Once again, the binary nature of biological sex: Colin Wright and Sean Carroll

December 6, 2022 • 9:30 am

I don’t want to write much more about this issue, but since we’ve been discussing the binary nature of human sex (or non-binary, if you oppose that view), I thought I’d call to your attention two items.

The first is a piece by a strong defender of the sex binary, Colin Wright, in which he republishes his first article on the topic (Quillette, 2018), and updates it. The second is physicist Sean Carroll’s new video discussing and explaining his controversial tweet implying that sex is not binary, but a spectrum. We’ll take them in order.

The new piece by Colin Wright at his Substack site (Reality’s Last Stand) is really the republication of his 2018 Quillette paper (“The new evolution deniers“), with an introduction to cover the last four years. Wright was on the track to be an academic at the time, but the Quillette article, which received a bunch of pushback, combined with other articles he wrote, including an op-ed with Emma Hilton in the Wall Street Journal, made him un-hireable and so he had to leave academia. He more or less predicts that at the end of his 2018 paper.

Colin’s first article is about the binary nature of sex and about those who deny it for ideological reasons.  As you know, I agree with Wright that sex is effectively a binary, or at least with this statement that he made in that article:

. . . the final result of sex development in humans are unambiguously male or female over 99.98 percent of the time. Thus, the claim that “2 sexes is overly simplistic” is misleading, because intersex conditions correspond to less than 0.02 percent of all births, and intersex people are not a third sex. Intersex is simply a catch-all category for sex ambiguity and/or a mismatch between sex genotype and phenotype, regardless of its etiology. Furthermore, the claim that “sex is a spectrum” is also misleading, as a spectrum implies a continuous distribution, and maybe even an amodal one (one in which no specific outcome is more likely than others). Biological sex in humans, however, is clear-cut over 99.98 percent of the time. Lastly, the claim that classifying people’s sex based on anatomy and genetics “has no basis in science” has itself no basis in reality, as any method exhibiting a predictive accuracy of over 99.98 percent would place it among the most precise methods in all the life sciences. We revise medical care practices and change world economic plans on far lower confidence than that.

If you haven’t read the Quillette piece, you can do so as it’s embedded in the update below; click to read

Wright recounts the genesis of his article, which was his realization that the binary nature of biological sex was under attack, and that, like creationism, this was a denial of scientific fact, though coming from the Left rather than the Right. He argues in the update above that he was motivated only by a concern for biological truth and not to attack “gender ideology”:

One thing you may notice is that The New Evolution Deniers doesn’t mention gender ideology at all. That’s because I came to the gender debate believing that people were simply wrong about biology, and that if I could clearly articulate exactly why, I would change people’s minds. It wasn’t until later, after looking under the hood to see where modern sex denialism was coming from, that I realized this wasn’t a matter of ignorance, but a result of highly motivated reasoning. It wasn’t about true or false to them, it was about good versus evil.

Although I’m on Colin’s side vis-à-vis the biological facts, as well as about the ideological nature of opposition, in fact if he doesn’t “mention gender ideology in the original piece”, he certainly alludes to it very heavily. For example:

Even more recently, the most prestigious scientific journal in the world, Nature, published an editorial claiming that classifying people’s sex “on the basis of anatomy or genetics should be abandoned” and “has no basis in science” and that “the research and medical community now sees sex as more complex than male and female.” In the Nature article, the motive is stated clearly enough: acknowledging the reality of biological sex will “undermine efforts to reduce discrimination against transgender people and those who do not fall into the binary categories of male or female.” But while there is evidence for the fluidity of sex in many organisms, this is simply not the case in humans. We can acknowledge the existence of very rare cases in humans where sex is ambiguous, but this does not negate the reality that sex in humans is functionally binary. These editorials are nothing more than a form of politically motivated, scientific sophistry.

. . . Despite the unquestionable reality of biological sex in humans, social justice and trans activists continue to push this belief, and respond with outrage when challenged. Pointing out any of the above facts is now considered synonymous with transphobia. The massive social media website Twitter—the central hub for cultural discourse and debate—is now actively banning users for stating true facts about basic human biology. And biologists like myself often sit quietly, afraid to defend our own field out of fear that our decade of education followed by continued research, job searches, and the quest for tenure might be made obsolete overnight if the mob decides to target one of us for speaking up. Because of this, our objections take place almost entirely between one another in private whisper networks, despite the fact that a majority of biologists are extremely troubled by these attacks to our field by social justice activists. This is an untenable situation.

If that’s not mentioning gender ideology, I don’t know what is! It’s hard to believe that someone could write about the controversy without mentioning why it exists, and Colin certainly does that.  I don’t see an issue with his take on why the controversy arose—and I agree that it’s a dispute over ideology, not biological fact. But I do take issue with his new claim that he doesn’t mention gender ideology.  Still, that’s really a quibble. The fact is that although Wright has left academia, he’s still fighting to make people realize the biological facts about sex, but is now also fighting ideologues who claim that he’s a transphobe.

He’s not. If you read his original piece in Quillette, you will find this:

It is undoubtedly true that trans people lead very difficult lives, which are only made more difficult by the bigotry of others. But social justice activists appear completely unwilling or unable to distinguish between people who criticize their ideology and people who question their humanity. Their social immune system appears so sensitive that it consumes itself. We need to acknowledge that trans issues and ideology are complex, and concern one of the most marginalized communities in the world. Because of this, we must give these issues the respect they deserve by approaching them with nuance and compassion instead of crudeness and cruelty. But we must not jettison truth in this process. If social justice activists require scientists to reject evolution and the reality of biological sex to be considered good allies, then we can never be good allies.

I would add in the first sentence “unwilling or unable to distinguish between people who criticize their ideology and people who question their humanity and the facts of biology.”

So much for Dr. Wright, who describes the biological fact accurately.  Now onto Sean Carroll, who started a mini-fracas on Twitter when he made the tweet below, criticizing Wright’s correct claim that “biological sex is real, immutable, and binary”, and then putting up a misleading graph from Scientific American implying that biological sex is a spectrum. The figure even shows a spectrum of colors. It isn’t rocket science to see that Sean appeared to agree with the Scientific American stand.

I tweeted back defending the same biological issues that concerned Wright.

And several other people, including responders to Sean’s Tweet, as well as Wright, Steven Knight, and Manchester Uni biologist Emma Hilton, criticized Sean’s view as well (see my post about that here).  Sean has responded on a video from his Mindscape series, and in the interest of fairness I’ll present his discussion of sex and of the tweet above. You can hear the discussion at the beginning of the podcast below. The bit about sex, the binary, and the tweet go from 05:29 to 25:30. 

To his credit, Sean begins by apologizing for that tweet, which he says was “snarky, dismissive, and lowers the tone of the debate.” You have to admire him for that—how many people would admit it and apologize?

He then elaborates on what his tweet was trying to say, which boils down to the idea that “human sexuality is complicated.” There’s a complicated developmental pathway that yields gametes and other traits associated with sex, chromosomes play a role, and there are other “secondary sexual characteristics”, like voice timbre and body hair, associated with sex. Further, he notes that “there are psychological, sociological, cultural and political aspects of sex,” which includes gender, your rights, how you’re treated by others, and so on. He says that there are issues beyond the biological ones, including philosophical and language issues, and he expatiates on those issues, evincing—and I agree—an empathy for those who are neither biologically male or female, as well as transsexual people.

I won’t go into that, for you can listen for yourself. All I’ll say is what I was trying to say in the first place: biologically speaking, sex is as close to a binary as you can get. And yes, like all developmental processes, it’s complicated. The sex binary is opposed or even denied by a lot of people, but the denial is largely motivated by ideology. The dispute does not come from a quarrel among biologists.

I’ll add as Sean emphasizes, that we often use “sex” in a looser manner, since we can’t see people’s gametes. That’s the difference between defining sex and recognizing it. Things become messier when you try to define sex using traits, like genitalia, that some people use to recognize sex.

Finally, of course I agree with Sean that “we should give all human beings equal dignity”. I believe I’ve made that point repeatedly when I write about the sex binary. I care more about the binary than he does simply because I am a biologist, because this issue involves evolution, and because I care about whether the facts of biology are presented accurately to people. Finally, I care that that biology remains, as far as humanly possible, free from intrusion by ideology.

Pamela Paul on the breaking of gender stereotypes, and how both Left and Right push back

December 4, 2022 • 12:20 pm

We’ll have another post on gender today, but this time from NYT writer Pamela Paul, formerly editor of the book review but now an opinion columnist.  She mourns a time in her youth when gender stereotypes of male vs. female were suddeny oveturned by the 1972 book and album “Free to Be.  . . You and Me”, a project conceived by Marlo Thomas.  I remember well when it came out, and the criticism by the Right. Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

Free to Be… You and Me is a children’s entertainment project, conceived, created and executive-produced by actress and author Marlo Thomas. Produced in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation for Women, it was a record album and illustrated book first released in November 1972 featuring songs and stories sung or told by celebrities of the day (credited as “Marlo Thomas and Friends”) including Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Cicely Tyson, Carol Channing, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy, and Diana Ross. An ABC television special, also created by Thomas, using poetry, songs, and sketches, followed sixteen months later in March 1974. The basic concept was to encourage post-1960s gender neutrality, saluting values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity. A major thematic message is that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—can achieve anything.

In 2021, the album was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry.

Paul rightly celebrates the achievement of the project in, well, making kids free to be gender nonconformists, not just in appearance or behavior but in the jobs people wanted. It was a time when women could contemplate being cops, firefighters, and many of the professions deemed “men’s jobs”.

If you grew up in any remotely liberal enclave of America in the 1970s or 1980s, you grew up believing a few things.

You believed that you lived in a land where the children were free, where it didn’t matter whether you were a boy or a girl because neither could limit your choices — not when you were a kid, not when you grew up. You believed it was perfectly fine for William to want a doll and if you were a girl, you might have been perfectly happy for him to take yours.

You believed these things because of “Free to Be … You and Me.” That landmark album, which had its 50th anniversary last month, and its companion book shaped a generation. It took the idealism and values of the civil rights and the women’s rights movements and packaged them into a treasury of songs, poems and stories that was at once earnest, silly and wholeheartedly sappy. It was the kind of thing a kid felt both devoted to and slightly embarrassed by. The soundtrack got stuck in your head. The book fell apart at the seams.

. . . “Free to Be” unshackled boys and girls from these kinds of gender stereotypes. As Pogrebin wrote in the book’s introduction, “What we have been seeking is a literature of human diversity that celebrates choice and that does not exclude any child from its pleasures because of race or sex, geography or family occupation, religion or temperament.” For what now seems like a brief moment, boys and girls wore the same unflattering turtlenecks and wide-wale corduroys. Parents encouraged daughters to dream about becoming doctors and police officers. Boys were urged to express feelings. Everyone was allowed to cry.

Then Paul describes pushback, first from the Right, which abhorred its message that women didn’t have to know their place. Then from the capitalists, which profited from making gender-specific toys that the project said forced kids into stereotyped play behavior (“socialization” was profitable).

But then Paul, who is an antiwoke liberal like me, indicts “progressivism” as well for the pushback! (my emphasis below).

Some of it stemmed from ongoing conservative resistance to feminism’s gains. Some of it was about money. And some it of it emerged from a strain of progressivism that has repurposed some of the very stereotypes women and men worked so hard to sweep away.

Wait a tick! What strain of progressivism pushes back against gender stereotypes? Even the most progressives of progressives, it seems to me, break the “male/female” stereotypes by assuming one of a hundred or more genders. Isn’t that a form of freedom?

Well, Paul doesn’t think so:

Now we risk losing those advances. In lieu of liberating children from gender, some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels — gender identity, gender role, gender performance and gender expression — to affix to themselves from a young age. Some go so far as to suggest that not only is gender “assigned” to people at birth but that sex in humans is a spectrum (even though accepted science holds that sex in humans is fundamentally binary, with a tiny number of people having intersex traits). The effect of all this is that today we are defining people — especially children — by gender more than ever before, rather than trying to free both sexes from gender stereotypes.

The first link goes to an Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf criticizing the acculturation of children into “woke” gender dogma before they can think for themselves. And yes, children shouldn’t be forced to adopt gender labels coined by adults. And yes again, Paul is right that sex is binary (and thanks for the link, Ms. Paul!). But I’m not exactly sure what her beef is here. Children who don’t feel they fit the male/female stereotype can assume any sex role they wish, and progressives say we must respect that. You may think that some of those identities, or their acculturation by the young, or the authoritarianism that urges kids into new identities—that all this is bizarre and sometimes irrational. But none if it seems to me to be a restriction of freedom. The message of multiple gender identities seems to be the same as that of Marlo Thomas: “You’re free to be what you want to be.”

Now maybe I’m missing the message here, and it’s unusual for me to defend “progressives” so much, but I’m not sure what’s at issue.

At the end, Paul seems to conflate the “restrictions” that, she says, gender identities impose upon kids with the restricted freedom kids have to roam. And here I agree with her:

As for that land where the children run free, there is little running around now. Despite efforts at free-range parenting, kids tend to be hovered over at all times: In school by surveillance systems like GoGuardian and ClassDojo and the parent portal. In their free time, by the location devices built into their smartwatches and phones. At home, by nanny cams and smart devices. And the children probably are home, socializing on their screens rather than outside riding a bike or playing kick-the-can until someone yells “Dinner!”

We’ve found new ways to box children in.

Yes, when I grew up, after I came home from elementary school, I’d hop on my bike and go meet my friends, with only the restriction that I’d be home for dinner. These days a parent could probably get arrested for that. There is too much hovering, and since free-roaming kids are safer than ever, it’s unnecessary.

At the end Paul urges parents and kids to open the book and listen to the album again, for “winding the clock back a little [to 1972] would actually be a real step forward”.  She’s right about the helicopter parenting, but I don’t get her point about different genders putting kids back in the old gender-stereotype boxes.

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

December 4, 2022 • 9:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

Biological sex is not binary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Allan, Christina

A misguided but abject apology from an Oxford Union student

December 2, 2022 • 9:45 am

Reader Cora sent me an archived link to this paper from the Times of London, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.

The skinny is that the Oxford Union, the group that officially represents students at the University, has one president and five vice-presidents. One of the latter was a “dedicated woman’s officer”, devoted to promoting an protecting women’s issues at the University. But as we know, the word “woman” has taken on a new meaning, including transsexual women, and that got the woman’s officer, Ellie Greaves, into trouble. Click to read:

Because transsexual women are considered by activists to be identical in every respect to biological women, including their issues and concerns, they had to change the name and the mission of the position. But Greaves had defended her position’s original mission, which espoused some concerns of biological women but not transsexual women. For defending that notion, she got huge backlash, the position was changed, and Greaves issued about as embarrassing a statement of contrition as you can imagine. Excerpts:

Greaves is a point of contact for students with issues relating to women’s health, sexual consent and night-time safety. She said last month: “I really hope the issues I’ve been talking about this year don’t fall into the background. I think there’s a risk that the removal of [the post] will send the message that ‘sexism is solved’, when it really isn’t.

“We’re not where we need to be in terms of women’s representation and I think there’s a risk of moves to tackle sexual violence being left behind. There’s a reason the role has been around for so long. I will continue to prioritise women.”

Sharon Udott, president of the Oxford Feminist Society, said: “It’s incredibly important to have a women-focused role in 2022. To say that it is redundant in this day and age is an incredibly privileged position to hold. From violence against women to advocating for increased support and funding for women’s health, these issues don’t change when the year does.”

Greaves also told the student newspaper Cherwell that “provision for conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome are not accommodated in the way I would like to see”.

Well, you can’t go saying things like that, especially about biological-woman-limited medical conditions. And so the mob went into action, the position’s name was changed, and Oggsford (Gatsby’s term for the University) gave the “inclusion” reason:

Students took issue with some of her comments, The Oxford Student website said on Tuesday. She was asked at a student council meeting last week: “What do you have to say to the hundreds of students who were consulted regarding [the role review] . . . who agreed that this would be a good change for inclusivity, equality and the priority of intersectionality?”

Intersectionality is the theory that various forms of discrimination centred on race, gender, class, disability, sexuality, and other identities, do not work independently but interact to produce particularised forms of social oppression.

Thanks for the explanation, Times! goes on:

The union is replacing its women’s officer with a liberation and equalities representative from next year. The reorganisation of union leadership will keep the same number of roles — one president and five vice-presidents — but female students will lose a dedicated women’s officer. The union said this was because the role was created at a time when women could not get full degrees and colleges were segregated, and that the position prioritised one protected group over others.

Oxford Student Union said of changes to the women’s officer position: “The role has not been replaced but augmented to include more underrepresented and marginalised communities who currently do not have sufficient representation.”

Well, maybe, but the real reason is one we all know. And the new officer is going to have his/her hands full enforcing social justice as a whole: it’s a “liberation and equalities representative”.

And even if the position is redundant now (I’ll let the women be the judge of that), the worst part is Greaves’s abject and cringe-making apology. It’s like the Cultural Revolution in China, when those who transgressed accepted dogma had to wear signs around their necks and don paper hats shaped like cones. (Some were beaten and even killed, too.)

THE APOLOGY, with an explanatory note by the Times:

Greaves issued a statement on Tuesday, saying: “The comments I made in the article contribute to a bio-essentialist, narrow-minded narrative of what being a woman is, including the prioritisation of women over minorities. I cannot apologise enough for the damage and hurt I have caused the trans community.”

Bio-essentialism is the philosophy that biology plays a larger role in determining human psychology or development than social, economic, or environmental factors.

“My knowledge of the trans experience is very limited at the moment, and I will endeavour to educate myself further on trans inclusivity through more open engagement with LGBTQ+ Campaign and personal research,” she said.

Note the criticism of “bioessentialism”, which makes an unsupported claim. It’s not true that for all aspects of human development or psychology, social/economic/environmental factors play a larger role than do biological ones. It depends on which aspect of development you’re talking about. For example, biology plays nearly the entire role of determining whether you’re a male or female in the first place, and that affects secondary sexual traits like genitals, body hair, and vocal pitch.

But forget that. What’s reprehensible here is the way Greaves bowed and truckled to the trans activists with her statement about her ignorance and determination to “educate herself.” And I doubt that she really caused a lot of “damage and hurt” to the trans community. They will of course claim that, but what she said above could damage or hurt only those so easily triggered that they may need professional help. The dignified thing for her to have done was either resign the position, or accept it, do what the new position requires, and move on. As we all know, apologies like Greaves’s never work—they just further inflame the extreme progressives.

A metaphorical analogy to Greaves

Two religions collide: Cambridge student preacher causes row by suggesting that Jesus was a transsexual male

November 27, 2022 • 12:00 pm

You can thank reader Pyers for the links to two—count them, two—articles about how a student at Cambridge claims that Jesus was a transsexual male, which of course caused a huge fracas. Pyers added this to his links:

And this one must be for the 5* treatment as being idiotic on just so so many levels.  When I read it I just, to use a piece of internet shorthand, PML. [JAC: inquiry reveals that this stands for “pissed myself laughing”]. It is the craziest of the crazy, looniest of loons …Just do what I was tempted to do and bash your head against a wall. It is at moments like this that you thank God you are an atheist! (Big grin for that one.)

It’s widely reported in the UK media:

The first article’s from the Torygraph:

A quote and picture (bolding is mine):

Jesus could have been transgender, according to a University of Cambridge dean.

Dr Michael Banner, the dean of Trinity College, said such a view was “legitimate” after a row over a sermon by a Cambridge research student that claimed Christ had a “trans body”, The Telegraph can disclose.

The “truly shocking” address at last Sunday’s evensong at Trinity College chapel, saw Joshua Heath, a junior research fellow, display Renaissance and Medieval paintings of the crucifixion that depicted a side wound that the guest preacher likened to a vagina.

Worshippers told The Telegraph they were left “in tears” and felt excluded from the church, with one shouting “heresy” at the Dean upon leaving.

The sermon displayed three paintings, including Jean Malouel’s 1400 work Pietà, with Mr Heath pointing out Jesus’s side wound and blood flowing to the groin. The order of service also showed French artist Henri Maccheroni’s 1990 work “Christs”.

Heath, whose PhD was supervised by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, also told worshippers that in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, from the 14th century, this side wound was isolated and “takes on a decidedly vaginal appearance”.

Heath also drew on non-erotic depictions of Christ’s penis in historical art, which “urge a welcoming rather than hostile response towards the raised voices of trans people”.

“In Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body in these works, if the body of Christ as these works suggest the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body,” the sermon concluded.

A congregation member, who wished to remain anonymous, told Dr Banner in a complaint letter: “I left the service in tears. You offered to speak with me afterwards, but I was too distressed. I am contemptuous of the idea that by cutting a hole in a man, through which he can be penetrated, he can become a woman.

“I am especially contemptuous of such imagery when it is applied to our Lord, from the pulpit, at Evensong. I am contemptuous of the notion that we should be invited to contemplate the martyrdom of a ‘trans Christ’, a new heresy for our age.”

Here is PROOF—one of the pictures shown during Heath’s sermon. You have to do a really logical stretch to see that as a vagina. It’s not even in the right place!

And here’s how Dean Banner defended the claim. Note that he often gives BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”, which is usually a religious homily. Dawkins did it once, and that was the last time they used an atheist!

Dr Banner’s response to the complaint, seen by The Telegraph, defended how the sermon “suggested that we might think about these images of Christ’s male/female body as providing us with ways of thinking about issues around transgender questions today”.

“For myself, I think that speculation was legitimate, whether or not you or I or anyone else disagrees with the interpretation, says something else about that artistic tradition, or resists its application to contemporary questions around transsexualism,” Dr Banner added.

Dr Banner, who frequents BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, said that while the views were the speaker’s own, he “would not issue an invitation to someone who I thought would deliberately seek to shock or offend a congregation or who could be expected to speak against the Christian faith”.

Click to read the more heated piece from the Daily Fail:

The Fail doesn’t add much to the above, but does give an official quote form the Uni:

A spokesperson for Trinity College said: The College would like to make clear the following:

‘Neither the Dean of Trinity College nor the researcher giving the sermon suggested Jesus was transgender.

‘The sermon addressed the image of Christ depicted in art and various interpretations of those artistic portrayals.

‘The sermon’s exploration of the nature of religious art, in the spirit of thought-provoking academic inquiry, was in keeping with open debate and dialogue at the University of Cambridge.’

Now it’s barely possible that some randy medieval artist deliberately painted Jesus’s wound to resemble a vagina. But since I’m not convinced that Jesus really existed as any real person, much less as a divine human/son of God/part of God, I can’t be bothered worrying about his gender. The whole fracas is simply hilarious, instantiating what happens when one religion, Christianity, collides with another—wokeness.

MIT tells prospective faculty how to write a successful diversity statement

November 26, 2022 • 11:45 am

It was inevitable that when universities began requiring diversity statements for prospective faculty, postdocs, and grad students, sites would pop up telling you how to write a good statement.  (Some places will even charge to help you!) This site, from the MIT Communication Lab (click on screenshot below) is fairly extensive, covering not only the format of your 1-2 page statement, but also the content.

Although I was a political activist in college (I’m not going to go through that again), it turns out that there’s no way I could write a statement the way MIT suggests. This means that had this been a critical criterion when I was applying for jobs, I’d be flipping burgers now. Several of my colleagues who have read these requirements have said the same. People would have more burgers, but who would have written a book on speciation?

These DEI statements are often critical. Although the MIT site says this:

A diversity statement alone is unlikely to get you an interview or a job offer, but a well-written diversity statement may enable you to stand out among a large pool of qualified candidates.

. . . in reality, in some places like Berkeley, if your diversity statement isn’t up to muster you have no chance of getting a job, no matter how good your academic qualifications are (see here and here). And since you have to talk about efforts you have made in the past to increase diversity, as well as your philosophy of diversity, you have to start doing social-justice work well before you intend to apply for jobs. Woe to those students who have immersed themselves wholly in quantum mechanics or classical literature out of the love of the field and of knowledge. Without a track record in promoting diversity, as well as a philosophy of diversity, those people are doomed.

I don’t of course object to universities encouraging diversity efforts as a way to “broaden” a candidate, but there are many ways to be broad besides fighting for equity of races and genders. These include doing general outreach to high schools, writing popular books and articles on your field, doing an internship at a newspaper or other organization,, and so on. But those don’t count nearly as much as showing your history of fighting for equity.  And is this attempt to turn universities from places of learning into instruments of specific types of social justice that bothers me. As Stanley Fish said (it’s a book title): “Save the world on your own time.”

And, in the end, DEI statements may be illegal. As my colleague Brian Leiter (a law school prof) pointed out, such required statements, if used to cull candidates, may constitute illegal “viewpoint discrimination”. As he notes:

I recommend that those applying for jobs in the University of California system say only this in the diversity statement:  “I decline to supply this statement which constitutes illegal viewpoint discrimination in violation of my constitutional rights.”   There are already lawyers gearing up to bring legal challenges; I hope they act soon.   If you have been rejected from a University of California search, and suspect it was on grounds of insufficient ideological purity about “diversity,” please get in touch with me.  I can connect you with one public interest legal organization looking for plaintiffs.

But back to the MIT recommendations from this site:


Here’s the recommended breakdown of how you should divide your diversity activities and knowledge:

This means you have to have studied DEI extensively, and have a good track record of “advancing DEI”. I’m surprised they don’t recommend a reading list.

Here’s what you need to do (all quotes are indented):

Identify your purpose:

A faculty application diversity statement is NOT a document explaining how you as a candidate are diverse. While it is fine to include personal stories if they have informed how you think about diversity, this should not be the main focus of the statement. Rather, a diversity statement is an opportunity to show that you care about the inclusion of many forms of identity in academia and in your field, including but not limited to gender, race/ethnicity, age, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, and ability status.

Note: you have to show how much you care, not about the field itself, but about mentoring and gathering in people diverse not in viewpoint but in disability status, race, gender, age, and so on.

And you better know your onions:

As such, a diversity statement should not focus on your own experience but rather your intentions as a professor. It should demonstrate that you are familiar with the importance of DEI issues, outline your experience working with diverse groups and advancing DEI, and identify ways that you will use your position as a leader in your field to have an impact within your community.

Oy! Where’s the reading list?

Demonstrate knowledge of DEI:

As such, a diversity statement should not focus on your own experience but rather your intentions as a professor. It should demonstrate that you are familiar with the importance of DEI issues, outline your experience working with diverse groups and advancing DEI, and identify ways that you will use your position as a leader in your field to have an impact within your community. . .

Demonstrate experience with DEI:

It is not sufficient to demonstrate knowledge about diversity, equity, and inclusion; your statement should also show experience with them. While this need not be a separate section, your statement should make it clear that you have not only thought about DEI in the abstract but have applied that knowledge and are prepared to continue doing so in the future.

There’s other stuff like “be concrete in your future plans” (you’ll have to do more than say you’ll treat all students with equal effort and respect: that’s a statement that will get your application binned). Rather, you have to be absolutely specific in what you will do to promote equity and inclusivity. This is where MIT is more or less writing the application for you:

Note that specific actions are required; you can’t just say “I’ll treat my students equally, regardless of gender, disability, ethnicity, age, and so on.” You have to go to orientation and recruitment events, and act somewhat as a psychologist to your students. Nor do I don’t understand the difference between having a lab that’s “inclusive of women” and “striving for gender parity,” but that’s how it works, so you’d better be on board.

Now the advice to be specific in what you’ll do is not so bad, it’s just that they’re prescribing what you should say. This—along with the site’s other advice—is the compelled speech (and belief) that Leiter thinks may be illegal.  Some day we shall see, but to test the legality of DEI statements you need someone to sue who didn’t get a position (presumably because of a faulty statement). And finding someone with that “standing” may be hard. But come it will, and we shall see.

By the way, you can even see a successful example of a diversity statement published on MIT Communications’ web page, with the useful parts highlighted.  It was submitted by an MIT postdoc who got a faculty position at Brown.  Here’s part of it with the good bits coded in different colors: Pink indicates the recommended subheadings.

h/t: Luana

A long and pretty objective discussion of trans issues at Reuters

November 21, 2022 • 11:00 am

It’s articles like this one from Reuters (click on screenshot below), as well as a recent one in the November 14 New York Times, that give me hope that the debate about transgender and transsexual youths (or adults) might be getting more sensible and less polarized. It’s not that either article is “transphobic”, or devoted to highlighting the dangers of transitioning. Rather, the articles are balanced, giving examples of successful transitions as well as those who regretted transitioning. They discuss the view that that therapy shouldn’t be completely “affirmative, but empathic and directed towards finding the best way to resolve gender dysphoria. This is a LONG article, but worth reading. Indeed, if you follow this debate, you’re not going to see all sides in a short piece.

Like the other article, there are stories from both sides of the fence. Here’s one example of where several sides are examined:

Thousands of children who, like Kulovitz, were assigned female at birth have sought gender-affirming care in recent years. And for reasons not well-understood, they significantly outnumber those assigned male at birth who seek treatment.

As Reuters reported in October, a growing number of the children receiving care at the 100-plus gender clinics across the United States are opting for medical interventions – puberty-blocking drugs, hormones and, less often, surgery. And they are doing so even though strong scientific evidence of the long-term safety and efficacy of these treatments for children is scant.

That has led to a split among gender-care specialists: those who urge caution to ensure that only adolescents deemed well-suited to treatment after thorough evaluation receive it, and those who believe that delays in treatment unnecessarily prolong a child’s distress and put them at risk of self-harm.

The outsized proportion of adolescents seeking treatment to transition from female to male has sparked parallel concerns. Professionals in the gender-care community agree that treatment of all transgender children should be supportive and affirming. The question, for some, is whether peer groups and online media may be influencing some of these patients to pursue medical transition, with potentially irreversible side effects, at a time in their lives when their identities are often in flux.

Corey Basch, a professor of public health at William Paterson University in New Jersey who researches health communication and teens’ use of social media, said she fears that some adolescents are susceptible to making faulty self-diagnoses without adequate input from medical professionals. “Teens are so incredibly vulnerable to information overload and being pushed in one direction,” Basch said. “They could be lacking the analytical skills to question who is giving this advice and if their advice is valid.”

I’m not going to summarize the piece, but merely call it to your attention. But I do want to mention one of the piece’s major issues: why, compared to not long ago, are so many more biological females choosing hormonal treatment and “top surgery” (removal of breasts, much more common than “bottom surgery”). By the way, the discussion of the way some surgeons advertise this treatment in a tacky way will make you queasy.

Here’s the sex-ratio conundrum:

Adolescents assigned female at birth initiate transgender care 2.5 to 7.1 times more frequently than those assigned male at birth, according to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), a 4,000-member organization of medical, legal, academic and other professionals. Several clinics in the United States told Reuters that among their patients, the ratio was nearly 2-to-1, and similar phenomena have been documented in Europe, Canada and Australia.

Not all of these patients receive medical treatment. Their gender-affirming care may entail adopting a name and pronouns aligned with their gender identity. It may include counseling and therapy. But an increasing number are opting to take hormones and have top surgery.

The article offers three explanations, and I’ll quote them (bold headings are mine):

1).  A reduction in sexist attitudes.

Advocates of transgender rights and clinicians who treat adolescents see nothing out of the ordinary in the trend. While transgender children face significant prejudice and threats of violence, they say, increasing social acceptance of transgender identity has encouraged more children to seek treatment. At the same time, this reasoning goes, society is generally less accepting of what it deems an effeminate boy than of a masculine girl, and the greater stigma that those assigned male at birth face may make them less likely to pursue treatment, reducing their share of the patient population.

2). The “refuge effect”: seeking male privilege.

But other gender-care providers and some parents are skeptical. In interviews with Reuters, they expressed worry that some adolescents assigned female at birth may be dealing with significant mental health issues in addition to questions about their gender identity, or may be seeking to transition as a refuge in a culture of internalized misogyny, body hatred and early sexualization of girls.

3.) Sex differences in response to puberty (combined with male privilege).  

“Girls have a harder time with the physical and emotional changes that come with the onset of puberty,” said Dr Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist, transgender woman and former board member of WPATH. “And I think there is an element of truth that males have it better in many quarters of society than females.”

The first hypothesis does explain the rapid rise in biological women/girls seeking to transition to males, rather than the other way round, But the second and third ones don’t, since presumably difficulty with puberty and male privilege have been ongoing for decades. One would have to invoke a change social climate that favors transitions to explain why, all of a sudden, female-to-gender transitions have become predominant.

At any rate, the piece also goes into the unknown long-term effects of hormone treatment and other issues that we’re familiar with.  The fact that these can be discussed openly in two respected journalism sites—and would have been taboo (“transphobic”) before—is a good sign.

Stephen Knight on Sean Carroll, Colin Wright, and the binary of sex

November 16, 2022 • 9:15 am

Sean Carroll, bless his physicist’s soul, decided to respond to a tweet by Colin Wright (asserting the binary nature of sex) by giving his (Carroll’s) own take in on the biological nature of sex. Sean attached a figure from an old Scientific American article assertingthat sex is not binary, but a spectrum. Here’s the first to-and-fro:

The figure, enlarged (click further to make it even bigger):

This figure came from a Scientific American article published in 2017 by Amanda Montañez, called “Visualizing sex as a spectrum” (free access).  The article clearly implies that, like gender, sex is not binary but a spectrum:

Much of the public discourse in this arena centers on gender rather than sex, presumably because gender is understood to be somewhat subjective; it is a social construct that can be complex, fluid, multifaceted. Biological sex, on the other hand, appears to leave less room for debate. You either have two X chromosomes or an X and a Y; ovaries or testes; a vagina or a penis. Regardless of how an individual ends up identifying, they are assigned to one sex or the other at birth based on these binary sets of characteristics.

But of course, sex is not that simple either.

The September issue of Scientific American explores the fascinating and evolving science of sex and gender. One of the graphics I had the pleasure of working on breaks down the idea of biological sex as a non-binary attribute, focusing largely on what clinicians refer to as disorders of sex development (DSD), also known as intersex.

This figure clearly has an ideological purpose:

DSDs—which, broadly defined, may affect about one percent of the population—represent a robust, evidence-based argument to reject rigid assignations of sex and gender. Certain recent developments, such as the Swedish adoption of a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and the growing call to stop medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex babies, indicate a shift in the right direction. I am hopeful that raising public awareness of intersex, along with transgender and non-binary identities, will help align policies more closely with scientific reality, and by extension, social justice.

In reality, what they are trying to do is the reverse: adjust scientific reality so that it aligns with social justice. That is, if sex is a spectrum and not binary, then people of different genders can somehow feel that they are in harmony with biological reality. But that’s an example of the “appeal to nature.” The rights of people of different genders, including transsexual people, do not depend on the developmental biology of sex, or of any observations in nature about sex dichotomies.

I’m not going to discuss my claim that sex is binary; I’ve talked about it at length, as did Luana Maroja in her piece at Substack. I’ll just put it out there that the going biological definition of sex is that there are two sexes in vertebrates: males (who produce small mobile gametes) and females (who produce large, immobile gametes). There is no group that produces intermediate types of gametes that can unite with other gametes, so there is nothing beyond these two sexes. Further the exceptions to this male/female distinction (intersex folks and hermaphroites) constitute about 0.018% of the population. or about one in every 5600 people. For all intents and purposes, then, sex is binary.  Gender, in contrast, is less binary but still bimodal, since most people identify their gender (i.e., how the present their social sex role) as male or female, too.

Carroll, however, got into trouble by issuing the tweet above, which, as his caption noted, purported to represent the views of “actual science”. In reality, it represented the “progressive” ideological views of Scientific American. In light of the magazine’s steep decline, we can no longer take its word for what accepted science tells us.

If you follow the thread on Sean’s tweet, there are of this morning 737 comments—most of them critical and many explaining why Carroll’s notion that he’s showing us “actual science” leading to a non-binary view of sex is wrong.  I didn’t go through them all, but posted a few in yesterday’s Hili Nooz.

(One note: I didn’t know that Sean had left Caltech, but this is pinned to the top of his feed):

What the Sci. Am. figure actually shows is that the pathways determining sex-related traits (note that “gametes” are not shown!) is complicated, and if your definition of “sex” includes secondary sex characters, chromosomes, and so on, then lots of things can go wrong, producing intersex individuals. Still, only one individual out of 5600 represents one of these developmental anomalies.

I responded, and I swear that this is by far the most comments (195), retweets (1,529), and “likes” (8,258), I’ve ever gotten on any of my tweets. But it’s best not to feel good about that, because it only makes you want to get more approbation on Twitter, which is not a good reason for tweeting.

But the point of this is not to bash Sean, whom I like and who is our Official Website Physicist®, but to correct what he said. I hope he addresses the critics and hope even more that he admits that biological sex consists of two distinct groups with very few exceptions.

Stephen Knight, once known as the “Godless Spellchecker,” has a piece about the kerfuffle on his Substack site. You can read it for free by clicking on the screenshot below, but, as always, subscribe if you read often.

Stephen gives a tweet from Colin Wright, who’s written a lot about the binary nature of biological sex (see this post, for instance), and then gives his (Stephen’s) own take:

Below are excerpt’s from Knight’s piece. He’s pretty hard on Sean in a way I wouldn’t be, because Carroll is a nice guy and just made a misstep. But I’ll quote Knight anyway:

 Colin Wright is an evolutionary biologist stating an objective fact about the biological reality of human sex. This isn’t a mere opinion—it’s a scientific fact. There are few things in the field of biology that are so emphatically true as human sex being binary is.

If anyone were able to demonstrate that human sex wasn’t binary and immutable, their research would win them a Nobel prize and revolutionise our entire understanding of biology. But no such peer-reviewed research exists—for obvious reasons.

This doesn’t stop people that really should know better from from wading in with this sort of stuff though.

He then shows Carroll’s tweet.

Knight continues, and gives some Twitter responses from Emma Hilton, a Manchester Uni biologist (Matthew’s colleague) who also studies and lectures on sex determination.

Sean seems to arrogantly think he has the ‘actual science’ on his side when rejecting the binary nature of human sex. But in reality, all Sean is doing with this borrowed graphic is using the existence of intersex conditions as a jumping off point for some faulty conclusions.

The existence of intersex conditions or DSDs (difference in sex development) appears to be the graphic’s sole argument against the gender binary. However, although intersex people do exist (as a tiny minority ) they do not constitute a third or separate human sex. In fact, certain intersex conditions are entirely sex-specific—meaning some of them only affect men, and some of them only affect women. And the idea that someone with a ‘micropenis’ or an abnormally large clitoris is no longer unambiguously male or female is as false as it is harmful.

Development Biologist Emma Hilton highlights the peculiar claims within the graphic when she notes:

Another from Emma. (“DSD” refers to “disorders of sex development”):

Sean doesn’t appear to have replied to Emma’s (or anybody else’s questions).

Here’s Knight in a 9-minute clip of a discussion he had with Colin Wright, who explains why sex in humans is binary. If you haven’t read my own discussions on this site, Colin gives a good summary.  I should add that I’ve found a single case of an individual who produced both types of fertile gametes, a true hermaphrodite. The person apparently both ovulated and fathered a child (Wright mentions the possibility of such an individual at 4:47). But this is not, as Colin explains, a member of a third sex, but an individual combining both sexes. Nevertheless, one could count such a hermaphrodite as an exception to the binary, as Sax (2002) did when deriving the 0.018% figure for exceptions to the sex binary (mostly intersex individuals).

Wright also dispels the 1.8% figure of “nonbinary” individuals bruited about by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Though she later rejected her own figure, people are still using it. Either they haven’t followed the literature, or they know better but choose to hide the revisions.

Wright helpfully explains and dispels the ideological point of view that drives people to distort biological truth in this way:

I suspect the willingness to unthinkingly push pseudoscience of this sort is well-intentioned. People seem to believe that one must reject the human sex binary in order to ensure transgender rights.

First of all, intersex conditions are mostly not applicable to the trans debate—as the overwhelming majority of transgender people do not have an intersex condition—and it shouldn’t matter whether they do. Not to mention many actually living with intersex conditions aren’t too keen on their existence being used as a gambit in the spread of gender ideology either.

You don’t need to pretend humans can change their sex to be able to defend trans rights. It’s the equivalent of demanding we must agree the world is 6,000 years old in order to guarantee religious freedom.

If you use false premises to argue for certain rights, many will feel inclined to dismiss the validity of these rights along with your junk justifications. Not only is all of this completely unnecessary in the fight for trans rights, it can be counterproductive too.

All that is needed to advocate for trans rights is a commitment to individual liberalism. That’s it. Pushing false claims about gender as a condition of certain rights turns your cause into a religion. And I will invoke the very same liberalism I use to defend trans rights to reject your new faith. There is no contradiction here.

Why do I bang on about this (I think this is the last post about binary sex for a while)? Because I simply can’t stand people distorting biological reality in the service of ideology. This isn’t going to kill people, as Lysenko’s bogus “vernalization” theory did, but it still confuses and misinforms people, and infuses our field with an ideology that has spread to scientists themselves—as well as journals and granting agencies—who chill the atmosphere for free discussion. And that impedes the search for truth that is science.

Click “continue reading” to see screen capture of the original “sex” tweet by Carroll, which I’ve saved in case the original tweet goes away:

Continue reading “Stephen Knight on Sean Carroll, Colin Wright, and the binary of sex”

FFRF unwisely battles for the right of transsexual women (medically treated or not) to compete in women’s sports

November 12, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I’ve always been a fan of and a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). I am on their Honorary Board of Directors, and in 2011 received their “Emperor Has No Clothes Award”, which as they say is “reserved for public figures who take on the fabled role of the little child in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and ‘tell it like it is’—about religion.” I’ve was very honored with their recognition, and humbled to be added to the many people I admire who have also gotten the gold statue of the naked emperor—a statue made by the same company that makes the Oscars.

Lately, however, the FFRF has crept out of its bailiwick of enforcing separation of church from state, and is, like the ACLU and the SPLC, engaged in matters of social justice. Well, that’s their call, and I wouldn’t beef about it unless I thought they’ve undertaken campaigns that are unwise.

Well, the FFRF has, and has gone to ground on the same issue where the ACLU went astray: transgender issues in sports. I hasten to add again that I think that with almost no exceptions, transgender people should have all the rights, privileges, and moral status as cisgender folks. I’m happy to call them by their chosen sex, treat them as members of their chosen sex, and use their chosen pronouns.

The few exceptions, which I’ve written about in detail, include sports participation (particularly trans women competing against biological women), rape counseling, and inhabiting sex-segregated prisons. There are good reasons for these exceptions, and the reasons all involve fairness to biological women—fairness that can be abrogated by considering transsexual women as fully equivalent to biological women.

Now the FFRF, as shown by its new press release, has joined as amicus in a suit against Indiana public schools, with the plaintiffs arguing that a state law prohibiting transgender girls or women from competing against biological women in public-school sports is unconstitutional, violating Title IX. Title IX prevents schools that receive federal money from discriminating between the sexes in any school activity, including sports. Click to read the FFRF’s press release:

Excerpts from the above:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has signed on to an amicus brief challenging a new Indiana law that discriminates against transgender school athletes.

The National Women’s Law Center and its law firm partner, Hogan Lovells, have filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in A.M. v. Indianapolis in support of the plaintiff, a 10-year-old transgender girl who was kicked off her elementary school softball team after a sports ban targeting transgender girls and young women took effect in the summer of 2022. A.M. and her family, represented by the ACLU, won a preliminary district court injunction finding that the anti-trans ban on sports participation likely violates Title IX. The state of Indiana has appealed.

Indiana’s House Enrolled Act 1041, which was briefly in effect in July, forces Indiana public schools to bar any student from participating on a female sports team if the student is deemed to be “male, based on a student’s biological sex at birth in accordance with the student’s genetics and reproductive biology.” As the district court properly recognized, this type of sex discrimination violates both the text and the purpose of Title IX. It also contravenes the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Note that the law doesn’t prohibit transgender athletes from participating in sport, but prohibits transgender women, born as biological males, from participating on female sports teams.  The FFRF brief goes on:

The National Women’s Law Center brief that FFRF has signed on to highlights how inclusive school policies (such as the local Indianapolis policy displaced by an anti-trans statewide ban) are consistent with Title IX and a key part of creating gender equity in education. The inequities girls face in K-12 sports are not due to inclusion of transgender girls and women. The law will impact all women — not just women and girls who are transgender — and will be particularly harmful to Black and brown women and girls.

The Indiana law threatens opportunities for girls and women who seek to play school team sports, the National Women’s Law Center amicus brief emphasizes. “Banning certain students from sports teams, merely because of who they are, does not promote fairness or safety for cisgender girls; instead, exclusionary policies like those required by HEA 1041 only serve to harm transgender students, as well as cisgender women and girls who do not conform to sex stereotypes,” it states. Besides, appellants’ claimed concerns about maintaining the “fairness” and “safety” of girls’ sports rest on harmful and inaccurate sex stereotypes. Athletes come in all shapes, sizes and physiological makeups. These differences may be advantageous or disadvantageous based on their sport.

And the Indiana law creates a discriminatory ban that will harm women and girls who are transgender, as well as intersex and otherwise gender nonconforming, the brief maintains. “Participation in sports generally provides students with a supportive network and social status that can minimize feelings of difference and isolation, a benefit that is especially crucial for transgender student athletes because this can help to foster acceptance and positive peer relationships,” states the brief.

And they bring in race, although I’m not sure exactly why “women and girls of color” will suffer disproportionately, for transsexual women or girls of any color are barred from participating in women’s sports. Even if you take intersectionality into account, the Indiana law causes no disproportional harm that I can see to people of different ethnicities. The relevant FFRF bit:

Plus, women and girls of color will be disproportionately targeted and harmed by the new Indiana law. Exclusion of transgender women and girls has a far-reaching impact and can adversely affect other women and girls, as well. Black and brown girls and women — who are routinely targeted for not conforming to society’s expectations of white femininity — are particularly vulnerable to harm from the types of exclusionary policies the state of Indiana is asking the court to impose. Serena Williams is perhaps the most prominent woman of color to experience this policing but far from the only.

Like the ACLU, the FFRF has made this misstep on two grounds.

First, according to Biden’s new policies, any person who declares themselves to be of the sex different from their birth sex is officially deemed to have transitioned, regardless of whether they have received surgery or medical treatment. This means that if a biological male simply declares that he’s a female, the court must take his word for it and allow him to compete on girls’ or women’s sports teams.

And that brings us to the second issue: fairness to biological women who do sports. There is now sufficient data to show that once puberty has begun, biological males begin developing traits that give them performances superior to those of biological females in most sports: bone density, strength, muscle mass, and so on. And even transsexual women who take hormones that reduce testosterone still retain these traits for at least two to three years—and perhaps permanently. For data summarizing these differences, see here and here, and, as the NYT wrote in an article on the issue:

But peer reviewed studies show that even after testosterone suppression, top trans women retain a substantial edge when racing against top biological women. . .

. . .“Athletic performance depends on a lot of factors: access to coaches and nutritionists and technical skill,” Mr. Mosier said. “We are making broad generalizations about men being bigger, stronger, faster.”

Most scientists, however, view performance differences between elite male and female athletes as near immutable. The Israeli physicist Ira S. Hammerman in 2010 examined 82 events across six sports and found women’s world record times were 10 percent slower than those of men’s records.

“Activists conflate sex and gender in a way that is really confusing,” noted Dr. Carole Hooven, lecturer and co-director of undergraduate studies in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. She wrote the book “T: The Story of Testosterone.” “There is a large performance gap between healthy normal populations of males and females, and that is driven by testosterone.”

The sprinter Allyson Felix won the most world championship medals in history. Her lifetime best in the 400 meters was 49.26 seconds; in 2018, 275 high school boys ran faster.

Now these differences begin with puberty, and, as the NYT say, are viewed as “near immutable” (some sports, like shooting, however, haven’t been tested, and may not show a difference). One might make a case that before puberty, biological men can compete against women, so maybe the ten-year-old trassexual girl kicked off the (presumably girls’) softball team has a case. But the Indiana law applies to all public schools serving children and adolescents up to age 18, and the issue of unfairness to biological women begins when a biological male starts puberty. One law cannot fit everyone nor be fair to everyone. (See all my posts on this issue here.)

This has been recognized now by several sports organizations, including the Olympics, which “used to require all women to have testosterone levels under 10 nanomoles per liter and transfeminine people to be on testosterone-supressing [sic] medication for at least a year.”  However, the Olympics have now rescinded that rule, and has basically bailed, leaving the guidelines for transsexual or intersexual athletes up to each sport. It’s a mess.

I’v proposed several solutions to this issue, all of which seem to allow both men and women to compete in sports without violating Title IX (one is an “other” category for transsexual athletes, intersexual athletes, and so on, while another is allowing both transsexual men and transsexual women to compete against biological men in an “open” category). These avoid the issue of forcing biological women to compete against biological men who have assumed the gender of women.

The issue is complex, and not nearly as simple as the FFRF, ACLU, and other trans advocates make out.  It is at once philosophical, moral, and above all biological. To say that “trans women are women” doesn’t hold true in the case of sports performance.

Now some people say this is a trivial issue. Why not let trans women compete on women’s teams? After all, there aren’t many transsexual women athletes. But the rate of sex transitioning has increased sharply in the last 12 years for both males and females aged 12-17, and the issue will not remain “trivial” for long. Further, even a single transsexual woman who wins a competition in women’s sports based on biological advantage gained at puberty creates a lot of unfairness for women (who generally keep silent lest they be called “transphobic”) while advantaging one person. To some extent that tilts the playing field that Title IX tried to level.

I’m not sure why organizations like the ACLU and FFRF are leaving their traditional bailiwicks to get involved in women’s sports, but I wouldn’t mind so much if the stands they took were sensible ones—at the very least based on what we know about the science of sex differences. But they aren’t: these new forays into sports reflect a progressive ideology that sounds good but creates more problems than it solves.  Fairness demands more data and, at present, the greatest care in dealing with the issue of allowing biological men who transition to compete against biological women. We already know enough, though, to declare without reservation that medically unmodified biological men who present as transsexual women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports. And we know enough to hold off on lawsuits forcing biological women to compete against medically treated transsexual women until we have actual data showing that there is no athletic advantage accruing to the latter group during puberty.

You can see the full amicus brief here; I’ve put a few excerpts below (click to read).


Amici are gravely concerned about the harm H.E.A. 1041 will cause to many women and girls by banning all transgender women and girls from playing on school sports teams consistent with their gender identity. H.E.A. 1041 rests on fundamentally inaccurate and harmful stereotypes regarding athleticism, biology, and gender, which particularly harm women and girls who are transgender or intersex4 and Black and brown girls, who are also likely to be targeted because of racial and gender stereotypes that they are less feminine than white girls. These stereotypes frequently result in girls being told outright that they are not, in fact, girls. Such gender policing has been used to scrutinize, demean, and exclude transgender and cisgender women athletes, including those who do not conform to sex stereotypes regarding “femininity.”

. . . Appellants wrongly suggest that H.E.A. 1041’s mandated discrimination against transgender women and girls is necessary to ensure equivalent athletic opportunities for cisgender women and girls under Title IX. In fact, enforcing laws like H.E.A. 1041, that discriminate against women and girls who are transgender and others perceived as not conforming to sex stereotypes, is itself a violation of Title IX. As the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in the Title VII case, Bostock v. Clayton County, a policy that discriminates on the basis of transgender status necessarily discriminates on the basis of sex.

Appellants rely on inaccurate sex stereotypes regarding supposed categorical physiological differences between cisgender and transgender women and girls to argue H.E.A. 1041 is necessary to protect athletic opportunities for cisgender girls. See Appellants’ Br. 2, 44-46. This narrative is false. Appellants cannot point to any evidence that allowing transgender girls to compete will curtail athletic opportunities for cisgender athletes. To the contrary, research indicates that in states where women and girls who are transgender are included in sports, participation for all women and girls remains steady or even increases..

. . . Transgender athletes likewise have a range of athletic skills, and are far from uniform in their bodies’ sizes or shapes. The assumption that transgender girls and women have categorical athletic advantages over cisgender girls and women is inaccurate and based on stereotypical gender norms around the types of bodies that are more athletic and the qualities connected with athleticism.

Here’s the bit on race and, apparently, intersectionality:

Exclusion of transgender women and girls has a far-reaching impact and can adversely affect other women and girls as well. Black and brown girls and women—routinely targeted for not conforming to society’s expectations of white femininity—are particularly vulnerable to harm from the types of exclusionary policies Appellants ask the Court to impose. When Black and brown women’s bodies fall outside of traditional notions of white femininity, they are subject to policing, discrimination, and harassment.

In the end, this kind of activism will completely efface the reason why men’s and women’s sports are separate.


Bonus: Dr. Phil talks about transsexual athletes with Carole Hooven, whom we met yesterday. And look at the screenshot at 1:14!

Dr. Phil used my website (but of course I got the figure from someone else):

Debate the way it should be

November 2, 2022 • 3:39 pm

Here’s an archived article from the Torygraph about an interview at Cambridge University involving Helen Joyce, a strong opponent of trans activism, and her interlocutor,  Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta.

The author of the article below, and arranger of the debate, is Arif Ahmed, OBE, a philosopher at Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College.

An excerpt:

I had arranged a public discussion between the journalist Helen Joyce and the eminent social scientist Sir Partha Dasgupta. I had booked a hall in my college, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge. But then several students, mostly women, told me that they felt afraid to attend. This was not necessarily because they were frightened of violent protests. In a way it was worse than that. They were afraid of ostracism by their student peers, and even by academic staff. I therefore booked unobtrusive spaces where they could stay for up to three hours in advance, so that they could enter the hall without being seen.

According to Varsity, this event was to be an interview of Joyce by Dasgupta, and I have no idea whether his questions were critical or probing (as they should be), or simply softballs. I haven’t read any of Joyce’s arguments, but reading about her views I’d say that she comes closer to being a “transphobe” than others who object to trans activism. For example, Wikipedia says this:

In June 2022 PinkNews reported that Joyce had spoken in favour of “reducing or keeping down the number of people who transition” and that “every one of those people is a person who’s been damaged” and “every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world”.

I wouldn’t agree with that, and those are very strong words. Regardless, people shouldn’t be barred from hearing Joyce, especially in an interview where someone asks critical questions. But even this event raised fear in those who wanted to go. That’s known as “the chilling of speech”:

It’s hard to convey the reality and the extent of this fear, which stalks the halls of academia. Many people will know what happened to Kathleen Stock, who was subjected to violent intimidation and harassment following her interventions on the Gender Recognition Act, starting in 2018. Her former employer, the University of Sussex, admitted as much in a statement in October 2021, though by that point the police had advised her to avoid her own place of work, to employ a bodyguard if she did venture onto campus, and to install CCTV outside her home.

Her case, unfortunately, was not unique. And it was against this background that I arranged the Joyce-Dasgupta event. Helen Joyce, author of a bestselling book on sex and gender, has been the subject of repeated accusations of transphobia. She also faces protests, cancellations and blacklisting for her views.

I thought it important to show that, even in British universities today, some places are prepared to defend free speech and open, robust debate, because those are the best routes to the truth, or at least reconciliation, on so many topics.

And yes, there were the usual troubles and threats:

But as soon as I started advertising, there was an immediate and powerful backlash at Cambridge. Open letters were circulated. Students wrote of their hurt and “disappointment” with the fact that anyone should even attempt to engage with Joyce. Senior figures in the university circulated letters that did not name me personally, but which expressed dissatisfaction that a lecturer should have tried to “platform” this debate, at this time, in this place.

There were threats of protests, and even a surprise visit from a very helpful police officer, with advice about how to manage potential violence inside and outside the room.

But the discussion went off, and views were aired. There were hostile questions asked of Joyce (presumably by the audience), and that’s the way it should be.

In the end, however, the event was a great success. There were protests —  screaming, chanting and banging at the door —  but we ignored them.

Helen Joyce herself raised many interesting points. But the best thing was that she welcomed, and responded to, quite hostile questioning. I had hoped that it would be a chance for people to challenge her. I was delighted that some people turned up who plainly disagreed with her book, Trans, often quite forcefully. Everyone there was brave to show up, but perhaps especially those people were. My only regret is that there were not more.

Because what the event revealed was the almost magical power of free, open debate. Nearly all animals would settle disagreements by force. But we have invented words, and by face-to-face verbal discussion we can come to agreement, or at least mutual recognition. Words are not a form of violence. They are an alternative to violence. Without that distinction we are lost.

This is debate the way it should be. The purpose is not to reach agreement, but to let each side air its views in a civil manner. That alone, as Mill noted in On Liberty, has many salubrious effects, including knowing what the best arguments of your opponents are, and, if you don’t agree, helping you sharpen your own critical views.

Ahmed shouldn’t have to say what he says below, echoing the famous statement of Hillel the Elder, but given the tendency of university people to act like children and try to silence their opponents, it needs to be said. I’ve put the most important words in bold:

To those students who say that the event should never have taken place, I say: watch the video (when released) and see for yourself. To the senior staff who have said the same, I say: contentious debate on things that matter is literally the whole point of a university education.

If you can’t do it here, where, and when, can you do it? And if you can’t do it here, why do we even exist?

I’ll put up the video when it comes out (it’s not up yet).

h/t: Jez