Two short talks by Colin Wright: why sex isn’t a spectrum, and the nature and politics of gender

May 3, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Here’s a lecture (actually, two short lectures separated by a Q&A session) recently given by Colin Wright in Davis, California.

The video is two hours long, but Colin’s first talk on sex is only 38 minutes long and his second talk on gender is 23 minutes long. Given the topics, the expected protestors showed up, but, as Colin recounts in his Substack article below, they stayed outside and didn’t disrupt the talk (of course, they didn’t get to listen to it, either). The YouTube notes are these:

Colin Wright’s presentation “Sex is not a Spectrum”, The Biology of Sex & Gender Curricula in CA Public Schools at the Mary L. Stephens Davis Branch Library, Blanchard Room.

The first talk is a clear explication of what sex is, why it’s “defined” by gametes, and the nature of other characters related to sex that aren’t binary (as sex itself is). What about intersex individuals? Do they negate the binary? Many of the objections to the binary he defuses were mentioned by Agustín Fuentes in his Scientific American op-ed.

Given how Colin is demonized by gender activists (it’s impossible to disseminate the sex binary without being attacked as a transphobe or “hater”), he comes across as calm, rational, and willing to engage. He wanted to engage, and in fact does after the talk ends at 37:26.

But then, starting at 1:13, he does a second (and shorter) talk that takes up a more contentious issue: the nature of gender, how it plays into ideology, and what the issues around gender issues are in Davis itself. Surprisingly, the town has a three- or fourfold higher number of adolescents who identify as transgender than in California or the nation as a whole. (Wright gives several possible explanations for this discrepancy.) That talk ends at 1:36, and then there’s a bunch more questions. People who aren’t ranting ideologues really are curious about all this stuff, and we need more give-and-take discussions like this.

Here’s his own take on the talk from his website (click to read):

An excerpt and a photo (note that one person has misspelled “evolution”, which I’ve indicated with an arrow).

I arrived at the event early, an hour and a half before my scheduled speaking time. The event organizers had hired two security guards with the explicit instruction to remove any person who attempted to disrupt the proceedings. Everyone was welcome to attend, but attendees were required to display civility and respect.

As showtime approached, protesters began accumulating. They brandished signs declaring that my speech “kills kids” and urging me to keep my “phobias + prejudices” to myself. I find it difficult to comprehend how a discussion on the connection between sex and gametes could result in fatalities, but perhaps my imagination is lacking. The protesters also launched an attack on my credentials by insisting my PhD in “bugs” (rather than gender studies) disqualified me from speaking competently about the biology of sex in humans.

There’s more at the site about the talk itself.

25 thoughts on “Two short talks by Colin Wright: why sex isn’t a spectrum, and the nature and politics of gender

  1. I doubt many of the protesters have PhDs in anything, so by their own logic they’re disqualified from speaking competently about Wright’s qualification for speaking competently.

  2. When I say that biological sex is male, female and a small percentage of intersex or indeterminant sex, but that biological sex does not have to determine one’s gender I’m attacked online for being transphobic.

    1. The frequency of intersexes is 0.018%, or 1 in 5600 people. I know of only two true human hermaphrodites in history that were fertile, one as a male and one as a female. None have been fertile as both male and females, but, as I noted, hermaphrodites are not a different sex; they just combine two sex system in a single body.

      By the way do you think that “indeterminate” is a separate sex? I’d say they were developmental anomalies that often can’t be classified as to sex, but they are vanishingly rare. (Some, like those with AIS, can be classified as male, by the way, because they have the male reproductive apparatus.)

      1. Thanks for your response.

        No I used indeterminate as a roughly equivalent to intersex. What I don’t understand is that why people who support multiple genders (which I accept) need to then say that biological sex (male female and intersex) therefore doesn’t exist. Both can be true.

  3. Watched all of it. Colin is excellent. Also, thanks to the women who organized the event, parents should be deeply concerned about the impact of this bizarre ideology on young adults/children.

  4. Most of the basics, such as a clear definition of sex, is taught in high school – I suspect well before that in many schools. Maybe the problem with the ideologues is loss of memory.

  5. Incidentally, as for the ‘nature and politics of gender’, the otherwise excellent feature article in today’s 3 May issue of ‘Nature’ – ‘How Menopause Shapes the Brain’ has this insertion : ‘This article uses ‘women’ to describe people who experience menopause, while recognizing that not all people who identify as women go through menopause, and not all people who go through menopause identify as women.’

    This seems the menopausal equivalent of slapping on land acknowledgements willy nilly ; a tedious and redundant insertion for any article about female reproductive organs.

    1. It’s better than the alternative of saying “people with ovaries” every time they might otherwise say “women.”

      I’m sure some idealogues would still take offense at this formulation, but if you’re going to insist on “gender inclusive” language this isn’t the worst way to do it.

      1. I don’t see how “people who had or someday will have menopause” is better than “people with ovaries.” They both bespeak an unhealthy obsession with other people’s sex organs. Adolescents don’t even want to think of menopause. It’s something The Greatest Evil the World Has Ever Known—Mom—is dealing with.
        Can we not just stick with “women”, as the article mostly did? It’s not that hard. All women have menopause*, and no men do. Sorry, guys, something you’ll just have to miss out on. It’s only ideologues who insist on biologically false language.
        * Even girls born without ovaries will experience menopausal symptoms when FSH levels start to rise at puberty, which can be ameliorated with estrogen, given anyway for bone health and other quality-of-life reasons.

  6. I have commented in earlier posts that we will all be better off when “gender” goes the way of other faddish concepts that have originated in academia only to be largely dropped when the next cool intellectual toys arrived. Some of these have even seen wide popular usage before being (mostly) discarded; various aspects of Freudian thought come to mind. But maybe I am tilting at windmills. Now that the gender virus has been released from the labs, it appears that we must live with it and hope it evolves into a less virulent form. Perhaps we can direct this evolution in some manner, or at least inoculate others against its more damaging strains.

    I never use the term other than when I am discussing other people’s use of the term. Each definition of the word and every use of the word that I encounter suffer from at least one (usually several) of the problems pointed out by Colin Wright. “Gender” is often nothing more than a polite synonym for sex. The definitions of “gender”, “gender expression”, and “gender identity” are circular. The definitions rely on stereotypes of masculine / feminine; these are often outdated or simply asserted and never described. The definitions are ideological, not surprising since the word has its roots in feminism. We oftentimes see an insistence, when sex and gender are not being conflated, that sex is about biology and gender is about the social—the roles, behaviors, and expectations that are “socially constructed”. But the social and the biological are not so easily separated. Average differences in physical size and strength between men and women, female vulnerability to male physical aggression, and potential for pregnancy all affect social roles, behaviors, and expectations. We can add to that the average differences in interests between men and women—occupational, educational, hobby, etc.

    I understand why those who deny differences between men and women use the term “gender”. I understand why those who believe in some mystical “inner self” that is the “real you” use the term. I understand why the average person, who is oftentimes completely unaware of the ideological uses, simply sees it as a synonym for sex (the “gender” on his birth certificate). What I do not understand is why people use the term who do not share the assumptions of gender ideology and who do not conflate gender with sex. For any of those people who might be here: what definition do you use that avoids the above pitfalls of circularity and ideology? That recognizes that the biological and the social are overlapping domains? That avoids the endless and ever-shifting combinations of “roles”, “behaviors”, and “expectations” that any person can adopt, thus making “gender” so fluid as to be meaningless? What value does your use of the term bring to intellectual discussion and our understanding of what it means to be human? What prior void in our language is the term filling? In other words, what can we now say and understand that was not quite possible before the term existed in popular usage? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you measure that value of expression against the confusion we are inculcating in the young?

    1. The definition of “gender” given by the organizations which support gender identity (norms, behaviors, and roles different cultures associate with the sexes) is reasonably straightforward and useful. We can sensibly talk about how masculinity in an ancient honor culture differs from that of a Victorian gentleman vs how we may view it today, or we can describe the gender system in Japan. Gender Nonconformity is also a concept we can conceptualize — i e tomboys. If the postmodernists and trans activists had not gotten their grubby paws on it I doubt you’d be perplexed.

      The problem, as Colin Wright points out, is that they not only keep flipping between separating sex and gender and then equating them, but the word “gender” in “gender identity” does not, in fact, mean gender. That is, it doesn’t if you’re talking about people presumably born with the deep seated expectation that they ought to be the opposite sex — or at least not be their own. If the “gender nonconforming” are included under the increasingly generous Trans Umbrella then it gets even more confusing.

      It used to be that TRAs were happy to agree that transwomen were male, but of the feminine gender. They wanted to pass as women. But this wasn’t enough, they had to actually BE women and it became clear that they couldn’t let sex stand and still do that. I guess a lot of Gender Critical people keep using the word “gender” to both be accurate and in hopes of demonstrating that trans ideology undermines itself and/or is not progressive.

      I’m using the term less and less though because it’s not being employed by the other side clearly enough to allow me to be clearly understood anymore.

      1. I mostly agree: the concept of gender was once clear, largely unobjectionable, and of some use. I would quibble that little is gained in saying that a trans man is of “feminine gender” versus just saying that he is feminine. Similarly, with calling a tomboy “gender nonconforming”: I am not sure that labeling her (twice) simply because she does not conform with a stereotype is useful. In each case, however, I understand the point that is made. I also supported the goals of breaking down the gendered stereotypes, broadening the range of roles available to and behaviors deemed acceptable for each sex, and moving away from whatever social pressure might have existed for people to conform to rigid sex-based expectations. (The stereotype of the stay-at-home mother, subordinate to her husband, content with shopping and gossip, and girlishly afraid to get her hands dirty would have amused my wife’s working-class rural kin, particularly those of her grandparents’ generation and earlier.) The activists lost my support, however, when various of them transitioned from speaking of gendered roles, gendered behaviors to this reification of gender: now it is something I have, something I am rather than something I do, a sort of sexualized soul.

        We will look back at the uncritical embrace of gender-affirming care, indoctrination, and medicalization of childhood confusion with horror. At least it is my hope that we will—without seeing that proverbial pendulum swing too far the other way.

  7. Interestingly there’s no word for “gender” in any of the languages I know (Russian, Japanese and some Arabic). There’s M or F. If they need the concept (which I rarely see, other cultures aren’t as bonkers as we are about all this) they use the English “gender”.

    1. And probably no equivalent in many of the indigenous languages and cultures around the world. And elements of Western society is seeking to impose its values upon them, sort of a gender colonization.
      I have no problem, I guess, with our society having gender, but we shouldn’t impose it on all other societies.

  8. “Gender” was once a straightforward grammatical term used to describe word endings in languages like French. Postmodernists and trans activists got their paws on it through the invention of an academic vaudeville act called “Gender Studies”. Its character was revealed beyond dispute when its journals accepted seven nonsense papers submitted to them in the experiment of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian. Nonetheless, the charade keeps going, exemplifying the sunk capital principle. If once upon a time departments of Astrology Studies had been established, today we would have a journal called Zodiac, Place, and Culture, mock scholarship in this areas would be commonplace, and we would be worrying about the exact meaning of synastry and alignment.

  9. It’s fascinating that normally people have difficulties to grasp scientific concepts because they are not intuitive. Now we have a situation that the manifest image (how things appear) is the same as the scientific image (how things are) and the uncontroversial claim “sex is binary” isn’t acceptable to some people for whatever reason.

    Even intelligent people like Sean Carroll show so little trust in biology as a science by supporting the anti-scientific view that sex is a spectrum and ignore the harm that is done by supporting this false claim (don’t know if he changed his mind). Of course for some people the truth may also be harmful but there is no point in fighting harm by replacing it with a bigger or equal harm. In general, lying to people will make them vulnerable because everyone will be confronted with reality sooner or later. Making all kids insecure and confused will not solve any real problem for a small number of intersexual and transsexual people.

    The notion that we should act immediately, if we perceive a problem, is wrong for a large set of problems. If possible we should think and inform ourselves carefully before we act or decide not to act. And if we need to contradict science to support our claim we can be certain to be wrong.

  10. Finally got a chance to listen to most of Colin Wright’s talk. He did an excellent job. Three takeaways.
    1). The activists have so corrupted the chromosomal argument that we should rethink how we teach children. Contrary to what I have said elsewhere, explanation that X from the father gives a girl and Y from him gives a boy, even though almost always correct, gives the propagandists a chink to stick their crowbar into. Rather, we should be teaching from the get-go that a fully functioning Y chromosome (which can come only from the father) gives a boy. Anything else, which is almost always a single X, will give a girl. So the fairly common XXY (and all the other rare ones with more than two X’s but at least one Y) are boys. Not something in between or a bit of both. Many curious children will have already learned about X and Y, though, so the true story has to build on this knowledge. But the activists have done so much damage that we need to have all people learn that one (or more) Y gives male, no Y gives female. That’s about as binary as you can get.
    2) He is correct that non-binary gender ideology as taught to children is completely wrong-headed. Never mind the “groomer” accusations, which he DOES NOT make. Gender-critical theory causes children to be confused about how their bodies are built. It’s like a kid asking, “Where does food go and where does poop come from?” and being told, “The food goes into a special organ where it makes good thoughts. Poop comes from another special organ that turns your bad thoughts into something you can get rid of and flush away.” Not only is this just wrong but it completely misses the point that the anus was one of the great triumphs of evolutionary biology, up there with sex itself. In one end and out the other is just really important to know. Ditto with sex.
    3) He wasn’t as strong with intersex conditions, a complete misnomer anyway but the activists are always throwing them up as “on the spectrum”. As a non-physician he may have felt he didn’t have licence to discuss what are medical conditions to a lay audience, even though I suspect he could have taught embryology to medical students. It’s the embryologic knowledge that makes it easy to see how ova and testes are different but the external genitalia can become excessively or incompletely masculinized and this makes everything drop into place. These conditions are what used to be called birth defects, like cleft palate or a hole in the heart. Our word, “congenital anomalies” is more “sensitive” only because it’s harder for laypeople to understand but it means exactly the same thing. Actually they are all genetic, chromosomal, or embryological mistakes. Commenter Christopher Moss made an excellent analogy: if an intricate recipe doesn’t turn out as intended, you should not assume you have created a new dish. Most likely you just made a mistake. The feelings of affected human beings have to be considered, certainly, but on a spectrum they are not.

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