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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19614-y

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.”

More:

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 out.com 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

A good article on the meaning of biological sex

September 23, 2020 • 1:30 pm

There’s lot of confusion among laypeople, and even among scentists, about what “sex” is, in the sense of “what do we mean by a biological sex?” This goes along with questions like “Is sex binary?”, “How many sexes are there?” and so on.

For a scientific but accessible discussion of how biologists construe sex, the article below from Aeon (click on screenshot) is quite good.

There’s not much to quibble with in the piece, as it’s a straightforward discussion about how biologists regard sex, so I won’t do anything except list some of the questions it takes up:

  • What do biologists mean by “the sexes” of an animal or plant?
  • Why do we have sexes in the first place? Why doesn’t everything just reproduce asexually by budding or parthenogenesis (production of an offspring from an unfertilized egg)?
  • Why are there only two sexes in the vast majority of animal species? Why can’t there be three or more sexes?
  • Are hermaphrodites or developmental anomalies members of other sexes?
  • Why do biologists define the sexes by gamete size rather than by chromosomal constitution or characters like sexual organs?
  • Why doesn’t the existence of individuals with combinations of male and female traits prove that sex is a continuum?
  • Why we can’t necessarily extend biologists’ views of sex to questions like “who participates in women’s sports?” or “who goes to a women’s prison?”

I have a few minor quibbles with the piece, but they’re so trivial that they’re not worth mentioning. What especially interested me was the evolutionary question. Biologists have long wondered “Why did sexual reproduction evolve in the first place?”, and, truth be told, we don’t have an answer everyone agrees on. There is more agreement on why there are just two sexes in the vast majority of animals, although some organisms like protists have dozens of “mating types” that might be seen as sexes (Griffiths doesn’t).

Have a read of the piece if you want to be informed about biological sex before you wade into the gender wars.

In view of continuing racial disparities, should orchestras eliminate “blind” auditions?

July 17, 2020 • 12:00 pm

After two black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic in 1969 of racial discrimination, the Philharmonic, and many other American orchestras, began auditioning prospective members behind a screen, so that neither the race nor the sex of the individual could be discerned. All that mattered was musical quality. (As I recall, women were told not to wear high heels so their sex couldn’t be sussed out by the clack-clack they made as they walked across the stage.)

Now, as a critic in the New York Times argues, while this procedure has been wildly successful in increasing the representation of women in orchestras, the proportion of blacks and Hispanics remain low. The solution, offered in an opinion piece by Anthony Tommasini, the Times‘s head classical-music critic, is to ditch the blind auditions and go back to the way things were. This argument has put me in a bit of a dilemma.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s a picture of what a blind audition looks like (this is a mock audition at the Yale School of Music):

Young Artists participate in mock orchestral auditions led by wind and brass musicians from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Philadelphia Orchestra

Tomsasini’s words are indented; mine are flush left.

Here’s the success of blind auditions in getting women into orchestras:

Blind auditions, as they became known, proved transformative. The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew. Today, women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.

But, according to Tommasini, the change was “not enough”, for the racial disparity remained:

American orchestras remain among the nation’s least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino. At the time of the Philharmonic’s 1969 discrimination case, it had one Black player, the first it ever hired: Sanford Allen, a violinist. Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet.

Clearly, the premise of blind auditions, like the practice of some science journals in having authors leave their names off their papers, is to reduce bigotry against names (or appearances), ensuring that only the quality of the music (or papers) counts in the audition. That sounds good, right? But for Tommasini, quality isn’t an issue any more.  For one thing, the people who audition at symphony orchestras, he argues, are all so good that there’s little to distinguish them, so why not hire based on ethnicity rather than musical quality? To paraphrase Dr. King, although what has counted in blind auditions is not the color of the skin but the sound of the music, Tommasini recommends that color of the skin should count:

The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.

. . . .If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, the audition process has to be altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences. Removing the screen is a crucial step.

One immediately thinks, “Well, if we go back to the old system which apparently discriminated against women, won’t that happen again?” Yes, it could, but apparently Tommasini would guard against that by having a quota system: you must hire so many women, so many blacks, and so many Hispanics. That eliminates discrimination. The “ensemble must reflect the diversity of the community it serves”.

Tomassini’s contention:

Blind auditions are based on an appealing premise of pure meritocracy: An orchestra should be built from the very best players, period. But ask anyone in the field, and you’ll learn that over the past century of increasingly professionalized training, there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.

It’s like an elite college facing a sea of applicants with straight A’s and perfect test scores. Such a school can move past those marks, embrace diversity as a social virtue and assemble a freshman class that advances other values along with academic achievement.

Are orchestra applicants really like that? I have no idea, and I’m not sure I trust Tommasini here because he works for the New Woke Times, which has an agenda.

Tommasini doesn’t argue that diversity is an inherent good (which is my contention with affirmative action in schools, which I favor and see as a form of reparations), but that it actually has a salutary effect on the music itself:

For orchestras, the qualities of an ideal player might well include talent as an educator, interest in unusual repertoire or willingness to program innovative chamber events as well as pure musicianship. American orchestras should be able to foster these values, and a diverse complement of musicians, rather than passively waiting for representation to emerge from behind the audition screen.

This implies that black or Hispanic musicians would go about selecting and making music in a different way (isn’t that the job of the conductor, who doesn’t audition behind a screen?). I don’t know of any data bearing on this, but the claim “black musicians are different from white ones” clearly needs documentation. On the other hand, I don’t have to make that argument with the “reparations” view of affirmative action that I favor.

Now, like affirmative action in schools, one has to admit that it’s not meritocratic: that is, the practice will make the average academic qualifications of the entering class fall. Likewise, orchestras will have the average quality of the music fall. I am not claiming here that affirmative action for orchestras will result in hiring worse musicians, for Tommasini himself implies such a claim, since the pool of musicians of color who would audition for symphony orchestras is very small. Here’s what he says:

Some leaders in the field I’ve spoken with over the years have argued that the problem starts earlier than auditions. They say racial diversity is missing in the so-called pipeline that leads from learning an instrument to summer programs to conservatories to graduate education to elite jobs. In this view, even that strong pool of equally talented hypothetical auditioners might have few, if any, Black or Latino players in it.

Yet Afa S. Dworkin, the president of the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to encouraging diversity in classical music by fostering young artists, argues that the pipeline is not the problem, and that talented musicians of color are out there and ready.

“As we speak,” she said in a recent online roundtable discussion among leading Black musicians, “about 96 Black and brown students who were competitively selected from hundreds who auditioned for Sphinx’s summer programs are going to go through intensive solo and chamber music training.”

She added that any of those young artists would soon be worthy of entrance to an elite conservatory and, in just a few years, ready for top-tier auditions.

This is a tacit admission that orchestras aren’t yet ready for non-blind auditions. Tommasini makes another argument for favoring ethnic minorities: the burden of flying to auditions and paying for hotel rooms weigh heavily on them, making them less likely to attend. Perhaps non-blind auditions with affirmative action would help with this. As Tommasini concludes, “Slow and steady change is no longer fast enough.” I’m not sure how fast he wants change, though. Should we take down the screens now and begin implementing his system?

Somehow, though, this suggestion grated on me—the idea that bigotry against women was eliminated by the screen but bigotry against blacks and Hispanics was reinforced. A quota system, which is what Tommasini apparently wants, could remedy all of this. And, in truth, I don’t have much of a problem with that when it comes to colleges and universities. People deprived of equal opportunity to succeed in academics should get preferential admission to help repair the damage caused over centuries. Why shouldn’t that hold in orchestras as well as in colleges? Or is musical quality somehow more important for orchestras than academic quality is for colleges? For the life of me, I can’t see a moral difference.

At the same time, I realize that there’s underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics (but not Asians) in scientific publications—essential in attaining success in academics—but I somehow can’t bring myself to agree that the race of authors should be specified on papers, and that journals should have quotas of papers based on race so that “science will reflect the diversity of the community it serves.”

I don’t have a solution here, but I’m not 100% ready to sign on to Tommasini’s suggestion, which somehow seems too woke to me. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t make a good argument for “proportional representation”, or say that it should be done as a form of reparations, which would at least be an honest admission.

You tell me what you think. I know we have many musicians among the readers, but almost everyone will have an opinion here. Take down the audition screens, or leave them up?

“Trans women are women”: J. K. Rowling is demonized again

June 11, 2020 • 9:45 am

J. K. Rowling has got herself in trouble again by implying, in the following tweet, that trans women—biological men who take on the gender identity of a woman—aren’t identical to biological women.

Because of this, she’s been called a “transphobe” and a “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). She’s been excoriated all over Twitter, people are calling for her books to go unread, a school in England has dropped plans to name a house after her, and some people are saying it’s time for her to stop publishing completely, as in this specimen from The Washington Post (click on screenshot), which argues that it’s time for her to relinquish control of the world she built—i.e., the Harry Potter series. (What struck me about this article, as a new subscriber to the Post, is how abysmally badly written it is, and how convoluted the argument, buried in the author’s desire to show off.)

After the fracas, Rowling defended herself in a longish piece on her own website (click on screenshot):

You can read this for yourself, and decide whether her reasons for not completely equating biological women with trans women are sound. But let us be clear: Rowling is sympathetic towards trans women and feels that, morally, they can be seen as women. Her objections are practical ones: what happens when society decides that whatever gender someone feels they are, we must accept they are in terms of biological sex. This is happening widely, even for people who declare that they must be treated as members of one biological sex even though they retain the morphology of the other sex. As Rowling says:

I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive. It’s also clear that one of the objectives of denying the importance of sex is to erode what some seem to see as the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities or – just as threatening – unifying realities that make them a cohesive political class. The hundreds of emails I’ve received in the last few days prove this erosion concerns many others just as much.  It isn’t enough for women to be trans allies. Women must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves

.. . . On Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.

This is the case in Connecticut for athletics, where men who have undergone neither surgery nor hormone treatment have been allowed to compete in women’s sports, and of course they’ve cleaned up in track and field.  This is what ensues from accepting that one’s declaration of what sex they are is how they should be treated in every respect. For, make no mistake about it, the statement “Trans women are women” means “Trans women are biological women.” And that’s the problem with such a declaration:

Although I’ve always seen Rowling as politically progressive, she’s been tossed out of the Leftist camp for a while. I see that this isn’t the first time Rowling has been called a transphobe; I posted a piece last December in which she defended another woman who refused to equate trans females with biological females.

But let’s “unpack”, as the po-mos say, the statement that “Trans women are women.” What does it mean and how far should we follow it?

First, it’s clear, as I said above, that to many the “women” in the slogan’s last word means “the same as biological women.”  If the purveyors of the slogan meant simply “people who feel that their gender is as women”, these people wouldn’t have to replace “woman” with words like “people who menstruate” or “people with a uterus.” Nor would they insist (as the American Civil Liberties Union has done) that trans women should be able to compete in women’s sports without any surgery or hormone treatment.

The statement “trans women are women”, I think, runs into trouble when it equates gender with sex—when it insists that one’s claimed identity is equivalent to one’s biological identity. Insofar as there are real average differences between biological men and women, and insofar as these are in some way relevant to society, then we can’t simply equate gender with sex. (The relevant one for sports is upper body strength and musculature.)

One of the best articles I’ve seen on the difference between gender and sex, which topples the idea that sex isn’t a binary, is this piece in Quillette, which defines “men” and “women” in the same way biologist identify “male” and “female” in other animals (click on screenshot):

Those who equate sex with gender (which, unfortunately, includes three respectable scientific societies dealing with evolution and ecology), often defend that view by claiming that sex, like gender, is a spectrum. They are wrong. Gender is a spectrum, with people identifying themselves all over the place, but biological sex is very nearly a complete binary, with a tiny, tiny fraction (about 0.02 percent) of people who are biologically “intersex”. Wright explains the difference in the article above, in which he simply adopts the conventional biological view of sex in animals:

Both of these arguments—the argument from intersex conditions and the argument from secondary sex organs/characteristics [JAC: these are arguments for biological sex being on a “spectrum”]—follow from fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of biological sex, which is connected to the distinct type of gametes (sex cells) that an organism produces. As a broad concept, males are the sex that produce small gametes (sperm) and females produce large gametes (ova). There are no intermediate gametes, which is why there is no spectrum of sex. Biological sex in humans is a binary system.

It is crucial to note, however, that the sex of individuals within a species isn’t based on whether an individual can actually produce certain gametes at any given moment. Pre-pubertal males don’t produce sperm, and some infertile adults of both sexes never produce gametes due to various infertility issues. Yet it would be incorrect to say that these individuals do not have a discernible sex, as an individual’s biological sex corresponds to one of two distinct types of evolved reproductive anatomy (i.e. ovaries or testes) that develop for the production of sperm or ova, regardless of their past, present, or future functionality. In humans, and transgender and so-called “non-binary” people are no exception, this reproductive anatomy is unambiguously male or female over 99.98 percent of the time.

The binary distinction between ovaries and testes as the criterion determining an individual’s sex is not arbitrary, nor unique to humans. The evolutionary function of ovaries and testes is to produce either eggs or sperm, respectively, which must be combined for sexual reproduction to take place. If that didn’t happen, there would be no humans. While this knowledge may have been cutting edge science in the 1660s, it’s odd that we should suddenly treat it as controversial in 2020.

The problematic nature of equating sex with gender shows up in several ways. I’ve already mentioned sport, in which it’s not so clear that trans women should be allowed to compete with biological women, and it’s certainly unfair for untreated trans women to do so. What about rape counseling or homeless shelters? Some women want someone who’s had the lifelong experience of a woman to talk to about being raped, and I can’t fault them. And if Scotland gets its way so that a flat claim by a biological man can turn him into a “she,” or vice versa, then we run into the problems of single-sex facilities like jails, showers, and so on. (These are less problematic for trans women who have surgery or hormone treatment.) The same issues hold for trans men, though most of the heat does not devolve upon people of that gender.

So I don’t think we should automatically accept the claim that trans women are identical in all social respects to biological women. It’s not an easy issue that can be resolved with a slogan.

When I was lecturing at a college in the South a few years ago, I went to dinner with a group of faculty who told me that some of their students identified as animals (I think they were called “furries”, but I’m not sure). Some of them identified as horses, foxes, or other creatures and all the faculty had to receive special training about how to deal with and be respectful towards these identities. That is fine, but saying that “trans horses are horses” does not mean that they should be allowed to compete in the Kentucky Derby.

Finally, morally, and in terms of civil rights, however, there’s no justification for discriminating against trans people of any gender. I would be more than glad to call a trans woman a “she”, or use whatever pronouns people prefer. That’s a simple matter of respect and decency. And if they somehow want me to treat them personally according to their conception of their own gender, no problem.

But as a biologist I have an issue with conflating sex and gender. There is no more a spectrum of sex in humans than there is in fruit flies or cardinals. And I agree with Rowling that someone born as a biological man who becomes a woman—a trans woman—is not the same as a woman born a biological woman who doesn’t transition.  A claim of what you feel to be should be respected, but not so much a claim of who you are biologically. If it makes me a transphobe to say that men who haven’t received medical treatment or surgery should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports, or, if convicted of a crime, should be put into women’s prisons, then so be it. But I’d reject that label.

Kid describes sounds coming from his parents’ room

October 18, 2019 • 1:30 pm

I’m not sure whether those who put this on YouTube were thinking clearly, but it’s pretty funny.  Still, the interlocutors of this little kid shouldn’t have been egging him on; after all they surely knew what was gong on.  Still, ten to one the parents go buy a television set immediately!