SF Chronicle gets biological sex badly wrong

June 4, 2023 • 11:15 am

If ever there were a headline designed to get my dander up, it’s this one from a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed (click screenshot below to read, or see it archived here).

The author’s self-description from the article (below) indicates a non-binary gender, and you can see Zemenick’s webpage here.

Ash Zemenick received their doctorate from UC Davis in 2017 and is the lead director and creator of Project Biodiversify and manager of UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station. Project Biodiversify (www.projectbiodiversify.org) runs workshops on inclusive teaching and develops teaching content to diversify biology education.

(Zemenick was also first author of that Bioscience paper that we had a dust-up about because of its insistence that we teach the sexual diversity of nature before we teach any generalizations.)

The headline above is a lie, at least as far as sex is concerned.  While I’m prepared to admit that gender is a spectrum, it’s still bimodal, in that most people cluster around male-like or female-like clothing and behavior, but there are genders between those camel-like humps.

But sex—yes, sex is indeed a binary, and the only reason one would deny that, given the way we biologists define sex, is for ideological reasons. I’m not going to try to fathom why Zemenick wrote this annoying piece, which is filled with folksy but patronizing prose like addressing the readers as “friends,” and “I’m so sorry but nah” when dismissing the claim that genitals are binary (they’re pretty close to it, actually). Stuff like the sentences below grate on me, and would even if they were true:

Now, let’s consider the most reductive definition of sex. The gametes. What are gametes? Reproductive cells. Eggs and sperm. Sounds binary, right? As a human, you either produce eggs or sperm, yeah? Nah.

Not nah, yeah. Zemick even falls for the bogus criticism that sterile or pre- or post-reproductive people are neither male nor female:

Now, let’s consider the most reductive definition of sex. The gametes. What are gametes? Reproductive cells. Eggs and sperm. Sounds binary, right? As a human, you either produce eggs or sperm, yeah? Nah. On average, most cis women and trans guys are born with all of the eggs they may eventually ovulate with. But some are born without them. Some have their ovaries removed. So, they have no gametes. What about them? Cis men and trans women don’t even start producing sperm until the onset of puberty. So, before puberty, they have no gametes. None. Some cis men are sterile. What about them? As you can see, some people, for these reasons, don’t produce or have gametes at all. Therefore, there are three states: no gametes, eggs or sperm. It’s a triplet, a trifecta. Gametic sex is not binary.

That’s bogus.  The definition above involves having a developmental system evolved to produce eggs and sperm, not whether it actually does so.  This pilpul is simple diversion designed to mislead the reader into thinking that sterile people are a third sex.

And with those words Zemenick dismisses the real definition of biological sex, which is “reductive” whether you like it or not.  There are in all animals and nearly all vascular plants just two sexes: males, who have the reproductive equipment to make small, mobile gametes (sperm), and females, who have the reproductive equipment to make large immobile gametes (eggs or ova). That’s all the sexes there are, friends, for nah, there is no third type of reproductive equipment nor any other class of gametes. Humans who don’t fit these definitions are vanishingly rare: about 1 in 6,000. That’s close enough to “binary” for me.

Zemenick could have looked up the definition of sex and educated the reader, but instead they dispel all the folk definitions of sex—definitions based on hormones, chromosome complement, and genitalia, showing that none of these are binary. Well, some of them are almost binary, but it doesn’t matter because these traits are associated more or less closely with sex but are not part of the definition of biological sex.  Genitals, for example, are pretty closely correlated with chromosome type (XX or XY) and that with the presence of ovaries or testes, and genitals are often used to diagnose sex at birth, but genital conformation is not the biological definition of sex. I’ll add that biologists defined sex this way years ago not because we were somehow transphobic and wanted to convert what was really a spectrum into an invidious binary, but because this definition is the one that makes evolutionary sense and also helps clarify a host of evolutionary issues, like how sexual selection operates.

I often compare biological sex with biological species. The species definition (or “concept”) that most evolutionists use is that “a species consists of a group of individuals that are reproductively compatible with each other but reproductively isolated (i.e., unable to produce fertile hybrids) with individuals from other groups. (This is called the “biological species concept”, or BSC.)  There are of course gray areas, since speciation is a process, but this definition is far more useful than definitions like “a species is a group of organisms that look alike but look different from organisms in other groups.” This is not useful for many reasons, one being that “how different you look” is arbitrary (is an Asian a member of a different species from a European?). Further, there are many real biological species that look so similar that they can’t be told apart except by seeing if they can produce hybrids in nature (these are called “cryptic species”).

Thus the appearance of animals, like the appearance of genitalia, can be a way to diagnose species, but it’s not a good way to define them. Defining species by their reproductive incompatibility is useful because it is the very explanation of why nature forms discrete clusters (reproductive isolation allows groups to diverge in their evolutionary pathways), and the Lumpiness of Nature is the big species problem that Darwin didn’t solve. (It was solved in the 1930s and 1940s by Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobhansky, who formulated the BSC). The BSC allows us to tackle this once-intractable problem, and has produced a rich research program, a program not engendered by any other species concept.

My friend Phil just reminded me of another important example showing the difference between definition and diagnosis, one suggested by the great paleontologist G. G. Simpson in 1959. Here’s what Simpson said, drawing an analogy with the BSC:

In the new systematics, a taxonomic group (taxon) is a population and is defined as such. It cannot, by its nature, have a type, either as a concrete individual or as an abstract plan.  It embraces all individuals of the population, and furthermore the individuals are continuously changing. It has a pattern, but the pattern is one of development and variation, for only such a pattern can in fact include and characterize the totality of a population. And all taxa are genetical units, defined by their reproductive relationships although they are usually recognized by physical characteristics. That distinction, perhaps esoteric at first sight, may be clarified by the analogy of identical twins: we recognize their relationship by the fact that they look alike, but they are not twins because of their resemblance, which is a result of the reproductive relationship that defines the twin- ship. The primarily genetical definition of taxa is a logical step from Darwin’s explanation of the morphological characteristics of taxa, but its full genetical understanding was beyond possibility for anyone in Darwin’s time.

In other words, the definition of identical twins is “two individuals who came from the splitting of a single fertilized egg”.  They are recognized by their physical near-identity, but that recognition can be wrong since some same-sex fraternal twins have been misidentified as identical twins. The egg-splitting definition gets precedence because it’s more explanatory. In the same way, the gametic definition of sex helps clarify and explain a number of sex-related phenomena.

But I digress again; after all, speciation was my field.  The point is that diagnosing species status or one’s biological sex can use traits different from those used to define biological species or biological sex. And sex is not “assigned at birth”, but rather determined at birth—in rare instances wrongly when doctors use genitalia—for the existence of a sex binary is a biological phenomenon that can be diagnosed by looking at the reproductive equipment (by that I mean testes or ova). Biological sex is not a subjective position on a continuum pinpointed by doctors, even if they usually do it by looking at whether the newborn has a penis or a vagina.

Zemenick dismisses the other ways sex is defined by laypeople—hormones, chromosome complement, genitalia—as nonbinary, and to some extent Ash is right. These are bimodal (in the case of genitals almost completely so), but not as binary as is sex itself—defined properly. But Zemenick’s whole op-ed simply knocks down a series of strawmen: definitions of sex that no real biologists hold. I’m not going to go through criterion by criterion; you can read the piece for yourself, and perhaps look at articles like this one or this one.

One more point. Here’s the way Zemenick ends the piece:

Now, you may still be disagreeing with me. You might be thinking that the binary definitions of biological sex are the true definition and that the variations I’ve described are just “exceptions to the rule.” I challenge you, though — how good of a definition of biological sex can it be if it does not capture the lived biologies and experiences of millions of humans? I argue that my definitions of biological sex, each one I’ve provided, are more biologically accurate than a binary view of sex, no matter the definition you choose — they more fully encapsulate the truth of nature and humanity.

So, dear reader, next time someone asks you if sex is binary, ask them, “How are you defining sex?” If they can’t answer, explain to them the different ways we can define biological sex. Explain that, no matter how you define it, biological sex is nonbinary.

True, animals don’t have gender the way humans do because they don’t reflect on how they “feel”, whether they don’t feel like either males or females, or feel like something else, or change the way they conceive of their gender from day to day. But animals do have biological sexes, and they are always two. Sex is a biological fact, not an attempt to “encapsulate the truth of nature and humanity” nor to “capture the lived biologies and experiences of millions of humans.”  Lived experience has absolutely nothing to do with biological sex.  That’s why zebras and fruit flies and ostriches—indeed, all animals—have a sex binary, though few of these creatures (or any plants) even have the ability to “reflect on their lived experience.”

I object to pieces like this because they are biologically inaccurate and probably deliberately misleading, designed to promote a preferred ideology. And they damage the public understanding of science in a way that no non-scientist can, because these declarations carry the authority of the scientist. (Zemenick begins the piece by saying of the sex binary: “As a doctorate-carrying scientist, however, I attest that this is false.”)

Well I carry a doctorate, too (it’s actually somewhere in my office), and I attest that the binary of sex is real.

79 thoughts on “SF Chronicle gets biological sex badly wrong

  1. For g*d’s sake what is wrong with these people and their understanding of fundamental biology? Does Zemenick think that if an adult male suffers a catastrophic accident that results in him losing his reproductive organs that he is no longer a man? That’s both erroneous and insulting. He seems to want to argue that sex is a spectrum and that where men are on it depends on their sperm count. Equally erroneous and insulting.

    1. I suspect that what Zemenick thinks is that truth doesn’t matter, except when “truth” supports his position. It’s not biology, it’s ideology.

    2. I maintain that it is not based on ignorance, but instead deliberate sophistry backed by an argument from authority. It is designed to confuse, rather than clarify.

  2. Keep fighting the good fight, Jerry! It must be tiresome to wade through all this dribble.
    With some trepidation I looked up “Sex” in Wikipedia, and was relieved to find this at the start:
    “Sex is the trait that determines whether a sexually reproducing organism produces male or female gametes.[1][2] Male plants and animals produce small mobile gametes (spermatozoa, sperm, pollen), while females produce larger, non-motile ones (ova, often called egg cells).[3] … ”
    It goes on, and provides a rather good summary of the topic, both in humans and more broadly for other species. But I wonder if the content of this page is under regular challenge by … the revisers.

    The first citation in the Wikipedia page is from the Oxford dictionary (2011), and it reads: “Sex: Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions. The fact of belonging to one of these categories. The group of all members of either sex.”

      1. I was about to make the same comment as Mark Sturtevant about wading through this tiresome drivel but he beat me to it.
        The patronizing folksy drivel writing style I find infuriating but presumably he is attempting to appeal to a certain demographic, sad!
        Thank you for your always delightful rebuttal.

  3. Surely we can look forward to a new meme that “species are on a spectrum”. I will bet that the first such revelation will be published in Scientific American. Disappointing, really, that the trans-animal community hasn’t turned up yet in the acronyms.

    Incidentally, the longstanding, mutual antagonism between John Cleese and wokeliness illustrates the general principle that all satire is a microaggression— a cause of “harm”. Now that satire has been informally expelled from academia, we can next expect it to be officially prohibited in DEI pledges, and in lists of outlawed language.

    1. Sorry, but the concept of “species are on a spectrum” has some basis in reality. Some species are very closely related. Species have subspecies. For example, Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are closely related to Polar Bears (Ursus Maritimus). So close in fact, that they can breed to produce fertile offspring. Are Dogs, Wolves, and Coyotes separate species. Some sources say Yes, other sources say No.

      Of course, truly separate species do exist. For example, humans and corn plants. Sex (in humans) seems to fit the human/corn plant model better than the Grizzly/Polar model.

  4. Funny that animal breeders have no problems defining what are cows, sows, nannys, mares, bitches, etc., while today’s woke people can’t define “women”. Of course, such terms are often used to describe women who don’t conform to the current ideology of sex spectrum thinking.

    1. In the What is a Woman? film that our host mentioned in today’s Hili, Matt Walsh asks a gender specialist (!) if he can safely conclude that if he sees a chicken laying an egg that the chicken is female. The “expert” replies by saying “Can a chicken cry?” Apparently, just like only humans have an invisible and undetectable soul, we also are unique amongst animals in having a miraculous and unobservable gender identity…

      1. “Apparently, just like only humans have an invisible and undetectable soul, we also are unique amongst animals in having a miraculous and unobservable gender identity…”

        I’m in the process of reading Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, but they both use “spiritual” and “soul” in explaining sexual identity. I got this from James Lindsay’s podcast, so I don’t have clear quotes collected together.

        But I do not think it is a mistake or afterthought that “gender” is being used seemingly as a stand-in for “soul”, which Butler says must be liberated from the prison of the body.

    2. I’m reminded of those scenes in the movie Minari wherein the characters are working to identify the sexes of newborn chicks and separate them accordingly into two different types of boxes.

  5. It’s unfortunate to read such a confused scientist’s “theories, which are his or its”, and it’s almost worse that he comes off as patronizing. And by reading the beginning of his bio, I learned a new word that I didn’t need to learn: positionality. This is why knowing your positionality is important: Power dynamics flow through every vein of the research process; therefore, it is our ethical duty to intentionally and mindfully attend to our role(s) in the contextual power interplay of the research process. Woke word salad at its finest.

    1. I’m glad this was pointed out – I highly recommend reading Lindsay’s “translation” of that otherwise easy to ignore word “positionality”. Maybe a short excerpt:

      [ quoting J. Lindsay ]:
      “In practice, this would mean, for example, that before offering any opinion, a homosexual Hispanic man would be expected to take pains to describe his identity statuses and how those position him with respect to societal power dynamics: dominance as a man, oppressed as a homosexual, oppressed by white people but oppressor to black people as a Hispanic, and so on, including also ability status, trans status, and other identity markers (see also, BIPOC, people of color, privilege, and white adjacent). The purpose of this exercise would be to credential him through his lived experience in the system as a knower about the “realities” of oppression where he is oppressed and to acknowledge and disclaim his necessary ignorance where he holds dominance.”

  6. “As a doctorate-carrying scientist, however, I attest that this is false.”

    I read that article a couple of days ago….and when I saw that argument from authority reach, I suspected that clownship would follow. No disappointments there.

    1. As I am in possession of both a Masters degree and a PhD, I can say in all confidence that there are two biological sexes in our species. Check and Mate.

      There. I knew that the Masters degree would come in handy one day!

      1. I don’t know – Masters AND PhD sounds like a binary-affirming paradigm.
        You are clearly injecting pre-affirming ideology into the debate.
        As a lay person, I have the POTENTIAL for any number of credentials, and therefore claim a spectrum.
        Check and Mate: well, Stalemate removes that irksome binary.

  7. A large share of non-binary and transgender people behave like narcissists: almost everything has to be about them and their feelings.
    About 10 days ago, the British Cycling Union decided that, at the elite level, transwomen cyclists will no longer be allowed to compete against biological females. Instead they can participate in an open category. British transwoman cyclist Emily Bridges reaction to this decision (which was reached after, among other things, listening to British cyclists): this is a violent act and “furthering genocide.”

    Joan Smith: British Cycling’s trans ruling isn’t ‘furthering genocide.’ May 26, 2023
    Trans athlete Emily Bridges described the move as a ‘violent act’

    1. I read about this somewhere and sadly it did not surprise me. Thanks for the reminder.
      Their “feelings” are manufactured to suit their agenda. Complete nonsense!

    2. I agree with that author that Emily Bridges’ comments are over the top hyperbole and catastrophizing, typical of many of those in woke-related movements.

      At the same time, while understanding the piece was snarky, the author strikes me as somewhat guilty of over the top characterization as well, for instance:

      “But claiming victim status is a core tactic of the gender cult, which depends on hyperbole to disguise the fact that its aim is to allow a group of entitled men to do whatever they like, including destroying women’s sport.”

      Seems a superficial to the point of cartoonish dismissal of Trans people’s motivations in this regard.

      1. Evidence I am afraid, indicates that it IS a core tactic. Hence the hyperbolic insistence that there is a genocide underway against people who say they are trans (note there is no such thing as a “trans” person as that implies there is a different type of human who has the body of one sex but a mind that is the other sex).
        Its why we get claims that there is an epidemic of suicides or murders of people who ID as trans when the stats say differently.

        Its why we hear the constant insistence of men who ID as women being the most vulnerable demographic ever and cannot be in their normal male spaces as they are at huge threats….but these same men can be placed in female only spaces. No one cares about the females/women – just the ones who insist they are women but are male.

        Its why we hear constant demands for “Trans healthcare” – which is cosmetic surgery and harmful drugs to create a simulacrum of the opposite sex. Or to “nullify” the sex. Odd how its the FEMALES who have to have the euphemistically called “top surgery” but which is lopping off health breasts with all the risks and harms that will cause.
        Whereas the males at most just have oestrogen.

        With recent push back building, we are getting ever more extreme claims… the genocide one is the biggest.

        Its like the story of the Boy who cried Wolf. And we all know what happened then.

        1. The statement that “Whereas the males at most just have oestrogen” is just wrong. There is such a thing as ‘bottom surgery’. Indeed, there are several types of ‘bottom surgery’ (all horrible). The list includes (Orchiectomy, Phalloplasty, Metoidioplasty, Hysterectomy, Salpingo-oophorectomy, and Vaginectomy). See “Genital Reconstructive Services / Bottom Surgery” (https://www.uclahealth.org/medical-services/gender-health/programs-services/genital-reconstructive-services-bottom-surgery). It appears that ‘bottom surgery’ is less common than ‘top surgery’. Google gets 1.88 million hits for ‘top surgery’, but only 407 thousand hits for ‘bottom surgery’. ‘Top surgery’ has even produced a slang shorthand (‘Yeet the Teet’). I don’t know of any slang for bottom surgery.

  8. Keep digressing, please.

    “Lived biologies” would show that MtF transsexuals cannot become pregnant, just as their scientific biology would indicate.

  9. “People with intersex characteristics are not as rare as you may think or as some recent politically charged articles may lead you to believe.” – Ash Zemenick

    There is a link to a paper that he thinks confirms his statement. The paper is freely available: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/11812321_How_Sexually_Dimorphic_Are_We_Review_and_Synthesis

    “ABSTRACT: The belief that Homo sapiens is absolutely dimorphic with the respect to sex chromosome composition, gonadal structure, hormone levels, and the structure of the internal genital duct systems and external genitalia, derives from the platonic ideal that for each sex there is a single, universally correct developmental pathway and outcome. We surveyed the medical literature from 1955 to the present for studies of the frequency of deviation from the ideal male or female. We conclude that this frequency may be as high as 2% of live births. The frequency of individuals receiving “corrective” genital surgery, however, probably runs between 1 and 2 per 1,000 live births (0.1–0.2%).”

    Is Zemenick right? – He is only if one accepts the authors’ /overbroad/ definition of “intersexuality”, which is totally inadequate, because it counts any “deviation from the ideal male or female”, any deviation “from a Platonic ideal of sexual dimorphism” as a case of intersexuality. Consequently, for example, having dysfunctional ovaries or testicles is counted among the intersex conditions, and so are all cases of cryptorchidism.

    A definition of a concept is extensionally adequate if and only if it doesn’t exclude things which should plausibly be included in the concept’s extension (= the set of things falling under the concept), and it doesn’t include things which should plausibly be excluded from the concept’s extension. The authors’ definition isn’t extensionally adequate, because it includes things in the extension of “case of intersexuality” which should plausibly be excluded such as cryptorchidism. It is plainly inappropriate to regard every individual as intersexual which isn’t perfectly typical/normal with respect to its sexual development.

    1. “Terms such as intersex, pseudohermaphroditism, hermaphroditism, sex reversal, and gender based diagnostic labels are particularly controversial. These terms are perceived as potentially pejorative by patients,and can be confusing to practitioners and parents alike. The term “disorders of sex development” (DSD) is proposed, as defined by congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical sex is atypical.”

      (Hughes, I. A., C. Houk, S. F. Ahmed, et al. “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders.” /Archives of Disease in Childhood/ 91/7 (2006): 554–563: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2082839/)

      There is still the question of whether the set of intersex conditions should be regarded as identical to or as a subset of the set of DSDs. Anyway, it is a mistake to suppose that all individuals with some form of DSD are /not/ classifiable as either male or female. Of course, how many of them are classifiable as either male or female depends on how exactly the terms “male” and “female” are defined. For example, if Alex Byrne’s very broad definition is used, then the only DSD-affected people who aren’t either male or female are the ones with gonadal agenesis (where testicular or ovarian tissue is completely absent) and the ones with ovotestes (where both testicular tissue and ovarian tissue is present).

      “[F]emales are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of large gametes—ovarian differentiation has occurred, at least to some extent. Similarly, males are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of small gametes. Definitions in biology are never perfectly precise, and these are no exception. Still, they give us some traction in examining whether there are any humans who are neither female nor male. (It is not in dispute that some non-human organisms are neither female nor male, and that some—hermaphrodites—are both.)”

      (Byrne, Alex. “Is Sex Binary?” /Arc Digital/ (November 2, 2018).)

    2. The “intersex is as common as red hair” meme started as a result of a widely discredited paper by Anne Fausto-Sterling. She has since revised the percentage down although I believe she’s still out by at least one order of magnitude, IIRC. She has also claimed that she wasn’t being serious when she said that there are five sexes, but I’m not convinced that she didn’t mean it when she first wrote that nonsense.

        1. “Fausto-Sterling’s central error was to equate any “differences of sexual development” (DSDs) with “intersex.” But while all intersex conditions may be considered DSDs, not all DSDs are necessarily intersex conditions.” – Colin Wright

          I fully agree.

  10. “Thus the appearance of animals, like the appearance of genitalia, can be a way to diagnose species, but it’s not a good way to define them.”

    Yes. Once again, nuances of epistemology are marshalled to question the much simpler concept of ontology, as if by sleight-of-hand.
    As another doctorate carrier, I have to suspect they do it intentionally.
    It’s the implicit human exceptionalism that really bothers me. Sex is not a different concept for humans than for turtles or beetles. They must know this. So they’re lying about it. Shameful.

  11. I admit to having been thrown off by “Ash Zemenick received their doctorate from UC Davis in 2017 and is the lead director…” I’m one of those old fogies who still thinks that “their” is a plural possessive pronoun and “is” is a singular verb, and so the two don’t go together when referring to the same … person/being/creature … whatever.

    1. I am also one of those old fogies, “their” is a plural possessive pronoun! I read it first time and thought initially there were two people concerned, then re read it and thought it must be a mistake. Oh dear. I really must catch up.

  12. Call me cynical, but Zemenick knew how to get something published. Now, while people are generally confused about sex and gender, write something that stirs the pot to add to confusion. The title is clickbait.

  13. gender religionists are just as delusional as young earth creationists, but more dangerous because a giant swath of the country believes in this woo- at this point, most christians, while misguided, believe in a less harmful god + evolution mish mash that doesn’t involve sterilizing children.

  14. “In other words, the definition of identical twins is “two individuals who came from the splitting of a single fertilized egg”.  They are /recognized/ by their physical near-identity, but that recognition can be wrong since some same-sex fraternal twins have been misidentified as identical twins. The egg-splitting definition gets precedence because it’s more explanatory.” – J. Coyne

    “[T]hat’s okay because a good definition need not be a good test.”

    (Sorensen, Roy. “Vagueness and the Desiderata for Definition.” In /Definitions and Definability: Philosophical Perspectives/, edited by James H. Fetzer, David Shatz, and George N. Schlesinger, 71-109. Dordrecht: Springer, 1991. p. 78)

  15. Not only does the author get the sex wrong, but he also makes an incoherent mess with gender. You can’t simultaneously believe that individual men and women don’t (and shouldn’t) follow cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and also believe that where we see ourselves in regard to these stereotypes determines whether we’re a man or woman. Pick a horse and ride it.

    Here we now refer to sex of the mind, or what I’d like to call cerebral sex. This is one way to think about gender — how we, in our heads, think about ourselves and how we fit into our society and culture.

    Let’s analyze this. If we, in our heads, are thinking that we are logical and sports-oriented, then we fit into our society’s expectations about men. So we should obviously be thinking of ourselves as a man. Nothing sexist about this at all.

    But wait — we could be a woman who bucks the stereotypes and is logical and sports-oriented! That’s perfectly legitimate, and also fits into our society and culture. Gender nonconformity, down with sexist boxes.

    However, we also like romantic comedies. Now we have the option of being neither man nor woman, but an unusual hybrid in which — get this — both masculine and feminine traits are found. Though, of course, we know men and women routinely have personalities which don’t fit neatly into the Barbie or He-Man boxes. Those are silly caricatures, after all.

    “Cerebral sex” is also a silly caricature. If this is what people must go through in order to realize if they’re a boy or girl they’re obviously close dancing with sexist stereotyping, if not getting whiplash. They’re measuring themselves against the despised “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus” type methods of categorizing men and women. This is all completely arbitrary. We both don’t give a damn how society thinks we should behave but position our sex accordingly. It doesn’t work.

    What we really have I think is some people imagining that their “physical sex” is different and then slapping Gender-Conforming and Gender-Nonconforming labels on the result. They are NOT living their “gender.” They are mentally changing their sex — or trying to.

    1. Or is the activist just trying to upset the target’s sense of reality so the target can be groomed into believing what the activist is selling? Ploughing the target’s mind so the seed will take.

      1. Reminds me of being on holiday in France as a kid in the 1980s. My dad (who was brought up with a ration card in drab post war Britain) was not familiar with ‘exotic’ foods like quiche. One day we sat down in a restaurant and started browsing the menu. Almost immediately he looked up and uttered the immortal line: “What the bloody hell is kwitch?” I still give him stick about it now!

        My Grandad was even worse. On a different family holiday, he wouldn’t even taste a margarita pizza because it looked too foreign. We all spent two weeks in Italy eating the most delicious food while grandad survived on egg and chips (with an occasional tomato as a special treat).

  16. How do you know that a person whose “lived biology” is that of a cat, is not a cat. You can’t, some people are cats. How do you define “cat”?

  17. I beg pardon because I only recently understood this, but the contrariwise view makes the grave problem clear. Sex and reproduction is a fallacy in need of revision by modern, our knowledgeable, social construction, to know what possibilities exist in the universe. What the heck do we really know about anything?

    Each of the tiniest observations on which science and medicine alone is based – even as early as it was known in ancient times – has designed sex and reproduction as an instrument of harm, oppression, and genocide of multimodal sex humans. The pattern is the same – simply read the following, from a famous doctoral degree – holding scientist, on how utterly lost an entirely different practicum – physics – has become :

    “… deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics[ref. 1]; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility [ref. 2]; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity” [ref. 3]. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. ”


    [apologies for length! ]

      1. That is why revolution will raise all of society out from under the capitalist-governmental power that erected its technocratic authority in the first place – an authority with deeply problematic moral roots.

        [ apologies, I’m indulging a bit! ]

      2. Yeah, it’s intentually obfuscated. That’s the famous “Sokal Hoax” paper, where the author showed that postmodernists will accept obvious nonsense as long as it comes with enough scientific-sounding window-dressing.

    1. Apparently, you missed the name of the author. That would be ‘Sokal’. The paper was a hoax (and a quite successful one at that). See “Sokal affair” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair). It gets worse. The hoax article was published in ‘Social Text’. The same issue of ‘Social Text’ contained an article by Sandra Harding that stated “why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as ‘Newton’s rape manual’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’s mechanics’?”.

  18. “The [gametic] definition above involves having a developmental system evolved to produce eggs and sperm, not whether it actually does so.” – J. Coyne

    Then we could say that an (animal) organism is male iff it underwent the process of developing testicles (irrespective of whether or not it resulted in well-formed or well-functioning, i.e. sperm-producing, testicles), and that it is female iff it underwent the process of developing ovaries (irrespective of whether or not it resulted in well-formed or well-functioning, i.e. egg-producing, ovaries).

    “[W]e define sex determination as the whole process that leads to the development of differentiated reproductive organs (e.g. either testes or ovaries in animals).

    Sex is never determined at conception. Sex determination is a complex and dynamic process, starting with one or a series of initial cues (genetic, epigenetic, or often a mixture of both), and ending with the commitment of undifferentiated gonads into either testes or ovaries (or of undifferentiated meristems into either stamens or carpels). This commitment may be temporary and reversible (as in sequential hermaphrodites), and the initial decision potentially affected by mutations or environmental effects at any step along the sex-determination cascade.”

    (Beukeboom, Leo W., and Nicolas Perrin. /The Evolution of Sex Determination./ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 17)

    1. “Sex is never determined at conception.”

      That’s just wrong. Sex in people is determined at conception, absolutely and immutably. There are no post-fusion events that can affect what sex the individual becomes. It is true that many embryological processes have to work correctly for gonads and sex organs to develop according to what sperm fertilized the egg, but this is similarly true for the development of everything else: the heart. the brain, hemoglobin, the fingernails, etc. There is no sense in which perturbation of the processes produces the other sex. All the perturbations can do is cause errors in metabolism and development, just as with other birth defects,…(or “congenital anomalies”, which sounds nicer but means the same thing.)
      OK, sex across the entire realm of biology might not always be determined rigidly at conception. It is still incorrect to say that it never is.

      1. I am convinced the huge increase in people who feel they are born in the wrong body, will be due to to environmental factors influencing development of the embryo – we live in an experimental chemical soup now, full of pollutants.

        My definition would probably involve what a person would be like without medical intervention.I would say thatmakes a trans person an artefact of the medical intervention.

        1. I suspect it’s more likely the social soup – equally full of pollutants – that produces confusion.

        1. There must be something lost in translation. There are life forms in which sex determination evolves in either direction that produces reproductively competent individuals by a process that acts after fertilization. But not in people. There are things that can go wrong, as I said, that make the end result not come out right. These could be genetic defects carried in the gametes or environmental toxins or any stimulus acting in utero after conception. None of these will, in humans, cause the embryo to develop into the other sex, though.
          It is therefore incorrect to say, “Sex is never determined at conception.”…unless the authors merely mean that things can go wrong between conception and visible sexual differentiation in the embryo. OK, but that is just trivial.

        2. “In line with Uller & Helanterä (2011), we define sex determination as the whole process that leads to the development of differentiated reproductive organs (e.g. either testes or ovaries in animals). …Sex is never determined at conception. Sex determination is a complex and dynamic process, starting with one or a series of initial cues (genetic, epigenetic, or often a mixture of both), and ending with the commitment of undifferentiated gonads into either testes or ovaries (or of undifferentiated meristems into either stamens or carpels).”

          (Beukeboom, Leo W., and Nicolas Perrin. /The Evolution of Sex Determination./ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 16-7)

          “An alternative approach to the prevailing view of sex as determined by a single trigger, and the one advocated here, takes as a starting point “sex determination” as
          “the processes within an embryo leading to the formation of differentiated gonads as either testes or ovaries”.”

          (Uller, Tobias, and Heikki Helanterä. “From the Origin of Sex-Determining Factors to the Evolution of Sex-Determining Systems.” /The Quaterly Review of Biology/ 86/3 (2011): 163–180. p. 166)

          Given this definition of “sex determination”, sex isn’t determined at conception, because what happens genetically at conception is only the beginning of the process of sex determination.

          1. This is true, but only tangentially related to the issue of biological sex being binary. In animals, when the threshold of sex differentiation is crossed, the individual either develops as male or female — it’s binary; there can be anomalies, of course, but there is no third sex.

  19. I think you hit it on the head. These individuals are trying to un-think and be like ‘animals’ who don’t have a concept of sex, just do it.

  20. I have a major issue with the concept of “gender identity” as based in how one “feels”.

    A man can NEVER know how it “feels” to be a woman because he has no basis for comparison. This applies the other way.

    There are apparently “gender identities” that cross species so a person can absolutely “feel” they are a cat (yes THIS IS happening). Again, there is no basis for comparison.

    I can have a sense of what it is to be an IT professional and a Teacher – I have been both. I can have a “feeling” of those two working states as I have a basis to compare the two. I cannot have a “feeling” of what it is to be a Doctor or an Astronaut or any other state as I have NO BASIS FOR COMPARISON.

    I can “try” any profession. I cannot “try” to be a male as it is a physical and biological impossibility to be such.

    This ideology and the extreme attempts to “justify” it, are simply a new way of enforcing sex stereotypes. And it seems to be these sex stereotypes are even MORE rigid that anything that has gone before.

    A woman who likes apparently “male” pursuits (I’d like to see the handbook/rule book that lists the “pursuits”/interests/clothing etc, that are sex based and how these came to be allocated to one or other or no sex!), is apparently “male”.

    Fine if you want to pursue them. It doesn’t make you the opposite or no sex.

    Also, why do you insist on trying to “medically” change the body to “match” this presumed real self that is based on rigid arbitrary rules of behaviour?

    Gender ideology is a harmful nonsense.

  21. A definition really shouldn’t be difficult or contentious, I read this a while ago by Heather E Heying.

    Women are adult human females…Females are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for developmental or genetic anomalies, produce eggs.
    Men are adult human males…Males are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for developmental or genetic anomalies, produce sperm.

    It could seasonably be restated as:

    There are two sexes.

    Females are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for developmental or genetic anomalies, produce large gametes.
    Males are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for developmental or genetic anomalies, produce small gametes.

    1. The problem with difficult definitions is highlighted when the question shifts from “what is a man/ what is a woman?” to “what is the primary difference between men and women?” Heather Heying’s definitions are so to the point that they can also be used to answer this question. The critical distinction between the categories comes down to basic reproductive biology. This leaves us able to say that men and women can have any type of abilities, skills, interests, etc. and it won’t change the fact that they’re a man or a woman. A woman can have any kind of personality. It’s open.

      But look what happens when we say that, not only can a woman have any type of personality, but she can have any type of body, too — including one that is arranged for and produces viable sperm. “What is the difference between a man and woman?”


      The difference is supposed to come down to “cerebral sex:” whether we “think about ourselves” as a man, as a woman, or as neither. This is very, very important to our fundamental identity. If your Gender Identity is Woman/Female, then you’ll feel completely wrong in the Man/Male category, which won’t fit at all.

      Even though the categories are the same.

  22. Zemenick begins the piece by saying of the sex binary: “As a doctorate-carrying scientist, however, I attest that this is false.”

    I begin by saying of the sex binary: “As a non-scientist with only a Diplom, however, I attest this is correct.”

    What now? Have I won? 😉

  23. “Humans who don’t fit these definitions are vanishingly rare: about 1 in 6,000. That’s close enough to “binary” for me.”

    But is “binary” then subjective? If it’s close enough for you, can it be far enough for someone else? Isn’t it like “pregnant enough for me”?

    It would seem to me that you actually agree that biological sex is not binary, even if it applies to 1 in 6,000 human beings only, which would be around 1,300,000 individuals worldwide. What are they then?

    I don’t like the way sexuality and gender are being discussed, either. I agree more with your posture than with Zemenick’s in general, but I don’t really agree with your point in this piece.

    1. Oh puh-eeze. In fact, the chance that a nickel tossed in the air will wind up on its edge is about the same number–1 in about 6,000. Yet people still see heads or tails as a binary.

      In fact, you don’t seem to understand the issue under discussion. Those 1/6000 individuals are intersexes, neither male nor female. They are almost never fertile (two hermaphrodites in history are known to have produced either eggs or sperm but never both) and they are NOT a third sex. So yes, biological sex is binary. You’re just being a Pecksniff here and I stand by my point: Biological sex is binary.

    2. Those 1,300,000 individuals* are mistakes. Something didn’t go right in their development They aren’t a third anything. That they are mistakes doesn’t detract from their humanity any more than if they had a third 21st chromosome or had cystic fibrosis or had holes in their hearts. But they are still errors, not third options, nor are they “on a spectrum “ just because their genitals may in some cases look to be “between” boy and girl. They invariably produce only one type of gamete (or neither), never both types and never a third type.

      They are also not a homogeneous group that would go with being a third “thing”. There are dozens of different conditions described now that differ in appearance, fertility, and presence or absence of other developmental and biochemical anomalies. All the various ways that the cup can slip in its path to the lip in the realization of a human being sum to 1 in 6000* live births.

      In people, sex is binary and immutable. Period.
      * Note that the proper metric is one in so many live births. Some of these babies may have other things wrong with them that shorten their lifespans, so their prevalence in the population is always less than their incidence per live births.

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