If you want a combination of an author and a venue guaranteed to produce ideologically-motivated nonsense, it’s Agustin Fuentes writing at Scientific American. The combination of a badly misguided author, distorting biology for political reasons, with a magazine devoted to promulgating “authoritarian progressive” ideology disguised as science, gives me the same feeling I’d have if my mother called me to dinner and announced that we’d be having liver and Brussels sprouts.
The article at hand, a Scientific American op-ed that you can access by clicking the screenshot below, further erodes the reputation of this once-absorbing journal, which under editor Laura Helmuth has taken the route of becoming explicitly political, and political in a woke way. To many the journal has become almost worthless. Fuentes’s article doesn’t help, and we’ve seen the Princeton anthropologist before arguing about the racism of Charles Darwin.
I’m not going to argue again why sex in humans (and all animals, as well as most vascular plants) is binary. This is the “definition” (or “conception”, if you will) of sex: males have the reproductive apparatus to produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), while females have the reproductive apparatus to produce large, immobile gametes (eggs). There are no other sexes. If you want a justification and explanation of this, and why human hermaphrodites (vanishingly rare, and almost invariably sterile) or individuals with “disorders of sex development”(DSDs) are not members of distinct sexes, there are many sources. Emma Hilton, Colin Wright, and Carole Hooven have written a lot about this, and you can read their stuff here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, and here (last link also critiques earlier but similar arguments by Fuentes). Finally, I’ve reprised some of these arguments that in this assortment of my posts.
The gametic definition of sex isn’t just confected to create a socially constructed dichotomy out of a continuum. Sex, conceptualized in the way I’ve described, IS a binary. And from this binary, ultimately based on parental investment, flow all manner of biological phenomena, often based on sexual selection: differences between males and females in behavior, in ornamentation, on competitiveness, in parental care, in secondary sex characteristics, and so on. True, the sexes in plants and animals have different cues for their development—chromosomes and genes in humans, haploidy vs. diploidy (based on a gene) in bees, temperature in some reptiles, social environment in some fish, and so on. Yet all these diverse pathways wind up at just two destinations: male and female. There’s an evolutionary reason why there are two sexes, but it’s messy and I won’t go into it here.
The sex binary is simply a biological fact, obeyed in all animals and most vascular plants, though some microbes have more than two sexes: “mating types,” as they’re called. But again, in humans and other animals, we have to realize that sex is not a spectrum. People who make the “spectrum” claim are doing so on ideological grounds, and some people who argue, correctly, that sex is binary in animals have been demonized because of this. Ideologues like Fuentes say that insistence on a sex binary is a racist, transphobic act meant to “erase” people, and faculty like Hooven and Christy Hammer have suffered professionally because of this. Yes, the truth can hurt your career, which shouldn’t come as news to scientists. But the sex binary is hardly a truth that should rile up the masses.
In an article full of elementary misstatements and mistakes, Fuentes makes two big mistakes:
a. Fuentes claims that those of us who argue for a sex binary are motivated to do so by a desire to erase trans people, nonbinary people, and those whose genders don’t conform to “male” or “female”. He’s wrong. While perhaps some people (mostly right wingers, I suspect) do have an ideological motivation, biologists like me who emphasize the sex binary do so because it’s both true and is valuable in understanding a lot about biology. In fact, as we’ll see from some of his quotes, it is Fuentes himself whose arguments are based on ideology. He’s hoist with his own petard.
b. Fuentes claims that those of us who regard biological sex as a binary also think that everything about sex, including gender presentation, behavior, physical characteristics, parental care, “homemaking”, and so on, are also binary. That’s a bogus argument and is certainly not true of us biologists who recognize and appreciate the diversity of nature.
Both of these points are made in a tweet by Carole Hooven (I’ve expanded her tweet so you can see the whole thing; the original is here):
On to the paper. First, Fuentes argues that those who accept the sex binary are doing so out of base motives: to denigrate people and deny them their dignity and their rights:
There are those, politicians, pundits and even a few scientists, who maintain that whether our bodies make ova or sperm are all we need to know about sex. They assert that men and women are defined by their production of these gamete cells, making them a distinct biological binary pair, and that our legal rights and social possibilities should flow from this divide. Men are men. Women are women. Simple.
Last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings played host to this contention when Republican Congressional representatives upset at the nominee’s refusal to define “woman” took it on themselves to define the term; they came up with “the weaker sex,” “a mother,” and “no tallywhacker.” That human sex rests on a biological binary of making either sperm or ova underlies all these claims.
This is bad science. The production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals, nor is it the definition of a woman or a man.
By the way, he’s wrong about the last sentence: while we all admit that “the production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals” (AND NONE OF US EVER SAID IT DID!), the dichotomy of gamete types is indeed the definition of “male” and “female” (men and women are simply adult versions of the sexes).
Below he manages to tar sex-binary empiricists with a whole panoply of brushes:
So when someone states that “An organism’s sex is defined by the type of gamete (sperm or ova) it has the function of producing” and argues that legal and social policy should be “rooted in properties of bodies,” they are not really talking about gametes and sex biology. They are arguing for a specific political, and discriminatory, definition of what is “natural” and “right” for humans based on a false representation of biology. Over the past few centuries this process of misrepresentation of biology was, and still is, used to deny women rights and to justify legal and societal misogyny and inequity, to justify slavery, racialization, racism and to enforce multiple forms of discrimination and bias. Today dishonest ascriptions of what biology is are being deployed to restrict women’s bodily autonomy, target LGBTQIA+ individuals broadly and, most recently, attack the rights of transexual and transgender people.
Given what we know about biology across animals and in humans, efforts to represent human sex as binary based solely on what gametes one produces are not about biology but are about trying to restrict who counts as a full human in society.
No, I’m not arguing for that, and I doubt you’d find most biologists touting the sex binary as a way to deny women and transsexual/transgender people rights, much less existence. And for crying out loud, Fuentes even drags in slavery and racism! The fact that he begins and ends his piece with these slurs show, more than anything, that it is Fuentes who is motivated by ideology.
I won’t try to psychologize him in particular, but those who make these kinds of stupid arguments usually do so because they want nature to conform to their own ideological views (i.e., gender is a spectrum, so sex must be too). But sex can’t be forced into the Procrustean bed of being “a spectrum”. If you want to see why, read this very bad paper in bioRΧiv taking that viewpoint, and then read the total scientific demolition of that paper by Colin Wright. That paper, by the way, is cited by Fuentes as an example of a spectrum of sex biology. It has not, so far as I can see, been accepted for publication, nor does Fuentes mention Wright’s critique of the paper he cites.
On to Fuentes’s false claim that those who promote a binary of sex also promote a binary of all sex-related traits, including morphology and behavior—or at least fail to recognize their variation. Of course, as Carole says above, all of us recognize the diversity of sex-related traits, so to imply that we don’t know about them is simply wrong. It’s really defamation, an attack on Fuentes’s critics that he knows is factually wrong. But first, he actually affirms the sex binary while trying to efface it:
The animal kingdom does not limit itself to only one biological binary regarding how a species makes gametes. Scientifically speaking, animals with the capacity to produce ova are generally called “female” and sperm producers “male.” While most animal species fall into the “two types of gametes produced by two versions of the reproductive tract” model, many don’t. Some worms produce both. Some fish start producing one kind and then switch to the other, and some switch back and forth throughout their lives. There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together. Among our fellow mammals, which are less freewheeling because of the twin constraints of lactation and live birth, there are varied connections between gametes and body fat, body size, muscles, metabolism, brain function and much more.
Fuentes apparently doesn’t realize that sex-switching fish still come in two sexes, that hermaphrodites do not violate the sex binary, and that parthenogenetic lizards ARE FEMALE. Here’s what Wright says in response to the bioRΧiv paper, about hermaphrodites.
The authors then go on to present supposed challenges to the “common assumption” of two sexes. The first challenge they posit is the existence of hermaphroditic species, which they believe violates the binary sex model because individuals produce both sperm and ova and “do not have separate sexes.”
However, the binary classification of gametic sex breaks down when we consider the broader diversity of gametic phenotypes. For instance, hermaphroditic species possess both gamete types required for reproduction, and do not have separate sexes (Jarne and Auld 2006).
The sex binary, however, does not require that the two sexes exist in separate bodies. The authors are simply conflating the sex binary with a phenomenon called gonochorism or dioecy, which is “the condition of individual organisms within a species existing as one of two possible sexes, specifically male or female.” The existence of hermaphroditic and gonochoric species just represent different ways a species can utilize male and female reproductive strategies. Regardless of whether an organism is only male, only female, or both male and female, there are still only two fundamental functions—the production of sperm and/or ova.
Fish like Nemo that switch sexes switch SEXES, changing from male to female when the alpha female of a group dies. They are first male, producing sperm, and then female, producing eggs. They do not violate the sex binary, which remains. And look at the paper linked to Fuentes’s statement, “There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together.” Here’s the paper from Scientific American:
They’re FEMALES, for crying out loud! How does that do away with the sex binary? These are female lizards who produce eggs that are diploid and don’t need fertilization to develop. You can’t even talk about parthenogenesis, sex-switching in fish, or hermaphroditism without referring to the sex binary.
Then Fuentes, as in the last sentence in his quote above, goes on to limn the wonderful diversity of sex-related traits:
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that differences in sex biology do not matter. They do. Nor am I asserting that reproductive physiology is not an important aspect of all animal lives. For example, humans are mammals, and the specifics of gestation and lactation require bodily differences that shape human physiologies, societies and experiences. But even so, most bodily systems overlap extensively across large (ova) and small (sperm) gamete producers, and the patterns of physiology and behavior in relation to birth and care of offspring are not universal across species. For example, in many mammal species, ova producers do most of the infant care. But in some species, sperm producers do, and in a very few species they even lactate. In others, there is substantial investment by both sexes.
The bottom line is that while animal gametes can be described as binary (of two distinct kinds), the physiological systems, behaviors and individuals that produce them are not. This reality of sex biology is well summarized by a group of biologists who recently wrote: “Reliance on strict binary categories of sex fails to accurately capture the diverse and nuanced nature of sex.”
We know that humans exhibit a range of biological and behavioral patterns related to sex biology that overlap and diverge. Producing ova or sperm does not tell us everything (or even most things) biologically or socially, about an individual’s childcare capacity, homemaking tendencies, sexual attractions, interest in literature, engineering and math capabilities or tendencies towards gossip, violence, compassion, sense of identity, or love of, and competence for, sports. Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. Plentiful data and analyses support the assertions that sex is very complex in humans and that binary and simplistic explanations for human sex biology are either wholly incorrect or substantially incomplete.
For humans, sex is dynamic, biological, cultural and enmeshed in feedback cycles with our environments, ecologies and multiple physiological and social processes.
First, the “group of biologists” is the group who wrote the unpublished bioRΧiv paper. Second, Fuentes makes a number of assertions that are true (but trivial): there is variation in behavior, morphology, and physiology both between and within sexes. Some people have messy houses, others neat ones. But this is irrelevant to the claim that sex is binary.
Further, he’s preaching to the choir: biologists and, generally, any layperson with eyes to see knows these things. Who has ever said that the sex binary predicts binary behaviors, sexual attraction, abilities, and so on? The sentence, “Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives.“ prompts only a “DUH!” It’s as if we didn’t know that!
Likewise, the view that “sex is very complex in humans” is really a non sequitur: it’s true, but the sex binary itself is not complex: there are just males designed to make sperm and females designed to make eggs. (Of course, the developmental basis of this binary is complex, but it’s still a binary.) Again, Fuentes, who appears to have a pedantic streak, is lecturing us about things we already know. But we do not accept that sex is a spectrum, and we accept the binary nature of sex not because we’re determined to commit genocide on gays, transsexuals, and people of non-standard gender. We accept the binary because it’s true.
As for Scientific American, well, you know that I think it’s become a repository for ideology and hack pieces. Yes, there are still good articles in it, but it’s way too full of stuff like this, especially in the op-ed section. But I’ve called out the magazine and its editor many times before. This is just one more reason to read something else. I would have offered to write a post like this and submit it to the magazine as an op-ed in rebuttal to Fuentes, but editor Laura Helmuth has made it clear to me that she doesn’t want me writing antiwoke stuff in her journal, even though I think this post is merely a biological corrective and not “antiwoke”.
Below are a few relevant tweets. First, Fuentes’s announcement of his article. Read the comments after the tweet; it’s clear that he hasn’t fooled many people. In the tweet thread, he characterizes criticism of his views as people “yelling at him” (he seems to have a thin skin). But I do NOT look forward to a 50,000-word version. I’d rather eat Brussels sprouts.
Greetings twitterverse! my latest for SciAm in response to the ongoing “sex is not binary” vs. the call to define human women and men via their gametes. This is the ~900 word version, stay tuned for the 50,000 word version in 2024.https://t.co/asAKG8T3a4
— Agustin Fuentes (@Anthrofuentes) May 1, 2023
The two latest responses to Fuentes’s tweet
Exactly. He’s tilting at windmills of his own making.
— Colin Wight (@colwight) May 1, 2023
And a response from “El Marqués de Vichón” after Emma retweeted my own post (below as well):
Some invertebrates are hermaphrodites and some lizards reproduce by parthenogenesis. In addition, castrated mice aren't very good dads.
Therefore sex in humans isn't binary.
If you don't believe this, you're in favour of slavery, racism and transphobia.
Is that the gist?
— 🍷 El Marqués de Vichón 🍷 (@Isaac_de_Tormes) May 2, 2023
Yes, that’s the gist. The good Marqués has it down.
From Colin Wright:
This new piece in @sciam by @Anthrofuentes arguing that "Human Sex Is Not Binary" is so poorly argued I'm embarrassed on his behalf. I don't even know if it even qualifies as "pseudoscience" because it's just so supremely confused. Response incoming.https://t.co/3YZ9aWAhAQ
— Colin Wright (@SwipeWright) May 1, 2023
I hope you're all excited to read his 50,000 word argument built on a false premise attempting to debunk a position that nobody actually holds. pic.twitter.com/Cat1boQo3f
— Colin Wright (@SwipeWright) May 1, 2023
Finally, Emma Hilton’s long response on Twitter:
— Thread Reader Unroll Helper (@UnrollHelper) May 2, 2023
Emma’s piece, which is also funny, comes in the form of a number of statements by Fuentes, each followed by her translation and then her correction. Emma’s ending: