The title of this post is mine (Jerry’s), and since there’s no word that has replaced “wokeness”—a word I construe as “performative social justice, often going to ludicrous extremes, that has little effect on society”—I’ll use that one. The articles below were called to my attention by reader Smith Powell, and his commentary was substantial enough that I asked him if I could post it (along with some additions that I’ll identify, like adding the screenshots). He gave permission, and so I’ll put it between the lines. My own additions and comments are in brackets with a “JAC:” beginning the note.
Smith Powell briefly discusses a book review and a letter to the editor that appeared in a recent issue of Science, giving his reaction to both. I’ve left in the “deadnaming” for the book review simply because many of you may have read the author, Riley Black, who was well known for science writing before transitioning to the female gender and taking the name “Riley Black”. Her piece turns out to be far more of a manifesto for inclusiveness than a book review, committing the cardinal sin of book reviewing: assessing a book that the author should have written instead of the one he did.
Commentary by Smith Powell
A recent issue (24 December 2021) of Science had two woke items of interest. The first was a review of Dinopedia by Darren Naish. The review is called “Revisiting paleontology’s greatest hits”. The second is a letter “Transgender rights rely on inclusive language” with multiple authors.
[JAC: Click on the screenshots, which may take you to the article. pdfs are available via judicious inquiry]:
The reviewer, Riley Black, is herself an author of books and many articles and blog posts on dinosaurs and she has written about a number of other science topics. Until recently, Ms. Black was associated with Scientific American where she wrote for a blog entitled Laelaps. She used to write as Brian Switek but came out as transgender and non-binary in 2019.
Ms. Black makes her point in the very first paragraph of her review [emphases mine]:
Dinosaurs garner esteem that is often reflected onto the people who search for, excavate and study them, and therein lies a fundamental problem with the ever-increasing number of popular tomes about the “terrible lizards” hitting bookshelves. Even as the field of vertebrate paleontology pushes to become more inclusive, personages from decades past remain the only experts many members of the public encounter. Although there is a trove of dinosaurian information to recommend paleontologist Darren Naish’s short encyclopedia Dinopedia, it does little to correct this antiquated view of who is, or can be, a paleontologist.
Ms. Black notes that Naish has written a “friendly and breezy tour of dinosaurs and what paleontologists have come to know about them.” She further notes that the book is illustrated with Naish’s own drawings and that “the result is a solid primer on dinosaur science…” Again, she makes her point when she writes, “Nevertheless, the book offers a view of modern dinosaur scientists that is practically petrified.”
Ms. Black continues:
Naish includes profiles of a handful of paleontologists: Robert Bakker, Jack Horner, Halszka Osmólska, John Ostrom, Richard Owen, Greg Paul, and Paul Sereno. These figures were indeed pivotal in the dinosaur debates and discussions of the late 20th century, but Naish’s decision to focus on them, rather than on contemporary paleontologists, makes the book feel decades out of date rather than representative of modern dinosaur studies. Aside from the gender imbalance, nonwhite scientists and researchers from the Global South are given short shrift.
[JAC: I’ve added the next indented section]
Naish’s book joins a number of recent titles that have failed to effectively convey the increasingly diverse practice of paleontology. I, too, have fallen far short in achieving equality and inclusivity in my writing.
There is no doubt that the Dinosaur Renaissance was huge for paleontology. Many of the children who were inspired by the museum exhibits, books, and films that debuted during that time are paleontologists or fossil fans still. But the height of that era’s dinomania was nearly three decades ago, when discussions about diversity and representation in the field often occurred in the background, if they happened at all. Paleontologists today openly consider such issues, as well as adjacent topics such as the ethics of collecting specimens and samples in other countries and the repatriation of illegally exported fossils.
Still, there is much work to be done. In a field in which even gender equity between white cisgender researchers has been difficult to achieve, now is not the time to reaffirm the male-dominated days as representative of where the field stands today.
Ms. Black gives no hints as to what debates and discussions have been prominent in the last couple of decades that should have been addressed by Naish, nor does she offer any examples of researchers who should have been recognized by him. Indeed, she notes:
Change is likely to come slowly. Diversity in paleontology is currently highest among volunteers, students, and early-career researchers, all of whom are less likely to be conducting research that is covered by the press, and less likely to write books themselves.
But she does offer a mea culpa when she wrote above, “I, too, have fallen far short in achieving equality and inclusivity in my writing”.
In summary, it appears to me that Ms. Black thinks that Darren Naish has written a nice book on dinosaurs that is marred because it is not sufficiently woke.
[JAC: I’ve added the excerpt below. I was appalled when I read the review, for it’s far more about the author failing to socially engineer paleontology than it is about paleontology itself. In other words, Black criticizes the book for failing to be the kind of book she wanted. But the kind of book she wanted would be far more about making paleontology more “inclusive” than about dinosaurs themselves. And Black doesn’t even name the advances or the BIPOC paleontologists that she wants to see represented, even after admitting that there are few of them. I suggest that Black herself write that book! The excerpt:]
Again and again, op-eds and sociological studies have pointed out that a lack of visible representation affects who goes into science and who is supported through its process, which, in turn, affects scientific theory and thought. It is time to start embodying the change we wish to see. Ensuring that popular accounts of paleontology reflect the field’s 21st-century practitioners would be a strong step toward this goal.
But “embodying the change we wish to see,” as Black has done, is not the same as imbuing every aspect of the world with a single change you wish to see.
The second item in this issue is a letter [above] that notes in the first sentence, “Inclusive language around sex diversity has never been more important”. Do the authors mean “gender diversity”? Apparently not, as they write:
It is important to recognize the context-dependent and multidimensional nature of sex. Rather than privilege any characteristic as the sole determinant of sex, “male” and “female” should be treated as context-dependent categories with flexible associations to multiple variables (such as, but not limited to, genitalia, gametes, or karyotype). The usage of “male” and “female” should be explicitly defined in any given study. Failing to do so promotes harmful language (such as “male chromosomes” rather than “Y chromosomes”) that attributes an essential “maleness” or “femaleness” to traits, obscuring the true biological mechanisms at work (e.g., the Tdf gene leads to testicular development, not to “being male”). No one trait determines whether a person is male or female, and no person’s sex can be meaningfully prescribed by any single variable.
I am not a biologist. I thought sex was very much bimodal with a very small percentage of indeterminant cases. I guess I need a little help in understanding this issue. [JAC: Smith Powell is actually correct in his criticism. Sex is for all intents and purposes binary and bimodal, for it depends on whether the individual is capable, or would be capable, of producing eggs or sperm. There is only a tiny, tiny minority of people who, at birth, elude this dichotomy.]
I’m further confused as the authors continue:
Awareness of the distinction between sex and gender is another vital element to inclusive, quality research. Conflating the two harms and invalidates gender minorities by implying that these distinct attributes are inextricably linked.
[JAC: It is the authors who are conflating sex and gender here. There is an accepted biological meaning of “male and female” in organisms that have two sexes. Yet in the first paragraph they mistake sex for “gender” when they say that sex is “context-dependent and multidimensional.” It is not.]
In conclusion, the authors write:
As scientists, we must push back against the misappropriation of biological terms by promoting precise language that focuses on the variables themselves (e.g., “menstruating people”) and acknowledging that people express these variables in ways that may not conform with a binary system of sex or gender. This both creates a more inclusive environment for gender-diverse scientists and reinforces that sex is a context-dependent summary of a multidimensional variable space.
“Menstruating people”? Isn’t that an example of conflating sex and gender? I think I understand some of the words individually, but when they are put together as these authors did, I see a word salad with some words apparently not meaning what I thought.
JAC: Apparently it’s not sufficient to recognize that “gender”—the sex role or aspects of sex roles that people assume or behave according to—is indeed a spectrum. No, they want to distort biology itself by claiming that sex itself is equally continuous and a “spectrum.” This is a Lysenko-ist tactic to try to make nature conform to an ideology.
But I swear, I spent my whole career sorting fruit flies—thousands a day—and maybe once every six months I’d find one “gynandromorph”: a fly that was part male and part female (this happens rarely when an X chromosome gets lost during female development). These XO individuals, which must constitute less than 0.00001% of flies, are not a third “sex,” but a developmental accident. And they are invariably sterile. For all the other flies, when I dissected one that looked like a male, it had testes and sperm. When I dissected one that looked like a female, it invariably had ovaries and nascent eggs.
Humans are no different.