The Capture of Nature

Nature is recognised as one of the world’s most prestigious and cited academic journals. It publishes weekly a set of original peer reviewed research articles with accompanying editorials, scientific news and comment.

Some of those comment articles have recently included a strange disclaimer.

In July 2020, a news item reported on “The gender gap in cystic fibrosis”. The article noted how women appear to have poorer outcomes than men, and die earlier,

A comprehensive analysis in 1997 of more than 21,000 people with cystic fibrosis in the United States showed a median life expectancy of 25.3 years for women and 28.4 for men1. The bacteria associated with lung decline and early death were also found to be present in women earlier than in men.

It then declared “(Nature recognizes that sex and gender are not the same, and are neither fixed nor binary.)”

Why it has put this odd disclaimer is not made clear. It makes no sense. The article is about differences in outcomes for people with different sexes (male and female). The article is quite clear about this. It talks of how “females could have a poorer response to [] treatment”, and talks of genetic differences between the sexes. The article makes sense if you accept the common use of the word gender in the article title as a synonym for sex – maybe to assuage the more squeamish American audience.

But the odd disclaimer wants to make it clear that sex and gender are not the same. What the meaning of ‘gender’ is in the article then is not made clear. And it goes on to say that neither sex or gender are not binary, despite the whole article being based on the binary differential experience of women and men, boy and girls, males and females to the course of cystic fibrosis and its treatments.

An article published in August 2020 declares, “Sex differences in immune responses that underlie COVID-19 disease outcomes”. An editorial on this paper noted, “The researchers noticed that male participants’ typical immune response to infection differed from that of female participants, which could explain the more severe disease often observed in men.”

It then went on to add a similar disclaimer, ” (Nature recognizes that sex and gender are neither binary nor fixed.)”.

This time, gender is not mentioned (in any meaning). The article is clear this is about sex differences. Why the editorial diclaimer?

A third article entitled “Parents’ desire for one boy and one girl pushed trend in family patterns” discusses how the desire for British parents in the 20th Century to keep having children until they had at least one boy and girl could skew the population sex ratio. The article is clearly about male and female babies and yet a similar editorial disclaimer arises, “(Nature recognizes that sex and gender are not binary, and are not necessarily aligned.)”

Again, no explanation as to what a gender is and how it can be misaligned with sex. And no explanation as to why sex is not the binary as discussed in the article.

The only explanation for these strange and incorrect statements is ideological capture. These sentences are mantras of gender ideology – an ideology that claims that sex is not a reliable classification for humans. It is too vague, mutable and subjective to talk about reliably. The only reliable classification is ‘gender identity’ – whatever that is. This fashionable nonsense arose out of postmodernist inspired philosophies in ‘gender studies’ and sociology. As with much of these philosophies, it seeks to undermine meaning in words, to break apart and deny objective knowledge and classifications in an attempt to undermine ‘oppressive power structures’. It is a strictly political philosophy with activist aims that denies science can obtain reliable and objective knowledge and any such claim to knowledge is merely the speech of a dominant and oppressive class – usually white, heterosexual men.

But sex is, of course, fundamental to biology. No peer reviewed biology paper would characterise sex (at least in oogamous organisms like us) as not being ‘binary’, not being a material fact, and being mutable (except in sequential hermaphrodites). We cannot understand reproduction except in terms of its strict binary nature based on the fusion of two highly asymmetric haploid gametes. It is startling that Nature feels it needs to deny these things.

But Nature has form. Indeed. an opinion article published in Nature is an ideological favourite and a classic of this pseudoscientific genre.

In 2015, Claire Ainsworth published an article “Sex Redefined – The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.” It is an exemplar of the ideological and denialist approach to sex.

The Ainsworth article goes along the well established specious set of arguments you will find in ‘gender studies’- it seeks to undermine our ability to talk about sex. That approach goes like this:

  1. Say you are going to give the ‘old fashioned’ defintion of sex but actually set up a straw man. Instead of discussing how biologists define the sex of an organism in terms of the evolved development path it follows with respect to either gamete type (male or female), claim sex is a set of ‘sex characteristics’ like genitals, breasts and things like facial hair. Stick to humans.
  2. Note how sex characteristics vary enormously between individuals and many overlap between what we call sexes. There is no clear dividing line, for example, in bone morphology in humans for example. Therefore, there is no clear diving line between the sexes.
  3. Set up another false straw man of how karytypes are synonymous with sexes — that is XX/XY are defining of female and male rather than being one type of sex determining mechanism. Note how sex chromosomal aneuploidies mean sex cannot be binary. This is false and conflates atypical chromosome numbers with sexes.
  4. Come to the conclusion that sex is too vague, subjective and unreliable a concept to classify humans. Suggest, as Claire Ainsworth adds in her article payload, that we just ‘ask people’. That is their ‘identity’ is the only thing we can rely on.

So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.

This Nature article did not redefine sex as the title promised, but stripped it of meaning and rendered it entirely subjective.

Once you have done this, then you can dismantle women’s rights, sports and spaces (as sex is not meaningful), reject sexuality (because a person’s sex is not a reliable object of your desire) and dismantle protections and measurements to ensure fairness and representation for women in business and politics.

You also remove the ability for science to understand how your sex might have material and significant impact on your health and medical treatments.

And that is why this ideological capture of Nature is so worrying and depressing.

46 Comments on The Capture of Nature

  1. It’s depressing to see hysteria and culture war politics capture your blog. Nature made a very reasonable call: the sex traits correlated with Covid outcomes aren’t defined and might be plastic.

    In fact all the mechanistic work on sex based coronavirus susceptibility says whatever Sex associated protection females get are estrogen dependent https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5450662/ take away its effect and they’re no better off than males, in fact, because hormones affect interferon levels it’s likely having more interferon from estrogen alone is sufficient for improved outcomes.

    Straw manning Nature and scientists for noting something any immunologist will tell you is a disservice to your readers, telling your readers XX chromosomes make them resistant -never mind they may have no estrogen induced inf bump because cancer therapy- is a disservice and could hurt people. Your readers most likely do not read immunology and virology journals and so will take false comfort from your overly broad claims that have notable exceptions.

    I imagine the culture war’s capture of discourse in the United Kingdom, and scientists being vilified for noting immunological complexities is why Britain is at risk of being shut out as a research center and unprecedented amounts of brain capital is emigrating to the EU and other countries that haven’t traded liberal values for fear and straw men.

    I hope you will prove me wrong and instead of censoring or muzzling my critique, refute me on the factual accuracy of my claims if you think I am wrong.

    • Thank you for coming here to protest and also in setting up a twitter account to do the same thing on that site.

      You need to answer these questions:
      1) Why do these similarly worded disclaimers appear in these three stories? What would each story lack in those sentences had not appeared?
      2) Why do they introduce the concept of ‘gender’ and declare it to not mean sex when the only use of gender is as a synonym of sex?
      3) Why do they say sex is not binary when all three stories treat it as a binary category?
      4) Why do they say sex is not ‘fixed’ when that is not supported by science?
      5) What do Nature mean by ‘Gender’ here (with evidence)?

      These are ideological insertions.

      • In partial answer to those questions:
        When a study has a large sample size, it’s virtually certain that it will have included some undiagnosed intersex people. The numbers aren’t big enough to affect the conclusions about a M/F binary, but I don’t see that it does any harm to acknowledge it as a source of uncertainty.

        2) and (3) Many sex-difference studies will exclude trans people to get a clearer picture, so the terms sex and gender effectively have the same meaning *in this context* (all their females can be assumed to be women, etc, with the caveat above).

        4) Chromosomes are fixed, but many sex-based responses are hormonal – and that can be altered easily enough. The disclaimer helps to explain that most sex-related studies aren’t going to help predict responses in trans people, or people with hormonal disorders.

        5) Gender is a sociological concept, and doesn’t have a simple definition except that it’s not one-to-one related to sex – although in most modern cultures it’s pretty close. There are plenty of academic sources online if you genuinely want to be understand the meaning better – it’s not a new concept, there’s years of literature in respectable journals. Personally I’d rather sandpaper my eyeballs than read any more sociology journals, so I generally go with the ‘close enough’ definitions you’ll find on Wikipedia.

        A concrete example for you: archaeologists have been distinguishing between sex and gender for decades – you rarely have the money to do DNA analysis of skeletal remains. It’s not uncommon to have a mismatch between gendered grave goods and the sex of a skeleton – there’s lots of debate over the meaning of these graves, and what gender role the person had when they were alive.

      • Do you have any information on the numbers of undiagnosed people with developmental sex disorders? I think most would surely become aware of them at puberty and it is highly offensive to many of them to suggest that they do not have a sex or that they are evidence that sex is not binary and make up some kind of other sex.

        It is relevant to distinguish between gender (societal) and sex (biological) in the scientific and medical literature and this is why Springer Nature have supported the SAGER guidelines and on their own website state ‘Authors should use the terms sex (biological attribute) and gender (shaped by social and cultural circumstances) carefully in order to avoid confusing both terms.’ and encourage the use of these terms as defined by the NIH Definition of Sex and Gender (taken from Office of Research in Women’s Health, NIH).
        ‘Sex – refers to biological differences between females and males, including chromosomes, sex organs, and endogenous hormonal profiles
        Gender- refers to socially constructed and enacted roles and behaviors which occur in a historical and cultural context and vary across societies and over time.’

        It is my understanding that in many archaeological studies the sex of the skeleton can readily be distinguished by bone size and that little is known regarding historical gender roles in many time periods, which is why many found offensive the recent book that stated a female Viking warrior was ‘gender queer’.

      • Certainly and thank you for respecting discourse and allowing my criticism to stand. I might not be teaching biology anymore but my most vivid experiences in uni were when outside groups would take something -which with context made perfect sense- distort it and then present some out of context straw man to gin up hate or outrage. They seldom cared about the science or facts, just their culture war.

        I’m not getting into this gender stuff nor do I care so I’ll set aside those points. As for : 3) Why do they say sex is not binary when all three stories treat it as a binary category?
        Obviously because as far as the immune system sex differences are concerned it isn’t: More estrogen means more interferon and more viral protection, take it away or block its receptor binding and you deprive models of that protection. This is a patent example of what in bio they call phenotype plasticity. If you hold viral outcomes as a sex difference then it becomes necessary to point out its the prime example of plasticity.

        4) Why do they say sex is not ‘fixed’ when that is not supported by science?

        Because from the purposes of immunology and virology – what those articles covered- it is not. Nearly all the sex differences we see in the immune system can be attributed to hormones and are dependent on them. In case you doubt me you can scan through google scholar. They’d be pushing ideology if they ignored that. It was very reasonable for Nature to note that at least as far as Immunology and virology are concerned, sex differences are indeed plastic.

        Thank you for allowing my protests and I apologize if they came off as rude but from my view and the view of others who work with the field this was a nothingburger the culture war crowd grabbed and stretched for the sake of scaremongering and clickbait. You are, accidentally I’m sure, letting ideology distort your blogs mission to cover the science. That is a mistake, not only is it a disservice to your readers but it makes scientists think of your work as more politics than journalism/advocacy.

      • You are making a simple but absurd error. You are mistaking the continuous variability in sex characteristics with a continuous variation in sex.

      • “ You are making a simple but absurd error. You are mistaking the continuous variability in sex characteristics with a continuous variation in sex.”

        Thank you for your straw man, if I ever need an IT guy to teach me and other immunologists with publications, I’ll be sure to ask.

        No, the literature says the immune systems sex differences are hormone dependent and coronavirus resistance especially so. Nature made a reasonable note on that matter.

        The fact you took my limited, but credible and biological consensus, claims and strawmaned them to something you can beat makes me think you’ve abandoned your previous work in journalism for politics. If so I’m sorry to see that since I used to like reading your blog in uni.

        I hope things get better and I mean it.

      • I can only say once again that you are making an absurd error: sex is categorical, sexual characteristics may vary in various dimensions continuously and even overlap between each sex. I think you have been displaying here though some pretty steadfast resistance to understanding though.

  2. I am so frustrated by this. Sex disaggregated data is so important. Why is Springer encouraging authors to follow the SAGER guidelines, which are very clear that sex is fixed, if they are going to allow something like this. The job of a scientific editor is to preserve the integrity of the scientific literature, not corrupt it. Is this what happens if your Editor-in-chief specialised in sex development in C.elegans and not in humans??!!

      • That’s an interesting article you’ve chosen and one that makes clear to state in the introduction that both hormonal and chromosome related differences are important ‘Sex-specific disease outcomes following virus infections are attributed to sex-dependent production of steroid hormones, different copy numbers of immune response X-linked genes and the presence of disease susceptibility genes in males and females’ Though they’ve specifically focused on hormonal changes it is an article about a mouse model. If you’re interested in sex differences in COVID-19 responses I recommend this review which covers both hormones and gene expression differences and distinguishes between humans and animal models https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-020-0348-8

      • “That’s an interesting article you’ve chosen and one that makes clear to state in the introduction that both hormonal and chromosome”
        You mean makes clear to state theories before finding estrogen was necessary and sufficient. I didn’t see anything about chromosomes in the data. Focus on the data.
        “ attributed to sex-dependent production of steroid hormones, different copy numbers of immune response X-linked genes”
        Do you realize how lionization and dose dependence works. The same amount of x products or homologues are made or else something has gone wrong. The only means where there might be a genomic difference is if a male has inherited a rare x mutation, meanwhile lionization means female is only partially affected,but here you’re asking us to focus on freak rare occurrences which don’t apply to the overwhelming majority of the population and accept them as the reason when they’re not present nearly all the time. Exactly what you complain about! Your odd rare occurrences don’t explain the vast majority without terrible mutations, nor are they a reason to reject what science shows is necessary.

        And that brings me back to the paper, the reason I cited is because it’s one of the rare papers to actually study the mechanisms behind she’s difference.

        Do you know how to study a mechanism? Best way is to directly manipulate a variable like they did with estrogen or estrogen receptors, if estrogen is what’s necessary then depriving mice of it should deprive them of protection. Exactly what happened. It’s the prime causal role or so our animal models say.

        That shows the other factors you cherry picked are both not necessary and certainly not sufficient as those animals can attest. I say we stick to the mechanism driving it for all humans and not get distracted from biological rules by blizzare causes for a tiny minority.

  3. Both scientist and doctors need to understand the meanings of words, esp if changing in prestigious journals, and in general conversation. We need to understand the known, factual, scientific and biological processes at play in health and disease as individuals interact with complex environments.There was an excellent recent review article in the Lancet addressing sex/ genetic modifiers/ epigenetics/ behaviours/ the differences between sex & gender role in major chronic diseases, responses to treatments, mortality and the lack of attention to these factors despite policies to do so. All muddling of terminology will worsen the issues, to the detriment of all. Mauvais-Jarvis F et al. Sex and gender:modifiers of health, disease, and medicine. Lancet 2020;396:565-82. Seventeen pages of eyeopening stuff. Strongly recommend reading and disseminating this article.

  4. Thanks for bring this to our attention. I think this is what happens when the lawyers start patrolling the hallways to make sure all butts are covered. Basically it’s a CYA for anyone using the disclaimers.

  5. Thank you for this. Changing the meaning of words, particularly of sex, is concerning indeed and leaves many at risk. Science should not care about ideology but we live in crazy times.

    • In all likelihood, THAT is precisely why Nature posted their note – i.e., to alert the reader to the difference between the meanings of sex and gender.

  6. Good job; it’s really annoying when a science journal (or scientific society, like the Society for the Study of Evolution) denies that sex is a binary. It’s hyprocritical, too, as all work on animals tacitly assumes (with rare exceptions) that sex is a binary.

    All scientists should protest the denial of facts in the service of ideology, even if that ideology be progressive. Here’s my take on your very good piece and the issue:

    https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/09/04/the-science-journal-natures-goes-woke-claiming-that-both-sex-and-gender-are-nonbinary/

    • Sex is far from binary. There are XXX, XYY, and other variants. Moreover, the notion that X and Y chromosomes are the only ones that contain genes that influence sex phenotypy was blown out of the water long ago.

      • You are mistaking various aneuploid conditions for sexes. There are two sexes. Various sex determining mechanisms exist in nature. In humans, there is an xx/xy mechanism. Various atypical chromosome combinations are still viable. They do not lead to new sexes.

  7. “The only explanation for these strange and incorrect statements is ideological capture.”

    Hmmm. Here;s a different possible explanation. They routinely put it in when sex is mentioned as a prophylactic; as an attempt to *head-off* gender theorists getting picky about the article in question. Hence the air of, “Yes, Tallulah, we KNOW sex is different from gender and you have valuable things to say about the latter, but, see, we are acknowledging it, so just be quiet for now, okay?”

  8. ‘Sex – refers to biological differences between females and males, including chromosomes, sex organs, and endogenous hormonal profiles
    Gender- refers to socially constructed and enacted roles and behaviors which occur in a historical and cultural context and vary across societies and over time.’

    —–

    This has always been my understanding of the terms, which is why it annoys me no end when forms ask for “Gender’ and then offer the choices of Male or Female. If it is just M or F, I suppose you could make a case for either/or, but it’s often the words spelled out. I live in the US, btw.

    That said, I think Mr Brownsey probably has it right in his final paragraph, but that dosn’t make it any less silly.

    As a matter of clarification on remarks in some comments: If Covid-19 protection for women comes from estrogen, are older women not protected and equally vulnerable? I had not known this–it hasn’t been in any source I’ve seen directed at a general audience.

  9. The author incorrectly asserts that the report in question concluded a BINARY difference between males and females – it did NOT. It concluded that there was a significant STATISTICAL difference in the MEANS for men and women, but the data show extensive overlap of the two distributions – it is NOT binary at all. Both men and women showed a DISTRIBUTION in mortality – the distributions overlapped extensively.

    While I do not know Natures motivation for their comment clarifying the important difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ there is nothing wrong with it in light of the fact that the authors of the study INCORRECTLY referred to “gender” instead of “sex” in their title.

    • You are not understanding. I am saying the reports deal with the binary categories of the sexes. Results, of course, will be distributed across the sexes. Set is still categorical. The disclaimer is suggesting otherwise – which is the problem.

      • And, I’m saying the scientific studies show that sex is not binary. Almost nothing in the real world is binary – essentially everything exists in ranges on continua. Your essay is simply a political pleading — not scientific.

      • There are no peer reviewed biology papers that describe sex as being distributed rather than categorical or there being other sexes than male and female in oogamous organisms like us. You are adopting an ideological position, not a scientific one.

    • Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our ideology that we overlook the obvious. Or perhaps it just seems obvious to me because my field is language, not science.
      “Gender gap” is a widely recognized term. “Sex gap” is not.
      This doesn’t address the other issues the author found so terribly troubling, of course…but hopefully will lay to rest the seeming confusion over why the word gender was used in the title of the first article.
      TLDR: Duh.

  10. I don’t think I need to say what it is or to suggest was Nature should say. My point was merely to offer a possible explanation of why they include this rather odd passage.

    • I ask because I so not think Nature could do that in a way that makes their disclaimer make sense and not could you. I strongly suspect you will avoid giving clarity here at all costs.

  11. “I strongly suspect you will avoid giving clarity here at all costs.”

    Oh dear. I attempted to give a possibly helpful suggestion, that’s all. Now I am an object of suspicion, accused of avoidance, responded to as though i were an all-round bad egg or one of the Evil Ones.

    Calm down.

  12. I am an author on a Nature paper. I consider it MY Nature paper since it was my contribution which made it such. I consider that any political points in science is wrong. In my experience in the lab or at conferences nobody cares what your politics are, they are not germane. We are there to do science.

    So i consider what they are doing now is going to decrease the status of Nature so it will diminish what I consider to be my magnum opus, thus far. Publication in Nature or Science comes to few. When it comes to you celebrations above & beyond the norm of paper acceptance are called for. I bought the single issue in which our paper appeared as a souvenir and physical proof that it is real.

    At least mine was back in ’99 when Nature was a serious scientific journal. Now? what a joke it has become.

  13. A brilliant essay. This stupidity has to stop. Thank you Mr Lewis. I am thinking of printing your article out and then handing it out at the high school on the first day of classes.

  14. Before writing another article on this topic, please learn the difference between binary and bimodal. I think it probable that the editors of Nature do understand the difference between the two, and this gives them a convenient way to dodge the issue. Gender is not binary, technically speaking, nor is sex (one example is Klinefelter syndrome https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klinefelter_syndrome). They are definitely bimodal, however, the assertion of which is enough to tick off most gender warriors and that is probably why they didn’t include the bimodal proviso. I myself can write this only because I’m a nobody who isn’t worth cancelling. The minnows swim right through the gaps in the teeth of the shark. The editors of Nature, however, are pretty big fish.

    • This is painful to have to respond to. Sex is binary. It is not ‘bimodal’. The simple way to expose this is to ask what is it a bimodal distribution of? That is, what is the x-axis? And as you will see from the only link you posted, Kleinfelter Syndrome affects males. It is a development condition of males.

  15. Thanks Andy, for another excellent piece. The only thing I’d like to add, is, if I as a layperson with absolutely no education or training in science or medicine (not even an ‘O’ level in Biology…) can immediately grasp what it is you so eloquently and accurately put, why is it that those with obviously some knowledge of this field can/do not?

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