All posts filed under: Biology

We ‘Gender-Critical’ Feminists Pay a Price for Speaking Out. But the Price of Silence is Higher

Disagreement over sex and gender have cleaved the feminist community between those who believe that biological sex is immutable, and those who believe that transitioning sex to align body with brain is not only possible, but a legally binding marker of identity. Courts, social-services organizations and schools all have been pushed to adopt the most doctrinaire precepts of trans-rights advocacy. In some cases, the issue has divided “gender-critical” women’s-rights advocates from strident trans-rights advocates. It also has caused schisms within feminism; and even within families, with some parents split over the best course of action for their kids. While this drama unfolds publicly in legislatures, town councils and on social media, it also takes a personal toll on those who’ve gotten caught up in this unusually vicious front in the culture war. This includes “Susan” (all names changed), a gender-critical feminist and mother who plans to attend a forthcoming talk on the subject at the Seattle Public Library. An email exchange between Susan and her brother “Craig” recently was shared by the Hands Across the …

Sex Differences in Cognition

In a previous post I examined the biological and social influences on sex and gender identity. Evidence suggests that biology plays a powerful role in the determination of sex as well as of gender identity, although social forces are also important particularly as they relate to gender role expression. In this essay I’ll examine the evidence surrounding a related controversial topic: whether or not there are cognitive differences between the sexes and, if so, whether they are biological or social in origin. In what follows, I’ll focus on individuals whose gender identity matches their biological sex. This leaves out nonbinary and transsexual persons, about whom there is far less research evidence. Nevertheless, given that transsexuals tend to have hypothalamuses that match their identified gender not their biological sex, it would be interesting to know if this produces cognitive differences as well. Some evidence suggests that the administration of sex hormones to those undergoing transition does influence cognition in expected ways. Other studies suggest that cognitive differences exist prior to hormone treatment, and that the cognition …

Meet the Gay Activists Who’ve Had Enough of Britain’s Ultra-Woke Homophobes

Are gay people allowed to meet and organise in defense of their interests? A hard yes, you might have thought. But some apparently disagree. Witness the response to the London-based LGB Alliance, a newly created British group that asserts “the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people to define themselves as same-sex-attracted.” The group’s creation has sparked vitriol, not from the traditionalist Christians or social conservatives who might have opposed such groups in the 1980s or 1990s, but from the self-described progressive left. Readers who aren’t steeped in the most fashionable iteration of identity politics might now be scratching their heads. Unless you’re taking cues from Leviticus, what could possibly be wrong with saying it’s okay to be gay? The answer is that, in acknowledging the reality of same-sex attraction, you are indirectly acknowledging the reality and importance of biological sex as a driver of attraction. You are also indirectly acknowledging that members of the opposite sex are not members of your dating pool—even if they tell you that they share your gender identity. Which …

I Asked Thousands of Biologists When Life Begins. The Answer Wasn’t Popular

Shortly after being awarded my Ph.D. by the University of Chicago’s department of Comparative Human Development this year, I found myself in a minor media whirlwind. I was interviewed by The Daily Wire, The College Fix, and Breitbart. I appeared on national television and on a widely syndicated radio program. All of this interest had been prompted by a working paper associated with my dissertation, which was entitled Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights: A Mixed Methods Mediation of the U.S. Abortion Debate. As discussed in more detail below, I reported that both a majority of pro-choice Americans (53%) and a majority of pro-life Americans (54%) would support a comprehensive policy compromise that provides entitlements to pregnant women, improves the adoption process for parents, permits abortion in extreme circumstances, and restricts elective abortion after the first trimester. However, members of the media were mostly interested in my finding that 96% of the 5,577 biologists who responded to me affirmed the view that a human life begins at fertilization. It was the reporting of this view—that …

How Feminism Has Constrained Our Understanding of Gender

This week Melinda Gates said that she is committing $1 billion to promote gender equality by doing things like dismantling “harmful gender norms.” To many people, this sounds like a wonderful idea, but in reality, how effective are gender equality strategies that blame inequality solely on social factors such as gender norms and stereotypes? Professor Alice Eagly, in her paper “The Shaping of Science by Ideology: How Feminism Inspired, Led, and Constrained Scientific Understanding of Sex and Gender,”1 explores the ways in which feminism helped to create the now widely held misconception that gender is simply a product of social influence. This feminist misconception is not simply a dry academic fossil from the nature-nurture debate—it’s a flawed notion that has become central to how we treat men and women in all areas of life. This one-sided view of gender has caused problems in a range of areas, including therapy, the workplace, sports, and the law. Much of Eagly’s expertise relates to workplace psychology, so this is the area on which she focuses. The central problem …

No One Is Born in ‘The Wrong Body’

The idea that all people have an innate “gender identity” recently has been endorsed by many health-care professionals and mainstream medical organizations. This term commonly is defined to mean the “internal, deeply held” sense of whether one is a man or a woman (or, in the case of children, a boy or a girl), both, or neither. It also has become common to claim that this sense of identity may be reliably articulated by children as young as three years old. While these claims about gender identity did not attract systematic scrutiny at first, they now have become the subject of criticism from a growing number of scientists, philosophers and health workers. Developmental studies show that young children have only a superficial understanding of sex and gender (at best). For instance, up until age 7, many children often believe that if a boy puts on a dress, he becomes a girl. This gives us reason to doubt whether a coherent concept of gender identity exists at all in young children. To such extent as any …

Postmodernism’s Dead End

As an undergraduate studying English at the University of Utah, I was required to take Introduction to the Theory of Literature. The course was a disaster. I was an awful student of critical theory. Like most burgeoning English majors I knew at the time (the early 1990s), I wanted to read and write literature, not to study what people had decided it meant to read and write literature. And then there was the professor who headed the class. He had a pretentious fondness for the French deconstructionist Derrida that I did not understand, partly because I did not understand Derrida himself, and partly because as a teacher this fellow was so single-minded that he could not reach any but the most earnest students. After class, I would often see him in the cafeteria, where he would practice his French with a colleague who also taught theory for the department. I guessed they were talking about Derrida, but who could say? Together, these elements would constitute my introduction to the baffling world of postmodern theory. I …

Against Determinism—A Brief Reply to Jerry Coyne

In my previous Quillette article, I offered what was intended to be an intellectual history of agency, drawing partly upon the traditions of the continental school of philosophy. I contended that those intellectuals most resistant to deterministic explanations for human affairs are unconsciously, and fiercely, trying to protect the historical legacy of agency from normative determinism. I linked the rise of agency to the rise of secular-humanism, and argued that a belief in agency and free will could therefore be understood as a new version of Pascal’s Wager. This provided Coyne with a great deal of ammunition for his critique of my piece; he drew many parallels between my arguments for believing in free will and the apologetics offered by religious fundamentalists for their belief in God. However, the arguments for some notion of free will are about as hard to shake as the sense that we have it, and I don’t think they are shaken much by Coyne’s hard determinism. In this brief reply to Coyne, I’ll also take my cue from Ben Burgis’s …

Socialization Isn’t Responsible for Greater Male Violence

Earlier this year, Dr. Julia Shaw wrote an article for Psychology Today entitled, “Why Are We Not Outraged that Prisons Are Filled with Men?” in which she argues that there is something “pernicious” and deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates men at far higher rates than women. “Prison,” she explains, “has always been an almost entirely male structure. It’s hard. It’s cold. It’s unempathetic. It’s punitive. Practically every descriptor we use for prison prides itself in its masculinity.” Shaw says the heavily disproportionate incarceration reflects a lack of faith in men, who are then adversely affected by the experience of prison and the social stigma they are forced to carry upon release. And “what leads us to blindly accept that our prisons are full of men?” she asks. I think it’s because we accept as dogma that men are naturally more criminal—particularly more violent—than women, thus they deserve to be incarcerated at higher rates. It’s about time we question this assumption. As Shaw points out, men are overrepresented in prisons because they commit more …

How Prophetic Was Gattaca?

Dystopian science fiction films often have the veneer of plausibility. For example, the premise of an overpopulated world (Soylent Green), or a deep freeze earth (The Day After Tomorrow), or an infertility epidemic (Children of Men), generate voyeuristic horror but rarely possess the credibility to elicit anxiety of a real world, highly probable outcome. The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is an exception. Technology has now caught up with Niccol’s dystopian vision of a society where every member is categorized and determined by their genetic origin. Last year a Chinese bioengineer announced the germline editing and live birth of twin girls using CRISPR technology. In the world of Gattaca, preimplantation screening and genetic engineering have generated a culture of discrimination based on genomic scores. The story’s hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), has the bad luck of being conceived the old-fashioned way, his genome left to the crapshoot of meiosis. His genome is read to his parents at birth: neurological condition: 60 percent; probability of manic depression: 42 percent; probability of heart disease: …