Once again, ideology distorts science: the editor-in-chief of Scientific American flubs big time, wrongly asserting that sparrows have four sexes.

May 18, 2023 • 8:39 am

This is a sad story: sad for biology, sad for science communication, and perhaps saddest for Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Over the past few years, Helmuth has injected a hefty dose of authoritarian progressive ideology into her magazine (see here for some of my posts on the issue). It’s gotten worse and worse, even though the readers, and her followers on Twitter, have repeatedly urged her to back off the ideology and restore the magazine to its former glory as the nation’s premier venue for popular science.  But Helmuth is woke, and, being religious in that sense, simply can’t keep the ideology out of the science, just as an evangelist can’t help asking you if you’ve heard the good news about Jesus.

The tweet Helmuth put up this week (shown below) is a prime example, and it’s pretty dire because it distorts biology—in particular the work of scientists who spent years studying the genetics and mating behavior of white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).  This is an interesting bird because both males and females show two forms (this is a “polymorphism”), with one form having a tan crown stripe and the other a white crown stripe.  Here is a picture of the two forms from a PNAS paper.

The forms also differ in their parental behavior and courtship.  I think you can get the differences by looking at the abstract of a paper by Elaina Tuttle, given below. Tuttle was an accomplished ornithological behaviorist who did part of her postdoc in Steve Pruett-Jones’s lab upstairs from me. It was her work that called attention to the involvement of inversions in the mating system of white-throated sparrows. Sadly, Tuttle died at only 52 of breast cancer.

Here’s a 2003 paper by Elaina on the species (found in North America) and its mating system (click to go to screenshot, and you can find the pdf here).

Her summary is below, showing that the two forms (“morphs’) mate disassortatively—that is, tan males prefer to mate with white females and vice versa.  There is also a difference in their behavior, with white males and females being more aggressive during the mating and breeding season:

Organisms exhibiting genetic polymorphism often also exhibit true alternative life-history strategies in which behavioral tactics are genetically fixed. Such systems are ideal for the study of the evolution of life histories because the consequences of selective episodes can be more easily identified. Here I report an interesting and classic example of a species exhibiting true alternative strategies. Due to a chromosomal inversion, male and female white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) occur as two distinct morphs, tan or white. Tan and white morphs mate disassortatively, and this mating pattern maintains the polymorphism in relatively equal proportions within the population. In comparison with tan males, white males are more aggressive, frequently intrude into neighboring territories, spend less time guarding their mates, occasionally attempt polygyny, and provide less parental care. White females are also more aggressive and solicit copulation from their mates twice as often as tan females.

Note that they mention just two sexes: males and females, each characterized by their color. Just two sexes!  The genetics of this system is complicated because, the genes causing the different colors and behaviors almost surely reside within a chromosomal inversion (a part of the chromosome that gets broken, turned around, and then reattached).  This makes it hard to do genetic analysis. Tuttle explains this:

. . . . . almost all white birds are heterozygous for the inversion (i.e., 2m/2, where 2m represents the inverted chromosome and 2 represents the noninverted form), whereas tan birds are homozygous noncarriers (i.e., 2/2). . .

The disassortative mating and different behavioral strategies have combined to make this variation remain fairly stable in the population, though I’m not sure there’s a population-genetic model showing how this actually. works. (That would be hard, as it would require knowing a number of parameters that are difficult to estimate but are required for a good model.)

Further, the tan and white morphs occasionally mate with their own color (about 4% of the time, probably an underestimate because of sneaky mating). This kind of mating is called assortative—like mates with like. Because of this, the two forms are not reproductively isolated. That’s why they’re not called different species.

Note that there are just two sexes here, as virtually all scientific papers describing this phenomenon realize: males make sperm; females make eggs. Here are two quotes from the Tuttle paper:

This species is polymorphic, and both sexes can be separated into tan and white morphs based on the color of the median crown stripe (Lowther, 1961).


White-throated sparrows may be an exception to this rule because, regardless of fitness effects, the genetic alternatives are present in both sexes, there is likely to be evolutionary mechanisms maintaining multiple strategies. . .

Just two sexes, and every ornithologist knows this. Even if each morph mated only with its own kind, so that there was total reproductive isolation between the forms and they would, in effect, be two species, there would still be just two species, with each having two sexes.

Now the popular press has mistaken this system for the phenomenon of “four sexes”, which is just flat wrong. The biological definition of sex involves what kind of gamete you make, and here there are only two.  Females make and lay eggs, males make sperm. For descriptions of this system showing “four sexes”, see here (Nature!), here, and here, among others.

That’s a distortion of the truth, and a misleading one that gender activists co-opt to say that “yes, animal sex is not binary”.  They are wrong. But in fact Laura Helmuth did just that in her tweet, citing a paper from Ken Kaufman’s Notebook in the Audubon News.  Kaufman says this (see more later):

It’s almost as if the White-throated Sparrow has four sexes. That may sound like a joke, but it’s actually a good description of what’s going on.

. . . Many different genes here are tightly linked to form a “supergene,” so that birds of one color morph also inherit a whole range of behaviors. The resulting effect is that the White-throat really does operate as a bird with four sexes. For anyone curious about the scientific background, you can read all the technical details here.

The Current Biology paper that the last link goes to does indeed say that the bird “operates as if it has four sexes”.  And I found a 2020 paper by Maney et al. in Hormones and Behavior called “Inside the supergene of the bird with four sexes.” But while the paper uses “four sexes” in the title, it also notes that that is merely a “nickname” for the species. Maney et al. then correctly refer to “both sexes” throughout.

But if there are four sexes, what are those sexes?  All you could say is “tan male”, :”white male”, “tan female,” and “white female.” But those are not sexes, as they don’t produce four different kinds of gametes. Nor is reproductive isolation between the tan and white morphs complete, so it’s not as if a “white male cannot mate with a white female”, which would be the case if these were four sexes. As I said, assortative (like-type) matings occur at least 4% of the time. Further, the offspring of some of those matings must, by virtue of the chromosomally-based system of mating, be fertile (i.e., if tan birds mate assortatively with tan birds, their offspring will be equivalent to the normal “tan” morph in behavior, appearance, and mating propensity).

If you’re a sane biologist and use the biological definition of sex, we have a species with two sexes, with each sex having two morphs. And the morphs mate disassortatively, but not completely so. It’s surely an interesting system, but deeply misleading to use it as an exception to the sex binary. It makes me angry when people like Helmuth do this, for on some level they must know they’re wrong.

Nevertheless, Helmuth wants to go with the popular press and with woke ideology rather than with science, and declares in the tweet below that the species has “four chromosomally distinct sexes.” (Even that isn’t true, as each morph has the same inversion type.) She underlines her ideology by adding her P.P.S.: “Sex is not binary,” as if this example disproves it.  My P.P.S. is “Yes, sex is binary and you know it.”

Two points here: Helmuth is dead wrong, as biologists working on this system realize. There are not four sexes.

Second, she is being deliberately obtuse because she wants to buttress her view, expressed elsewhere, that “sex is a spectrum.” This, of course, is a trope meant to go along with the view that gender is a spectrum, which gender activists somehow want to read into nature itself, seeing the same spectrum in nature that they see in society. But as Richard Feynman said, “Mother Nature can’t be fooled,” and all animals and vascular plants obstinately show just two sexes.

What is amusing about Helmuth’s tweet is that she was SO wrong that the deluge of critical comments eventually prompted Twitter’s “community notes” program to correct what she said (remember, this is the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American), and append an “added context” note saying she’s wrong—with the “context” noting that there just two sexes, and each sex comes in two colors.

I don’t know about other scientists or science editors, but if I was publicly spanked on Twitter like Helmuth was below, I’d be hideously embarrassed, and either correct myself (she won’t), or delete the tweet, which conveys scientific misinformation. (Update: She’s cut off the comments on her post, clearly perturbed that there were so many, with the vast majority being critical._

This is what started the Twitter fracas. Note the “added context”, which readers can upvote.

And here’s what they call the “ratio” of comments to “likes” on her Tweet. This reflects the fact that the vast majority of people commenting on her tweet were critical. She has been, as the kids say, “ratioed”:

Scientists and informed laypeople immediately began going after this tweet, some polite and correcting it, others calling for Helmuth’s firing (I can understand that sentiment but I would never argue that anyone should be fired). One of the scientists, who had already debunked the sparrows as a violation of the sex binary, was Colin Wright, who wrote this on his website:

The second case study claims to investigate “the evolutionary consequences of more than two sexes.” Perhaps here we will finally be told what these new sexes are! But the first sentence moves the goalpost from “sexes” to “operative sexes,” which they never define.

The example they give of a species “with more than two sexes” is the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). This species has two color morphs, males and females with either white or tan stripes. The more aggressive white stripe morph has a large inversion on chromosome 2, and the species mates disassortatively by color morph, meaning that white stripe morphs tend to mate with tan striped morphs. This chromosome inversion coupled with the disassortative mating by morph has led to a situation where chromosome 2 “behaves like” another sex chromosome.

He adds to that that in a tweet below issued as a comment on Helmuth’s tweet:

What happened? Helmuth blocked Wright (that’s what it means in the red rectangle below):

Wright then clarifies the story and calls attention to his being blocked. He’s right: Helmuth couldn’t abide the truth:

Emma Hilton also replied to Helmuth:


And Emma got blocked, too:

However, Carole Hooven, another critic of the “non-binary” view of sex, doesn’t seem to have been blocked. Perhaps I’ll be too, but I haven’t been yet.

Finally, Agustín Fuentes, the cultural anthropologist from Princeton whom we’ve met before, retweeted Helmuth’s post, for he’s denied the sex binary too, and in Scientific American!). But being thin-skinned, he puts in an addendum saying that the quote he gives is not his own. But he still apparently embraces the idea that there is no sex binary in humans.


To sum up, Helmuth is tweeting wrong things about biology in the service of her ideology, an ideology that she doesn’t just embrace, but has infused into the magazine she runs. Perhaps Scientific American wants to become Ideological American, but I’m hoping things will turn around. They would if Helmuth could simply adopt the idea that she shouldn’t use the magazine as a mouthpiece for her politics, but she won’t do that. Also, she refuses to engage with scientific criticism, not a good look for an editor. This exchange exemplifies that:

And if I were friends with Helmuth, I’d tell her this.

h/t: Steve, Colin


76 thoughts on “Once again, ideology distorts science: the editor-in-chief of Scientific American flubs big time, wrongly asserting that sparrows have four sexes.

  1. If an employee in any business continually makes major mistakes and will not rectify them then that person will be fired. Helmuth is in the “business” of conveying scientific information. If she continues to make mistakes in conveying that information, for whatever reason, then as in any business she should be terminated.

    1. Unless the business isn’t “conveying scientific information,” but rather “furthering a political agenda.” Which she seems to be doing. She’s made it this far. What makes you think she’ll be fired soon? What makes you think the thousands of academics who have been engaged in the same kinds of shenanigans for years and haven’t been fired will be? In fact, not only are the dishonest academics not getting fired, but they’re the only ones getting tenure, and the only academics who are being hired are those who are willing to write long statements professing their fealty to ideology over information.

      She is clearly not “incompetent,” as her competency is not supposed to be in conveying scientific information. She is supposed to be competent in promoting the “correct” ideology, and she’s passing with flying colors. We know this. Jerry (among many others) has been reporting on it for years. How much longer must this go on throughout academia and the sciences before we accept that, yes, this is an enormous problem, and it isn’t going away?

      1. Exactly. People like Helmuth are not incompetent; they are not making basic errors of fact. Their repeated behavior suggests that they know exactly what they are doing. They lie (yes, deceit with intent). They distort. They obscure. They attack. They don’t care about approval from the fact-based community. They care about approval from their ideological comrades. The credibility that matters to them is either earned or lost entirely within their tribe.

        We are waging an insurgency within our leading institutions, and those who continue to support liberal values and the pursuit of truth are losing. It’s difficult to accept that one’s neighbors and coworkers want to destroy much that one has lived and worked for. But that’s where we are.

        I find at least one good result of this whole mess: I learned some quite interesting biology today!

      2. One small positive in fighting the tidal wave of woke ideology infecting rational discourse, and challenging, really, the entire premises behind the Age of Enlightenment is the lack of any absolute value compass by which ideologues “stay the course”. Thus, it’s like a religion without the fixed religious doctrine. Because the woke belief system evolves with society’s evolving mores. Unlike objective facts and derivative values based in truth and reason which remain unchanging. Malleable values can be molded if you find the right lever. For Helmuth its probably economic. If she truly believed what she purports to believe she wouldn’t change but if she were credibly threatened with removal or if the woke fad faded she would turn on a dime.

    2. It happens with established institutions as they age. Their original purpose (such as “business” of conveying scientific information) is overtaken and sidelined by people who maximise their career by ‘getting on’. Getting on becomes more and more decoupled from the original purpose.

  2. What is amusing about Helmuth’s tweet is that she was SO wrong that the deluge of critical comments eventually forced Twitter to correct what she said … and append an “added context” note

    Just to say that such “notes” are not added by Twitter itself, they are added by users who have signed up for Twitter’s “community notes” program. This is the new scheme for trying to deal with misinformation in a crowd-sourced manner. Whether it works or not will be interesting to see.

    It makes me angry when people like Helmuth do this, for on some level they must know they’re wrong.

    Perhaps they don’t. We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which people can believe their ideology and fool themselves. In their eyes, they are the ones who have the truth of it, fighting the good fight against the reactionary forces of “whiteness”, “patriachy” and “colonialism”.

  3. You write “Perhaps Scientific American wants to become Ideological American, but I’m hoping things will turn around. They would if Helmuth could simply adopt the idea that she shouldn’t use the magazine as a mouthpiece for her politics, but she won’t do that.”

    But she’s not merely injecting her politics here. Rather, she is promulgating misinformation….in a science magazine! Are you sure that’s not grounds for her being fired?

    1. Given that the Woke often call for people to be fired, often wrongly, I don’t want to play that game. I’ll just offer my own take and let the owners of the magazine make their judgments. I do think she’s destroying Scientific American.

    2. Better word for “misinformation” is lies. Because that is what it is. Maybe we should start to call out such “misinformation” for what it is.

      1. I don’t think the two are equivalent, Cynthia. “Lie” is a fighting word. A lie requires the deliberate telling of an untruth (or misinformation). There is a “meta” dimension of whether the person telling the untruth knew (or didn’t know) that it was untrue or sincerely believed, incorrectly, that it was untrue. And then the question arises is, did the person repeating gossip use due diligence in questioning its veracity before believing sincerely that it was true enough to repeat it.

        It’s best to reserve “lie” for the actual accusation that someone is telling something he himself knows to be untrue. If you merely believe that what someone says is incorrect or untrue, best just to say it’s not true and leave it at that.

        You can’t know without further investigation that the speaker knew it was untrue and said it anyway.

        1. Apologies. Last word in third sentence, para. 1, should be “true”. (not “untrue.”)

      2. I have to agree with Leslie here. I understand the temptation to say it, but in online discussions accusations of lying are far too common and I get really tired of seeing them. I’ve been accused of lying for stating easily verified facts (I tend to get into debates with people pushing pseudoscience that are uninterested in mere facts) and I see others accused of it all the time, so I make a point of avoiding the “L” word. Instead, I’ll simply point out that someone is wrong and provide references. Now, if someone continues to make the same claim after being presented with multiple references showing their error, I might make stronger comments, although my experience is that it is usually about someone denying the evidence of their error rather than accepting their error but still stating an untruth.

    3. Bad reasoning begets bad reasoning. I think the context of the culture wars matters here. Those who are against LGBT+ rights appeal to Nature as if the way things are determines the way things ought to be. So to counter that, why not make similar appeals to Nature? It may not be sound philosophically speaking (is-ought gap, naturalistic fallacy, etc.) but it may be subjectively persuasive.

      I’m waiting for the same people to argue that since a lion takes over a pride and kills the infant offspring of the previous mate, humans should similarly be able to kill a current mate’s offspring from a previous partner. It’s in Nature, after all, so shouldn’t that persuade us?

      1. Bad reasoning begets bad reasoning. I think the context of the culture wars matters here. Those who are against LGBT+ rights appeal to Nature as if the way things are determines the way things ought to be. So to counter that, why not make similar appeals to Nature? It may not be sound philosophically speaking (is-ought gap, naturalistic fallacy, etc.) but it may be subjectively persuasive.

        I’m waiting for the same people to argue that since a lion takes over a pride and kills the infant offspring of the previous mate, humans should similarly be able to kill a current mate’s offspring from a previous partner. It’s in Nature, after all, so shouldn’t that persuade us?

  4. I am also a bit confused as to why you would “never” call for someone being fired. How many years of misinformation must the editor of what was once one of the most respected biology journals promulgate nonsense before she deserves to be fired?

    It’s not as if you’d be acting like the woke, calling for people to be fired for saying something that isn’t within their tiny, ever-shifting Overton Window, usually for stating arguments the woke don’t like rather than false information. This is a person who has repeatedly published misinformation in a scientific journal over the course of years in the service of ideology over science. If someone like that doesn’t deserve to be fired, who does?

    EDIT: I’d also just like to say that I learned a whole heck of a lot about a bird I knew nothing about. This has actually been one of the more fascinating (to me) biology lessons I’ve had in a long time!

      1. I think you make a proper and important distinction here. A politician’s job is supposed to depend on the approval of the public. That’s what elections are for. Campaigning for the defeat, re-call, or resignation (but not the jailing) of a political candidate or elected office-holder is perfectly proper even if you only sort of dislike him or his policies. You just happen to like the alternative better. I agree that calling someone to be fired from a job that you don’t directly control—i.e., you’re not her boss—is, shall we say, “problematic” and you are fair for refraining from the temptation. Not only for the person fired, but for the dangerous view that an employee’s livelihood should be at the pleasure of random mob members who may not even be her employer’s customers anymore.

        Laura Helmuth is one weird lady but not our call about her employment contract.

        1. But, when it comes to something as important as communicating basic scientifc facts that are not in any way in dispute and have not been for decades or even centuries, and other critical information, how long do you allow someone to helm one of the most important disseminators of such information when they demonstrate with 100% certainty that their agenda is not to communicate scientific fact, but rather to blatantly distort or even lie about it in order to serve an ideological agenda?

          This is how the “long march through the institutions” happens. We’ve let so many ideologically driven people take the helm of so many critical institutions that basic biology itself is now under attack. How can we possibly expect to not lose this fight over basic truths being sublimated, distorted, suppressed, and deleted from public communication without ridding critical institutions of people like Helmuth?

          And it’s not just information. Is it not our place to call for the removal of someone like Chase Strangio, who obviously has enormous clout within the ACLU and has steered its policies toward suppressing speech rather than protecting it, who advocates for the burning of books with which they disagree? Is it not our place simply because we don’t work at the ACLU? Is it not our place to call for the removal of some administrators like those at Oberlin, who assist and exhort their students to defamation and protest of innocent people by outright lying to them, or those at Middlebury, who allowed their students to (attempt to) commit physical violence against people who disagreed with them?

          If this was about some MSNBC or Fox News reporter, I’d say fine, “pure” media is part of the “marketplace of ideas.” But when we’re talking about places and institutions meant to educate, or to protect vital human freedoms, or to communicate scientific data (and, just as importantly, be cited as evidence in future scientific study) — places that were carved out for specific purposes, and remain trusted by many less informed people to remain devoted to those purposes — I don’t see how allowing this to go on will result in anything but a complete and total loss for liberalism and truth. Each incident is isolated, but the more they add up, the greater the chance that the woke eat the entire country and, perhaps, the entire Western world considering the US’ cultural hegemony.

          1. I worry about every one of the same things you do, CC, singly and in aggregate. But who is “we” (who can’t sit idly by while our institutions are destroyed….)? Where would “our” power come from to force the firing of these people “we” agreed were too dangerous to remain in their jobs with employers who seemed happy with them?

            Sci Am, Fox News, the ACLU, etc. are all private businesses, whether for-profit or non-profits. As long as we allow free association, boards and shareholders can come together to advocate or sell whatever they want. It’s a principle of administrative fairness in employment that if you are keeping your employer happy by fulfilling the terms of your employment contract to his satisfaction, you have a reasonable claim to continue in your job. Employers that capriciously fire people because of protestors waving signs in the street get a rep as not nice places to work for unless the pay is super great.

            Sure, if your boss decides one day you are now more trouble than you’re worth he can fire you for no reason at all but you will be entitled to compensation which does vary markedly from place to place, An employee who had been performing well for a decade who is now old enough that she would have difficulty finding a new comparable job could be entitled to at least her annual salary in lawyer-shy Canada. This would be especially perverse if, as a CEO, she was following the expectations of the Board in moving the organization in the very directions the Board expected her to. It’s not realistic, or fair, to expect such an employee to get fired for doing what the organization wants. Fie on the organizations that we once loved so much, but have become rotten, then.

            1. All of your points are 100% valid, and most of the problems with what I wrote did occur to me after I made my post. I guess the “we” is those of us who are aware of what’s happening and, rather than demanding people be fired (because, as you point out, these people are almost certainly doing exactly what they’re expected to do), we just need to continue calling as much attention to these issues as possible. Some things I think “we” can do are:

              (1) Make our voices heard publicly, as the vast majority of the public usually agrees with the positions of people like you, me, and Jerry, but knows that expressing those views can result in serious (and, in some cases, severely deleterious life-altering) punishments and ostracism organized by the powerful few core activists and institutional bureaucrats;

              (2) Form networks and large social groups to try recapturing or at least forming a sufficient opposition within some of these institutions;

              (3) Vote with our wallets;

              (4) I’m sure I can come up with much more, but, meh. It really does feel like a losing battle at this point. The thing that gives me the most hope for the future is seeing things like children transitioning finally being questioned openly. I think a lot of what’s being done to “trans” kids is going to be viewed the same way we look at various medical malpractices of the past, like scrambled eggs lobotomies, hysterectomies for “hysterical” women, etc. And I think/hope that more “woke” positions will face increasing public scrutiny as they ratchet up the pressure through their capture of institutions. The big question is whether that scrutiny will be too little too late.

    1. I don’t know how the higher -ups will weigh this. But there could be motivations to keep her. Perhaps they happen to agree with her views. Or they (correctly) see that her views are often touted in other venues, including some pretty lofty places, so maybe she’s right? Maybe there isn’t an actual crisis in subscriptions despite all the announcements from people that they are cancelling.

      1. Oh, any or all of those things could be true. But, from the standpoint of conveying correct scientific information and publishing rigorous scientific studies — which, in a world concerned with actual science, should be the main focus of her job — she is a failure worthy of being replaced. You’re absolutely right that the focus of her job may not, in fact, be scientific truth and research (as I expanded upon in response to comment #1 above).

        1. I think Mark was describing possible thought processes of the higher-ups, not his own.

  5. How about some stand-up comedy:

    “It’s almost as if the White-throated Sparrow has four sexes.”

    Hey – most people are happy if they get ONE!

    P.P.P.S. Marijuana is legal now

    [ end of stand-up comedy test material ]

    … seriously though, this post by PCC(E) is a great way to learn some interesting biology.

  6. No one has told us whether the males of the two morphs sing the same white-throated sparrow song, or whether there are two differing renditions of what is one of the most familiar winter birdsongs of northeastern US.

  7. I wonder if she also thinks that different coloured humans are different sexes, and if there would be an public outcry about racism if she would tweet that.

    1. That was exactly my thought. Black men. White men. Black women. White women. Four sexes! Trust the science, Laura–print it!

      1. Only four? What about Asians, Native Americans, Inuit … ?

        And does that mean that white Europeans like me can change our sex just by being in the sun too long? Wow, I didn’t know!

    2. …or how many other physical variations qualify as a different “sex”. …Hair color? Eye color? Face shape? Shoe size? /smh

  8. And ALL of this — every single atom of this mess — comes from frantic efforts to be seen as supportive of LGBTQ happiness and well being. Imagine a parallel universe where every member of our species was either a cis heterosexual male with sperm or a cis heterosexual female with eggs. But also imagine that the biology of sexual reproduction with other species was just like it is in this universe. There would still be leaky disassortative mating in sparrows owing to an autosomal chromosome inversion. Female hyenas would still have a pseudopenis, there are monoecious and dioecious plants, and even animal species that are true hermaphrodites. All of that other stuff would still be found in nature. And there would be eggs and sperm and nothing in between.
    Would sensitive progressive people with a pen be declaring that biological sex in nature was a spectrum? That there is no true sex binary out there? No, that would be silly. They would be finding something else to write about.

    1. It’s a very good example of the sort of sophistry used to create the impression that the transgender sexual spectrum claim is backed by science. A major magazine with a respected background is being used to obfuscate the issue and drive people from trying to understand how a “gender identity” can be in opposition, or even tangential, to the very real biological sex of a person, and enough so that with hormones, snitches, and stitches, people can be changed into that sex.

      If we point out that humans have two sexes, and that sexually reproducing mammals and avians, have two sexes in response to the lie of gender affirmation surgery, then rather than dealing with the gender affirmation surgery, the sophist will show counter examples to prove you wrong about their being two immutable sexes and claim that since you are wrong on that claim, you are wrong about everything.

      And they never have to deal with the fact that inverting a penis doesn’t change a vas deference into a fallopian tube, or swap prostate cancer for cervical cancer. It’s not quite a Gish Gallop maneuver, but it has similar purpose.

      This is why we need our skeptics to step up and untangle all of this, and kudos to those of you biologists who are illustrating this misuse of science. But we really need the popular skeptics such as Novella, PZ Myers, David Gorsky, and others who are playing along, to finally start working as skeptics and not simps to transgenderism.

      1. playing along? Isn’t PZMyers another example of utter ideological capture and full throated cheerleading?

        1. He may be doing that, but since I know him (though I haven’t had contact for several years,) I know he knows better and I still can’t figger his motives for it. Perhaps he’s not captured, instead he’s holding the net and luring wannabe skeptics with promises of ice cream. Or “Down here we all float.”

  9. So I guess in Helmuth’s eyes, human alpha, beta, and gamma males are different sexes, regardless of them all self-identifying as male.

    (Yes, I know I’m using disputed stereotypes for males, but I’m sure you get my point)

  10. Even if it were true that these birds have four sexes, it’s not clear why anyone would see this as a validation of left-wing gender ideology. There is a clearly identifiable genetic basis for this polymorphism, and despite the fact that the human genome is surely much more extensively studied, no such basis for gender diversity in humans has ever been found.

    If, for the sake of argument, this is what four sexes looks like, then this just provides further evidence that humans have only two sexes.

    1. I think the motivations are to point out how nature has a lot of sex diversity, and therefore humans who are in the LGBTQ spectrum should be more accepted. I absolutely agree that they should be more accepted, but their argument uses the naturalistic fallacy, and it has nothing to do with LGBTQ biology. So this isn’t the way to garner support.

      1. It also stems from a desire to undermine sex as the way we distinguish between men/males and women/females, so that asking people what their Gender Identity is can replace it in law and society.

      2. LGB don’t require denying the reality of the sex binary (in fact, they require it, in order to be attracted to members of the same sex). This is all about the TQ+

  11. Helmuth persists in perpetuating misleading science and tries to silence those who would criticize her. This is an excellent example of progressive authoritarianism in action. When will the Scientific American Board of Advisors act to stop this politicization of science? They don’t necessarily have to fire her, but they do have a responsibility to protect the reputation of the magazine before it’s too late.

  12. If someone tells Laura Helmuth that there are hundreds of sexes in mushrooms, we can look forward to a bonanza of tweets. And then fungi also give us homothallism and mating type switching. Hot diggity!—fungi are a veritable riot of LGBTQIA2S+, emhasis on the + .

  13. “In comparison with tan males, white males are more aggressive, frequently intrude into neighboring territories, spend less time guarding their mates, occasionally attempt polygyny, and provide less parental care.”

    What?!? Toxic masculinity in sparrows??? Hey, it must be okay, guys. It’s nature!

  14. I would not go so far as to call Critical Justice Ideology a “religion,” but I see one strong parallel here between the way both the religious and the transgender are seen as in need of special protection and reassurance. The Little People Argument is that there are vulnerable others who can’t handle the harsh truth so there’s merit in authorities of Reason discovering comforting ones. These more comfortable truths come forth when we look at scientific theories and employ Nuance, Sensitivity, and an emphasis on Possibility.

    To me Helmuth’s pattern of argument resembles the way science-friendly pundits massage the evidence to confirm that the universe is in some sense deeply spiritual. “Sex is not Binary” is analogous to “Consciousness is Mysterious” or “Evolution has a Direction.” It’s okay to believe. You’re valid. Now wipe those tears away.

    If Accomodationists didn’t see the Little People as unusually fragile, desperate, and with a sense of self entirely dependent on the universe confirming what they Know, I doubt they’d be so mentally generous in their evaluations. If Laura Helmuth knows that the four “sexes” of white throated sparrows don’t disprove that sex is binary, my guess is that she only knows it in the same sense that Francis Collins knew that the three waterfalls didn’t prove the existence of God. Meaning, they know it … and they don’t know it. Those with eyes to see, see.

    1. “I would not go so far as to call Critical Justice Ideology a “religion,” but I see one strong parallel here between the way both the religious …”

      I’d add the irrelevance of empiricism or observation to the strong parallels. That’s straight from the post-modern problematization formula.

      The display above is a clear example.


  15. I have a novice question about this reproductive strategy. Is this phenomenon of having 2 morphs of each sex a sign that eventually they could end up being 2 species? It’s fascinating.

    It’s also fascinating how this ideology has taken hold. On that, has anyone tried looking at it from their perspective to figure out why they go along with it? Sometimes I wonder “if I could see what they seem to see, would I believe it too?”.

    1. It’s a good question. Yes, if the disassortative mating were to become complete, they would be regarded as separate species. However, I don’t think this is possible here because one morph is chromosomally A/B and the other A/A, and those matings will generate some A/Bs. Given that one type is permanently heterozygous for the inversion, I don’t see this particular system as every becoming complete. But if the genetic system were different, yes, they could become separate species. It would be difficult, though.

      1. I perhaps haven’t understood the mating system sufficiently, but the disassortaive mating seems to be actively preventing speciation– it maintains a within-species polymorphism. Even without occasional assortative mating– white with white, tan with tan– the tan/white and white/tan matings would continually produce both tan and white offspring of both sexes, which would then mate with the other moiety, thus leading to lots of gene flow. With 100% disassortative mating, a bird’s children would all be within one moiety, but its grandchildren could be in either moiety.

        (Edit: This was a reply to Maz, not Jerry.)


        1. but the disassortaive mating seems to be actively preventing speciation– it maintains a within-species polymorphism.

          That’ll upset people on all ends of different spectra – from the KKK to the Nation of Islam, via Alba Saor.

    2. These same kinds of mating types occur in other animals too, but without all the secondary sex characteristics that make sparrows amenable to arguments about human gender and social justice.

      In the example I’m linking, the mating types are sperm or egg genes that affect gamete compatibility at fertilization in sea urchins. The mating types change frequencies over time, and the genetic changes track the environmental changes (kelp forests) in the sea urchins’ spawning habitat.


      Humans show some analogous kinds of gamete incompatibility, in addition to behavioural and morphological variation in compatibility and mate choice.

      In both cases, the molecular incompatibility can lead to reproductive isolation. But something else has to be added to the mix (like geographic isolation) for complete reproductive isolation and species to evolve. It’s usually not adaptive to be reproductively isolated from someone who could be a potential mate. This is one of the fun ideas associated with the sparrow example: the disassortative mating (white males prefer tan females) has a big cost (not much mating with white females), so it must have some big compensating benefit.

    3. I understand the perspective. It derives from wanting to be supportive of transgender rights, opposite a viewpoint that transgender is not physically real. It’s not a mystery. One issue is I suspect many commenters simply do not grasp the intensity of hatred in some quarters, charitably since they (the commenters) are nice people in nice social groups. And social media promotion of extremism makes it all the worse. It really does no good to try to explain this, since they’ll just say that supporters should act a certain way. And the thread will go round and round with trying to explain why the supporters don’t react that way, while the ignorant commenter keeps insisting they should act in the way the ignorant commenter believes they should act. But that’s your answer, briefly.

      The “naturalistic fallacy” objection is an example. It has some complicated real-world aspects that just aren’t captured by intoning that this is a logical error. But trying to explore that will run into a wall of people saying fallacy, end of story.

  16. Species that show aggressive females and paternal males do not disprove sexual selection theory or the sex binary. They actually confirm what we know about sexual selection and parental investment.

    1. …and of course, if there were no mutations and variants then there would be no evolution!

  17. I know nothing about Laura Helmuth’s psychology, but I submit that there are academics who know Biology perfectly well but knowingly disseminate ideological bullshit on behalf of what they take to be good intentions.

    Well-intentioned fraud is not merely permitted but encouraged in the groves of academe. (1) Whole disciplines were contrived with a raison-d’etre that is “liberatory” rather than factual. (2) Opposition to tests of proficiency (SAT, MCAT, etc.) is often based on transparently phony claims of bias. (3) For 50 years, universities have tolerated the post-modernist affectation that science is no different from Other Ways of Knowing—while simultaneously running machinery, constructing buildings, housing medical clinics, and operating hospitals based on the rational “way of knowing” rather than any alternative “way . (4) On behalf of the sacred ritual of Affirmative Action, admissions offices have concocted “holistic” criteria, in order to raise the quota for favored groups and lower it for disfavored groups. The dishonesty of this gimmick has been an open secret for years, long before it was brought before the courts.

  18. If they could simply be happy with gender expressions being diverse, though they too obviously cluster, these dust ups would happen less.

    A steelmannish version of their side: objectivity of science is an illusion because reality is a contextual discourse, and defining sex as gamete sizes is a choice made, while the true tip of the spear for human progress sits at the cultural discourse level, and the discourse must reflect inclusivity and reject categories that exclude it by definition. Helmsmuth et all believe they have the right to redefine meaning so that it makes better sense in a complex and rich environment, where “complex” is a buttress for “arbitrary” – choices made that explain disparities and manifest as injustice.

    The nihilism of postmodern discourse is jaw dropping on a good day.

  19. I have had the below stanza floating through my head since Jerry posted this piece. It is from “North Haven”, a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in memory of her friend Robert Lowell. The poem itself can bring tears to one’s eyes, a touching tribute to the long friendship and extensive personal correspondence between the two. Beauty and art may not save the world, but they can certainly be a refuge in trying times.

    The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
    and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
    pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
    Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
    repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

  20. Scientists and informed laypeople immediately began going after this tweet, some polite and correcting it, others calling for Helmuth’s firing (I can understand that sentiment but I would never argue that anyone should be fired).

    I’d usually agree, but Helmuth is clearly spreading misinformation, unwilling to engage with good-faith criticism, and is damaging the reputation not only of her own publication but of science in general. Sadly, she needs to go.

  21. Thank you for qualifying “religious” with “in that sense” and merely comparing “wokeness” to a religion rather than calling it a religion. I think that’s an important distinction to maintain clarity around.

  22. Helmuth? sunk costs and desperate? Crusade and TERMINAL?
    adjective :
    forming or situated at the end or extremity of something.
    Something being her ideology. Sad alround, no winners here.
    Correction: we got some biology.

  23. An excerpt from an interview with biologist and Nobel laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard:

    “Interviewer: The Queer Representative of the Federal Government [of Germany], Sven Lehmann, claims: To be of the opinion that there are two sexes is unscientific. There are many sexes.
    Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard: That is unscientific! Perhaps Mr. Lehmann missed his basic biology course.”

    Source: https://www.emma.de/artikel/many-sexes-nonsense-339765

    Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, seems to have missed her basic biology course too.

  24. I suggest ‘Woke American – where the Truth and science don’t play nice, and Truth always wins’

  25. I just talked with Customer Service at Springer Nature about this, asked how I could lodge a complaint with the CEO (Frank Vrancken Peeters) or with the Board of Directors. They recommended sending an email to customerservice@springernature.com and said they’d route as appropriate. In addition, their mailing address is:

    Springer Nature
    1 New York Plaza, Suite 4600
    New York, NY 10004-1562 USA

    and their customer service number is: +1 800 777 4643

      1. Should you be so inclined, this would be good information to provide whenever you make posts about important scientific journals and publications pulling shenanigans like these. A way to make readers aware of how they can make their voices heard, especially since your articles on these topics are starting to gain a lot of traction on social media. As I said in a response above, one critical thing we can and should all do is make our voices publicly heard, so that the people at the helm of these institutions know how much disagreement there is among the public, and so the public sees that it may be safer and certainly far more popular than they realize to voice these disagreements.

  26. “Scientific” American has been less then scientific since the early 1990s. I subscribed from the mid 1970s until about 2000 when I couldn’t stand it anymore. Until that decade, the articles had been lengthy and deep. There was almost always some term that I had to look up. Illustrations were done by a professional scientific illustrator (yes, that was a real occupation, requiring special techniques).

    Early in that decade, perhaps even before the new editor in chief took over at the end of 1994, the articles started getting shorter and shallower, written less and less by the scientitists who had done research. The was more and more content on business and economics aspects of science and research, with an obvious political slant.

    By the end of the decade, there was almost no new science in the magazine worth reading about. The illustrations were done by artists and had little or no information content to them at all. The political slant was painful to read.

    About 5 years ago I got an on-line subscription (which I did not renew) to download all the past issues, and what I happened to see of the then-current content was abysmally woke already. So it’s no surprise to see what depths that rag has now reached.

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