Scientific American just can’t help itself; it has to keep pounding away at the biological definition of sex, which is based on differential gamete size. Just the other day they published a full article in the “evolution” category, arguing that women hunted just as much as men in ancient times (and in hunter/gatherer societies today), but part of that article claimed that sex and gender were both “spectrums”. To quote from my post on this execrable and tendentious piece (my bold):
For the purpose of describing anatomical and physiological evidence, most of the literature uses “female” and “male,” so we use those words here when discussing the results of such studies. For ethnographic and archaeological evidence, we are attempting to reconstruct social roles, for which the terms “woman” and “man” are usually used. Unfortunately, both these word sets assume a binary, which does not exist biologically, psychologically or socially. Sex and gender both exist as a spectrum, but when citing the work of others, it is difficult to add that nuance.
Now the magazine has a new op-ed arguing the same thing: a binary view of sex is not only wrong, but constricts us; is also harmful to people who don’t see themselves as “male” or “females”, like transsexuals (who do in fact see themselves as members of their non-natal sex); and doesn’t work for people who don’t produce gametes (note: postmenopausal women aren’t female under this criterion). But I digress. This piece is short, but is full of distortions and mistakes. Also, one of the authors (Cara Ocobock) also coauthored the article on hunting mentioned above. She gets a lot of space to propound her views, while the magazine prohibits me from writing an op-ed.that contradicts some claims of other op-eds. It is in effect a journalistic dictatorship that prohibits dissent.
I’ll put the authors’ claims in bold, and have indented their quotes:
The authors claim that sex is defined by gamete type, but we don’t check people’s gametes when judging their sex. And people who don’t have gametes are problematic.
When we ask, “How many sexes are there in humans?” we can confidently answer “two,” right? Many people think sex should be defined by a strict gamete binary in which a person’s sex is determined by whether their body produces or could produce eggs or sperm. But when you are out and about in the human social world, are you checking everyone’s gametes? And what of the substantial number of people who do not produce or carry gametes?
Well, yes, in public we judge people’s sex by characters correlated with sex: appearance, including size, shape, presence of breasts, vocal timbre, and so on. So what? When doctors diagnose jaundice, they first look at the patient’s color, and then examine the underlying condition: liver function. There is no problem here; the idea of secondary sex characters, imperfectly but highly correlated with biological sex, is well ensconced in the literature. That doesn’t affect the definition, which is there because it clearly shows the binary and leads to many interesting lines of research.
And the claim that people who don’t produce gametes—sterile males, postmenopausal females, castrati, and so on—these pose no problem. They are male or female. Postmenopausal women should be furious at the implication that they are not biological women.
The authors raise the old, tired, and refuted “clownfish fallacy”. Clownfish switch sexes: when the sole alpha female in a group dies, a male fish changes sex to take over as the boss female. But there are still only two sexes. The article confuses the reader by bringing up other aspects of sex that involve how it’s determined.
The vast majority of life-forms—including bacteria and archaea—do not reproduce sexually. But if the question concerned the number of animal sexes present in a given tide pool or backyard garden, the answer would need to account for organisms that switch sexes, sometimes mate with themselves or switch back and forth between sexual and asexual reproduction.
. . . We have to appeal to a multiplicity of binaries, however, because sexual reproduction has evolved many times and in many different ways across the living world. Reproductive capacities in birds and mammals largely involve inheritance of different combinations of sex chromosomes, whereas in many reptiles, sex is determined based on environmental cues such as temperature.
Yes, but again, all animals have two sexes. They can arrive at that binary using temperature, chromosomes, environment, and other cues, but in all cases they wind up with two sexes. (And that binary hasn’t blinded us to working out how it’s attained in organisms like reptiles!). The ubiquitous binary is scientifically useful because it raises the question, first raised by evolutionists Ronald Fisher, of “why are the sexes only two?”. And we think we know the answer now. As I’ve said, there are many paths to sex but only two destinations: males and females.
The authors claim that defining sex is a bottom-up project and we should arrive at our definition from the “top down”: by asking questions.
We think the ongoing discussion about sex might benefit from a fundamental change in approach by turning the question around such that we ask, “If ‘sex’ is the answer, what was the question?”
They have a point here, and have used, as have I and others, a comparison with the definition of biological species. The species definition is fundamental because it explains an observation of and question about nature: “Why, in one area, do animals and plants come in neat packages, like the birds in my backyard. Why isn’t nature a spectrum rather than comprising discrete groups?”
The value of this [“questions first”] approach becomes clear when you consider the long-running debate in biology over how to define species. One definition, the biological species concept, posits that species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding organisms capable of producing fertile offspring. It is not universally applicable because, as noted earlier, most organisms do not reproduce sexually. It does, however, provide a framework for asking questions about how sexually reproducing organisms can evolve ways to avoid mating with organisms distinct enough that their offspring’s survivability or fertility would be compromised. This framework has led to a bounty of work demonstrating that speciation in organisms living in the same area is rare and that physical separation among groups appears to be a key component of evolving reproductive barriers.
We can extend this “ask questions first” framework to concepts about sex.
What the authors don’t seem to realize here is that the Biological Species Concept, based on reproductive barriers between groups, itself started with a question: “Why is nature discontinuous?” And that question led to the definition of species. The discreteness of species in sexually reproducing creatures living in the same area is based on reproductive barriers.
Likewise, the definition of sex, based on equipment to produce one of two types of gametes, is also based on a question derived from observation: “Why do there seem to be two classes of organisms in animals, classes that have different reproductive roles and (usually) different appearances?” Once we arrive at a gamete-based species definition, that helps us answer all sorts of questions, most notably ones involving sexual dimorphism and sexual selection.
So the top-down, question-asking method succeeded for both sex and species. The authors are kvetching about nothing.
Other aspects of organisms don’t adhere to a strict binary.
Binaries start to fail us once we move into questions about how organisms live out their lives. This can be seen in the example of transgender athletes. Arguments revolving around including or excluding trans athletes often rest on notions of strict binary differences in hormone type and concentration that associate female individuals with estrogen and male ones with testosterone. This assumes testosterone is at the root of athletic performance. These hormones do not hew to a strict binary, however. Female and male people need both estrogen and testosterone to function, and they overlap in their hormone concentrations. If we are interested in how estrogen and testosterone affect athletic performance, then we need to examine these respective hormone levels and how they correlate with athletic outcomes. We cannot rely on gross average differences between the sexes as evidence for differential athletic success. Adherence to a sex binary can lead us astray in this domain of inquiry.
My response is basically “This is irrelevant to whether sex itself is a binary.” It also shows the ideological motivation of the paper, which is the usual motivation for denying the sex binary: “If sex is binary, then that erases people, like people of dual gender or trans people, who don’t feel that they belong to one of the two sexes.” Well, that’s not true, as many trans people do feel they belong to one of the two sexes; they just feel they were born in the wrong one. But the biological definition of sex is irrelevant to the moral and legal rights of people of nonstandard gender, and, as I’ve always said, these folks should be treated with the respect and dignity their beliefs afford.
As for hormones not being in a strict binary, testosterone, for example, forms nearly a completely disjunct distribution in males and females, so the overlap is virtually nil.Below is a graph of hormone titers given by Carole Hooven in her book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. The distributions are bimodal and almost nonoverlapping (a tiny bit of overlap, from people with sex disorders, isn’t shown because of the scale), with men at the higher mode and females at the other (h/t Robert):
But this is irrelevant, for, many sex-related characters, like height and strength, also show more overlap. The question is whether sex itself is bimodal, not sex-related traits. And we know plenty about overlap in those traits, so the sex binary has not impeded us from studying things that overlap!
Further, people are already examining how hormone levels affect athletics-related traits.
Importantly, the fact that the Olympics and other groups used to use a hormone cutoff between athletes allowed to compete in “male” versus “female” categories has nothing to do with the sex binary. This is an artificial classification binary imposed on people for allowing them to compete in the two classes. (And it didn’t work.) The authors are deliberately conflating two distinct issues here: the binary of sex and an artificial binary subjectively imposed by athletic organizations.
Other species, say the authors, don’t hew to a sex binary.
Further problems arise when we compare humans to other species. Some organisms are incapable of reproducing. Some that are capable may end up not reproducing. Others may alternate between reproducing asexually and sexually, and still others may switch sexes. Such organisms provide fascinating insights into the diversity of life. But when we refer to clown fish changing sex to emphasize the diversity of ways in which sexual beings move through the world, we risk losing sight of the issues of consent, autonomy, well-being and self-determination that form the bedrock of all dimensions of human health, sexual or otherwise.
Every animal we know of has two, and only two, sexes, though sometimes they reproduce asexually. Alternation of sexes still leaves two sexes; like clownfish, organisms can change from one to the other —but there are no cases involving three or more sexes.
And what on earth do “consent, autonomy, well-being, and self determination” have to do with the sex binary? These are social issues that have nothing to do with how many sexes we have. The authors are committing a form of the appeal to nature here, saying that because human sexuality is complicated by our social system, there must not be two sexes in nature!
This paper is deeply misguided, and its aim is to cast doubt on the utility of the sex binary because it distracts us from other stuff. But the other stuff they mention has already been investigated and discussed extensively. In the end, I can conclude only that this is part of Scientific American‘s continuing “progressive” effort to convince us that there are more than two sexes in humans. (For articles other than the two mentioned here, see here, here, and here). They won’t succeed, for Nature can’t be fooled. It’s infuriating that a science magazine repeatedly tries to deny empirical fact to serve a political agenda.
Yes, there may be good article in Scientific American, but there are also abysmal articles and op-eds, and I lay these at the door of the editor.
For more kvetching about the magazine, see “The Fall of Scientific American” in Spiked, published two days ago.