Yet another failed and ideologically-driven attempt to show that there is no sex binary in humans

May 13, 2022 • 10:30 am

The first two responses I had to the title of this article by Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes in Sapiens (an anthropology magazine) were, “No, biological science does not reject the sex binary, but I guess you do”; and “we don’t determine what’s true or false based on what’s good for humanity.” Click to read:

You may remember Agustín Fuentes from a previous dustup in which he wrote an article in Science accusing Darwin (who was an abolitionist) of racism, and then got a lot of responses noting that while Darwin did make statements that would be considered racist, he was remarkably liberal for a man of his position in his time. As I wrote in part of my response:

But, despite Fuentes’ admission of Darwin’s strong abolitionism, he seems to forget that Darwin was a man of his time, not of our time. Is it fair to judge Darwin against an enlightened modern liberal? I don’t think so: the proper judgment is to see whether Darwin was palpably morally worse than most other Victorian Englishmen.  And I don’t think he was. I’ll explain a bit more below, but I have a very hard time thinking of someone of Darwin’s stature in Europe who was much better than he on the issue of women, or, for that matter, slavery. (Read Marx and Engels on the Irish if you want real bigotry.) Yes, Darwin saw some South Americans as “savages”, but he also perceived their common humanity with us, and his theory affirmed our common ancestry. And yes, he saw women as the inferior sex; but how many Victorian men were far more enlightened than he?

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin. After all, we eat meat, and in the future we may learn more about the suffering of animals in ways that would brand us moderns as horrible barbarians. The judgment of celebrating Darwin should rest on a). “is he being celebrated for the good things he did?” (answer: yes), and b). “did the good he did in his life outweigh the bad?” (answer: also yes).

I’d wager that Fuentes himself, if he were a white upper-class man in Darwin’s time, would have been more racist than Darwin, though of course that’s mere speculation. At any rate, other people responded critically to Fuentes’ Darwin-dissing, and you can see a selection of critiques at this link.

But Fuentes has moved on to going after other aspects of biology, and in the article above he commits what I see as the cardinal sin of woke scientists who should know better: denying that, in humans at least, sex is a binary. (It also happens to be a binary in most other animals.)  The biological distinction between the sexes, which I’ve written about too many times to count, is this: members of the male sex make small, mobile gametes—sperm.  Members of the female sex make large, immobile gametes—eggs.

This has nothing to do with genitalia or other morphological characteristics. And using that (accepted) definition creates an effective binary in humans: if you can make sperm you’re male, if you can make eggs you’re female. Yes, there are some who are sterile, or who lack testes or ovaries, but those are not members of some “intermediate” sex: they are developmental anomalies, and they’re very rare. (Yes, their existence means that there are a few small blips on a chart of “frequency of sexes” with males at one end and females at the other, but for all practical purposes the plot is a bimodal one, i.e., showing a binary.) And yes, some people are postreproductive and have “outgrown” their ability to produce gametes. But there is no “sex” that doesn’t produce eggs or sperm. There are no individuals that produce intermediate forms of gametes who can be the basis of a third reproductive class of humans.

But for reasons that are purely political, people like Fuentes reject this binary, banging on about hermaphrodites, penises and labia that are not “normal”, hormone levels, fish that change sex, and so on, but let’s face it: in nearly all animals, biological sex, which is the way that “biological science” defines sex.

I really can’t bear to reproduce all Fuentes’s circumlocations and diversionary prose, but here’s a sample that ignores the sperm-egg dichotomy:

Of course, there are clear bodily differences in capacities to give birth and lactate, and ranges of patterns in the development and distribution of body size, strength, and myriad other processes. But such patterns are mostly overlapping, and only a few are distributed in clear or functional dichotomies. Numerous studies have found that the differences between adult men and women are overhyped and largely influenced by the dynamics of biology and culture. Humans are naturenurtural—a fusion of nature and nurture.

And forgive me if I give the slightly censored version of a biology friend’s reaction to that paragraph:

Hahahahahaha
So like EGGS AND SPERM you dumb [redacted].
So why does Fuentes avoid the biological definition (and the resultant binary)? For political reasons, of course. His motivations are good—to reduce bias and bigotry—but you don’t do that by denying the truth.  That both demeans science and is not a good way to dispel bias.

 

Two quotes from Fuentes’s article:

Today a chorus of scientific-sounding claims about “blue and pink” brains, testosterone, and male primate aggression are offered up as natural explanations for masculine and feminine behavior, along with gaps in pay, jobs, political and economic leadership, and sexuality. In the political and legal realms, the belief that biology creates two types of humans is invoked in a range of attempts to mandate and enforce how humans should behave.

These assertions and beliefs are wrong. In addition, the commitment to a simple binary view creates a fictitious template for a “battle of the sexes” that manifests in miseducation about basic biology, the denigration of women’s rights, the justifications of incel and “men’s rights” violence, and the creation of anti-transgender laws.

Science points to a more accurate and hopeful way to understand the biology of sex. By recognizing the true diversity of the human experience, humanity can embrace an expansive and multifaceted way of envisioning and experiencing human nature. This evidence-based outlook is not only far more interesting than the simplistic and incorrect “tallywhacker versus no tallywhacker” perspective, but also more conducive to respect and flourishing.

. . . and his not-even-wrong denial of biological sex:

The data-driven bottom line is that “man/woman” and “masculine/feminine” are neither biological terms nor rooted exclusively in biology. The lack of an explicit binary is especially evident in humans given the complex neurobiologieslife histories, and morphological dynamics in our species. There are many successful, biologically diverse ways to be human, and millions of people embody this diversity. Growing up human means growing up in a world of varying gender expectations, body types, reproductive options, family structures, and sexual orientations.

So, instead of listening to people who are misogynistic, sexist, or homo/transphobic; incels; or politicians who base their ideologies on a biological sex binary and myths about its evolution, we can and should be open to a serious understanding of biology and its better options for human flourishing. The simple male/female binary does not effectively express the normal range of being human. Understanding this and incorporating it into our education, lives, and laws offers better possibilities, greater equity, and more joy for human society.

I must say that I find this kind of “twisting the facts” to be particularly pernicious, especially from those who we expect would know something about biology:

There is an explicit gamete-based binary, which is well defined and, yes, accepted by “biological science”. Fuentes doesn’t like it because he thinks that it creates misogyny, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry. It doesn’t. It’s just a definition that accurately mirrors the situation in Homo sapiens—and most animals. But the truth is the truth, whether or not people like Fuentes likes it. It is bigotry, not science, that creates transphobia and misogyny.

Although Feynman’s famous statement below referred to the Challenger disaster, the last bit might be applied to those who try to deny biological reality in the service of ideology.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

And for those who like audiovisual, here’s a tweet (suggested by a reader in the comments below):

UPDATE: Reader Bill sent me a comment with a figure he made, but couldn’t embed the figure, so I’m putting both up here as an addendum:

I cannot believe that people continue to claim, Fuentes does, that since characteristics of two groups overlap when examined singularly this necessarily means that the two groups overlap. One has to consider the covariation of the characters. Consider the graph below. The groups are distinct, one might say binary, yet there is considerable overlap in the two characters when considered singularly (project each onto their respective axes).

Washington Post ditches “pregnant women” for “pregnant people”

April 13, 2022 • 12:00 pm

As I’ve always said, I don’t mind using whatever pronouns someone wants to be known by, but the buck stops for me when transgender women are considered as full biological women—and by that I mean women who produce (or have the potential to produce) large and immobile gametes. It’s not the word “woman” I object to; it’s the implicit conflation of biological women with transsexual women in every possible way: the equation of biological women with biological males who consider their gender to be female and may or may not take action to change their bodies. (I don’t care if they “transition” physically or not; I’ll be glad to use their pronouns.)

In this case, however, the gender transition is reversed: the Post uses “people” instead of “women” because they are catering to the other class of transsexuals: biological women who transition to the male gender—”transmen”. For this group the saying is “transmen are men.” Since transmen can get pregnant if they retain their female organs, but are prohibited from being called  “women”, then they are lumped together with biological women as simply “pregnant people”.

Ergo, the Washington Post has caved to this tendency by issuing the following headline (mentioned in the latest Substack column on Bari Weiss’s site); click to read:

In her piece about feminism at Weiss’s site, Zoe Strimpel said this:

“Pregnant people at much higher risk of breakthrough Covid,” The Washington Post recently declared. This was in keeping with the newspaper’s official new language policy: “If we say pregnant women, we exclude those who are transgender and nonbinary.”

That is explicitly obeisance of the mantra “trans men are men”, which is correct in terms of moral or legal treatment, but isn’t biologically true. In fact, the word “woman” appears only once in the article:

The researchers measured the risk by analyzing the records of pairs of fully vaccinated patients from the same part of the country. In each pair, one patient had the condition that was being measured, and the other did not. The patients were not matched by age, and the pregnant people could have been matched in the analysis with a man or a woman.

Why are they even admitting that there’s a dichotomy between men and women? (Indeed, there must be, for the very concept of “transsexual women” recognizes that there are classes of “men” and “women”.)  But of course there is a dichotomy—biologically. For all practical purposes, biological sex is a binary. The words “pregnant people“, however, appear six times. They can’t say “women” because transsexual men can sometimes get pregnant, and trans activists consider that this is the case of a man getting pregnant.

As I said, I’m happy to recognize someone’s self-assignment of gender, but I’m not willing to say that a transsexual male is a “man” in the biological sense—and getting pregnant is something that only biological women can do.  If this continues, so that language is tweaked to conform to the wishes of “progressive” activists, will we eventually lose the words “man” and “woman” altogether? Why not, if the Post‘s policy be sensible? It’s no wonder that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was reluctant to answer the question “What is a woman?” (She punted, but I think she should have answered as I would have, drawing a distinction between women as a biological class and women as a gender group).

I was sent the Post link by a woman reader who had enough of the paper when she read this headline and of the Post’s new policy. As she wrote me:

I knew my subscription to the Post could only last so long once I was forced to cancel the New York Times, and this is it. I told them if women don’t exist, neither do I–and if I don’t exist, I can’t possibly subscribe to The Washington Post.
LOL! It’s a good reason.

Michael Shermer argues that transitioning to the female gender after puberty is equivalent in sports to “doping”

March 20, 2022 • 11:15 am

Is his latest Substack column, skeptic and science writer Michael Shermer takes up the hot-button issue of  transwomen competing in athletics against biological women—a topic engendered by the latest NCAA victory (there could be two more) of transwoman Lia Thomas. Thomas turned in respectable but not outstanding performances as a biological man competing on men’s teams, but since transitioning to the female gender (after puberty) and joining the Penn women’s swimming team, Thomas has racked up victory after victory.

I’ve discussed this at length, emphasizing the unfairness to biological women of competing against biological men who changed gender after puberty. We now know that the changes in physiology, musculature, and strength of transwomen, even after several years of hormone-restriction therapy, don’t make them equivalent to biological women. They remain superior.

Lia Thomas may be only the first big example, and people say “why beef?—this is just a one-off”, but that’s hard to believe given the number of men transitioning to women (far more than the other way around). This problem will recur, with transwomen having an undeniable athletic advantage over cis-women, and it’s best to address the issue now. Shermer does in the article below, and pulls no punches, as you can see by his title.

Shermer was, by the way, a competitive “ultra-biker” for many years, and knows something about athletics and doping. As the relevant bit of his Wikipedia bio reports:

Shermer has written on the subject of pervasive doping in competitive cycling and a game theoretic view of the dynamics driving the problem in several sports. He covered r-EPO doping and described it as widespread and well known within the sport, which was later shown to be instrumental in the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong in 2010

Click the screenshot below to read; it’s free (but subscribe if you read often). The title alone is guaranteed to bring down the wrath of the internet on Shermer, but the analogy isn’t that far fetched:

First, a photo below, which is captioned:

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 17: Transgender woman Lia Thomas (L) of the University of Pennsylvania stands on the podium after winning the 500-yard freestyle as other medalists (L-R) Emma Weyant, Erica Sullivan and Brooke Forde pose for a photo at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championship on March 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

This is one picture that says a thousand words. Why should I write more?

What do you suppose those three runners-up are saying with this pose? Clearly that Thomas’s victory was fundamentally unfair: all biological women are relegated to positions well below Thomas’s #1 slot. Note that they are not on the Penn team, and thus have no reason to support Thomas as a teammate.

Some quotes from Shermer’s piece.

According to Swimming World Magazine, since she transitioned from male to female, and subsequently transitioned from the men’s division to the women’s division in swim meets, Thomas has been “crushing the school records” and “is even rising in the all-time rankings: her 200 free performance makes her the 17th-fastest performer in history, and she is less than three seconds off Missy Franklin’s American record. In the 500 free, she ranks 21st all time.” She’s #1 now among current collegiate swimmers.

This isn’t fair and it has to stop. Athletes who are busted for doping are punished, banned, and in some cases disgraced for life. Trans dopers deserve the same treatment. Not because they’re trans but because they’re dopers.

This is not a trans rights issue. Trans rights are human rights and as such trans people should also be protected from discrimination, and for the most part already are. But blocking a biological male from entering a biological female division in a sports competition isn’t discrimination. It is enforcing Title IX legal protections of discrimination against women, and if not enforced it becomes an assault on the hard-won rights of women in the name of progressive woke ideology masquerading as social justice, equity, and inclusion, which in practice is actually injustice, inequity, and exclusionary. As I concluded my prior analysis of this issue:

Given the centuries-long history of women fighting to be treated equally and to enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, including and especially the hard-won Title IX laws that protect women’s sports, it seems clear to me that we should and must continue to support the rights of biological women unless and until scientific research and athletic performance evaluations make it crystal clear that the two bell curves perfectly overlap, and/or until there are enough transgender athletes to comprise their own athletic divisions.

No, it isn’t really a trans “rights” issue, for whence comes the “right” to compete against biological women over which, as a man who’s gone through puberty, you already have a demonstrated athletic advantage? Saying “trans women are women” does not settle this issue, because they are not equivalent to biological women in this area. And we have no idea how to “level the playing field.”

This is one of those issues where “progressives” are forced to embrace a position that is palpable nonsense, because they must adhere to the “trans women are women” mantra in every sense. If they don’t, they they violate the dictates of trans activism. In this kind of ideology, there is no room for heterodoxy.

But how do you balance the empathy we have for someone who feels they were born as the wrong sex against the unfairness that that such a person can perpetrate on many other people (at least three in the picture above)? The only sensible solution is to either create a third category or have an “open” category in which all trans athletes compete against biological men.

As I’ve said before, this clash of “progressive values” (respect for trans people versus women’s equality à la Title IX) resemble a similar clash: respect for women’s moral and legal equality versus “respect” for the misogyny of Muslim societies, which regularly treat women as second-class or even third-class citizens (much less denigrating LBGTQ people). Women are declared minorities, but so are Muslims, who are seen as “people of color.” And as MacPherson’s Dictum says, “whenever women’s rights clash with other dicta from the Progressive Left, the women will lose.”

And so Shermer concludes that transwomen under no circumstances should a post-pubescent transfemale compete against biological women:

There is a certain game theoretic logic behind the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in sports (for a full explanation see my Scientific American analysis on “The Doping Dilemma”). What I am arguing here is that being a post-pubescent male—even with the NCAA required one-year of hormone treatment—in a female sports division is a form of doping. Puberty is a Performance Enhancing Drug. The difference here is that when a post-pubescent MTF trans enters the women’s division in a sport, none of the other competitors has that same advantage of puberty as a PED. And short of allowing women to start doping in order to compete with biological men, the playing field is not—and never will be—level.

I understand that the costs of speaking out against this blatant unfairness are high in a culture itching to cancel anyone who isn’t properly woke, and that’s it’s easy for me—a former professional athlete who knows exactly how it must feel to confront such injustice at an un-level playing field—to propose a unified front among athletes, coaches, and especially sports’ governing body administrators to boycott any competition that allows trans doping, but this is precisely what must be done to put an end to this charade. Just refuse to compete and, if it comes to it, watch Lia Thomas swim in the pool alone and collect her unearned trophy at the end and stand alone on the podium as the only competitor in a rigged game.

In the end, he’s right, for the fundamental unfairness is overwhelming. Of course we should treat trans people of any gender with respect, use,the pronouns they prefer, and avoid discriminate against them morally or legally. But there are a few caveats, and sports is one of them. It’s time for us to stop being cowed by fear of being deemed a “transphobe”, and stand up for the three women on the right in the picture above—and all the women athletes they represent.

It is not transphobic to call for this kind of fairness. Although Shermer (and I) will get opprobrium for this, that comes with the territory. The unfairness won’t stop until people stop being cowards about the word “transphobe” and stop praising Lia Thomas’s victories as a sign of her courage. While her transition was courageous, her victories are the sign not of courage but of male puberty.

(Shermer has an earlier column on the same issue, concentrating on the ethical issues.)

 

h/t: Steve

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

 

 

Sports Illustrated highlights Lia Thomas and the swimming controversy

March 6, 2022 • 12:00 pm

We all know now about Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer born a biological male but who transitioned after puberty. After swimming for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for a time, she decided to take hormone blockers, and now swims on the women’s team.

While her performance on the men’s team was so-so, Thomas has become famous by cleaning up after joining the women’s team, breaking record after record and beating her opponents by substantial times. She may well break the records of famous women swimmers like Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.

It is clear why Thomas was so-so on the men’s team but a champion on the women’s. Biological males differ from biological females in many ways that make them faster swimmers and better athletes in nearly every sport. As I quoted here from another source:

The secondary sex characteristics acquired during puberty in preparation for reproduction lead to measurably different body morphs between males and females (“sexual dimorphism”) across many physical parameters. Broadly, when compared with females, males are taller and have longer bones with narrower hips and wider shoulders; have lower body fat and higher muscle mass differentially distributed across sites, with more resistant connective tissue; have larger hearts and lungs, and higher levels of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen within the blood.

These translate into performance advantages in nearly every sport, including swimming.

It’s also clear from recent research (see here, for instance), that many of these advantages are acquired at puberty, and even hormone-blocking after puberty (testosterone suppression) won’t eliminate either physical or performance advantages of males, even after three years of treatment. (The International Olympic Committee used to require only one year of hormone suppression.) While Thomas has had several years of hormone suppression, she still shows the physical advantages acquired as a male who experienced puberty, and there’s little doubt that these advantages are making her a champion.

To deny the above is to deny reality. Thomas’s new record of victory largely reflects the physical and phsiological advantages over women she gained at puberty. While she identifies as a woman (and should be treated as such in nearly every area save sport), she is winning with the advantages gained as a male. This should be uncontroversial to anybody who knows the facts.

Yet it is controversial, but for one reason only: transsexuals are regarded as oppressed people and oppression means valorization. “If Thomas identifies as a woman,” the argument goes, “then she should be treated as a woman in every way, including sport.” Those who argue against transwomen competing in women’s sports use ideological rather than scientific arguments, and the result is that people get upset over the palpable unfairness to cis-women athletes. Recognizing transwomen as equivalent to biological women in every respect will, in the end, destroy women’s sports.

This of course is a sore spot for Thomas herself, who identifies as a woman and wants to swim, and on the woman’s team. Her repeated victories have upset a lot of people, some for good reason. Yet Thomas is also a sympathetic figure in many ways, as outlined in her new profile in Sports Illustrated. (Click on screenshot to read.)

Overall this is generally a good article, and properly sympathetic to the opprobrium that Thomas has received as a person. It’s odious to direct hatred at someone who feels she is a woman in every way and wants to swim as one. The proper thing to do is hash out the biological facts (now fairly well known) and then cooly and rationally discuss what to do about them vis-à-vis men’s versus women’s sport. That is not what is happening because of mantra “trans women are women” pretty much shuts down all discussion.

But reading this article, one cannot help but feel for Thomas after seeing things like this:

Thomas has been threatened and called so many names online that she turned off some direct messaging on her Instagram. She avoids mentions of her name online, especially comment sections. She told her parents not to engage in the fight. She asked her friends to stand down. She won’t criticize teammates she knows are rooting against her. “I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she says. “I am here to swim.”

Every day this season felt like a challenge to her humanity. Part of her wanted people to know her journey to this moment, to know what it felt like to be in a body but not be of that body. She wanted people to know what it was like to finally live an authentic life and what it meant for her to finish a race, to look up at a timing board and see the name lia thomas next to the names of other women. What it meant to her to stand on a podium with other women and be counted as an equal.

There’s no doubting her sincerity and frustration at the arguments swirling around her. She says she’s a woman and wants to swim as one, which sounds simple. But of course it’s not. It is those physical advantages of being born a male and gone through puberty that have largely made her a champion—advantages that will accrue not just to her, but to nearly all transwomen who want to play on women’s teams. And it’s hard to discuss this issue in the abstract without mentioning her name. But she is an exemplar of a new phenomenon, not a freak.

Many people feel like this person:

“We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves,” one parent of a Penn swimmer says. “What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.”

I share these sentiments, not not quite as apocalyptically. But Thomasrejected these sentiments, in her one statement to which I object (emphasis is mine):

“It’s mean,” one Penn parent who identifies as a progressive but opposes Thomas’s eligibility says of the online and media bigotry directed at her. “Lia is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”

That argument is disingenuous to Thomas. There is no such thing as half-support: Either you back her fully as a woman or you don’t. “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she says. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

No, the argument is not disingenuous, and yes, there is such a thing as “partial support”. You can fully support Thomas’s desire to transition, to be regarded as a woman, to be treated with respect and accorded moral and legal equality, and yet not support the “right” for her to swim on women’s team.” The question is not one of “respect,” but of fairness to others. Thomas, of course, won’t address her physical advantages, as that would be playing into the hands of her opponents.

Those who oppose her swimming for Penn include a substantial number of her teammates, who of course will not go public on the issue:

The Quakers’ women’s roster has 37 swimmers. Those close to the team estimate that Thomas has six to eight adamant supporters, maybe half the team opposes her competing against other women and the rest have steered clear of the debate. An unsigned letter, which the university said represented “several” Penn swimmers and was released through the school in early February, said Thomas was “value[d] as a person, teammate and friend” and took aim at the stories circulating about her. “The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values and opinions of the entire Penn team.”

Two days later, 16 Penn teammates sent an unsigned letter to Ivy League officials, requesting that Thomas be held out of the conference championship meet. The letter was organized by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist who heads Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy group that focuses on Title IX issues. “If [Thomas] were to be eligible to compete,” the letter read, “she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.” The Ivy League later issued an unequivocal statement that Thomas would be allowed to swim.

What is to be done in this case? The NCAA, which regulates college sports, has proposed a solution that, in view of the difficulties of implementing it, seems unworkable:

Four days before the video call, the NCAA essentially punted on the issue of transgender athlete eligibility. Previously, the organization had a uniform access policy based on a minimum one-year hormone therapy requirement. But in January the NCAA pushed eligibility guidelines to each sport’s national governing body. That meant USA Swimming would decide on Thomas’s ability to swim in the NCAA championships.

USA Swimming released new guidelines Feb. 1, laying out a series of requirements and establishing a three-person medical panel to determine whether transgender women have “a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” The new guidelines set a ceiling testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter—half the threshold used by previous Olympic rules—that transgender athletes would need to register, continuously, for 36 months before applying to swim as a woman.

It seems as if there are two parts here: the hormone requirement and “whether the athlete has a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”. The hormone requirement will not answer the question of competitive advantage, and it’s hard to see how, at this point, any research will. Even the Olympics has, for the moment, rescinded its rule on transgender athletes and has no rule in place at all. How on earth can you assess a transsexual athlete like Thomas and decide whether she has a “competitive advantage over cisgender females”?

Well, the question can be answered partly by one’s performance swimming as a man against men and swimming as a transgender woman against women. And the answer is, “Yes, she has a competitive advantage.” So whatever her hormone levels, the two-part rule applied in toto suggests she should not be swimming on a women’s team.  But many trans athletes lack such a cisgender performance record to serve as a “control”, and there the “performance advantage” criterion is useless.

In view of our inability to judge whether a transgender woman without this control has a competitive athletic advantage over cisgender women, I and others have proposed solutions: having two leagues, “cis-women” and “other”; or three leagues “biological men,” “biological women”, and “other”. Alternatively just use the same two categories of “men” and “women,” but stipulate that all transgender people must compete on men’s teams. There are problems of stigmatization here, of course, and no solution is perfect, but the least perfect solution is to ignore what we know about science and impose dubious tests on “hormone titer” (known, in fact, not to work) or “competitive advantage” (impossible to judge in a transgender athlete.) Short of having the kind of “control” that Thomas’s performance as a man competing against men versus as a transwoman competing against women, I see no way forward.

The Sports Illustrated article, as I said, is good. I was expecting a “woke”piece denigrating those who object to Thomas’s swimming on the women’s team, but that is not the piece that Sanchez wrote. His is much better than I expected. Yet there remain two statements by the author that make me think that his piece is indeed taking the view that athletes like Thomas should compete on women’s teams.

The first is this (my bolding).

This had been a season unlike any in her 22 years, and unlike any in the history of her sport. The shy senior economics major from Austin became one of the most dominant college athletes in the country and, as a result, the center of a national debate—a living, breathing, real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.

No, that is not what the debate, at least for people like me, is about, for it implies that denying Thomas’s right to swim goes along with being “transphobic.” It is a “Rorschach test” on only one issue: what criteria should we use to determine who plays on men’s versus women’s teams? Science or gender identity? It is not a Rorschach test about whether or not one accepts the identity and value of transsexual people—who do challenge conventions and should be accepted just as gay people have been accepted.

This statement, though, angers me more:

On Dec. 5, two days after the Ohio meet, some Penn swim parents sent a letter to the NCAA asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions. The arguments would soon become familiar to Thomas. Her puberty gave her an advantage over other female competitors. Science allegedly showed trans women had larger hands and feet, bigger hearts and greater bone density and lung capacity.

Allegedly“?  There is no “allegedly” here. The science is of course far from complete, but it does show without a doubt that trans women who transition after puberty retain  some of the physical and physiological features that give men an athletic edge. Does author Robert Sanchez know those data? If so, why does he cast doubt on them? That is disingenuous. If he doesn’t know them, shame on him for ignorance.  “Allegedly” is a word Sanchez uses to denigrate the science used to support the case that Thomas has an unfair athletic advantage.

It is a sign of the times that debating the participation of trans athletes in sports has become a largely taboo topic, for if you bring up the fairness issue or the science itself you are deemed a “transphobe”: a term designed to shut down honest debate about the serious issue of men’s versus women’s sports (serious enough, at least, to help engender the Title IX Act).

Thomas is simply wrong in asserting that “there is no such thing as half-support: Either you back [me] fully as a woman or you don’t.” She accepts no half measures. And if that’s her view, then I reject it, because “fully” means “as a woman athlete as well”. There are many people who offer nearly full support to Thomas (not half but 95% support, I’d say), and those folks include both me and the Penn parents quoted above. Can’t people see that being empathic towards transwomen and supporting their gender identity need not include also regarding them as biological women on every single issue?

Suzy Weiss on swimmer Lia Thomas, and the chilling of dissent

February 21, 2022 • 10:30 am

Suzi Weiss now and then takes a turn on her sister Bari’s Substack column “Common Sense”, and this week recounts her trip to watch transgender swimmer Lia Thomas compete in the Ivy League swimming championships at Harvard. You can read the column for free (I think) by clicking on the screenshot, but be sure to subscribe if you read regularly:

I’ve been critical of the authorities allowing Thomas, a transgender woman, compete against other women swimmers, for she clearly has a big physical and physiological advantage over biological women swimmers, having nabbed several important victories. Although Thomas has been taking testosterone-blocking hormones, she began transitioning after puberty, and apparently retains her male bits (see article). In fact, her hormone levels violate the NCAA guidelines for this year. But because the regulations were passed after Thomas began competing on the Penn’s women’s team, she’s been grandfathered in (is that the right phrase?).

But although I think that Thomas, with her inherent biological advantages—advantages that appear to be maintained for at least three years after hormone suppression—should not be able to compete on the women’s team, that doesn’t mean I lack sympathy for her. It’s a hard road she’s chosen, and for sure she’s not doing it just to win championships. She swam for the Penn’s men team before transitioning, and clearly loves to swim. Granted, she didn’t stand out as a male swimmer, but surely nobody does these things to their bodies just to win medals—medals that will surely always be questioned.  The best I can do is, while maintaining the moral and political equality of all transgender people, and also ask that their preferences (gender, pronouns and the like) be respected, also argue that it’s still unfair for trans women to compete against biological women in sport. It’s unfair and, if this continues, is likely, it will turn women’s sports into a mess, or destroy them completely. Apparently most parents of Penn women swimmers, as well as most of those swimmers themselves, feel the situation is unfair, but the swimmers have been somewhat silenced (see below).

The solution that most readers and I have hit on is to either have three categories (“men”, “women”, and “other”), which seems cruel, or keep the same two categories, with only biological women able to compete in women’s sports but anybody allowed to compete in men’s sports (a “men+ league?”). But that isn’t perfect, either, as both transgender women and men will have athletic disadvantages against biological men.

But I adamantly reject the label “transphobe” for people who think about this situation and decide that Thomas’s competing against biological women is unfair. But, as you’ll see, it’s that label, used in the same way the label “racist” is in discussions of equity, that strikes fear into people’s hearts and makes them shut up. Is it also “transphobic” to criticize the participation of medically untreated biological men in women’s sports, if those men identify as women?  That’s allowed in several places and appears to be the Biden Administration’s position, as well as that of the ACLU. But surely it’s not “fear of transsexual people” that motivates most of the people pushing back against the participation of people like Thomas.

A few quotes from Weiss (indented), which I’ve summarized into four categories:

The background:

Thomas, 22-years-old and a fifth-year senior, is the star swimmer on the Penn women’s team—and a transgender athlete who swam for her first three years on the men’s. The tallest swimmer on her team by at least a head, she has to crouch a little to get in the Quakers’ huddle.

Thomas started making headlines in early December, when, at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, she set two national records in the 500- and 200-yard freestyle events. She beat her closest competitor, another Penn swimmer, in the 1,650-yard freestyle by 38 seconds. Since then, she has continued to smash records.

Lia Thomas isn’t just a swimmer. She’s become a totem in the culture wars, making abstract debates—about the tradeoffs between inclusion and fairness, about the tension between identity versus biology, and about the complications of treating sex as a mental fact and not a chromosomal one—real and radioactive. Her presence—and dominance—in the water has been confounding observers and many of the parents gathered at the Harvard pool to watch the Ivies. They wonder whether they are witnessing the beginning of the end of women’s sports.

. . . Thomas, an economics major with a minor in classics, is from Austin and started swimming at the age of five. When she swam on the men’s team, Thomas never made it to the NCAA Championship. Now, Thomas is seeded number one in the league and is poised to give Katie Ledecky a run for her money next month at the NCAA championships.

Believe me, if Thomas beats Katie Ledecky in any event at the NCAA championships, this is going to blow up big time, for Ledecky, just 24, is regarded by many as the best woman swimmer in American history/ From her Wikipedia entry:

Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky (born March 17, 1997) is an American competitive swimmer. Having won 7 Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, the most in history for a female swimmer, she is considered one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Ledecky is the world record holder in the women’s 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle (long course). She also holds the fastest-ever times in the women’s 500-, 1000-, 1500-, and 1650-yard freestyle events.

The NCAA’s ruling:

Most parents in the stands lay [the controversy] at the feet of the NCAA. They had expected that the NCAA would impose some clarity. Instead, in January, the NCAA announced that when it came to transgender athletes, it would defer to the governing bodies of each and every sport. Three weeks ago, U.S.A. Swimming announced its new guidelines, which are pretty extensive. For example, a transwoman now has to have her testosterone tested, and clear the 5-nanomoles-per-liter threshold for 36 months. This apparently caught the NCAA by surprise, prompting the organization to double back and announce that it would be unfair to transgender swimmers to implement the new U.S.A. Swimming guidelines this late in the game.

All this means that Thomas will get to compete at the NCAA championships next month. And that the parents of the female swimmers she’s trouncing are very annoyed.

Pushback and debate about biological differences between men and women.

Carole Hooven, the co-director at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the author of the book “T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us,” is an expert on the biological differences between men and women. Hooven notes a few of the differences, on average, between those who have gone through male puberty and those who have not: taller heights and longer wingspans, larger bones, and hearts, greater lung capacity, the structure of male-adapted muscles that are easier to build and harder to lose, and lean body mass. Some of these traits can be tamped down with drugs. Others can’t.

“Men don’t have an advantage over women because of one of these factors, but all of them put together,” Hooven says.

“It is not fair for women to race against transgender Lia Thomas,” tweeted female tennis champion Martina Navratilova recently. Diana Nyad, the legendary female swimmer who is the only person to swim between Florida and Cuba unaided, wrote in The Washington Post that “no amount of analysis can erase male puberty’s advantages. Perhaps a fairer plan is to give competitions a new ‘open’ classification: Cisgender, transgender, intersex—all are welcome.”

. . . and from the women swimmers:

I’m told that the Princeton girls are “freaking out.” Sixteen Penn swimmers sent a letter to Penn and the Ivy League urging them to uphold USA Swimming’s decision, which set forth much stricter guidelines for trans athletes than the NCAA’s. Three hundred other swimmers sent another letter to the NCAA in support of Thomas. There have been a ton of statements, too, from Penn (“Penn Athletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our student athletes”); Michael Phelps (“sports should be played on an even playing field”); and Caitlyn Jenner (“We cannot have biological boys competing against women. It’s bad for the trans community”).

The Penn parents tell me there’s yet another letter coming down the pike, this one organized by them with the help of former Olympian Nancy Hogshead-Makar, which argues that Thomas’s participation is unfair. That one has 3,000 signatures, including from more than 100 olympians and Hall of Fame swimming coaches.

Silencing of dissenters. This to me is the most disturbing part of the issue. Certainly the participation of transgender athletes in various leagues is an issue not only worth debating, but one that must be debated, for it speaks to important principles of fairness, much less to Title IX regulations meant to give men and women parity in education, including sports. At that time the issue of transgender athletes wasn’t envisioned.  Now I can understand why the other Penn women swimmers wouldn’t want to publicly

But the Penn couple thinks that Thomas’s comfort has come at the expense of their own daughters’ who they say have received “veiled threats” from the university when it comes to speaking out. At the meet, the announcer opens with a warning against “racist, homophobic, or transphobic discrimination.”

So it is no surprise that not one of the swimmers would speak to me; nor have they spoken on the record to any other reporter. It’s not that they haven’t considered it. “One of the swimmers on their team called my daughter and asked if they were to put out a statement, if the Harvard swimmers would too,” a Harvard dad told me on Friday night.

. . . One of the Penn moms says her own daughter warned her against speaking out. “She’s worried about getting into grad school, and she doesnt want my name or hers to come up on Google attached to this.” (Her daughter is hoping to get a graduate degree in biology.)

The parents say their daughters know it’s wrong that Thomas is swimming against them but that they will not risk getting smeared with the label transphobe.

What about Mike Schnur, the Penn’s coach, who is wearing a mask with a trans flag on Saturday night, where Thomas swims in the 100 yard freestyle? “Politically, he’s as conservative as they come,” says a Penn dad. “He just loves winning and loves his job.”

It’s this kind of censorship that stifles discussion around an important issue, and it’s fear of the label “transphobe” that keeps people from giving their opinions.  What Woke people have discovered is that they can silence their opponents with simply a single word denoting bigotry. Or, in the case of Coach Schnur, a single design on a mask.

The rest of us have no such power—only reasoned arguments, which opponents are determined to ignore.

BBC segment on transwomen in female sports

February 13, 2022 • 11:15 am

This 9-minute BBC show on testosterone, sport, and transwomen athletes (below), won’t tell you much more than the posts I’ve put up on this topic, but the show does have the cachet of an expert weighing in. And he says what I’ve also extracted from the published research: once a biological male has gone through puberty, and then transitions to the female gender, even the use of testosterone antagonists for up to three years can’t produce a “level playing field”. That’s because puberty, with its surge of testosterone, helps give biological males the skeletal, muscular, and physiological differences from women that confer a performance advantage in sports.

Moreover, research shows that these morphological and physiological differences remain even after three years (the former Olympic regulations mandates low testosterone for only a year), and translate into performance advantages, though there isn’t yet much research on the performance part. What research there is shows the athletic advantages mirror the remaining biological differences.

The narrator concludes, properly, that it will take years to sort out the biology and performance issues that can possibly create a “level playing field.” In my view, we either wait for those data, which may never be forthcoming given how hard it is to collect them, or create a two-category sports system: “biological women” and “everybody else”. (The latter sounds a bit crass and insensitive, but I don’t know what to call it.)

The program ends with the narrator adding, correctly, that some say that trans athletes of any sort “should be able to compete in whatever category they choose.” Those groups who so far seem to favor medically untreated trans women being able to compete against cis women (or “biological women”) include the ACLU, the Biden administration, and several states that specify gender as “what one identifies as”, with no medical intervention needed. (In Connecticut, for example, if you say you identify as a woman, you can compete in women’s sports, period.)These groups, while motivated by an admirable desire to support the marginalized, are creating a greater unfairness to athletes of an entire biological sex

I will do the usual throat-clearing: in all other ways that I can imagine, trans women (or trans men) should have the legal and moral rights of everybody else. But I reject the notion that my view (the one advanced here and by the BBC expert) is “transphobic.”

Click below, and then on the right-pointing arrow to hear the segment. But do it quickly, as I think the Beeb takes down its shows quickly.

h/t: Jean

USA Swimming announces new policy for transgender swimmers

February 3, 2022 • 10:15 am

The success of transgender female swimmer Lia Thomas, who competes for the University of Pennsylvania, has caused a lot of polarization. On one hand there are those, like the state of Connecticut and the ACLU, who think that it’s okay if a biological male competes against biological females if that person simply declares themselves to have a female gender. No surgery or hormone treatement are required.

On the other hand are those who argue that no transgender woman should ever compete in woman’s sports, as they have an inherent biological advantage that makes the playing field “unlevel”.

On the third hand we have people like me who say that it’s possible that you could level the playing field, but that would be nearly impossible to do, for how do you ensure that all the advantages of bone density, physiology, and musculature that males acquire at puberty are effaced by the rules? This requires a kind of research that has been done only a little, and what research there is suggests that the solution will be complicated and probably not congenial to transgender women athletes.

We are, of course, not talking about transgender men competing against biological men, which is not much of an issue except in rugby, where World Rugby, which has completely banned transgender women from playing in women’s rugby, still allows transgender men to play men’s (and sometimes women’s) rugby under these conditions:

Transgender men may play men’s rugby having provided confirmation of physical ability. Transgender men may not play women’s rugby after the process of sex reassignment has begun, if this reassignment includes supplementation with testosterone

The International Olympic Committee used to have a rule that transgender women could compete in women’s events so long as they maintained a testosterone titer of no more than 10 nanomoles/liter of blood for 12 months before competition. (The normal ranges for cis biological men are 8.8–30.9 nanomoles/liter while female testosterone ranges from 0.4–2.0 nmol/liter. These distributions are nonoverlapping from puberty into adulthood.)

Recent research, which I’ve covered here and here, however, shows that the IOC regulations aren’t sufficient, even with three years of testosterone treatment, for biological males acquire a competitive (and performance) advantage at puberty that isn’t effaced by testosterone treatment. This led the IOC to ditch its regulation, and it hasn’t yet replaced it with a new one.

Imagine the research it would take to show what kind of treatment transgender women would need to “level the playing field”, and how would we even know when the playing field is level? The experimentation it would take to show that (testing performance of many transgender female athletes medically treated in different ways) is not only impractical, but seems unethical. Because of this, some people (including me) have suggested that, without this kind of knowledge, all transgender athletes might compete in an “open” third league, or allow all transgender athletes, of whatever gender, to compete in men’s sports (the rugby issue of injury, however, may bar this for some sports). A third solution was suggested below by a Canadian study.

The disadvantage of the first solution is that athletes in the “third” gender league would probably feel stigmatized. But I, for one, would rate the fairness issue as higher than the possibility of stigmatization.  The issue of transgender women entering women’s sports will only grow over time, and you can’t dismiss it as a “trivial issue.” It’s not trivial for biological women who feel cheated by the performance advantage of transgender women. A long report by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in Canada, with both athletes and experts of both sexes on the advisory board, concludes this:

For this reason, it seems to us that fairness in sport can be achieved with the removal, as far as is possible, of gender identifiers in sport, and the reconceptualization of the male category as “Open” and the women’s category as “Female” where female refers to the sex recorded at birth. In this, we broadly support the policy proposals included in the Sports Councils’ Equality Group report (SCEG 2021). We urge national and international sports organizations, in Canada and beyond, to develop a similar policy.

That is one possible solution, and readers here have also suggested it. It would, of course force Lea Thomas to compete in the “open” category against biological men. But at least no hormone treatment is required if a biological woman who transitions to the male gender wants to compete with others.

None of this, of course, is to imply that transgender individuals should be treated differently from cisgender individuals in a legal or moral sense, or discriminated against or treated uncivilly in society. Sports is one of those rare areas, however, where you have to consider differential treatment of cisgender and transgender individuals. To do so is not to be “transphobic”, and I totally reject that adjective applied to discussions like this one.

In light of Lia Thomas’s success, and her lack of success when she competed as a man, USA Swimming, which has over 400,000 members, has just released a new policy about transgender swimmers, described in the NBC News and BBC articles below (click on screenshots):

NBC:

BBC:

 

The new policy, which you can find here, has this rationale:

The development of the elite policy therefore acknowledges a competitive difference in the male and female categories and the disadvantages this presents in elite head-to-head competition. This is supported by statistical data that shows that the top-ranked female in 2021, on average, would be ranked 536th across all short course yards (25 yards) male events in the country and 326th across all long course meters (50 meters) male events in the country, among USA Swimming members. The policy therefore supports the need for competitive equity at the most elite levels of competition.

While recognizing the need for the aforementioned guidelines in elite competition, sport is an important vehicle for positive physical and mental health, and, for this reason, USA Swimming remains steadfast in its continued commitment to greater inclusivity at the non-elite levels.

In order to balance these two priorities, specific guidelines have been developed for both non-elite and elite athletes and elite events. At the non-elite level, an inclusive process has been established by which an athlete can elect to change their competition category in order for them to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression. At the elite level, a policy has been created for transgender athlete participation in the U.S. that relies on science and medical evidence-based methods to provide a level-playing field for elite cisgender women, and to mitigate the advantages associated with male puberty and physiology. Elite athletes shall include any athlete who has achieved a time standard and desires to participate in elite events as defined in the policy.

I take “competitive equity” to mean “a level playing field” i.e., no average performance advantage of transgender women over biological women in elite sports. And here are the official rules (my emphasis):

The elite athlete policy will be implemented by a decision-making panel comprised of three independent medical experts and eligibility criteria will consist of:

  • Evidence that the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.
  • Evidence that the concentration of testosterone in the athlete’s serum has been less than 5 nmol/L (as measured by liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry) continuously for a period of at least thirty-six (36) months before the date of application.

The two news articles above basically reiterate these rules and add other material, like a letter of support for Thomas that came some women on her team. Let’s just look at the rules, though.

The first criterion—evaluation by three experts that the athlete “does not [have] a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”— seems to me unworkable.  How do they determine that? No criteria are given. Perhaps you can say that the transgender woman hasn’t excelled in past competition against cisgender women so she shows no “competitive advantage”. But I doubt they’ll use that as a criterion, for I suspect the women who undergo this evaluation will be those like Lia Thomas, who have already shown a competitive advantage.

This first point surely needs more explicit explanation. Or they could use measurements like muscle mass and bone density, and physiology, showing that they’re no different between elite transgender and cisgender women athletes. But this would disqualify nearly all transgender women who are examined, for those traits remain different even after several years of hormone therapy (see below).

What about the 36 months of maintaining low testosterone? That seems unworkable too, at least in terms of leveling the playing field. If you read this recent paper in British Journal of Sports Medicine by Harper et al., you’ll see their conclusion (my emphases):

Results Twenty-four studies were identified and reviewed. Transwomen experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen have Hgb/HCT levels equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (36 months) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, LBM and muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy.

Conclusion In transwomen, hormone therapy rapidly reduces Hgb to levels seen in cisgender women. In contrast, hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months. These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy.

In other words, the data we have so far suggest that three years of hormone treatment isn’t long enough to efface the morphological and physiological advantages of transwomen over biological women. In other words, the second criterion of American swimming somewhat contradicts the first.

So this isn’t a solution, as it’s more or less subjective and not solidly based on data.

The more I think about it, the more I’m agreeing with the Canadian solution that we need two categories: “open” and “women”, the latter containing only biological wome). That way nobody is stigmatized by being in a third category. It’s not perfect, of course, because transwomen still have to compete against biological men, and if they have had hormone treatment, they’ll be at a disadvantage.  The fact is that no solution is fair to everyone, but this seems to be the fairest one I see—until we have more data on performance of transgender athletes.

As for Lia Thomas, I don’t know how she’ll fare under the new rules, or whether she’ll even be forced to abide by them.  In the end, I think this issue is as much a philosophical as an empirical one. What is the “fairest” way to treat everyone? I haven’t seen philosophers write on this—I might have missed some—but since the area is a minefield, I doubt that they’d want to touch it. But athletic organizations must, as the issue will only become more pressing.

Teachers push California student to undergo sexual transitioning

January 24, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I think all people of good will (except the ACLU) are on the same page with respect to transgender rights. That is, everyone, regardless of gender status, sex, or transitioning status, should be afforded moral or legal equality and treated with respect and civility. There are a few exceptions when that right conflicts with others (most notably in sports), but having such an attitude is not transphobic.

Further, any child contemplating transsexuality should be treated with respect by everyone, but not pushed to undergo transitioning. The proper course involves supportive (but not pushy) parents and friends, unbiased but empathic psychological counseling, and unbiased medical advice, which gives a full descriptions of the likely and possible outcomes of hormone therapy and surgery.  Then, if the young person still wants to transition (preferably after puberty), then have at it.

This holds for teachers in schools, of course. They can be supportive, but they have no right to push children into altering their gender.  One of the problems here, which the ACLU loves but which worries me, is this one from the AP article below (click on screenshot):

Under state and federal law, however, students have privacy rights that extend to sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Only in limited circumstances can a school notify a parent of their child’s sexual identity against their wishes.

“Outside of school, these students may similarly face potential hostility at home because of who they are,” said attorney Peter Renn of Lambda Legal. “For example, involuntarily outing a student as LGBTQ to their parents can very well lead to them getting kicked out of the home in some circumstances.”

This seems to me pretty reasonable, but I haven’t thought through it completely as it does conflict with parental “rights”. But this is all irrelevant in the case below, as the two teachers at issue actually set up a meeting to let the parents know that their daughter wanted to transition to the male gender. Read the AP report below (click on screenshot) for a case study about how schools should not deal with children undergoing gender dysphoria.

Jessica Konen is suing a California school district for pushing her daughter to become a transmale after already telling the daughter that she was “bisexual”. (Remember, there are tomboys who are often considered “bisexual” but don’t become lesbians or transmen.) The teachers apparently not only conspired to push Konen’s daughter towards transitioning, but then informed the mom about her daughter, blindsiding the mother in a set-up meeting.

The details:

A mother who claims teachers secretly manipulated her 11-year-old daughter into changing her gender identity and name has filed a legal case against a tiny California school district.

Spreckels Union School District was responsible for “extreme and outrageous conduct” that led the student on a path toward transitioning as a boy and drove a wedge between mother and child, according to the claim filed Wednesday by a conservative legal group.

Jessica Konen said two middle school teachers who ran the school’s Equality Club — later known as UBU (You Be You) — planted the seed that her daughter was bisexual in 6th grade and then introduced the idea she was transgender.

The legal claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — follows a dustup in the district last fall after the author of a book widely criticized as “anti-transgender” quoted the two teachers speaking at a conference about how to run an LGBTQ+ club in a conservative community.

. . . While Konen said her daughter had revealed she was bisexual [JAC: this bisexual identity was apparently instilled in the daughter by the teachers as well], the mother was unaware she was identifying as a boy until she was called to a meeting at the Buena Vista Middle School principal’s office in December 2019 when her daughter was in 7th grade.

She wasn’t told the purpose of the meeting until her daughter entered the room and sat across a table from her and teacher Lori Caldeira broke the news.

“I literally was caught off guard. I was blindsided,” Konen said. “I didn’t even know what to feel like because I didn’t even know where it came from.”

Konen said she began to cry.

She said her daughter was also caught by surprise. She had told teachers she wanted to notify her mom, but didn’t know they set the meeting up that day.

So the teachers not only pushed the girl to transition (see below), but also violated privacy rights by setting up this meeting. But it gets worse!

. . .When schools went to remote learning during the pandemic in March 2020, Konen said her daughter began returning to her “old self” and now uses her given name.

But it wasn’t until this fall that Konen began to question how her daughter got on the path to a different identity after the article by Abigail Shrier circulated around town.

In a leaked recording from a California Teachers Association conference, Caldeira and Kelly Baraki were quoted discussing how they kept meetings private and “stalked” students online for recruits.

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

“Check”? How insensitive can you be? (The teachers’ names are Lori Caldiera and Kelly Baraki.)  Caldiera now clams the stalking comment was a joke, but I don’t believer her. These are woke teachers with agendas that are all “push, push, push kids to transition”.

Why they do this mystifies me. Teachers are not peers on social media seeking to validate their own decisions by urging others to follow them; teachers are supposed to care for the children. At any rate, both teachers have been placed on administrative leave, and the girl is reported as having voluntarily resumed her female name and is “returning to her old self.”  The mother is quoted:

Konen said her daughter is now doing well in high school.

“She still deals with confusion,” Konen said. “She feels like she can breathe, you know, like she doesn’t have pressure on her.”

The problem with the epidemic of transitioning, nearly all from the female to the male gender, is that those with some gender dysphoria, or even typical adolescent confusion, are pushed to transition rather than urged to go slowly and get proper medical and psychological counseling. As Bari Weiss reported on her Substack column, two specialists in transgender medicine, both transgender women, are jumping off the express train to transsexuality and urging more caution. (The bolding is mine):

Their allies in the media and Hollywood reported stories and created content that reaffirmed this orthodoxy. Anyone who dared disagree or depart from any of its core tenets, including young women who publicly detransitioned, were inevitably smeared as hateful and accused of harming children.

But that new orthodoxy has gone too far, according to two of the most prominent providers in the field of transgender medicine: Dr. Marci Bowers, a world-renowned vaginoplasty specialist who operated on reality-television star Jazz Jennings; and Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the University of California San Francisco’s Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic.

In the course of their careers, both have seen thousands of patients. Both are board members of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the organization that sets the standards worldwide for transgender medical care. And both are transgender women.

Earlier this month, Anderson told me she submitted a co-authored op-ed to The New York Times warning that many transgender healthcare providers were treating kids recklessly. The Times passed, explaining it was “outside our coverage priorities right now.”

. . . in the last decade, watchful waiting has been supplanted by “affirmative care,” which assumes children do know what’s best. Affirmative care proponents urge doctors to corroborate their patients’ belief that they are trapped in the wrong body. The family is pressured to help the child transition to a new gender identity — sometimes having been told by doctors or activists that, if they don’t, their child may eventually commit suicide. From there, pressures build on parents to begin concrete medical steps to help children on their path to transitioning to the “right” body. That includes puberty blockers as a preliminary step. Typically, cross-sex hormones follow and then, if desired, gender surgery.

The NYT is reprehensible. Transsexuality is a big issue, and when two transsexual doctors who are experts in transexual medicine have something to say, the Times should publish it. But of course what these doctors say goes against The Narrative.

It’s worse than that, for the teachers weren’t even practicing “affirmative care” but deliberately pushing the girl towards transitioning. Who do they think they are? Are they experts in dealing with gender dysphoria?

Given their dereliction of duty towards their charges, both teachers should be fired.

Do seahorses validate “queerness”? The naturalistic fallacy committed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust

January 21, 2022 • 11:15 am

Every day I get six or seven links from readers about the infestation of society by performative brands of DEI (i.e., “wokeness”). The links are often distressing and depressing, but I have to tell readers “I’m sorry, but I can’t write about everything!”

But when I am compelled by the laws of physics to write about something is when people try to bend biology to fit their ideological narrative. The most egregious example of this is the claim that there is no such thing as a sexual binary in humans and other animals, which is just wrong. Males have small mobile gametes (that’s the definition), and females big and immobile ones. Just like my Drosophila, about 99.99% of humans are either male or female by this definition. Hermaphrodites or other intermediates are not “other sexes”; they are developmental anomalies. (That’s not a slur on human intermediates; it’s a statement that you get the very rare intermediates only when development slips off the rails that have evolved to ensure a sexual binary.)

These attempts to refer to nature as a way of validating human behavior, morality, or ideology is, of course, an example of the “naturalistic fallacy,” usually described as the fallacy of saying “what’s seen in nature is good in humans.” And it’s a dumb fallacy, because a lot of animals behave in nature in ways that we would consider immoral in our own species. (Chimps, for example, attack other bands of chimps and rip individuals apart while they’re still alive. Some spider females kill and eat males after mating.) We can’t look to nature for morality, because, at bottom, nature is amoral, for animals don’t have the capacity to argue and make considered judgments about how to behave. Often “considerate” behavior towards others is the evolutionary product of reciprocal altruism or kin selection.

So when the Sussex Wildlife Trust tries to use the pregnancy of male seahorses as a justification for “queerness”, as they do below, they’re committing the naturalistic fallacy. The reason we shouldn’t discriminate against non-cis people is because discrimination is wrong and hurtful, not because male seahorses (and, by the way, male pipefish and sea dragons, contra the tweet below) get pregnant. Mallard drakes sometimes kill females during forced copulation, which in humans is the equivalent of rape. Does that make rape okay? You get my point.

Here’s the tweet. The original has been deleted (I wonder why?) but here’s a screenshot of the original:

 

Now a bit of biology before we go on to the associated article.  Seahorses have a fascinating mating and breeding system. They’ve evolved so that the males largely take care of the eggs. (In many species, males do at least half the tending and rearing). In seahorses, pipefish, and sea dragons, this occurs by males sequestering the eggs in their kangeroo-like pouches, fertilizing them there, and sequestering them until hatching.  (This may be a way to increase offspring number by favoring those individuals who protect their reproductive investment by protecting fertilized eggs.)

The important thing is that, in seahorses, sea dragons, and pipefish, the females produce eggs faster than the males can put them in their pouches, so females are always looking around for an “empty” male. Because—unlike in most animals—females are thus competing for males’ attention, and sexual selection is reversed. It’s the opposite of what happens in most other species, in which males compete to fertilize females. This is why, if there is sexual dimorphism in seahorses, it’s the females who are more elaborately decorated and with more secondary sexual characteristics. (See also here.)

Note that the males, while they take care of fertilized eggs and in that sense are pregnant, are still males, as they produce sperm rather than eggs. So you could say that “males get pregnant”, but that’s not the same thing as transsexual men who can sometimes get pregnant, nor does seahorse pregnancy somehow show that transmale pregnancy is “okay” or “moral”. It IS perfectly okay, but not because you find it in some marine species.

I like to show students the video below of a male seahorse giving birth, which looks almost as laborious and painful as labor in human females. This form of reproduction, given the female’s rapid rate of producing eggs, may have evolved to protect eggs and embryos from predation. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that males have a form of pregnancy, but this says nothing one way or the other about transsexual pregnancy in humans. The pregnant seahorses are neither queer nor transsexual, but males, and there’s no morality in the fishes (yes, seahorses, sea dragons, and pipefish are “fish”).

I wouldn’t have written all this if reader Al, who was steamed, sent me this associated link from the Sussex Wildlife Trust news (click on screenshot to read).  Now I’m not going to go after this very hard, as I want to just reiterate the naturalistic fallacy and how it’s used as a justification or valorization of human behavior. And yes, pregnant seahorses do show that animal behavior is diverse and unexpected.  But pregnant male seahorses remain males, and they’re not “queer,” either, as the author seems to imply in her piece.

But the seahorses are used to somehow buttress the insecurity of a woman trying to come out as queer.

A few quotes:

As a keen zoology undergraduate who adored, almost worshipped, Darwin’s theory of evolution, I couldn’t quite come to terms with his theory of sexual selection. It really didn’t add up as I was tentatively stepping out of the queer closet back in 1996. I lived and breathed evolutionary theory but where did I fit in? A deviation? An anomaly? A kink in the genetic spiral of life? So, of course, I started studying the evolution of sex and soon discovered how incredibly diverse and fascinating the plant and animal kingdoms (more like queendoms or even queerdoms) really are in terms of gender and sexuality.

. . . .In the plant world too there is a whole host of queerness to explore. In fact bisexual flowers are described as “perfect”, having both male and female reproductive structures. Examples include roses and lilies but also the horse chestnut, highlighted in a wonderful project by the Queer Botany Society at the Walthamstow Marshes SSSI.

Now, with my work for the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project much of my favourite flagship “queer” marine species are linked directly to our conservation work here on the Sussex Coast. For example bottlenose dolphins who are known to engage in homosexual behaviour and sex for fun, again thought to increase social bonding and cooperation. The black seabream which are all born female and change to male at maturity (known as protogynous hermaphrodites). And finally the incredible seahorse species that in my opinion can claim the throne of the animal drag-kingdom in having the only true reversed pregnancy.

I’m sure Darwin would agree that rather than it all being about nature versus nurture we should focus more on nurturing our true nature, that part of us that is wild and free and far from binary. Wouldn’t it be dull if everything were so very black and white… life and love is in fact gloriously technicolour thanks to evolution’s rainbow.

Now people can find solace where they will, but I think it’s misguided to look to nature to validate a behavior in humans. For every mammalian species that shows homosexual behavior, there are a dozen who don’t.  (Do those show that homosexuality is “unnatural, ergo wrong?” Of course not!) And homosexuality in humans, which often involves attraction solely to members of your own sex, is not at all the same thing as homosexual behavior in dolphins. For when a the male wants offspring, he knows where to go. Should a rapist find validation by studying ducks?

The last sentence of the piece above, referring to “evolution’s rainbow,” is likely a reference to Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, a book-length attempt to justify human non-cis-ness by looking at animals (Roughgarden is a transsexual female). I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement in 2004. My review is no longer online but I have a copy and will send it to those who want to read it. Here’s the last part of my review (it was mixed: I found Roughgarden’s descriptions of behavior being very good but her moral “lessons” untenable). Yet the warning about the naturalistic fallacy is apparently is as relevant today as it was when I wrote this 18 years ago:

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?

The step from “natural” to “ethical” is even riskier. As the philosopher G. E. Moore argued, identifying what is good or right by using any natural property is committing the “naturalistic fallacy”: there is no valid way to deduce “ought” from “is”. If no animals showed homosexual behaviour, would discrimination against gay humans be more justified? Certainly not. Roughgarden’s philosophical strategy is as problematic as her biological one.

Roughgarden believes that evolutionary biologists, with their enthusiasm for the “classical” gender roles of the neo-Darwinian theory of sexual selection, are partly responsible for society’s unease with gay and transgendered people. She is wrong. This theory is powerful and largely correct. Yes, there are nuances of behaviour that require special explanation, or that we don’t yet understand. But nobody, least of all Darwin, ever claimed that evolutionary biology is characterized by ironclad laws. Our field is not physics. Nevertheless, some generalizations, such as the pervasive competition of males for females, can be powerful and useful.

Yet in the end, all of this is irrelevant to the gay and transgendered community’s genuine concerns about repressive social attitudes. Rather than wringing her hands about the theories embraced by her biological colleagues, Joan Roughgarden might consider visiting a school board meeting deep in the American Bible Belt. There, ironically, she would find where opposition to a sexually diverse society really thrives, as does opposition to the very theory she is partly lambasting, Darwinism. It is not the intellectuals who are the problem; it’s the anti-intellectuals.

Nature, as varied as it is, can be used to “validate” any human behavior, therefore it can validate NO human behaviors.