Richard Dawkins in Areo on race and sex

January 6, 2022 • 1:00 pm

The title of Richard Dawkins’s new article in Areo (below) is one I pretty much agree with, and in his analysis he covers a lot of ground.  His main point, though, is that determining one’s “race”, which is said to be a social construct with no biological basis (that part isn’t true) is far more difficult, and in many cases impossible, than determining one’s biological sex. For example, what “race” are Barack Obama and Meghan Markle, both having one white parent and one black parent? You can say, “mixed white and black”, which is correct, but society—and especially the media—don’t like that ambiguity, and so tend to observe the “one drop” rule: if you have one “drop of blood” (i.e. relatively few genes) that are more common in blacks than whites, or one great-great-grandparent who is black, you can call yourself “black.” That this doesn’t hold in the reverse direction puzzles me a bit, but surely has to do with the original use of the “one-drop rule” to denigrate and enslave blacks. (A similar construct was used by the Nazis to designate “Jews.) (Now, however, adopting a minority identity has become somewhat of an advantage in the days of affirmative action.)

At any rate, the main point is correct: sex is a binary (with very, very few exceptions), especially when defined as we biologists do: males make (or have the potential to make) small mobile gametes, while females have larger and immobile gametes (or have the potential to make them or used to make them).  At birth you see over 99.99% of people fitting this binary, while the remainder are not some intermediate “sex” but represent developmental anomalies. The assertion that sex is not binary is what drove me away from the Society for the Study of Evolution, which declared that both sex and gender are a spectrum; to wit:

Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum. Indeed, experiments in other organisms have confirmed that variation in traits associated with sex is more extensive than for many other traits.

Among all people, evolutionary biologists should most understand that sex in humans and many other species is not only binary, but that binary-ness is the product of natural selection. So be it: this is part of the fulminating wokeness of many scientific societies (see previous posts), in which ideology now trumps scientific truth.

But I digress. Click on the screenshot to read:

There are multiple point in Richard’s article: I’ll group them into a couple of classes:

His tweets are often misunderstood.

Were I Snopes, I would investigate this and say “true”. Yes, sometimes his tweets are hamhanded, and he should have realized the potential for misinterpretation, especially when you’re Richard Dawkins and half the world is gunning for you. But ones like the following are, as he said, Socratic exercises.

This first one got me thinking, as it was intended to. I wrote Richard explaining to him why he was wrong, and then, after some correction and a LOT of cogitation, I realized that he was right:

If you don’t see that conjecture as true, read The Ancestor’s Tale.

This one was more problematic for Richard, though I agree with the bit about race, and would agree with the “literally” part so long as “literally men” means “biologically men”, and the same with women. This shades into point 2.

2. He’s been accused of being a transphobe. This is one of the tweets that led to that:

I happen to think that if a white person honestly identifies as black in the same way as someone with gender dysphoria identifies as a member of the opposite biological sex, they should be considered black. That idea is anathema to many, and is why Dolezal was ostracized and kicked out of the Spokane NAACP. The idea that transexuality might have similarities with trans-racialism was also what got the gutsy philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in trouble, and led to mass resignations at Hypatia, the journal that published her paper.  But I think it’s a valid philosophical question, and I don’t see why it’s impossible that someone like Dolezal could have identified as black. It’s the racial ferment in America, of course, that has prompted people to try to buttress transsexual identities but reject transracial identites.

As for saying that you should be denigrated if you deny transwomen as being real women, I would agree with Richard so long as the definition of “women” is “biological women” and not “transwoman” or “gendered woman.”  But the point is the same as Tuvel’s point in her paper: this is an interesting philosophical issue with real-world ramifications, and should not be seen as taboo or forbidden to discuss.

For those who claim Richard is transphobic, have a look at this part of the article:

If I chose to identify as a hippopotamus, you would rightly say I was being ridiculous. The claim is too facetiously at variance with reality. It’s marginally more ridiculous than the Church’s Aristotelian casuistry in identifying the “substance” of blood with wine and body with bread, while the “accidentals” safely remain an alcoholic beverage and a wafer. Not at all ridiculous, however, was James Morris’s choice to identify as a woman and his gruelling and costly transition to Jan Morris. Her explanation, in Conundrum, of how she always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body is eloquent and moving. It rings agonizingly true and earns our deep sympathy. We rightly address her with feminine pronouns, and treat her as a woman in social interactions. We should do the same with others in her situation, honest and decent people who have wrestled all their lives with the distressing condition known as gender dysphoria.

Sex transition is an arduous revolution—physiological, anatomical, social, personal and familial—not to be undertaken lightly. I doubt that Jan Morris would have had much time for a man who simply flings on a frock and announces, “I am now a woman.” For Dr Morris, it was a ten-year odyssey. Prolonged hormone treatment, drastic surgery, readjustment of social conventions and personal relationships—those who take this plunge earn our deep respect for that very reason. And why is it so onerous and drastic, courageously worthy of such respect? Precisely because sex is so damn binary! Changing sex is a big deal. Changing the race by which you identify is a doddle in comparison, precisely because race is already a continuous spectrum, rendered so by widespread intermarriage over many generations.

Are those the words of a transphobic?

3.) Sex is binary.

I’ve defended this proposition so many times that I won’t do it again; just do a search on this website. Richard’s correcct take is that sex is biologically binary, and for good evolutionary reasons. Even Darwin noted the binary-ness of sex in animals. Richard delves back into the history of science, discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, and Mendel, to explain why, though all inheritance is particulate, race appears to be a spectrum and sex a binary—yet both are based on genes.  Here we have an interesting take on the history of biology.  Richard’s ending:

The reason inheritance often seems to be blending—the reason we seem to be a mixture of paternal with maternal, and the reason racial intermarriage leads to a spectrum of intermediates—is polygenes. Though every gene is particulate, lots of genes each contribute their own small effect to, for example, skin colour. And all these small effects together add up to what looks intermediate. It isn’t really like mixing paint but it looks that way if enough particulate polygenes sum up their small effects. If you mix beads it looks that way too, if the beads are small, numerous and viewed from a distance.

Anyway, the point that is relevant to this essay is that particulate, Mendelian, all-or-none, non-blending inheritance was staring Darwin, and Jenkin, and everybody else in the face. It was staring them in the face all along, in the form of the non-blending inheritance of sex. Sex is pretty damn binary. Male versus female is one of surprisingly few genuine dichotomies that can justly escape censure for what I have called “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.”

Have a read; it’s free. I meant this post to simply call attention to Dawkins’s piece, but, as usual, I wrote more than I intended.

Ex-editor of Science-Based Medicine chews the site’s tuchas for its treatment of Abigail Shrier’s book

September 26, 2021 • 12:15 pm

On June 22 I reported on a sort of “cancellation”. The respected website Science-Based Medicine (SBM), at the urging of editors David Gorski and Steve Novella, removed a review of a book by one of the other editors, physician Harriet Hall. As I wrote at the time:

So much the worse, then, that the site removed a book review written by another respected physician, Harriet Hall, known for being one of the Air Forces’s first women flight surgeons as well as a notable advocate for science based medicine and a vociferous debunker of quackery.  And—get this—Hall is one of the journal’s five editors.

Hall’s “mistake” was to write a fair and objective review of Abigail Shrier’s new book, Irreversible Damage (see my post here)  about the sudden increase in transgender males drawn from teenaged girls. (The numbers have increased 4,400% from 2008 to 2018!) Shrier and Hall, who admittedly note that there are very few studies about why these transitions have skyrocketed, and involve nearly all girls who want to transition to males rather than the other way round, call for more research and argue that transitions should be done under “a research setting”.

I read Shrier’s book and thought it was fair, empathic, and certainly not transphobic. But because Shrier was unfairly accused of transphobia for simply calling for more research on a topic that deserves it, it seems like SBM got cold feet. They replaced Hall’s review with three negative articles about Shrier’s conclusions, saying that Hall’s analysis failed to meet SBM’s standards for “high quality scientific evidence and reasoning to inform medical issues.” I’ve written a fair bit about this controversy, which does debase SBM quite a bit for promoting science because it conformed to a preferred ideology; see my collection of posts here.

Jesse Singal, who knows this literature well, has spent a fair amount of time taking apart SBM’s behavior in this case as well as the criticisms leveled at Hall and Shrier (see here and here, for example). Singal:

SBM has, in the wake of this retraction, published three articles about Shrier, Hall’s review of her book, and the broader controversy over youth gender medicine: “The Science of Transgender Treatment” by Novella and Gorski themselves, “Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: A Wealth of Irreversible Misinformation” by Rose Lovell, who as of February was finishing up a medical residency, and “Irreversible Damage to the Trans Community: A Critical Review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage (Part One)” by AJ Eckert, who serves as “the Medical Director of Anchor Health’s Gender and Life-Affirming Medicine (GLAM) Program” in Connecticut. Part Two is presumably on the way and I’ll read it when it’s published. (For what it’s worth, neither Lovell nor Eckert had written for SBM previously — they appear to have been brought on specifically for the task of responding to Irreversible Damage.)

Yet according to Kimball Atwood, a former editor at SBM as well as a physician and clinical professor, the articles that replaced Hall’s were laden with their own problems—philosophical, biological, and logical.  Atwood wrote a letter to Gorski and Novella and gave Singal permission to publish the letter on Singal’s own website. So here it is in all its glory. Click on the screenshot to read. PCC(E) gets a brief mention at the end.

The first bit is my favorite (I’ve added a link to “DSD”):

Hi Steve,

Harriet has told me that you stated that her article “dragged SBM into a raging controversy.” She feels, and I agree, that it was your retracting that article and replacing it by very bad articles written by advocates of “gender affirmation” that dragged SBM into a raging controversy. I’ve attempted to explain why previously, but here I’ll mention a couple of the most obvious reasons.

You claimed that Harriet’s article was below SBM’s minimal standard for “high quality scientific evidence and reasoning to inform medical issues.” Yet you replaced it with articles stating things such as the following:

  • “Biology is a binary and differences of sex development (DSDs) are vanishingly rare”. False. DSDs are as common as 1 in 5,000 births, and increase to 1 in 200 or 1 in 300 if you include hypospadias and cryptorchidism. Biology is very, very well known to be a spectrum.

[Lovell attributes the sentence in quotes to Shrier; I’ve been unable to find it in her book]

Do you, Steve, think that sex is a spectrum? Yes, I know Lovell wrote “biology is a spectrum,” but that is an incoherent claim. Her implication is that sex is a spectrum. If that were true, it would upend all that we know about sex in mammals and many other life forms, including sexual dimorphism, reproduction, and selection. Do you think that Lovell’s statement constitutes “high quality scientific evidence and reasoning”? OMG, apparently you do. What’s happened to you?

Do you think that hypospadias and cryptorchism are DSDs? They are not, and to suggest that they are does not meet SBM’s minimal standard for reasoning about medical issues.

The citation is to a paper that discusses real DSDs, not cryptorchism or hypospadias, and makes no claims about a “spectrum.” It supports the very statement that Lovell claims to be false (even though Shrier seems never to have made that statement). Where was the editor here?

There’s more, and the letter is short but sweet. I still think Gorski and Novella stepped in it by ditching Hall’s review. There’s no explanation other than the fact that Hall generally liked Shrier’s book, that the book has been attacked (wrongly) as “transphobic,” and that Gorski and Novella were afraid of backlash for being insufficiently attentive to the Zeitgeist of trans-activism.

Are your letters of recommendation gender-biased?

September 15, 2021 • 10:45 am

It was pointed out to me that Lehigh University in Pennsylvania has a website from 2016 that discusses the content of letters of recommendation written by academics. Part of our job is to write recommendations for our students or technicians—letters to go to graduate school, to medical school, for industry, for jobs as technicians, and so on. These are quite hard to write, especially if the applicant isn’t a star but is decent.

My policy has been that if a student is hopeless, I tell them that I simply cannot write a letter (without saying, “because I don’t want to ruin your career if others feel differently”). For borderline students who have both virtues and problems, I will agree to write a letter, and try to be as honest as possible. For uniformly excellent people who I really want to get the position, I’m famous for my long letters of recommendation that go into great detail about the person’s accomplishments, figuring that the length demonstrates how well I know the person. (It’s not unusual for such a letter to run six single-spaced pages, and of course nobody reads them in their entirety because there are always many applicants.) I think many faculty have a policy like mine.

Until now, I never worried about the specific words I used in my letters, but then I saw this website (click on it):

It says, and there’s research to show this, that some adjectives are associated with letters written females, and others for males. As you’ll see, adjectives about “competence” or “diligence” are female-associated words, while indications of “excellence” or “intelligence” are associated with letters for male applicants. This much we know. The Lehigh site says this:

Have you wondered if the letter you are READING- or the letters you are WRITING – are inadvertently perpetuating implicit biases that could reduce the likelihood of the candidate getting a fair chance at the new opportunity?  This one pager summarizes some facts and ideas about letters of recommendation. You can also put your own letters through this online gender bias calculator.The calculator was inspired by presentations on research organized by AWIS; several articles and blog posts share personal reactions to learning of this phenomenon as well as the tool.

It’s worth taking this into account, with three caveats. But it does helps to know what words are perceived in what way by recipients, so the “one pager” is useful to read.

The problems are these. First, given that academia is now preferentially looking for female applicants (this will change as the proportion of male students in college keeps shrinking), a letter with female-biased words may not “perpetuate implicit bias”.  More important, suppose you run one of your letters thorough the linked “gender bias calculator”,  which you can find at the link above or by clicking on the screenshot below. It was made by Tom Force:

As a test, I ran through it a long letter I wrote a while back for one of my female undergraduate research assistants, who wanted to go to medical school. I got this result:

Here you can see the kind of words associated with female letters of recommendation (left column), emphasizing diligence and reliability. On the right are the words associated with letters for male applicants, and they’re about smarts and curiosity and high ranking. This bespeaks sexism, as far as I’m concerned. But I was happy to see that in this letter, for a women, I had roughly equal numbers in each column, with slightly more of the male words. (They don’t say whether letters with more female-associated words reduce the applicant’s chance of getting the position.)

And here’s from a letter in which I recommended a female technician for medical school (again an acceptance); most of the words are male-associated.

Again, what is the recommendation? Is this what you want for a letter for a female, or should I have added some more words about diligence which, after all, is an important characteristic for a future doctor? I don’t know, but she’s now an excellent doctor as well.

The second caveat is this: What are you supposed to do if the letter is imbalanced? For example, in the above letter, should I have cut out some of the female-associated words? (It turns out that the undergrad did get into medical school and is now a fine oncologist.) Are you supposed to ensure that the male-associated words are the predominant ones for either sex?  They don’t tell you.

That leads to the third issue: what if you’re writing for a male whose prime virtues are diligence, reliability, and responsibility. There are some science jobs, like a technician, where some of the most important qualities are showing up, following orders properly, and doing the job diligently and well. Initiative is desirable, too, but that’s a bonus. In fact, one of my colleagues wrote a letter for a guy applying for a technician position, ran the letter through the calculator, and found out that it was imbalanced in favor of female-associated words. (This was after the fact, just like my letter.) What was my colleagues supposed to do: insert more “male associated” words? At any rate, this guy got the job, turned out to be a great technician, and improved in the “male associated” traits.

The main issue is this: what are we supposed to do about “balance” in such a letter? Is imbalance bad? Are “male-associated” words good? That’s the implication. But here we have a woman applicant with male-associated words.

I realize that these lists are based on data, and that one has to be cognizant of how adjectives are perceived with respect to sex. But I think there are some problems with this method that weren’t explicated.

If you write letters of recommendation yourself, you may try running one of them through the calculator, and letting us know how the result came out (the letters of course should not be shown).

The importance of recognizing natal sex in healthcare

August 7, 2021 • 1:00 pm

The mandatory disclaimer applies here: this post is not about disrespecting transgender or transsexual people, nor about resisting their insistence of what gender or sex they may be. I think I’ve made my position on the humane treatment of such people clear: with a very few exceptions, they should possess all the rights of everyone else.

Rather, I want to evince my surprise that an article like this got published in the respected science magazine Nature, which so far has hewed pretty close to the woke agenda. The piece implies in its title that it’s going to be one of those articles arguing that, medically, transwomen should be treated like natal women (my term for birth sex, with sex defined biologically) and transmen like natal men. But no, the point of the article is not that. Instead, it argues that recognizing the binary nature of sex at birth can make a big difference in people’s healthcare and in preventive measures. In other words, there are times when you have to treat based on birth sex rather than asserted sex or gender. What the article means by “expanding the definition of ‘women’s health'” is to recognize the biological differences between the sexes when they are relevant for medical diagnosis and/or treatment. That is not exactly something amenable to gender activists.

Click to read:

The authors implicitly use the biological definition of sex (women = big gametes or the equipment for making them, men = small gametes or the capacity to make them).

They begin with the problem of fibroid tumors of the uterus, which can occur only in biological women—except for males with developmental disorders like persistent Müllerian duct syndrome.  The authors’ point is that, in medical research, such conditions have been understudied because they affect women—biological (“natal”) women:

More than one-eighth of the world’s population has a condition that can cause pain, heavy bleeding and reduced fertility, all potential consequences of benign tumours called uterine leiomyomas, or fibroids. Fibroids can be debilitating, and are a common reason for surgical removal of the uterus.

Yet fibroids have received relatively little attention from scientists, either in academia or at pharmaceutical companies. The root cause of the condition — and how to reduce its impact on fertility — has been a matter of debate for decades, leaving physicians unsure how best to treat people.

Unfortunately, fibroids are just one of many understudied aspects of health in people assigned female at birth. (This includes cisgender women, transgender men and some non-binary and intersex people; the term ‘women’ in the rest of this editorial refers to cis women.) Clinical and pre-clinical studies alike tend to focus on men: only one-third of people participating in clinical trials relating to cardiovascular disease are women, and an analysis of neuroscience studies published in six journals in 2014 found that 40% of them used only male animals. Two studies and a feature published in Nature on 5 August spotlight the achievements of research into women’s health — and the need for much more.

Asserting that “transgender men are men” won’t help with this issue; you must recognize that the biology behind the syndrome is the biology of women. (Again, I’m happy to call transgender folk whatever gender/sex they wish; we’re talking about treatment here.)

Other issues discussed are diseases like type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and, especially heart disease, which affect men and women differently.

Now it’s clear that if you’re a transgender person you should tell that to your doctor (presumably the doctor can tell, but that hasn’t always been the case). But the point is that even so, you might not be treated exactly as a member of the sex to which you’ve transitioned. There are three other areas where natal sex can make a difference:

Heart attacks, for example, are a leading killer of both women and men, but women don’t always experience the ‘typical’ symptoms usually seen in men. Women are also more prone to blood clots after a heart attack, yet less likely to be prescribed anti-clotting medication by their doctors. Women are 50% more likely than men to receive an initial misdiagnosis after a heart attack, and are less likely to be prescribed medicines to reduce the risk of a second attack, according to the British Heart Foundation.

When it comes to sport, women face a risk of serious long-term injury if we continue to model training and head-injury management on data from men. As our News Feature reports, it’s becoming increasingly clear that women experience and recover from head injuries very differently from men. Research from across many disciplines will be needed if we are to understand why women are almost twice as likely as men to suffer a concussion in sports such as soccer and rugby — and to understand why women take longer to recover from such injuries.

The sports issue here is more about research that’s been neglected in natal women, but that research may lead to differential treatments or preventive measures, as noted below.

And here’s a real argument-igniter:

So far, the evidence is sparse, but preliminary data point to structural differences in the brain. Axons in women’s brains are wired up with thinner microtubules, which rupture more easily; hormonal fluctuations are also thought to contribute. Biomechanics, too, could be playing a part — in rugby, for instance, it seems that women fall differently when tackled, which could raise the risk of concussion. Training regimes designed specifically for women might help to mitigate these injuries.

If these brain differences persist through transition, and evidence shows they seem to, then this will lead to differences in training regimens between biological men and transmen.

At the end, the article reiterates that most studies that have been done, whether on humans or animals, have been done on the male sex. Their conclusion—that studies need to be done on women—implicitly assumes a binary of sex at birth:

But the clear message from those researching the sport is that it is no longer acceptable to use data solely from men in these studies. And when women are included, the data need to be disaggregated by sex and involve a sufficient number of women. A recent study looking at MRI images from elite rugby players did include women (K. A. Zimmerman Brain Commun. 3, fcab133; 2021), but of the 44 elite players only 3 were women.

But the relative dearth of women on grant review panels and scientific advisory boards has meant that few of these decision makers have direct personal experience of women’s health needs or research gaps. This makes it all the more important that funding bodies consult the public when they come to set research priorities.

Since 2016, the US National Institutes of Health has required researchers to carry out pre-clinical studies in both male and female animals, tissues and cells, or to provide an explanation for why it is not appropriate to study both sexes. Now it is up to other funders, researchers and journals to amplify the impact of this change by taking care to report sex-specific data in publications. Funders should also bolster the resources given to support studies of health and disease in women, and track how much money goes to supporting such research across all domains, not merely gynaecological conditions. That which gets measured gets done.

These are important and valuable points, and ones that have been made many times before. Women constitute half the world and deserve to be half the reserach subjects for diseases that affect both sexes.

So when they’re talking about “male and female” animals here, or the “relative dearth of women”, they are talking about biological sex, not the sex to which someone has transitioned. In the second paragraph, for instance, then they’re discussing “decision makers who have direct personal experience of women’s health needs or research gaps”, those will nearly all be biological women.

It’s clear that transsexual people will have their own unique medical issues, and these too need to be studied. All I’m saying here is that Nature published an article in which they assume a sex binary at birth that can affect medical outcomes and treatment down the line (by “binary”, I mean “almost complete bimodality”). This runs counter to the trans-activist narrative that “transwomen are women” and “transmen are men”. So I’m surprised that this article hasn’t yet been attacked.

Perhaps it will, but it still makes several good points, and if you have a clear vision, you’ll see that it’s actually a form of social justice to recognize any differences between biological women and men that obtain at birth, could have medical relevance, and then to ensure that medical issues that differ between the sexes are studied in both biological men and women—not just in samples that are mostly male.  As always, recognizing differences like this implies absolutely nothing about inequality.

And while we’re dealing with the thorny issue of differences in brain structure between men and women, something repeatedly denied by sex and gender activists (again, we have the fallacious assumption that differences should not be studied because they imply ranking), here’s a new thread about the brain that has references (h/t Luana):

There are 15 tweets in this thread on brain differences, and I won’t reproduce them all, as you can access them by clicking on the first one:

. . . .

. . . .

It goes on, and you can read and check the references for yourself. It’s a bit left-bashing, as this Twitter site is wont to be, but just check the data for yourself. Given that natural and sexual selection have been going on in our species for millions of years, while civilization is only about ten thousand years old, it would be surprising if brains did not show differences between the sexes the way that other morphological traits do.

Sex with a stranger? Evolutionary psychology and sex differences in behavior

June 6, 2021 • 9:15 am

In the early days of evolutionary psychology—that is, when it was just beginning to be applied to humans—I was rather critical of the endeavor, though not so much about “sociobiology”, the application of evolutionary principles to animal behavior. A lot of the early evo psych stuff on humans was weak or overly speculative.

Since then, I’ve mellowed somewhat in light of replicated research findings about human behavior that show phenomena predicted by or very consistent with the theory of evolution. Not only are the phenomena predicted and replicated, but they are in line with what other animals show. Further, researchers have also falsified some alternative explanations (“culture” or “patriarchy” is the most common one).

I’ll add here that the disturbingly common claim that evolutionary psychology is “bogus” or “worthless” as an entire field is ridiculous, both in principle and in practice. In principle, why should human behavior, or behavioral differences between the sexes, be the one area that is exempt from evolutionary influence, especially given that we evolved in small hunger-gatherer groups for at least five million years, on top of which is overlaid a thin veneer (about 20,000 years) of modern culture? That position—that all differences between men and women, say, are due to cultural influence—is an ideological and not an empirical view. If physical differences, both between sexes and among groups, are the result of evolution, why not mental ones? After all, our brain is made of cells just like our bodies!

In practice, there are several types of human behavior that, using my mental Bayes assessment, I consider likely to reflect at least some of the workings of evolution, past and present, although culture may play a role as well. There will be an upcoming paper on these fairly solid evo-psych behaviors (I’m not an author), but I’ll highlight it when it’s published.

In the meantime, we have one behavior, described in this 2017 article from Areo Magazine, that describes a “universal human behavior” involving sex differences, and a behavior that’s likely to reflect our evolutionary heritage. Although the article is four years old, it’s worth reading. The author, David P. Schmitt, has these bona fides:

David P. Schmitt, PhD, is Founding Director of the International Sexuality Description Project, a cross-cultural research collaboration involving 100s of psychologists from around the world who seek to understand how culture, personality, and gender combine to influence sexual attitudes and behaviors.

See also his Wikipedia page, which describes him as “a personality psychologist who founded the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP). The ISDP is the largest-ever cross-cultural research study on sex and personality.”

The article, which I recommend you read, is chock-full of data. Click on the screenshot for a free read:


The behaviors Schmitt discusses in this longish but fascinating and readable piece are summarized in the first two paragraphs (there are lots of references should you want to check his claims):

Choosing to have sex with a total stranger is not something everyone would do. It probably takes a certain type of person. Quite a bit of evidence suggests, at least when it comes to eagerly having sex with strangers, it might also take being a man. Let’s look at the evidence.

Over the last few decades almost all research studies have found that men are much more eager for casual sex than women are (Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Petersen & Hyde, 2010). This is especially true when it comes to desires for short-term mating with many different sexual partners (Schmitt et al., 2003), and is even more true for wanting to have sex with complete and total strangers (Tappé et al., 2013).

Of course this is “common wisdom” in American culture: it is the heterosexual guy who does the pursuing, and does so without many criteria beyond the lust object having two X chromosomes, and he’s still often rejected, while women are far choosier about who they mate with.

There are many studies, described and cited by Schmitt (usually using lab experiments or good-looking students on campus approaching members of the opposite sex) that show the same thing. An attractive man propositioning a woman for sex is accepted about 0% of the time, while, in the opposite situation far more than half the males accept a sexual proposition from an attractive female stranger. Here are two studies, but there are more:

In a classic social psychological experiment from the 1980s, Clark and Hatfield (1989) put the idea of there being sex differences in consenting to sex with strangers to a real life test. They had experimental confederates approach college students across various campuses and ask “I’ve been noticing you around campus, I find you to be very attractive, would you go to bed with me tonight?” Around 75 percent of men agreed to have sex with a complete stranger, whereas no women (0 percent) agreed to sex with a complete stranger. In terms of effect size, this is one of the largest sex differences ever discovered in psychological science (Hyde, 2005).

Twenty years later, Hald and Høgh-Olesen (2010) largely replicated these findings in Denmark, with 59 percent of single men and 0 percent of single women agreeing to a stranger’s proposition, “Would you go to bed with me?” Interestingly, they also asked participants who were already in relationships, finding 18 percent of men and 4 percent of women currently in a relationship responded positively to the request.

This of course jibes with the behavior of many animals (in my flies, for example, males will court almost any female, even wooing pieces of dust or small blobs of wax), while females repeatedly reject males. It’s true of primates in general, and of many animal species. And it makes evolutionary sense. If a male mates with five females instead of one, he’s likely to have five times more offspring. In the reverse situation, though, a female who mates with five males in a short period will have roughly the same number of offspring as if she mated just once. That’s because she makes a huge investment in eggs and (in some species like ducks) maternal care, and so she should be selected to be choosy about her mates, looking for a male who is fit, healthy, may have good genes, and, if there’s parental care, will be an attentive father. Since the male has far less to lose, and far more to gain, by repeatedly mating with different females, this explains the strategy of “wanton male versus choosy female” sexual preference. These are likely to be evolved sexual behaviors.

This of course is a generalization. There are certainly picky men and women who are less choosy about their partners. But it’s a generalization that holds up not only in the “choice” studies I just mentioned, but in other aspects as well. Psychological studies show that (here I quote Schmitt, bolding is his)

. . . men have more positive attitudes towards casual sex than women, have more unrestricted sociosexuality than women, and generally relax their preferences in short-term mating contexts (whereas women increase selectivity, especially for sexual attractiveness.

. . . Cognitively and emotionally, men are more likely than women to have sexual fantasies involving short-term sex and multiple opposite-sex partners, men perceive more sexual interest from strangers than women, and men are less likely than women to regret short-term sex or “hook-ups.”

Considering sexual fantasies, men are much more likely than women to report having imagined sex with more than 1,000 partners in their lifetime (Ellis & Symons, 1990).

Behaviorally, men are more likely than women to be willing to pay for short-term sex with (male or female) prostitutes, men are more likely than women to enjoy sexual magazines and videos containing themes of short-term sex and sex with multiple partners, men are more likely than women to actually engage in extradyadic sex, men are more likely than women to be sexually unfaithful multiple times with different sexual partners, men are more likely than women to seek one-night stands, and men are quicker than women to consent to having sex after a very brief period of time (for citations, see Buss & Schmitt, 2011).

Here’s a table reproduced in the Areo paper taken from Buss and Schmitt (2011), where you can find the original references. Click to enlarge.

These patterns hold in nearly all studies in different parts of the world. That in itself suggests that culture may play an insignificant role in the difference I’m discussing.

Now if you’re thinking hard, you can think of at least four non-evolutionary explanations for these behaviors (I’ve combined disease and pregnancy in #3 below). Both, however, have been shown to be unlikely to be the major explanation for the sex difference in choosiness.

1.) Patriarchy: These could be cultural differences enforced by the patriarchy and socialization. Why a patriarchy exists itself may be evolutionary (e.g., males are stronger and thus can control females more easily than the other way around), but male dominance itself is not the explanation we’re testing here. Schmitt explains why (beyond observed cultural universalism), this is unlikely to explain the entire behavioral difference (all emphases are the author’s):

For instance, Schmitt (2015) found sex differences in the sociosexuality scale item “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying ‘casual’ sex with different partners” were largest in nations with most egalitarian sex role socialization and greatest sociopolitical gender equity (i.e., least patriarchy, such as in Scandinavia). This is exactly the opposite of what we would expect if patriarchy and sex role socialization are the prime culprits behind sex differences in consenting to sex with strangers.

How can this be? Why are these sex differences larger in gender egalitarian Scandinavian nations? According to Sexual Strategies Theory (Buss & Schmitt 1993), among those who pursue a short-term sexual strategy, men are expected to seek larger numbers of partners than women (Schmitt et al., 2003). When women engage in short-term mating, they are expected to be more selective than men, particularly over genetic quality (Thornhill & Gangestad, 2008). As a result, when more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity “set free” or release men’s and women’s mating psychologies (which gendered freedom tends to do), the specific item “I enjoy casual sex with different partners” taps the release of men’s short-term mating psychology much more than it does women’s. Hence, sex differences on “I enjoy casual sex with different partners” are largest in the most gender egalitarian nations.

Overall, when looking across cultures, reducing patriarchy doesn’t make these and most other psychological sex differences go away, it makes them larger (Schmitt, 2015). So much for blaming patriarchy and sex role socialization.

2.) Fear of injury. In general, men are stronger than women (this is almost surely the result of evolution affecting competition for mates). Perhaps women are leary of accepting propositions from unknown men because they might get hurt, as do many prostitutes. But several studies show that safety alone cannot be the whole explanation:

Clark (1990) was among the first to address the issue of physical safety. He had college-aged confederates call up a personal friend on the phone and say “I have a good friend, whom I have known since childhood, coming to Tallahassee. Joan/John is a warm, sincere, trustworthy, and attractive person. Everybody likes Joan/John. About four months ago Joan/John’s five year relationship with her/his high school sweetheart dissolved. She/he is was quite depressed for several months, but during the least month Joan/John has been going out and having fun again. I promised Joan/John that she/he would have a good time here, because I have a friend who would readily like her/him. You two are just made for each other. Besides she/he has a reputation as being a fantastic lover. Would you be willing to go to bed with her/him?” Again, many more men (50%) than women (5%) were willing to have sex with a personally “vouched for” stranger. When asked, not one of the 95% of women who declined sex reported physical safety concerns were a reason why.

3.) Fear of pregnancy and/or disease. Since venereal diseases can be passed in both directions, I’m not sure that disease is a good explanation, though perhaps women are more likely to get serious disease than are men. As far as pregnancy is concerned, there’s at least one study showing it can’t be the sole factor:

Surbey and Conohan (2000) wondered whether worries of safety, pregnancy, stigma, or disease were what was holding women back from saying yes to sex with a stranger. In a “safe sex” experimental condition, they asked people “If the opportunity presented itself to have sexual intercourse with an anonymous member of the opposite sex who was as physically attractive as yourself but no more so (and who you overheard a friend describe as being a well-liked and trusted individual who would never hurt a fly), do you think that if there was no chance of forming a more durable relationship, and no risk of pregnancy, discovery, or disease, that you would do so?” On a scale of 1 (certainly not) to 4 (certainly would), very large sex differences still persisted with women (about 2.1) being much less likely to agree with a “safe sex” experience with a stranger compared to men (about 2.9).

So, sex differences in agreeing to sex with strangers are not just a matter of safety issues, pregnancy concerns, slut-shaming stigma, or disease avoidance. Controlling for all of that, researchers still find large sex differences in willingness to have sex with a stranger.

There’s a lot more in this paper, including Schmitt’s critique of the two papers cited widely as disproving the “pickiness” hypothesis. Both papers, however, suffer from extreme methodological flaws, and in both cases the results support the “pickiness” hypothesis when the flaws are corrected.

You can read the hypothesis and judge for yourselves, but I think this is one of the best examples we have of evolutionary psychology explaining a difference between men and women in behavior*. As I said, it’s shown up throughout the world in different cultures, it’s paralleled in many species of animals, alternative explanations fail to explain the data, other, unrelated data support at least a partial evolutionary basis of the choice difference, and the few papers that claim to disprove it wind up actually supporting it.

Aside from “universal” behavior like sleeping, eating, or wanting to reproduce, which are surely instilled in us by evolution (and nobody questions those), we shouldn’t ignore differences between groups, especially the sexes, as having an evolutionary origin. It’s likely that morphological differences between geographic populations, like the amount of melanin in the skin, are adaptive responses to natural selection, so why is behavior the one trait that is always off limits to evolutionary explanation?  It’s ideology, Jake.

h/t: Steve Stewart-Williams


*As a reader points out below, and even more obvious evolutionary difference is that the vast majority of men are sexually attracted to women, and vice versa. That would be hard to explain as a result of the patriarchy or of socialization.

Bdelloid rotifers, once the poster group for having no sex, now thought to have been bonking on the sly

April 18, 2021 • 1:00 pm

One of the mysteries of evolutionary biology is the existence of groups of eukaryotic animals (animals with true cells) who don’t appear to have sex. These include some ostracods, mites, and stick insects, as recounted in the first paper below, which came out last year.

But the biggest mystery of all is a group that’s been studied for years (the first individual was described by van Leewenhoek in 1677): the bdelloid rotifers, a class of rotifers (rotifers constitute a phylum) which have never been known or seen to have sex. Laine et al., in the second paper below, estimate that at least half a million bdelloid individuals have been examined by biologists over the years, and not one male has ever been found. Nor has copulation or anything that looks like sex ever been seen. Every individual of the group is a female who produces eggs by parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). The group is about ten million years old, and sex was a property of its ancestor, which we can see by showing that its relatives all reproduce sexually, implying that bdelloids lost sex secondarily. But why? Who knows? What we’re concerned about here is whether they really are, as all the textbooks say, totally asexual.

Bedlloids are small but multicellular, and possess, despite being only a few tenths of a millimeter long, “ganglia, muscles, digestive, excretory, reproductive and secretory systems; photosensitive and tactile sensory organs, and structures for crawling, feeding, and swimming.” (From Laine et al.)

Here’s what one looks like, it’s an individual of Adineta vaga, the subject of the first study below:

So are they really totally asexual? If that were the case, it would be an evolutionary puzzle because if you can’t reproduce by mingling your genes with those from other individuals, you are impeded from combining adaptations occuring in different individuals, and that hinders evolution. Suppose one female has a mutation for heat tolerance and another individual for salt tolerance. If your environment became hot and salty, sexual individuals could mate and get both genes together; but this combination cannot happen in the absence of sex.

Asexuality is thus thought to be an evolutionary “dead end”, and most such lineages haven’t thrived over evolutionary time, usually going extinct. (The origin of sex is also a mystery, for if you’re parthenogenetic, you can leave twice as many of your genes compared to those who bequeath only half their genes to any offspring. But we’ll leave that conundrum, called “the cost of sex”, aside for now.)

The fact is that nearly all species of animals, and most plants, have sex, and once you have it, it makes good evolutionary sense to keep it.

But why have the bdelloids persisted for so long?

One suggestion, which was supported by a bit of genetic data a decade or so ago, is that they’re actually having sex on the sly—they are, to take a term from evolutionist John Maynard Smith, “sneaky fuckers”. The problem is that if this is true, as the two new papers below suggest, WHERE ARE THE DAMN MALES?  Well, we don’t know, and neither do the authors of these papers.

The two papers (the second is unpublished yet) use DNA sequencing to look for signs of sex in the sequence of the genome. The first paper (click on screenshot, pdf here and reference below) sequenced complete genomes taken from 11 individuals of A. vaga.

This second paper, from bioRχiv (pdf here), did the same thing, but with fewer isolates and using a different species of bdelloid, Macrotrachella quadricornifera. You may recognize the last author, Matt Meselson, a very famous biologist whose 1958 work with Frank Stahl (called “the most beautiful experiment in biology”) showed that DNA replicates by unzipping and synthesizing a new single strand on each of the unzipped original strands (“semiconservative replication”). For that, they should have won a Nobel Prize, and it puzzles me why they didn’t.

And now here we are 63 years later, and Matt (a terrifically nice guy) is still going strong, but has been working on sex in rotifers as a new area. Fertile minds find fertile areas of inquiry.

The upshot is that both studies suggest, in different ways, that bdelloids do have sex, for genetic patterns indicate that different individuals have recombined their genes over time. The sneaky sex isn’t frequent—once every 10 to 100 generations estimated in the first paper and at least one sexual event in the last 100-200 generations in the second sample.

The genetic data suggesting meiosis (formation of gametes) and recombination, both features of sexual reproduction, include these observations:

a.) The occurrence of genotypes (combinations of genes) in “Hardy-Weinberg” proportions, which can occur only by sexual reproduction.

b.) The appearance of mixing of genes along chromosomes, so that the farther two genes are apart on a chromosome, the more likely they are to not be associated with each other. This is a pattern you’d expect with sexual rather than clonal reproduction, as clones show complete association of genes along chromosomes since no recombination occurs. Recombination tends to break up gene combinations, and the farther the genes are apart on the chromosome, the more often this happens.

c.) Different combinations of genes show different “family trees” or phylogenies, which again is not expected under clonal reproduction because, since all genes are permanently frozen in one genome, they should all evolve together by mutation and selection, and should thus show the same family tree.

d.)  The appearance, in the second paper, of patterns of genetic variation that makes the different clones appear to be genetic relatives formed by sexual reproduction. This pattern: rotifers from different places share big segments of DNA at many places along the genome, but not at many others, a pattern expected with recombination occurring during sex but not clonal reproduction.

Now two other processes could in principle produce the appearance of sex when it doesn’t really occur: horizontal gene transfer (HGT), in which vectors like viruses or bacteria take DNA from an individual and inject it into another one. This could create patterns looking like sex but doesn’t involve gametes being formed and uniting to form zygotes.

The other is gene conversion, in which one gene can turn the other copy on a sister chromosome into its own type.  I won’t get into the gory details, but both authors have pretty strong arguments about how these two non-sex-processes CANNOT explain the DNA-sequence data.

Now this group isn’t like animals that have to have sex every generation: bdelloids usually reproduce clonally but appear to rarely have sex. The big question is the one above; if they’re really having sex, and it damn well looks like it, where are the males?  Is there some cryptic way that sex can occur without us being able to find the males? Laine et al. suggest that males might appear very sporadically, perhaps “confined to only a short interval during a population bloom [rapid expansion], therefore requiring frequent sampling for their detection.”

So, as happens so often, the mystery has deepened. We still don’t know why bdelloids are mostly clonal, and we still haven’t seen males, but now we think they do have sex from time to time. We just don’t know how. OR there may be some mysterious way of mixing your genes with other individuals without having HGT or conventional sex.

As for the sexless ostracods, stick insects, and mites, well, they haven’t been studied very closely.

Stay tuned.


Vakhrusheva, O.A., Mnatsakanova, E.A., Galimov, Y.R. et al. Genomic signatures of recombination in a natural population of the bdelloid rotifer Adineta vagaNat Commun 11, 6421 (2020).

The Skeptic magazine is skeptical about two sexes in humans; a clear thinker sets them straight

April 11, 2021 • 1:15 pm

It seems to be a dirty little secret in biology that most animals, including humans, have two and only two biological sexes. Gender (one’s assumed identity) may fall along a spectrum, but not sex. There are two. Only two. In animals, males make little wriggly little gametes—the sperm. Females make the large immobile gametes—the eggs. It is the capacity to produce one type of gamete or the other that is the biological definition of sex.

But this is a “dirty little secret” because is seems to contravene the view that if gender can take many forms, so can biological sex. In other words, denying the reality of what’s real is seen as politically expedient. And so we see scientific journals, science writers, and scientists themselves deny that there are just two sexes in humans—denying that sex is bimodal. (Yes, there are developmental aberrations and intermediate conditions, but they are vanishingly rare and are not “sexes” in the biological sense: they are the developmental derailing of the two sexes that have been favored by evolution.)

The denial of discrete sexes in humans is an ideological rather than a scientific position. It’s an embarrassment that the Society for the Study of Evolution took this position in an official statement, an embarrassment I highlighted in 2018. Conflating gender and sex, their statement said this:

We, the Council of the Society for the Study of Evolution, strongly oppose attempts by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to claim that there is a biological basis to defining gender as a strictly binary trait (male/female) determined by genitalia at birth. Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum. Indeed, experiments in other organisms have confirmed that variation in traits associated with sex is more extensive than for many other traits. Beyond the false claim that science backs up a simple binary definition of sex or gender, the lived experience of people clearly demonstrates that the genitalia one is born with do not define one’s identity. Diversity is a hallmark of biological species, including humans.  As a Society, we welcome this diversity and commit to serving and protecting members regardless of their biological sex, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.

Notice the conflation of “sex” with “gendered expression of sex”, the claim that “sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum”, and the “false claim that science backs up a simple binary definition of sex”. To a sentient biologist, that statement is “not even wrong” except in a very few species of animal.  The ideological motivation for the statement becomes clear in the last sentence above.

Another scientist, Sarah Hearne, writing in the British magazine The Skeptic (motto: “reason with compassion”), makes the same conflation, and also for ideological rather than scientific reasons. You can read her piece by clicking on the screnshot below.  Fortunately, Hearne’s errors about sex have been corrected by a piece at The Quackometer (see further down).


Hearne, a graduate student in marine ecology, writes popular science well, and she gets off to a good start by showing that the concept of “species” is a bit slippery. There are intermediate cases, cases where we can’t determine whether two populations are species, and asexual groups in which determining “species” is pretty much subjective. (Allen Orr and I discuss this in our technical book Speciation.)

Hearne then goes on to show that the concept of an “individual” also breaks down in some groups, though is pretty easily definable in humans (of course there are rare exceptions, like conjoined twins). But these two episodes are just the prelude for her big point: that biological sex, like species, is an indefinable concept. Her main point is although we can define sex by gamete type, recognizing sex by other characteristics, like presence of breasts, hairiness, and on so, is much more difficult.  Ergo “nature abhors the clean division” of two sexes.

That her argument is political becomes clear at the end of her piece: one’s sex is a social construct, ergo can be declared at will by anyone. And women are oppressed:

One thing nobody is disputing is that recognising women as a group is important. Women face problems that men do not, and men face problems that women do not. Identifying these problems, identifying their causes, and fixing them is key to making the world a better place.

But we should also bear in mind that women aren’t discriminated against because they have vaginas, or breasts, or even because they have babies. Having babies makes it easier to discriminate against us, but the pay gap still exists for childfree women. It goes back to gender – the “socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities” that have led women to be less valued than men in society.

Those social constructions may have had biological roots long ago, but that’s no reason to continue perpetuating them unquestioningly. If someone says they are a woman and are seen by society as a woman then they experience the same socially constructed barriers and stigmas that all women experience to varying degrees.

Yes, but biological males declaring themselves as women become “trans” in the gender sense but not in the biological sense. (I always wonder, if sexes are not discrete, why there are “trans males” and “trans females.”  What is being transited?) A transgender woman is a “gender woman” but not a “biological woman”. This is clarified by Andy Lewis in the Quackometer piece below, which pinpoints Hearne’s fundamental error (the title gives a clue). Click on the screenshot to read it:

Hearne’s mistake, in Lewis’s words:

But Hearne is making a fundamental error here: she is conflating the ontology and epistemology of sex. That is, she is confusing two different sets of questions…

  1. What is a sex? How many sexes are there? And how do we characterise a sex? (the ontology of sex – what exists?)
  2. How do we recognise the sex of an individual? What features indicate sex? (the epistemology of sex – what can we know?)

Hearne starts off well by explaining the universally accepted biological definition of a female as the sex that produces ova. This is where she could have stopped. There is no disagreement here in the peer reviewed biology. But that would have meant her article failed, as unlike the terms “species” and “individual” in biology, the definition of what a sex is is clear cut and defined by reproductive role associated with a gamete type. The sexes are not like species where evolution has produced a myriad of variants over millions of years. The sexes of male and female appear to be a well conserved and stable reproductive strategy that has existed unchanged for between about 500 million and 1.3 billion years. Sex is a stable biological phenomenon, across vast evolutionary time, that we can easily define.

So, to give the impression that “female” is not clear-cut, Hearne switches from ontology to epistemology. We are not supposed to notice this switch. And to be fair, I doubt she realises she is doing it.

Hearne is trying to convince us that although biologists might have a definition of each sex, our knowledge of an individual’s sex may well be unknown because we cannot use the biologists definition in any practicable way in ordinary circumstance. Therefore – tada – “woman” is an unreliable concept.

That’s really all you need to say to refute her claim (remember, we’re dealing with biological sex, not gender). But Lewis has a few more points to make as well. First, what about the “intermediate” conditions that supposedly efface the binary nature of biological sex in humans? Lewis:

A common objection that crops up here are congenital development conditions. The existence of so-called intersex conditions is often seen as an ontological threat to our understanding of sex rather than an epistemological problem. That is, there is a claim that such congenital conditions lead to a need to redefine what a sex is and its characterisation (often expressed as “sex is a spectrum”). Instead it is a medical/biological problem of knowing what sex someone (or a butterfly) is when the usual secondary sex characteristics may be ambiguously formed. No peer reviewed biology paper has ever attempted to characterise sex as some sort of spectrum of possibilities despite absolute convictions about the matter from ideological positions.

That’s true. The non-binary nature of sex in humans appears only in ideological arguments, like that of the Society for the Study of Evolution. The ideological arguments are, as Lewis notes, the main point of Hearne’s piece:

The purpose of such arguments presented here in The Skeptic magazine is for us to be convinced that sex is arbitrary and not objectively knowable and to abandon objective attempts to define terms like male, female, man and woman. It is a textbook example of postmodernist denialism of science, reason and objectivity, using sleight of hand to undermine understanding. Such arguments are now so common and fashionable, even among those educated in medicine and biology, that recently the Endocrine Society in the US felt it needed to publish a position statement on the fact that sex is real, binary and immutable, and that recording sex accurately was vital in healthcare and research as we should not conflate sex and gender.

The rest of the argument presented in the Skeptic article then goes off on the predictable route of defending gender ideology that the only meaningful expression of sex (or gender) is through self-declaration – that you can be a man or woman only meaningfully though “identifying” as either. We are supposed to ignore the inherent incoherence and circularity here as otherwise we would would not be “kind” or, even worse, horrible bigots. We just have to accept that one can be a woman when the word “woman” has been denied any sort of objective meaning.

The denial of binary sex in humans (and many other animals, like my beloved Drosophila), is as irksome to me as it would be for a chemist to hear that the chemical elements are not discrete but form a continuum from hydrogen up to heavy elements: a continuum between copper, silver, and gold so that you can’t identify an atom as one or the other. That’s nonsense, of course, but no more nonsensical than denying the discreteness of biological males and females. The only difference is that there are no ideological implications of recognizing discrete chemical elements.

Octopus sex

March 19, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Let’s end the work week with some animal behavior: in this case, octopus sex. I don’t even know how a male octopus determines that another individual is female!

The narration is pretty twee, but if the males really compete to see who has the bigger suckers, that would be fascinating.  And the arm that delivers sperm is pretty cool.

I wish the video were a bit more informative about biology, for even ZeFrank, funny as he is, has more useful information than does this National Geographic production, which seems dumbed down.

A new lexicon for midwives downgrades words involving “women” and “female”

February 11, 2021 • 11:45 am

The policing of language continues apace. This article was originally printed in the Torygraph, but that’s paywalled. Fortunately (?), it was reprinted in Yahoo! News, and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:


What has happened is that medical services directed at biological women are changing their lexicon, apparently—though this is not made very clear—because some biological women who identify as men still require the services of gynecologists and obstetricians. Therefore, because transgender men consider themselves men in all respects, any word that implies that these services are directed towards “women” must be changed.

According to the article, the changes, designed to be “gender inclusive”, are limited to Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (BSUH) NHS Trust, but believe me, they will spread widely and rapidly. Here are some of the changes (quotes from the article are indented):

First, the Maternity Services Department of Brightton and Sussex has been changed “perinatal services.”


Staff have been told to avoid using the word “mothers” on its own and have been given a list of alternative terms to use when addressing patients including “mothers or birthing parents”, “breast/chestfeeding” and “maternal and parental”.

Instead of saying “breastmilk”, they can choose from “human milk” or “breast/chestmilk” or “milk from the feeding mother or parent”.

I don’t get this at all. Even transmen who use maternity services are likely to have breasts, even if they’ve been reduced by surgery to nipples alone. And if they have no breasts because of removal, then (as far as I know), they couldn’t lactate much anyway, and “chestmilk” becomes superfluous. Or do transmen with breasts object to the simple use of the word “breasts”? I don’t get the “chestmilk” at all, even as an attempt to be more inclusive.

. . . . Other changes include replacing the use of the word “woman” with the phrase “woman or person”, and the term “father” with “parent”, “co-parent” or “second biological parent”, depending on the circumstances.

But women are persons, so why not just say “person”?

If people want to be called “fathers” if they’re transmen who have given birth, I have no objection and would be glad to accommodate them. I don’t know how I feel about those terms being incorporated into the literature, though, so that in every reference to “mother”, they have to say “mothers and fathers”.

The real question is whether an entire grammar should be changed to take care of a very small number of transsexual men who get women’s health care, for apparently about 1% of British adults identify as “transgender or non-binary”. But  I’d suspect that the percentage of transmen seeking ob-gyn services is substantially smaller, since most of the 1% would identify as “non-binary”.   Should the entire lexicon of a hospital be changed to accommodate the <1%? This is a different issue from calling people whatever they want to be called, something I’m in favor of.  It’s an issue of making everyone adhere to a terminology that might offend fewer than 1% of the population. And remember, language changes of this type are far less oppressive than actually discriminating against transsexual people.

There’s also this:

The guidance from BHSU follows a 2017 dictate from the British Medical Association which said pregnant women should not be called “expectant mothers” but “pregnant people” as it could offend intersex and transgender men.

But can’t expectant “mothers” be men, or when you become a transsexual man do you automatically must get offended if you give birth and are called a “mother”? To me, a “mother” is someone who gives birth, but that may not be a general view.

The ethical question here is what percentage of a population has to be offended (and I doubt that all transsexual men would be offended at the present language), before you change the language for everyone. Suppose only 0.1% of British adults were transgender or nonbinary. Would that be sufficient? How about only five or six people?

Clearly, some people like J. K. Rowling are already disturbed at language changes, while at the same time advocating equal rights and respectful use of pronouns for transgender people. From the article:

Telegraph columnist Suzanne Moore – who resigned from The Guardian last year after colleagues criticised the newspaper for publishing “transphobic content” following an article she wrote about sex being a biological classification “not a feeling” – said: “I’m worried that women will lose the capacity or ability to even name our own body parts or our own biology.

“Why must this language be applied to all women who clearly do have breasts and are mothers? Why must the average woman suddenly not be able to call herself a woman or call her breasts breasts? These are biological facts.

Now this is a fracas I don’t know about, but if Moore was really ostracized for saying that sex was a real biological classification—which it is—and not just a “feeling,” then that ostracism is reprehensible. Any biologist with experience of mammals knows that sex is indeed a real biological classification, and is used regularly in those who work with animals. It’s based on a binary of gamete size (it’s not just bimodal or a continuum, for there are no gametes in humans  intermediate between sperm and eggs). All of us need to push back against the idea that “sex” (as opposed to gender) is a biological construct. Gender, yes; sex, no.

As for how we react to expurgated and altered language like “chestmilk,” well, I just don’t know, and I’m not just saying that. It seems to me to depend on what percentage of a population has to be catered to linguistically because they might get offended. Weigh in below.


h/t: Ginger K.

Norway criminalizes public and private “hate speech” about trans issues

November 12, 2020 • 10:00 am

I learned about a new Norwegian law from this tweet by Bari Weiss, who links to a report in Out Magazine.

What struck me, as a free-speech absolutist who adheres to our courts’ interpretation of the American First Amendment, was the notion of “hate speech”, which is slippery at best, as well as the part of the Norwegian law that allows imprisonment for comments made in private. I read the article and also one from the charitable Thomson Reuters Foundation (click on screenshot below).


An excerpt from Thomson Reuters:

Norway’s parliament outlawed hate speech against transgender and bisexual people on Tuesday, expanding its penal code which has protected gay and lesbian people since 1981.

People found guilty of hate speech face a fine or up to a year in jail for private remarks, and a maximum of three years in jail for public comments, according to the penal code.

“I’m very relieved actually, because (the lack of legal protection) has been an eyesore for trans people for many, many years,” said Birna Rorslett, vice president of the Association of Transgender People in Norway.

Norway is one of the most liberal countries in Europe for LGBT+ people, allowing trans people to legally change gender without a medical diagnosis in 2016. But reported homophobic crimes have risen, according to advocacy group, ILGA-Europe.

. . . The amendments outlawed discrimination based on “gender, gender identity or expression” and changed “homosexual orientation” to “sexual orientation”, meaning bisexual as well as lesbian and gay people will be protected from discrimination.

Under the penal code, people charged with violent crimes can receive harsher sentences if a judge decides their actions were motivated by someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The law’s opponents argued that it could criminalise free speech criticising LGBT+ rights, said Anine Kierulf, an assistant professor of law at the University of Oslo.

The bar for prosecution is high, requiring direct incitement against people or language that dehumanises them, she said.

“There are a lot of very hateful things you can say about the protected groups,” she said.

Now I object strongly to imprisoning somebody for remarks made in private. In the U.S., I can’t imagine private remarks that would land you in jail save those that involve defamation and have consequent negative consequences that must be proved for a successful lawsuit. Further, private remarks can also constitute harassment of individuals, especially in the workplace. In the latter case, “private” remarks, like those constituting sexual harassment, are and should be illegal, not protected under the First Amendment. But even advocating violence in private is not a crime in America, because private remarks, except under circumstances that seem nearly impossible, don’t incite the immediate and foreseeable violence that constitute First-Amendment violations.

But what do the Norwegians consider “hate speech” against bisexual and transexual people? I was unable to find the exact law (which would have been in Norwegian anyway), so all I got was this,  from LGBTQ Nation:

The law carries a penalty of up to three years in jail for hateful remarks made in public. The law doesn’t ban all forms of hate speech, just language that incites violence against protected categories or dehumanizes them.

Well, the law also carries a penalty of one year in jail for hateful remarks made in private. No matter what is considered “hateful”, remarks in private should not carry a jail term. And as for remarks made in public, this all hinges on what the law considers to be “dehumanizing” transsexual or bisexual people. In America, if you said even “Trans- or bisexual people aren’t humans, but freaks,” that is not a punishable offense when uttered in public. Even if you make a speech saying that transsexual people should be deported, that’s not illegal, either, unless it would inspire immediate and predictable violent efforts to deport transsexuals.

It goes without saying that I consider such remarks boorish, hurtful, and bigoted—but not illegal. I would never make such remarks myself. I’ve given my view of transexual people before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t think they should be discriminated against legally, except perhaps when it comes to sports or issues like whether a transsexual woman should be a rape counselor for women. I am glad to use whatever pronouns people want to use, and to agree with trans people that they are whatever gender they say they are. But in terms of biology, I would argue that a transsexual woman, for example, is still biologically a man, but has the assumed gender of a woman.

But “hate speech”? That’s a different issue. That’s because a lot of what might be considered hate speech in Norway might be seen as free speech in the U.S., and thus allowed. It shouldn’t be illegal to say, “I consider transsexual men to be women.” Or “I don’t think transsexual women should be allowed to compete athletically against biological women.” Or “there should be more stringent requirements about allowing young children or teenagers to transition.” Or “I think transsexual people are mentally ill.”  Some of that is likely to be considered “hate speech,” in Norway but for all the reasons I’ve advanced before, I don’t think such speech should be banned, much less criminalized. (One argument is that it outs the bigots.)

As for hate crimes, I go back and forth on whether your criminal acts should be given an extra penalty because they’re motivated by bigotry. This is one issue in which I truly am open to hearing both sides. If you want to talk about hate crimes in America (where the concept does exist) or elsewhere, be my guest. If you kill someone because they’re Asian, for example, should you get a longer prison term than for the same murder motivated by non-racial reasons?


h/t: Luana