More on the canceled anthropology panel on sex: an anthropology society defends deplatforming the panel as transphobic

September 28, 2023 • 11:15 am

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 ( 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.

25 thoughts on “More on the canceled anthropology panel on sex: an anthropology society defends deplatforming the panel as transphobic

  1. Elizabeth Weiss has also caused harm to the skeletonx community by referring to them as “dead”, rather than the more inclusive term “vitally challenged”. And besides, we
    consider it established science that “alive” and “vitally challenged” are on a spectrum. In future, all symposia, panels, and research on what are called “remains” will be prohibited.

  2. . . . sex is effectively binary (99.982% of humans are either male or female using the standard gametic definition of sex) . . .

    I’ll go you even better than 99.982%. This figure refers to the one in 5600 people where the external genitalia are ambiguous at birth — “It’s a ….. a…., er, hmmm….” — or the child looks normal at birth but is later found to have a sex that wasn’t predicted by the appearance of the genitalia. In these cases it is possible to work out what sex the person “really” is, i.e., what gametes the person makes, will make, or would make if the anomalies hadn’t erased the possibility of gamete formation. Even the rare human cases of true hermaphroditism — a tiny fraction of the 0.018% — and the common versions in many plants and lower animals still make typical male and/or female gametes if they can. If the “real” sex that declares itself at puberty is different from how the child had been raised, that has to be dealt with but it is peripheral to the question of sex. It doesn’t make the sex itself fluid or non-binary.

    For many individuals in that 0.018% the main concern is not what gametic sex they are but how they can function happily in relationships with other people. This is an important medical concern but it doesn’t change the fact that all of those 0.018% can be “sexed” if that is important to that individual’s needs and goals. (For some that gametic sex will be null, if there are no gonads at all.)

    I make this point because 1 in 5600 equates to 1.4 million people in the world with allegedly non-binary sex, assuming the conditions allow survival past infancy (not all do.) The gender ideologues can point to those real living people as “gotcha!” evidence that sex is not really binary, even though it is. No one, repeat, no one produces spectral gametes and no one has the organs that could do so. Of course you know this but Colin Wright often warns of the trap that the gender ideologues still try to lay for people like him, even with the “coin-on-edge” metaphor instead of the “common-as-red-hair” metaphor.

    Can’t overstate how much I appreciate your efforts in this space.

    1. Indeed, it is important to mention that “intersexual” doesn’t mean “not sexable as either male or female”. An intersexual individual is born with some disorder of sex development or other, which needn’t—and in most cases doesn’t—consist in gonadal agenesis (non-development of ovaries or testicles) or gonadal hermaphroditism (development of both ovaries and testicles).

  3. “Transphobes fail to distinguish sex from gender” claim the irony-challenged right before they get back to their regular habit of conflating sex with gender.

    They have little other choice than doing so, however, since the two-step of turning a biological category into a social category and then turning that social category into what-every-individual-has-the-right-to-decide-for-themselves can’t be danced without low lights and a fog machine. Elizabeth Weiss’ scientific, focused, coherent clarity is just as dangerous as her support for the sex binary. It reveals the possibility that any of us can be wrong — even about ourselves.

    It also appeals to our common humanity. When people want to pretend to themselves that someone questioning their claims about facts is really a matter of questioning their humanity, then fuzziness is in order.

    1. Perhaps the biggest problem in the trans debate is terminology. Although sex and gender are heavily correlated, they are different things. The fact they both use the categories male, female, boy, girl, man and woman causes confusion. This results in unnecessary and divisive debates about things like ‘what is a woman?’ For some identifying as a gender different from their sex, biology denial (including sex/gender conflation) becomes almost obligatory simply to resolve the contradiction in terminology. This could all have been avoided if gender had chosen different terminology e.g. genmale, genfemale and genneutral. For the moment, I tend to use terms like ‘biological female’ and ‘male by gender’ in any situation where clarity is required.

      1. I think the real problem isn’t so much terminology as concepts. Gender cannot be described without resorting to stereotypes. Make a list of the elements and attributes in “genmale” and then put down what belongs in “genfemale,” taking care that they don’t overlap.

        Now look at the result and keep in mind that people who advocate using gender to refer to men and women
        1.) are against sexist stereotypes and stereotyping and think there’s nothing amiss with a “feminine” man or a “masculine” women
        2.) insist that many trans people don’t follow gender stereotypes (i e the butch lesbian transwoman)

        If you think this all fits together conceptually, I’d be interested in seeing the list.

  4. “99.982% of humans are either male or female using the standard gametic definition of sex”.

    That leaves 0.018% of humans. My guess is that the actual percentage is much lower (but not 0.0%). For example, CAIS persons (note the use of ‘persons’) look entirely female. However, they are not female. They are 46,XY males with a defective SRY gene. They have no ovaries, Fallopian tubes, uterus, etc. They do have a vagina (which may be short in some cases). However, CAIS is quite rare (fortunately). One estimate is 1:20,400 male (defined in this case by 46,XY) births.

    My guess is that most of the 0.018% are either male or female. It may not be possible to determine (correctly) sex from genitalia at birth. However, chromosome tests and ultrasounds should provide additional information.

  5. “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.”

    I tend to disagree. In my opinions, the PoMos reject all notions of ‘truth’. In their view, 2 + 2 = 4 is a statement of power relations, not math.

  6. The posture we put under the heading of “genderism” seem to be an extrapolation from and vulgarization of Maslow’s concept of “self-actualization” at the top of his hierarchy of human needs. Rather like the way Stalinism and its associated myths was a vulgarization of Marxism, and most of what issues from Republican politicians is a vulgarization of the Conservatism of Burke and Oakeshott. There seems to be no escape from Sturgeon’s Law.

  7. The people who wrote this statement claim that Hooven and others in the sex panel “commits one of the cardinal sins of scholarship—it assumes the truth of the proposition that it sets out to prove”. Isn’t it exactly the other way around? It is the censors who assume that sex is a spectrum and that no contrary evidence is needed. It is they who refuse debate and evidence and believe that they already know the “truth”!

  8. “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.”

    That’s ~1.4 million gametically non-binary people you just erased with the word ‘effectively.’

    Imagine that same limit case in another context: “Objections to the fact that animal life is effectively insectile (99.982% of animals on earth are insects) comes purely from a misguided ideology.”

    1. There’s always one person who comes along and tells me how many exceptions there are. Well, I did note the proportion of exceptions. Two points. First, I didn’t ERASE anybody Second, 99.982 is indeed effectively binary because only 0.018% of people don’t conform.

      Finally, you’re a Pecksniffian annoyance.

    2. Garret, what’s the third sex? What kind of gamete do individuals of that sex make?

      Plus “erased” is a linguistic claim to unearned moral authority via victimhood. It’s rhetorical stolen valor. If you’ve been lurking around this site for any length of time, you’ve surely learned better ways to make an argument than that. Please do better.

    3. Please see my comment at #2, Garret. I addressed those very 1.4 million human beings as people. They are not “gametically non-binary” and they are not erased in the limit. If they are capable of having children and wish to do so, they will want to know which binary gametes they make so they can find a mate who makes the opposite ones. If they make no gametes, far from being erased they will have lots of company among the multitudes who are infertile for many reasons and live happy fulfilled lives regardless.

  9. It’s all about feelings, isn’t it. When they’re hurt, harm is done. The threat of harm all around makes one feel unsafe. Anyone infecting harm on another is guilty of assault, really. Probably motivated by hate.

  10. Even by the standards of its genre that “No Place for Transphobia” statement is f*cking laughable.
    – “The session assumes the truth of the proposition it sets out to prove.” Well, no, based on her abstract it looks like Weiss was planning to explain *why* we should view sex as binary, and why this matters for anthropology. (This of course is why the session was cancelled).
    – “It assumes that sex and gender are binary”. Oh ffs. The claim is that sex is binary, not that gender is. The opening line of Weiss’s abstract is about as blunt as you could hope for on this point: “skeletons are binary; people may not be.”
    – “Forensic anthropologists talk about using bones for “sex estimation,” not “sex identification,”. And? The use of CAT scans to diagnose cancer is likewise probabilistic rather than determinative (They generate false negatives and positives sometimes). It remains the case that they target objective facts that are there whether we like it or not.

    I wonder if the authors of this type of statement are aware of how silly they look. Part of me thinks that it’s so transparently dishonest and absurd that they must be. Or are they so far gone that they actually believe this stuff?

    1. “Part of me thinks that it’s so transparently dishonest and absurd that they must be.”

      I feel that the motivation behind this, is the warm, fuzzy feeling of thinking you’re on the ‘right’ side of a debate. So even if what one is saying is palpably absurd, defies internal logic and attempts to redefine language norms, one can gaze over the heads of the uninitiated at the (entirely fabricated) pedestal that one has earned through smiting the heathens.

      And yes, I have had too much coffee.

  11. “[T]he 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.” – J. Coyne

    Right you are.

    “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” – Bible, John 8:32

    The Woke Liberation Army doesn’t fight for freedom /through/ truth; it fights for freedom /from/ truth: Let’s get rid of the shackles of truth, because the truth, being nothing but a mask of power, shall make you unfree!

    “Truth is important.”

    (Alston, William P. /A Realistic Conception of Truth./ Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. p. 6)

    “Freedom is more important than truth.”

    (Rorty, Richard. “Response to Brandom.” In /Rorty and His Critics/, edited by Robert B. Brandom, 183-190. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. p. 188)

  12. “…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…”

    This is slippery as all hell, as in the vast majority of cases it’s not reproductive anatomy that’s being studied here, but bones. The authors of the statement do nothing like the intellectual heavy lifting to prove that you can’t tell sex from bones. The earlier sentence about the probabilistic standard, while not wrong, is deliberately misleading given that the probabilities are overwhelming. Even without a usable DNA sample, you can get 96% accuracy from a part of the pelvis alone!

    This is clearly ideological pandering.

  13. When I was a kid (many decades ago), anthropology was already viewed as a joke. It still is. My critique is not the field of anthropology itself, but the people attracted to it. For some reason, anthropology attracts the craziest people. Why is unknown to me.

  14. It’s always difficult to have intellectual rigor in the social sciences but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the anthropology community wants to be a religion and not an academic discipline. So we do have to ask why are universities funding it?

  15. Why am I unable to get the Why Evolution is True newletter/email? I received it daily for years but it no longer shows up, and no, it’s not in my junk mail and when I try to re-up, it says oops, you’ve already signed up . . .

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