June 11, 2020


JK Rowling is Right--Sex Is Real and It Is Not a "Spectrum" (Colin Wright, 6/09/20, Quillette)

Both of these arguments--the argument from intersex conditions and the argument from secondary sex organs/characteristics--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.

That above-cited 99.98 percent figure falls short of 100 percent because of the roughly 0.02 percent who are intersex. (The actual figure is estimated to be about 0.018 percent.) But the claim that intersex conditions support the sex spectrum model conflates the statement "there are only two sexes" (true) with "every human can be unambiguously categorized as either male or female" (false). The existence of only two sexes does not mean sex is never ambiguous. But intersex individuals do not demonstrate that sex is a spectrum. Just because sex may be ambiguous for some does not mean it's ambiguous (and, as some commentators would extrapolate, arbitrary) for all.

By way of analogy: We flip a coin to randomize a binary decision because a coin has only two faces: heads and tails. But a coin also has an edge, and about one in 6,000 (0.0166 percent) throws (with a nickel) will land on it. This is roughly the same likelihood of being born with an intersex condition. Almost every coin flip will be either heads or tails, and those heads and tails do not come in degrees or mixtures. That's because heads and tails are qualitatively different and mutually exclusive outcomes. The existence of edge cases does not change this fact. Heads and tails, despite the existence of the edge, remain discrete outcomes.

Likewise, the outcomes of sex development in humans are almost always unambiguously male or female. The development of ovaries vs testes, and thus females and males, are also qualitatively different outcomes that for the vast majority of humans are mutually exclusive and do not come in mixtures or degrees. Males and females, despite the existence of intersex conditions, remain discrete outcomes.

The existence of intersex conditions is frequently brought up in an attempt to blur the line between male and female when arguing for the inclusion of trans women in female sports and other contexts. But transgenderism has absolutely nothing to do with being intersex. For the vast majority of individuals claiming either trans or non-binary identities, their sex is not in question. Primary sex organs, not identity, determines one's sex.

In regard to the argument from secondary sex organs/characteristics, the primary flaw is that it confuses cause and effect. Remember, secondary sex characteristics are anatomies that differentiate during puberty. In females, these include (among others) the development of breasts, wider hips, and a tendency for fat to store around the hips and buttocks. In males, secondary sex characteristics include deeper voices, taller average height, facial hair, broader shoulders, increased musculature, and fat distributed more around the midsection. However, these secondary sex characteristics--while plain to the eye, and inseparable from the way most laypeople think about men and women--do not actually define one's biological sex. Rather, these traits typically develop as a consequence of one's sex, via differences in the hormonal milieu produced during puberty by either testes or ovaries.

The different developmental trajectories of males and females are themselves a product of millions of years of natural selection, since secondary sex characteristics will contribute to evolutionary fitness in males and females in different ways. Females with narrower hips had more trouble delivering large-headed children, and so those with larger hips had an evolutionary advantage. This wasn't relevant to males, however, which is one reason why their bodies tend to look different. But that doesn't mean that a person's hips--or any of their secondary sex characteristics, including beards and breasts--define their sex biologically. These traits, while having evolved due to sex-specific selection pressures, are completely irrelevant when it comes to defining one's biological sex.

Analogies help, so let me offer another one. Bikers ride motorcycles, and cyclists ride bicycles. While these two vehicles share many similarities (two wheels, handlebars, seats, spokes, etc.), they differ in at least one fundamental way. Motorcycles are powered by engines and fuel, while bicycles are powered by pedaling legs. Whether someone is a biker or a cyclist depends entirely on the binary criterion of whether they are riding a motorcycle or a bicycle. This is the primary characteristic that defines bikers and cyclists. However, there are also many secondary characteristics associated with bikers and cyclists. Bikers, for instance, are more likely to wear leather jackets, jeans, and bandanas. Cyclists are more likely to wear skin-tight spandex. Bikers wear heavy helmets that contain the entire head and include a face-shield. Cyclists typically wear lightweight helmets that cover only the top of their heads.

Many of the secondary characteristics of bikers and cyclists are not arbitrary or coincidental. Like male and female secondary sex characteristics, we can map the utility of biker and cyclist secondary characteristics to their primary characteristics. Bikers wear tough clothes because they travel at higher speeds, which necessitate protective clothing in case of an accident and to mitigate windchill. Cyclists, on the other hand, exert great physical effort pedaling their entire body weight plus the weight of their vehicle, which necessitates lighter, breathable, wind-breaking clothing and protective gear. Given cyclists' slower crash speeds, the trade-off in favor of less protective gear is worthwhile.

But a person riding a motorcycle wearing a spandex suit and lighter helmet doesn't become a cyclist (or less of a biker) because they share these secondary traits more commonly associated with cyclists. And a person riding a bicycle wearing jeans and a leather jacket doesn't become a biker (or less of a cyclist) by sharing secondary traits more typical of bikers. Just as these secondary traits do not define bikers and cyclists, secondary sex characteristics do not define males and females.

Posted by at June 11, 2020 12:00 AM