Once again, Scientific American screws up an article claiming that the binary definition of sex is harmful and limiting

October 26, 2023 • 9:30 am

Scientific American just can’t help itself; it has to keep pounding away at the biological definition of sex, which is based on differential gamete size. Just the other day they published a full article in the “evolution” category, arguing that women hunted just as much as men in ancient times (and in hunter/gatherer societies today), but part of that article claimed that sex and gender were both “spectrums”. To quote from my post on this execrable and tendentious piece (my bold):

For the purpose of describing anatomical and physiological evidence, most of the literature uses “female” and “male,” so we use those words here when discussing the results of such studies. For ethnographic and archaeological evidence, we are attempting to reconstruct social roles, for which the terms “woman” and “man” are usually used. Unfortunately, both these word sets assume a binary, which does not exist biologically, psychologically or socially. Sex and gender both exist as a spectrum, but when citing the work of others, it is difficult to add that nuance.

Now the magazine has a new op-ed arguing the same thing: a binary view of sex is not only wrong, but constricts us; is also harmful to people who don’t see themselves as “male” or “females”, like transsexuals (who do in fact see themselves as members of their non-natal sex); and doesn’t work for people who don’t produce gametes (note: postmenopausal women aren’t female under this criterion). But I digress. This piece is short, but is full of distortions and mistakes. Also, one of the authors (Cara Ocobock) also coauthored the article on hunting mentioned above. She gets a lot of space to propound her views, while the magazine prohibits me from writing an op-ed.that contradicts some claims of other op-eds. It is in effect a journalistic dictatorship that prohibits dissent.

I’ll put the authors’ claims in bold, and have indented their quotes:

The authors claim that sex is defined by gamete type, but we don’t check people’s gametes when judging their sex.  And people who don’t have gametes are problematic.

When we ask, “How many sexes are there in humans?” we can confidently answer “two,” right? Many people think sex should be defined by a strict gamete binary in which a person’s sex is determined by whether their body produces or could produce eggs or sperm. But when you are out and about in the human social world, are you checking everyone’s gametes? And what of the substantial number of people who do not produce or carry gametes?

Well, yes, in public we judge people’s sex by characters correlated with sex: appearance, including size, shape, presence of breasts, vocal timbre, and so on. So what? When doctors diagnose jaundice, they first look at the patient’s color, and then examine the underlying condition: liver function. There is no problem here; the idea of secondary sex characters, imperfectly but highly correlated with biological sex, is well ensconced in the literature. That doesn’t affect the definition, which is there because it clearly shows the binary and leads to many interesting lines of research.

And the claim that people who don’t produce gametes—sterile males, postmenopausal females, castrati, and so on—these pose no problem. They are male or female. Postmenopausal women should be furious at the implication that they are not biological women.

The authors raise the old, tired, and refuted “clownfish fallacy”. Clownfish switch sexes: when the sole alpha female in a group dies, a male fish changes sex to take over as the boss female. But there are still only two sexes. The article confuses the reader by bringing up other aspects of sex that involve how it’s determined.

The vast majority of life-forms—including bacteria and archaea—do not reproduce sexually. But if the question concerned the number of animal sexes present in a given tide pool or backyard garden, the answer would need to account for organisms that switch sexes, sometimes mate with themselves or switch back and forth between sexual and asexual reproduction.

. . . We have to appeal to a multiplicity of binaries, however, because sexual reproduction has evolved many times and in many different ways across the living world. Reproductive capacities in birds and mammals largely involve inheritance of different combinations of sex chromosomes, whereas in many reptiles, sex is determined based on environmental cues such as temperature.

Yes, but again, all animals have two sexes. They can arrive at that binary using temperature, chromosomes, environment, and other cues, but in all cases they wind up with two sexes. (And that binary hasn’t blinded us to working out how it’s attained in organisms like reptiles!).  The ubiquitous binary is scientifically useful because it raises the question, first raised by evolutionists Ronald Fisher, of “why are the sexes only two?”.  And we think we know the answer now. As I’ve said, there are many paths to sex but only two destinations: males and females.

The authors claim that defining sex is a bottom-up project and we should arrive at our definition from the “top down”: by asking questions.

We think the ongoing discussion about sex might benefit from a fundamental change in approach by turning the question around such that we ask, “If ‘sex’ is the answer, what was the question?”

They have a point here, and have used, as have I and others, a comparison with the definition of biological species. The species definition is fundamental because it explains an observation of and question about nature: “Why, in one area, do animals and plants come in neat packages, like the birds in my backyard. Why isn’t nature a spectrum rather than comprising discrete groups?”

The value of this [“questions first”] approach becomes clear when you consider the long-running debate in biology over how to define species. One definition, the biological species concept, posits that species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding organisms capable of producing fertile offspring. It is not universally applicable because, as noted earlier, most organisms do not reproduce sexually. It does, however, provide a framework for asking questions about how sexually reproducing organisms can evolve ways to avoid mating with organisms distinct enough that their offspring’s survivability or fertility would be compromised. This framework has led to a bounty of work demonstrating that speciation in organisms living in the same area is rare and that physical separation among groups appears to be a key component of evolving reproductive barriers.

We can extend this “ask questions first” framework to concepts about sex.

What the authors don’t seem to realize here is that the Biological Species Concept, based on reproductive barriers between groups, itself started with a question: “Why is nature discontinuous?” And that question led to the definition of species.  The discreteness of species in sexually reproducing creatures living in the same area is based on reproductive barriers.

Likewise, the definition of sex, based on equipment to produce one of two types of gametes, is also based on a question derived from observation: “Why do there seem to be two classes of organisms in animals, classes that have different reproductive roles and (usually) different appearances?”  Once we arrive at a gamete-based species definition, that helps us answer all sorts of questions, most notably ones involving sexual dimorphism and sexual selection.

So the top-down, question-asking method succeeded for both sex and species. The authors are kvetching about nothing.

Other aspects of organisms don’t adhere to a strict binary.

Binaries start to fail us once we move into questions about how organisms live out their lives. This can be seen in the example of transgender athletes. Arguments revolving around including or excluding trans athletes often rest on notions of strict binary differences in hormone type and concentration that associate female individuals with estrogen and male ones with testosterone. This assumes testosterone is at the root of athletic performance. These hormones do not hew to a strict binary, however. Female and male people need both estrogen and testosterone to function, and they overlap in their hormone concentrations. If we are interested in how estrogen and testosterone affect athletic performance, then we need to examine these respective hormone levels and how they correlate with athletic outcomes. We cannot rely on gross average differences between the sexes as evidence for differential athletic success. Adherence to a sex binary can lead us astray in this domain of inquiry.

My response is basically “This is irrelevant to whether sex itself is a binary.”  It also shows the ideological motivation of the paper, which is the usual motivation for denying the sex binary: “If sex is binary, then that erases people, like people of dual gender or trans people, who don’t feel that they belong to one of the two sexes.”  Well, that’s not true, as many trans people do feel they belong to one of the two sexes; they just feel they were born in the wrong one. But the biological definition of sex is irrelevant to the moral and legal rights of people of nonstandard gender, and, as I’ve always said, these folks should be treated with the respect and dignity their beliefs afford.

As for hormones not being in a strict binary, testosterone, for example, forms nearly a completely disjunct distribution in males and females, so the overlap is virtually nil.Below is a graph of hormone titers given by Carole Hooven in her book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. The distributions are bimodal and almost nonoverlapping (a tiny bit of overlap, from people with sex disorders, isn’t shown because of the scale), with men at the higher mode and females at the other (h/t Robert):

But this is irrelevant, for, many sex-related characters, like height and strength, also show more overlap. The question is whether sex itself is bimodal, not sex-related traits.  And we know plenty about overlap in those traits, so the sex binary has not impeded us from studying things that overlap!

Further, people are already examining how hormone levels affect athletics-related traits.

Importantly, the fact that the Olympics and other groups used to use a hormone cutoff between athletes allowed to compete in “male” versus “female” categories has nothing to do with the sex binary. This is an artificial classification binary imposed on people for allowing them to compete in the two classes. (And it didn’t work.)  The authors are deliberately conflating two distinct issues here: the binary of sex and an artificial binary subjectively imposed by athletic organizations.

Other species, say the authors, don’t hew to a sex binary. 

Further problems arise when we compare humans to other species. Some organisms are incapable of reproducing. Some that are capable may end up not reproducing. Others may alternate between reproducing asexually and sexually, and still others may switch sexes. Such organisms provide fascinating insights into the diversity of life. But when we refer to clown fish changing sex to emphasize the diversity of ways in which sexual beings move through the world, we risk losing sight of the issues of consent, autonomy, well-being and self-determination that form the bedrock of all dimensions of human health, sexual or otherwise.

Every animal we know of has two, and only two, sexes, though sometimes they reproduce asexually. Alternation of sexes still leaves two sexes; like clownfish, organisms can change from one to the other —but there are no cases involving three or more sexes.

And what on earth do “consent, autonomy, well-being, and self determination” have to do with the sex binary? These are social issues that have nothing to do with how many sexes we have.  The authors are committing a form of the appeal to nature here, saying that because human sexuality is complicated by our social system, there must not be two sexes in nature!

This paper is deeply misguided, and its aim is to cast doubt on the utility of the sex binary because it distracts us from other stuff.  But the other stuff they mention has already been investigated and discussed extensively. In the end, I can conclude only that this is part of Scientific American‘s continuing “progressive” effort to convince us that there are more than two sexes in humans.  (For articles other than the two mentioned here, see here, here, and here). They won’t succeed, for Nature can’t be fooled. It’s infuriating that a science magazine repeatedly tries to deny empirical fact to serve a political agenda.

Yes, there may be good article in Scientific American, but there are also abysmal articles and op-eds, and I lay these at the door of the editor.


For more kvetching about the magazine, see “The Fall of Scientific American” in Spiked, published two days ago.

24 thoughts on “Once again, Scientific American screws up an article claiming that the binary definition of sex is harmful and limiting

  1. People such as these authors commit sort of a reverse of the Naturalistic Fallacy (I almost wrote “Phallacy”…Freudian slip, perhaps?) and the Is/Ought dichotomy. They think something OUGHT to be some way and therefore try to say that it IS that way. If that worked, I would long ago have developed telekinetic powers.

    1. Sometimes called the moralistic phallacy. I think one can only understand the profusion of articles like this by understanding the incentives now in place to write them. Even at a Catholic university like Notre Dame, where she is an assistant professor, there is a Gender Studies program; and her Anthropology department will expect the kind of “outreach and engagement” represented by this opinion piece in order for her to get tenure. The question why those incentives exist is related but separate: Ocobock is a nobody and not responsible for those incentives, she’s just following the money. She is still responsible for producing drivel, but not responsible for why the drivel continues to flow downstream. I’ll turn it over to TP to explain where the incentives come from.

    2. I keep notes (!), and this issue was discussed here a while back.
      The better fit to this argument about sex is that it fits the moralistic fallacy: There is an ought and so it must be forced to become an is. Or to put it another way, we conclude that something is real because it ought to be real.

  2. The irony is that this move to discredit the biological fact of the sex binary does not help the activists. The rights and dignity of people are not determined by gamete size; they are determined by social contract. Trying to nullify the facts of biology only opens up another field of battle—one that is completely unnecessary and will in the long run discredit the movement. Science and human dignity are not in conflict.

    I just read the piece in “Spiked.” It’s good, but it barely scratches the surface regarding Scientific American’s demise.

    1. The interpretation of the rights and dignity of people who identify as transgender, however, shifts depending on whether we consider sex binary or not. If it is, then trans people are people who don’t feel like what they really are. We respect them by trying to accommodate their desires while taking what’s fair and reasonable in each situation into account. It’s a process of negotiation.

      But if male and female aren’t valid categories, then trans people are people who correctly discern what they are. There’s nothing but subjective awareness of gender for any of us. Respect means accepting their identity, period.

      What constitutes human dignity depends to an extent then on what the science is. “I want to be treated as if I was a woman” is a different — weaker — position than “I am a woman.” “I’m male” is different than “I’m ‘male’ (as if that means anything.)” Someone in the second category is stripped of dignity if treated like someone in the first category.

        1. Ooo – another chance for me to explain “vitriol” (I think its really interesting):

          It’s an acrostic from the 17th century :


          Which means : “Visit the interior of the earth and by rectifying you shall find the hidden stone”

          There’s a cool drawing which might ring a bell with the Philosopher’s Stone and “Corpus Spiritus Anima” in a book “What Is Alchemy” by L. M. Principe, with the caption

          “… from Von den verborgenen philosophischen Geheimnussen (Frankfurt, 1613).”

          … I’ll try to find a good picture for next time.

  3. So soon? Sigh…

    Yeah – looks crystal clear to me – this is what “socially construction” looks like. And it is for activist scholars to cite as truth – being laundered in, perhaps a non-academic publication (Scientific American).

  4. We will soon enjoy a Sci Am essay about the deficiency of the binary distinction between plant and animal ways of life. It will concede certain differences between plant and animal cells (a cliché of elementary Biology), but will point out even more commonalities: nuclei, cytoplasm, most biochemistry, the use of DNA, RNA, ATP, and water, etc. etc. And it will point out cases where secondary characteristics are ambiguous: as sea anemones, insects that mimic plants, etc. etc. Finally, it will appeal to the “consent, autonomy, well-being, and self determination” of the minoritized people who identify as shrubbery. By the time this article appears, we can expect the ACLU will have attorneys who self-identify as rhododendrons, and a letter for the trans-plant population will surely have been added to the celebrated acronym for “communities” in need of protection.

  5. In ordinary social interactions we don’t measure testosterone level (or gamete-producing organs) but it is still a useful discriminator in sport.

    Testosterone levels reliably separate women from men, especially among the healthy young people likely to be competitive athletes. T levels were never abandoned by sporting organizations as part of the scheme for determining eligibility to compete as female. What sport abandoned (an unfinished effort that is still going on) was the wishful thinking that a post-pubertal man could compete fairly against women as long as he manipulated his T level down to 5 nM, which is still double the upper limit of normal for women. In sensible sports that follow the science, there is no longer any point in testing T in a competitor in a women’s event who says he is trans. You know it will be high. The most sensible thing to do is bar them all, but we aren’t there yet.

    T levels are essential measures in female competitors to detect doping, men sneaking in as women, and medical conditions that are judged, in light of all the available evidence, to confer an unfair advantage regardless of the phenotype of the competitor. The only thing that “didn’t work” was the use of T levels to indulge the desires of some men to compete openly as women.

  6. It’s surprising how otherwise intelligent people get stuck on pre-pubertal children, or post-menopausal women: “But they don’t make gametes so they must be sexless!” We have to be careful to define sex by the kind of gametes we have the anatomical equipment to produce, not just by “males make small motile gametes…” etc.

    1. I’m convinced that that is a deliberate rhetorical ploy on their part. They score points among their Xitter readers for such “gotcha” statements. All the more reason to be careful as you say.

  7. Jerry often puts “progressive” in quotes. It would be fitting to put the title of that rag in quotes as well. From what I’ve seen it hasn’t been scientific all century. The publishers could fairly be charged with false advertising.

    1. Could shoot for a name change for 2030 :

      Critical American Scientific Revolution

      Or put consciousness in it somewhere.

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