Peter Boghossian interviews Luana Maroja (and a note on “transracialism”)

August 22, 2023 • 9:30 am

When my colleague, coauthor, and conspirator in crime Luana Maroja, a professor of evolutionary biology at Williams College, was teaching a short summer course at The University of Austin, she was interviewed on video about sex and gender issues by Peter Boghossian, also teaching at the U of A.

The interview, below, speaks for itself: Luana did a superb job clarifying the biological controversies about sex and gender (and Peter asked some great questions to draw her out).  As you can see, she’s spirited, eloquent, and amiable, with the latter trait helping her convey antiwoke truths without being seen as “strident”. She’s a great collaborator. The interview is well worth listening to, and I don’t say that because Luana and Peter are friends of mine.

Here are the YouTube notes:

Luana S. Maroja is a renowned evolutionary biologist, Professor of Biology, and Chair of the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Program at Williams College. She was taken aback when the Society for the Study of Evolution released a statement promoting sex as a spectrum and declaring the validity of “lived experience” in sexual identity. What would inspire such a misguided, conspicuously anti-scientific declaration? In this conversation with Peter, she answers that question.

In plain language, Luana explains chromosomal differences in mammals and how the sex binary is expressed in animals. She addresses popular arguments about exceptions to the binary, such as variations in sex chromosomes, hormone receptor failure, and developmental sex disorders.

They also discuss: Moralistic and naturalist fallacies, bimodality, being “born in the wrong body,” social constructs, clown fish, non-biologists teaching bad biology, and trans racialism.

Luana S. Maroja earned her undergraduate and master’s degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and her PhD from Cornell University. Her research interests include population ecology, speciation, population genetics, phylogeny, and phylogeography. Luana studies a variety of organisms, including small mammals, insects, and plants, and has published more than 35 scientific papers.

Luana co-authored The Ideological Subversion of Biology, the cover article in the July/August 2023 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.


0:00 Intro

6:30 Biological view of gender vs sex

12:40 Can you change sex?

15:23 Gender binary

23:55 Reality denialism

28:00 Reaction to SSE videos

38:13 Biological differences in behavior & expression

43:10 Transitioning/Wrap up

I want to make one point about “transitioning” at the very end, where hey discuss why for the woke it’s not only fine but admirable to transition genders, but not okay to transition races (“transracialism”). The philosophical basis of these two transitions was discussed by philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in a 2017 issue of Hypatiaand caused a big controversy after Tuvel concluded this in the abstract (my bolding):

Former NAACP chapter head Rachel Dolezal’s attempted transition from the white to the black race occasioned heated controversy. Her story gained notoriety at the same time that Caitlyn Jenner1 graced the cover of Vanity Fair, signaling a growing acceptance of transgender identity. Yet criticisms of Dolezal for misrepresenting her birth race indicate a widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex. Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism. Although Dolezal herself may or may not represent a genuine case of a transracial person, her story and the public reaction to it serve helpful illustrative purposes.

and in the conclusions:

I hope to have shown that, insofar as similar arguments that render transgenderism acceptable extend to transracialism, we have reason to allow racial self-identification, coupled with racial social treatment, to play a greater role in the determination of race than has previously been recognized. I conclude that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex.

Wikipedia describes the blowback from what I think was Tuvel’s a reasonable conclusion. The fracas included a groveling apology by the journal and the resignation of eight editors. Yet I still don’t see any fundamental philosophical difference between a white person claiming that they have a black identity because they “feel black” and a male claiming that they have a female identity because they “feel like a woman.”

On the other hand, the video above inspired some discussion on the Heterodox STEM site about the transracialism vs. transgenderism issue, and some people perceived a meaningful difference from a woke point of view.ˆ That difference is this: transgenderism is supposedly seen by the woke as turning one into a victim or a member of a protected class: it is a disadvantage. (Although transgender women participating in women’s athletics do accrue an advantage, this is largely denied by the woke.)

In contrast, some (but by no means all) forms of transracialism can confer advantages to people—advantages that are seen by the woke as unfair. The discussion centered on white people like Rachel Dolezal who say they are black because they feel black (she also modified her appearance so she could pass as a black person).  By passing as black if you’re not, several people argued that you would accrue an unfair “affirmative-action-based” advantage in things like college admissions and getting jobs.  Other forms of transracialism could also give one advantages: we’re familiar with Elizabeth Warren claiming she had Native American ancestry, a claim that she thought would give her credibility as a member of an oppressed minority. And there’s the book below by an Indian-American who couldn’t get into medical school because of poor grades until he decided to say he was black, and was immediately accepted by many schools. (He later dropped out.) Click to see the Amazon link:

Two points here. First, not all whites who pass as black will get advantages. I’m not sure how much Dolezal benefited personally from pretending she was black, though she did become president of the Spokane branch of NAACP.  On average, a black person is worse off than a white person in terms of prospects, education, income, and so on. Thus you gain the advantage of white—>black transracialism only if you’re assuming the identity of an “elite” black person, like someone in a position to apply to graduate school. And other forms of transracialism, including blacks assuming the identity of Asians or vice versa, wouldn’t get you these advantages because the assumed identity is not credible on a physical basis (though physical appearance shouldn’t matter).

Thus you could justify a difference between transracialism and transgenderism only if you’re woke, and it’s a practical rather than a philosophical difference.  Transracialism isn’t okay because some forms of it give one an unfair advantage via forms of affirmative action, while transgenderism is always okay because it puts one into a protected class that is said to be oppressed.

That’s one way the two forms of “trans” identity can be differentiated, but only by woke people, and only using practicality and ideology rather than philosophy.  Philosophically, I still agree with Tuvel that there’s no substantive difference between assuming a different gender or assuming a different race.

29 thoughts on “Peter Boghossian interviews Luana Maroja (and a note on “transracialism”)

  1. Wokeness, which is premised on the idea of Structural Racism, falls apart if people can pick their race. In the same way that men becoming women essentially destroys the idea of woman, people becoming black destroys the idea of blackness. While the first is desired by the Woke, as being a societal solvent, the later is not.

  2. Philosophically, I still agree with Tuvel that there’s no substantive difference between assuming a different gender or assuming a different race.

    I think the biggest problem here is that transgender identities are said to be innate, biological, and due to the way an individual forms in the womb. Something in the fetal brain fails to develop a Gender Identity which matches with the sexual organs. This (still unsupported) claim not only legitimizes trans ppl “knowing who they are,” but provides a legal basis for treating transgenderism as a protected characteristic. Some people are born that way and therefore gender should replace sex in society and law.

    That narrative can’t apply to transracialism. While it’s a leap, it’s not that much of a leap to assert that all humans have some neurological component in the brain which tells them what sex they are. Now try that with race.

    It can’t be done without a very explicit, elaborate, regressive , and racist set of beliefs about how the Blacks, Whites, Asians, etc. all have different essential natures and characters. They’re not going to go there and neither will most people. Transgender and Transracial can’t have anything to do with each other.

    1. Well, I’m not sure I agree. You can be transgender not because of something innate in the brain when you’re a fetus, but something that develops in the brain later, perhaps during teenage years. There is of course no evidence that one is born with a propensity to change genders; it’s just an assumption.

      And if it’s a false assumption, why couldn’t transracial feelings develop neurologically as well, perhaps after (as with Rachel Dolezal) during exposure to members of another race? That is not a “racist set of beliefs” but simply a feeling that you have a character more in synch with members of another race than with members of yours.

      1. All of that is possible, yes, but it seems to me that the preferred narrative (“trans people are trans because of something which developed in the fetal brain”) is “preferred” in much the same way their pronouns are “preferred:” accept it or there’s transphobialurking about.

        Once environmental influences are brought in, trans is no longer just “something you are” and all the gender critical explanations as to causes (trauma, somatic fiction, discomfort with sex, depression, social contagion, feelings of disconnection, etc etc) are introduced — along with the possibility of political, legal, and social compromise. It’s now much harder to justify changing the definition of “woman” and “man.”

      2. To your second point: I somewhat answered this in the HxA thread but will reiterate and clarify here: while the woke believe in race consciousness and seem to want the idea of race to continue for now, they also believe that it’s a social construct. As a social construct it’s almost by definition not innate, whereas they believe that trans is innate in the same way that homosexuality is to those who are gay.

        Moreover, there’s an external aspect to race that they cling onto. The idea is that no matter how little you personally care about race or “feel black” the fact is that others will treat you black, and that external stimulus has an unavoidable effect on you. They believe that the experience of being perceived as black and the treatment that comes from this is an essential essence of a black identity.

        Once again, it’s all quite flimsy and you shouldn’t think about it too long if you want it to stay together. For example, if Dolezal was perceived as black for years upon years she was presumably treated as black, so shouldn’t that support her self-identification? As far as I can tell, though, thinking too hard about it misses the point entirely. We’re supposed to be “allies” and “believe all black people”.

    2. It can’t be done without a very explicit, elaborate, regressive , and racist set of beliefs about how the Blacks, Whites, Asians, etc. all have different essential natures and characters. They’re not going to go there and neither will most people.

      Surely, transgenderism is equally reliant on a very explicit, regressive, and misogynist set of beliefs about how men and women should dress, behave, etc. How does a man “feel like a woman” without reference to blatantly sexist stereotypes?

  3. As I mentioned in a response to an earlier post, transracialism and transsexualism seem to be on a logical par—and should both gain acceptance. But I also said that whether transracialism is accepted depends on the state of societal values. Transracialism *may* be going too far to many, so may be rejected even as transsexualism is increasingly accepted. I also predicted that critics of transracialism will find *some* way to argue that the two deserve different treatment.

    What has emerged is the critique stated above in Jerry’s post: “transgenderism is supposedly seen by the woke as turning one into a victim or a member of a protected class: it is a disadvantage” whereas (by implication) transracialism can be an advantage.

    I reject this distinction. Advantage and disadvantage depend on context. Transsexualism is an advantage (not a disadvantage) among like-minded transsexuals. And it is clearly an advantage to be transsexual if you intend to participate actively in the movement to normalize it. And transracialism can be a disadvantage. Witness what happened to Rachel Dolezal. She surely enjoyed no advantage by identifying as black.

    So, on balance, advantage or disadvantage cannot be a meaningful criterion for legitimizing or delegitimizing either transsexualism or transracialism. Either the two are on a logical par or critics need to come up with a better criterion for distinguishing the two.

  4. Indeed, I raved about this the other day –

    Living outside reality is creationism – amazing insight – creationism might be hermetic alchemy – I’ll have to think that over.

    1. I’ve obtained and am reading Kathleen Stock’s book: Material Girls — Why Reality Matters for for Feminism as you recommended. Thanks for the tip. What many here call woke (you know I dislike the epithet because right wing appropriation) but woke, whatever, it’s all so intellectually dreary.

    2. I’ve obtained and am reading Kathleen Stock’s book: Material Girls — Why Reality Matters for for Feminism as you recommended. Thanks for the tip. What many here call woke (you know I dislike the epithet because right wing appropriation) — but woke, whatever, it’s all so intellectually dreary. Edit –dreary was the first word that came to mind. the second is: vacant. ludicrous reasoning obfuscated with long words.

  5. A pretendian named Andrea Smith is retiring (presumably under pressure) from U. Cal. Riverside next year. She offered this priceless statement about her imaginary “Cherokee” status:
    ” “I have always been, and will always be Cherokee. I have consistently identified myself based on what I knew to be true. My enrollment status [on the official list of Cherokee Nation members] does not impact my Cherokee identity.”
    [ ]

  6. Isn’t it relevant that while race is indeed both biologically and socially constructed, racial differences in both domains would disappear if random mating (instead of it being restricted by tribalism and geographic segregation) was mandated? But millions of years of random mating between males and females has never ablated the differences between the sexes and never will.

    Gender looks to me to be a concept like phlogiston, “the aether”, and creationism—thanks Luana!—which were all at one time thought necessary to explain natural phenomena but are now known not to be, and do not even exist as real things.

    Gender explains nothing that sex-role stereotyping doesn’t, any more than penis envy explains why women are dissatisfied with their lot. If someone wants to take drugs or have surgery in order to resemble (sort of) the opposite sex, fine, but describing this as gender affirmation doesn’t add anything to understanding the desire. The individual still wants to dissemble socially or even mutilate his or her body.. Worse, it posits that there is such a thing as gender distinct from sex that the physical body is being brought into congruence with. There is no more evidence for such a process than there is for the old concepts of hysteria or neurasthenia.

    If you discard the concept of gender as being anything other than a component of personality, you no longer have to regard it as something divisible from sex or, to the point of this discussion, whether it, or race, can be changed in one individual during her lifetime.

    1. Yes but I’d point out :

      Whiteness is a property – the property that whites use to maintain white supremacy.

      Rachel Dolezal still has the whiteness because it is a property of her being (..?..) – that is, it is not gnosiological. I think it is socially constructed – and standpoint epistemology dictates that the oppressed has authority to knowledge of the conflict, not the oppressor Rachel.

      Being born in the wrong bodily prison (Queer or transsexual) is gnosiological. The belief in that condition was located by gnosis. It is not (I guess!?) socially constructed. And, as before, standpoint epistemology dictates the oppressed has authority to this knowledge.

      BTW I reject this “social construct” “alchemy of the word” (Marcuse) that makes anything malleable. I’m just using it here as in the Critical Social Justice literature.

    2. Addendum:

      The pronoun requirement reinforces the transformation by using the supernatural force of the “social construction” – maybe it’s like in church where the congregation says “Christ has risen” and they answer “yes it is true”. Taken together, in an intangible way, it is made so (akin to Marxism).

      Or it is just willful/voluntary thought reform.

      That is impossible except by fraud with race.

      1. Leslie reminds us: “… millions of years of random mating between males and females has never ablated the differences between the sexes and never will.” One speculation about the history of ideas is that precisely this feature of sex is what suggested to Mendel that heredity depended on a small number of discrete, particulate factors.

        1. I think Queer Theory would have it that, due to oppression, the human species has not had the chance to make itself Queer – to release from the prison of the material world – until Queer Theory revealed humanity’s horizon of possibilities.

          See Muñoz –Queer Futurity.

  7. I’ll have a go – though I am thinking this out still:

    Power and normativity are the relevant variables for Queer Theory and Critical Race Theory in this question.

    Cis-heteronormativity holds the power. One was “born in the wrong body”, without consent, to be changed by hermetic alchemy. Being born in the wrong body is a gnostic belief. Hermetic alchemy releases the soul from the bodily prison – and “gender” is “performed” – but they do not become cis-heteronormative. They are transsexual and antagonize the normative. Result : cis-heteronormativity -1, marginalization +1, The Queer Family is strengthened.

    Whiteness is the power-conferring property. One is either born white or not – that is the flungness, or geworfenheit (see Hegel). People of color are flung into conditions they did not ask for and were oppressed by it. “Whites” are not normative, nor people of color. Instead, whites dominate with “white supremacy” – people of color do not. Interest convergence theory washes the net result – no change in white supremacy.

    … still not satisfactory, but I didn’t invent their beliefs.

  8. “transgenderism is always okay because it puts one into a protected class that is said to be oppressed.”
    By that, do you mean that transgender women are considered by the wokes to be part of the oppressed class of women, or that anyone who is transgender is considered by the wokes to fall under the oppressed trans class? If you mean the former, then wouldn’t that imply that there would be very few trans men ?The opposite has happened with adolescent gender transitions.

    1. I’d add that the transsexual has been – obviously – transformed by hermetic alchemy – as in Marxian perpetual revolution – “as above, so below” (hermeticism .. or is it hermetism…).

      White guys are just white guys.

  9. Trans activists argue that there should be no gatekeeping regarding being transgendered. What the person says goes….the rationales in above comments are parenthetical. In fact, to require explanations is a form trans genocide.

    Why should there be any gatekeeping at all in transracialism?

  10. Thanks, I enjoyed the Peter/Luana interview.

    Just as an aside, I have some sympathy for Dolezal. Although white by “DNA”, three of her four brothers (if remember correctly) were adopted and black, two Haitian and one Afro-American. She may well have picked up some cultural affinity along the way.

    And slightly tongue in cheek, some sixty-thousand years ago my relatives left Africa.

    1. I do as well. From what I remember, she didn’t have a good relationship with her biological parents, while she felt quite close to her adoptive brothers. I can understand her wanting to be culturally closer to the family members she prefers.

  11. I wonder if Tuvel thinks that there’s no substantive difference between assuming a different gender and assuming a different species.

    If there is no difference, we should be polite to people who identify as cats, and we shouldn’t say that that is impossible.

    But it is impossible. So, what’s the philosophical difference?

  12. Luana made her points with beautiful clarity. I’ve seen three or four of these Boghossian interviews now, and our host has had a name check in all of them.

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