence which is very different from their literal meaning. For example “It’s OK to be white” or “All lives matter”. These phrases are often used by extremely hateful people, and commonly imply sentiments entirely different from the bare words. When subjects of that hatred respond to the implications, there is too often a reaction of denouncing the hated – not the haters – for being so supposedly unreasonable in taking those slogans as anything other than the literal words. Interestingly, “Black lives matter” is the inverse of this, in that many critical people can immediately recognize it’s more than literal words.

    Bluntly, “there are two sexes”, as a political slogan, means “transgender people don’t exist”. It is not a bare statement about small mobile gametes versus large immobile gametes. That is what is driving this issue. Someone can insist that it should only be regarded as a biological statement, and shout until they’re blue in the face that everyone else is wrong not to regard it as solely about gametes. But that’s like claiming “It’s OK to be white” should only be viewed as a simple affirmation of common humanity.

    I have no idea what to do about this. Maybe there’s nothing effective which can be done from the science side, since despite the words, it’s not a science issue.

    1. Sex is biology, gender is what is thought of as a social construct. And you can’t change sex, but you can change genders via hormones and surgery…..

      I think you know this by the way you change from sex to gender in this sentence you wrote:

      “Bluntly, “there are two sexes”, as a political slogan, means “transgender people don’t exist”. ”

      BTW, it’s really skin color that is a spectrum.

      1. That second sentence should read:

        “I think you sense this by the way the sentence changes from sex to gender in the sentence you wrote:”

    2. ‘Bluntly, “there are two sexes”, as a political slogan, means “transgender people don’t exist”. It is not a bare statement about small mobile gametes versus large immobile gametes.’

      I take it that that is true IF “sex” is perfectly synonymous with/equal to “gender.” Are the two terms perfectly synonymous?

      Is it permissible to say, “There are two sexes. There are as many genders as any given person may care to assert”?

      1. A word can mean whatever speakers of the language agree it means. I say, sex (the trait, not the act) is perfectly synonymous with gender because the latter is but a euphemism for the former. When the blood collection service asks me to confirm my “gender”, they’re using the euphemism because some people get bent out of shape by questions about sex. The service’s job is to collect blood for transfusion, not massage hurt feelings and deal with human-rights complaints (at great expense.). They need to know my unchanging sex to help avoid getting my blood mixed up with a woman named LM who was born on the same day. There are physiologic reasons too. They wanted to ask about “birth sex” but their focus groups wouldn’t go for it.

        If someone wants to say, “My gender is fluid”, they are using it to mean mood, not sex. They should get a mood ring so we don’t mis-mood them today. If such a person interprets “Sex = gender” as “Trans gender people don’t exist,” no skin off my nose.

        Aside to Jerry: applaud you for your tireless efforts on this file. (You don’t have to agree with me about gender.)

    3. Seth, I get what you’re saying. But your comment crystallizes an important part of what’s wrong with Novella and his views. There is no political content in the statement “there are two sexes”, and it is not a political slogan. I claim correctly that there are two sexes, but I don’t hate trans people or think they should not exist. Where do you get that idea from?

      In other recent comment threads on this site, commenters have sometimes expressed sympathy with the idea that biologists (and the broader society and culture) maybe should give up the usual meaning of “male” and “female” so that they apply not to biological realities but to social constructs (man, masculine; woman, feminine), and admit that maybe “trans women are female”. The “political” slogan you think you hear from biologists is not politics but just reasonable pushback against giving up on the well-understood meaning of biological terms. Some of us feel strongly about that, and express strong opinions. That’s still not politics, it’s the urge to protect the language we use to talk about human biology and its commonalities with other organisms. I don’t think that’s wrong.

      1. dd – People are not claiming they can change their production of small mobile gametes versus large immobile gametes. My point is therefore, focusing on that exclusively and blindly is missing everything else about this topic.

        Filippo – I could hardly say what’s “permissible” to everyone, I don’t speak for anyone but myself. And it really doesn’t matter what I think is permissible.

        Mike – As a statement of fact, “there are two sexes” absolutely is a political slogan in some contexts. Of course not every time the words are used. But just listen to some right-wing Republican ranting on the topic, and the political salience – again, in some contexts, not any utterance – is very evident. You’re refuting something I didn’t claim, that every single instance has a political intent behind it. Rather, it has a political intent sometimes, this needs to be recognized, and that’s driving the dispute. I don’t mean biologists have that political intent (with rare exceptions, absolutely not present company). I mean the whole culture war in campaigning and punditry. And I’m not telling anyone what to do. I don’t know. I’m just saying this dynamic has be recognized, and that I think simply ignoring it won’t work.

        1. Thanks! Yes agreed not in every context. But those of us who care about the meaning of these words have to start somewhere to push back against the theft of these meanings by activists who want to tell us what and how to talk (and think). What better place than the on-line salon of a professional evolutionary biologist?

          1. It may be a bad place, because a large number of participants are likely to be very unaware of – or unconcerned with – or even deny – those political valences, and thus simply end up fueling more culture war. Here’s an example of what I mean:

            Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene “There are TWO genders: Male & Female. Trust The Science!”

            Only replying to that statement with “Well, actually, it’s “sexes” rather than “genders” and the distinction is the size and mobility of gametes …” is really missing vital context of who she is, and why she is doing it. It’s not a biology lesson, or rather, a biology lesson is not going to change anything here.

        2. While we play with words, it does make sense that what we used to call ‘transsexual’ is now ‘transgender’—you can change your gender but not your sex. There are all sorts of things we can use to compare the sexes, and certainly most of them make a bimodal distribution, but just as even pre-scientific people recognised, there are more or less masculine men, and more or less feminine women, all people can still be classified as one or the other (even intersex people are easily classified these days, no matter how confusing their anatomy). Anyway, why try to alter the status of 99% of the population just because the other 1% have embryological errors?
          Lewis puts his finger right on the issue when he points out that no matter how you try to confuse this issue, everyone ends up being fertile as one of two sexes only. Consequently we can confidently say there are but two sexes. If Novella wants to argue that sexes evolved not for sexual reproduction but for other purposes, and thus may have more than two forms, he has a lot of work in front of him.

    4. Saying, “there are two sexes,” only means “transgender people don’t exist” in the same way that saying, “there is no God,” means “Jews don’t exist”, or that saying, “psychic powers are nonsense,” means “psychics don’t exist”. This may not be immediately obvious, so I’ll expand a bit.

      – There exist people who claim to be outside the sex dichotomy. There are two sexes, so this claim is false, and there does not exist anyone who actually is outside the sex dichotomy.
      – There exist people who claim to be the chosen people of God, and Jews are a subset of these. There is no God, so this claim is false, and there does not exist anyone who actually is one of God’s chosen people.
      – There exist people who claim to have psychic powers. Psychic powers are nonsense, so this claim is false, and there does not exist anyone who actually has psychic powers.

      In no case does the conclusion (i.e., the claim is false) entail the nonexistence of those people who make the claim.

      1. The ideological trans activists say that to deny their (false) claim that they are transgender does posit their nonexistence as humans. It “erases” them. This is an absurd position but it is the basis of human/civil rights legislation that enshrines gender identity as a protected ground against discrimination in accommodation–which includes bathrooms–and hiring. You can’t decline to hire a trans person because that would be to deny his human existence. (He can’t “exist” as the sex he was born as, you see.)

    5. Bluntly, “there are two sexes”, as a political slogan, means “transgender people don’t exist”.

      What does “transgender people don’t exist” mean?

    6. I am not a biologist, but I read the website of an eminent biologist daily, with great profit. Thanks, ProfCC, for your unrelenting work in the service of science and clarity. 🙂

      And this is my understanding: Biological sex is all about reproduction, and any discussion about the binariness of sex that omits this fact is missing the main point. Two biological sexes, and two only, have evolved- male and female. Every member of a sexually reproducing species has a male parent and a female parent; and every member of the species, if it has offspring, does so either as a male or a female. The possibility of hermaphroditism is irrelevant- no organism produces offspring as both male and female, or any variation thereof, at the same time. Congenital anomalies exist, of course, but they are anomalies. No intersex variations exist that aren’t evolutionary dead-ends; therefore if anything there should be evolved mechanisms that make such variations extremely rare, as in fact appears to be the case.

    7. “have acquired” is a nice, passive-voice phrase that does a lot of heavy lifting here. I would argue (quoting Steve Sailer on this) that “It’s OK to be white” was intentionally constructed as the most banal, unobjectionable statement possible that would cause SJ folks to freak out, in order to show that they really don’t think being white is OK, and it was a spectacular success. Likewise, “All Lives Matter” was an obvious litmus test to see if “Black Lives Matter” was meant as an obviously correct, if trivial, statement about ethics, or a black-supremacist political statement – again, the responses made the issue clear. Of course, the response by the ones exposed by these manoeuvres was to paint those who dare to utter “it’s okay to be white” as hateful right-wingers – apparently, that succeeded as well, ratcheting up the polarization one more step.

      But that is neither here nor there. No amount of political spin-doctoring should prevent anyone from being able to speak a simple truth like “there are two, and only two, biological sexes in vertebrates”. It’s not like our host is doing this to dump on trans people – the issue is forced on him by ideological bullshit peddlers, and not speaking up would mean to be complicit in the ideological takeover.

      So, yeah. Black Lives Matter, just as much as All Lives Matter. It’s OK to be white, it’s OK to be black, it’s okay to have any other skin shade. There are only two sexes. Trans people exist (obviously). The rest needs to be hashed out the old-fashioned way, by arguing about the details, not by waving tribal flags and forcing others to utter shibboleths.

      And, thank you, Dr. Coyne, for being so thorough and steadfast.

      1. The point about “black lives matter” was that it was challenging a perception, based on the number black men dying at the hands of police officers, that black lives did not in fact seem to matter that much to law enforcement officers. It was the people who countered with “all lives matter” who were making the ‘obviously correct, if trivial, statement’ for the purpose of trolling. Stating that black lives matter does not imply other lives don’t matter.

        1. But it gave the lie to its own claim. Killing of black men was vastly exaggerated as a vice peculiar to white (and non-white) police officers, a myth that refuses to die. White cops may be meaner to black arrestees who piss them off but they don’t kill them in greater proportion relative to white miscreants. The lie gave rise to movements to defund and demoralize the police, terrible consequence.. The people to whom black lives don’t seem to matter at all are other black people, not just the shooters themselves but the whole underclass culture that glorifies them and covers for them.

          “Black Lives Matter” was met with such a troll of “All Lives Matter” by non-black people paying attention not because we don’t like underclass blacks—we don’t—but because we saw the truth of the matter that black people don’t seem to like themselves very much. They certainly kill enough of each other to allow that impression.

          As my philosopher friend Viminitz says, “Black Lives Matter” is incomplete. The verb requires, “to whom?” The evidence is that black lives matter more to white police officers than they do to other black people, given the number killed by each and the reticence and restraints that white cops actually do use before shooting them.

          Certainly you would expect sworn law enforcement officers to use more restraint than criminals in shooting people, and given the statistics, that is pretty much what you see.

          Black Lives Matter’s message was seen as a lie from Day 1. “All Lives Matter” was not the most effective troll but you have to credit it for getting up the noses of BLM apologists. “Black Lives Matter to whom” would have been better.

      2. ““have acquired” is a nice, passive-voice phrase…”.

        No, it is not passive voice. The passive voice in English is formed by using a form of the verb “be” or “get” plus the past participle of the verb. “Have acquired” is in the active voice. (Exercise for you: can you identify an example of the passive voice in my comment?)

  7. One thing that seems pretty clear is that postmodernists who make claims contrary to mainstream science don’t understand the things they’re arguing against. If one of the “nonbinary sex” crowd could articulate the claims the biologists are actually making, things would be different and their arguments might actually be worth considering. But they’re not. And I believe this is true about their scientific claims in general, as well as their moral reasoning- they’re simply ignorant of the world outside their bubble. Ignorant, loud, and unteachable.

  8. That was a good read, thank you.
    I note the Lewis’s quote above ‘The killer:’ is identical to the one below.
    For another time, the quote from Dawkins: “The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on.” is spot on; but I think is disregarded when discussing other topics in this site, in particular freewill, which is separated by many levels from determinism.

  9. I have lately become interested in the notion that a lot of our discord these days stems from a common well-spring of what is called moral panic. In this idea, it is a kind of moral panic that grips the far left to abandon biology and to even contradict themselves in their rush to protect those (and to simplistically lump together all those) who are not in the cis-gender spectrum. Damn the costs of credibility and to hell with complicatedness and facts. They will eat fellow liberals, brutally cancel harmless people, and turn away folks from the mainstream Democratic Party for this one revolutionary cause.
    But the right also exhibits moral panic behaviors over their respective causes. They too are just as susceptible to this mind-set in their rush to paint all lefties with the same brush, and to shout about pedophiles and groomers with every non-binary person who is just a little bit different.

    1. Thanks to Mark for making clear the costs to the mainstream Democratic Party. Compare the costs to the Scottish National Party of their recent adoption of policies that were in line with trans activism while denying that those policies might impose costs on women. It immediately became obvious that there were problems about transgender rapists being eligible to be put into women’s prisons. The First Minister could not find a way to refer to a convicted rapist. She called him “that individual”, since she couldn’t really admit that her legislation meant he counted as a woman. Her resigning as First Minister had a lot to do with the huge unpopularity of her transgender legislation.

    2. I agree, Mark. It really is a shame too. The irony is that there are no benefits I can see for pushing inaccurate claims like this. It gets them nothing. Rather it causes them, everyone, many problems. There’s no reason at all that they need biology to support the cause of equal rights and respect for LGBTQ+ . . .

      It’s like an inverse naturalistic fallacy. In order to support certain ethical views insist on certain inaccurate facts about nature that support those ethical views. And hold onto those inaccurate facts like a Pitbull. It’s so stupid. You alienate your natural allies and radicalize yourself and your opponents.

      Someone up above has commented that, my paraphrase, holding on to these inaccurate claims is the right thing to do because they are being used to counter bigots, and that pointing out that the claims are inaccurate is wrong because it aids those bigots. To my mind, that’s the key problem right there. Many people strongly feel that it is not just fine, but right, to use falsehoods in order to fight for their views. This strikes me as tragically wrong in two ways. It is completely unnecessary in that the truth is plenty good enough and denying the truth often leads to many other problems like losing the ethical battle because your falsehoods are revealed and, particularly in this case, misdiagnosing and mistreating thousands of the very people you are trying to help because you refuse to give up your falsehoods and accept the truth. When you’ve reached a place where your moral passions require that you refuse reality and vilify those that don’t, you have lost the moral high ground and become a danger to your society.

      1. I don’t know how the ludicrous claims of the TQ+ got tacked onto the LGB, which relies on recognising the binary nature of sex.

  10. It’s laughable that Steven Novella was once an influential name on movement scepticism. Then again, so was PZ Myers, and he’s an utter crank, these days.

  11. In this post I was reminded of the magnitude of wonder of natural selection, sexual selection. This binary system that has been selected for over aeons and on this planet very successful at populating it. Flaws, like problems are in inevitable but the ground work by natural selection is fundamental and the reason it is not easy to alter or in this case explain away.
    Doesn’t stop some from trying, along comes a plod who in a fraction of a second blurts out, forget that! we have invented our own system. The arrogance has no bounds IMO. This is a “keep it simple, stupid” moment for me, when an ideology becomes the main and only way to propagate I’ll be all ears.

  12. Novella’s dismissal of sex being about reproduction as “reductionist” is at the heart of his failure to think clearly about the science of sex.… To dismiss this explanation as missing out on the “complexities of human experience” is to fall into Dawkins’ Baby Eating Fallacy.

    Not a Baby Eating Fallacy, but a Baby-Making Fallacy. The form of reductionism that most trans advocates fear is the Greedy form of reductionism — that, if “woman” is defined in terms of reproductive function, then that means that women are nothing more than baby-makers. They have no value on their own, as people. And yet aren’t women complex — don’t they think and feel and dream? How dare they say a female is “nothing but” a mother or potential mother?

    Also known as Nothing-Butter-y, the fallacy mistakes a classification made on one level (the female is the phenotype arranged for the production of large gametes) for a moral statement made on a different level, one which encompasses multitudes. Applied this way, it’s scolding and narrow, seemingly denying all the nuance. The category “woman” clearly needs to be spread far and wide, on a spectrum. That way she’s not reduced to one function.

    Ironically, one of the most popular versions of this fallacy goes something like this:

    If scientific atheism is true, then the Universe is nothing but a lot of molecules in motion, bumping together pointlessly.
    But there’s love and hope and meaning!
    Therefore, scientific atheism isn’t true.
    Therefore, God exists.

    1. Just because the Universe is material, does not mean that there isn’t love, hope, and meaning—even if there is no God.

  13. “Binary” vs “Bimodal” : Am I missing something? I think that in statistics, “Binary” is a subset of “Bimodal”; a binary distribution has two modes (and no other values).

  14. I credit to Novella and the SGU for bringing skeptical thinking to my attention and the attention of others. But what rankles me is that Steve Novella never admits it when he is wrong. Trivial example, but once on the show he mentioned black bears were “harmless”. I, and many others, pointed out in their website that black bears kill 20 or so people a year, so they are not exactly harmless. His excuse was well, black bears are wild animals and any wild animal can pose danger but black bears were not extremely dangerous. So, doubling down instead of admitting error. The exact opposite of how a rational person should behave.

    1. Please give source for data about black bears. I’ve just seen two sources (Minnesota Dept of Natural Resources and North American Bear Center) give figures of less than one killing a year. I live in bear country and while I would never regard black bears as ‘harmless’, I have never seen a reliable figure anywhere near Elsken’s. This site should not give disputable data with no source.

  15. PZ M***s has another one of dirges out, moaning about how old and white (the horror!) Richard Dawkins is, because he defends biology, science, facts, and that kind of stuff.

    One poster (“lotharloo”) has a moan at this article. Apparently, because CeilingCat concentrates too much on “sex” and not “gender”, than that means JC is all parroting “right wing” tropes and providing no, quote: “affirmation of existence of trans people”.

    So, any discussion about biology and “sex”, must now come with some sort of disclaimer at the beginning, affirming the existence of trans people!

    PZ and his horde constantly engage in fallacies. Not just science denial.

    Another member of the Horde (Derek Vandivere) makes the claim that “there are a lot of transphobes in his commenters”. Not sure I’ve seen evidence of that, but I do have a lot of evidence of antisemitism, misogyny, and war crime denial over at various FTB blogs, including Pharyngula.

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