Picture credit: Fotomaxe Ahlbrecht/Getty
Artillery Row

The truth about sex

No amount of clever-clever language games can obscure basic biological facts

Those of us involved in the sex and gender debate are sometimes asked what “peaked” us? What event made us realise that something strange and scary was going on? For me, one of the key moments occurred on the FreeThought Blogs website, run by biologist PZ Myers, a self-identified rationalist. 

The comments page of FreeThought had a busy discussion on trans rights where the majority supported PZ Myers’ line (that trans women are women in all respects) whilst a small number of commenters were raising some doubts. They were doggedly debating the issue by being polite, providing evidence, and presenting clear arguments. In return they were called “loony”, “unhinged” and “a shitty liar” and told to “f*** right off”. 

There were precious few arguments from the other side, just hyperbole and insults. Finally PZ Myers turned up and wielded what he calls his “ban hammer” — not against any of the people being abusive, but against those on the receiving end of the abuse, because they had dared to disagree with him. To see such a clear example of modern day blasphemy on a blog that calls itself a place for “critics of dogma and authoritarianism” was an irony I found shocking.

His latest bit of misinformation is an attempt to lecture Prof Richard Dawkins about basic biology

I therefore couldn’t help but feel a touch of schadenfreude when I noticed last week that FreeThoughtBlogs had been taken offline. Apparently the site had been accused of running a fraudulent scam. The site has returned, so presumably the accusation was groundless. However, PZ Myers’ blog certainly is guilty of spreading falsehoods. 

His latest bit of misinformation is an attempt to lecture Prof Richard Dawkins about basic biology. In many ways Dawkins is the ideal expert to comment on sex-related pseudoscience since he’s a world renowned evolutionary biologist but also an expert on the spread of irrational ideas. Dawkins had enraged Myers by stating the well established fact that the definition of sex is based on gametes. If your body has evolved to make eggs you’re female; sperm and you’re male. Shortly before  being taken offline, Myers published his response. Myers claims that on the contrary, he can recognise sex in many species without having to look at the animal’s gametes. For instance, when he sees a bird fly past his window, he can tell its sex just by the colour of its plumage — no need to examine eggs or sperm.

What Myers is doing here is confusing how something is defined with how it’s determined in practice. To see the difference, consider age. Age is very simple to define — it’s the period of time that has elapsed since an organism started life. But determining age is very difficult. The only direct measurement is to have been present at the birth — but in the case of most people you meet, that won’t apply. Obviously with a human, you can just ask them or look at their ID. But both of those can be wrong (whether through deliberate fraud or error). It would also be possible for someone to lack papers and perhaps not know their own precise age. But they would still have a true age since the definition still holds.

There are anatomical ways to estimate a human’s age: archaeologists look at teeth or the wear on bones, but these are highly error prone. In everyday life we use lots of physical clues to make a rough estimate, for instance height in children or grey hair in adults. But you shouldn’t confuse these age-markers with actual age. A tall 12 year old is not older than a short 12 year old. And applying Grecian 2000 doesn’t actually make you younger (sadly).

With other species things are sometimes easier. It’s well known that you can count a tree’s rings to find out its age — and you can do something similar with tortoises by counting the rings in their shells. But we only know these methods work because we have an objective definition with which to compare. Which is how scientists discovered that the marker they used for sharks (rings in the vertebrae) wasn’t in fact accurate

With sex, Myers lists many useful markers, and tries to pretend they’re the definition of sex when they are plainly not. It is true that many birds have different appearances for male and female. But Myers never explains how it is that we know a black blackbird is the male one whilst the mottled brown one is female. Did someone see the two types and toss a coin to assign one of them male? Obviously no — rather we’ve observed that only the brown type lay eggs and they do so after mating with the black type. Having applied the definition, we now have a more convenient way to tell them apart — but only because we’ve established a link between plumage and gamete type.

To put it another way, in my household we have had (at various times) one male human (me), two female humans, two male cats, two female hens, some male fish and a female millipede. There must be something that all the male organisms have in common — the thing that defines maleness. The only thing that all us males share is that our bodies evolved to make sperm. Similarly all the females evolved to make eggs. The method for determining whether a particular individual had evolved to make eggs or sperm will differ from species to species, but the definition itself remains the same. There is no other definition of sex that makes any sense.

Of course Myers knows all this — he couldn’t carry out even basic biology without understanding this basic concept. But Myers has an ideological position to defend and seems less concerned about scientific truth. 

Sadly, his was not the only bit of sex denial I’ve come across recently. There’s plenty closer to home. 

Stephen Whittle OBE, a British Professor of law, trans man and long time campaigner for trans rights tweeted (I’m not saying X’d): “Male & female are human constructs so didn’t exist at all before humans”.

Given that scientists are pretty sure that they’ve identified male and female forms in the trilobite dating back 500 million years, and in 1000’s of other species that predate humans, that seems like an extraordinary claim.

most animals, and all mammals, reproduce by having two sexes: male and female

I reached out to Prof Whittle to try to understand what he meant by the statement and he was kind enough to respond. However despite conversing over several days, I’m still not entirely sure I understand what he was saying. The Prof replied with numerous fascinating facts about sex: how some species are capable of virgin birth whilst others are hermaphrodite (male and female in one individual), that IVF can use donor eggs, and how the indigenous people of Siberia had nine genders. But none of this is relevant to the truth of Whittle’s original claim. There are indeed many different forms of reproduction in nature, and many different ideas about gender in human societies. But that doesn’t change the simple fact that most animals, and all mammals, reproduce by having two sexes: male and female.

Finally we got to the point: “Naming only arrived with humans. I am discussing humans & their thinking processes only.” So Whittle’s extraordinary claim was, perhaps, a statement of the obvious fact that human concepts of male and female didn’t exist before humans. That’s tautologically true — but also not very relevant to the debate. There has long been a debate in philosophy about the nature of categories and to what extent they exist in the physical world or are creations of the conscious mind. But this isn’t an argument specific to the categories of sex, it applies to all scientific categories. If you argue that males and females didn’t exist before humans then the same applies to plants, animals, rivers, volcanoes, atoms and galaxies. These are English words referring to scientific concepts that have evolved over different timescales to their current meaning. But the concepts all refer to real features of the natural world that existed long before we did.

I think it’s vitally important to be clear when you’re referring to the concept rather than the thing itself. For instance, if I said “coronavirus was created by scientists” people will assume that I’m supporting the controversial lab-leak theory — not just stating the obvious fact that the name, and indeed the scientific concept of a virus, are human creations. 

Throughout our conversation this bait and switch continued — sometimes Whittle meant the thing itself, sometimes the human conception of the thing. For a law professor, I found Whittle surprisingly imprecise in his language. 

Does this matter? I believe it does. When Whittle tweets “Male and Female didn’t exist” he may mean it as purely a statement about human concepts, but there are people who will use his statement to cast doubt on the reality of biological sex. For some, such as PZ Myers, it’s a political imperative to cast doubt on the truth about sex in order to advance the claim that your sex is something that can be self-identified, rather than a matter of material reality. Suffice it to say that it’s hard to think of a phenomenon more certain in biology than the material reality of the biological sexes.

I’ve focussed on one of his tweets but it’s far from his only piece of misinformation. Just in the past few weeks Whittle has also posted that midwives guess the sex of baby (an unwarranted slur on highly trained professionals), claimed the assignment of sex was wrong 1 per cent of the time (the true figure is closer to 0.05 per cent), and supported the false claim that some people don’t have male and female genetic parents.  Why is a learned figure such as Prof Whittle spreading such misleading statements? When I asked him, his defence was that we really shouldn’t consider his tweets as a reliable source. “This isn’t a serious place,” he said of Twitter, “147 characters or whatever, written whilst sat in the loo, is not exactly the intellectual high point in my career.” This is something on which we can agree. He also shared that he often tweets to distract himself from bouts of pain he suffers due to his chronic conditions. “Most nights I get out of bed because MS means painful muscle spasms,” he said, “I go on twitter to distract myself, and to be frank I’m not doing intellectual activity, I’m just fighting my corner for the people I know.”

The problem is, tweets from someone of his status, a very public figure with an OBE and an academic position, are taken seriously and have real world consequences. Twitter has enough misinformation and toxicity already. I hope his suffering can be relieved, but in the meantime I would urge the Professor to find a different and less public way to manage his pain — it would do his reputation, and the world, a lot of good.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover