Jesse Singal on schools that help kids change their gender identity without notifying the parents

January 23, 2023 • 1:00 pm

In this morning’s Hili dialogue I mentioned a NYT article recounting the case of a biological girl, 15, whose school had been facilitating her gender change by letting her use the boys’ bathroom as well as a male name and pronoun. The kicker was that the parents weren’t informed, and found out this only about by accident. They had a fit, but the school told them that they were simply obeying state regulations, which I guess is true. (The child hadn’t yet had any medical intervention.)

This raises a sticky ethical question: should schools do this (or even go further), or should they report it to parents? My own view was that I thought state regulations should be obeyed (and questioned), but NO medical intervention should be promoted by schools without telling the parents. That is the very least that must be done.

But in his article on his substack site “Singal-Minded” (good name!), Jesse Singal shows his usual thoughtfulness about transsexual issues, and raises a point I hadn’t thought of. And that is that a substantial number of children with gender dysphoria have psychological problems that need to be addressed at the very time when schools are “helping” a child transition. The child may be on the autism spectrum, or have a form of gender dysphoria that might resolve into homosexuality rather than full sexual transition, or simply be in mental distress and seeking gender/sex change as a possible cure.  Because these issues are very common, they need to be addressed by professionals (i.e., therapists and doctors), for I think we all agree that therapy must precede any medical intervention that involves giving puberty blockers, hormones, or surgery to young people. (Once they’re over a certain age, say 18, I guess the teenager can make their own decision.) In general, then, Singal thinks that at some point the school has to tell the parents.

Click below to read his piece:

Now in some situations schools should NOT “rat a kid out” to their parents. Here are a few:

There are clearly some situations where school should be a safe haven for kids who are experimenting with different ideas or ways of expressing themselves, and where teachers should let them do so without the risk of parental interference. If a male student from a conservative religious household were, within the security of his school walls, dressing in a feminine manner, it would be quite inappropriate for a teacher to rat him out to his parents — for many of the same reasons it would be inappropriate for a student from a conservative religious household to be ratted out for reading Carl Sagan’s and Bertrand Russell’s arguments against Christianity in the school library. Minors do not have full autonomy, and adult supervision and/or permission are required in a host of different settings. But surely they should have some right to pursue their own path without their parents hovering over them every step of the way, even if reasonable people might differ on the specifics, and even if age clearly should be factored in (a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old are both minors, but no one would argue they should be granted exactly the same amount of autonomy).

But as Singal notes, changing one’s sexual identity is very different from examining abstract ideas:

But adopting a whole new identity, as a different gender under a different name, is a bigger deal than experimenting with fashion or atheism. For one thing, if a decision to socially transition that is kept from parents sticks, a young, developing person will then spend months, or maybe even years, living one identity at school and another among their family. That just can’t be psychologically healthy. It fosters distrust between students and parents, and it isn’t sustainable because the parents are inevitably going to find out (if schools think they can keep it a secret in the long term, that’s ridiculous).

For another thing, the teachers and school administrators participating in this agreement might lack certain basic information about the context surrounding the kid’s declaration that he or she is trans — information that could be vital for determining whether a swift social transition is appropriate.

And that basic information is psychological: what exactly is the kid going through. Is it confusion, homosexuality, or a form of mental illness that, they think, can be resolved with a gender or sex change? Singal cites the oft-cited World Professional Association of Transgender Healthcare’s (WPATH) Standards of Care, as well as the Cass Review of the Tavistock Clinic, which note that autism issues or other mental health problems very often accompany a kid’s desire to become transgender or transsexual. Both organizations recommend that healthcare professionals/therapists discuss these issues—and the benefits and risks of transitioning—with a gender dysphoric child.

Singal recommends that this also be done even for purely social transitioning:

In short, the decision even just to socially transition a kid like Jon is potentially fraught and complicated, and in some cases schools might not have all the background necessary to make an informed decision about whether it’s the right move. Jon’s school likely knew about hisautism, but what about his ADHD, his other mental health problems, his shifting identities, and pandemic travails? On what planet is a teacher or school counselor qualified — on the sole basis of a single child’s say-so and in the absence of a fuller picture of who that kid is and what they have experienced — to make this decision?

Finally, there’s one more issue to consider: gender identity and sexual identity are not the same thing, and schools don’t have the ability to separate them and treat children appropriately:

On Twitter, the philosopher and bioethicist Moti Gorin points out that this conversation is plagued by a lack of agreement on very basic concepts, including what it means to be transgender:

The difficulty here is that there is deep conceptual disagreement and confusion about the nature of the phenomenon. Is it like sexual orientation, or a mental health/medical issue, or a choice about membership in a subculture, etc? Schools vs parents cannot be resolved if there isn’t some agreement about how to conceive of what these kids are doing. And sadly the state of the discussion among those who should be figuring this stuff out is very poor.

. . .Setting aside the many philosophical problems with the concept of gender identity as the term is used at present, all these fuzzy definitions make the situation in schools rather complicated. If a kid doesn’t have diagnosable gender dysphoria that needs to be alleviated, why would a school take it upon themselves to facilitate a social transition, especially one that is kept a secret from their parents? If a kid does have diagnosable gender dysphoria that needs to be alleviated, they might be a good candidate for social transition, but in this case how can you hide from parents that their kid has a mental health condition — one correlated with various negative mental health outcomes? Plus, how can you make sure the kid gets the comprehensive assessment that should precede a decision to socially transitionincluding a formal diagnosis of GD, if their parentsdon’t even know they feel this way?

It appears that from many schools’ perspectives, the answer to all these questions is  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. At this point, as Gorin notes, the way we talk about sex, gender, and gender identity is so confused that it’s hard even to know where to begin.

His conclusion:

In much the same way the discourse over sex and gender is plagued by philosophical incoherence, it’s also plagued by the endless invocation of this comparison. Gender identity and sexual orientation are very different things, and they require different approaches. If coming out as gay required name and pronoun changes, and sometimes was the first step on a short path to permanent medical procedures for which the available evidence is lacking, and if experts believed that it was harder to reliably “diagnose” kids as gay if they had autism or other mental health problems or recent trauma or disruptions to their life… well, in this hypothetical universe, yes, you absolutely would need to loop parents into the process of a kid coming out as gay, at least as a general rule. But in the universe we actually inhabit, if a kid is gay, or thinks he’s gay, you don’t have to do anything. There’s no psychosocial intervention, so there’s no justification for notifying parents.

Being trans is different. Especially for younger kids, or even older ones with mental health and other problems that might lead them to be a bit developmentally stalled, coming out is a process that is going to require parents’ input and approval, at least if it’s going to go smoothly. That doesn’t mean parents should be automatically informed about a kid’s gender questions or statements as soon as they crop up — like I said, I can imagine lots of situations where some degree of discretion is warranted, and there’s obviously no reason for teachers to “report” students merely for gender nonconforming behavior.

It does mean we probably need to land somewhere between “Parents should be instantly notified whenever a young kid says they might be trans” and “Young minor kids get to unilaterally determine every aspect of their social transition, including whether their parents are informed at all.” But facile comparisons won’t help us work through these issues.

That seems sensible.  I suppose where it’s okay for the school keep gender identity secret from parents might be in using new pronouns and names, but not with respect to other stuff like bathroom or locker room use. And ANYTHING beyond that has to involve the parents.  For in all these cases therapy is going to have to be used at some point, and perhaps medical advice tendered as well.  I don’t think anybody would disagree that when professional advice is needed, as it always must be, the desire of underage children to change their gender should be brought to the attention of their parents.

Or do you feel that there is no case when the school shouldn’t tell parents? If you have kids, you may be stricter about this than I or Singal are, for I understand the desire of parents to have a part in such an important decision. Leave your comments below.

McGill protestors shut down a talk on sex versus gender as a “transphobic” presentation

January 12, 2023 • 10:45 am

This is from the CBC (click to read), and reports how a spate of activists shut down a scheduled talk at McGill University by alumnus Robert Wintemute, a professor of human rights law at King’s College London.

Now Wintemute may bot be someone whose views I’d want to endorse wholeheartedly, as I don’t know anything about the LGB Alliance. Some of the readers below have commented that I’m wrong to characterize the LGB Alliance’s take on “conversion therapy” in the way I understood conversion therapy.  Here’s what the CBC says

Wintemute’s work inspired the foundation of the LGB Alliance, a British group that advocates against transgender rights in the United Kingdom. Several British officials and LGBTQ+ groups have publicly called the LGB Alliance a hate group.

The group has opposed progressive gender affirmation bills in the U.K., like the Scottish Gender Recognition Act, which improves the system by which transgender people can apply for legal recognition.

A Canadian chapter of the LGB Alliance lobbied against Bill C-4, which put an end to conversion therapy, demanding it remove the term “gender identity” from the offence.

I’m against conversion therapy if it’s construed as therapy with a predetermined therapeutic outcome that doesn’t really want to explore the patient’s feelings. But again, I don’t know much about the LGB Alliance’s views on this issue. On the other hand, they do assert that “sex is binary” and “sex is observed at birth” (indeed, it’s not a subjective judgment made by doctors), so I’m on board with at least some of Wintemute’s organization’s views. But I’m not passing judgement on Wintermute’s organization here, for this post is about freedom of speech, which the man didn’t get.

And Wintemute should hve freedom of speech (at least in the US, and I hope in Canada), and his talk, described with the title “Sex vs Gender (Identity)”, was worthy of being held and being heard (see more about it below).  Presumably it was about whether there’s a disparity between rights based on biological sex and rights based on declared gender: surely an issue worth debating.

Or so you would think. But it’s not worth debating to those trans activists who declare that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men”, completely conflating gender identity and biological sex. There is no room for dissent or discussion with people like that, and so the activists simply shut down Wintemute’s talk:

Trans rights advocates stormed into a talk Tuesday afternoon at McGill University led by a speaker associated with a group they say is “notoriously transphobic and trans-exclusionary.”

The talk was ultimately cancelled shortly after it started.

McGill University’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) hosted the event, titled Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate In the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T. It was led by McGill alumnus Robert Wintemute.

The CHRLP’s website describes the event as a conversation around whether the law should make it easier for a transgender person to change their legal sex, “and about exceptional situations, such as women-only spaces and sports, in which the individual’s birth sex should take priority over their gender identity, regardless of their legal sex.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Wintemute, is that not a conversation worth having? Apparently the activists who shut it down think that such debate is counterproductive. But how will they ever convince their opponents if their opponents don’t at least get to air their views? For it is surely correct to say that some “rights” claimed by transsexual or transgender people are indeed at odds with “rights” claimed by others, others like biological women athletes and women receiving rape counseling.

In response to that, a letter signed by McGill people simply deny it:

An open letter signed by McGill students, professors, alumni and others from the Montreal LGBTQ+ community says trans rights are not at odds with the rights of others.

“Undermining the human rights of trans people does not benefit any member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, nor the feminist movement,” it says.

The whole question of “rights” is a sticky one, but to assert that “trans rights are not at odds with the rights of others” simply misses the reason for a lot of pushback against trans activism by people who aren’t transphobic. (“Transphobic” is a slur often used to shut down debate by stigmatizing your opponents.)

To end, I’ll quote with permission reader Diana MacPherson, who sent me the link to this report (h/t Paul as well), and added this comment:

I really hate that the adults won’t stop this refusal to debate anything. This all would go away if everyone stood up and said “enough, free discussion of ideas is not something you shut down”.

New Scientist expunges references to humans having two sexes

January 11, 2023 • 11:30 am

UPDATE 2Ms. Sheepshanks has commented below and has verified that she is indeed a real person bearing the name she wields so proudly. Her remarks are in the thread after comment 11. And if she reads this, I urge her to keep writing in this vein and with that critical acumen. (She’s now made several comments.)

UPDATE 1: After doing a bit of sleuthing about Octavia Sheepshanks online, I wonder if that’s her real name (see here, for instance), though that may really be her name and she pretended while at Cambridge that it wasn’t.  Regardless, whatever real person wrote the article was serious, humorous, and should write more.


Seriously, people, I get no pleasure from calling out wokeness (even using that word gets me excoriated), for along with that comes opprobrium from the ideologically pure. Even worse: I feel awful that academia, and especially biology, is being distorted and corrupted by ideologues.

One of the examples I used at the Stanford free-speech conference was the inability of people to recognize that, biologically, there are only two sexes in humans. Just two. In our species sex is effectively binary, with only a tiny handful of people who are “intersex” (these exceptions constitute about 0.018% of the species, or about one person in 5600).  Sex is not gender, for the latter is a true social construct because there are far more sex roles or sexual identities than two, although even gender is bimodal, with most people identifying as traditional male or female. A frequency plot of sex would look like two huge lines, each about 50% of the population, with one of the lines at “male” and the other at “female”, and a few almost invisible blips between those lines. A frequency distribution of gender would look more like a bactrian (the two-humped camel), with more intermediates. But the humps would be high.

Enough: I’ve written about this before. At least biologists recognize that humans have two sexes. Or so I thought, until I encountered this article in The Critic by Octavia Sheepshanks, a freelance writer).  It’s leavened with humor but makes a serious point: New Scientist, the British equivalent of Scientific American (that is not praise), is now removing the words “women” and “woman” from its articles about advances in science, even when the original papers did use the w-words. (For some reason the magazine is not cutting back so much on the words “boy,” “man” or “men”, and given the ideological underpinnings I find this disparity puzzling.)

In other words, New Scientist is bowdlerizing language, presumably in the interest of illiberal left-wing ideology. I trust by now that I don’t have to explain to readers why this ideology won’t use the word “woman” when referring to biological females. (Oh hell, I guess I’d better for new readers: it’s because of the trans-activist mantras that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men”.)

Click to read Sheepshanks’s piece:

Note that New Scientist has no problem with males and females in other species, like sheep. It’s humans where they bridle, and we all know why.

Anyway, Sheepshanks wrote a good piece, and it’s funny in places. I’ll give you a long excerpt, but her arguments for retaining the w-words are more extensive, and you should read those in the original piece. The bold headings are mine:

Sheepshanks’ awakening:

I assumed that New Scientist was doing what it had always done: synthesising and disseminating research findings in a way that was easy to understand, situating them in the context of the real world. It describes itself as “a trusted, impartial source of information about what is going on in the world, in a time where facts are in short supply”, and I had believed this without reservation. It was the voice of reason in my life. After reading one article in which miscarried male foetuses were given a sex (“boys”) but the women who had suffered miscarriages were not (“pregnant people”) I wrote a long and passionate letter to the editor about how it had made me feel (not good). I received no reply, and I began to wonder if my strong belief in the significance of sexual dimorphism in humans was inaccurate and hateful after all. This was the most popular weekly science publication in the world, and it was reporting science as it was. I must be the problem.

Then I encountered the most befuddling article yet. A new form of contraception “for people” had been discovered. After a minor brain adjustment, I established from the sentence “a gel that is applied inside the vagina has been shown to block sperm injected into female sheep”, that this was a new contraception for women. The article was so strange to read that I sought out the original journal article to witness this bizarre wording in situ. When I read the first sentence of the abstract, “Many women would prefer a nonhormonal, on-demand contraceptive that does not have the side effects of existing methods”, I was astonished. Science had not changed; New Scientist had. It had lied to me. (Gaslighting is an overused accusation but resonates here. I intend to avoid one-sided love affairs with magazines in future.)

Note that the “original article” she’s referring to is the Science article highlighted by New Scientist. Note that NS gladly admits that there can be female sheep, but the equivalent in H. sapiens is, well, “people.” People with vaginas. “Female” is mentioned only once in the article, referring to sheep with vaginas, and “women” not at all. Sheepshanks was onto something. As she dug deeper, she found more bodies.

Sheepshanks’ investigation:

I looked back at all the New Scientist articles that had confused me and found the original publications. They had been altered, too: every time only women or men (i.e., males or females) were being referenced, they said so, in stark contrast to New Scientist’s interpretation.

Essentially, New Scientist is blithely misreporting published research to remove any implication of two sexes in humans. Presumably the purpose of these scientifically inaccurate linguistic gymnastics is to include those with alternative gender identities without causing offence. New Scientist has yet to respond to a request for comment, so I can’t be sure.

Sheepshanks’ take on why it matters (I love the name “Octavia Sheepshanks”, and note that it was the reproduction of female sheep that got her going):

Why does it matter if New Scientist is doing this? Perhaps an alien happening across the publication would class humans not with other mammals but with snails and slugs, merrily churning out children all by themselves. Most readers are human and can work out for themselves which sex is being referred to, however. If certain language choices make some people feel happier and safer (again, I can only assume that this is the goal) why ignore this in the name of accuracy?

There is nothing trans-inclusive about pretending humans are a hermaphroditic species. If we were, trans people wouldn’t exist. Perhaps New Scientist, if it wants to include trans people in future(for example, trans men in a study on female contraception) could do so by writing about them? Just a suggestion! Accuracy does not have to mean using the words “women” and “men” — “males” and “females” would include those with all gender identities, including non-binary people.

The alteration of scientific studies to avoid naming the demographic previously known as “women” has serious consequences for anyone female. Returning to the example of the new form of contraception for women, New Scientist’s wilful misinterpretation ignores the positive consequences of the study for women globally, because it cannot name the group it is discussing. These consequences — social and economic liberation through reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies — are discussed in the original paper, which I found fascinating and enjoyed reading. Meanwhile, New Scientist contents itself with informing us that researchers “inserted the gel towards the backs of the vaginas of sheep, which are similar to those in humans”. New Scientist was founded in 1956 for “all those interested in scientific discovery and its social consequences”. Now, female readers interested in studies affecting themselves must read the original academic papers to gain a full picture.

When the same approach is used with studies concerning only men, women are still adversely affected. . .

Read the original to find out why. But I like the fact that Ms. Sheepshanks can write a piece that’s deadly serious while still keeping a sense of humor.  But of course she’ll still be labeled as a transphobe. I get the feeling that she doesn’t care.

Here’s her ending, which is great [note that “gonochorism” describes a biological system, as in humans, in which a species has only two sexes and every individual is a member of only one of those two sexes].

I look forward to a day when I have a place to read about the physical and social implications of research into women’s bodies and health, without limitation. In the meantime, I note that New Scientist remains happy to acknowledge gonochorism in other animals; it recently rejoiced over a study of female robins that discredited the sexist theory that only male robins sing. Maybe I’ll support the liberation of female songbirds until I can read about my own species. In fact, if there’s a rally for feminist robins, I’ll be there with a placard the size of my thumbnail, desperately seeking a new safe haven of sanity.

I don’t read New Scientist regularly, so I don’t know if it has a plethora of bad articles. But it has certainly been unscientific in the past. Here’s the most egregious example, which I wrote about in 2020:

But there have been quite a few other missteps in this journal, and I’ve called the venue out more than a few times (see here).  Imagine if Scientific American merged with New Scientist.  The result would be the scientific equivalent of The Onion!

h/t: Cora

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

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):

The biomedical importance of sex (and its binary nature)

September 15, 2022 • 12:00 pm

One might almost think, with widespread denial of a sex binary of men and women—a denial that in most animal groups is both fatuous and ideologically motivated—that there are no average biological differences between men and women. “Blank slaters” tend to outright deny the existence of behavioral or cognitive differences between men and women, often doing so on the erroneous grounds that “some women are in the range of men’s scores and vice versa”. In such cases the concept of averages seems to have slipped their minds.

But as the dogs bark, the caravan moves on. Increasingly recognizing the biological and medical differences between men and women—note the implicit recognition of dividing up the species into two sexes— funding institutes and journals dealing with illness and medicine (as well as  are increasingly recognizing the importance of studying men and women separately (or partitioning the data by sex) in biomedical work. That includes using model organisms such as mice, which may show related sex differences. This is the topic of the new feature in the journal Nature shown below. Click on the screenshot to read (it’s free).


First, some indicators that dividing up test subjects by sex can give useful and potentially lifesaving results:

Many of science’s gatekeepers — granting agencies and academic journals — feel the same way. Over the past decade or so, a growing list of funders and publishers, including the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the European Union, have been asking researchers to include two sexes in their work with cells and animal models.

Two major catalysts motivated these policies. One was a growing recognition that sex-based differences, often related to hormone profiles or genes on sex chromosomes, can influence responses to drugs and other treatments. The other was the realization that including two sexes can increase the rigour of scientific inquiry, enhance reproducibility and open up questions for scientific pursuit.

When studies do include two sexes, the results can be important for health. For example, sex is known to affect people’s responses to common drugs, including some antibiotics. . .

And here are some important biomedical differences already detected:

. . .Despite the bumpy ride, the federal guidelines that were put into place in the early 1990s have led to some important medical discoveries, perhaps a signal that key revelations could emerge from basic research in a few years.

For instance, there are sex-based differences in the heart’s electrical response to several classes of drug, including antidepressants and antibiotics. As a result, sex-based dose adjustments are now recommended for some drugs.

Steroid hormones such as oestrogens and androgens are thought to be primary actors in many of these differences between men and women. For example, women metabolize propranolol, a blood-pressure drug from a class known as beta blockers, more slowly than men do. Researchers think that sex-related steroid hormones acting on the liver can exert these effects. Other factors could include body size and composition, such as the fat:muscle ratio, which tends to be higher in women.

The cut-offs for risk might also differ between men and women. A 2021 analysis of cardiovascular risk related to systolic blood pressure shows what happens if data for two sexes are pooled rather than analysed appropriately. The authors found that when data were pooled, the range for increased risk was a systolic pressure of 120–129 millimetres of mercury (mmHg). But the sex-specific analyses showed that for women, the risk actually begins to climb when systolic blood pressure tops 110 mmHg. If other studies solidify these findings, the result would be a sea change in risk calculation for cardiovascular disease.

That study, as it happens, “was very much inspired and motivated by an NIH request for applications” about sex differences in health outcomes, says Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, and senior author on the report. Without that call for studies specifically designed to look for sex differences, she says, “we had a lot of ideas, but not a thematic focus”. Their findings that men and women differ in risk cut-offs “was actually a real ‘eureka moment’”, Cheng says. “I was like, ‘how did we not see this before?’.” She attributes the results to the NIH’s challenge. “They made it all happen.”

And good for the NIH!

Now surely you can’t attribute all these differences to “socialization,” as the disparity in hormones is based on genes that are differently activated in men and women. Of course, differences in biology due to any factor, like the Patriarchy, still need to be studied for their biomedical effects. But it’s foolish to attribute everything like the above, including the response of the heart to drugs, to environmental influences.

And, of course, if there are no differences between the sexes with respect to a biological trait or response, we need to know that too! This is true for any groups that a priori may differ biologically, but men and women are the most obvious and least ambiguous grouping.

The article highlights some problems with past research, including an apparent lack of knowledge by investigators about how to use statistics to judge the effects of sex, including the simple dictum of using half men and half women in a generalized test on “the population”.  Below is one chart from the paper partitioning 147 biomedical studies starting in 2019. As you see, more than third of them (55) didn’t even consider sex as a factor to study (and that’s dead easy), more than a third (60) didn’t look for interactions between sex and treatment (essential if you want to know if a treatment works differently in men than in women), and only 32, or about 22%, looked for interactions between treatment and sex (16 of these reported a significant interaction, and 10 a nonsignificant interaction).

Finally, even when sex differences were found, as in the red group that didn’t look for interactions, most studies that found a difference didn’t test that difference statistically. The blue group is the one that used statistical tests, but even in that moiety, 6 tests didn’t report the results and one non-significant result was erroneoously reported as a difference.  I thought biomedical researchers would be more savvy than this.

Now there’s a few gestures in the paper toward the “sex isn’t binary” trope by bringing in gender. For example:

The publishing community is pushing for similar clarity. In 2016, it published the Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) guidelines, which set out how to report sex-based differences in published research. Individual publishers, including Springer Nature (which publishes Nature), have their own policies encouraging researchers to report results by sex, defined as a cluster of biological traits, and sometimes also gender, which is socially defined.

Since “gender” is a social construct, and progressives say there are a gazillion of them, I don’t see how you can report results by gender unless you lump everyone besides men and women as “other”. (I won’t quibble with “sex defined as a cluster of biological traits”, which is technically incorrect but good enough for the purposes of biomedical research.)

And this is thrown in as well, seemingly out of nowhere:

Defining sex as a crude binary, predicated on the chromosomes present, or on specific anatomy, could be too limiting. Some species, such as the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, have one sex that makes only sperm cells and one that makes both sperm and egg cells. And in a vast assortment of species, sex is determined environmentally rather than chromosomally. And still other species can change sex during their lifetime. Placing cells, tissues or even whole organisms into a pair of categories takes on layers of difficulty in these contexts.

Note the pejorative adjective “crude,” meant, I think, to disparage the binary.  Once again they send in the clownfish, nematodes, and turtles, but these don’t refute the idea of separate sexes. Nematodes can be either males or hermaphrodites, the latter being both male (making sperm) and female (making eggs), some clownfish can change from male to female if the alpha female dies—but there are still two sexes, and temperature-specific sex determination, as occurs in many turtles, still gives you males and females. In that case the two sexes are developmentally channeled via an external stimulus rather than via chromosomes and genes, but there are still men turtles and women turtles. (Why some species do this is still not well understood).


The fact remains that these species do not show more than two sexes, that they are in the minority of vertebrates and in an even smaller minority of birds and mammals, and, in the end, humans aren’t clownfish, turtles, or nematodes.

Besides emphasizing the valuable lesson that men and women are biologically different in ways that can be important for medical treatment, this article also shows us that where it really counts, where the rubber meets the road—that is, when lives are at stake—the palaver about the binary of sex being a fiction vanishes.

None of this, of course, is intended to ignore those who have disorders of sex determination or transsexuals who have had hormone therapy or surgery, for those patients may need separate study rather than lumping them into one sex or another. That will be hard to do given the paucity of such people, but everyone deserves the best treatment that science can offer.

On the inequity of sex representation in STEM, and extra review for papers that buck the current ideological climate

September 8, 2022 • 10:15 am

I have neither the time nor the space to sum up either of these two papers (the second is a short supplement to the first), but if you’re interested in gender parity in STEM fields, you should definitely read the longer Stewart-Williams and Halsey paper. It’s fairly new (2021) and is loaded with data and references about the widely-discussed deficit (“inequity”) of women in some STEM fields, what factors might cause it, and what, if anything, should be done to assure parity. It’s a big paper—26 pages of text—but also has nearly every reference up to 2021 that I know about on the topic (and many more), with over 11 pages of citations in addition to the text.

You can read the paper by clicking on the screenshot below, or downloading the pdf here (reference at the bottom of the page). Stewart-Williams is a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, while Lewis Halsey is a Professor of Environmental Physiology at the University of Roehampton.

There are many aspects of the paper, but the overall message is that a lack of equity between men and women in some (not all) STEM fields cannot be wholly imputed to bias or “structural sexism” because there are many other factors causing such inequities. These factors include sex-differing preferences, interests, the greater overall variability in performance (and other traits) of men, evolution, and so on.  The authors do note that there is evidence for bias against women, describing a long list of studies, but also show that there’s also evidence that women are favored in entering and succeeding in STEM, giving an even longer list of studies. We all know—though few mention—that the proportion of women in STEM goes down as countries become more equal in opportunity afforded to males and females, which suggests that in more gender-equal countries women’s preferences and other non-biasing factors are more freely excercised, perhaps leading to a decline in participation in STEM (I’ve written about this before).

Stewart-Williams and Halsey attribute some of the sex differences in interests (and variability) to evolution, but freely admit that any hypotheses they have are just stories and are very hard to test.

The biological difference in STEM representation can, say the authors, be partly imputed to the claim that “Men are more interested in things than are women, who in turn are more interested in people.” (Remember, this is an average, and doesn’t imply anything about whether some women can be more interested than many men in STEM fields, nor does it buttress any discrimination.) There are many studies implying that such differences are not only cultural universals among many societies (of course, one could argue that this is forced onto women by sexism in all societies), but they are also seen in very young infants who haven’t yet had a chance to be “socialized in sexism”, as well as in our primate relatives. These two points make an explanation based wholly on socialization less likely.

Rather than go into more detail, I’ll just say that if you strive for equity in gender or sex in STEM because you think inequities result solely from bias or sexism, do read this paper first. I’ll give one figure, below, and reproduce conclusion of the article.

First, a simplified diagram from the paper showing the many sources of inequities in sex representation in STEM. Each is discussed in detail in the paper:


(From the paper): Figure 3. Occupational outcomes are a product of many different factors; workplace discrimination is only one among many.

. . . and the paper’s conclusion. I’ve put part of it in bold because I agree with the goal of maximizing opportunity rather than enforcing pure equity and making unevidenced claims of bigotry.

Conclusion: Many factors at play

In summary, any exhaustive discussion of the relative dearth of women in certain STEM fields must take into account the burgeoning science of human sex differences. If we assume that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable, then any disparities between the sexes in STEM will be seen as evidence of discrimination, leading to the perception that STEM is highly discriminatory. Similarly, if we assume that such psychological sex differences as we find are due largely or solely to non-biological causes, then any STEM gender disparities will be seen as evidence of arbitrary and sexist cultural conditioning. In both cases, though, the assumptions are almost certainly false. A large body of research points to the following conclusions:

  1. that men and women differ, on average, in their occupational preferences, aptitudes and levels of within-sex variability;
  2. that these differences are not due solely to sociocultural causes but have a substantial inherited component as well; and
  3. that the differences, coupled with the demands of bearing and rearing children, are the main source of the gender disparities we find today in STEM. Discrimination appears to play a smaller role, and in some cases may favour women, rather than disfavouring them.

These conclusions have important implications for the way academics and policy makers handle gender gaps in STEM. Based on the foregoing discussion, we suggest that the approach that would be most conducive to maximizing individual happiness and autonomy would be to strive for equality of opportunity, but then to respect men and women’s decisions regarding their own lives and careers, even if this does not result in gender parity across all fields. Approaches that focus instead on equality of outcomes – including quotas and financial inducements – may exact a toll in terms of individual happiness. To the extent that these policies override people’s preferences, they effectively place the goal of equalizing the statistical properties of groups above the happiness and autonomy of the individuals within those groups. Some might derive different conclusions from the emerging understanding of human sex differences. Either way, though, it seems hard to deny that this understanding should be factored into the discussion.

People will of course bridle at the claim that there’s a “substantial inherited component” to gender disparities, crying that “it’s evolutionary psychology—Nazism!”. But there’s ample evidence that men and women differ in morphological and behavioral ways that can be explained (though not “proved”) by evolution. This of course goes against the “progressive” conclusion that men and women are on average identical in every trait except perhaps in those morphological differences (size, build, genitalia) connected with the biological basis of sex.  But those who believe that men and women are identical in every aspect of thought, behavior, and mentation are fighting a wealth of data.  (I have to emphasize again that differences do not imply superiority or inferiority, but that’s so obvious that I shouldn’t have to say it for the umpteenth time.)


The paper below is basically a short gloss on the paper above, and provides more data supporting the claim that while sex inequities in STEM can (and do) result partly from bias against women, that bias “cannot explain the corpus of findings related to gender differences in math-intensive disciplines. Click the screenshot to read it, and you can find the pdf here (reference at the bottom of the page).

The authors did their own three-year analysis of gender bias in six areas (letters of recommendation, tt [tenure track] hiring, journal acceptances, grant funding, salary, and teaching ratings). The fields surveyed aren’t listed, as the study isn’t yet published, but they found one area in which there was gender bias: “students of both genders rate women instructors’ teaching skills lower than men” [sic].  This is an average and shows heterogeneity among areas.

They found possible gender bias in “the academic salary gap”, but qualify it a bit:

In the second domain in which there is a possible gender bias—the academic salary gap—the presence or absence of bias is less clear. Although we tilted toward a bias explanation, we were unable to make an airtight case for it. The average gender salary gap in academia writ large is around 18%, but much of this is explained by the type of institution (e.g., two-year and four-year colleges, large research-oriented universities), discipline (more women are employed in lower-paying humanities fields than in higher-paying engineering and business fields), and years of experience. With these as controls, the gender difference among those on tt is less than 4%. And that difference might be even smaller if studies are able to control for productivity (publications), which no study of the salary gap has done. The evidence on publications, which we also summarized in our paper, points to gender differences in publishing, so this could account for the remaining 4% salary gap. So we are agnostic. We concluded that the evidence might point to some bias in salaries—although it is much smaller than averages suggest—and might not be the result of gender bias.

Finally, they report “no systematic gender bias” in the other areas over a long period of time:

In the other four domains (letters of recommendation, tt hiring, grant funding, and journal success) we came to the conclusion that there was no systematic gender bias in the last 15–20 years. Looking at studies that directly measured tt outcomes such as the likelihood of grant application success, acceptance of journal submissions, etc., the vast majority of studies, including the largest ones and the cleanest ones that really compared apples with apples (e.g. actual experiments or matching methods) found no gender bias in either direction.

Theynote that their overall finding contravenes the dominant narrative. which may explain how the paper was handled by the journal (see below):

Note how divergent these conclusions are from the dominant narrative that pervades the scientific media. Figure 2 appeared in Nature (Shen, 2013) and captures what many regard as the ground truth, namely that women in science earn 18% less than men and are far less likely to get funding.

The funding claim isn’t supported, and while there may be a bias-induced difference in salary, it’s more likely to be closer to 4% than 18%. That still needs examination, though, and then fixing if it’s due to bias.  Note as well that this paper isn’t yet published.

One reason it may not yet be published is in fact that the findings of Ceci et al. are politically unpalatable: every inequity must, says the dominant narrative, be due to bias.  This is not just sour grapes, as the authors argue. This excerpt, though long, is worth reading:

Our study was submitted for review at a top journal but declined by the editor, based on seven reviews, four of which recommended publication. It is interesting that, unlike our analyses of less controversial topics, whenever we have attempted to publish work on the underrepresentation of women in science that argued against a dominant role for bias, journal editors have felt the need to solicit many more reviews than is customary. We have seen this phenomenon often.

For example, in 2014 when two of us (WMW and SJC) submitted a manuscript on hiring bias to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the editor solicited seven reviews, whereas the typical number of reviews for that journal was at that time only two. Many other articles that we have written individually or together have gotten this kind of extra scrutiny when we find no gender differences, and this can be compared to the relative [sic] lower scrutiny we get when we find gender differences. A similar situation may very well have been the case for this Stewart-Williams and Halsey paper. While we do not know how many reviews this article had, we know that it was submitted to several other journals because we or people we know were reviewers.

Perhaps an uncommonly large number of reviewers is appropriate when a manuscript challenges the dominant narrative that sex differences in academic outcomes is a consequence of gender bias rather than non-bias factors. Such a position goes against some reviewers’ “priors,” and therefore one could argue it is in need of stronger evidence than a claim that is congruent with the dominant narrative. Certainly, we would want a larger than usual number of reviews if a manuscript purported to provide evidence that validated ESP or voodoo, because such claims go against our deeply held beliefs that are based on decades of empirical and theoretical evidence.

However, what body of evidence leads to such deeply held beliefs that would require an alternative argument to findings such as ours showing no bias in tt hiring or Stewart-Williams and Halsey’s evidence of preference-based and perhaps biologically based career choices? What body of evidence would render such findings so aberrant as to require extraordinary evidentiary vetting? Note that we are not arguing that informed scholars cannot criticize these arguments. They indeed can, and should. Rather, we are arguing that in view of the scientific evidence they bring, why would Stewart-Williams and Halsey’s paper, or ours on lack of hiring bias, be so unbelievable? In light of the evidence on equal success rates for grant applications (both NIH R01s and NSFs in all of its directorates) for so many years, why do so many researchers continue to cite a 1997 article on gender bias at the Swedish Medical Council that—if ever there were gender differences—had disappeared by 2004 as demonstrated in a less cited but methodologically superior paper (Sandström & Hallsten, 2007)?

What would it take to get critics’ priors into sync with the published empirical data, when that data indicates no bias?. . .

By the way, I have no idea whether the Stewart-Williams and Halsey paper was given a harder review than normal given its conclusions; the authors say nothing about that.

Ceci et al.’s conclusion:

We believe that we can come to a deeper understanding of the causes of the differences in women’s representation in STEM if people drop their priors when evaluating evidence.

Dropping priors—that is, sitting down before the facts, as Huxley said, like little children—and remaining objective instead of trying to find data supporting your preconceptions—these are sine qua nons in scientific behavior. It is odd that scientists in this case are so clearly critical of data that go against their preconceptions and yet so willing to accept data that support them. We’re human of course, but we’re supposed to be fighting against our confirmation bias. That means giving all papers equal scrutiny, not extra scrutiny to papers whose results you don’t like. In fact, if anything, we should be giving more scrutiny to papers whose results we do like, or which support our biases.


Stewart-Williams, S. and L. G. Halsey.  Men, women and STEM: Why the differences and what should be done? Eur. J. Personality 35:3-39.

Ceci, S. J., S. Kahn, and W. M. Williams. 2021. Stewart-Williams and Halsey argue persuasively that gender bias is just one of many causes of women’s underrepresentation in science.  Eur. J. Personality 35:40-44.


Readers’ wildlife photos

September 7, 2022 • 8:00 am

Send in your photos, lest I get shpilkes in my kishkes!

Today’s photos are from Arizona, and were contributed by reader Bruce Cochrane. His captions, and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

With the exception of two years disrupted by Covid, my wife and I have made a spring trip to the Tucson area every year since 2012.  We usually stay at vacation homes in the desert west of Tucson, most recently in the Robles Junction area.  Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a collection of plant and animal pictures, and while I can’t claim to be a sophisticated outdoor photographer, I’ve managed to get a number of decent photos.  Here are some of the animals; I will contribute a set of plant in the near future.

For people new to the Sonoran desert, a good place to start is the Desert Museum. It has a great collection of both plants and animals, the latter housed in reasonably natural habitats.    It also does animal rescue work, and in 2012 we got to see its raptor show, featuring birds that could not be released into the wild.  One I was able to photograph was a Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis).

Another one flying overhead at nearby Saguaro National Park West.

One of our regular stops is at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservatory property about 65 miles south of Tucson.  It’s quite distinct from the Sonoran Desert, and it contains one of the few remaining permanently flowing streams in the state.  It is an internationally recognized birding hot spot, and although we’ve never been able to get there early enough in the morning to really appreciate it, I have managed to get a few  photos.

Zone Tail Hawk (Buteo albontatus):

There’s usually lots of activity at the hummingbird feeders, with several different species often present. This one is a Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cyanthus latirostris):

Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus):

There are, of course, mammals as well.  Although often mistaken for wild pigs Javelina, or collared peccaries (Dicotyles tajacu) actually diverged about 36 million years ago and in fact are members of different families (Suidae vs. Tayassuidae).  They are gentle animals that can do a number on landscaping:

We discovered Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, about 65 miles southwest of Tucson on the Mexican Border, in 2013.  It had been a cattle ranch, but was made a wild life refuge in the early 1970’s.  It’s a great place to visit, as it is well off the beaten path.  Here are a couple of fairly common denizens.

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus):

Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), Although often referred to as an antelope, it is in fact only distantly related to true antelopes of Africa and Eurasia (divergence time is about 30 million years.

Gila Monsters (Heloderma suspectum) are fairly shy creatures, so it was incredibly fortunate for us that this one decided to saunter across the road in front of us in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Although a venomous reptile (the only one native to the US), it does not pose any significant threat to humans.

In 2019, we ventured south to Puerto Peñasco in Mexico and walked out on the tidal flats north of La Choya.  There were lots of invertebrate species, including this  crab (unknown genus and species, at least to me):

Finally, one habitat of Homo sapiens, A Tucson “landmark.” Note that we did NOT stay there, even for an hour.  You can read more about it here:

Once again, Scientific American distorts biology, and now history, to buttress its ideology

August 29, 2022 • 9:30 am

For the umpteenth time we find Scientific American distorting empirical data for the sake of buttressing a “progressive” ideology. In this case the magazine has produced a short article as well as a video on “the sex binary” (there’s also an earlier article and video on sex, but on a different topic: sex-specific variations in health).

Both the video and the article below are devoted to debunking the idea that sex is a binary trait in humans. And they both reach the same conclusions:

  1. People with true intersex conditions are often subject to unnecessary and harmful genital and reproductive surgery when they are too young to consent.
  2. People with true intersex conditions are so common that one cannot say that sex is binary in humans. Rather, biological sex is characterized as a “continuum.”

I agree with the first point, which is an ethical one. Of course children with ambiguous genitalia or other deviations from the strict “male” and “female” dichotomy should not be subject to drastic surgical intervention until they’re old enough to consent, particularly when those conditions won’t cause irreparable damage before the age of consent. What rational person could object to that? And who could argue that intersex individuals, or any individuals who can’t immediately be placed in the sex binary, should be treated as inferior to other people?

No, my problem is with #2: the claim that sex in humans is not a binary.  This would be true if we had more than two sexes, and the other sex (or sexes) was quite common. But this is not the case.  We do not have more than two sexes: the “intersex” individuals, apparently considered by Scientific American (but not science itself) as “members of other sexes” are not. They are usually sterile, and do not constitute a “sex” in any meaningful sense. Rather, they are deviations, due to genetic or developmental anomalies, from the normal binary, just as many aspects of the development of other traits (limbs, brains, etc.) can seriously deviate from the “normal” condition.

Further, true “intersex” individuals are vanishingly rare. Scientific American distorts the data by quoting a figure of 1.7% of the population, a figure from Anne Fausto-Sterling and her colleagues that even she and a colleague later revised down to 0.4%. Anybody who can Google can find the backtracking of Fausto-Sterling—except, apparently, author Meghan McDonough and whoever fact-checked her piece. (I’m beginning to wonder if the magazine actually does fact checking.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click to read the article, and I’ve put the accompanying video below.

I won’t dwell on the instances of children subject to genital or gonadal surgery when too young to give consent. In nearly all cases, these are medically unnecessary but ordered by the parents so the infant can conform to what a “normal” boy or girl looks like. In that sense, the assumption of a sex binary does create a harmful situation.  But that doesn’t mean that there are more than two sexes: it means that there are morphological deviations from primary or secondary sexual traits of men and women that are often corrected without the subject’s consent. It’s analogous to saying that there is a “spectrum of palates” because 1 in 1700 American babies (about 0.06%) is born with a cleft palate (in such cases there is surgical correction when young).

Here’s a bit of what the article says:

Intersex is an umbrella term for variations in reproductive or sexual anatomy that may appear in a person’s chromosomes, genitals or internal organs, and it has been estimated to include about 1.7 percent of the population. There are more than 30 medical terms for different combinations of sex traits that fall outside of the typical “male” and “female” paths of development.

The 1.7 figure comes from a 2000 paper in American Journal of Human Biology with Fausto-Sterling (the big proponent of the “1.7% figure”) as one of six authors. But three years later, as I noted above, she and Carrie Hall, in a pair of letters in the same journal, noted that the 2000 paper was ridden with poor estimates and mistakes, and revised the figure of those having “nondimorphic sexual development” (i.e., deviations from “male” and “female” phenotypes) down to 0.37%, nearly one-fifth of the previous estimate. Nevertheless, the 1.7% figure is still used widely because it’s high—one indication of an ideological factor at play.

In 2002, however, Leonard Sax decided to apply clinical criteria for diagnosing the frequency of intersex individuals. His paper, published in the Journal of Sex Research, limns a different definition of intersex:

A more comprehensive, but still clinically useful definition of intersex would include those conditions in which (a) the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female, or (b) chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex.

Fausto-Sterling et al.’s  (actually Blackless et al.; Fausto-Sterling was an author) original definition of intersex was “any deviation from the Platonic ideal of sexual dimorphism,” which doesn’t seem particularly useful except that it yields a higher figure. Sax et al. wind up with a figure of clinical intersex constituting 0.018% of the population, one-twentieth of the revised figure accepted by Hall and Fausto-Sterling.

Depending on what you want to accept as a definition of “intersex” individuals, then, they fall between 0.018% of the population (one in 5500 individuals) or 0.37% of the population (1 in 270 individuals).

But we needn’t quibble about numbers, for nearly every individual who is intersex faces a tough situation, should be treated with respect, and should make their own decision about whether to get surgery.

My point is threefold. First, early estimates of nearly 1 person in 50 being intersex are grossly exaggerated, yet still propagated by venues like Scientific American, even though that figure was retracted by its own author.

Second, the figure is exaggerated deliberately, since if you know the scientific literature you would have stopped using the 1.7% figure ages ago. It’s still used because it’s ideologically convenient, artificially swelling the numbers of a stigmatized minority but also making the issue of a “sex binary” seem unpalatable.

Third, no matter what the percentage of intersex individuals is, they don’t constitute a third sex. That’s because “sex” in animals is determined by whether you make large gametes (eggs) and are female, or small gametes (sperm) and are male. Intersex individuals either make one of the two kinds of gametes, or no gametes (in which case they’re sterile), but they don’t make an intermediate kind of gamete. The sex binary, a result of natural selection, remains.

One more point: the article notes this:

There are life-threatening conditions in which genital surgery is required for infants and children. But “normalizing” their genital appearance to match a sex assigned in early age isn’t medically necessary and is still largely up to doctors and parents. Advocates have long argued that the decision should instead be delayed until individuals are old enough to give informed consent.

I agree with everything here except that sex is not “assigned in early age”. It’s observed in early age, and is observed to be male or female (the signs of gamete-size difference) except in the tiny fraction of cases in which genitals or other sex-related traits are ambiguous. The use of “assigned” here is another ideological tactic, meant to imply that sex is more or less subjective, determined by the whim of doctors who place individuals along a socially-constructed spectrum.

The video reiterates what I’ve said above:

What caused a big fracas on the internet, though, was initiated by Scientific American itself: its tweets advertising the article and video, particularly the second tweet below:

It is manifestly wrong and stupid to argue that until the late 1700s, “Western science” recognized only one sex: the male sex. Females, so the tweet implies, were also considered male, but an inferior type of male.

You don’t have to be a historian to see that the idea that only one sex existed is contradicted all the way back to ancient times. Yes, women were often seen as inferior in those bigoted times, but not as inferior versions of males. There may be one or two renegade historians who hold to the tweet’s claims—that there was an 18th-century shift to a “two sex model”—but in this case Twitter has the facts right and Scientific American doesn’t.

The responses to the Scientific American tweet are almost uniformly critical (I don’t suppose the magazine cares so long as they get clicks). Some people corrected the dumb assertion of the “one sex” model, others gave historical corrections, and still others defended a sex binary or noted that the idea of ethical surgery to change sexual traits has nothing to do with the sex binary. I’ve chosen a few tweets, presented as screenshots below, but if you go to this link and follow the many responses (keep clicking “show more replies”), you’ll be vastly amused. Sometimes Twitter, though often acerbic, is also a good corrective.

A nice tweet from Emma Hilton:

“DSD” stands for “differences in sex development“:

This is a snarky one, but appropriate:

Historical corrections:

And a figure about ideology:

Another dismissal of biological facts that go against ideology: The NYT claims that “maternal instinct” is a misogynistic myth.

August 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: In a comment below, Randolph Nesse, one of the founders of “Darwinian medicine,” cites a book I’d forgotten:

If only everyone interested in this topic could read “Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species”, Sarah Hrdy’s 2020 book on the topic. And if only the NY Times would review such excellent science books so people would know about them! I am tempted to send Conaboy a copy.

Hrdy is a highly respected anthropologist, and you can order her book by clicking on this screenshot:

I highly doubt that Hrdy sees maternal instincts as pure social constructs designed to hold women down. I’m going to read it, and I hope Conaboy does, too.  Then we can expect her to retract her article (LOL).


Lately there have been a lot of articles trying to deny scientific evidence because, the authors claim, that evidence buttresses inequality. (One example is the widespread denial that sex in humans is a binary.)

The recent article below, from the New York Times (of course), is one of the worst of the lot. It bespeaks a lack of judgment on the part of the author—who ignores biology because of her ideology—as well as on the part of the newspaper, which failed to hold the author’s feet to the scientific fire. Let this post be my rebuttal.

Click on the screenshot to read.

Author Conaboy, who apparently hasn’t done enough scientific research, maintains that “maternal instinct” doesn’t exist, but is a social construct devised by men to keep women subordinate.

The immediate problem is that Conaboy never defines “maternal instinct”. It could mean any number of things, including a greater desire of women than men to have children, a greater desire of women than of men to care for those offspring, the fact that in animals mothers spend more time caring for offspring than do fathers, a greater emotional affinity of women than of men towards children (including offspring), or the demonstration of such a mental difference by observing a difference in caring behavior.

I will define “maternal instinct” as not only the greater average tendency of females than males to care for offspring, but also a greater behavioral affinity towards offspring in females than in males. The term involves behavioral response, not “feelings”, which are demonstrable only in humans. Thus one can look for difference in “parental instincts” across various species of animals. 

But even in this sense, Conoboy is partly (but far from wholly) correct when she discusses humans. It’s undoubtedly true that women were socialized into the sex role as offspring breeders and caretakers, with men assuming the “breadwinning” role. It’s also true that women were often denied access to work or education because their vocation was seen as “reproducer”, or out of fear that they would spend less time working and more on children, or even that they’d get pregnant and would leave jobs. Further, it’s also true that this role difference was justified by being seen as hard-wired” (i.e., largely the result of genes, which, I argue below, is true), and that “hard-wired” was conceived as “unable to be changed.” The latter construal, however, is wrong, and that is what really held back women. The socialization of sex roles, which still occurs, goes on from early ages, with girls given dolls and boys toy cars, though, as society has matured, we’re increasingly allowing girls to choose their own toys and their own path through life. I of course applaud such “equal opportunity.”

But to claim that women don’t have a greater desire than men to care for offspring, or have a greater emotional affinity towards offspring, is to deny biology, and evolution in particular. (I freely admit that many men love their kids deeply, and that some men care for them as much or more as do mothers, but I’m talking about averages here, not anecdotes.)

There are two reasons why Conaboy is wrong, and both involve evolution.

The first is theoretical, but derived from empirical observations. It thus explains the second, which is wholly empirical and predictive.  How do we explain the fact that, across the animal kingdom, when members of only one sex do most of the childrearing, it’s almost invariably the females? (Yes, in many species males share the duties, and in a very few, like seahorses, males provide more parental care; and there are evolutionary reasons for that.)

The reasons for the statement in bold above involves the biology of reproduction. It is the female who must lay the eggs or give birth, and there is no way she can leave her genes behind unless she does that. It’s easier for males to take off after insemination and let the females care for offspring. Given that females are constrained to stick with the fertilized eggs, their best strategy is to take care of the gestation and resultant offspring, which of course allows males to seek other mates. Not only must females carry the fetuses, lay the eggs, and so on, but they are also constrained to see out the pregnancy until offspring are produced and then suckle or tend them in other ways.  In some cases it’s the best evolutionary strategy for a male to stick around and share the child-rearing, but often it’s not.

This disparity in behavior holds not just in humans, of course, but in many animals: it’s a prediction—largely verified—of evolutionary psychology.

The difference in the amount of parental care given by females and males is seen throughout the vertebrates, as well as in many invertebrates (squid and some insects come to mind; see here for a summary in the latter group).

It is the female lion who takes care of the cubs (and hunts for them) while the males are indolent; most often it is the female bird who not only incubates the eggs but feeds the offspring; it is the mother elephant who tends to her young; it is the female primate who holds, cares for, and nurtures her offspring. This difference alone, caused by the constraints of different reproductive roles, will, over time, select for mothers to be more attentive to offspring than are the fathers, more worried about them, and more attached to them. As all of us know, it’s the mother bear who tends her young, and woe to those who get between a mother and her cubs! But where is Papa Bear? Well, he’s long gone. In my ducks, if you approach a young brood, the mother will attack you, but the father, even if he’s around, does nothing.

Note that I am just talking about behavior, not “feelings” here, as we can’t really know what a mother bear or a mother duck experiences in her brain. But these behaviors are clearly seen in primates like gorillas and chimpanzees, and here we can start advancing hypotheses about emotions.  Since I’m using maternal instinct as a behavioral phenomenon, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there is a strong regularity of behavior across the animal kingdom, one so pervasive that it demands explanation. And since animals don’t have humanlike culture, you can’t explain it by socialization. But can you deny, watching a female chimp cradle her young, that she feels something akin to love?

Of course to claim that a difference in sex and sex roles can cause a difference in behavior or emotions is anathema to “blank slaters” and those on the Left who flatly reject evolutionary psychology. And although Conaboy doesn’t go into the biology, this appears to be her view: there is no evolved difference in caregiving between men and women. Rather, differences in maternal and paternal behaviors must be the result of socialization.

And this brings us to the empirical point. Why, if “maternal instinct” is due entirely to socialization, is it is nearly ubiquitous among animals, causing female-specific nurturing and protective behaviors of offspring? Why, if Conoboy be right, are we the only species of animal in which those sex differences are due entirely to socialization? The parallels between humans and other animal species—especially other primates—is so strong that it would be foolish to deny that it says something about evolution. What it says is that human “maternal instincts” are partly hard-wired, and only partly socialized. As far as human emotionality is concerned, there are plenty of studies showing a difference in maternal vs paternal care due to hormones (here is one example), and they’re in the direction that evolution predicts.

Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young female rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “female” toys than do young male rhesus monkeys. (The toys are dolls vs trucks.) This preference of course is seen in human children, yet that could be, and has been, dismissed as a result of socialization. But rhesus monkeys don’t have that kind of socialization! The most parsimonious explanation is that monkeys, like us, have an evolved sex bias towards maternal instincts.

As I said, there are good evolutionary reasons to expect differences in maternal and paternal behavior, and we see those differences. While we can’t suss out “feelings”, it is likely that these behavioral differences are due to hormones, and in other apes we can guess that their “feelings” are not completely different from ours.

Conaboy, however, cavalierly dismisses the Darwinian explanation because of Darwin’s own sexism, as well as that of other evolutionists. Yes, it’s true that Darwin shared the sexism of his time, as have other evolutionists, but do we dismiss phenomena completely because of this? That would be foolish. Nonetheless, Conaboy does:

In the 1800s, Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists upended how we thought about human nature, shifting the focus from faith to biology.

And while one might have expected such a shift to dispel longstanding chauvinistic ideas about women and motherhood, the very opposite happened. Within his revolutionary work, Darwin codified biblical notions of the inferiority of women and reaffirmed the idea that their primary function is to bear and care for children.

“What a strong feeling of inward satisfaction must impel a bird, so full of activity, to brood day after day over her eggs,” Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” in 1871Observant as he was, Darwin apparently ignored the hunger of the mother bird and the angst of having mouths to feed and predators to fend off. He didn’t notice her wasting where wing meets body, from her own unending stillness.

Women are specialized to care for other humans and men to compete with them, he explained. By that basic fact, he argued, men achieve “higher eminence” in virtually all things, from the use of their senses to reason and imagination.

As more women demanded their own identities under the law, social Darwinists seized on this idea as justification for continued male dominance. Among them was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote that childbearing extracts “vital power” from women, stunting them emotionally and intellectually.

Note that Conaboy challenges Darwin by pointing out the travails that beset a mother as opposed to a father (this is also a big part of her objection to “maternal instincts” in humans). But she fails to point out that there are costs to child-rearing, but there are also costs to abandoning or ignoring children, and the former costs are greater than the latter. Yes, a mallard hen loses up to 30% of her body weight while incubating her eggs over a month, but she gets a healthy brood from that behavior. If she leaves the nest to eat and drink, she loses her brood entirely.  Genes that favor maternal care and concern will be favored. The notion of evolutionary tradeoffs—that a behavior can have costs and benefits, but will evolve if the reproductive benefits outweigh the costs—is something that apparently didn’t cross Conoboy’s mind.

Why is Conaboy so dead set against the idea of a “hard wired” (i.e., partly genetic) difference between men and women? For the expected reasons: she sees such differences as buttressing sexism, and so biological facts must take second place to her ideology. And, as I said, it is the case that scientists and others have used biology to justify sexism. But that doesn’t mean that the facts are wrong, or don’t give us insight into the evolution of sex-role differences.

Here are a couple of Conaboy’s statements showing the ideological basis of her objection to biologically based maternal instincts:

Where did the idea that motherhood is hard-wired for women come from? Is there a man behind the curtain?

In a sense, there is a man behind the curtain. Many of them, actually.

The notion that the selflessness and tenderness babies require is uniquely ingrained in the biology of women, ready to go at the flip of a switch, is a relatively modern — and pernicious — one. It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science.

Yes, sex role differences and behaviors, like the existence of two sexes themselves, must be dismissed because they go against what is an antiscientific, liberal, blank-slate ideology. When the facts are inconvenient, deny them and invoke bigotry.

Conaboy brings in religion, too, which of course has buttressed sex-role differences:

Modern Christian archetypes of motherhood were shaped by two women. There was Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit and in doing so caused the suffering of every human to come. And there was the Virgin Mary, the vessel for a great miracle, who became the most virtue-laden symbol of motherhood there is, her identity entirely eclipsed by the glory of her maternal love. Mary’s story, combined with Eve’s — unattainable goodness, perpetual servitude — created a moral model for motherhood that has proved, for many, stifling and unforgiving.

But religion’s own stereotypes aren’t independently contrived, but themselves come from sexism built by humans into a faith that is seen to create a harmonious society.

Others to blame for the “myth” of the maternal instinct are conservatives, another reason to dismiss the reality of that instinct:

Today, many proclaim that motherhood is neither duty nor destiny, that a woman is not left unfulfilled or incomplete without children. But even as I write those words, I doubt them. Do we, collectively, believe that? Maternal instinct is still frequently invoked in science writing, parenting advice and common conversation. And whether we call maternal instinct by its name or not, its influence is everywhere.

Belief in maternal instinct and the deterministic value of mother love has fueled “pro-family” conservative politicians for decades. The United States, to its shame, still lacks even a modest paid leave policy, and universal child-care remains far out of reach.

. . . Belief in maternal instinct may also play a role in driving opposition to birth control and abortion, for why should women limit the number of children they have if it is in their very nature to find joy in motherhood? A 2019 article published by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Christian anti-abortion policy group, claimed that “the ultrasound machine has been the pro-life movement’s strongest asset in recent years” because once a woman is informed of her pregnancy, “her maternal instinct will often overpower any other instinct to terminate her pregnancy.” Why, then, should the law consider the impact of pregnancy on the life of a person who has the full force of an instinct stronger than “even fear itself” to gird her in the task?

I am course am not defending these statements, which do derive from sexism and misogyny. What I am saying is that Conaboy uses this kind of ideological and political argument to dismiss biological explanations for maternal instincts.

I won’t go into Conaboy’s description of the difficulties attending human childbirth, including postpartum depression, physical pain, and sleeplessness. Every mother knows what Conaboy is talking about. But it has no bearing on whether maternal instincts are a myth or a social construct of the patriarchy.

Finally, I want to bring up one other misrepresentation by Conoboy: the idea that there’s a big difference between “hard-wired” differences between the sexes versus differences that emerge later, after life experience. Here’s what she says:

The science of the parental brain — much of it now the work of female scientists who are mothers themselves — has the potential to pull back the curtain, exposing old biases and outdated norms, revealing how they are woven throughout our individual and societal definitions of mother or parent or family, and offering something new.

Using brain imaging technology and other tools, and building on extensive animal literature, researchers around the globe have found that the adaptation of the human parental brain takes time, driven as much by experience — by exposure to the powerful stimuli babies provide — as by the hormonal shifts of pregnancy and childbirth.

But surely environmental cues, like exposure to one’s own child, which is “experience,” can also activate hard-wired genetic differences between male and female behavior. (Let me emphasize that by “hard-wired” I do not mean that a behavior is always seen in one sex or the other; what I mean is that there are influences of genes on an average behavioral difference between men and women.)  It is entirely possible that the sight of one’s own infant can activate other evolved pathways that produce “maternal instincts”. (See here for one paper on this topic.) This is similar to human children born with the genetic ability to learn semantic language, but they can’t express that ability until they actually hear spoken language. Thus we have an evolved trait that requires experience to be expressed.

In the end, in her attack on sexism and its attendant limitation of women’s opportunities (a view I share), Conoboy is forced to deny all the facts of biology, even dragging in the much beleaguered Darwin for a good drubbing. But she hasn’t done her homework. If she had, she’d see that maternal instincts are not limited to humans, but are widespread among animals. And she’d see that there are good evolutionary reasons for such instincts—reasons that, in our species, could lead to a difference in feelings towards infants.

I’m sick to death of people either ignoring or denying the facts of biology when they’re ideologically inconvenient.  But that whole strategy fails for two reasons. First, the truth will out. In fact, we already know that Conaboy is wrong.

Second, it’s a terrible strategy to dismiss empirical data on ideological grounds. Far better for Conaboy to admit that sexism plays a role, but so does biology. There is nothing shameful in admitting that much of the “maternal instinct” is evolved. That admission does not force us to view women as inferior, nor to treat them as inferiors.

Finally every woman who chooses not to have a child because she has other priorities demonstrates that evolved tendencies need not compel our behavior. They can explain it, but that’s different from making it into an “ought”.