Getting straight about sex: A collection of useful videos about sex and sex differences, and some mishigas by a couple of scientists

December 4, 2022 • 9:15 am

A reader called my attention to a site that looks to be a gold mine of information on human sex, how sex evolved, why there are only two sexes, and on the various disorders of sex development, or DSDs (the term “DSD” isn’t much liked by the no-binary-sex crowd, but it’s ensconced in the literature).

The two dozen videos, mostly about biology rather than ideology, were made by the Paradox Institute, which states its mission this way (I’ve put in a link to the site’s founder):

Created in 2020 by Zachary Elliott, the Paradox Institute is an independent science education group focused on helping people learn about the biology of sex and the differences between males and females.

From cleanly illustrated animated videos to long form essays, the Paradox Institute aims to provide informative and entertaining content on some of the most fundamental and controversial research in the biology of sex differences.

And though the videos largely focus on biology, of course they have a quasi-ideological purpose: to dispel misconceptions about the binary nature of sex (yes, it’s binary), to explain why the sexes in animals are only two, to explain why traits like chromosome constitution are correlated with but not part of the definition of sex, and to explain the variety of DSDs.  This is important because the site uses science to correct widespread misconceptions about sex—misconceptions, like the view that “sex is a spectrum”, that arise from ideological commitments.

You can see the panoply of videos by clicking on the screenshot below:

I’ll post just three (all are on YouTube), and you can be the judge. I think watching these is a good way to inform yourself about the biology involved in the Sex and Gender Wars.

Below are the most important ones, which give you the biological definition of “sex” (i.e., what is a sex, not the act of sex!), and explain why there are two sexes. I’m interested in these because I’m writing a bit on the sex binary now.

The second video is longer and includes what’s in the first, so you may want to watch that one instead if you have time (the second is 17 minutes long). As far as I can judge, the videos are biologically truthful, which means they’ll offend those who want to claim that sex is a a continuous distribution—the “spectrum”.

In his influential book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, the famous but now canceled biologist R. A. Fisher extolled the virtue of theoretical biology in this way:

“No practical biologist interested in sexual reproduction would be led to work out the detailed consequences experienced by organisms having three or more sexes; yet what else should he do if he wishes to understand why the sexes are, in fact, always two?” (p. ix)

The video below gives an answer for the layperson that avoids mathematical messiness. Let me add that having two divergent types of gametes, one large and immotile and the other small and motile, is an “evolutionarily stable strategy” (ESS): once these two types have evolved, no other gamete type can evolve and invade the population. And that’s why the sexes—except for the “mating types” in some protists and fungi—are always two.

On the other side of the ring, wearing the blue trunks, is the Science-Based Medicine gang, which have lost their bearings over sex and gender after removing Harriet Hall’s laudatory review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage. Now they’re saying that sex isn’t binary but bimodal, and other such mishigas. This article by Andy Lewis from the site “Reality’s Last Stand” shows how far the nonsense has gone (click on screenshot):

An excerpt:

[Steven] Novella sums up his argument in a paragraph:

Biological sex is not binary

The notion that sex is not strictly binary is not even scientifically controversial. Among experts it is a given, an unavoidable conclusion derived from actually understanding the biology of sex. It is more accurate to describe biological sex in humans as bimodal, but not strictly binary. Bimodal means that there are essentially two dimensions to the continuum of biological sex. In order for sex to be binary there would need to be two non-overlapping and unambiguous ends to that continuum, but there clearly isn’t. There is every conceivable type of overlap in the middle – hence bimodal, but not binary.

This is quite an extraordinary claim for the simple reason that not a single peer reviewed biology paper, written by a biologist, has ever claimed that sex is best described as “bimodal.” There may be papers that characterise sex differences in various features (the amount of dimorphism, etc.) as being bimodal, but not sex itself. How can Novella be so confident in saying that the “bimodality” of sex is uncontroversial among experts when not a single expert has ever said it in their primary literature? This needs explaining.

Read the explanation for yourself. The end of the piece says this:

Steven Novella sets out with the explicit political intention of showing how people with trans identities fall in the middle of a “bimodal distribution of sex.” He claims this characterisation of sex is settled and non-controversial.

What I have shown is how biology reveals sex to be a strict dichotomy of male and female based on anisogamy (two distinct gamete types). No peer reviewed biology paper has ever characterised sex itself as bimodal and shown how to create this statistical distribution from measurements of sex. At best the bimodal idea is a metaphor. At worst, it is handwaving nonsense. The idea has not come from biological science but from “gender studies” academics with explicit political agendas.

. . . In Part II, we will look at how Novella ups a gear and introduces new muddles and conflations between sex and sexuality, between sex and gendered expressions, how the controversy over brain dimorphism is exploited, and how incoherent concepts of “gender identity” muddy the waters.

Finally, I will address why this massive muddle exists. What is going on where so many people are now believing things found nowhere in the actual primary biological literature? How did Novella come to write such a tangled web of nonsense?

I couldn’t find part II of Lewis’s piece, but maybe I didn’t look hard enough. At any rate, Novella (a neurologist) and the Science-Based Medicine website are influential communicators of science, with many followers. But on this issue, at least, it’s gone off the rails.

Another person who’s wobbling on the rails appears to be Neil deGrasse Tyson, also a respected and wildly popular science communicator (and of course, an astrophysicist). Although in the past I’ve been mildly irritated by his waffling about being an atheist vs. an agnostic, I have no major beef with him and do enjoy his palpable enthusiasm for physics. But I have a small beef today (a filet mignon?): Tyson, like Novella, appears to reject the binary nature of biological sex.

Reader Luana sent me this tweet showing pages from a new book by Tyson, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization. You can read what he wrote in three pages, and I have no big objection to most of what is shown, though it gets a bit weird when he says, “At last count, there were at least seventeen [gender] nonconforming designations. . . “. That’s a remarkably precise statement when there are at least 100! But he’s talking about “designations”, which means words, not clear-cut categories.  What really bothers me is what he says in the two excerpts below, particularly the second (I’ve added the red rectangles for emphasis:

Now that’s not egregious, though the world still remains “quite binary” when it comes to biological sex. But Tyson appears to be conflating sex with gender, as we can see from the truly bothersome bit below:

“The presumed binary of sex in nature is overrated and rife with exceptions. . . “?  “Presumed “binary? And “rife” with exceptions? The exceptions to the binary are 0.018% of the population, or about one person in 5600. If 5599 people are either male or female, and there’s one intersex person, that’s as close to a binary as you can get.

Here Tyson, like Novella and many others (see our old friends at Scientific American here and here), want to be on the side of the angels by asserting that sex, like gender, is a spectrum. Well, gender is more towards being a spectrum than sex, but gender is still bimodal rather than binary. That is, there are two frequency humps for gender roles (“male role” and “female role”), and many more individuals in between than the 1/5600 we see for sex.

This is my prime example of the distortion of science by ideology.  The purpose of pretending there are more than two sexes is to support those who have assumed non-traditional gender roles. In other words, those who question the binary nature of sex are doing so because they’re trying to make nature itself conform to an ideology that accepts the non-binary nature of gender. The conflation is deliberate, an example of what I call the “reverse appeal to nature”: “what is good must be what is natural.” But as Richard Feynman said about the Challenger space shuttle disaster, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

And, in the end, there’s no reason to misrepresent science: people of different genders can be supported and respected without having to distort the nature of biological sex.

h/t: Allan, Christina

An ideology-infused paper on how to teach college biology

October 18, 2022 • 12:15 pm

If I could display one paper that vividly demonstrates the infiltration of ideology into biology education, it would be the one below, published last May in Bioscience.  The article tells instructors in college biology classes how to teach the subject so that teachers do not “harm” the students by making them feel “unwelcome”, by implying that their behavior—particularly that related to sex and their gender—is “unnatural”, or by failing to represent the students’ identities while teaching biology.

You can read the paper by clicking on the screenshot below, or get a pdf here.

The gist of the paper is provided by its abstract:

Sexual and gender minorities face considerable inequities in society, including in science. In biology, course content provides opportunities to challenge harmful preconceptions about what is “natural” while avoiding the notion that anything found in nature is inherently good (the appeal-to-nature fallacy). We provide six principles for instructors to teach sex- and gender-related topics in postsecondary biology in a more inclusive and accurate manner: highlighting biological diversity early, presenting the social and historical context of science, using inclusive language, teaching the iterative process of science, presenting students with a diversity of role models, and developing a classroom culture of respect and inclusion. To illustrate these six principles, we review the many definitions of sex and demonstrate applying the principles to three example topics: sexual reproduction, sex determination or differentiation, and sexual selection. These principles provide a tangible starting place to create more scientifically accurate, engaging, and inclusive classrooms.

The principles, which I’ll give below with quotes, are designed to buttress the appeal to nature (closely related to the “naturalistic fallacy”)—the idea that a person’s identity is good because it is analogous to what we find in nature.  Thus there is great emphasis on the diversity of sexual reproduction and a de-emphasis of generalizations (e.g. promiscuous males vs. picky females) that, the authors say, harm people.  (My answer, below, is to teach that the appeal-to-nature fallacy is fallacious for a reason: it draws moral principles from biological facts, which is a bad way to proceed.) Although the authors claim to be avoiding the appeal to nature, their whole lesson can be summarized in this sentence:

Human diversity is good because we see similar diversity in nature.

The explicit aim of this pedagogy is not just to teach biology but largely to advance the authors’ social program. As they say (my emphasis):

At their most harmful, biology courses can reinforce harmful stereotypes, leaving students with the impression that human gender and sexual diversity are contrary to “basic biology” or even that they themselves are “unnatural.” At their most beneficial, biology courses can teach students to question heteronormative and cisnormative biases in science and society. On a larger scale, by encouraging an inclusive and accurate understanding of gender and sex in nature, biology education has the power to advance antioppressive social change.

My response would be “at their most beneficial, biology courses teach students what biology is all about, to inspire them to learn biology, and to learn the methods by which we advance our understanding of biology.  It is not to advance antioppressive social change, which, of course, depends on who is defining ‘antioppressive’.”

Here are the authors’ six principles. The characterizations are mine:

1). Diversity first.  The authors strongly believe that educators should teach about the diversity of nature before giving generalizations.  So, for example, instead of discussing the prevalence of maternal over paternal care in animals, or of the preponderance of decorations, colors, and weapons in males of various species compared to females of those species, you should show the wonderful diversity of nature: you talk about clownfish that can change sex when the alpha female dies, about seahorses, in which females are the decorated se (but for good reasons that conform to a generalization), and discuss some groups of humans in which males give substantial parental care.

This is done explicitly to be “inclusive”:

 Recent work focused specifically on undergraduate animal behavior courses has demonstrated that presenting diversity first does not negatively affect learning objectives (Sarah Spaulding, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, personal communication, 9 April 2019).

That’s some reference, eh?

I would argue that the great generalities should be taught first, and the exceptions later, whose interests rests largely on the fact that they are exceptions.  Gaudy female seahorses are of interest mainly because in seahorse reproduction, the males get pregnant (they carry eggs in their pouches), there are more females with eggs than males to carry them, and therefore, in a form of reverse sexual selection, the males are choosy instead of the females, who compete for males to carry their eggs.  It makes little sense to me to teach the exceptions before the rules, or the diversity before the generalizations, unless you do so to advance an ideological program.

Although the authors say that teaching generalizations first itself perpetuating the appeal-to-nature fallacy by implying what is “normal”, they themselves perpetuate the same fallacy by pointing out exceptions that are said to correspond to biological phenomena, too. Here they are discussing their “teach diversity first” principle:

A second potential concern is that this principle, if it is simplistically applied, will perpetuate the appeal-to-nature fallacy—that is, the argument that anything found in nature is inherently good (Tanner 2006). This is problematic, because it can suggest that students need examples of specific behaviors or biologies in nature to validate human experiences or, alternatively, that anything found in nature is justified in humans. We emphasize that presenting diversity first should only demonstrate that we should expect diversity, including among humans, but this does not present a value argument. Rather, it combats the incorrect assumption that nonbinary categorizations, intersex characteristics, same-sex sexual behavior, transgender identities, gender nonconforming presentation and behavior, and so on are unnatural, which is, itself, often used against LGBTQIA2S + people in an appeal-to-nature argument (e.g., Newman and Fantos 2015).

Note that they are using the appeal to nature fallacy: diversity is good because it is seen in nature. Thus LGBTQIA2S+ should not be demonized because sexual diversity occurs in nature. But these brands of diversity are not are not comparable. As I wrote when reviewing Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow:

But regardless of the truth of Darwin’s theory, should we consult nature to determine which of our behaviours are to be considered normal or moral? Homosexuality may indeed occur in species other than our own, but so do infanticide, robbery and extra-pair copulation.  If the gay cause is somehow boosted by parallels from nature, then so are the causes of child-killers, thieves and adulterers. And given the cultural milieu in which human sexuality and gender are expressed, how closely can we compare ourselves to other species? In what sense does a fish who changes sex resemble a transgendered person? The fish presumably experiences neither distressing feelings about inhabiting the wrong body, nor ostracism by other fish. In some baboons, the only males who show homosexual behaviour are those denied access to females by more dominant males. How can this possibly be equated to human homosexuality?

So Zemenick et al. do advance value argument—an argument designed to shows “diverse” students that they are not abnormal and should not feel bad about themselves.  While I agree that we shouldn’t denigrate students for their sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other trait, you don’t need to teach in a way to validate the identity of all students  While the authors do give caveats about saying that teaching diversity first “does not present a value argument”, in fact it does.

2.) Present the social and historical context of science. This is another way to prevent students from being “harmed” by infusing biological history and data with ideological lessons. One example:

There are still numerous issues with testing for and reporting sex differences in scientific research, prompting calls for increased training in this area (Garcia-Sifuentes and Maney 2021). Furthermore, it is increasingly recognized that testing for only binary sex differences excludes and harms many others that fall outside this binary (Reisner et al. 2016).

Would that harm still be done if the teacher notes that more than 99.9% of individuals conform to the “binary sex difference”? We should not tailor what we teach to the goal of affirming everybody’s identity.  That is therapy, not biology.

3.) Use inclusive language while teaching. This has the same goal as above, to avoid words that make some students feel “excluded”:

Culturally loaded sex- and gender-related terms are often used in biology classrooms without careful thought and discussion. This is especially true of familiar terms, such as male, female, sex, paternal, maternal, mother, and father. Students and instructors alike may fail to notice that these terms imply and affirm cultural norms around sex, gender, and family structure that can be inaccurate and harmful. We therefore suggest, whenever possible, using inclusive, precise terminology that does not assume sex and gender binaries or traditional, nuclear family structures.

. . .Encouraging students to develop an inquiring attitude toward culturally loaded biology language may reduce the harm of these terms and help students develop important critical-thinking skills (Kekäläinen and Evans 2018).

For sex- and gender-related biology terms, we believe it is imperative to provide definitions that are as inclusive, accurate, and precise as possible.

They don’t mention that precisely defining terms like “biological sex” may not be “inclusive.” In fact, every time I give the biological definition of sex, based on gamete type, I get considerable feedback for having “harmed” people. But biology is not, and should not be, a form of social work.

4.) Show the iterative process of science. This is supposed to emphasize that science is “nonlinear and iterative”, though I’m not sure what they mean. Regardless, it has an ideological aim:

Showing the iterative process of science allows students to see how biological models often begin simple and general, to the exclusion of sexual diversity. As models are developed further, with more data and collaboration, they are often refined to encompass more complexity and diversity. For example, past sexual selection theory emphasized how sex differences in gamete size (anisogamy) and differential reproductive investment can drive the evolution of sexual dimorphic behaviors and morphology (box 4). Despite evidence suggesting that humans may be only weakly sexually dimorphic (Reno et al. 2003), early evolutionary models of animal behavior contributed to biological essentialist ideas about human males being inherently highly competitive and human females being driven primarily by the need to rear young.

Well, we may be “only weakly sexually dimorphic” compared to, say, gorillas, but we’re a lot more sexually dimorphic than chipmunks. The fact is that human males are indeed inherently highly competitive and risk-taking—a result of sexual selection in our ancestors—and human females more infant-rearing-oriented than males, largely but not entirely a result of natural selection (there is, after all,  social pressure for females to conform to those roles).

The solution to this whole mishigass is not to restructure biology courses in a Rawlsian way to avoid “harming” the most easily offended individual, but simply to teach the biology you think is important, point out that there is variation, that some of that (like the ornaments of female seahorses) actually proves the generalizations, but, above all, tell the students ONCE or TWICE that they should not draw any lessons about “right versus wrong” or “good versus bad” from biological knowledge, for that makes morality liable to change when biological knowledge changes. Yes, perhaps you can buttress the identities of gay people by saying that female bonobos engage in genital rubbing to strengthen bonds, but does it also buttress bullies and aggressors to tell them that chimpanzees also engage in deadly intra-group warfare? For every variant that buttresses someone’s identity, I can point out a variant that exemplifies something we don’t want people to do.

5.) Present students with diverse role models.  They mean “individuals from marginalized groups” here, presumably racial groups rather than individuals in the LGBTQ+ categories.  While I have no beef against role models, their absence is not the main reason why minority students drop out of STEM programs. The reason, for which we have plenty of data, is that those students aren’t well prepared for the courses, don’t do well, see a lack of success in their futures, and switch to other majors. But Zemenick et al. emphasize the “look like me” aspect:

One reason students from marginalized groups leave STEM majors is a lack of relatable and supportive role models (Hurtado et al. 2010). Role models inspire students, provide psychological support, and help them adopt a growth mindset about intelligence (Koberg et al. 1998). For students from marginalized groups in particular, relatable role models can help them perform better (Marx and Roman 2002, Lockwood 2006). Therefore, a simple way to support LGBTQIA2S + students—who leave STEM majors at higher rates than their straight peers (Hughes 2018)—is to expose them to relatable role models from diverse backgrounds and identities.

I suggest that you check out the Hurtado et al. reference to see the evidence for “relatable and supportive role models” playing a major role in minority students dropping out of STEM. I can imagine that students who feel supported might tend to stay in STEM, but what the authors are suggesting is to beef up teaching so that more importance is given to the work of minority scientists:

Despite the importance of relatable role models for marginalized students, most scientists featured in biology curricula are white, heterosexual, cisgender men, and, as a result, marginalized students often do not see their identities represented (Wood et al. 2020). Instructors should be intentional about introducing their students to biologists from diverse backgrounds and identities, and there are several approaches instructors can take to integrate this into biology courses. For example, instructors can complement or replace content about historical scientists with content about diverse contemporary scientists, or they can assign a small project in which the students research relatable role models.

What Wood et al. (2020) does show, as we’d expect from history, a lack of minority representation in the history of science. Though that representation is at odds with the kind of people doing science now, remember that textbooks concentrate on important discoveries of the past, and those involved mainly white heterosexual cisgender men. But that’s not because textbook authors are bigots. As the participation of minorities in science increases, so will their representation in future textbooks and instruction.

I wonder here, as I alluded to above, whether this problem applies to LGBTA+ people, also seen as “marginalized.” I doubt it, for gay+ people are pretty well represented in science (though I have no data on this issue!), and do we really want to talk about the sexual orientation of famous scientists as a way to avoiding LGBTQ+ people? The key here is that “represented” means “looks like”, and that directly implies race is the important factor, not other criteria for marginalization.

6.) Develop a classroom culture of respect and inclusion. I certainly think that all students should be respected in class: treated as future colleagues whose questions and views should be handled with respect, even when the students are wrong. As I tell my students, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”  One should cultivate an atmosphere in which no student should be fearful of expressing their views, asking questions, or challenging the teacher. But this is simple civility in pedagogy.

But that’s not what the authors mean:

Instructors can work to make all students feel welcome by building professional relationships with students that are founded on respect and nonjudgement. To develop and nurture such relationships, instructors must confront their unconscious biases, such as homophobia, transphobia, or interphobia, through education and self-reflection. Consider attending LGBTQIA2S + sensitivity training, often offered by campus pride and GSA (gay–straight or gender and sexuality alliance) centers.

. . . By developing an awareness of how LGBTQIA2S + identity affects students’ experiences of the biology classroom and by engaging with students empathetically and authentically, instructors can create meaningful and inclusive learning experiences (Dewbury and Brame 2019).

Somewhere along the line, the authors of this paper have forgotten that the purpose of biology class is to teach biology as it is understood today, not to coddle the identities of students. My solution, once again, it simply to say at the beginning of the class, and perhaps reemphasize it, that we are to draw no moral or social lessons about humans from the facts of biology, though biological facts can serve to prop up or militate against some moral views (like those based on utilitarianism). To quote Hitchens, the teach-biology and denigrate the “appeal to nature” view  is enough for me, and I don’t need a second.  I don’t believe, and there is no evidence adduced, for statements like the following:

Biology classrooms represent powerful opportunities to teach sex- and gender-related topics accurately and inclusively. The sexual and gender diversity displayed in human populations is consistent with the diversity that characterizes all biological systems, but current teaching paradigms often leave students with the impression that LGBTQIA2S + people are acting against nature or “basic biology.” This failure of biology education can have dangerous repercussions. As students grow and move into society, becoming doctors, business people, politicians, parents, teachers, and so on, this misconception can be perpetuated and weaponized. Our hope is that this article helps to combat that scenario by stimulating the adoption of accurate and inclusive teaching practices.

Which professors are teaching in a way that makes students feel that they’re acting “unnaturally”? I would claim that the authors are offering a solution to a non-problem.

I agree that all topics should be taught accurately, but if some students feel “non-included” by facts taught in a civil manner in college biology, that is not up to the instructor to fix. Again, a two-minute explication of the fallacy of the appeal to nature is all that’s needed, not a schedule of “LGBTQIA2S + sensitivity training.”

The whole problem with this form of pedagogy is seen in the “author biographical” section of the paper, which I reproduce in toto:

Author Biographical

Ash T. Zemenick is a nonbinary trans person who grew up with an economically and academically supportive household to which they attribute many of their opportunities. They are now the manager of the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, in Truckee, California, and are a cofounder and lead director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Shaun Turney is a white heterosexual transgender Canadian man who was supported in both his transition and his education by his university-educated parents. He is currently on paternity leave from his work as a non–tenure-track course lecturer in biology. Alex J. Webster is a cis white queer woman who grew up in an economically stable household and is now raising a child in a nontraditional queer family structure. She is a research professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Sarah C. Jones is a disabled (ADHD) cis white queer woman who grew up in a supportive and economically stable household with two university-educated parents. She is a director of Project Biodiversify, and serves as the education manager for Budburst, a project of the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. Marjorie G. Weber is a cis white woman who grew up in an economically stable household. She is an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Plant Biology Department and Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, in East Lansing, Michigan, and is a cofounder and director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States.

Why is this there? What purpose does it serve except to signal the virtue (or social consciousness) of the authors? Most important, what on earth does it have to do with biology—or with this paper?

Once again, Scientific American distorts biology, and now history, to buttress its ideology

August 29, 2022 • 9:30 am

For the umpteenth time we find Scientific American distorting empirical data for the sake of buttressing a “progressive” ideology. In this case the magazine has produced a short article as well as a video on “the sex binary” (there’s also an earlier article and video on sex, but on a different topic: sex-specific variations in health).

Both the video and the article below are devoted to debunking the idea that sex is a binary trait in humans. And they both reach the same conclusions:

  1. People with true intersex conditions are often subject to unnecessary and harmful genital and reproductive surgery when they are too young to consent.
  2. People with true intersex conditions are so common that one cannot say that sex is binary in humans. Rather, biological sex is characterized as a “continuum.”

I agree with the first point, which is an ethical one. Of course children with ambiguous genitalia or other deviations from the strict “male” and “female” dichotomy should not be subject to drastic surgical intervention until they’re old enough to consent, particularly when those conditions won’t cause irreparable damage before the age of consent. What rational person could object to that? And who could argue that intersex individuals, or any individuals who can’t immediately be placed in the sex binary, should be treated as inferior to other people?

No, my problem is with #2: the claim that sex in humans is not a binary.  This would be true if we had more than two sexes, and the other sex (or sexes) was quite common. But this is not the case.  We do not have more than two sexes: the “intersex” individuals, apparently considered by Scientific American (but not science itself) as “members of other sexes” are not. They are usually sterile, and do not constitute a “sex” in any meaningful sense. Rather, they are deviations, due to genetic or developmental anomalies, from the normal binary, just as many aspects of the development of other traits (limbs, brains, etc.) can seriously deviate from the “normal” condition.

Further, true “intersex” individuals are vanishingly rare. Scientific American distorts the data by quoting a figure of 1.7% of the population, a figure from Anne Fausto-Sterling and her colleagues that even she and a colleague later revised down to 0.4%. Anybody who can Google can find the backtracking of Fausto-Sterling—except, apparently, author Meghan McDonough and whoever fact-checked her piece. (I’m beginning to wonder if the magazine actually does fact checking.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click to read the article, and I’ve put the accompanying video below.

I won’t dwell on the instances of children subject to genital or gonadal surgery when too young to give consent. In nearly all cases, these are medically unnecessary but ordered by the parents so the infant can conform to what a “normal” boy or girl looks like. In that sense, the assumption of a sex binary does create a harmful situation.  But that doesn’t mean that there are more than two sexes: it means that there are morphological deviations from primary or secondary sexual traits of men and women that are often corrected without the subject’s consent. It’s analogous to saying that there is a “spectrum of palates” because 1 in 1700 American babies (about 0.06%) is born with a cleft palate (in such cases there is surgical correction when young).

Here’s a bit of what the article says:

Intersex is an umbrella term for variations in reproductive or sexual anatomy that may appear in a person’s chromosomes, genitals or internal organs, and it has been estimated to include about 1.7 percent of the population. There are more than 30 medical terms for different combinations of sex traits that fall outside of the typical “male” and “female” paths of development.

The 1.7 figure comes from a 2000 paper in American Journal of Human Biology with Fausto-Sterling (the big proponent of the “1.7% figure”) as one of six authors. But three years later, as I noted above, she and Carrie Hall, in a pair of letters in the same journal, noted that the 2000 paper was ridden with poor estimates and mistakes, and revised the figure of those having “nondimorphic sexual development” (i.e., deviations from “male” and “female” phenotypes) down to 0.37%, nearly one-fifth of the previous estimate. Nevertheless, the 1.7% figure is still used widely because it’s high—one indication of an ideological factor at play.

In 2002, however, Leonard Sax decided to apply clinical criteria for diagnosing the frequency of intersex individuals. His paper, published in the Journal of Sex Research, limns a different definition of intersex:

A more comprehensive, but still clinically useful definition of intersex would include those conditions in which (a) the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female, or (b) chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex.

Fausto-Sterling et al.’s  (actually Blackless et al.; Fausto-Sterling was an author) original definition of intersex was “any deviation from the Platonic ideal of sexual dimorphism,” which doesn’t seem particularly useful except that it yields a higher figure. Sax et al. wind up with a figure of clinical intersex constituting 0.018% of the population, one-twentieth of the revised figure accepted by Hall and Fausto-Sterling.

Depending on what you want to accept as a definition of “intersex” individuals, then, they fall between 0.018% of the population (one in 5500 individuals) or 0.37% of the population (1 in 270 individuals).

But we needn’t quibble about numbers, for nearly every individual who is intersex faces a tough situation, should be treated with respect, and should make their own decision about whether to get surgery.

My point is threefold. First, early estimates of nearly 1 person in 50 being intersex are grossly exaggerated, yet still propagated by venues like Scientific American, even though that figure was retracted by its own author.

Second, the figure is exaggerated deliberately, since if you know the scientific literature you would have stopped using the 1.7% figure ages ago. It’s still used because it’s ideologically convenient, artificially swelling the numbers of a stigmatized minority but also making the issue of a “sex binary” seem unpalatable.

Third, no matter what the percentage of intersex individuals is, they don’t constitute a third sex. That’s because “sex” in animals is determined by whether you make large gametes (eggs) and are female, or small gametes (sperm) and are male. Intersex individuals either make one of the two kinds of gametes, or no gametes (in which case they’re sterile), but they don’t make an intermediate kind of gamete. The sex binary, a result of natural selection, remains.

One more point: the article notes this:

There are life-threatening conditions in which genital surgery is required for infants and children. But “normalizing” their genital appearance to match a sex assigned in early age isn’t medically necessary and is still largely up to doctors and parents. Advocates have long argued that the decision should instead be delayed until individuals are old enough to give informed consent.

I agree with everything here except that sex is not “assigned in early age”. It’s observed in early age, and is observed to be male or female (the signs of gamete-size difference) except in the tiny fraction of cases in which genitals or other sex-related traits are ambiguous. The use of “assigned” here is another ideological tactic, meant to imply that sex is more or less subjective, determined by the whim of doctors who place individuals along a socially-constructed spectrum.

The video reiterates what I’ve said above:

What caused a big fracas on the internet, though, was initiated by Scientific American itself: its tweets advertising the article and video, particularly the second tweet below:

It is manifestly wrong and stupid to argue that until the late 1700s, “Western science” recognized only one sex: the male sex. Females, so the tweet implies, were also considered male, but an inferior type of male.

You don’t have to be a historian to see that the idea that only one sex existed is contradicted all the way back to ancient times. Yes, women were often seen as inferior in those bigoted times, but not as inferior versions of males. There may be one or two renegade historians who hold to the tweet’s claims—that there was an 18th-century shift to a “two sex model”—but in this case Twitter has the facts right and Scientific American doesn’t.

The responses to the Scientific American tweet are almost uniformly critical (I don’t suppose the magazine cares so long as they get clicks). Some people corrected the dumb assertion of the “one sex” model, others gave historical corrections, and still others defended a sex binary or noted that the idea of ethical surgery to change sexual traits has nothing to do with the sex binary. I’ve chosen a few tweets, presented as screenshots below, but if you go to this link and follow the many responses (keep clicking “show more replies”), you’ll be vastly amused. Sometimes Twitter, though often acerbic, is also a good corrective.

A nice tweet from Emma Hilton:

“DSD” stands for “differences in sex development“:

This is a snarky one, but appropriate:

Historical corrections:

And a figure about ideology:

Ideological distortions of biology

July 23, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I’m making a list of the ways that biology—and evolutionary biology in particular—has been distorted, censored, or even affected these days by ideology. Here’s a short list of ten examples that struck me, and I invite readers to add others. I will be using some of this material in the future, but now I’m just gathering thoughts and crowdsourcing any that I haven’t had. I’m not going to argue in detail about these claims here (though I will comment); I’m just making a list. There are many readers who are biologists, but I think most people are aware of some incursions of ideology into biology.

A.) The denial of animal “sexes” in biology, particularly denying the claim that biological sex in humans is about as binary as it gets.

B.) The denigration of evolutionary psychology as a discipline, mainly the claim that it’s a worthless enterprise. This amounts to admitting that while our bodies bear traces of our ancestry, our minds and behaviors don’t. (Yes, I admit that the field has been sloppy, but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s worthless.)

C.) The claim that “race” (I prefer “ethnicity”) is purely a social construct with no biological value and containing no biological information. I don’t believe in “races” as they were classically conceived of by Carleton Coon and others, but humans are genetically different from place to place, and those differences contain information of value in tracing our ancestry and our movement around the globe from Africa.

D.) The insistence by some anthropologists that we shouldn’t even try to determine the sex of ancient bones, much less their “ethnicity”. (I discussed this the other day.)

E.) The notion that indigenous “ways of knowing” (while they may contain practical knowledge) are not only superior to scientific (i.e. “colonialist”) “ways of knowing” but also contain claims about ideology, morality, legends, and word of mouth that are as reliable as modern science. My main example of this has been Mātauranga Māori.

F.) The denigration of famous evolutionary biologists of the past for failure to conform to modern ethics or beliefs (Fisher, Galton, Darwin, etc.) Some of these claims carry weight, but most, I think, don’t, unless most people of those eras were already more morally enlightened than the demonized biologist.

G.) “Blank slateism”: the view that human variation isn’t much influenced by variation in our genes (this is not the same thing as evolutionary psychology, which itself is a kind of blank slate-ism involving the past). Blank slateism is coupled to the view that humans are almost infinitely malleable simply by changing their environments.

H.) DARWIN WAS WRONG. Of course he was, about many things, but as I said in a comment this morning, it’s amazing how much he got right. We hear a lot about what he got wrong these days, but have you seen any articles saying that “DARWIN WAS RIGHT”, and noting what he did get right?

I.) The field of biology, and especially evolutionary biology, is at present structurally racist—that is, there are built-in features of the field that have been put there to hold down minorities. (This is different from asserting that there are racist biologists.)

J.) The attempt to minimize or censor data showing differences between biological sexes in athletic performance, and the claim that there are no genetically-based behavioral differences between men and women on average.

That’ll do for now. Thoughts?


Michael Shermer: What is a “woman,” anyway?

July 12, 2022 • 9:30 am

This is a free read by Michael Shermer at Skeptic, and I found it stimulating in several ways. The object is to pin down a definition of “woman”, if there is such a thing, and to see if there’s any common feature of the many definitions of the term (“fuzzy sets”, as Shermer calls them) that could give us a handle on its meaning. Shermer could have had an article called “What is a man, anyway?”, and it would have been pretty similar.

As we know, the word “woman” has changed meaning due to the burgeoning numbers of trangender women, and is, perhaps, even being eliminated.  Still, I retain my own definition as that of a “biological woman”: someone in principle capable of making large gametes (eggs) as opposed to those who make small gametes (“men”). But reading this piece, which relies heavily on a documentary film, did raise several provocative questions beyond that of defining “woman.”

Click on the screenshot to read.

Shermer gives an introduction to the semantics involved, invoking people like Wittgenstein, Steve Pinker, and social psychologist Carol Tavris, to show the difficulty of defining a term like “women” when many have a different conception of what the term means, or of “women” even exist. (Wittgenstein famously used the example of a “game”, which defies strict definition but we still know one is when we see one). He then introduces the film from which most of the article is drawn: a documentary film by Matt Walsh, a host at Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire called “What is a Woman”. I haven’t seen that film, as you have to pay for it on this site, and I’m not that keen to put money into the site’s coffers.

However, the excerpts given by Shermer do show how evasive people get when asked to define “woman.”  (Remember that Ketanji Brown Jackson punted when asked it during her Supreme Court vetting, saying, “I am not a biologist.”)

The problem is especially acute for LGBTQ+ or trans activists, who of course use the term all the time but don’t seem able to define it. Here, for example, is an exchange between Walsh and Patrick Grzanka, whose bio at UT Knoxville already shows that he uses scholarship to achieve social justice. In such a case, you might expect evasion.

Patrick R. Grzanka is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville. He is an applied social issues researcher who draws upon theory and methods in psychology, sociology, and science and technology studies to explore and intervene in systemic social inequalities.

Have a gander at this conversation between Grzanka and Walsh, with an intro by Shermer:

In a Borat-like series of conversations and encounters Walsh can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone, including the University of Tennessee Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender and Sexuality, Patrick Grzanka, who answered the titular question thusly: “When someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. If a person tells you they are a woman or a man they’re telling you what their gender is.” Unsatisfied with this answer, Walsh presses his subject: “What is a woman?” This exchange is emblematic of postmodernism’s turn to obscurantism:

Grzanka: “Why do you ask that question?”

Walsh: “Because I’d really like to know.”

Grzanka: “What do you think the answer is?”

Walsh: “I’m asking you, a college professor that studies this subject.”

Grzanka: “What other answers have you gotten?”

Clearly frustrated, Walsh explains that others he’s queried are equally obfuscating.

Grzanka: “The simple answer is a person who identifies as a woman.”

Walsh: “What are they identifying as?”

Grzanka: “A woman”

Walsh: “But what is that?”

Grzanka: “As a woman.”

Walsh: “Do you know what a circular definition is?”

Of course, Grzanka perfectly well knows the answer to that question, so he pivots: “You’re seeking what we call in my profession an ‘essentialist definition’ of gender.” That’s right, because essentialist definitions are examples of family resemblances, or fuzzy sets that must contain some agreed-upon characteristics or else the words are meaningless. But Grzanka’s dodge is not uncommon in academia today, and in exasperation with Walsh’s persistent questioning in search of the truth, Grzanka pronounces on camera, ”Getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.”

I don’t know what’s worse: Grzanka’s circular and evasive definition, or his claim that “getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.” That last sentence stuns me, for how can pursuit of truth be “transphobic”?  A search for meaning is not fear, hatred or dismissal of transsexual or transgender people. (I’ll take “transsexual” to involve those who undergo physical changes to comport with their new sex, and “transgender” to refer to those who feel that they’re of a sex—or gender, if you will—different from their biological sex.)

Here’s another evader:

Walsh next turns to Michelle Forcier, a consultant pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Rhode Island, who asserts that “Gender affirmation means listening to children’s story about who they think they are” because “Telling parents that a newborn is 100% a certain gender based on the genitalia is not correct.” A woman, Dr. Forcier explains, is “someone who claims that as their identity. It could be many things to many people.” Do gametes make someone a male or female, Walsh queries? “No,” she retorts, “sperm does not make you a male” because “some women have penises, some men have vaginas.”

She’s wrong: gametes, either existing, or having the potential to make them, or having made them, are indeed what makes someone a biological male or female. The claim that “some women have penises” (she means transsexual women, who cannot usually make sperm) and “some men have vaginas” (she means transsexual men, who once had the equipment to make eggs but can no longer do so) simply evades the issue.

But that brings up more interesting questions. If, as many of these folks profess, a “woman” is anyone who identifies as a women—gender being about psychology and not reproductive bits—why do transsexuals go to such lengths to transform their bodies? It surely means that part of being a transsexual man or a transsexual woman involves transforming your body into the body of one who was born with a different biological sex. In other words, you act on your transgender feelings to alter your body in specific ways. And that itself seems to make three points (this is my take on the issue, but it’s implicit in what Shermer/Walsh say):

a. There seem to be two sexes, i.e., sex is binary. There are transsexual men and transsexual women. While there may be a few transsexual hermaphrodites, generally we have people of one biological sex who feel that there are members of the other biological sex. This is a tacit admission that “men” and “women” are real biological classes, not arbitrary segments of a gender spectrum.

b. The morphology of the two sexes is different, and nearly always diagnostic of biological sex. That is, transitioning usually involves taking hormones that will turn your body in the direction of the biological sex that you weren’t born with, and having surgeries that comport with that biological sex. As I said, biological sex is really defined by whether you have large immobile gametes or small mobile ones, but in most animal species the biological sex goes along with a suite of “primary sexual characteristics“, including, in men the penis and the scrotum and the apparatus to make sperm. The primary sexual characteristics of a female are those connected with reproduction, including the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, clitoris, cervix, and the ability to bear children.

There are also secondary sexual characteristics: physical or physiological differences between the sexes that aren’t directly connected with reproduction. Wikipedia gives a list; in women they include enlarged breasts, wider hips, and labia minora. Secondary characteristics in men include facial hair, a larger larynx, and a heavier bone structure.

When someone transitions to the other sex, they often change these traits through surgery or chemicals (most often surgery on genitals or breast removal or enlargement). And they don’t change to a never-before-seen suite of traits, but to traits often used to diagnose biological men and women. So again we see that people have in mind a physical binary here.

c. The way that trans people often change their appearance to resemble the sex they identify with is both arduous and puzzling. For both sexes, surgery to transform the genitals is difficult, especially when becoming a trans woman. You’re not only sterile (that goes with hormone blockers and then supplements), but the genital surgery is dangerous and often reported to be damned inconvenient. The same goes for becoming a transsexual man with a penis. Walsh tells the story of one trans man who required 17 surgeries, has lifelong complications, and noted that “I’m probably not going to live very long.”

Now I can understand that if you are a woman who identifies as a man (or vice versa), you may want to go beyond just psychologically identifying as a member of the sex you weren’t born with, and try to look like a member of the sex you feel to be. But the fact that the changes are always in the same direction (breast removal and penis construction, as well as taking testosterone for trans men) show that people not only recognize that there are two sexes—not three, not five, and so on—but that changing sex means adopting diagnostic signs of your new sex: more hair, smaller breasts, acquisition of a vagina, etc.

At what point in this process does a trans man, for example, become a “man”? Some would say that the assertion by a biological woman that she is really a man is sufficient (in fact, that’s the most common answer of activists). Why, then, is it necessary to go through medical hell if you’re already a “man”? I have some tentative answers, but I’ll leave that to the readers. It’s sufficient to me that the way transitions are made tacitly recognizes the existence of two sexes that have their own biological characteristics. Although most trans advocates deny that sex is binary, they certainly act as if it is.

So those are the issues that arose when I read Michael’s stimulating article. I’ll give two more quotes from the piece, the first giving the correct biological definition of women and taking care of the usual caveats (“menopausal women can’t produce viable eggs”, “some women are sterile”, etc.), Shermer quotes biologist Carol Hooven:

What criteria should be used to distinguish females from males? The relative size of the sex cells or gametes, Hooven explains, echoing the definition agreed on by the vast majority of biologists. “Males produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), and females produce larger, immobile gametes (eggs),” although even here Hooven cautions readers not to take this definition too strictly, inasmuch as “my son doesn’t yet make sperm, but he’s still male. And although my ovaries are no longer regularly producing eggs, I’m no less female than when they were cranking them out on a monthly schedule. Rather, it’s the design plan for the gametes that counts.”

That design plan for producing two different types of gametes is what you would expect in a sexually reproducing species like ours, so that seems as foundational a conceptual category as we’re going to get in defining females and males, while still allowing for the rare outliers.

Hooven, by the way, who lectures on evolution at Harvard, has been pretty strongly attacked for even saying that there are two sexes.

And I’m adding this bit, which is by Shermer, to show that the man is not a transphobe for writing an article like this. Such caveats might seem unnecessary, but they are necessary because any discussion of what “men” or “women” really constitute is considered transphobic. You must simply accept the assertions of activists or suffer accusations of bigotry. But I refuse to admit that such discussions are transphobic, and Michael ends like this:

However the language games play out with this issue in the coming years, and whatever the science provisionally concludes about the actual rate of trans sans the social contagion element, it is good to remember that trans rights are human rights and that discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, along with sexual orientation and other protected classes, is both illegal and immoral. No one should be fired for being trans, much less treated as less than human. The fuzzy set of Homo sapiens includes all of us, regardless of how we subdivide the species.


London’s Natural History Museum commits the naturalistic fallacy—repeatedly

June 30, 2022 • 9:15 am

It appears, from the tweet below, that London’s famed Natural History Museum has taken its place in the Woke Parade, for the tweet below clearly means to validate different human gender identities and parade the Museum’s pro-LGBTQ+ credentials by publicizing the several lizard species that don’t require male sperm to have offspring. This phenomenon is called parthenogenesis, meaning “a form of asexual reproduction in animals that does not require fertilization by sperm.” In effect, all members of a parthenogenetic species (if one can call them “species”) are female.

What irks me is that this has NOTHING to do with LGBTQ+ people, who do not reproduce without fertilization. None of us do! This is simply virtue-signalling using animals to support human behaviors (I suppose it’s relevant to gender identity in this case, or if you are an extremist, the superfluity or toxicity of males). And vindicating human behavior by pointing to animals is a form of the “naturalistic fallacy“: the view that “whatever is natural must be good.” If you think I’m overinterpreting the intention of this series, have a look at the second video below or full Monty tour (a 26-minute video) produced by the Natural History Museum.

Of course humans don’t have parthenogenesis, so connecting it with LGBTQ+ in a video tour (see below) is simply mistaken. The naturalistic fallacy, too, is mistaken: that’s why they call it a “fallacy”.  There are plenty of natural animal behaviors that we would not want to see in our species, including infanticide, murder of conspecifics, cannibalism, eating one’s mate after copulation, robbery, adultery, theft, and the whole gamut of crimes and sins.

Yet Leftist biologists in particular are prone to this fallacy, constantly pointing to the diversity of sexual behavior in animals to somehow justify the diversity of sexual behavior in our own species. If I hear one more person bang on about how the clownfish—a sequential hermaphrodite that can change from male to female when a female in a group dies—I’ll scream. (Note that there is a definite change from one binary sex to another: a change from producing sperm to eggs.) Gender or sex change in humans need not be justified by pointing to its occurrence in nature: it’s something to accept and respect regardless of whether it occurs in nature. (And if it didn’t, would that make transsexuality bad because it’s “unnatural”?)

The orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) much beloved by biologists who commit the naturalistic fallacy. Nemo is of course one of these.

But I digress. Offspring produced without male fertilization are common among invertebrates, especially insects. Vertebrates can have it too: it’s been seen not just in lizards, but in snakes, sharks, fish, and birds. In some of these (like the Komodo dragon), parthenogenesis may occur alongside normal reproduction, and so two sexes are not just present, but “needed”, for without males, the parthenogenetic variant would eventually disappear. (Whether to call parthenogenetic lineages that are genetically different as “different species from each other” is, as I implie above, a matter of taste.)

Komodo dragons MATING. Yes, males are needed to keep the species going.

Parthenogenesis in reptiles, is, as the video below shows, usually results from hybridization between two species. The hybrid offspring have two different genomes, one genome from each of the parental species, and this may mess up the normal process of meiosis that forms sperm and eggs. If it gets messed up in hybrids that, without fertilization, eggs can go on to develop into adults (and these eggs must still have two genomes), we have parthenogenesis.

Sometimes the asexual reproduction persists and we get a new “species”, but a feature of parthenogenesis like this is that it is very often an “evolutionary dead end.” For reasons probably connected with a lack of genetic variation, parthenogens don’t hang around for long as a group. They tend to go extinct well before other species. We know this because looking at the genes of the parthenogenic individuals show that they’re very similar to those of the parental species, which means that the new asexual form hasn’t been around long enough to genetically diverge from the two parental species. The “dead end” nature of this asexual process isn’t mentioned by the Natural History Museum!

Even in parthenogenesis, two sexes are sometimes “needed”, because in many forms of the trait, even in reptiles, sexual activity is needed, even without fertilization. This can take the form of a female mounting another female (“pseuocopulation”), or even copulation with males from one of the parental species—copulation that doesn’t cause fertilization. For some reason we don’t understand, the process of egg development may require a behavioral trigger of copulation or pseudocopulation. Thus the Natural History Museum is also misleading in saying that “two sexes aren’t needed.”  In some cases they are, though they’re needed in one of the two parental species.

Finally, the Natural History Museum errs by saying that all parthenogenic reptiles are clones (genetically identical to the mother). This isn’t true. There are a variety of ways that animals can produce offspring without sex. Some of these involve all the offspring being clones, producing eggs by simple development of an egg that happens to have the same genomic constitution of a mother, i.e. two copies of each chromosome. This form, called apomixis, produces offspring that are all genetically identical to themselves and to their mother. These are all clones.

But there’s another way of reproducing without sex that produces genetically diverse offspring. It’s called automixis, and can occur in several ways. One is that meiosis (production of gametes) produces genetically diverse egg cells, two of which can fuse to form a diploid egg that’s capable of becoming an adult. Since the eggs themselves are genetically different, the diploid eggs will differ from each other too, and  thus the offspring that result will not be clones of each other—or of the mother. Some lizards use this method of reproduction, and so the offspring are not “clones”.

That’s the biology lesson, so you can see that there are at least two errors in the Natural History Museum tweet that I’ve put below again.. However, the tweet’s purpose is not scientific accuracy, but to imply that reproduction without sex somehow supports LGBTQ+ people. As I said, it doesn’t, for no LGBTQ+ folks, or any other human, reproduces parthenogenetically. Readers may wonder what mindset made someone decided that parthenogenetic lizards are part of the “LGBTQ+ tour.”

The video below, labeled above and on YouTube as another part of the LGBTQ+ natural history tour, is pretty anodyne, and in fact doesn’t even mention the L+ sequence. But look at the one below that,designed to vindicate human homosexuality by showing that some beetles have same-sex behavior!

Oy vey! The advantage of the video below is that it’s short. It describes same-sex sexual behavior in insects. Why? Because it’s meant to show that homosexual behavior in humans. because it occur in animals, is “natural”. Ergo, we can’t criticize it. But as I said in my review of Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow, a review published in the Times Literary Supplement, this argument doesn’t hold water:

But regardless of the truth of Darwin’s theory, should we consult nature to determine which of our behaviours are to be considered normal or moral? Homosexuality may indeed occur in species other than our own, but so do infanticide, robbery and extra-pair copulation.  If the gay cause is somehow boosted by parallels from nature, then so are the causes of child-killers, thieves and adulterers. And given the cultural milieu in which human sexuality and gender are expressed, how closely can we compare ourselves to other species? In what sense does a fish who changes sex resemble a transgendered person? The fish presumably experiences neither distressing feelings about inhabiting the wrong body, nor ostracism by other fish. In some baboons, the only males who show homosexual behaviour are those denied access to females by more dominant males. How can this possibly be equated to human homosexuality?

Ironically, while narratorJosh Davis, says that the early entomologists describing same-sex copulation in insects did so to justify homosexuality as “natural” in humans, Davis doesn’t go on to say that this whole endeavor is meaningless.  What if there were no same-sex behavior in insects or other animals? Would that mean that human homosexuality should be deemed abnormal and deplorable? Of course not!

This whole “LGBTQ+ four of the Natural History Museum appears to rest entirely on the naturalistic fallacy (see the  26-minute video, too). Whatever happens vis-à-vis sex in animals has nothing to do with how we regard homosexuality (or any other non-cis sexual behavior) in humans. We do lots of things that animals don’t, and judging our behavior, morally or otherwise, must rest entirely on human considerations like the morality we’ve developed that isn’t seen in animals. It’s ironic that in their desire to be au courant with woke ideology, biologists have reverted to adopting a fallacy that they rejected long ago.

The Natural History Museum has fallen into a real trap here, and it’s embarrassing that it are producing these videos. But of course science is now increasingly prey to “progressive” ideology, and so much worse for science.

Be sure to watch the long video that claims that “some sheep are homosexual”—in the human sense. That is, they choose to be homosexual—as if human gay people choose. It’s all a big mess.

h/t:  Luana, Greg Mayer


Scientific American attacks the “cult of the penis”

March 9, 2022 • 12:15 pm

There’s a new Scientific American article that presents some interesting biology, but does it tendentiously, for its aim is to show, by citing a few cherry-picked examples of odd biology, that interest in the penis among biologists, and the relative neglect of the vagina, reflects the patriarchy. It’s time, says author Rachel Gross to take the penis off its pedestal.

Now I freely admit that males often have an obsession with penises and their size, but I don’t think that the study of animal penises, as opposed to vaginas, reflects the patriarchy, despite a Vox Magazine article called “How a pseudo-penis packing hyena smashes the patriarchy’s assumptions.” (Read Steve Gould’s explanation of the spotted hyena female’s “pseudopenis”, a modified clitoris, though Gould’s hormone-based explanation is probably wrong.)

Gross’s article is loaded with examples of the naturalistic fallacy (or should I say “phallusy”?)—the idea that we can derive lessons about what is “good” or “moral” in humans from observing the behavior other species that lack our kind of culture (i.e., all other species). We may learn something about the evolutionary roots of our behavior, but not its lessons for sexual equality.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s one example from the article, which begins by discussing two new books, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis, by Emily Willingham, and GUYnecology: The Missing Science of Men’s Reproductive Health, by Rene Almeling:

. . . the flashy focus on the male member serves as a Trojan horse (pun intended) for a very different message: that a culture of phallus-worship has slanted the science in crucial and sometimes unexpected ways. On the one hand, we’ve inflated the role of the penis in genital evolution; on the other, we’ve left the male contribution to infertility, genetic abnormalities and other reproductive consequences unexamined. The result is stunted, lopsided science that shows only one side of the story.

But if this all be motivated by the patriarchy, why are medical problems with male genitalia neglected and “unexamined”? But here’s one example:

Consider that myriad beetle species are classified solely by their penis shape, while the true breadth of vaginal diversity has yet to be explored. This tradition has deep roots: Going back to Charles Darwin, who waxed poetic on the wonders of barnacle dongs, biologists have trained their lens on the penis while remaining largely uninterested in what vaginas were doing. Yet penises don’t evolve in a vacuum. All those traits we ooh and aah over—length, girth, bristles—are shaped by vaginal evolution, and the mutual dance between the two that plays out over generations.

Now this is a straw insect. The reason why many species of insects (not just beetles) are identified by their penis shape is because that is the structure that is most likely to be clearly different between species. It’s not because biologists have an obsession with penises. In many Drosophila, for example, you can tell closely related species apart only by examining the male genitalia (even dissecting the female ones show no difference). As all entomologists know, “if there is only one trait differentiating closely related species, it is almost surely the shape of the male genitalia or genital apparatus.”

Now the reason for this probably reflects the action of sexual selection during the origin of new species, just as in many species of birds it is the male ornamentation and color and not the appearance of the female that is the most obvious species-distinguishing trait.

In insects, for example, the females of an isolated population may come, for reasons I won’t discuss, to prefer a slightly different genital shape in their mates, perhaps because it “feels better”. (We just don’t know the reason for this; I’m speculating here.) Eventually, because of this preference difference, you may get a snowballing difference in the shape of male genitals, and with it a big change in the female preference.

In the end, the two populations, via the action of sexual selection, come to differ from one another in both male genitalia and in female preference for the conspecific male genitalia—up to the point that females from one population will no longer mate with males from the other. We then have two reproductively isolated populations: new biological species.

Note that both sexes of the new species differ profoundly, but it’s dead easy to tell the species apart by the male genitalia, while it’s impossible to tell the species apart by looking at female genitalia. (Note: female genitalia may differ in some species, but to see that you’d have to do very elaborate dissections.)

You can tell the species apart by simply using a microscope to examine the male genitalia, but not the females. In fact, the females may differ in a way impossible to tell apart by looking at them, for their difference in preference may reflect how the different genitalia “feel” during copulation,  and “tactile feeling” is a preference impossible to see because it’s coded in the female’s neurons.

I’ve made this point repeatedly, most notably in my book Speciation with Allen Orr, and others have as well, especially William Eberhard in his unjustly neglected book Sexual Selection and Animal Genitalia. This concentration on male rather than female genitals does not reflect sexism at all: it reflects both the way that sexual selection works and the fact that the selection manifests itself as morphological differences between species in male but not in female genitalia.

(A side note: in groups like squid in which sperm is transferred not through a penis but through another organ, it is those organs that tend to differ among species. This again supports the idea that during speciation, male morphology changes but what changes in females is often neuronally-based “feeling preference”.)

The idea that female preference is unduly neglected because of the patriarchy is not a fair charge because nearly every theory of sexual selection involves a concomitant change in both male trait and female preference for that trait.  It is a hell of a lot easier to see trait differences than preference differences, which can be tested only by behavioral studies exposing females to males of different morphologies or of different species.

Author Rachel Gross emphasizes that it’s only the new activity of women scientists and LGBTQ scientists (!) that has led to an interest in female vaginal evolution. This simply isn’t true (well, it may be 2% true): many of the discoveries she emphasizes below were made by men, including the fascinating “pseudopenis” of the spotted hyena, repeatedly used as an example of a species whose females are “empowered” (another example of the Naturalistic Phallusy). The author says this:

Today, as more women and LGBTQ scientists enter the field, we’re finding that vaginas, far from passive tubes for ejaculate, are active organs that sort, store and reject sperm. Kangaroos have three vaginas (two for sperm reception, one for joey ejection); swallowtail butterflies see out of theirs; and duck vaginas spiral and curve in a penis-repelling labyrinth. Even for non-vagina-lovers, these facts help us understand how genitals evolve as a whole. Both are part of the same unified story—a much richer tapestry than just one body part can tell. Leaving one out, whichever one, blinds us to the fuller picture of sex and sexuality.

This is, I think, a gross distortion of the history of genital evolution. There’s more, and here her ideological lesson comes into view:

Both examples [JAC: the presence of multiple vaginas in kangaroos and “the neglect of guys in gynecology] reflect a deeper flaw in science’s approach to sex: the assumption that sex can only be either/or, two trains that run along separate, parallel tracks. Again and again, biology has proved this not to be the case—chromosomally, hormonally or genetically. For instance, we usually consider the presence of a penis to indicate a male, yet the hyena famously gives birth through her clitoris, which is so large that she can use it to mount the male. The female seahorse wields a long tube that looks an awful lot like a penis, which she uses to deposit eggs in the male’s pouch. So much for the penis as “the throbbing center of masculinity,” as Willingham puts it.

The lesson seems to be that sex is not binary IN HUMANS because of weird genitalic differences in other species. But sex is indeed binary in humans as defined biologically: males are the group that produce small, motile gametes (sperm) or have the potential to do so, while females are the group that produces large, immotile gametes (eggs) or have the potential to do so. THAT is the way, not penis shape or egg-delivering tubes, that biologists tell males from females, and the reason is because evolution forged sex that way: in animals, largely onto two tracks. The fact that a female seahorse deposits her eggs in the male’s pouch, and that he gestates the eggs and gives birth, says nothing about what obtains in humans, nor does it even say that “sex is not binary in seahorses.”  No, sex IS binary in seahorses:a male seahorse makes sperm and a female makes eggs.  What differs from most animals is which sex carries the fertilized eggs. But we’ve known that forever.

Finally, Gross gives us this message (my emphasis):

Here’s why: because human biases shape scientific knowledge, and much of what we know about our nether regions has been shaped by lazy, antiquated stereotypes about what men and women are. Looking past the penis and beyond the binary categories of male/female, penis/vagina (or, more accurately, penis/clitoris) opens our eyes to the full spectrum of gender and genitalia in all its glorious permutations. It makes for better science, and a deeper understanding of genital evolution and reproductive health.

Well, I’m not sure that Gross realizes that she’s given the game away by admitting flat out that yes, male/female is indeed a binary in humans.  Sex is binary. But yes, its manifestations, its twists and turns—like a duck’s penis—are fascinating to the biologist. Yet this does not mean either that the study of female genitalia have been of interest only to LGBTQ+ or female scientists, nor that we should draw any kind of lessons about how to best treat human males and females based on observing other species.

For another argument of the same stripe—that the diversity of nature tells us how patriarchal and sexist humans have been—see the article below from The Guardian. It, too, relies on a combination of anecdotes and the Naturalistic Phallusy, completely neglecting the great generalizations about the sexes first noted by Darwin. Once again the bonobos (who aren’t as nice as everyone thinks) are trotted out as an example of how females can be dominant in humans:

Ah yes, bonobos: these peaceable primates use sex toys, practise oral sex and establish and maintain female-led social structures through “genito-genital rubbing”. That’s entertaining, but it also matters: as Cooke says, it challenges the clichéd narrative on sex roles in primates, our closest animal relatives.

But why doesn’t the fact that the rest of the primate species show male aggression and “patriarchy” buttress the idea that males are the “dominant sex” in humans? Once again, it’s ludicrous to tell humans to right way to behave towards the sexes by pointing at other species. Nature is what it is, but human society, because of culture, can be made to abrogate what we see in nature—to circumvent evolution. The invention of contraception is one example.

As the biologist said who sent me the link below (a woman, by the way), “I suppose a more balanced account wouldn’t sell many books or warrant a big splash in a Sunday.”

(Lucy Cooke has a new book of “female myth-busting female-centered” stories,  Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution & the Female Animal).

Taking a stand: Lucy Cooke by the giraffe enclosure at London Zoo. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer



Vox analogizes invasive species with human immigrants

November 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

I suppose it was inevitable that “invasive” species—species that take over a new area, often far from their native habitat—would be compared by the “progressive” Left to human immigrants, and thus the impact of these species minimized or even lauded. That’s the conclusion you can draw from the headline at the uber-woke Vox website below.

Actually, the article isn’t all that bad, as it does point out that some invasive species destroy ecosystems and must be controlled; other species are moving due to climate change; draws a distinction between true invasives and those deliberately introduced (see Wikipedia’s list of 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species; the name “alien will alienate many here, lacking only the adjective “illegal” to enrage the woke); calls attention to the cruel way many invaders are destroyed (poisons can cause an agonizing death), and raises moral issues that should be considered (how do we trade off the death of sentient animals, or nonsentient plants, against native habitat and wildlife)? Those are all things to consider.

But the tenor of the article is one of equating human immigrants with invading species. As a biologist, I admit my biases that when trading off an invader that destroys native species and ecosystems, I give precedence to the natives. Each extinct species is a book that tells us not only about its ancestry, but also can impart fascinating facts about biology. Think of the Hawaiian Islands, where 95 out of the 142 endemic bird species (those found nowhere else) have gone extinct, not just because of habitat damage but because of introduced predators like rats and mongooses who destroy eggs, or feral pigs that destroy habitat. My solution would be, if possible, to get rid of the predators and pigs (as humanely as possible) and try to stem habitat loss.  Problems like this exist all over the world, and unless you have no appreciation for nature at all, you must think about invasion vs. conservation.

I have to say, though, that although the Vox article gives lip service to some truly damaging invasive species (e.g., cats and foxes that kill Australian marsupials), they tend to downplay many cases, like the interbreeding of coyotes with endangered red wolves (see below), my impression is that the article is written by a Leftist who favors open borders for the U.S. But of course the most invasive species of all, and the greatest danger to native species, is Homo sapiens.

Read and judge; you might take issue with my claims above.

As I said, the article isn’t as bad as it could be, but that’s not saying much when it comes to Vox.  Here’s a list of sentences and phrases where author Bolotnikova explicitly use the human/invasive species analogy:

For example, invasives can be considered a threat not only by killing or outcompeting native species but also by mating with them. To protect the “genetic integrity” of species, conservationists often go to extraordinary lengths to prevent animals from hybridizing, environmental writer Emma Marris points out in her book Wild SoulsFreedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World. Consider the effort in North Carolina to prevent coyotes from breeding with endangered red wolves, which bears uncomfortable parallels to Western preoccupations with racial purity that only recently went out of fashion.

Good Lord! Only those who are looking for offense would find these “parallels”. Wolves and coyotes are different biological species, for one thing.

. . .That’s why some scientists look askance at the influence of invasion biology and argue that the field has a baked-in, nativist bias on documenting negative consequences of introduced species and preserving nature as it is. Invasion biology is like epidemiology, the study of disease spread, biologists Matthew Chew and Scott Carroll wrote in a widely read opinion piece a decade ago, in that it is “a discipline explicitly devoted to destroying that which it studies.”

Historically, the term has erroneously expanded to the idea of, “‘If you’re not from here, then you are most likely going to be invasive,’” Sonia Shah, author of The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Movesaid on a June 2021 episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s science-mysteries podcast. Conservation policies have been crafted around the idea that if something is not from “here” — however we define that — “then it is likely to become invasive, and therefore we should repel it even before it causes any actual damage,” as Shah says, which is part of the nativist bent that pervades ecological management.

Now these are uncomfortable parallels, but they’re between human immigration and animal invasions (animals are often moved deliberately by humans). This could—and may well have intended to—be an argument for letting immigrants go wherever they want. But wait! There’s more!:

. . .What’s more, the very notion of “invasion” draws on a war metaphor, and media narratives about non-native species are remarkably similar to those describing enemy armies or immigrants. For example, a recent news story in the Guardian about armadillos “besieging” North Carolina described them as “pests” and “freakish.” It also gawked at the animal’s “booming reproduction rate,” an allegation that, not coincidentally, is leveled against human migrants.

Well, we use invasion and war as metaphors for disease to. Is the “battle against covid” an alt-right slur on immigration?

We always have to be wary of teaching “indigenous knowledge” as equivalent to Western science. (New Zealand is having a real issue with that right now.) Here’s a confusing paragraph about that:

Indigenous knowledge is increasingly being recognized as essential to conservation, write Nicholas Reo and Laura Ogden — Dartmouth University professors of Indigenous environmental studies and anthropology, respectively — in an ethnographic study of Anishinaabe perspectives on invasive species. (The Anishinaabe are a group of culturally related First Nations peoples in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the US.) Anishinaabe ideas, Reo and Ogden found, reflect a worldview that sees animals and plants as belonging to nations with their own purposes and believes people have the responsibility to find the reason for a species’ migration. The authors’ sources recognized parallels between the extermination of species deemed invasive and the dark history of colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. The interviews “helped me recognize the ways in which different philosophies of the world shape our ethical response to change,” Ogden says.

But do the Anishinaabe try to find out the reasons for species migrations? If they do, then they have to use modern science. If they don’t, then this is irrelevant to the issue of conservation.

Finally, the article couldn’t resist using the word “diaspora”, which is usually applied to Jews but refers to any people dispersed widely from where they originally lived. This is the first time I’ve seen it applied to animals:

In Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Chile and Argentina, a particularly dramatic novel ecosystem is taking shape. In 1946, beavers were introduced there in a futile attempt to create a fur industry. Instead, the animals proliferated and munched down the region’s Nothofagus — southern beech — forests, creating dams and ponds. “They are these miraculous world builders,” says Ogden, who wrote an essay imagining the beavers not as invaders, but as a diaspora. (Beavers have also been a boon for ducks and other marine species.) The invasive species paradigm, Ogden adds, is devoid of nuance, history, and politics; she prefers a concept that gives expression to the moral complexity of the beavers’ presence in South America, as well as the fact that they had no choice in being moved there.

Ecologist Dan Simberloff, however, deems this invasion a “disaster” for the native habitat.

As I said, this article is not without merit. It raises questions about invasive species (do they really damage native habitat or fauna?) that laypeople may not have considered, but, believe me, biologists have considered. But there are moral questions that biologists haven’t considered: is it worth the lives of 10,000 beavers, for instance, to save the Patagonian forests? Biologists say “yes”, for we’ll always have beavers, but Patagonian forests (or Hawaiian birds), once gone, are gone for good.  (Yes, the beavers should be exterminated humanely, which I suppose the Vox article would consider “genocide”.)

But in general, this article, conflating the problem of human immigration and crossing of politically determined borders with the invasion of animals and plants into novel areas, is a good example of the naturalistic fallacy. We learn nothing about how to deal with human immigration from studying invasive species. Not only that, but if you want to be more accurate in your analogy, you’d liken invasive species not to Central Americans crowded at the American border, but to Cortéz genocidal extinction of the Aztecs.  After all, human immigrants don’t wipe out the population into which they meld.

Here are four extinct species once on Oahu, one of the Hawaiian islands:


h/t: Luana

The most beautiful experiment in biology

September 19, 2021 • 9:45 am

John Cairns called “the Meselson-Stahl experiment“, published in 1958, “the most beautiful experiment in biology.” (Click on the first screenshot below to see the original paper, but what I really want you to do is watch the video at the bottom).

The paper was by Matt Meselson, who became a Harvard professor and distinguished researcher, and Frank Stahl, who was equally distinguished and worked at The University of Oregon. Both men are now 91, and both are still with us. The videographers shot both men together, 63 years later, to discuss this most important work, one that, in an unbelievably simple and clever experiment, revealed how DNA replicated. (There were several theories about how the genetic material was duplicated.) I always thought they should have won the Nobel Prize for this experiment, but it was not to be.

A bit of backstory: on p. 166 of Horace Freeland Judson’s wonderful book about molecular biology, The Eighth Day of Creation, you can read this:

Soon after Meselson got back to Pasadena that winter, Max Delbrück and his wife carried [Meselson] and Stahl to the Kerkhoff Marine Station, run by Caltech, on the sea at Corona del Mar, and locked them into an upstairs room with two sleeping bags and a typewriter until they wrote the paper.

You can read the Wikipedia link to the experiment, but first watch the video at the bottom first, which explains this lovely bit of experimental molecular genetics. It’s a really wonderful view of two aging scientists remembering their greatest moment.

This video truly conveys the excitement of the early days of molecular genetics in the 1950s after Watson and Crick had published their proposed structure. W&C had suggested a method of replication of DNA, but it wasn’t really “proven” until the Meselson/Stahl experiment.

.  At the end, the two collaborators and friends visit the llamas that Stahl now farms

h/t: Matthew

A new way of visualizing cells

December 13, 2020 • 2:30 pm

This is a lovely video showing a new way of visualizing cells as they are living and operating. The “microscope” that does this is extremely large and complex. I don’t know much about it, and don’t fully understand the principles, but this video probably tells you all you need to know. The images are stunning, and I love the enthusiasm of the researchers.