Agustín Fuentes grossly misrepresents the sex binary in (guess where?) Scientific American; argues that those who accept a binary do so out of bigotry, transphobia, and racism

May 2, 2023 • 9:30 am

If you want a combination of an author and a venue guaranteed to produce ideologically-motivated nonsense, it’s Agustin Fuentes writing at Scientific American. The combination of a badly misguided author, distorting biology for political reasons, with a magazine devoted to promulgating “authoritarian progressive” ideology disguised as science, gives me the same feeling I’d have if my mother called me to dinner and announced that we’d be having liver and Brussels sprouts.

The article at hand, a Scientific American op-ed that you can access by clicking the screenshot below, further erodes the reputation of this once-absorbing journal, which under editor Laura Helmuth has taken the route of becoming explicitly political, and political in a woke way. To many the journal has become almost worthless. Fuentes’s article doesn’t help, and we’ve seen the Princeton anthropologist before arguing about the racism of Charles Darwin.

I’m not going to argue again why sex in humans (and all animals, as well as most vascular plants) is binary.  This is the “definition” (or “conception”, if you will) of sex: males have the reproductive apparatus to produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), while females have the reproductive apparatus to produce large, immobile gametes (eggs).  There are no other sexes.  If you want a justification and explanation of this, and why human hermaphrodites (vanishingly rare, and almost invariably sterile) or individuals with “disorders of sex development”(DSDs) are not members of distinct sexes, there are many sources. Emma Hilton, Colin Wright, and Carole Hooven have written a lot about this, and you can read their stuff here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, and here (last link also critiques earlier but similar arguments by Fuentes). Finally, I’ve reprised some of these arguments that in this assortment of my posts.

The gametic definition of sex isn’t just confected to create a socially constructed dichotomy out of a continuum. Sex, conceptualized in the way I’ve described, IS a binary. And from this binary, ultimately based on parental investment, flow all manner of biological phenomena, often based on sexual selection: differences between males and females in behavior, in ornamentation, on competitiveness, in parental care, in secondary sex characteristics, and so on.  True, the sexes in plants and animals have different cues for their development—chromosomes and genes in humans, haploidy vs. diploidy (based on a gene) in bees, temperature in some reptiles, social environment in some fish, and so on. Yet all these diverse pathways wind up at just two destinations: male and female.  There’s an evolutionary reason why there are two sexes, but it’s messy and I won’t go into it here.

The sex binary is simply a biological fact, obeyed in all animals and most vascular plants, though some microbes have more than two sexes: “mating types,” as they’re called. But again, in humans and other animals, we have to realize that sex is not a spectrum. People who make the “spectrum” claim are doing so on ideological grounds, and some people who argue, correctly, that sex is binary in animals have been demonized because of this. Ideologues like Fuentes say that insistence on a sex binary is a racist, transphobic act meant to “erase” people, and faculty like Hooven and Christy Hammer have suffered professionally because of this.  Yes, the truth can hurt your career, which shouldn’t come as news to scientists. But the sex binary is hardly a truth that should rile up the masses.

In an article full of elementary misstatements and mistakes, Fuentes makes two big mistakes:

a. Fuentes claims that those of us who argue for a sex binary are motivated to do so by a desire to erase trans people, nonbinary people, and those whose genders don’t conform to “male” or “female”.  He’s wrong. While perhaps some people (mostly right wingers, I suspect) do have an ideological motivation, biologists like me who emphasize the sex binary do so because it’s both true and is valuable in understanding a lot about biology.  In fact, as we’ll see from some of his quotes, it is Fuentes himself whose arguments are based on ideology. He’s hoist with his own petard.

b. Fuentes claims that those of us who regard biological sex as a binary also think that everything about sex, including gender presentation, behavior, physical characteristics, parental care, “homemaking”, and so on, are also binary. That’s a bogus argument and is certainly not true of us biologists who recognize and appreciate the diversity of nature.

Both of these points are made in a tweet by Carole Hooven (I’ve expanded her tweet so you can see the whole thing; the original is here):

On to the paper.  First, Fuentes argues that those who accept the sex binary are doing so out of base motives: to denigrate people and deny them their dignity and their rights:

There are those, politicianspundits and even a few scientists, who maintain that whether our bodies make ova or sperm are all we need to know about sex. They assert that men and women are defined by their production of these gamete cells, making them a distinct biological binary pair, and that our legal rights and social possibilities should flow from this divide. Men are men. Women are women. Simple.

Last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings played host to this contention when Republican Congressional representatives upset at the nominee’s refusal to define “woman” took it on themselves to define the term; they came up with “the weaker sex,” “a mother,” and “no tallywhacker.” That human sex rests on a biological binary of making either sperm or ova underlies all these claims.

This is bad science. The production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals, nor is it the definition of a woman or a man.

By the way, he’s wrong about the last sentence: while we all admit that “the production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals” (AND NONE OF US EVER SAID IT DID!), the dichotomy of gamete types is indeed the definition of “male” and “female” (men and women are simply adult versions of the sexes).

Below he manages to tar sex-binary empiricists with a whole panoply of brushes:

So when someone states that “An organism’s sex is defined by the type of gamete (sperm or ova) it has the function of producing” and argues that legal and social policy should be “rooted in properties of bodies,” they are not really talking about gametes and sex biology. They are arguing for a specific political, and discriminatory, definition of what is “natural” and “right” for humans based on a false representation of biology. Over the past few centuries this process of misrepresentation of biology was, and still is, used to deny women rights and to justify legal and societal misogyny and inequity, to justify slaveryracialization, racism and to enforce multiple forms of discrimination and bias. Today dishonest ascriptions of what biology is are being deployed to restrict women’s bodily autonomy, target LGBTQIA+ individuals broadly and, most recently, attack the rights of transexual and transgender people.

Given what we know about biology across animals and in humans, efforts to represent human sex as binary based solely on what gametes one produces are not about biology but are about trying to restrict who counts as a full human in society.

No, I’m not arguing for that, and I doubt you’d find most biologists touting the sex binary as a way to deny women and transsexual/transgender people rights, much less existence.  And for crying out loud, Fuentes even drags in slavery and racism! The fact that he begins and ends his piece with these slurs show, more than anything, that it is Fuentes who is motivated by ideology.

I won’t try to psychologize him in particular, but those who make these kinds of stupid arguments usually do so because they want nature to conform to their own ideological views (i.e., gender is a spectrum, so sex must be too). But sex can’t be forced into the Procrustean bed of being “a spectrum”.  If you want to see why, read this very bad paper in bioRΧiv taking that viewpoint, and then read the total scientific demolition of that paper by Colin Wright. That paper, by the way, is cited by Fuentes as an example of a spectrum of sex biology. It has not, so far as I can see, been accepted for publication, nor does Fuentes mention Wright’s critique of the paper he cites.

On to Fuentes’s false claim that those who promote a binary of sex also promote a binary of all sex-related traits, including morphology and behavior—or at least fail to recognize their variation.  Of course, as Carole says above, all of us recognize the diversity of sex-related traits, so to imply that we don’t know about them is simply wrong. It’s really defamation, an attack on Fuentes’s critics that he knows is factually wrong.  But first, he actually affirms the sex binary while trying to efface it:

The animal kingdom does not limit itself to only one biological binary regarding how a species makes gametes. Scientifically speaking, animals with the capacity to produce ova are generally called “female” and sperm producers “male.” While most animal species fall into the “two types of gametes produced by two versions of the reproductive tract” model, many don’t. Some worms produce both. Some fish start producing one kind and then switch to the other, and some switch back and forth throughout their lives. There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together. Among our fellow mammals, which are less freewheeling because of the twin constraints of lactation and live birth, there are varied connections between gametes and body fatbody sizemuscles, metabolismbrain function and much more.

Fuentes apparently doesn’t realize that sex-switching fish still come in two sexes, that hermaphrodites do not violate the sex binary, and that parthenogenetic lizards ARE FEMALE. Here’s what Wright says in response to the bioRΧiv paper, about hermaphrodites.

The authors then go on to present supposed challenges to the “common assumption” of two sexes. The first challenge they posit is the existence of hermaphroditic species, which they believe violates the binary sex model because individuals produce both sperm and ova and “do not have separate sexes.”

However, the binary classification of gametic sex breaks down when we consider the broader diversity of gametic phenotypes. For instance, hermaphroditic species possess both gamete types required for reproduction, and do not have separate sexes (Jarne and Auld 2006).

The sex binary, however, does not require that the two sexes exist in separate bodies. The authors are simply conflating the sex binary with a phenomenon called gonochorism or dioecy, which is “the condition of individual organisms within a species existing as one of two possible sexes, specifically male or female.” The existence of hermaphroditic and gonochoric species just represent different ways a species can utilize male and female reproductive strategies. Regardless of whether an organism is only male, only female, or both male and female, there are still only two fundamental functions—the production of sperm and/or ova.

Fish like Nemo that switch sexes switch SEXES, changing from male to female when the alpha female of a group dies. They are first male, producing sperm, and then female, producing eggs. They do not violate the sex binary, which remains. And look at the paper linked to Fuentes’s statement, “There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together.”  Here’s the paper from Scientific American:

They’re FEMALES, for crying out loud! How does that do away with the sex binary?  These are female lizards who produce eggs that are diploid and don’t need fertilization to develop. You can’t even talk about parthenogenesis, sex-switching in fish, or hermaphroditism without referring to the sex binary.

Then Fuentes, as in the last sentence in his quote above, goes on to limn the wonderful diversity of sex-related traits:

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that differences in sex biology do not matter. They do. Nor am I asserting that reproductive physiology is not an important aspect of all animal lives. For example, humans are mammals, and the specifics of gestation and lactation require bodily differences that shape human physiologies, societies and experiences. But even so, most bodily systems overlap extensively across large (ova) and small (sperm) gamete producers, and the patterns of physiology and behavior in relation to birth and care of offspring are not universal across species. For example, in many mammal species, ova producers do most of the infant care. But in some species, sperm producers do, and in a very few species they even lactate. In others, there is substantial investment by both sexes.

The bottom line is that while animal gametes can be described as binary (of two distinct kinds), the physiological systems, behaviors and individuals that produce them are not. This reality of sex biology is well summarized by a group of biologists who recently wrote: “Reliance on strict binary categories of sex fails to accurately capture the diverse and nuanced nature of sex.”

We know that humans exhibit a range of biological and behavioral patterns related to sex biology that overlap and diverge. Producing ova or sperm does not tell us everything (or even most things) biologically or socially, about an individual’s childcare capacity, homemaking tendencies, sexual attractions, interest in literature, engineering and math capabilities or tendencies towards gossip, violence, compassion, sense of identity, or love of, and competence for, sports. Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. Plentiful data and analyses support the assertions that sex is very complex in humans and that binary and simplistic explanations for human sex biology are either wholly incorrect or substantially incomplete.

For humans, sex is dynamic, biological, cultural and enmeshed in feedback cycles with our environments, ecologies and multiple physiological and social processes.

First, the “group of biologists” is the group who wrote the unpublished bioRΧiv paper. Second, Fuentes makes a number of assertions that are true (but trivial): there is variation in behavior, morphology, and physiology both between and within sexes. Some people have messy houses, others neat ones. But this is irrelevant to the claim that sex is binary.

Further, he’s preaching to the choir: biologists and, generally, any layperson with eyes to see knows these things.  Who has ever said that the sex binary predicts binary behaviors, sexual attraction, abilities, and so on?  The sentence, “Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. prompts only a “DUH!”  It’s as if we didn’t know that!

Likewise, the view that “sex is very complex in humans” is really a non sequitur: it’s true, but the sex binary itself is not complex: there are just males designed to make sperm and females designed to make eggs.  (Of course, the developmental basis of this binary is complex, but it’s still a binary.) Again, Fuentes, who appears to have a pedantic streak, is lecturing us about things we already know.  But we do not accept that sex is a spectrum, and we accept the binary nature of sex not because we’re determined to commit genocide on gays, transsexuals, and people of non-standard gender. We accept the binary because it’s true.

As for Scientific American, well, you know that I think it’s become a repository for ideology and hack pieces. Yes, there are still good articles in it, but it’s way too full of stuff like this, especially in the op-ed section. But I’ve called out the magazine and its editor many times before. This is just one more reason to read something else. I would have offered to write a post like this and submit it to the magazine as an op-ed in rebuttal to Fuentes, but editor Laura Helmuth has made it clear to me that she doesn’t want me writing antiwoke stuff in her journal, even though I think this post is merely a biological corrective and not “antiwoke”.

Below are a few relevant tweets. First, Fuentes’s announcement of his article. Read the comments after the tweet; it’s clear that he hasn’t fooled many people. In the tweet thread, he characterizes criticism of his views as people “yelling at him” (he seems to have a thin skin).  But I do NOT look forward to a 50,000-word version. I’d rather eat Brussels sprouts.

The two latest responses to Fuentes’s tweet

And a response from “El Marqués de Vichón” after Emma retweeted my own post (below as well):

Yes, that’s the gist. The good Marqués has it down.

From Colin Wright:

Finally, Emma Hilton’s long response on Twitter:

Emma’s piece, which is also funny, comes in the form of a number of statements by Fuentes, each followed by her translation and then her correction. Emma’s ending:

Mind. Blown.
It’s strawmen right to the very end.
I was expecting something of higher quality, to be honest.
Emma’s more charitable than I. I wasn’t expecting more than what we got given the ideologically-infused author and journal.

89 thoughts on “Agustín Fuentes grossly misrepresents the sex binary in (guess where?) Scientific American; argues that those who accept a binary do so out of bigotry, transphobia, and racism

    1. Writing as an anthropologist, I have a slightly different take on the issue. Within cultural anthropology, and within social sciences in general, the debate has been less over the binary nature of biological sex, and more over the binary framework of gender, both as a psychological phenomenon and as a cultural and social category. As far as I am aware, cultural anthropologists have not presumed to make pronouncements about human biology, and have limited ourselves to understanding the rich variety of beliefs and practices about gender – and have done so at least since Margaret Mead’s work in New Guinea in the 1930s. I cannot speak for biological anthropology or biological anthropologists, but essays such as Fuentes’s suggest simply that biological anthropologists want to be part of the debate over this whole sex/gender issue, and can only address the biology side – and end up doing so in ways that are saturated with ideology.

  1. As other twitter commenters have noted, Fuentes isn’t trying to convince anyone to change their minds, or even to summarize evidence for his position. The SciAm article has 3 other purposes: to be cited by trans activists; to advertise his book; and to intimidate biologists.

  2. I just read Fuente’s piece. How embarassing. Really bad. Like Brussels sprouts indeed. You have answered some of the risable things he wrote, but I can certainly understand how doing anymore would be like trying to eat a whole bushel of Brussels sprouts. In some ways responding to these folks is like the olde tyme creationists; their commentary is full of so much falsehood and laughable nonsense, one doesn’t even know where to begin.

    Good to see push back is coming hard from a lot of directions. I’m not sure how effective it will be, but it’s heartening to see.

    1. “…one doesn’t even know where to begin”
      We can begin by the beginning of his article’: “…even a few scientists, who maintain that whether our bodies make ova or sperm are all we need to know about sex.” I think very few politicians and pundits even think that is all we need to know, let alone scientists. It is a ridiculous statement.

      Sequential (eg in some fishes) or simultaneous hermaphroditism (in slugs) is no argument. Are we slugs? We still see a male transform into a female or vice versa in the former. How so? Because they start producing different gametes? If not, we couldn’t even talk about changing sex. Note that in Eutherians with their highly specialised reproductive organs, this is basically impossible.
      If we want to go to a ‘spectrum’ of gametes we have to go back to (syncytial) fungi. I hope he’s not equating trans-people with fungi, although it appears so.
      In animals there are no ‘intermediate’ gametes. For good reasons, for an extensive explanation why there are 2 types of gametes (2 sexes), Fuentes would do himself a favour by reading Nick Lane’s: “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life”.

  3. It’s a shame that the time of so many excellent biologists has to be spent repeatedly showing up this unscientific and ideological nonsense for what it is – but my sincere thanks to our host and Colin Wright, Emma Hilton, and the many others for continuing to do so. Because the alternative is that this stuff would be allowed to appear unchallenged and that would be a tragedy.

  4. Sadly, Fuentes is part of a larger ideological rot within the (ostensibly) scientific subdiscipline of biological anthropology. This is one of the few areas where anthropologists have access to the sorts of data they would need to seriously evaluate hypotheses and make scientific progress. Instead, leading biological anthropologists like Agustin Fuentes and Jonathan Marks practice it according to the standard critical studies method: start with what you want to be true and work backwards from there.

    As near as I can tell, this is more or less de rigueur in the field these days, and Fuentes’ article tells you exactly why. His slippery thinking appeal to folks who want so badly to live in a world that reflexively matches their preferences that they are willing to abandon principle and simply assume that reality must match their preferences as a matter of moral inevitability. But worse, those who dissent from this kind of thinking are eagerly and enthusiastically smeared as bigots. Either you accept the authority of High Priests like Fuentes or Marks or you’re a transphobic racist salivating over the dawn of the Fourth Reich.

  5. I guarantee the flat-earthers and anti-science frauds over at Pharyngula (and FreeThoughtBogs in general) will be defending this article.

    1. Indeed, this article echoes Myers’s writings on the subject pretty much exactly.
      As far as I can tell, the idea seems to be that the ONLY reason anybody would even want to TRY counting sexes in humans is in order to CATEGORIZE people and thereby OPPRESS them.
      As always, this oppression is countered by the tacit substitution of epistemology for ontology and subtle substitution-by-polysemy of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Otherwise intelligent people over there are all-in on this seemingly intentional muddling of a straightforward issue of pure biology. *shrug*

  6. Fuentes claims that those of us who argue for a sex binary are motivated to do so by a desire to erase trans people … He’s wrong. … biologists like me who emphasize the sex binary do so because it’s both true …

    The woke such as Fuentes reject the idea of objective truth. The idea of arguing for something because it is wouldn’t even occur to them. To the woke, everything is a power struggle between the “oppressors” and the “oppressed”.

    Thus, if you’re arguing against them based on something being “true”, then you have socially constructed that notion of “truth” as a means of furthering your oppression. No other explanation could be entertained.

    Read Fuentes’s piece as not even trying to be about biology or science or what is true, but instead being about “fighting the good fight” of overturning cis/het/white/male/capitalist/Western oppression, with everything else merely being rhetoric to serve that end.

    1. IMHO parsimony is the deciding factor for this article :

      Clearly, the piece is a mess when attempted to be corrected by rationality, empiricism, and Mertonian norms* (and rightfully so). But the piece actually makes complete sense when we see it as the product of the critical-theoretical / pomo cookbook. In fact I find myself less emotional about it (IMHO!).

      Everything settles at that point, IMHO.

      *In Defense of Merit in Science
      D. Abbot, et. al. Journal of Controversial Ideas 2023, 3(1), 1; doi:10.35995/jci03010001

      … say what you will, that paper applies here – as well as Lindsay’s analysis at New Discourses.

      1. Lindsay makes a point about about The 1619 Project that applies to this piece :

        “That is, to attempt to refute the 1619 Project through genuine and established historical methods is, from the perspective of critical race Theory and its devotees, to reassert the need for the 1619 Project and its approach in the first place.”

  7. We can look forward to a revelation in Sci Am that the human chromosome number is on a spectrum— and that to note the separation of chromosomes into two poles (rather than 3 or 7) at mitosis and meiosis is equivalent to Fascism. Moreover, Fuentes himself is not free of reactionary tendencies. Notice his shocking assertion here: “For example, in many mammal species, ova producers do most of the infant care.” We must conclude from this statement that Fuentes, like some politicians, pundits and even a few scientists, favors slavery.

      1. Like Blood from Chocolate : The Confectionary Violence produced by Entropic Minoritization of Brown Chocolates, and consequent Preservation of White Chocolate Races by Colonial Nuclear Oppression in Stars.

        Eclair, E. and Mousse, F., J. Dessert Hegemonies, v. 69, issue 42, p.966, 2023

  8. The question in my mind is whether Fuentes is fundamentally mistaken or if he is deliberately setting out to fit biology into his ideological boxes.

    I am of the opinion that he has embraced the concept of the Noble Lie – a lie knowingly propagated to support a desired social outcome.

    1. Reading your comment instigated a Stealers Wheel ear worm.

      Clowns (Noble Liars) to the left of me
      Jokers (Big Liars) to the right
      Here I am stuck in the middle with you

    2. The question in my mind is whether Fuentes is fundamentally mistaken or if he is deliberately setting out to fit biology into his ideological boxes.

      I think I agree with Theodore Dalrymple that there are certain things that no rational person can actually believe:

      One of the peculiarities of our age is the ferocity with which intellectuals and politicians defend propositions that they do not—because they cannot—believe to be true, so outrageous are they, such violence do they do to the most obvious and evident truth. …Among the propositions defended with such suspect ferocity is that men can change straightforwardly and unambiguously into women, and vice versa. … kindness and human decency require that we do not humiliate [transgender people] or make their lives more difficult than they are. But this is not at all the same as claiming that those who take hormones and have operations actually are the sex that they choose, or that it is right to enshrine untruth in law and thereby force people to assent to what they know to be false. That way totalitarianism lies.

      1. Theodore Dalrymple is a guilty pleasure for me. He is still writing for The Critic occasionally, but I remember liking him back when I had a paper subscription to The Spectator in the early 80’s. (Which raises the question whether he is now a byline, with a new occupant residing under it.)

    3. Hanlon’s razor applies. But when an individual repeatedly ignores opportunities to become better informed, it’s progressively harder and harder to ascribe that person’s actions to ignorance. Malice becomes the only plausible explanation.

        1. Yeah I know what you mean. Hanlon (and Heinlein) wrote in a simpler age when hunger for approval was a less potent force.

          But Fuentes is a professor at Princeton. He’s the guy people seek approval from.

  9. the pregnancy status of an animal is binary, perhaps in a similar way – many observations are made to determine the likelihood of pregnancy, perhaps not simultaneously, and perhaps inconclusively – I suppose it is rather complex. There could be a miscarriage, for example.

    But it is either a state of pregnancy or not pregnant, with likelihood. That does not mean there is a ternary, quaternary, or continuous spectrum of pregnancy.

    I’m glad Scientific American has the world discussing deep, profound thoughts. We wouldn’t want to go and get too deep into technical-jargon laden topics, or solve some mind-bending puzzles.

  10. Further, he’s preaching to the choir: biologists and, generally, any layperson with eyes to see knows these things. Who has ever said that the sex binary predicts binary behaviors, sexual attraction, abilities, and so on?

    To understand this strange collapsing of just-two-sexes binary with the masculine-feminine binary, I heartily recommend reading Jane Clare Jones’ excellent paper Smashing the Binary: Notes on the Historicization of Sex (available at It’s not toounreadable for a philosophy paper, and clearly spells out how and why otherwise bright people are doing this. Do they think we can’t separate sex from sexism?

    In a word, yes. It’s embedded in postmodern gender studies theory. Take a look at this passage JCJ quotes from a book written by two acolytes of Judith Butler:

    As long as the categories female and male present themselves to people in everyday life as external, objective, dichotomous physical facts, there will be scientific and naive searches for differences and differences will be found. Where there are dichotomies it is difficult to avoid evaluating one in relation to the other, a firm foundation for discrimination and oppression. Unless and until gender, in all its manifestations including the physical, is seen as a social construction, action that will radically change our incorrigible propositions cannot occur. People must be confronted with the reality of other possibilities as well as the possibility of other realities.

    In other words, they’re trying to eliminate sexism. As JCJ explains, “A great deal of the trouble here is arising from the confusion of difference and hierarchy.” Fuentes, like others who come at the issue of sex and gender from this ideological slant, apparently has trouble imagining that there can be different sexes without importing the idea that this entails one is dominant and the other subordinate — an example, ironically, of absolutist binary-thinking.

    As for his imputing our motives, if there’s no empirical regularity and all we do is arbitrarily impose hierarchies and concepts to produce what we think we’re describing, then we have to deny sex to avoid resurrecting gender binaries. Unless we’re sexists who don’t want to, obviously.

    As Jane writes,

    (O)nce we have determined the perception of sexual dimorphism is produced by oppressive power structures, it seems evident that someone asserting the material reality of sex could only be motivated by defending these structures. What won’t be allowed is there are decent justice-minded people who simply think the sex denialist’s ontology is wrong, are pretty sure the material world exists and exhibits regularities we can cognizant to a high degree of reliability, and believe political interventions should be based on accounts of how the world actually works, rather on wish-fulfillment.

    1. Excellent point – “social construct” is an idea I let sit around for far too long :

      “So, in the technical, banal (if not vapid) sense, knowledge is a social construction, but in the more profound and meaningful sense of how people use the term, it is not. This trick is one that Social Justice turns upon over and over again.”

      Lindsay suggests “social construct” is a Deepity – as put forth by Dan Dennett : an idea that is true, but trivially so.

      1. The triviality about social constructs is that they can be falseIy applied. But I find the whole topic of them to still be damn interesting, and their existence is powerful. When you walk into a room with other people, your style dress, hair style, perceived race, and perceived gender are immediately assessed by others in the room. There will be expectations placed on you based on how you present yourself. Likewise, you judge everyone else that you see, and place some expectations on them. Its fascinating.

        1. where is the “social construct” in that example? How would I know if I see one? Is it anything to do with “lived experience”?

          Expectations are expectations. Perceptions are perceptions. Judgements judgements.

          What work is the term “social construct” doing?

          Is my skepticism.

    2. <blockquote“(O)nce we have determined the perception of sexual dimorphism is produced by oppressive power structures, it seems evident that someone asserting the material reality of sex could only be motivated by defending these structures.”

      I’ve come to think of such authoritatively pronounced if / then constructions, where the premise does not remotely require the conclusion, as the fallacy of the extremist.

    3. I agree. But take it one step further:

      Unless and until gender, in all its manifestations including the physical, is seen as a social construction, action that will radically change our incorrigible propositions cannot occur.

      But strangely only the approved social construction is allowed to manifest, so the net effect is to go from a ‘sexist binary’ to a ‘gender monoculture’.

    4. Sastra, I would demur about Jones’s argument from p 14 ff. in which she agrees with the denialists that sex isn’t binary but it doesn’t matter. She regards binary, which she rejects as a straw man, as involving sharp contradiction between a thing and its opposite. “A vs non-A.” Yet many commonly observed phenomena lie on a spectrum, she writes. Yellow blends through green into blue but we still recognize green as a colour. I think this analogy is forced. There is no “green”, really. It is a cognitive interpretation of how a photon whose wavelength lies in a certain range (500 – 570 nm) stimulates the cone cells in the retina. In reality, every photon has its own single wavelength dictated by its energy and cannot itself have a spectrum. A better analogy might be a comet. We can imperfectly determine head from tail and tail from surrounding dark sky but it is easy to see the edge between the head and the sky. (I borrowed this analogy from myocardial infarction.) I’ll show shortly why you don’t need any analogy, which is a weak form of argument anyway.

      So what does that get us? She argues that “sex denial is an artefact produced by the belief that empirical differences must manifest as perfect logical contradiction to be meaningful.” I see where she could go with this if sex really wasn’t binary. Most humans are dimorphic, a few are ambiguous, and none are a third sex, she says, and so the claim that humans are absolutely dimorphic is wrong. But as with my comet analogy, we can still tell the difference between male and female nearly all the time, notwithstanding the ambiguous fuzz in between which is much smaller than the comet’s tail. Does this do the trick?

      That I think is where she errs. She mentions “gametes” only once in the paper, as something that is innate and not controlled by environment or culture. But that is a missed opportunity. If she had recognized that gametes really are binary: sperm and egg are are mutually exclusive and exhaustive of all the gametes there are. All gametes that are not sperm are eggs and vice versa (barring some blighted ones which I rescue my argument by saying aren’t really gametes at all. In any event they failed in their path toward either male or female gametes and not any other.) We even have a definition for gamete that is not circularly dependent on whether it is sperm or egg: it is the only haploid cell type in the body and therefore the only cell that can combine with another (haploid) cell to make a new individual.

      So if she had observed that gametes are absolutely binary, then there is no spectrum. (No comet after all!) All individuals are male or female based on the gametes their body plan is “designed” to make. The individuals who appear to her to be ambiguous are ambiguous only because she is focusing on external morphology (and granted that is really important for the affected individual.) She misses the essence of absolute sexual dimorphism: the gametes and the organs that make them (even if these are not at all important to any individual who plans not to have children.) And yes if a person has no gonads that can make any gametes at all s/he is in a biological sense sexless. Then she would live according to how she was comfortable with her anatomy (which will usually be female.)

      I sympathize with the other arguments she makes but I do think she missed an opportunity to nail down the binary nature of sex. It would have helped her in other areas of her argument against post-modern views of transgenderism..

      1. Likewise, the intersex red herring can be boiled down to gametes: all intersex individuals who are fertile are so as one sex only, with sperm or ova. Nothing in between.
        There is no point in trying to redefine our two sexes by the 0.02% who have suffered chromosomal or embryological errors.

    5. @ Sastra
      I wonder if Jane Clare Jones is being too generous. I appreciate that Butler, Fuentes and others *claim* that anyone asserting the material reality of sex is a bigot, but do they actually believe this, or is it just that their basic position is so uncompelling on its own terms that the only way to get others on board is to allege that dissent = bigotry?

      1. They go further than dissent = bigotry.
        Refusing to accept that a man can become a woman (and it’s now shifted to a mere declaration by the male concerned) is enough to get you labelled a Nazi.

  11. “sex mattering politically around issues like the burden of infant care that largely falls to females is irrelevant because voles.”

    Brilliant! My favourite line.

  12. Ugh. I have two more pieces of bad news from academic Wokeville:

    1. The NEJM has drunk the anti-racist Kool-Aid. They are literally teaching medical students to be racist by having them join race-based indoctrination groups:

    “Racial Affinity Group Caucusing in Medical Education — A Key Supplement to Antiracism Curricula”:

    2. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the CEO of Thomas Jefferson publicly shamed the school’s president for liking tweets. The new puritans scoured through his likes looking for damning evidence of impure thought:

    “Thomas Jefferson president ‘should have known better,’ says the CEO in a note to the system’s community”:

  13. I’ll always be left wing, but the “progressive” part of the left is incredibly embarrassing.

    1. I used to think I’d always be left wing, too. But, while holding my nose, I just switched my voting registration to R*p*bl*c*n. The non-progressive left is simply not a playing a substantive vocal role in the DNC. If the choice is between Tr*mp and Biden, given Biden’s policies on Title IX and widespread endorsement of progressive ideals (especially with regard to sex and gender), I will likely abstain from voting in the next presidential election. I would like the chance, however, to vote for Vivek Ramaswamy if Republican primaries are held. I know the argument that Biden is better for democracy than Tr*mp, but that isn’t enough for me anymore. If I’m feeling this way, then I’d imagine that many other centrists who were just rightwards of me are too. It will take more than pretty words about abortion and Ukraine to get us to the polls.

      1. Roz, I understand completely. I myself have voted for a couple of Republican (or
        Republicanish) candidates for local offices, where issues like funding the police department are important. But at the national level, it seems to me that other issues
        must take precedence. For example, Ukraine is more than a matter of pretty words if we are presented with a choice between Biden and Trump. [If it were to be Biden vs. Bolton, or even Haley, I might see your point. But that doesn’t look likely. ]

        1. Appreciate this, Jon. The case for the Ukraine needs to be spelled out. For example, Biden is doing X for X reasons, and these reasons are worth it for X reasons. Also, are we in a proxy war with Russia? Would Trump endanger us and the world with his policies about the Ukraine?

          1. He would quite possibly pull us out rather than dragging us deeper in. His base does not want to be involved there as it is, and Tr*mp has consistently sucked up to Putin.

            1. Even more relevant, while president, Trump deliberately held up aid to Ukraine that Congress had already enacted, in order to extort Ukraine’s publicity help with a US domestic political maneuver. This action, illegal on its face, indicates Trump’s value system in regard to Ukraine (among other things).

            2. I wonder what Tr*mp’s aim was in virtue-signaling to Putin?

              -unabashed absolute evil?
              -business opportunity?
              -owning the libs?
              -preventing war?
              -something else?

        2. I’m pretty centrist and I have issues with both parties. My long term issue with Democrats is that most want to massively increase the size and scope of government. On the other hand, too many Republicans want to tell you how to live, often with a Christian Nationalist flavor. Now of course we have Democrats increasingly pushing gender identity ideology and other nonsense. I originally was a Democrat and became independent. I have sometimes voted for Republicans for president. However, Trump is an exceptional case, and my objection to him goes well beyond policy positions. After January 6, where he tried to stay in office despite clearly losing, I have come to consider him an existential threat to the nation. I will vote for Biden against Trump (assuming they are the candidates) not because I like Biden’s positions, but because I don’t want to take the chance that Trump will get in and end the United States of America as we know it. I could easily see Trump setting off a civil war or worse.

          My nightmare scenario is that in a future election we will get extremists in both parties running against each other for President, like AOC versus DeSantis, who I think of as a more competent Trump. Then I’d think we’re in for a bad time whoever wins, and that’s a case where I would vote for a third party or nobody. In 2020, I was incredibly relieved when Biden won the nomination over Socialist Sanders. If Sanders had won I probably would have voted third party, although if I had known then how Trump would act after losing, I might have voted for Sanders despite being very strongly against every proposal he put forth.

      2. I understand the sentiment with wanting to reject the drivel put out by supposedly left-aligning politicians and thinkers, but I think switching parties due to this rather than try to fight it within is not a winning strategy.

        It is very clear the direction the republicans want to take regarding religion in schools and the teaching of evolution, and I think you’d be far more likely to convince people on the “left” to drop post-modernism much more easily then you could get people on the right to reject Christianity.

        I don’t think Vivek would be an exception to pushing religion, and he certainly will never actually have a shot at winning, as he doesn’t have widespread appeal to the average GOP primary voter. Also, he is on the record saying strange things like people should be proud of having a large carbon footprint.

        1. Thanks, Ryan. More and more these days, I find conversations with Republicans to be more fruitful. At this point, I think I’d rather converse with Republicans and move them with persuasion leftward on abortion and religion than spend my time arguing against a Marxist monolith of arrogance.

          Yes, there are aspects of Vivek that raise my eyebrows! I’ll keep watching him. He appeals to me for a variety of reasons. First, he and I have both been at Harvard: Vivek for undergrad and me as a postdoc. Second, he went into biotech and got rich doing it. I’m transitioning to biotech. Third, he got a law degree. While I didn’t do that, I did take graduate courses in law as part of my PhD. I like that he has a grasp of history. Fourth, he clearly articles the social issues on the left. So, he’s different than the Majorie Taylor Greene types. About religion, yes, he uses the g-word. He’s Hindu, I think. It’s grating to me nonetheless. If he takes a nosedive into anti-evolution policy, that would be a dealbreaker for me. But I suspect he throws around the g-word for the same reason Biden and Obama do: atheists aren’t electable as leaders of the free world.

          1. Fair enough. I do respect your thoughtfulness on these issues.

            I do appreciate Vivek’s thinking outside the box. Most of my skepticism comes of Vivek from friends who have gone to school with him (in Cincinnati), but it’s hard to separate fair criticism from personal gripes.

        2. Wait a minute! Political parties aren’t binary! You have other choices! None. Green. Libertarian. PIG. British Loonies. Flying Spaghetti Monster Party.

          1. Not sure if this is tongue-in-cheek, but the way elections are structured in the US, game theory dictates that a two-party rule is almost inevitable. The only way to change that would be election reform.

      3. Roz, I understand completely. I remain an unaffiliated voter, but can’t vote for anyone who says trans women are women. If they will lie about that, what will they not lie about? (I know, the right lies about different things.)

        I appreciate Jerry and his readers continuing to shine a light on the insanity of gender ideology. For now women are taking the biggest hit, but by our nature (IMHO) we as a group are less aggressive and confrontational than the male trans activists, and the institutions that shield them. We need everyone to speak up.

        1. Depends on your definition of women – trans women cannot be female in the binary definition of sex, but they certainly can have a variety of secondary traits that would qualify for being women.

          1. Such as?
            You may be thinking of secondary sex characteristics like pubic hair distribution, voice register, breasts, beards, even libido and muscle/bone structure. These can all be simulated, modified, or even created with hormonal manipulation, coaching, and plastic surgery. But I don’t think anyone would say doing that would “qualify” the person as being a woman. “Passing” maybe, in a dark nightclub. But not qualifying. Maybe in that person’s own eyes, and in the eyes of legislatures whom they have been able to intimidate, but not in the eyes of anyone else, man or woman.

            You also seem to be saying that a man qualifies as a woman if he acquires those secondary traits. But I thought the party line was that mere declaration of female gender was sufficient to claim the status of woman. Why go to all that trouble and expense to get those secondary traits then?

            I’m sincerely confused by your post.

  14. The mode of argument favored by Sci Am and Professor Fuentes is not new. Here is Fuentes (2023): “Over the past few centuries this process of misrepresentation of biology was, and still is, used to deny women rights and to justify legal and societal misogyny and inequity, to justify slavery, racialization, racism and to enforce multiple forms of discrimination and bias.” Here is Lepeshinskya (1951): “And in fact the followers of Virchow, Weismann, Mendel, and Morgan, talking of the immutability of the gene and denying the effect of the environment, are preachers of pseudoscientific tidings of bourgeois eugenicists and of various distortions in genetics, which provided the basis for the racist theory of fascism in capitalistic countries.” [Translated by Zhores Medvedev in “The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko”. ]

    I wonder what we can expect when Fuentes et. al. realize that the hated sex binary is
    related to the genetics binary of pairs of homologous chromosomes and the alternation of diploid soma and haploid gametes. Can we look forward to sermons in Sci Am reconsidering the insights of Lysenko, Prezent, and, above all, the priceless Olga

    1. I’m not sure what your objection to the Fuentes quote is. There is a fairly extensive literature on the subject (Barker-Benfield’s book is now a classic), and in more modern times I remember that a physician writing a letter to Time magazine in 1984 argued that Geraldine Ferraro should not run as a vice presidential candidate since she was subject to periodic hormonal disruptions that rendered her judgment problematic — and thus she was unfit to be president, should something happen to Walter Mondale, her running mate. That strikes me as a fairly blatant example of Fuentes’s point, and there are numerous, often more subtle examples in our current political discourse.

  15. Imagine an alternate reality where the words “sex”, “male”, and “female” evolved in our language to be different, so that they could fully and interchangeably refer to not just gametic sex, but also chromosomal sex and anatomical sex and even brain sex (how one perceives of oneself). Trans people could say they are the sex that they identify as without any disagreement from academics. Imagine a place where all of Fuentes’ fantasies were true and they always were true …
    We would still have our societal problem where ova producers (as I guess we would all happily agree to call them that) are having their rights and safety threatened in elite sports and in prison by the same activists making the same deluded and wrong arguments.

  16. And for today’s entry in the “How shall we say ‘woke’ without saying woke?” contest, I shall make a theological suggestion: let us call them Manichaens. As Wikipedia says:
    “Manichaeism teaches an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.”

    And best of all, it was adjudged a heresy!

  17. Just because sporks exist does not mean that spoons and forks do not. Well understood exceptions, as with mammalian sex determinism, do not refute the rules of categorization.

    Utensil fluidity is dishonest. Serve up dishes as you please but stop demanding that we’re all sporks now.

  18. Emma Hilton’s tweeted reply hits the nail on the head:

    Fuentes: “The production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals.”

    Hilton: “Correction/strawman: nobody thinks we are disembodied gametes.”

  19. I think Fuentes needs to see a therapist. All that sex dissing is making a holier than thou quasi theologian by ignorance.
    I also think by publishing this article it IS better to know where it is going. To make available all the error correction to the ideology as possible, albeit tiresome for our host and others.

  20. This is all being pushed forward in a venue that hasn’t the slightest interest in showing opposing views or even discussing the issue. I guess there are still a lot of people who still read SciAm (not me!) and trust it as presenting the more or less state-of-the-art in several fields, including biology.

    It is completely shameful and actually a disservice to (to not say a corruption of) science.

  21. Yes, it is extremely disappointing that Sciam has become a mouthpiece for the Identitarian Pseudo-Left and apparently has all but completely abandoned its role as a magazine of reliable science popularization, but what’s with your prejudice against Liver and Brussels Sprouts, Dr. Coyne? Those are delicious and nutritious and should be aperiodically enjoyed by everyone! 🙂 Also, may I draw your attention to the recently completed (with a meeting co-sponsored by a formerly “Woke”-captured local University – SFU in Vancouver, BC, Canada) world tour of the brilliant couple behind the podcast “Fucking Cancelled”? They are doing great work in critiquing Identity Politics and the online cancel culture it promotes. . Astonishingly, the meeting went off without a hitch and without protests or attempts at disruption from the Woke enforcer crowd.

  22. Once the activists gained public acceptance through MUCH repetition of the ideological term “gender”, then half of their work was done. (Their conflation of sex with gender is a feature not a bug.) Trying to argue with these folks while retaining that largely useless term is akin to an atheist talking about morality and not being able to jettison the word “sin”. When you use their terms, you argue on their terms. And the language constrains and shapes the argument in various ways. This is one thing that the postmodernists are very good at: narrative construction that involves dictating the terms that can be used.

    As an aside, I don’t understand the frequent insults comparing this article to Brussels sprouts. What did the Brassicas do to deserve that!?

  23. I am not in a position to add a lot to this discussion. J. Coyne, E. Hilton, C. Hooven, and C. Wright know a lot more about biology than I will ever know. However, I would like to add one point. Fuentes may be crazy and wrong (I think he is). However, his view are highly mainstream on college campuses. My guess is that 95-99% professors and students would agree with him (at least publicly). Outside of academia, his idea are probably embraced by a minority. However, his ideas reflect elite opinion with few exceptions. The elite (K-12 education, Academia, Hollywood, the media, NGOs, Wall Street, Corporations, Tech, SV, the FBI/CIA/military) believe what he does Yes, it is the dominant religious dogma of the elite and they take it very seriously.

  24. It’s almost always heartening looking at the comments on such nonsense these days, the pushback seems to be consistent and concerted.

    And yep, very telling that he considers the valid criticism to be “yelling at him”. It’s really quite pathetic. Vast majority of the comments I read were essentially politely written and factual. Very little emotion despite how frustrating the man is.

    I’ve never had a subscription to Scientific American, so sadly cannot cancel, so only hear about it mostly here. I hope this ideological crap only makes up a small proportion of what it puts out.

  25. “This is the “definition” (or “conception”, if you will) of sex: males have the reproductive apparatus to produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), while females have the reproductive apparatus to produce large, immobile gametes (eggs).” – J. Coyne

    A semantic point: I’m afraid many will misconstrue your definition/conception as meaning that…

    “ALL males have the reproductive apparatus to produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), while ALL females have the reproductive apparatus to produce large, immobile gametes (eggs).”

    This is a /universal quantification/ that allows no exceptions; but your statement is a /generic generalization/ that does allow some exceptions, so the above formulation is a misinterpretation.
    For example, castrati (male singers castrated before puberty) falsify the universal quantification that /all males/ have the reproductive apparatus to produce sperm; but they don’t falsify the generic generalization that /males/ have the reproductive apparatus to produce sperm.
    Following Bernhard Nickel’s analysis of generic sentences (*, the correct interpretation is the following one in terms of a /restricted/ universal quantification—restricted to the normal(ly developed and equipped) males and females:

    “All males that are normal with respect to their reproductive apparatus produce sperm (during some stage of their life cycle), while all females that are normal with respect to their reproductive apparatus produce eggs (during some stage of their life cycle).”

    Castrati are males who are /not/ normal with respect to their reproductive apparatus, so their existence is consistent with the truth of the above sentence.

    (* Nickel, Bernhard. Between Logic and the World: An Integrated Theory of Generics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.)

  26. It reminds me when the A+ loons tried to hijack the term atheist to mean humanist when humanist seemed to work just fine. My point back then was, when you hijack the term atheist for your own agenda we will then need a new term for ‘person who does not believe that God exists.”

    Likewise, when the wokerati have hijacked the term sex for their own agenda, we will then need a new term to describe the fact that humans produce sperm and eggs and nothing else.

      1. When she adduces the absolute gamete binary she hits it out of the park. She’s actually fair to the trans woman. I’d love to have our “feminist” prime minister read that and then say he thinks “transwomen aren’t women” is hate that needs to be “stood up to”.

  27. ‘gives me the same feeling I’d have if my mother called me to dinner and announced that we’d be having liver and Brussels sprouts.’

    But at least liver and brussels sprouts are good for you!

  28. I am really surprised that professor of anthropology does not distinguish biological sex from sexuality. It is so simple and completely apolitical. Blurring a difference between accepted rights and evidence in science is disgusting and counterproductive. As I am all for equal rights for all sexual orientations, the activism should not create distortion in observable reality. If it would not stop we will be oppressed by new aggressive religion.

  29. “to denigrate people and deny them their dignity and their rights”

    Ironically this phrase denigrates people and robs them of their dignity by implying they have bad motives.

  30. Jerry, your opening comparison is unfair to and defamatory of liver and Brussels sprouts.

  31. Im glad I canceled my subscription to Scientific American. Im trying to remember if it was the article about math being racist/sexist was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or some other non scientific article.

    Sad to see a formerly great publication go to rot. 🙁

    1. Ummm. . . we don’t advocate violence around here, even if by “defenestration” you mean some kind of punishment like firing. Even firing isn’t something that we generally advocate: I prefer to argue about ideas. So please, if you wish for something, be more explicit and nonviolent!

      1. Good thoughts. I was thinking figuratively, not literally. That said, I suspect neither will change their position, despite any evidence. How about I advocate for a retraction by the magazine along with an apology to the world for publishing it. And maybe yes… some kind of censure on the part of the Board of Directors for/the editor. Non-violent but making sure they get the message. Thanks for the quick response.

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