On the Ontology and Epistemology of Sex

An article in the Skeptic Magazine conflates fundamental questions about sex and comes to absurd conclusions.

Wing underside view of a mating couple of Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) butterfly. Adana, Turkey.

Much confusion appears to exist in popular discussion about the nature of sex. This has political importance at the moment, most visibly in recognition of people with trans identities in law and society. Confusions abound around conflations of the terms sex and gender, but, most fundamentally, about what a sex is, and what it means for an organism, animal or human, to have a sex. What is a sexed body? How can we tell what sex an organism is? Clear responses to these questions are so often lacking. And without that, policy, law and social arrangements are likely to be incoherent and unjust.

An unfortunate example of this was published on the UK’s The Skeptic website a few weeks back. The article, written by Sarah Hearne, was ostensibly written to show how common concepts in biology do not have clear cut definitions. Entitled, Species, Individual, Gender – biology and taxonomy don’t deal in black and white, Hearne starts off looking at how difficult it is to have a universal definition of “species” – a foundational concept in the biological sciences.

And indeed, she is correct. Any chosen definition of what a species is breaks down for some groups of organisms we recognise to be a species. The diversity of reproductive strategies, interbreeding potential, and continuous variations across both time and space, make creating objective boundaries between what we call species impossible. This is not to say that the concept of species is not important, but that we must be clear how we are using the term in any given context.

Next, Hearne looks at the biological concept of an “individual”. She is far less convincing here, but notes a few difficulties, and indeed it is a legitimate aspect of discussion in biology. I might note that for complex, large, sexually reproducing animals – like cows – this is easier than some of the other branches of life – like lichens.

And so on to the bulk of the essay, and the third example where we were promised from the title – gender. But it looks a little like we are being set up here,

From these two examples I hope I’ve shown that just because a concept is one we use a lot, that doesn’t mean it is straightforward…

Having taken the time to look at these basic biological terms, I’d like to look at another: gender

First, we note that Hearne is now talking about sex, not gender. If we are to accept that sex and gender refer to different concepts, and are not just synonyms, then this distinction needs to be made clear from the outset. So, much confusion occurs due to conflation of these concepts and the equivocation inherent in the term “gender”.

And Hearne wades right into this confusion. Having told us she is academically equipped to look at gender, she then starts to look at how we define “woman” with sex based terms – female. Hearne does appear to be aware there is a difference between sex and gender as she later defines gender in sociological terms – not biological ones. But we are going to have to work hard to unpick her thinking here.

We should start by examining the explicit claim that “woman” is not objectively and coherently definable as “adult human female”. The first objection is that the term “adult” is not clear cut as it might have either biological or legal definitions. But again, this is not convincing. The biological argument is fairly clear cut in that there is agreement that an adult individual is one that has reached sexual maturity. The legal definition may vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction, but the argument that we cannot say what an adult is because of the difference between a biological and legal definition sounds like a last ditch plea in a paedophile trial.

Hearne is happy to move past the word “human” as unequivocal, and so we can quickly get to “female”. It is worth quoting Hearne in full here, and also to be fair to her as this passage is at the heart of her error and what this post is about,

Finally, female. Biologically, “female” is used to refer to organisms whose gametes are “usually immotile”. These gametes are usually referred to as ova or eggs. Unless you are a fertility doctor, it’s unlikely you will encounter too many ova, so we must be using other definitions in everyday life. Another biological definition is that, for humans, men have XY sex chromosomes and women have XX. But again, unless you have reason to analyse someone’s genetic make-up, you’re unlikely to know what combination of sex chromosomes they have (and the XX/XY dichotomy is massively oversimplifying the wide range of combinations that are found in humans).

So, if we’re not examining people’s gametes, and we’re not analysing their genetic composition, how are we telling who is male and who is female? Who is a man and who is a woman? The answer is that we are using what are termed ‘primary and secondary sexual characteristics’. For humans the ones we think of most often are the breasts, vulva and vagina in females, and the penis and testes in males. In most modern societies, these characteristics are rarely visible to other people, except in intimate circumstances. Women may accentuate their breasts using tight-fitting tops and bras, and men may emphasise their penises with tight-fitting trousers or underwear, but in most situations most people at best hint at their presence. So how are we generally fairly good at telling who is male and who is female?

This passage is typical of the current and fashionable attempt to deny that the terms male and female have any stable, objective and coherent meaning and that sex is rather just another ‘social construct’ that is rather arbitrary and unreliable. And indeed, this looks like to be the whole agenda of this article.

But Hearne is making a fundamental error here: she is conflating the ontology and epistemology of sex. That is, she is confusing two different sets of questions…

  1. What is a sex? How many sexes are there? And how do we characterise a sex? (the ontology of sex – what exists?)
  2. How do we recognise the sex of an individual? What features indicate sex? (the epistemology of sex – what can we know?)

Hearne starts off well by explaining the universally accepted biological definition of a female as the sex that produces ova. This is where she could have stopped. There is no disagreement here in the peer reviewed biology. But that would have meant her article failed, as unlike the terms “species” and “individual” in biology, the definition of what a sex is is clear cut and defined by reproductive role associated with a gamete type. The sexes are not like species where evolution has produced a myriad of variants over millions of years. The sexes of male and female appear to be a well conserved and stable reproductive strategy that has existed unchanged for between about 500 million and 1.3 billion years. Sex is a stable biological phenomenon, across vast evolutionary time, that we can easily define.

So, to give the impression that “female” is not clear-cut, Hearne switches from ontology to epistemology. We are not supposed to notice this switch. And to be fair, I doubt she realises she is doing it.

Hearne is trying to convince us that although biologists might have a definition of each sex, our knowledge of an individual’s sex may well be unknown because we cannot use the biologists definition in any practicable way in ordinary circumstance. Therefore – tada – “woman” is an unreliable concept.

What is the error here?

Let us work though an example – the photo at the top of this post depicts a pair of the Common Blue butterfly engaged in the moment of sexual fertilisation. One of these insects will be male and the other female, and this will be clear cut – unless one has a very rare congenital condition such as gynandromorphy. (More on this later). But which of them is male and which is female? They look different with different wing markings, but unless you are a lepidopterist, it is unlikely you know – and if this was a new species no-one would know. So, our knowledge of the sexes of each individual is non-existent. We do however know that one will be male and the other female. We have a 50/50 chance of being right on each. Our ontology of butterfly sexes might be sound, but our practical knowledge will be very low to tell which is which.

So how do we tell? We have to go back to the biological definition of male and female – which is all about gamete types. We will have to be patient and observe which one lays the eggs – that will be the female. As a sexually dimorphic species, we can then use a shortcut to tell which is male and female from the differential wing colourings and flight behaviour of each. Once we have this knowledge, we can then identify males and females with high reliability, not by observing eggs but by observing secondary sex characteristics. But not always though – the butterfly might be far away, it might be dark, we might confuse it with a different species, and so on. But despite our imperfect observations, we know that the butterfly has a sex of male or female. That is not in doubt.

Note that we have not switched to other “biological definitions” by looking at sex characteristics like wing patterns. The definition of sex based on gametes has done us well. What we have done is switched to other methods of gaining knowledge about a sex by observing sex characteristics. This is the difference between the ontological and epistemological view of sex.

The same is true for how we should view humans. The article tries to convince us that we perceive the sex of an individual though the “gestalt” or “jizz” someone gives off (her words). That is, a sum of impressions of a mix of sex characteristics and gendered cues, such as through clothes etc, give rise to a mere impression of being male or female. Therefore, male and female are not reliable terms.

But I hope we can see now how this is nonsense. Our imperfect knowledge of sex does not mean an individual does not have an objective, material and definite sex. As must be hammered home – the map is not the territory.

A common objection that crops up here are congenital development conditions. The existence of so-called intersex conditions is often seen as an ontological threat to our understanding of sex rather than an epistemological problem. That is, there is a claim that such congenital conditions lead to a need to redefine what a sex is and its characterisation (often expressed as “sex is a spectrum”). Instead it is a medical/biological problem of knowing what sex someone (or a butterfly) is when the usual secondary sex characteristics may be ambiguously formed. No peer reviewed biology paper has ever attempted to characterise sex as some sort of spectrum of possibilities despite absolute convictions about the matter from ideological positions.

The purpose of such arguments presented here in The Skeptic magazine is for us to be convinced that sex is arbitrary and not objectively knowable and to abandon objective attempts to define terms like male, female, man and woman. It is a textbook example of postmodernist denialism of science, reason and objectivity, using sleight of hand to undermine understanding. Such arguments are now so common and fashionable, even among those educated in medicine and biology, that recently the Endocrine Society in the US felt it needed to publish a position statement on the fact that sex is real, binary and immutable, and that recording sex accurately was vital in healthcare and research as we should not conflate sex and gender.

The rest of the argument presented in the Skeptic article then goes off on the predictable route of defending gender ideology that the only meaningful expression of sex (or gender) is through self-declaration – that you can be a man or woman only meaningfully though “identifying” as either. We are supposed to ignore the inherent incoherence and circularity here as otherwise we would would not be “kind” or, even worse, horrible bigots. We just have to accept that one can be a woman when the word “woman” has been denied any sort of objective meaning.

I do not believe for one moment we can help improve the lives of people with gender dysphoria and trans identities if we rob all the relevant words that might objectively describe those experiences of any stable and coherent meaning. And even more so, and despite Hearne’s wish to help women, we cannot help women if we cannot say what the word “woman” means. So intent is this article in denying the link between being a woman and being female, that an extraordinary statement is made,

But we should also bear in mind that women aren’t discriminated against because they have vaginas, or breasts, or even because they have babies. Having babies makes it easier to discriminate against us, but the pay gap still exists for childfree women. It goes back to gender – the “socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities” that have led women to be less valued than men in society.

Just what is it then that creates injustice and discrimination for women? To what are these “socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities” applied to if it is not being female and the sex that bears children? No suggestion is made.

It is difficult to think of a greater conceptual and ideological muddle than this that exists amongst educated people. The Skeptic magazine as the “home of critical thinking” has obviously absolved itself of the need for thought here, or indeed the need for consistency. Not a few days before, the magazine published another article which apparently appeared to know full well why women are subject to discrimination based on their sex, and that fact they have vaginas, when they wrote an article entitled “Virginity testing is as unscientific as it is sexist, but will banning these tests prove effective?”

Virginity testing can be described as barbaric, monstrous, revolting, (insert your own virtue signalling qualifier here). It denies women autonomy over their bodies, reinforces gender inequality and outright devalues their humanity. But virginity testing is a symptom of the underlying root cause, which is the violation of human rights and the oppression of women.

We can be sure that no virginity testing is applied to anyone with a penis. One of these articles is horribly wrong. Or worse, the second is horrifically “transphobic”. But in this world of the denial of sex, consistency is not required. Pointing out incoherence and inconsistency is the only crime.

14 Comments on On the Ontology and Epistemology of Sex

  1. So Hearne thinks that the discrimination that women face is due to their gender expression, not their sex. In that case, on the days that Philip Bunce (s/he of the FT Top 100 Women in Business list) identifies as Pip, s/he must take a 28% pay cut and do a disproportionately large amount of childcare and housework.

    • “Pip” earned and maintained his gender and sexual identity as a man, period. In no way is he socially identified by OTHERS as either female or as a woman. He is a man who occassionally shows up to work dressed in clothing culturally associated with women (a gendered social position). But to say that one IS a woman, socially, that person must be seen by OTHERS as being so. Bunce is NOT, nor ever has been, seen by others as a woman. The silliness of listing him as a member of the top 100 women was a slap in the face to all women, transsexual and natal female alike.

  2. There have been proponents of virginity tests for boys, in fact. They remain fringe not only because the “evidence” is lacking, but because the virginity of males doesn’t have social value.

  3. I really like that ontology vs. epistemology framing, it’s really clarifying.

    One thought – I think *technically* someone did claim in a scientific peer reviewed article that there are more than two sexes. Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote there are five or more in a paper that gets endlessly trotted out.

    • Maybe I should say “seriously claimed”.

      From wikipedia…

      “In a paper entitled “The Five Sexes,”[4] in which, according to her, “I had intended to be provocative, but I had also written with tongue firmly in cheek.”[5] Fausto-Sterling laid out a thought experiment considering an alternative model of gender containing five sexes: male, female, merm, ferm, and herm. This thought experiment was interpreted by some as a serious proposal or even a theory; advocates for intersex people stated that this theory was wrong, confusing and unhelpful to the interests of intersex people. In a later paper (“The Five Sexes, Revisited”[5]), she has acknowledged these objections.”

  4. “I do not believe for one moment we can help improve the lives of people with gender dysphoria and trans identities if we rob all the relevant words that might objective describe those experiences of any stable and coherent meaning.”

    The word ‘objective’ here should probably be ‘objectively’.

  5. One point about ambiguous genitals. That to a very large degree relates to ambiguity over what sex the infant is, not over whether or not they have a penis and/or a vagina. These arise from different primordia in different places.

    There is no smooth halfway house then. Even when it comes to enlarged clitorises or micropenises telling which is easy, the latter has the urethra running down the middle of it the former does not. Occasionally the urethra will open part way down the shaft of the penis, this does not invalidate the point as such cases are obvious.

    As for the rest of your takedown, very well played Mr Canard Noir. Just because the concept of species is occasionally porous it does not invalidate the whole idea. We still use it, those who discover new species still give them binomial scientific names.

    As for telling males from females in adult humans, while ambiguous single careful images can be made in real life or in moving images the difference is detectable. There’s a certain level of the uncanny valley which cannot be eliminated no matter how much TRA’s & those with CGP may wish it to be otherwise.

    Evolutionarily the uncanny valley exists to warn us of diseased individuals as diseases and parasites alter how people look. Therefore it is a protective instinct. It can be overcome of course with understanding but that does not mean it still does not exist in our eyes, only that we have chosen, for good reasons to disregard the signal in that case.

    A Developmental Biologist

  6. Many thanks for writing this. At a time when reason has been abandoned for ideology and well-meaning people support madness out of naïveté, it is so nice to see a calm, well-argued piece on the topic.
    As another commenter put it, this is indeed the hill to die on. Allowing special interest groups to have their way with the fundamental building blocks of knowledge – language – is akin to pulling out the bottom blocks of a Jenga tower. Once the post modernists remove the scaffolding of definitions, the whole tower will come tumbling down.

  7. good article. though i’d say physical sex belongs to the realm of materialism so “ontology” is a stretch. “x vs y chromosomes” isn’t exactly on the same level as quantum physics and “becoming a ‘woman'” is hardly the idea of “becoming”.

    not trying to be a pedantic dink or anything. it’s just that “gender theory” and “dysphoria” have always seemed like very earthly, material issues. a true “ontology” would by definiton transcend “sex”.

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