Once again, ideology distorts science: the editor-in-chief of Scientific American flubs big time, wrongly asserting that sparrows have four sexes.

May 18, 2023 • 8:39 am

This is a sad story: sad for biology, sad for science communication, and perhaps saddest for Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Over the past few years, Helmuth has injected a hefty dose of authoritarian progressive ideology into her magazine (see here for some of my posts on the issue). It’s gotten worse and worse, even though the readers, and her followers on Twitter, have repeatedly urged her to back off the ideology and restore the magazine to its former glory as the nation’s premier venue for popular science.  But Helmuth is woke, and, being religious in that sense, simply can’t keep the ideology out of the science, just as an evangelist can’t help asking you if you’ve heard the good news about Jesus.

The tweet Helmuth put up this week (shown below) is a prime example, and it’s pretty dire because it distorts biology—in particular the work of scientists who spent years studying the genetics and mating behavior of white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).  This is an interesting bird because both males and females show two forms (this is a “polymorphism”), with one form having a tan crown stripe and the other a white crown stripe.  Here is a picture of the two forms from a PNAS paper.

The forms also differ in their parental behavior and courtship.  I think you can get the differences by looking at the abstract of a paper by Elaina Tuttle, given below. Tuttle was an accomplished ornithological behaviorist who did part of her postdoc in Steve Pruett-Jones’s lab upstairs from me. It was her work that called attention to the involvement of inversions in the mating system of white-throated sparrows. Sadly, Tuttle died at only 52 of breast cancer.

Here’s a 2003 paper by Elaina on the species (found in North America) and its mating system (click to go to screenshot, and you can find the pdf here).

Her summary is below, showing that the two forms (“morphs’) mate disassortatively—that is, tan males prefer to mate with white females and vice versa.  There is also a difference in their behavior, with white males and females being more aggressive during the mating and breeding season:

Organisms exhibiting genetic polymorphism often also exhibit true alternative life-history strategies in which behavioral tactics are genetically fixed. Such systems are ideal for the study of the evolution of life histories because the consequences of selective episodes can be more easily identified. Here I report an interesting and classic example of a species exhibiting true alternative strategies. Due to a chromosomal inversion, male and female white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) occur as two distinct morphs, tan or white. Tan and white morphs mate disassortatively, and this mating pattern maintains the polymorphism in relatively equal proportions within the population. In comparison with tan males, white males are more aggressive, frequently intrude into neighboring territories, spend less time guarding their mates, occasionally attempt polygyny, and provide less parental care. White females are also more aggressive and solicit copulation from their mates twice as often as tan females.

Note that they mention just two sexes: males and females, each characterized by their color. Just two sexes!  The genetics of this system is complicated because, the genes causing the different colors and behaviors almost surely reside within a chromosomal inversion (a part of the chromosome that gets broken, turned around, and then reattached).  This makes it hard to do genetic analysis. Tuttle explains this:

. . . . . almost all white birds are heterozygous for the inversion (i.e., 2m/2, where 2m represents the inverted chromosome and 2 represents the noninverted form), whereas tan birds are homozygous noncarriers (i.e., 2/2). . .

The disassortative mating and different behavioral strategies have combined to make this variation remain fairly stable in the population, though I’m not sure there’s a population-genetic model showing how this actually. works. (That would be hard, as it would require knowing a number of parameters that are difficult to estimate but are required for a good model.)

Further, the tan and white morphs occasionally mate with their own color (about 4% of the time, probably an underestimate because of sneaky mating). This kind of mating is called assortative—like mates with like. Because of this, the two forms are not reproductively isolated. That’s why they’re not called different species.

Note that there are just two sexes here, as virtually all scientific papers describing this phenomenon realize: males make sperm; females make eggs. Here are two quotes from the Tuttle paper:

This species is polymorphic, and both sexes can be separated into tan and white morphs based on the color of the median crown stripe (Lowther, 1961).


White-throated sparrows may be an exception to this rule because, regardless of fitness effects, the genetic alternatives are present in both sexes, there is likely to be evolutionary mechanisms maintaining multiple strategies. . .

Just two sexes, and every ornithologist knows this. Even if each morph mated only with its own kind, so that there was total reproductive isolation between the forms and they would, in effect, be two species, there would still be just two species, with each having two sexes.

Now the popular press has mistaken this system for the phenomenon of “four sexes”, which is just flat wrong. The biological definition of sex involves what kind of gamete you make, and here there are only two.  Females make and lay eggs, males make sperm. For descriptions of this system showing “four sexes”, see here (Nature!), here, and here, among others.

That’s a distortion of the truth, and a misleading one that gender activists co-opt to say that “yes, animal sex is not binary”.  They are wrong. But in fact Laura Helmuth did just that in her tweet, citing a paper from Ken Kaufman’s Notebook in the Audubon News.  Kaufman says this (see more later):

It’s almost as if the White-throated Sparrow has four sexes. That may sound like a joke, but it’s actually a good description of what’s going on.

. . . Many different genes here are tightly linked to form a “supergene,” so that birds of one color morph also inherit a whole range of behaviors. The resulting effect is that the White-throat really does operate as a bird with four sexes. For anyone curious about the scientific background, you can read all the technical details here.

The Current Biology paper that the last link goes to does indeed say that the bird “operates as if it has four sexes”.  And I found a 2020 paper by Maney et al. in Hormones and Behavior called “Inside the supergene of the bird with four sexes.” But while the paper uses “four sexes” in the title, it also notes that that is merely a “nickname” for the species. Maney et al. then correctly refer to “both sexes” throughout.

But if there are four sexes, what are those sexes?  All you could say is “tan male”, :”white male”, “tan female,” and “white female.” But those are not sexes, as they don’t produce four different kinds of gametes. Nor is reproductive isolation between the tan and white morphs complete, so it’s not as if a “white male cannot mate with a white female”, which would be the case if these were four sexes. As I said, assortative (like-type) matings occur at least 4% of the time. Further, the offspring of some of those matings must, by virtue of the chromosomally-based system of mating, be fertile (i.e., if tan birds mate assortatively with tan birds, their offspring will be equivalent to the normal “tan” morph in behavior, appearance, and mating propensity).

If you’re a sane biologist and use the biological definition of sex, we have a species with two sexes, with each sex having two morphs. And the morphs mate disassortatively, but not completely so. It’s surely an interesting system, but deeply misleading to use it as an exception to the sex binary. It makes me angry when people like Helmuth do this, for on some level they must know they’re wrong.

Nevertheless, Helmuth wants to go with the popular press and with woke ideology rather than with science, and declares in the tweet below that the species has “four chromosomally distinct sexes.” (Even that isn’t true, as each morph has the same inversion type.) She underlines her ideology by adding her P.P.S.: “Sex is not binary,” as if this example disproves it.  My P.P.S. is “Yes, sex is binary and you know it.”

Two points here: Helmuth is dead wrong, as biologists working on this system realize. There are not four sexes.

Second, she is being deliberately obtuse because she wants to buttress her view, expressed elsewhere, that “sex is a spectrum.” This, of course, is a trope meant to go along with the view that gender is a spectrum, which gender activists somehow want to read into nature itself, seeing the same spectrum in nature that they see in society. But as Richard Feynman said, “Mother Nature can’t be fooled,” and all animals and vascular plants obstinately show just two sexes.

What is amusing about Helmuth’s tweet is that she was SO wrong that the deluge of critical comments eventually prompted Twitter’s “community notes” program to correct what she said (remember, this is the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American), and append an “added context” note saying she’s wrong—with the “context” noting that there just two sexes, and each sex comes in two colors.

I don’t know about other scientists or science editors, but if I was publicly spanked on Twitter like Helmuth was below, I’d be hideously embarrassed, and either correct myself (she won’t), or delete the tweet, which conveys scientific misinformation. (Update: She’s cut off the comments on her post, clearly perturbed that there were so many, with the vast majority being critical._

This is what started the Twitter fracas. Note the “added context”, which readers can upvote.

And here’s what they call the “ratio” of comments to “likes” on her Tweet. This reflects the fact that the vast majority of people commenting on her tweet were critical. She has been, as the kids say, “ratioed”:

Scientists and informed laypeople immediately began going after this tweet, some polite and correcting it, others calling for Helmuth’s firing (I can understand that sentiment but I would never argue that anyone should be fired). One of the scientists, who had already debunked the sparrows as a violation of the sex binary, was Colin Wright, who wrote this on his website:

The second case study claims to investigate “the evolutionary consequences of more than two sexes.” Perhaps here we will finally be told what these new sexes are! But the first sentence moves the goalpost from “sexes” to “operative sexes,” which they never define.

The example they give of a species “with more than two sexes” is the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). This species has two color morphs, males and females with either white or tan stripes. The more aggressive white stripe morph has a large inversion on chromosome 2, and the species mates disassortatively by color morph, meaning that white stripe morphs tend to mate with tan striped morphs. This chromosome inversion coupled with the disassortative mating by morph has led to a situation where chromosome 2 “behaves like” another sex chromosome.

He adds to that that in a tweet below issued as a comment on Helmuth’s tweet:

What happened? Helmuth blocked Wright (that’s what it means in the red rectangle below):

Wright then clarifies the story and calls attention to his being blocked. He’s right: Helmuth couldn’t abide the truth:

Emma Hilton also replied to Helmuth:


And Emma got blocked, too:

However, Carole Hooven, another critic of the “non-binary” view of sex, doesn’t seem to have been blocked. Perhaps I’ll be too, but I haven’t been yet.

Finally, Agustín Fuentes, the cultural anthropologist from Princeton whom we’ve met before, retweeted Helmuth’s post, for he’s denied the sex binary too, and in Scientific American!). But being thin-skinned, he puts in an addendum saying that the quote he gives is not his own. But he still apparently embraces the idea that there is no sex binary in humans.


To sum up, Helmuth is tweeting wrong things about biology in the service of her ideology, an ideology that she doesn’t just embrace, but has infused into the magazine she runs. Perhaps Scientific American wants to become Ideological American, but I’m hoping things will turn around. They would if Helmuth could simply adopt the idea that she shouldn’t use the magazine as a mouthpiece for her politics, but she won’t do that. Also, she refuses to engage with scientific criticism, not a good look for an editor. This exchange exemplifies that:

And if I were friends with Helmuth, I’d tell her this.

h/t: Steve, Colin


Two articles on the Queen: one lionizing her and the other attacking her

September 10, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Because Queen Elizabeth was more or less a cipher, her death has led to people projecting all manner of their own feelings onto her, seeing her ranging from a kind, diligent, and dedicated person to a  representative of an outdated and bloody colonialist regime, as well as of a monarchy past its time. This post will give you one example of each pole. I have no d*g in this fight, so I tend to see the Queen as a decent and hardworking person, but the monarchy as an institution whose time has come and gone.

Reaction to the death of Elizabeth II was at first wholly worshipful, but a backlash is beginning—largely in the U.S. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but first let’s hear the positive assessment of Elizabeth by one of her former “subjects,” Andrew Sullivan. Her legacy is the main object of his column yesterday (click to read, but subscribe if you read frequently).

As a conservative and an ex-Brit, one might expect Sullivan to admire the Queen, and indeed he does.  But he mainly admires her for hanging in there, for choosing a life that is not a human life, because she knew that her lot would be the abandonment of freedom for duty.  I have to say, Sully does say that well:

[When Biden was elected], I found myself watching the life of an entirely different head of state: a young, somewhat shy woman suddenly elevated to immense responsibilities and duties in her twenties, hemmed in by protocol, rigidified by discipline. The new president could barely get through the day without some provocation, insult, threat or lie. Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.

The immense difficulty of this is proven by the failure of almost every other member of her family — including her husband — to pull it off. We know her son King Charles III’s views on a host of different subjects, many admirable, some cringe-inducing. We know so much of the psychological struggles of Diana; the reactionary outbursts of Philip; the trauma of Harry; the depravity of Andrew; the agonies of Margaret. We still know nothing like that about the Queen. Because whatever else her life was about, it was not about her.

Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.

Yes, she is to be admired for that self-restraint, though I don’t think it would have sullied her image to do a few more Paddington Bear skits. But, I suppose, Sullivan does come close to the reason for the outburst of grief in Britain at the Queen’s death:

Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.

You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.

The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay.

Well, one could disagree that countries need royalty to keep them stable. Although I’ve heard it argued that America could use a “head of state” for ceremonial purposes, alongside the President for governance, I think we’ve done pretty well (excepting for one four-year period); and many countries thrive without royalty.  I, for one, don’t crave authority and mystery.  Could Sullivan’s emphasis on those qualities have something to do with his Catholicism, which teems with both?

But in contrast to the article below, Sullivan does explain the Elizabeth-worship that so puzzles Americans:

 But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase — “we’ll meet again” — that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.

Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before. When I grew up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts of the distant past, but deeply linked to the present by the monarchy’s persistence and the nation’s thousand-year survival as a sovereign state — something no other European country can claim.

She was there, she didn’t screw up, she was one fixed point in a changing world, and she was the latest instantiation of a hereditary monarchy.  The first three points I can understand, the last I can’t. I’d prefer a country that didn’t have a lineage set apart (and considered superior to) all others. The United State is only about 250 years old, but would having a king ensure our persistence? Would a king have prevented Trump from nearly subverting the Republic? I don’t think so.


I was told that the NYT article below was “pretty good,” but when I read it I discovered a hit job on Queen Elizabeth from a woke-ish perspective.  In other words, though I wasn’t a huge fan of the Queen or the monarchy, I see this article as fundamentally unfair. For it pins on Queen Elizabeth all the horrible crimes and tragedies that went with the creation of the British Empire, even though she had nothing to do with those things. She may have embodied that history as a ruler, but she was a virtually powerless figurehead who had nothing to do with the stuff. Nevertheless, Jasanoff finds a way to pin it on her: colonialism, racism, paternalism—the whole schmear.  Click to read:


Jasanoff begins with the obligatory bow to Elizabeth’s fortitude and commitment, but quickly begins tarring her with the crimes of Empire formation:

Tell me if this is not an undeserved slur:

The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.

Seriously? The queen obscured a bloody history? Was it her job to stand up and pronounce about that? Did she deliberately obscure the bad aspects of British colonial history. No, because that’s not her brief. She did not favor or perpetuate or obscure any bloody history; all she did (which Jasanoff emphasizes) is make occasional visits to the “colonies” and have her picture taken with “mostly nonwhite” people in those places.

Here’s more:

In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, as when she advocated multifaith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.

Note that the queen was against apartheid. But. . . but. . .

What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them.

. . . for which the Queen bears no blame. Jasanoff brings up British violence in Malaya, Ireland (not that the IRA had anything to do with that), and especially in Kenya, where the British engaged in mass slaughter to subdue the populace (read this piece: “The colonization of Kenya” to hear about British malfeasance in all its horror.)  I could add India to Elizabeth’s crimes. Was the Queen to blame for the Jallianwalah Bagh Massacre, or the deaths of millions following the partition in 1947?  She wasn’t even Queen during these times.

Perhaps Elizabeth knew all the bloody details, but knowing is not perpetrating or approving. Yet look at this sly dig: she might have known!

We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name. (What transpires in the sovereign’s weekly meetings with the prime minister remains a black box at the center of the British state.) Her subjects haven’t necessarily gotten the full story, either. Colonial officials destroyed many records that, according to a dispatch from the secretary of state for the colonies, “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” and deliberately concealed others in a secret archive whose existence was revealed only in 2011.

This is perilously close to the “have you stopped beating your wife?” accusation.  Jasanoff keeps mixing up Elizabeth with the bad actions of others, like the previous Prime Minister, tarring her with the sins not just of her contemporaries, but also of the sins of the past. She is even faulted for “her white face”! Jasanoff just can’t stop mixing up the sins of the Empire with the character of the Queen:

Yet xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with Liz Truss, now the prime minister, as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.

The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.

The second paragraph faults her for having a “personal relationship” with Churchill, for being somehow associated with Boris Johnson’s defense of Churchill, and of course for having a “white face” that’s on all the currency and stamps. I suppose that visage on money and postage harms people. At long last, Dr. Jasanoff, have you no sense of decency?

At the end, Jasanoff calls for an end to the imperial monarchy. I agree. I oppose any hereditary aristocracy, and it’s time to at least ratchet back on the pomp and circumstance. But for Jasanoff, Elizabeth is a screen on which the sweating Harvard Professor projects all her hatred of colonialism and the bad things the British did to secure their empire. And I agree with that assessment of colonialism as well. But I do not agree that Elizabeth, by merely existing, somehow legitimizes the racism and xenophobia of British history.

Matthew tells me that this kind of criticism of Elizabeth is far stronger in America than in Britain. That, of course, is because she was the British Queen, but also because Americans are more Pecksniffian and woke than Brits.  Perhaps it is time for a reckoning of the “British Empire’s violent atrocities,” as the Guardian piece below reports. In that way the Queen is like George Floyd, as the deaths of both of them have unleashed huge amounts of resentment and calls to reassess the past.

When Matthew sent me these tweets about what was going on in the UK, and I read some of the vicious criticism of Jasanoff’s piece by readers commenting on her article, I thought, “Wait, this is surely an overreaction.” Now I’m not so sure. Here are some tweets:

Eizabeth’s death unleashes anger at both her and British history:

h/t: Matthew

When Twitter is at its best

December 30, 2017 • 12:00 pm

by Grania

Every so often I wonder whether Twitter has become a victim of its own success, that the sheer volume of people on the platform have made it difficult to navigate for people who are new to it.

But then you get threads like this one that makes you realise that it is still a powerful and wonderful tool for connecting all the most useful people instantly and communicating ideas.

I highly doubt that the experts weighing in on this issue made much difference to the surly and unimpressed “skeptic”, but they managed to reach a lot of other people.


Two tweets

March 21, 2017 • 12:50 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Readers are invited to explain the first one, which involves calculus of some kind, I believe.

And this might amuse you