Yesterday I wrote a post about how two anthropological societies decided to cancel a panel on the biology of sex and gender because they considered it “harmful” to the listeners. As I wrote:
I’m probably late to the party, but the latest gossip about the Authoritarian Left involves the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) deciding to deplatform an entire symposium on sex and gender in anthropology—all because of the claim that it could cause mental “harm”to some people.
There are three letters involved, all of which you can see at a site set up by Elizabeth Weiss, a physical anthropologist at San Jose State (I’ve written about her before, as she’s been professionally demonized for wanting to scientifically study Native American remains).
As I noted, the proposed symposium was a dog’s breakfast of diverse topics, centered on sex and gender, but I also suspected that it was mainly the proposal of Elizabeth Weiss that was the cause of the cancelation. Weiss’s talk, which seems to be the most scientific, focused, and coherent of the group, was about the binary nature of human skeletons, how we can judge sex from human remains, and what kind of accuracy we have (it’s nearly 100% for whole skeletons of recently deceased humans, as well as for those of Native Americans dating from 500 to 2,500 years ago—the ones studied by Weiss). Even when you have incomplete remains, DNA analysis is often possible, and with that Y chromosome analysis can tell you whether the skeleton was male or female. Here’s Elizabeth’s summary of her proposed talk again:
No bones about it: skeletons are binary; people may not be. Sex identification – whether an individual was male or female – using the skeleton is one of the most fundamental components in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. Anthropologists have improved their ability to determine sex since their initial studies on skeletal remains, which depended on subjective assessment of skeletal robusticity to say whether someone was male or female. An understanding of physical differences in the pelvis related to childbirth, hormonal impacts on bones, and extensive comparative studies have provided anthropologists with an array of traits, such as those in the Phenice Method, to determine sex using just bones. The use of DNA to identify sex in skeletons by their 23rd chromosomes enables anthropologists to say whether infants are male or female for use in both criminal abuse cases and archaeological cases, such as in recognizing infanticide practices. Anthropologists’ ability to determine whether a skeleton is male or female is not dependent on time or culture; the same traits can be used to make a sex estimate in a forensic case in Canada, or to estimate sex in a Paleoindian dated around 11,500 years ago in Brazil. As anthropologists study more remains from more cultures and time periods, sex identification has improved, because sex differences are biologically-determined. In forensics, however, anthropologists should be (and are) working on ways to ensure that skeletal finds are identified by both biological sex and their gender identity, which is essential due to the current rise in transitioning individuals and their overrepresentation as crime victims. —Elizabeth Weiss
She even talks about whether a skeleton shows signs of alteration due to gender identity! But it’s clear that the first sentence, that skeletons are binary and have been for ages, will offend those who assert, mistakenly, that human sex is not binary. As Luana Maroja and I wrote in our paper “The Ideological Subversion of Biology” for the Skeptical Inquirer, objections to the fact that sex is effectively binary (99.982% of humans are either male or female using the standard gametic definition of sex) comes purely from a misguided ideology: because some people say that sex or gender is a spectrum in people’s minds, it must also be true in nature. As we wrote:
Why do so many people resist the sex binary? Because it’s in their ideological interest to conflate biological sex with gender—one’s social identity or sex role. Unlike biological sex, gender does form more of a continuum (online lists give dozens of genders). Still, gender distributions are camel’s-hump bimodal: most people conform to male and female gender roles, but there are many more intermediates than we see for biological sex.
And why do people distort the truth? We suspect that some of those whose gender doesn’t correspond to one of the two biological sexes, and their allies, want to redefine sex so that, like gender, it forms more of a continuum. While jettisoning the sex binary is meant well, it also severely distorts scientific fact—and all the evolutionary consequences that flow from that fact.
Note as well the statements of gender-critical feminist Kathleen Lowery, who organized the whole symposium. They include this:
With the return of grand narratives, what are anthropologists still not saying about sex? David Graeber and David Wengrow’s 2021 book The Dawn of Everything has been acknowledged by enthusiasts and critics alike as marking the salutary return of “grand narrative” to anthropology after a long absence. Hierarchy, inequality, property, the state, power itself…. All are expounded upon in a sweeping epic involving a cast of billions, arrayed in dazzling setings ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to present-day Chiapas. And yet this ambition, rather like that of bewhiskered imperialist gentlemen of the nineteenth century, quails at the merest mention of sex. One mustn’t make any strong claims there, but instead consider the delicate complexities of gender
I suspect, then, that the insistence on the biological existence of sex—as well as Weiss’s claim that it’s binary—is apparently why the two anthropological associations deep-sixed the symposium, for such claims were deemed “transphobic” (see below).
How do we know that this is the reason they canceled the symposium? Well, the site Retraction Watch published an item about the canceled symposium. The piece, which you can find here, is a news piece called ““Anthropology groups cancel conference panel on why biological sex is ‘necessary’ for research.”” And this piece also links to a new statement from at least one of the two anthropological societies, a statement that takes an even harder line against the symposium than did the letter to the participants that canceled it. I’ve put the relevant part of the first Retraction Watch piece in bold:
In a letter informing the panelists of the decision, Ramona Pérez and Monica Heller, presidents of the AAA and CASCA, respectively, wrote that the executive boards of the two groups had reviewed the submission “at the request of numerous members” and decided to remove it from the conference program. They wrote:
This decision was based on extensive consultation and was reached in the spirit of respect for our values, the safety and dignity of our members, and the scientific integrity of the program(me). The reason the session deserved further scrutiny was that the ideas were advanced in such a way as to cause harm to members represented by the Trans and LGBTQI of the anthropological community as well as the community at large.
While there were those who disagree with this decision, we would hope they know their voice was heard and was very much a part of the conversation. It is our hope that we continue to work together so that we become stronger and more unified within each of our associations. Going forward, we will undertake a major review of the processes associated with vetting sessions at our annual meetings and will include our leadership in that discussion.
Pérez and Heller did not respond directly to our request for comment, but forwarded our message to an association spokesperson, who sent us a statement titled “No Place For Transphobia in Anthropology.”
Now this is very weird, because when I looked ten minutes ago at the link just above, that statement was there and the link (http://retractionwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/230925-No-Place-For-Transphobia-in-Anthropology.docx) worked, taking you to a Word document. Now, however, the link doesn’t work and the Word document has disappeared. (This statement was apparently sent to a reporter who asked the AAA to respond to his/her request for details about complaints. Reporters who are all over this story like white on rice.)
UPDATE: Retraction Watch has restored the link after I pointed out it was broken, but now the statement appears on the AAA website here.
Fortunately, I’ve saved it, and have posted it below (I’ll be glad to send it to anyone who wants.) Based on what the first link said, we can provisionally take this to be the official response of at least one of the two anthropology societies (the AAA). If it proves to be bogus I’ll retract it, but given that the AAA sent it to a reporter who inquired is strong evidence that what you read below is not only real, but the position of at least the AAA. (I’m not sure whether CASCA would or did sign on to the statement below.)
(Bolding, except for in the titles, is mine.)
No Place For Transphobia in Anthropology
Session pulled from Annual Meeting program
The AAA and CASCA boards reached a decision to remove the session “Let’s Talk about Sex Baby: Why biological sex remains a necessary analytic category in anthropology” from the AAA/CASCA 2023 conference program. This decision was based on extensive consultation and was reached in the spirit of respect for our values, in order to ensure the safety and dignity of all of our members, as well as the scientific integrity of the program.
The first ethical principle in AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility is to “Do no harm.” The session was rejected because it relied on assumptions that run contrary to the settled science in our discipline, framed in ways that do harm to vulnerable members of our community. It commits one of the cardinal sins of scholarship—it assumes the truth of the proposition that it sets out to prove, namely, that sex and gender are simplistically binary, and that this is a fact with meaningful implications for the discipline.
Such efforts contradict scientific evidence, including the wealth of anthropological scholarship on gender and sex. Forensic anthropologists talk about using bones for “sex estimation,” not “sex identification,” a process that is probabilistic rather than clearly determinative, and that is easily influenced by cognitive bias on the part of the researcher. Around the world and throughout human history, there have always been people whose gender roles do not align neatly with their reproductive anatomy. There is no single biological standard by which all humans can be reliably sorted into a binary male/female sex classification. On the contrary, anthropologists and others have long shown sex and gender to be historically and geographically contextual, deeply entangled, and dynamically mutable categories.
The function of the “gender critical” scholarship advocated in this session, like the function of the “race science” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is to advance a “scientific” reason to question the humanity of already marginalized groups of people, in this case, those who exist outside a strict and narrow sex / gender binary.
Transgender and gender diverse identities have long existed, and we are committed to upholding the value and dignity of transgender people. We believe that a more just future is possible—one where gender diversity is welcomed and supported rather than marginalized and policed.
Note that in the second and third paragraph the binary nature of sex is assumed to be untrue. Yes, there are 0.018% exceptions to the sex binary, but for all practical purposes that’s a binary. Gender, of course, is not binary but bimodal: most people identify as male or female in gender, but there are more intermediates than with biological sex. But I don’t know any of the participants who claimed that gender rather than sex is binary! Once again, we see that the assertion of a biological fact—the binary nature of biological sex—has been censored because it’s deemed harmful.
As for “sex estimation” rather than “sex identification”, this implicitly assumes that the inability of anthropologists to absolutely identify sex of some bones means that sex is not binary. All I can say, and I’m being charitable here, is that this is illogical. (In fact, it’s insane.) Some remains are sufficiently incomplete, and lack usable DNA, so that we can’t tell whether they’re male or female. But they are, unless for some reason sex is binary now but wasn’t so in earlier societies. And that’s not a good assumption.
As for this statement:
There is no single biological standard by which all humans can be reliably sorted into a binary male/female sex classification.
That’s also untrue. The standard is whether a person has the biological equipment to make either small and mobile gametes, in which case they’re male, or large and immobile gametes, in which case they’re female. As for “reliability”, this works, as I said, 99.982% of the time. I’d call that “reliable.
The last two paragraphs of this apparent AAA statement tell you that they canceled the symposium because biological truth (or biological discussion) somehow erodes the dignity of transgender people, and “questions the humanity of already marginalized groups of people.” If you can get that out of reading the symposium abstracts, you’re a better reader than I am.
Once again we see that certain topics, including the binary nature of sex (and of all animals) have been deemed taboo because even though they may contain scientific truth, we can’t let that truth be known because it harms the marginalized. But it does it NOT harm the marginalized, an assertion that is just performative offense. Further, the idea that we have to suppress truth because of claimed but not real “harm” is the attitude that is eroding not just biology, but all the sciences.