Evolution denialism from the Left

Evolutionary biology gets squeezed from both the Right (many of whose adherents simply deny evolution) and now from the Left as well.  A moiety of the Left, as I’ve written here frequently, has ideological reasons for attacking parts of evolutionary biology, especially those parts that involve genetics and behavior.  So, for example, we see these kinds of views:

1.) Psychological and behavioral differences between men and women are culturally based without evolutionary underpinnings. This view, of course, comes form the mistaken notion that if you admit genetic and evolutionary differences between the sexes, it could buttress sexism. But that needn’t be the case, especially because morality and “rights” shouldn’t rest heavily on biology. The view of equal psychology and behavior in men and women is palpably foolish in view of the physical differences between them that surely reflect evolution in our ancestors. Why would bodies evolve but not brains?

Yet that’s a growing view among the authoritarian Left, some of whom even see all of evolutionary psychology as a worthless enterprise.

2.) There are no meaningful genetic differences between ethnic groups, or “races”, if you will. It’s clear that humanity doesn’t divide neatly into clean-cut groups that can be seen as distinct races into which everyone can be slotted neatly. Still there are meaningful and diagnostic genetic differences between ethnic groups if you analyze a large group of genes together. That in fact is how you can get a good idea of your ancestry from sequencing of a lot of your DNA, as do companies like 23andMe.  While we don’t know whether there are behavioral or psychological differences between ethnic groups that rest on genetic differences, differences that go along with the well known physical differences, it would be both foolish and unscientific to flatly deny that there are differences between groups in psychology and/or behavior.

One would think that Steve Pinker’s book The Blank Slate would have dispelled this kind of blank-slateism, but it hasn’t. In fact, with the rise of the Offense Culture, the Left’s attacks on science have become more intense.  Expect more of them.

3.) In a recent development, there are now common claims that there are not two sexes in humans: that sex is a spectrum, with the implication that it’s continuous. I’ve written quite a bit criticizing this view and the idea that, while everyone admits that there are clearly distinct male and female fruit flies, kangaroos, and robins, humans are the one exception. This is again an ideological viewpoint, not a scientific one, despite the claims of scientific societies and journals that the notions of “male” and “female” are social constructs. The ideological basis for this claim—as misguided as the views that admitting differences between sexes and races will buttress racism and sexism—is the idea that if sex (and gender) were real continuums, this would reduce bigotry against transsexuals and transgender people. Again, we should be fighting for the rights of such people without trying to distort the underlying biology.

The attacks on evolutionary biology on the Left are summarized in the Quillette piece below (click on screenshot) by Colin Wright, identified as having “a PhD in evolutionary biology from UC Santa Barbara [and currently studying] the social behavior of ant, wasp, and spider societies at Penn State.”

I have to say that if you’ve read here regularly, you’ll already know much of what Wright says. But not everyone reads here regularly, or reads all the biology-themed articles, so Wright’s is a good piece to get up to speed, even if the heavy breathing about social justice is a bit gusty. Here are two excerpts, the first emphasizing the religious-like human exceptionalism of biology ideologues:

Given that humans are sexually dimorphic and exhibit many of the typical sex-linked behavioral traits that any objective observer would predict, based on the mammalian trends, the claim that our behavioral differences have arisen purely via socialization is dubious at best. For that to be true, we would have to posit that the selective forces for these traits inexplicably and uniquely vanished in just our lineage, leading to the elimination of these traits without any vestiges of their past, only to have these traits fully recapitulated in the present due to socialization. Of course, the more evidenced and straightforward explanation is that we exhibit these classic sex-linked behavioral traits because we inherited them from our closest primate ancestors.

Counterintuitively, the social justice stance on human evolution closely resembles that of the Catholic Church. The Catholic view of evolution generally accepts biological evolution for all organisms, yet holds that the human soul (however defined) had been specially created and thus has no evolutionary precursor. Similarly, the social justice view has no problem with evolutionary explanations for shaping the bodies and minds of all organisms both between and within a species regarding sex, yet insists that humans are special in that evolution has played no role in shaping observed sex-linked behavioral differences. Why the biological forces that shape all of life should be uniquely suspended for humans is unclear. What is clear is that both the Catholic Church and well-intentioned social justice activists are guilty of gerrymandering evolutionary biology to make humans special, and keep the universal acid at bay.

Wright notes that he and others are afraid to go against the prevailing Leftist Biology Dogma (LBD) for fear of social opprobrium and even career damage. This is when I’m most happy that I’m retired, for I have nothing to fear or lose from saying what I feel. Here’s Wright on the chilling effect of LBD and the vacuous idea of a “sex spectrum”:

Despite there being zero evidence in favor of Blank Slate psychology, and a mountain of evidence to the contrary, this belief has entrenched itself within the walls of many university humanities departments where it is often taught as fact. Now, armed with what they perceive to be an indisputable truth questioned only by sexist bigots, they respond with well-practiced outrage to alternative views. This has resulted in a chilling effect that causes scientists to self-censor, lest these activists accuse them of bigotry and petition their departments for their dismissal. I’ve been privately contacted by close, like-minded colleagues warning me that my public feuds with social justice activists on social media could be occupational suicide, and that I should disengage and delete my comments immediately. My experience is anything but unique, and the problem is intensifying. Having successfully cultivated power over administrations and silenced faculty by inflicting reputational terrorism on their critics and weaponizing their own fragility and outrage, one fears whether there was no belief or claim too dubious that administrations wouldn’t cater to. Recently, this fear has been realized as social justice activists attempt to jump the epistemological shark by claiming that the very notion of biological sex, too, is a social construct.

As a biologist, it is hard to understand how anyone could believe something so outlandish. It’s a belief on a par with the belief in a flat Earth. I first saw this claim being made this year by anthropology graduate students on Facebook. At first I thought they mistyped and were simply referring to gender. But as I began to pay closer attention, it was clear that they were indeed talking about biological sex. Over the next several months it became apparent that this view was not isolated to this small friend circle, as it began cropping up all over the Internet. In support of this view, recent editorials from Scientific American—an ostensibly trustworthy, scientific, and apolitical online magazine—are often referenced. The titles read, “Sex Redefined: The Idea of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic,” and “Visualizing Sex as a Spectrum.”

This politicizing of science can lead to no good, but I’m already seeing those who object to unfounded blank-slateism branded as racists and sexists. That’s not a scientific discussion, but truth-shaming, and it bodes ill for evolutionary biology.

h/t: Matt

50 Comments

  1. Posted December 1, 2018 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I have to say, I’ve never seen anyone claim that sex is a social construct. I’ve seen people claim it’s on a spectrum, their argument being mainly about intersex people (which imo are so few in the population that it counts as a spectrum) but sex as a social construct just comes across as a strawman.

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      That’s a straw man, or is it?

      “First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. […] It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)”

      Probably some fringe loons. Also known as a the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy 😉

    • denise
      Posted December 1, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Google and you’ll find it.

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      I’ve definitely seen it. The presentation usually blurs biological sex with gender in order to maintain some sort of plausible deniability. It’s as if they are trying to tip the scale as far as possible in favor of sex (all kinds) being a social construct but know that it is really BS and don’t want to get pinned down on it. It is taken seriously enough to prompt many rebuttals like this one, which just happens to call out Dr. Coyne:

      https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/07/sex-social-construct.html

      • Posted December 2, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        The go-to ‘authority’ for that article is Julia Serano, a very strident and vicious trans activist, who has made threats of physical assault against opponents for, among other things, discussing the possible existence of autogynephilia.

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      * Judith Butler, pomo huckster and disciple of the charlatan Lacan, asserts that all gender is ‘performative’ and that even physical sex is shaped by our performed genders;

      * Kyla Schuller, Rutgers Gender Studies professor and champion of “the liberatory potential of ideas about the plasticity of the body” argues that both race and sex are non-real ‘codifications’, that neither are biologically determined, rather, are a result of “of dynamic interplay between biological and social processes” and that “social experience writes itself into the flesh.”

      * Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown, who believes there are at least five sexes, argues that sex is a least partly a social construct, is highly mutable throughout one’s life, and that no real difference exists between ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones.

      Check any university’s Gender Studies programs, and you will find sex as a social construct is universally accepted, while sexual dimorphism is either attributed to nurture, or flat out denied.

    • kelskye
      Posted December 1, 2018 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      I’ve seen “gender is a social construct” coupled with a denial of the relationship between sex and gender, which amounts to the same thing really. That’s why it’s an important thing (for the activists) for sex to be expunged from birth certificates and that it’s important not to let a child’s gender be defined by their genitalia. That denial of the relationship between one’s biology and our cultural norms around gender is confusing to say the least, not least because of the practicalities of our biological differences in a whole lot of areas.

    • peepuk
      Posted December 2, 2018 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      “I’ve never seen anyone claim that sex is a social construct”

      You see this claim sometimes made in feminist ideology.

      And there exists a narrative that gender differences expressed in childhood- play are determined entirely by social expectations.

      “it’s on a spectrum”

      Yes, but a spectrum doesn’t say very much and can be misleading; it’s a distribution having two big maxima, heterosexual men and heterosexual women.

      This is also an over-simplification, but one that tells you the big picture from a biological, non-political, perspective.

      From a political perspective the last 100 years the patriarchal ideologies have been losing power and egalitarian ideologies are currently booming. The lgbti movement is a logical consequence of this.

      But these egalitarian ideologies might also go out of fashion in the next 100 years when things like selecting embryos on genetic grounds, genetic editing and artificial body enhancement will happen, because these things can create inequalities much worse than we experience now. Feelings of superiority tend to breed paternalism and intolerance.

    • Posted December 2, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      *shouldn’t count as a spectrum

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    One theme that comes to mind from reading this post is scientific literacy. I’m not sure what else I want to say about it here, except suggest there’s an inverse relationship between scientific literacy and “politicization”….

    The expressions “heavy breathing” and “gusty” are perfect for the writing they describe, I think I’ll use it!

  3. Posted December 1, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I hope college administrators take academic freedom seriously and not bend to these left-wing attacks on human biology. It is interesting that the religious and the left both believe there is an inherent sameness of all human beings regardless of sex or race which is clearly wrong. They conflate sex and race _differences_ as an attack on political equality which is obviously not the case.

  4. Joe Dickinson
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Not too long ago there was a paper, I think In “Science” analyzing group differences in performance ob standardized tests (e.g., Asians doing better than most other groups. Near the beginning was a statement that “we take it as axiomatic that there are no genetic difference”. No, matters of observable reality are never axiomatic in science.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 1, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Daniel Tammet discusses in his popular book Thinking in Numbers some ways that the specific language used in the upbringing might explain differences in quantitative reasoning.

      Not a scientific publication but I thought its worth following the idea to see if it is out there anywhere else…. you know, when I have a minute…

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps it is just a poor choice of words. By “axiomatic”, perhaps they just mean that they are taken it as a given in the scope of their discussion. They aren’t saying it is unassailably true, just that they are going to assume it is true in the context of their paper and aren’t going to discuss it further.

      • Joe Dickinson
        Posted December 1, 2018 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

        So why not just say that?

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Oy, that’s heinous, as Wayne and Garth would say. “Axiomatic”? They mean “Ideological”!

  5. Merilee
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  6. Posted December 1, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    “… we exhibit these classic sex-linked behavioral traits because we inherited them from our closest primate ancestors.”

    This sounds like it is saying our behavioral traits haven’t changed since homo sapiens inherited them from an earlier homo species. Instead, the transition from one species to another came with behavioral changes.

    I suppose it is correct technically if the reader is going to consider their parents as their “closest primate ancestors” but that is surely not how most people will read this.

    I am certain the author is aware of all this. This error doesn’t really make much difference to his thesis here. However, it seems likely that it will cause misunderstanding among those that don’t understand evolution very deeply and that should matter a lot.

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      That statement in no way implies our behaviors have not changed at all. It does correctly refute the insinuations and outright assertions that human behavior has no evolved foundation.

  7. demfromsc
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Despite being a true “leftie” (I voted for Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic primary, for example), I think it is simply ludicrous to argue that gender is on a continuum. As we all know, almost all humans have either two X chromosomes, or one X and one Y, with the anatomy to match. These are not “continuous” variables!

    • Matt
      Posted December 2, 2018 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t always work like that though, people can be born hermaphroditic (IE multiple genetalia) or with multiple sex chromosomes. Strictly speaking there’s also a difference between sex and gender, where sex is chromosome based and gender is the social construct of masculinity vs femininity. It’s gender that people usually say is on a contiuum because there’s an infinite combination of traits an individual can express. You are right that sex isn’t a contiuum (afaik) since it’s based on genetics, but there is a lot more to it than XX vs XY

  8. Posted December 1, 2018 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  9. Jon Gallant
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    The Gender Studies doctrine that sex is like a continuous variable resembles the view of inheritance as a “blending” process like the mixing of liquids. This was conventional before Mendel discovered that inheritance was like the assortment of pairs of elementary factors; and Morgan & Co. identified these factors with genes on chromosomes. These specific concepts of “Mendelism-Morganism” were largely outlawed for ~25 years in a large country which enforced doctrines many at the time considered “Progressive”.

  10. Posted December 1, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    That thus denial exists us just depressing. This thinking has been going on for decades. I heard female college students espousing these false ideas twenty years ago. These were not science majors. An anthropologist I know who is my age and retired expressed similar beliefs to me last year. Denial still continues.
    To paraphrase John Maynard Keyes It is hard to convince someone that domeghing is true if their ideology depends on believing it is false.

  11. max blancke
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I is not just sex and gender. My oldest took a university class on archaeology, which is tangential to my field of study. The professor made preposterous claims about warfare among indigenous and ancient peoples.
    The best I could figure out, it was all about supporting a view that violence, and most of man’s other problems, were side effects of capitalism and European colonialism.
    I guess if one advocates for revolution, it is wise to discourage acolytes from discovering that we live in a time of unprecedented safety and egalitarianism, with a higher standard of living than any other human group in history.
    My kids are immune to that sort of thing, growing up in a family of historians and archaeologists.

    But the whole issue, and those described in the post, seems to be about people letting their political views supersede their quest for truth. I have always thought that if one’s beliefs conflict with the known facts, then it is the beliefs that should be changed.

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      John Keegan’s A History of Warfare makes some intriguing arguments that would be germane to the discussion in your child’s class. (If allowed to be expressed, that is.)

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    There are no meaningful genetic differences between ethnic groups, or “races”,

    Does sickle-cell anemia count? First molecular defect to be unraveled, 1956, IIRC by Vernon Ingram. But I believe I’ve seen a map of th geographic distribution of the gene frequency in Africa, which correlates with the prevalence of malaria so maybe that doesn’t count(?)

    But then how about the “flushing” reaction to consumption of beverage alcohol in something like 50% of members of whatever Asian population you pick. I know that one well since the mutation occurs in the liver mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase that I studied, and I determined the normal residue (Glu487 that Akira Yoshida showed was replaced by a Lys in affected individuals. The gene frequency is low but heterozygotes display nearly the full effect since having just one mutant subunit in the homotetramer acts like a poison pill to the whole complex. Last I heard, though, the question of the presence of that mutation in Native American populations is an open question.

    But re. Native Americans, I recall that their acute susceptibility to diseases brought by Europeans is due to a certain version of (IIRC) histocompatibility antigen not having crossed the land bridge when the founders of those populations arrived in the Americas.

    • Mark R.
      Posted December 1, 2018 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      And don’t forget that idiot missionary who was killed by the indigenous people of North Sentinel island. The reason no one is allowed there is not because they will kill strangers, but because they are susceptible to common diseases since they’ve been isolated for so long. Perhaps a histocompatibility antigen didn’t cross to their island as well.

    • Posted December 4, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      “Native Americans, I recall that their acute susceptibility to diseases brought by Europeans is due to a certain version of (IIRC) histocompatibility antigen not having crossed the land bridge when the founders of those populations arrived in the Americas.”

      Source?

  13. Posted December 1, 2018 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    The fact that DNA is different in different groups explains why ethnic groups want to stay together, as in the college ethnic groups want their own dorms for their own ethnic groups. They want to stay together because their DNA is similar and they think and act more like each other than they do with people of different ethnic groups.

  14. Eduardo
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Touchy topic but I agree with the rebuttal. Noting differences should not be a basis for hate of any kind.

  15. Posted December 1, 2018 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    At its heart, this is the naturalistic fallacy turned on its head. Axiomatically, what is natural is good, so what is good ideologically must be natural. Evidence otherwise implicates bad ideology and must be attacked.

    • Posted December 1, 2018 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      Exactly! Its known as the Moralistic Fallacy.

  16. kelskye
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    The difficulty is, always, that our values determine our interpretation of the facts. So when it comes to beliefs about how the world ought to be, we’ll gravitate to interpretations of how the world is that fit those values.

    It’s been interesting to me to watch some of the activists as well as the conservative muppets they argue against both claim the science is on their side, when in reality it seems that the science supports neither in any strong sense and in many ways contradicts the narratives they want to push. And what this does, at least as it seems to me, is give ammunition to both “sides” on the moral debate as to how the other is reality-denying to push their agenda.

    The biggest thing for me moving away from the value narratives I viewed human nature through was seeing the similarities between human and (other) ape behaviours. It’s hard to blame culture for things that have strong parallels in the animal kingdom. It seemed unreasonable to think that evolution has lifted us out of our “animal” nature only for culture to be blamed for pulling us back into it.

  17. Peter
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    A good book on human ancestry is David Reich, 2018. Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.
    It shows how migration and mixing have shaped human populations.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 2, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      I just finished the book and strongly second your recommendation.

  18. A C Harper
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I’ll just mention the enormous offence taken by some readers of “The Bell Curve (Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life). Paperback published in 1996.”

    How would (currently unwritten) “The Bimodal Distribution (Sex and Gender in American Life)” fare today? Probably worse.

  19. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    When this kind of thing comes up, I like to review the basics. I also think it’s fun to imagine a character like Stephen Colbert on his Colbert Report asking, in this specific case, “what are these so-called X and Y chromosomes, anyway?! And did you ever LOOK at ALL of yours?!” Turns up some worthwhile reading:

    https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/chromosome/X

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_chromosome

  20. Pray Hard
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    F the left.

  21. Matt
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I get what you’re saying, but it’s flawed in the idea that we have to adhere to Evolution. We survived the Savannah because of the evolved traits you pointed out but in a modern society with ideals and philosophy there’s no need to pretend sex-based delegation is necessary. Also the reason people reject the idea of 2 sexes is that intersex people (more than one X or Y, multiple genetalia, etc) exist who can’t be neatly categoried into m v/ f. And obviously there are differences in different populations, but calling those pops races implies a much greater difference than what we see. I mean some would say all black people are a “race” but many populations of black Africans are more genetically distinct than a black and a white person. If you wanna fight for the validity of evolution you have to accept all facets of it, which means accepting biology is messy and rarely categorized.

    • A C Harper
      Posted December 2, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Even if “sex-based delegation” is no longer necessary (an unproven assertion) people might still prefer one type of social interaction over another, one type of employment over another.

      Life and biology are messy, but the Theory of Evolution cannot tell us what we *ought* to do any more than political ideology can tell us what reality actually *is*.

    • Posted December 2, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      [T]he reason people reject the idea of 2 sexes is that intersex people (more than one X or Y, multiple genetalia, etc) exist who can’t be neatly categoried into m v/ f.

      The demand for neat categorization is without merit (though ‘intersex’ seems to do quite nicely), as these conditions are ‘neatly’ understood.

      There are but two types of allosomes, two gametes, two embryological sex development processes. Intersex conditions occur when the male and female of these are combined in error.

  22. Roo
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m uncomfortable with the way that ‘race and gender’ increasingly seem to appear in the same arguments, as if they are comparable concepts, when they’re not. I actually think it’s harmful to create the impression that these belong in the same conceptual basket because there are some pretty binary aspects of sexual anatomy (there are always a few exceptions, but for the most part, you have a uterus or you don’t, it’s not as if we see all points on the spectrum across the population.) Besides that, we all have many ancestors from all over the globe in terms of ‘race’, but we all have exactly 50% male and 50% female ancestry in terms of gender. I think lumping the two together could create the impression that race is an equally binary concept when it absolutely is not. Yes, we can trace our heritage and the movement of various genes across the globe in terms of history and geography. But so what? You could identify my family members based on a DNA sample but that does not mean my family and I constitute our own race. (Now that I think of it – I almost understand why people have religious intuitions about the place of humankind on earth. Is there any other single animal species that naturally exists ubiquitously, without others in the genus, on all continents except Antartica? My guess would be no, although I’m not certain… it does seem almost miraculous, when you think of it that way.)

    Regarding sex and gender – the idea that the overwhelming number of dolls in the ‘girl’s’ toy aisle and the overwhelming number of vehicles in the ‘boy’s’ toy aisle is due to environment has all the problems of any hard behaviorist argument. That being, if we are that SUPREMELY sensitive to the mildest social cues and conditioning, you would expect to see all sorts of permutations wherein a person had been exposed to divergent cues and ended up extremely different. You would not expect to see the same patterns over and over, often *in spite of* environment (The argument that ‘eating disorders are about control’ annoys me for the same reason. There are lots and lots and lots of ways to be controlling. Why would such a significant percentage of people converge on the exact same one down to seemingly random details?)

    I am sympathetic to people who want to draw a distinction between biological sex and chosen gender or the choice not to identify with gender one way or the other, because while gender display more *general trends* (again, just look at the free market driven kids toys aisles), it is certainly not binary. If you look at the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, he found thinking patterns that are more prevalent in males, but the overlap in females is substantial. The overlap in anatomy is not substantial. So I do think it’s important to make sure that people don’t equate anatomy with psychological profiles, as this is both false and unfair. But I think trying to accomplish this by saying one must then deny X and Y chromosomes is self-defeating, as it ties an admirable concept to an absurd one and thus risks people throwing the whole concept into the ‘absurd’ basket. If someone does not identify with their chromosomes, then I sympathize with how difficult that must be and I am fully supportive of them doing whatever they need to do to feel at home in their bodies – but that can be done without essentially denying that said chromosomes exist in the first place.

  23. Posted December 3, 2018 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I work in a Roman Catholic country (Ireland) and only once (in six years) have I had a complaint about the teaching of evolution (this was from a student who wanted me to teach the controvery and it wasnt backed by the the university).
    On the other hand–I’ve been called all sorts of names for suggesting that sexual dimorphism is true. None of it by religious folk.
    Most alarming to me is that a recent book won a Royal Society prize for arguing that humans are cerebrally hermaphrodites. Dont believe me? Check it out for yourselves.
    https://quillette.com/author/robert-king/

  24. I Heart My Cat
    Posted December 3, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    It’s kind of ironic that Quillette publishes articles like this, given the publication’s general hostility towards transgender people. They’re suddenly willing to view “gender as a social construct” if that’s the position of an anti-transgender figure. It’s that kind of inconsistency and shifting of goal posts that make Quillette seem pretty dishonest, to me.

  25. Emily
    Posted December 5, 2018 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    A bimodal distribution can be continuous. I think most people (even on the far left) would agree that there are two clearly distinct clusters in the space of possible sexes, and that these clusters are associated with XX people and XY people. However, there are also people who fall in between these clusters. Variations in sex hormone production (which occur for all sorts of reasons) can cause them to fall at any point between these two clusters. That means the distribution is continuous, despite the fact that it is bimodal (a fact which all of the articles cited by the linked article acknowledge).

    I don’t think anyone is actually arguing that sex (or race) has no effect on personality. They are instead arguing a constellation of related points which sometimes do get conflated:

    A) The correlations are weak enough that we should avoid making assumptions about any individual’s personality based on their sex.

    B) The decision of precisely where along the biomodal distribution to put the cut-off for saying someone has a specific sex is somewhat arbitrary. This is where the claim that sex is a social construct comes from.

    C) Science has advanced to the point where we can do better than just binning the population into two groups. We’re at the point where we can start trying to isolate mechanisms, which will ultimately give us more predictive power. For example, we can pin down whether a sex-related effect is caused by the quantity of testosterone vs. the quantity of estrogen vs. something else. Even within the two main clusters, these levels vary, so understanding root causes for (for instance) health outcomes helps everyone.

    D) When choosing null hypotheses, we need to be aware that we aren’t doing science in a vacuum. If the actual underlying ground truth was that one group was biologically better at something (on average) than another group, that would be mildly useful to know. However, the cost to our society for falsely concluding that to be the case is dramatically higher than the cost for falsely concluding that observed differences are caused by environmental factors. We’ve made this mistake before with Social Darwinism. Let’s try to avoid making it again.


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