An attempt, using skeletons and grave goods, to see if gender was “nonbinary” in ancient European cultures

May 28, 2023 • 9:30 am

This new article, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (click on title screenshot below), floats an idea that in principle is interesting, but in practice breaks down in both theory and practice.   And that idea is this:  one can determine the degree of “non-binary” genders in ancient societies by examining their graves.

One can, with a fair (but not complete) degree of accuracy, determine the sex of a skeleton, using either its pelvis, its head, or a combination of features. You then look at a bunch of European graves from the Early Neolithic  through the Late Bronze Age (ca 7500 to 3200 years ago), and see if the sex of the skeleton comports with the “grave goods” buried along with it. Some grave goods—especially weapons—suggest that the individual buried was of male gender, while others, like hair ornaments, beads, or needles, suggest that the associated skeleton was of female gender.  You then correlated the biological sex of the individuals with the individuals’ “gender” as indicated by the grave goods. The proportion of “mismatches” among total graves is said to show the degree of “non-binary” people in the local society.

Pape and Ialongo’s “binary” hypothesis is that gender will match sex nearly all of the time, while the alternative is that there will be an appreciable number of mismatches. Of course, for most graves we lack both types of information or one type of information: either the identified biological sex or grave-good gender.

This hypothesis got a lot of attention a while back with reports of sex-determined female skeletons associated with weapons, in particular the publication in 2017 of a 1000-year-old Viking grave whose occupant was a female (determined by bone DNA and therefore accurate). But she was named the “Birka female Viking warrior” because her body was associated with  “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion”. A female skeleton with male “grave-goods”!

Here’s the grave (sketch from Wikipedia):

This gave rise to speculations that women were often warriors in Viking times, like Xena, Wonder Woman, or the women in Wakanda; and heartened feminists and those who appreciate women behaving out of their “gender roles”. Some have even suggested that the Birka warrior was a trans man.

Unfortunately, as both Wikipedia and Science noted (see other criticisms here), we can’t at all be sure of this conclusion, and there are now enough doubts from scholars to cast the “woman Viking warrior” hypothesis in doubt. Perhaps she was not a warrior but was buried like one—she might have been a leader. Or she could have been a very rare exception, a Viking “tomboy” who, like Joan of Arc, liked to fight. We’ll probably never know the answer, but given that the skeleton was definitely XX, the woman-warrior theory can’t be definitively be ruled out—nor can it be ruled in.

At any rate, click to read the article, and note the first three words of the title:

The authors do accept a biological definition of sex and a “social-construct” definition of “gender,” though they admit that some of their colleagues also regard sex as a social construct, in which case this study would have no meaning,

The authors attempted sex and gender matching in 1252 individuals taken from 7 European sites. (The study was based on previously published data, not the authors’ own measurements or observations.)  Because of the difficulties of identifying sex in young skeletons, and the imperfect accuracy of knowing sex from skeletal morphology—that was judged from different studies matching DNA with bones—they got data on 297-299 individuals, or about 24% of the skeletons.  Before we look at the results, let’s note a few problems with this analysis (to be sure, the authors are aware of these):

a.) The errors in determining sex from skeletons.  The authors note that, from other studies, a pelvis can diagnose sex with 85%-99% accuracy, while a skull with mandibles gives a 70-90% accuracy. Thus some of the data may be polluted by inaccurate sex determination.

b.) Some grave goods may not indicate sex. Weapons, the authors argue, are always indicators of a male skeleton (as are animal teeth or boar tusks), but what about ceramic vessels, beads, and wire? Those are always taken to indicate females, but we have no strong assurance of this, though items like hair spirals and needles are likely to indicate women. But what if a buried male didn’t have a weapon? Would they put one in the grave anyway?

c.) Grave goods may have gotten mixed up among burial sites.

d.) Even if a weapon in a female grave indicates that she was some kind of warrior, does that mean she was “nonbinary”? That term has various meanings, today usually a person who identifies as both male and female, sometimes fluctuating over time. Does a woman who carried a weapon fit this description because “fighting” is a man’s role? Does that mean that Joan of Arc, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird were “nonbinary”? Did they identify as such? (I doubt it.) I’m not so sure about using that term (as we’ll see below, there’s some ideology lurking in this analysis).  Are tomboys or effeminate men considered “nonbinary”?  I haven’t seen them described that way.

But of course the biggest problem above is a): misidentification of the sex of skeletons, as the earlier publications didn’t use DNA. If the proportion of mismatches is close to the proportion of misidentified skeletons (as it seems to be), then the “nonbinary” individuals could simply be identification errors.

So let’s see what the authors found (they used old versus “new” data differing in re-analysis of “bone sex”):

Match of sex and gender:  26.5% or 27.2% of the total sample

Mismatch of sex and gender (“non-binary”): 2.9% or 2.2% of the total sample

The rest of the data had either no determination of both sex or gender, or determination of only one.

Thus, of all the doubly-identified individuals, between 8% and 10% of them were “non-binary”.  Given the error rates for misidentifying sex using bones, this is within the error range, and so the “discordant” identifications could simply represent misidentifications of sex. The authors do recognize this:

The general results of our analysis seem to support traditional models: if one singles out the cases for which we have both sex and gender determinations (based roughly on one-third of the total sample, mostly adults: Fig. 5), the association pattern appears overwhelmingly binary, with 90.0 per cent (or 92.6 per cent considering the new data) of burials showing matching sex and gender indicators (Fig. 6). Finally, we can also observe that for 10.0 per cent (or c. 7.4 per cent based on the new osteological data) of this portion of deceased individuals the osteological and archaeological determinations contradict each other.

But they still hold out for a possible “non-binary” explanation (my emphasis):

There are two possible ways to interpret this portion: a minimalist approach—in line with the usual procedures—would suggest interpreting it as a product of the error margins of determination methods; as an alternative, one could acknowledge that non-binary minorities were systematically represented in the burial rite of prehistoric Europe. . .

. . . We conclude that available data—despite potential biases—support the hypothesis that some degree of gender variance was formally accepted in the burial rite of prehistoric Central European societies. However, the error margins of traditional methods of sex determination cannot be accurately quantified, hence the actual size of the ‘non-binary minority’ is still largely uncertain.

The authors are tenacious in saying that there was “gender variance” in these early societies, despite the fact that there’s no good basis for that conclusion. And yes, there possibly were a few nonbinary individuals in these populations, though I don’t think you can judge them from this kind of analysis. To be “non-binary”, at least in the modern sense, you have to identify yourself as being both male and female, or fluctuating between them; you can’t just be recognized by your society as “man-like” if you’re a woman or vice versa.

To be conservative, I’d say that it’s most likely that the exceptions were errors in determination, though of course we do have examples of non-binary people from many modern societies. But we can’t go back to the Bronze Age and figure out what was going on. Perhaps historians know something about this.

But there’s one aspect of this paper suggesting that the research was motivated at least in part by ideology. And that’s the authors’ determination of whether the mismatches were “exceptions” or “minorities”: to me a distinction without a difference. Here’s how they define them early in the paper:

The question is what these exceptional cases actually represent: are they exceptions or minorities? The difference is crucial, as it defines the very possibility that we will ever be able to understand what these cases actually mean. From an archaeological point of view, we will never be able to understand exceptions: by definition, an exception is something that occurs so rarely that it does not provide enough statistical evidence. By the same token, as far as the perception of a certain social phenomenon is concerned, exceptions escape classification, hence they are difficult to frame within one’s world view. Minorities, on the other hand, are recurrent. No matter how small, a minority will always provide enough data to be singled out from the statistical norm and modelled consequently. Similarly, in the social domain a minority can be acknowledged by laws and explicitly assigned rights and duties.

Clearly, if you find one just mismatch (and it’s real) then it is an “exception”. But what about three, five, ten, or twenty? Are they “exceptions” or “minorities”? (Their claim that “exceptions are so rare that they do not provide enough statistical evidence”. But evidence for what?)

The authors consider the distinction between “exceptions” and “minorities” very important because while exceptions don’t have “rights and duties”, or are protected by law, “minorities” have those features.  But there is no cutoff given between “minorities” and “exceptions”!   This is very weird but it gives you a sense of the ideology lurking behind this research.

In point of fact, in modern society there’s no difference between “minorities” and “exceptions”: those whose gender doesn’t comport with their biological sex deserve exactly the same rights and protections as others—with a few exceptions like sports, prison occupancy, etc.—regardless of how common or uncommon they are.

The mask slips when the authors put this paragraph near the end of the paper:

Framing this divergence from the statistical norm as minority rather than exception helps understand its potential relevance. While an exception would be limited to a single person that is different from others—someone that is not included, and in a way unpredictable—a minority can be formally acknowledged, protected and even revered.

Revered? And can’t you acknowledge those who don’t conform to the norm no matter how rare they are?

Note that in the first paragraph above they say “exceptions” may not be one-offs but simply “sufficiently rare”, while right above they say they are “single persons”. The authors can’t seem to make up their minds.

At any rate, the last paragraph suggests—and here I’m guessing—that the authors thought that if they found an appreciably high number of discrepancies between skeletal sex and grave-good gender, that would somehow validate and revere transgender people in society. (Note that homosexuals are neither “trangender” nor “non-binary”.) But the connection between frequency and rights is nonexistent.  If murderers constituted 10% rather than a much smaller fraction of Americans, that would not give them any more rights, even if you think (as I do as a determinist) that murderers never have a choice about whether they kill someone.

At any rate, this is the kind of mishigass you can get yourself into when you try to use archeological data to justify modern social norms.  Again, I’m just guessing, for the ideology is well hidden in this paper, but I think this is the basis for the whole analysis.  And it also depends on the reader accepting that a person whose biological sex didn’t match their grave goods must have been “non-binary”.

h/t: Gavin

A question: What is “gender-affirming care”?

May 20, 2023 • 1:00 pm

I have a serious question, and no, I’m not a Republican or a Nazi for asking it.  According to the Associated Press, 17 states have restricted or banned “gender-affirming care”:

At least 17 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors, though judges have temporarily blocked their enforcement in some, including Arkansas. An Associated Press analysis found that often those bills sprang not from grassroots or constituent demand, but from the pens of a handful of conservative interest groups.

Many of the proposals, as introduced or passed, are identical or very similar to some model legislation, the AP found. Those ready-made bills have been used in statehouses for decades, often with criticisms of carpetbagging by out-of-state interests. In the case of restrictions on gender-affirming care for youths, they allow a handful of far-right groups to spread a false narrative based on distorted science, critics say.

The “distorted science” appears to be mainly the claim that puberty blockers are unsafe. But in fact their safety is in question, and so that’s not “distorted science.”

We don’t know their long-term effects, we know they do have some inimical effects, and at any rate the lack of good long-term data has impelled several European countries to allow blockers to be used only in experimental clinical trials.

Below is what my understanding of “gender-affirming care” includes. I may be wrong, and I haven’t read the bills. but my understanding of the procedure doesn’t make me rush to assure everybody that it’s fine, and that only transphobes would support them.  To me this brand of care involves two primary ways of treating a gender-dysphoric child:

  1. My view was that “gender-affirming care” involved not a therapeutic probing of gender-dysphoric children to see if they may have been gay, and to generally explore their dysphoria—a rather long process of therapy—but rather a rush to affirm a child’s conclusion, or the conclusions of their parents, that the he or she feels as if they were in the wrong body. Instead, I thought “gender-affirming care” was what its name implied: not empathic but objective therapy, but rather a rush to affirm what the child or its parents had already concluded about gender.
  2. I also thought that “gender-affirming care” involved a willingness to use puberty blockers, and use them soon: in some cases they’ve been prescribed after just the first visit to a doctor or therapist.

It’s worth considering whether at least these two aspects of  gender-affirming care should indeed be banned for the time being.  No child’s word should be accepted without question by a therapist, especially when irrevocable medical changes can depend on whether that word is accepted uncritically. There is general agreement that gender dysphoria will resolve one way or the other (often the child becomes gay) without dangerous hormonal or surgical treatment, so why the rush??

Further, I agree with the Europeans that the use of long-term puberty blockers should be considered experimental, not just an off-label use, which is how they’re used in America.  They should not be prescribed except in clinical trials—something that the Europeans, more cautious than we in this matter—have decided.

Now there may be other aspects of these bills banning gender-affirming care that go beyond this, and to which I’d object. But the two behaviors above—banning “immediate acceptance therapy” and prescribing puberty blockers willy-nilly—are, in my view, worth halting pending further data.

Until we know that puberty blockers are safe for long-term use, and absolutely reversible, they should not be prescribed except in clinical trials, and not to the general public.  These are used either at the onset of puberty or before it begins, and a child is in no position to make a decision about its gender at that age. I’m not sure what age should be the cutoff, but surely no younger than 18. We can argue about that after the medical data are in.

And yes, I’m prepared to think that conservatives who propose these bills are doing so not solely out of medical and therapeutic considerations, but to go along with their tribe, perhaps out of a general dislike of transgender people. That is thoughtless and unempathic.

Nevertheless, I might be willing to go along with some aspects of these bans, not on political grounds, but rather on medical grounds and out of concern of the well-being of children and adolescents.

But my ignorance of these 17 bills is profound, so please enlighten me. What kind of “gender-affirming care” do they ban? Do they spell it out clearly?

Oxford students try to deplatform Kathleen Stock and punish the university group inviting her

May 19, 2023 • 9:45 am

Kathleen Stock was a professor at Sussex until she was forced to resign after being harassed and ostracized for her views on gender. I don’t know much about her except she’s a serious and honored scholar with views that are opposed by gender activists, and that is sufficient reason to defend Stock’s right to free speech. That right includes the right not to be shouted down or deplatformed if she has a valid invitation to speak.  But that appears to be difficult if you’re involved in the gender wars.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about her:

Kathleen Mary Linn Stock OBE is a British philosopher and writer. She was a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex until 2021. She has published academic work on aesthetics, fiction, imagination, sexual objectification, and sexual orientation.

Her views on transgender rights and gender identity have become a contentious issue. In December 2020, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of services to higher education, a decision which was subsequently criticised by a group of over 600 academic philosophers who argued that Stock’s “harmful rhetoric” contributed to the marginalisation of transgender people. In October 2021, she resigned from the University of Sussex.  This came after a student campaign took place calling for her dismissal and the faculty trade union accused the university of “institutional transphobia.”  A group of over 200 academic philosophers from the UK signed an open letter in support of Stock’s academic freedom.

An OBE is not to be taken lightly! Stock is also a “gender nonconforming lesbian”.  As far as I can see, her views align with those of J. K. Rowling, questioning the rights of transgender women only insofar as they encroach on essential rights that devolve only on natal women.  And, again as far as I know, she left Sussex because, in view of the harassment, bullying and pervasive calls for her to be fired, she did not feel safe on campus, the University administration didn’t lift its finger to defend her. In view of this ostracism, Stock got panic attacks and suffered a mental breakdown. Unable to do her job, she therefore left Susses. Apparently, Stock’s academic freedom did not outweigh her “harmful rhetoric” or right to not be harassed.  Here’s a bit from a Guardian article about her:

In a lengthy interview with BBC Woman’s Hour, Kathleen Stock claimed the student protests grew out of hostility from other academics. She said a lack of support from her colleagues and the unions led her to resign.

“There’s a small group of people who are absolutely opposed to the sorts of things I say and instead of getting involved in arguing with me, using reason, evidence, the traditional university methods, they tell their students in lectures that I pose a harm to trans students, or they go on to Twitter and say that I’m a bigot.

“So thus creating an atmosphere in which the students then become much more extreme and much more empowered to do what they did,” Stock said.

Stock said her “personal tipping point” came after Sussex’s branch of the University and College Union responded to a protest against Stock on campus in early October by calling for a university-wide investigation into transphobia.

“It was when I saw my own union branch’s statement, which basically backed the protesters and implicitly made it obvious that they thought I was transphobic and accused Sussex University of institutional transphobia,” Stock said.

“When union committee members basically back intimidation against you as an employee, then that’s a bit of a blow.”

Again so long as her views are debatable—which they are, as the dons below emphasize—Stock should be given the right to be heard, not be deplatformed, and above all be heard by those who oppose her.

I asked Emma Hilton about Stock, and got this response (quoted by permission):

Now Kathleen writes and teaches at University of Austin. And speaks publicly, like at Oxford. She recently debated at Cambridge, and one of the students on her side of the debate spent half of his talk blasting her. I was in Italy with her a couple of months back. She’s warm, funny as hell, great company and it’s just unreal that the image of her as a monster was allowed to take hold.  

No matter whether you agree with her views, and even in view of Britain’s lack of a First Amendment, it’s wrong to try to deplatform Stock. But this, according to the Torygraph article below, is precisely what Oxford students tried to do when Stock was invited to debate at the Oxford Union, the university’s famous debating society.  That she is just one of several people involved in a verbal to-and-fro is not sufficient for the protesting students.  One side of the debate cannot be allowed to be give ! These students are immature, acting like children stoppering their ears when they hear something they don’t like. Worse: they are trying to stopper other people’s ears!

Click to read. If the article is paywalled, I found an archived version here:

The attempt to deplatform her  has been fought by 40 academics (see Dawkins’s tweet below), and this attempt has been connected with the Oxford Student Union (different from the Oxford Union) voted to sever ties with the Oxford Union, which would deny the latter a booth at the fresher’s fair that’s essential in recruiting students. From the Torygraph:

Oxford dons have warned students that freedom of speech is at risk as a trans row engulfs the university.

More than 40 academics – including Prof Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, and Prof Nigel Biggar, the theologian – have intervened in support of a planned appearance at the Oxford Union by Prof Kathleen Stock, a leading feminist, in a letter to The Telegraph.

In the biggest row to erupt at the university since Rhodes Must Fall, students have tried to cancel Prof Stock’s talk – claiming that she is transphobic for her view that it is fiction to claim “transwomen are women”.

It comes amid a spate of free speech rows at universities featuring speakers with gender-critical views – including attempts by the University of Bristol to ban the public from a feminist society talk and activists at the University of Edinburgh preventing a screening of a women’s rights documentary.

The view that “transwomen are women” is certainly a debatable one; we’ve debated it here. It can be construed in several ways: are transwomen equivalent to biological women, and should be called “women”; do they have all the rights and privileges of biological women, most notably the “right” to compete in sports against biological women, or to be incarcerated in women’s prisons? And so on.  Society desperately needs to thrash out these issues because, given the skyrocketing rate of transitioning—particularly from biological men to trans women—the issues are only going to get more pressing.

Here’s Richard’s tweet, and I’ve put the faculty letter below, adding the signers below the fold. There’s also a student letter here.

More from the Torygraph:

The letter from the Oxford dons is one of the most significant interventions by academics in recent controversies over free speech on campus.

They say they possess “a range of different political beliefs, Left and Right”, but are united in their belief that “universities exist, among other things, to promote free inquiry and the disinterested pursuit of the truth by means of reasoned argument”.

The letter adds: “Professor Stock believes that biological sex in humans is real and socially salient, a view which until recently would have been so commonplace as to hardly merit asserting.

. . .The row at Oxford first erupted in April when the university’s LGBTQ+ society said it was “dismayed and appalled” that the debating society had “decided to platform the transphobic and trans exclusionary speaker Kathleen Stock”.

It accused the Union of “disregarding the welfare of its LGBTQ+ members under the guise of free speech”.

The Junior Common Rooms of Christ Church, St Edmund Hall, St Anne’s and St Hilda’s have backed the LGBTQ+ society and passed motions calling for her invite “to be rescinded in support of the trans community”.

The row escalated last week when Oxford’s Student Union (SU) voted to sever ties with the 200-year-old debating society, accusing it of having a “toxic culture of bullying and harassment”.

The move would prevent the Union from having a stall at the freshers’ fair, which is an important source of membership sign-ups that fund the university.

But there is some hope:

The Union has said that the talk with Prof Stock will go ahead despite planned protests. It will set up “welfare spaces” to help students cope with the gender debate.

The university said it “does not support the no-platforming of any lawful speech at university events or on university premises”.

It is understood that trustees of the SU have written to the Union and could reverse the move to ban the debating society from the fresher’s fair after the university sought to understand the decision and uphold its free speech duties.

The faculty letter is below, with the list of signers (given in the Torygraph) below the fold. Note that the letter emphasizes the diversity of political views among the dons, and is basically a simple defense of free speech and of the right to debate controversial issues,  as well as a condemnation of the Student Union for punishing the Oxford Union.  I can’t see anything objectionable about the letter, or about Stock’s appearance, particularly because it’s a debate, Jack, and one side is given the opportunity to go after Stock’s views.  It appears that many extreme gender activists have reached the point where they believe that anyone who disagrees with them should be censored.  Here’s the faculty letter:


We are academics at the University of Oxford, possessed of a range of different political beliefs, Left and Right. We wholeheartedly condemn the decision of the Oxford University Student Union (Oxford SU) to sever its ties with the Oxford Union (the Union) after the latter’s refusal to rescind an invitation to the philosopher and gender-critical feminist Kathleen Stock.

Professor Stock believes that biological sex in humans is real and socially salient, a view which until recently would have been so commonplace as to hardly merit asserting. Whether or not one agrees with Professor Stock’s views, there is no plausible and attractive ideal of academic freedom, or of free speech more generally, which would condemn their expression as outside the bounds of permissible discourse. Unfortunately, the position of her opponents seems to be that Professor Stock’s views are so illicit that they cannot be safely discussed in front of an audience of consenting and intelligent adults at the main debating society at the University of Oxford. If this were the case, it is doubtful that they could be safely expressed anywhere – a result that, as her opponents are no doubt satisfied to find, would amount to their effective prohibition.

Fortunately, it has become clear that the Union’s capitulation cannot be secured by the usual methods of moralistic browbeating and social censure. However, Oxford SU is now threatening its financial model by seeking to prevent the Union from having a stall at future freshers’ fairs. This is dangerous territory. Universities exist, among other things, to promote free inquiry and the disinterested pursuit of the truth by means of reasoned argument. To resort to coercion and financial threats when unable to secure one’s preferred outcome in debate would represent a profound failure to live up to these ideals.

Universities must remain places where contentious views can be openly discussed. The salient alternative to this, one apparently favoured by many of Professor Stock’s opponents, is simply unacceptable: a state of affairs in which the institutions of a university collude to suppress the expression of controversial, but potentially true, viewpoints in an effort to prevent them from becoming more widely known.


h/t: Emma

Click “read more” to see the academics who signed.

Continue reading “Oxford students try to deplatform Kathleen Stock and punish the university group inviting her”

Jesse Singal critiques a new Scientific American article on puberty blockers, calls the piece “potentially harmful” and “negligent science journalism”

May 8, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’ve read a lot of Jesse Singal‘s writings on transgender issues, both before and after he started his Substack column, “Singal Minded.”  I like to read him because he specializes in careful analysis of data to analyze (often erroneous) claims about sex and gender issues. That’s the subject of today’s post, in which he shows, as he often does, that a popular article shows little scientific support for the claims made about gender dysphoria and its treatment. You can read his latest column, about a May 1 piece in Scientific American, for free (I’m a subscriber, and recommend that you subscribe, too, if you read Singal often).

Click to read.

I’m not going to rail about the ideological bent of Scientific American, as I’ve mentioned that many times before, except to say that a once-admired magazine is now scientifically untrustworthy and ideologically motivated (the two are connected). Worse, because it’s a very popular magazine, on the issue of medical treatment for gender dysphoria its ideological bent, according to Singal, is implicitly harmful, for it purveys misleading information about drugs, behavior, and treatment of people that could lead to irreversible medical decisions.

The gist of the article is this, in my words: “The author accepts a number of bogus scientific claims buttressing ‘affirmative care’ that don’t have a good empirical basis. The magazine, its authors, and editors, are thus guilty of not only a failure to fact check, but of disseminating information that could lead people to make bad medical decisions.”

It’s a long article, but worth reading on two counts. First, it gives the most up-to-date information (with references) about puberty blockers, a hot topic. Second, it’s yet another indictment, and a serious one, of Scientific American, and links to a lot of evidence bearing on Singal’s dispute with the article.

The article Singal goes after appeared in Scientific American only a week ago. Both articles are free online, and you can read Singal’s critique by clicking the screenshot below. If it disappears, I found that it’s already been archived a number of times here. I’ve left off the author’s name because, as Singal says,

Here’s the article. I feel a little bad critiquing it because it was written by a SciAm intern. But it was published in one of the leading science outlets in the world, and it does have some major problems, so I don’t know what to say.

I blame the editors, for whom this is a pattern, far more than I blame the individual author. I’m not going to name her, because I’m not trying to cause long-lasting Google damage to a young journalist’s reputation, but obviously her name will not be hard to find. I promise you, notwithstanding any of the criticisms that follow, that when I was a young journalist I wrote far worse stuff than what she wrote here. She is in a difficult situation, attempting to write about an issue where there is so much spin and so much politicization that it is impossible not to step on landmines unless you are very, very careful. Her editors were not careful. Not at all.

Clearly you can find the author’s name, but out of respect for what Singal says above, I’ve left it out of the Sci Am screenshot below. Note that this is a full article in the “medicine” category, not an op-ed. But why on earth would they assign something like this to an intern?

Again, click screenshot or one of the many links archived at the link above.

Singal’s article is very long, but you owe it to yourself, if you’re engaged in debates about trans issues or simply follow them, to read it. What I will do is reproduce the bits of the article (most of it, it seems!) that the author got wrong (indented in Roman type), and give Singal’s responses (indented in italics), with my own words appearing in Roman type flush left.

We’ll start off with this Sci Am quote:

Hormonal medications called gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists (GnRHas), often referred to as puberty blockers, temporarily halt the production of sex hormones testosterone, estrogen and progesterone with minimal side effects. They can pause puberty and buy transgender children and their caregivers time to consider their options.

Singal notes that the “time to think” line is disputable because virtually every child or adolescent who takes the blockers goes on to full hormone therapy, transitioning to the phenotype of their non-natal sex. Sci Am continues:

These medications are well studied and have been used safely since the late 1980s to pause puberty in adolescents with gender dysphoria. They have been used routinely for even longer in children who enter puberty too early and in adults with a range of other medical conditions.

Even tyros like me know that this statement is wildly misguided. Singal notes that although the first use of blockers was in 1987, they did not come into widespread use until much later. More important, as Singal has pointed out repeatedly in his writings, using blockers to stall precocious puberty and then allow it to proceed is a very different situation from pausing puberty and then giving the young person gender-altering hormones.  Further, they aren’t well studied in either situation. Although the former use been studied more thoroughly than the latter, as Singal says:

“Can cross-sex hormones provide an equivalent-enough form of development, without any negative consequences to the teenager’s physical or cognitive development?The answer is simply that we don’t know yet, because we have hardly any medium-term data and no long-term data following young people who have gone through this protocol. That’s why you can’t conflate these two use cases. On top of all of that, there are questions about the safety of using puberty blockers to buy time for kids with precocious puberty, too. This goes unmentioned by Scientific American.

Every government-sponsored investigation of the evidence base for puberty blockers has come to the same conclusion: the quality of extant literature is so weak that no one really knows whether they are safe and effective for gender dysphoric youth. The healthcare systems of Finland and Norway have gone so far as to call these treatments “experimental,” as did the Swedish team behind a major, just-published systematic review. The UK’s National Health Service hasn’t quite gone that far, but late last year it proposed new guidelines, based in part on this realization about the evidence base, that would call for a significantly more conservative approach to administering blockers and hormones (again, see Barnes’ book for more background on this).

You would know none of this reading Scientific American’s article about puberty blockers. And frankly, that makes the piece negligent science journalism. Of course the existence of these reviews doesn’t, on its own, resolve the question of exactly what our feelings should be toward these medications, let alone what national or state-level policies toward them should be. Sometimes you have to make healthcare decisions for a vulnerable young person under conditions of scientific uncertainty. But that uncertainty is an absolutely crucial part of the story — a major detail that has to be communicated by journalists writing about this subject.

It’s baffling and frustrating that, in 2023, the magazine’s editors are comfortable allowing their publication to claim both that there’s solid evidence puberty blockers help gender dysphoric kids, and to conflate two such different uses for this medicine. This is an extremely misleading, potentially harmful claim to disseminate to parents trying to work through an extremely fraught medical decision.

This is the conclusion reached not just by Singal, but by the medical establishments of several European nations. The unwarranted claim that puberty blockers are safe over the long term is one reason why Singal calls the article “negligent science journalism.”

Singal finds another misleading claim in the article’s assertion that children who don’t receive “gender-affirming care” are at a significantly higher risk of killing themselves.

Gender-affirming hormone therapy can decrease this risk. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, showed that hormone therapy significantly decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety in transgender youth. Another study found that transgender teenagers who received gender-affirming care were 73 percent less likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts than those who didn’t.

He first responds this way, and then analyzes the data:

Imagine a pillar of frowny faces ten thousand light-years high. 

It is really, really frustrating that SciAm is spreading these messages. Remarkably, not only do neither of the linked-to articles in this passage demonstrate a reduction in suicidality (which is distinct from depression and anxiety) among kids who went on blockers or hormones, but there’s a case to be made that both findings offer some evidence these treatments don’t reduce suicidality.

Singal has analyzed this claim many times, and you can look at the data for yourself.   He goes over a lot more of the article, but I’ll just give one or two more of its claims and Singal’s response. Sci Am:

This host of beneficial clinical uses and data, stretching back to the 1960s, shows that puberty blockers are not an experimental treatment, as they are sometimes mischaracterized, says Simona Giordano, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester in England. Among patients who have received the treatment, studies have documented vanishingly small regret rates and minimal side effects, as well as benefits to mental and social health.

Singal says the timeline is way off, and takes issue with every other claim in this paragraph, including the “minimal side effects” and “vanishingly small regret rates”.  He’s not saying those claims are flat wrong, but that there are simply not enough data to support them, which makes the Scientific American claims misleading.

Here’s one of Singal’s responses:

Whether puberty blockers are an “experimental treatment” for other conditions is a completely different question from whether they are an “experimental treatment” for youth gender dysphoria. The fact is we havealmost no quality evidence addressing puberty blockers’ safety and efficacy in the latter setting. Why is Scientific American hiding all of this from its readers?

Why? We can only guess, but my own interpretation is that this is a rah-rah article written and approved because it buys into gender activists’ claim that puberty blockers are a perfectly safe aspect of “affirmative care”.

Speaking of “affirmative care”, please realize that it is NOT defined as patients simply being evaluated by empathic therapists and doctors. Affirmative care, as practiced in the U.S., means immediate affirmation of the patient’s self diagnosis of gender dysphoria, only a cursory exploration of their feelings, and then the almost instantaneous prescription of puberty blockers, soon to be followed by hormone therapy and, perhaps later, surgery.  This is in strong contrast to the way the Dutch do it, which, I think, is the way it should be done.  Here is the “traditional” Dutch procedure, quoted by Singal:

Under this protocol, kids were seen for months, and carefully evaluated for psychological comorbidities, before they were allowed to go on blockers or hormones, or to (later on) get surgery. 

I don’t know if things have since loosened up a little over there, but traditionally, kids simply were not allowed to transition if their other mental health issues weren’t under control, if they didn’t have supportive parents, or if they didn’t have a long-standing history of childhood gender dysphoria. Some of the only decent research we have comes from this very specific clinical context, though even that research isn’t as straightforward as many (myself included) have previously assumed, at least according to this article by Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs and this critique by E. Abbruzzese, Stephen Levine, and Julia Mason.

Contrast that with the American procedure, “affirmative care”. Note that children can get a prescription for puberty blockers at the very first visit:

In interviews with Reuters, doctors and other staff at 18 gender clinics across the country [the U.S.] described their processes for evaluating patients. None described anything like the months-long assessments [leading Dutch clinician Annelou] de Vries and her colleagues adopted in their research.

At most of the clinics, a team of professionals — typically a social worker, a psychologist and a doctor specializing in adolescent medicine or endocrinology — initially meets with the parents and child for two hours or more to get to know the family, their medical history and their goals for treatment. They also discuss the benefits and risks of treatment options. Seven of the clinics said that if they don’t see any red flags and the child and parents are in agreement, they are comfortable prescribing puberty blockers or hormones based on the first visit, depending on the age of the child.

Now that is dreadful treatment, but it’s “affirmative therapy”. Two hours or so of discussion, and it’s on to the hormones!

Altogether, Singal makes a good case (with references) that the Scientific American article has misled readers about the history of puberty blockers, whether they are safe, whether they have long-term side effects, whether they (and “affirmative care”) reduce suicide rates and increase well being, and so on.

If you read the whole thing, you’ll sense that there’s an almost complete lack of fact-checking in the Sci Am article. Why?  It could be, I suppose, that the editors are lazy, that the reporter was naive, or didn’t do her homework (yes, “her” is the author’s preferred pronoun), or that the article’s message—that “affirmative care”, including the use of puberty blockers, is the way to go—plays into the “authoritarian progressive” bias of Scientific American, a bias it’s evinced many times before. Or, most likely, it could be all of these things. (To be fair, let me point out, as does Singal, that Sci Am made one small correction at the end about one organization’s recommended age minimum for gender-affirming surgery.)  Note again the article’s subtitle:

Even a cursory acquaintance with the data show that this claim is wrong.  And if the magazine does realize that the data are being used to “weigh important medical decisions,” then it is irresponsible to give outdated, misleading, or flatly wrong conclusions.  I’ll give Singal’s ending:

The Scientific American article also talks about some bone health stuff I’m less familiar with, so I can’t speak to its quality without doing some reporting I don’t have time to do right now, but in light of the above. . . let’s just say that my default stance would be skepticism. I would not take anything in this article at face value, without vigorous fact-checking — the fact-checking that should have occurred before the article was published.

So I’ll leave things here. It seems an appropriate note to end on: a major science magazine makes a very serious claim about suicide — that a specific intervention is “well established” as reducing it. That phrase links to write-ups of two studies, neither of which even measured completed suicide, let alone proved that the intervention in question reduces its likelihood. That’s where mainstream science reporting is on all this. 

It’s pretty bad, guys. The good news is that since it’s very clear what has gone wrong, there’s no reason these outlets can’t do better.


Wrong, Jesse. It’s not that they can’t do better but that this magazine, at least, apparently doesn’t want to do better.  So long as Scientific American is wedded to its woke ideology, we can’t expect honest reporting of any issue that bears on “Social Justice.”

If I were Scientific American‘s editor, I’d take down this article immediately or else issue multiple corrections. Don’t they realize that, as Singal said, this kind of loosey-goosey reporting can actually be harmful? Remember, many kids with gender dysphoria not given “affirmative treatment” and hormones eventually lose their dysphoria, often coming out as homosexuals.  Once you start taking hormones after puberty blockers, your body undergoes changes that cannot be reversed. This makes medical decisions especially important. Sadly, this article is not useful in helping parents make them.

I will add one reader’s comment from the roughly 50 comments responding to Singal’s piece. I think it’s unfair in accusing Singal of  “naïve optimism”; he’s simply giving a data-based critique of the magazine’s article. I have no idea if he’s followed the magazine’s wokeism, but I do think reader “Apunaja” is correct in saying that the Sci Am article reflects its ideological agenda, which appears to be aligned with that of extreme gender activism.

British reaction to the sex binary kerfuffle: The Daily Mail and Steven Knight

May 5, 2023 • 10:15 am

I continue to be amazed at how much dust is stirred up by simply asserting the biological observation that, in animals and vacular plants, there are but two sexes, and those sexes are defined by the reproductive equipment they have. Males are “designed” (I’m speaking teleologically: “evolved” is what I mean) to make small, mobile gametes, and females to make big immobile ones.  For decades this has been uncontroversial: A truth universally acknowledged, to paraphrase Jane Austen.

Now, however, for reasons known best to themselves, a small but vocal group of ideologues is denying the sex binary. In my coauthored paper coming out in late June, we hazard some guesses, but those of you following the controversy probably realize that it involves trying to impose one’s ideological views onto nature.

Here’s the kind of stuff that comes out of the woodwork (tweet found by reader Mike and noted in the comments below). It’s an object lesson about how to smear those who advance a scientific fact that you don’t like. (I’ve archived the tweet with a screenshot, but you can see the original by clicking on it).

This doesn’t work so easily with the sex binary, as even nonscientists can observe it with their own eyes. The result is that deniers of that binary, such as Agustín Fuentes and Laura Helmuth (editor of Scientific American who’s published several pieces denying a sex binary), face considerable pushback from both scientists—who work with male and female organisms—and “regular” people, who have eyes to see and neurons to analyze.

You might look at the comments (or “ratio-ing”) of these tweets by both Fuentes and Helmuthy (click to see original tweets and the thread of comments). You’ll see that the vast majority of comments on both tweets are critical. That’s not because of our own incisive analysis, but because Fuentes’s arguments (and Helmuth’s desperate attempts to defend them and stave off the decline of Scientific American) are so transparently weak—and ideologically motivated).

I enjoy a good dust-up once in a while, and this is one of them. Even the Daily Mail, which wrote an article about the controversy and about Sci Am, is pro-binary, though their article is not written at all well and seems to consist of fragments from interviews. Click below to read it.

They interviewed me, Fuentes, Helmuth, and Carole Hooven, and I won’t summarize the text, which, like the article itself, is a bit disjointed. (The writer was clearly not acquainted with evolutionary biology or the biology of sex.)  Let me just say three things.

First, I did not say THIS:

Dr Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago, told that the magazine is ‘forcing a progressive lefty agenda’ onto readers just wanting to learn about science. [Dr Fuentes] is imposing his ideology on nature,’ Dr Coyne said.

I would have said “Leftist”, though I stand by my claim that yes, Sci Am does have a political agenda. “Lefty” is a term I reserve for left-handed baseball pitchers.  It’s probably a bad transcription from our recorded interview, and may be due to my voice, which was horse from a bad colt.

Second, there are pro-binary quotes from Carole Hooven and Colin Wright (whose writings were excerpted). Here’s how Carole responded to Fuentes’s (and Helmuth’s) claim that we biologist think that sex-related characters (beyond gametes and their developmental origin) and behaviors are also binary—an position that none of us have taken because we’re not stupid.

Dr Hooven, said Dr Fuentes is misrepresenting sex and the traits an animal has.

‘No serious scientist would argue that traits are binary; it is sex that is binary,’ she explained.

‘Sex differences in hormones, strength, size, etc. are not the same as sex, but are strongly associated with it, just as an interest in construction equipment or dolls are traits associated with, but not the same as being a boy or girl.

‘In mammals, there are two sexes and two only. One can change their sex-related characteristics like hormones, mode of dress, muscle mass, even voice, but one cannot change sex.

‘The point is, biologists and others understand that while male and female are binary sex categories based on gamete size, and bodies and behavior of boys and girls, men and women are extremely diverse, there are some circumstances in which sex matters.’

Fuentes has a lame reply:

Dr Fuentes disagrees with the assessment from the biologists.

‘There are sexes and differences between them matter. That is not in dispute. But the overlaps between sexes also matter and are sufficient that the frame of a “sex binary” is misleading and inhibits better research and analyses,’ he said.

How can he possibly disagree with what Hooven said, which happens to be true?

Third, I found this the most intriguing part of the article, and hilarious in its arrant fibbing in the part I’ve bolded.

‘Scientific American publishes fascinating articles about the latest scientific research, and often this work is relevant to important and timely issues,’ Laura Helmuth, editor-and-chief of the journal, told in response.

We hope the articles we share, many of which are written by leading experts, help readers understand our world. That is my only agenda.’

Seriously? That is her only agenda? That’s simply not true: a major part of the magazine’s effort is devoted to propping up, using scientific articles and op-eds, Helmuth’s progressive authoritarianism (see my collection of posts about this bias here). If she were interested in truth, why would she flatly reject my offer to write an op-ed about the bad effects of ideology on science? (Well, that op-ed has morphed into a long article that will appear in about 6 weeks.)

Finally, to return to a sensible outlook, have a look at this piece by Stephen Knight (also known as “Godless Spellchecker”) at Spiked (click to read):

Just two excerpts here:

A dangerous strain of utopian thinking has taken hold of the ‘progressive’ left. Many now share the delusion that if we pretend certain falsehoods are true, then various forms of oppression and bigotry will magically disappear. Worse still, the proponents of these falsehoods demand their unequivocal affirmation from the rest of us.

Today’s leftists rightly insist on the importance of scientific truth when it comes to questions like climate change, vaccine safety and evolution. But they will discard scientific facts the moment they become inconvenient to their own worldview. Nowhere is this hypocrisy more pronounced than on the issue of gender, where transgender ideology has almost entirely supplanted scientific truth among the left. More alarming still is the fact that many scientists and scientific institutions, which really should know better, are colluding in this deception.

The latest scientific institution to promote gender pseudoscience is the once-venerable Scientific American magazine, which this week published an article headlined ‘Here’s why human sex is not binary’.

Make no mistake, sex in human beings really is binary and immutable. There are few things more emphatically true in our scientific understanding of the world than the human sex binary.

. . .After some silly and irrelevant trivia about the biology of lizards and fish (humans are neither fish nor lizards), the Scientific American article concludes by claiming that anyone who upholds the human sex binary is ‘trying to restrict who counts as a full human in society’. This single claim inadvertently reveals a great deal about what is wrong with the trans movement. Unable to refute the truth of the human sex binary, gender ideologues resort to demonising those who notice it as having ulterior, sinister motives.

This isn’t the first time Scientific American has lent its (now waning) credibility to gender nonsense. Back in 2018, it published an article titled ‘Sex redefined: the idea of two sexes is overly simplistic’. To this day, this piece is gleefully shared around by gender activists, emboldened by this apparent vindication of their ideology from a credible, scientific publication. However, the author of the piece has since clarified that reality actually is as simplistic as humans having only ‘two sexes’.

Here’s that clarification by Claire Ainsworth:

And yes, Ainsworth is right, but I add the caveat that for many traits, like height and weight, males and females may lie on a continuous distribution, but the distribution is also bimodal because of sexual dimorphism. Sadly, Alice Dreger, whose book Galileo’s Middle Finger was great, rejects even the concept of sexual dimorphism in humans (see bottom of tweet; nothing is “potentially sensitive” there.

And, to end, Knight quotes the wise and ever-snarky Emma Hilton:

Dr Emma Hilton is a developmental biologist at the University of Manchester and a co-founder of the women’s rights organisation, Sex Matters. When I asked her what compels otherwise sensible people to make anti-scientific claims about human sex, she said: ‘Charitably, if you remove the ability to classify (by arguing classifications are arbitrary, meaningless, etc), you remove the ability to discriminate (or at least stigmatise). So, for some, “sex blindness” is a genuine strategy for social change. But it is a stupid one.’

That last five-word sentence made me laugh out loud. Big fun!

Two short talks by Colin Wright: why sex isn’t a spectrum, and the nature and politics of gender

May 3, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Here’s a lecture (actually, two short lectures separated by a Q&A session) recently given by Colin Wright in Davis, California.

The video is two hours long, but Colin’s first talk on sex is only 38 minutes long and his second talk on gender is 23 minutes long. Given the topics, the expected protestors showed up, but, as Colin recounts in his Substack article below, they stayed outside and didn’t disrupt the talk (of course, they didn’t get to listen to it, either). The YouTube notes are these:

Colin Wright’s presentation “Sex is not a Spectrum”, The Biology of Sex & Gender Curricula in CA Public Schools at the Mary L. Stephens Davis Branch Library, Blanchard Room.

The first talk is a clear explication of what sex is, why it’s “defined” by gametes, and the nature of other characters related to sex that aren’t binary (as sex itself is). What about intersex individuals? Do they negate the binary? Many of the objections to the binary he defuses were mentioned by Agustín Fuentes in his Scientific American op-ed.

Given how Colin is demonized by gender activists (it’s impossible to disseminate the sex binary without being attacked as a transphobe or “hater”), he comes across as calm, rational, and willing to engage. He wanted to engage, and in fact does after the talk ends at 37:26.

But then, starting at 1:13, he does a second (and shorter) talk that takes up a more contentious issue: the nature of gender, how it plays into ideology, and what the issues around gender issues are in Davis itself. Surprisingly, the town has a three- or fourfold higher number of adolescents who identify as transgender than in California or the nation as a whole. (Wright gives several possible explanations for this discrepancy.) That talk ends at 1:36, and then there’s a bunch more questions. People who aren’t ranting ideologues really are curious about all this stuff, and we need more give-and-take discussions like this.

Here’s his own take on the talk from his website (click to read):

An excerpt and a photo (note that one person has misspelled “evolution”, which I’ve indicated with an arrow).

I arrived at the event early, an hour and a half before my scheduled speaking time. The event organizers had hired two security guards with the explicit instruction to remove any person who attempted to disrupt the proceedings. Everyone was welcome to attend, but attendees were required to display civility and respect.

As showtime approached, protesters began accumulating. They brandished signs declaring that my speech “kills kids” and urging me to keep my “phobias + prejudices” to myself. I find it difficult to comprehend how a discussion on the connection between sex and gametes could result in fatalities, but perhaps my imagination is lacking. The protesters also launched an attack on my credentials by insisting my PhD in “bugs” (rather than gender studies) disqualified me from speaking competently about the biology of sex in humans.

There’s more at the site about the talk itself.

Agustín Fuentes grossly misrepresents the sex binary in (guess where?) Scientific American; argues that those who accept a binary do so out of bigotry, transphobia, and racism

May 2, 2023 • 9:30 am

If you want a combination of an author and a venue guaranteed to produce ideologically-motivated nonsense, it’s Agustin Fuentes writing at Scientific American. The combination of a badly misguided author, distorting biology for political reasons, with a magazine devoted to promulgating “authoritarian progressive” ideology disguised as science, gives me the same feeling I’d have if my mother called me to dinner and announced that we’d be having liver and Brussels sprouts.

The article at hand, a Scientific American op-ed that you can access by clicking the screenshot below, further erodes the reputation of this once-absorbing journal, which under editor Laura Helmuth has taken the route of becoming explicitly political, and political in a woke way. To many the journal has become almost worthless. Fuentes’s article doesn’t help, and we’ve seen the Princeton anthropologist before arguing about the racism of Charles Darwin.

I’m not going to argue again why sex in humans (and all animals, as well as most vascular plants) is binary.  This is the “definition” (or “conception”, if you will) of sex: males have the reproductive apparatus to produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), while females have the reproductive apparatus to produce large, immobile gametes (eggs).  There are no other sexes.  If you want a justification and explanation of this, and why human hermaphrodites (vanishingly rare, and almost invariably sterile) or individuals with “disorders of sex development”(DSDs) are not members of distinct sexes, there are many sources. Emma Hilton, Colin Wright, and Carole Hooven have written a lot about this, and you can read their stuff here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, and here (last link also critiques earlier but similar arguments by Fuentes). Finally, I’ve reprised some of these arguments that in this assortment of my posts.

The gametic definition of sex isn’t just confected to create a socially constructed dichotomy out of a continuum. Sex, conceptualized in the way I’ve described, IS a binary. And from this binary, ultimately based on parental investment, flow all manner of biological phenomena, often based on sexual selection: differences between males and females in behavior, in ornamentation, on competitiveness, in parental care, in secondary sex characteristics, and so on.  True, the sexes in plants and animals have different cues for their development—chromosomes and genes in humans, haploidy vs. diploidy (based on a gene) in bees, temperature in some reptiles, social environment in some fish, and so on. Yet all these diverse pathways wind up at just two destinations: male and female.  There’s an evolutionary reason why there are two sexes, but it’s messy and I won’t go into it here.

The sex binary is simply a biological fact, obeyed in all animals and most vascular plants, though some microbes have more than two sexes: “mating types,” as they’re called. But again, in humans and other animals, we have to realize that sex is not a spectrum. People who make the “spectrum” claim are doing so on ideological grounds, and some people who argue, correctly, that sex is binary in animals have been demonized because of this. Ideologues like Fuentes say that insistence on a sex binary is a racist, transphobic act meant to “erase” people, and faculty like Hooven and Christy Hammer have suffered professionally because of this.  Yes, the truth can hurt your career, which shouldn’t come as news to scientists. But the sex binary is hardly a truth that should rile up the masses.

In an article full of elementary misstatements and mistakes, Fuentes makes two big mistakes:

a. Fuentes claims that those of us who argue for a sex binary are motivated to do so by a desire to erase trans people, nonbinary people, and those whose genders don’t conform to “male” or “female”.  He’s wrong. While perhaps some people (mostly right wingers, I suspect) do have an ideological motivation, biologists like me who emphasize the sex binary do so because it’s both true and is valuable in understanding a lot about biology.  In fact, as we’ll see from some of his quotes, it is Fuentes himself whose arguments are based on ideology. He’s hoist with his own petard.

b. Fuentes claims that those of us who regard biological sex as a binary also think that everything about sex, including gender presentation, behavior, physical characteristics, parental care, “homemaking”, and so on, are also binary. That’s a bogus argument and is certainly not true of us biologists who recognize and appreciate the diversity of nature.

Both of these points are made in a tweet by Carole Hooven (I’ve expanded her tweet so you can see the whole thing; the original is here):

On to the paper.  First, Fuentes argues that those who accept the sex binary are doing so out of base motives: to denigrate people and deny them their dignity and their rights:

There are those, politicianspundits and even a few scientists, who maintain that whether our bodies make ova or sperm are all we need to know about sex. They assert that men and women are defined by their production of these gamete cells, making them a distinct biological binary pair, and that our legal rights and social possibilities should flow from this divide. Men are men. Women are women. Simple.

Last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings played host to this contention when Republican Congressional representatives upset at the nominee’s refusal to define “woman” took it on themselves to define the term; they came up with “the weaker sex,” “a mother,” and “no tallywhacker.” That human sex rests on a biological binary of making either sperm or ova underlies all these claims.

This is bad science. The production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals, nor is it the definition of a woman or a man.

By the way, he’s wrong about the last sentence: while we all admit that “the production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals” (AND NONE OF US EVER SAID IT DID!), the dichotomy of gamete types is indeed the definition of “male” and “female” (men and women are simply adult versions of the sexes).

Below he manages to tar sex-binary empiricists with a whole panoply of brushes:

So when someone states that “An organism’s sex is defined by the type of gamete (sperm or ova) it has the function of producing” and argues that legal and social policy should be “rooted in properties of bodies,” they are not really talking about gametes and sex biology. They are arguing for a specific political, and discriminatory, definition of what is “natural” and “right” for humans based on a false representation of biology. Over the past few centuries this process of misrepresentation of biology was, and still is, used to deny women rights and to justify legal and societal misogyny and inequity, to justify slaveryracialization, racism and to enforce multiple forms of discrimination and bias. Today dishonest ascriptions of what biology is are being deployed to restrict women’s bodily autonomy, target LGBTQIA+ individuals broadly and, most recently, attack the rights of transexual and transgender people.

Given what we know about biology across animals and in humans, efforts to represent human sex as binary based solely on what gametes one produces are not about biology but are about trying to restrict who counts as a full human in society.

No, I’m not arguing for that, and I doubt you’d find most biologists touting the sex binary as a way to deny women and transsexual/transgender people rights, much less existence.  And for crying out loud, Fuentes even drags in slavery and racism! The fact that he begins and ends his piece with these slurs show, more than anything, that it is Fuentes who is motivated by ideology.

I won’t try to psychologize him in particular, but those who make these kinds of stupid arguments usually do so because they want nature to conform to their own ideological views (i.e., gender is a spectrum, so sex must be too). But sex can’t be forced into the Procrustean bed of being “a spectrum”.  If you want to see why, read this very bad paper in bioRΧiv taking that viewpoint, and then read the total scientific demolition of that paper by Colin Wright. That paper, by the way, is cited by Fuentes as an example of a spectrum of sex biology. It has not, so far as I can see, been accepted for publication, nor does Fuentes mention Wright’s critique of the paper he cites.

On to Fuentes’s false claim that those who promote a binary of sex also promote a binary of all sex-related traits, including morphology and behavior—or at least fail to recognize their variation.  Of course, as Carole says above, all of us recognize the diversity of sex-related traits, so to imply that we don’t know about them is simply wrong. It’s really defamation, an attack on Fuentes’s critics that he knows is factually wrong.  But first, he actually affirms the sex binary while trying to efface it:

The animal kingdom does not limit itself to only one biological binary regarding how a species makes gametes. Scientifically speaking, animals with the capacity to produce ova are generally called “female” and sperm producers “male.” While most animal species fall into the “two types of gametes produced by two versions of the reproductive tract” model, many don’t. Some worms produce both. Some fish start producing one kind and then switch to the other, and some switch back and forth throughout their lives. There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together. Among our fellow mammals, which are less freewheeling because of the twin constraints of lactation and live birth, there are varied connections between gametes and body fatbody sizemuscles, metabolismbrain function and much more.

Fuentes apparently doesn’t realize that sex-switching fish still come in two sexes, that hermaphrodites do not violate the sex binary, and that parthenogenetic lizards ARE FEMALE. Here’s what Wright says in response to the bioRΧiv paper, about hermaphrodites.

The authors then go on to present supposed challenges to the “common assumption” of two sexes. The first challenge they posit is the existence of hermaphroditic species, which they believe violates the binary sex model because individuals produce both sperm and ova and “do not have separate sexes.”

However, the binary classification of gametic sex breaks down when we consider the broader diversity of gametic phenotypes. For instance, hermaphroditic species possess both gamete types required for reproduction, and do not have separate sexes (Jarne and Auld 2006).

The sex binary, however, does not require that the two sexes exist in separate bodies. The authors are simply conflating the sex binary with a phenomenon called gonochorism or dioecy, which is “the condition of individual organisms within a species existing as one of two possible sexes, specifically male or female.” The existence of hermaphroditic and gonochoric species just represent different ways a species can utilize male and female reproductive strategies. Regardless of whether an organism is only male, only female, or both male and female, there are still only two fundamental functions—the production of sperm and/or ova.

Fish like Nemo that switch sexes switch SEXES, changing from male to female when the alpha female of a group dies. They are first male, producing sperm, and then female, producing eggs. They do not violate the sex binary, which remains. And look at the paper linked to Fuentes’s statement, “There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together.”  Here’s the paper from Scientific American:

They’re FEMALES, for crying out loud! How does that do away with the sex binary?  These are female lizards who produce eggs that are diploid and don’t need fertilization to develop. You can’t even talk about parthenogenesis, sex-switching in fish, or hermaphroditism without referring to the sex binary.

Then Fuentes, as in the last sentence in his quote above, goes on to limn the wonderful diversity of sex-related traits:

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that differences in sex biology do not matter. They do. Nor am I asserting that reproductive physiology is not an important aspect of all animal lives. For example, humans are mammals, and the specifics of gestation and lactation require bodily differences that shape human physiologies, societies and experiences. But even so, most bodily systems overlap extensively across large (ova) and small (sperm) gamete producers, and the patterns of physiology and behavior in relation to birth and care of offspring are not universal across species. For example, in many mammal species, ova producers do most of the infant care. But in some species, sperm producers do, and in a very few species they even lactate. In others, there is substantial investment by both sexes.

The bottom line is that while animal gametes can be described as binary (of two distinct kinds), the physiological systems, behaviors and individuals that produce them are not. This reality of sex biology is well summarized by a group of biologists who recently wrote: “Reliance on strict binary categories of sex fails to accurately capture the diverse and nuanced nature of sex.”

We know that humans exhibit a range of biological and behavioral patterns related to sex biology that overlap and diverge. Producing ova or sperm does not tell us everything (or even most things) biologically or socially, about an individual’s childcare capacity, homemaking tendencies, sexual attractions, interest in literature, engineering and math capabilities or tendencies towards gossip, violence, compassion, sense of identity, or love of, and competence for, sports. Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. Plentiful data and analyses support the assertions that sex is very complex in humans and that binary and simplistic explanations for human sex biology are either wholly incorrect or substantially incomplete.

For humans, sex is dynamic, biological, cultural and enmeshed in feedback cycles with our environments, ecologies and multiple physiological and social processes.

First, the “group of biologists” is the group who wrote the unpublished bioRΧiv paper. Second, Fuentes makes a number of assertions that are true (but trivial): there is variation in behavior, morphology, and physiology both between and within sexes. Some people have messy houses, others neat ones. But this is irrelevant to the claim that sex is binary.

Further, he’s preaching to the choir: biologists and, generally, any layperson with eyes to see knows these things.  Who has ever said that the sex binary predicts binary behaviors, sexual attraction, abilities, and so on?  The sentence, “Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. prompts only a “DUH!”  It’s as if we didn’t know that!

Likewise, the view that “sex is very complex in humans” is really a non sequitur: it’s true, but the sex binary itself is not complex: there are just males designed to make sperm and females designed to make eggs.  (Of course, the developmental basis of this binary is complex, but it’s still a binary.) Again, Fuentes, who appears to have a pedantic streak, is lecturing us about things we already know.  But we do not accept that sex is a spectrum, and we accept the binary nature of sex not because we’re determined to commit genocide on gays, transsexuals, and people of non-standard gender. We accept the binary because it’s true.

As for Scientific American, well, you know that I think it’s become a repository for ideology and hack pieces. Yes, there are still good articles in it, but it’s way too full of stuff like this, especially in the op-ed section. But I’ve called out the magazine and its editor many times before. This is just one more reason to read something else. I would have offered to write a post like this and submit it to the magazine as an op-ed in rebuttal to Fuentes, but editor Laura Helmuth has made it clear to me that she doesn’t want me writing antiwoke stuff in her journal, even though I think this post is merely a biological corrective and not “antiwoke”.

Below are a few relevant tweets. First, Fuentes’s announcement of his article. Read the comments after the tweet; it’s clear that he hasn’t fooled many people. In the tweet thread, he characterizes criticism of his views as people “yelling at him” (he seems to have a thin skin).  But I do NOT look forward to a 50,000-word version. I’d rather eat Brussels sprouts.

The two latest responses to Fuentes’s tweet

And a response from “El Marqués de Vichón” after Emma retweeted my own post (below as well):

Yes, that’s the gist. The good Marqués has it down.

From Colin Wright:

Finally, Emma Hilton’s long response on Twitter:

Emma’s piece, which is also funny, comes in the form of a number of statements by Fuentes, each followed by her translation and then her correction. Emma’s ending:

Mind. Blown.
It’s strawmen right to the very end.
I was expecting something of higher quality, to be honest.
Emma’s more charitable than I. I wasn’t expecting more than what we got given the ideologically-infused author and journal.

What is wokeism? And a conversation with McWhorter, Loury, and Goldblatt gets banned from YouTube

May 1, 2023 • 11:15 am

Mark Goldblatt, a writer, teacher, and journalist who you can hear below in conversation with Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, wrote this book that came out last October (click on screenshot to access Amazon page). I have no idea why I haven’t heard of it, but I’ll read it very soon:

The link just below gives the ten-minute video discussion and a transcript, part of which I’ve posted:

As you see and hear, Goldblatt sees subjectivity as a defining characteristic of Wokeness, in the short video below from The Glenn Show, featuring Loury and his colleague McWhorter.

Part of the discussion:

JOHN MCWHORTER: The summary of the book is this. This works perfectly.

People often grouped under the umbrella term “woke” share more than a perpetual sense of grievance and attraction to street theater and an intense dislike of straight white guys who drink cheap beer and wear their baseball caps backward. They share a devotion to subjectivism. Their gathering principle is the idea that subjective belief, if it’s heartfelt, trumps whatever objective, verifiable evidence may be brought against it. For these social justice warriors, if you sincerely and passionately believe and injustice is being done, then the effort to determine whether that belief corresponds with reality is a further injustice.

So this sounds like people who are clinically insane, and yet you’re not referring to people who are clinically insane. They are thoroughly sane, usually highly intelligent. What are these people? What do they do?

MARK GOLDBLATT: You know, a couple of weeks ago there was a woman, a conservative author, who was out on a book tour about wokeism and who was asked to define woke, and it just stumped her. So I’ve been working on a generous definition of “woke.” I want to give the people who advocate it the benefit of the doubt, insofar as I can. I think wokeism, in generous terms, is a cluster of advocacy positions that are designed to promote an understanding of and equity for historically marginalized people, historically marginalized communities.

I think on that level, it’s impossible to object to it. It’s the methodology by which that promotion proceeds that is the problem with wokeism. Because wokeism is a religion. I completely agree with you on that. The first time I heard it referred to that way, I think, was Andrew Sullivan talking about “the Great Awokening,” which I think sets it in its past well.

This is good, but it stints the important part: the methodology itself. What about the methodology? Well, for one thing, it tends to be afflicted with grievance, a sense of dogmatism, and, especially performativeness. True Wokeists like to kvetch about societal problems but don’t do anything about them (they equate kvetching with activism).  This is the difference between Social Justice (Wokeism) and genuine “social justice”, like that demanded by Dr. King.  It is this new methodology that has taken the original term “woke”, meaning a sensitivity to societal injustice, and turned it into a pejorative term.

It’s curious that those who are in favor of language evolving nevertheless take the hard line on “woke”, insisting it must retain its original meaning. That, of course, gives the Woke the right to go after anti-wokeists like the three men above, saying “they don’t even know what the term means”, or “it means simply compassion for the downtrodden”, as if these were criticisms of the arguments they’re making. The squabble over whether to use “woke” or some other term like “The Elect” (McWhorter’s original choice) or “Authoritarian Leftists” (one of my choices) is a way of diverting an argument over substance into an argument over semantics. As I said, I will use “woke” in its pejorative sense, as that is now its primary meaning. But I’ll use other terms as well.  My attempt to get readers to suggest the perfect replacement for “woke” ran aground, with most readers just saying, “Oh, hell, just use ‘woke’.”

You can see the entire hourlong conversation by clicking on the “repost” screenshot below. Why wasn’t the whole video left on YouTube? Loury explains it below:

As you may have noticed, the episode of The Glenn Show I posted on Monday, April 24 is no longer available on YouTube. It was removed because it allegedly contains “hate speech.” I, of course, disagree. I do not think any reasonable person can listen to this conversation and honestly call anything either John, Mark, or I said “hate speech.” We do discuss trans issues, and at times the conversation becomes critical toward aspects of the discourse surrounding trans issues. But at no point does anyone suggest that transgender people, as individuals, deserve anything less than full dignity and respect.

YouTube’s policy on hate speech removal stipulates that they “remove content promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups” that fall into a long list of categories. The idea that anything in the above video promotes “violence or hatred” against trans people or anybody else is absurd. It was removed merely because it questions some of the premises of progressive discourse on trans issues. That is censorship, plain and simple. It is outrageous. And, ironically, it proves exactly the point that Mark makes when he notes wokeism’s prioritization of subjective feelings over empirical facts.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. We’ve reuploaded the video directly to Substack. You can watch it right here in this post, and it’s not going anywhere. No doubt I’ll be discussing this incident further on future TGS episodes. Until then, feel free to share this video widely as you can.

Yes, do watch it.

I listened to most but not all of the hourlong video, and it’s perfectly clear that it was banned from YouTube because Goldblatt makes statements like “a transgender man is a woman, simply as a matter of. . .if language can convey truth, a trandgender man is a woman.” Speech like that is considered “hate speech”, although it’s a perfectly reasonable point of view if by “woman” you mean “biological woman” (this is the way I take it).  Yet a sentence like “a transgender woman is a biological man who identifies as a biological woman” is considered hate speech.

Click below watch the entire video, and I recommend watching it if you have a spare hour. It goes into far more depth than the ten-minute excerpt above.

And the part that led to the banning clearly begins at 26:45., when McWhorter asks Goldblatt why he has a “bee in his bonnet” about the definition of “men” and “women.” In response, Goldblatt makes the heretical statement that sexes in humans are binary and it’s perfectly clear what a man versus a woman is (sadly, both McWhorter and Goldblatt use the “chromosomal” definition rather than the real biological definition based on gamete size). Goldblatt sees “gender” as a mystical kind of “sexed soul”, and McWhorter asks him whether what one feels is in fact a denial of reality or just a statement of observed reality: someone feels they’re of the sex other than their natal sex.

What is ineffably sad about this kind of banning is that Goldblatt says nothing hateful or tranphobic: he merely maintains that, although trans people have almost the same claim on rights as non-transpeople (as usual, sports are an exception), the claim that a “trans woman is a woman” is in one sense a lie.  And it is, if you take the second “woman” as meaning “biological woman”.  This is a perfectly discussable point, but one that’s been rendered taboo by trans activists. McWhorter participates in this discussion, asking Goldblatt in effect, “well, language changes, why can’t we just accept this as another language change?” Good question, but, as Goldblatt notes, it changes more than just language, it requires that we all must sign onto not just a semantic change, but an ideological change it. If we don’t affirm the mantra, we are bad people. At this point Loury jumps in to defend Goldblatt, but it’s clear that McWhorter has not yet applied his many neurons to the sex and gender question.

Anyway, I’ll leave you the pleasure to listen for yourself. If you want to start on the sex/gender stuff, just start the video below at 26:45.

Sabine Hossenfelder on the transgender phenomenon

April 30, 2023 • 10:00 am

Here physicist Sabine Hossenfelder turns her attention away from physics towards a far more incendiary topic: gender transitions. In this 27-minute video (the last 1.5 minutes is a commercial) she covers the topics below, concentrating on published data to draw her conclusions. In general it’s a good introduction to the issue, and certainly not “transphobic”.

If you haven’t kept up on the issues like the recent determination in some countries that hormone blockers should be considered an experimental clinical procedure rather than a routine treatment), it’s edifying to watch the video. As a physicist, she’s particularly attuned not just to statistically significant effects, but large effects with high statistical significance. We don’t see that in many studies on the effects of affirmative care, puberty blockers, transitioning, and so on, and she is right that sample sizes are quite low and studies generally over too short a period.

I am distilling Hossenfelder’s conclusions below, inserting my own take only when necessary (I make it clear when I do).

a.) What makes a male versus a female? Although she implicitly complains that there are two sexes (and some rare intersexes), she relies on a chromosome-based sex definition rather than one based on gamete size. (She is correct that XXs are usually females and XYs males, but this is not always the case due to chromosome-related “disorders of sex determination”; and at any rate, she should use the definition adopted by biologists who actually deal with sex in plants and animals.)

b.)  What is gender and gender dysphoria? Unfortunately, as per some trans activists, Hossenfelder uses sex and gender interchangeably, and adopts the term “assigned gender at birth” for the entire video.  But genders aren’t “assigned” at birth; rather, biological sex is RECOGNIZED at birth (usually by its correlates).  The phrase is thus doubly confusing. This is my quibble; I have no objection to the rest of her discussion, which is short.

c.)  How hard is it to be transgender? Hossenfelder describes the stigmatization of transgender people throughout the world (it’s illegal in some places), the higher rate of sexual violence they experience, and their higher risk of suicide (she doesn’t mention that the latter may be a correlate of gender dysphoria, which itself could result from general mental problems, rather than suicide being actually caused by a person identifying as a member of one’s nonbiological sex.

d.)  Is the recent rise in the proportion of transgender people due at all to social contagion? The rise is quite dramatic in the US and UK where we have decent data: in some place a doubling or tripling in the last five years. It’s also seen in Sweden, Canada, and other places that keep records. She notes that most of the increase comes from gender dysphoria in young biological women (a reversal of the situation in past years). Hossenfelder notes that social contagion is at least a plausible hypothesis because far more adolescent girls than adolescent boys have mental health issues, which could lead to gender dysphoria. But there are no solid data implicating social causation, says Hossenfelder, nor conclusive evidence for the syndrome of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” said to be prompted by social contagion (i.e., people being prompted to identify as trans due to social pressure or a desire to conform).

e.)  What about gender affirming care and puberty blockers? (These are associated, of course, because part of gender-affirming care is a readiness to prescribe puberty blocks to children with gender dysphoria.) Hossenfelder notes that the touted “perfect safety” of puberty blockers is dubious. Although they do stop puberty, they also have some noxious side effects. More important, there are not enough long-term studies of the medical effects of taking puberty blockers, but the data we have suggest that bone density doesn’t recover after stopping them, and they may be associated with heart problems and infertility.There’s also no strong evidence that taking puberty blockers improves the mental health of the children taking them.

f.) Is hormone therapy efficacious or dangerous? Yes, it does change secondary sex characteristics, but is neither completely reversible nor efficacious in completely eliminating sex-based differences in some traits, even if discontinued.  However, hormone therapy does seem to increase life satisfaction and reduce depression, but the changes are small and some of the studies lack control groups or placebo-effect treatments. Further, the studies haven’t been long-term studies, sample sizes have been small, and hormones like testosterone may reduce depression in biological males themselves, not just in trans males, so it may be a general and not transgender-specific effect.  In some of these conclusions Hossenfelder relies on critiques by Jesse Singal.

Her conclusion are summarized in this chart:

Here general take, as you see, is one of caution towards both the physical and psychological effects of transitioning. We don’t know whether the rise in gender dysphoria and transitioning is due to social conditioning, a new freedom to be yourself, or both. As she says, “Anyone who insists that one of those possibilities doesn’t exist is pushing an agenda, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.”  The fact that we can’t separate those two causes explains why countries like Sweden, the UK, and Finland are placing hormone blockers in the category of an experimental treatment.

h/t: smipowell

The new inclusive language of Essex Junction, Vermont

April 27, 2023 • 11:30 am

I cannot vouch that this letter is genuine, but I’m betting it is. If you can prove it’s a fake, I’ll give you $10.  It was purportedly sent to an email list by one of the parents in the school district.

Click to enlarge if you’re myopic:

The only good thing about this is that it implicitly recognizes the sex binary. But what does it have to do with “equity policy”?