Prospect Magazine is an “intellectuals'” magazine in the UK covering arts, society, science and politics. Their Summer issue contains an essay by journalist Angela Saini called “What is a woman?”. I wrote a twitter thread detailing how this essay is a good example of a type of argument used to trick people into thinking sex is not a well established scientific concept. This is that (slightly edited) twitter thread…
This is a pretty dire article in @Prospect_uk where journalist Angela Saini falls headfirst into the postmodernist gender vat. I think we need to look at as many errors as we can stand here…
We start off by noting the ideological title – “What is a Woman?” – because make no mistake, the target of the ideology is the elimination of the concept of being a woman in objective terms. Men. Back to your business, no need to worry.
The article takes a familiar route now. Not long ago, all one had to do to undermine the concept of “woman” as a material reality was declare the word “woman” referred to “gender” not sex. You then spun gender as ineffable in essence leaving the concept “woman” high & dry. But women fought back by declaring “woman” was a simple word that referred to “adult human female” – as the dictionary states. So, the postmodernist ideologists went for the Big Prize – destroying the concept of “female”. That is Saini’s goal.
This is an attack on the ‘faith in the biological classes “male” and “female.”’ And the method of attack is to spread “haze” over the concept and to undermine our footing. There are well established specious tricks to do this. Saini pulls them all out.
These tricks are what we might call the “Sex Deracination Gambit” – an attempt to pull up the concept of sex from its biological roots in evolution, reproduction and development. Let us see how this is done…
An early shot across the bows of science is made. Science is ‘defensively reached for’. As if arguing from a position of science is a weakness.
Science is frequently drawn into the tussle. As someone told me with some frustration recently: “isn’t it obvious who is a woman and who isn’t?” If it were quite so obvious, would “science” need to be invoked at all? The fact that it is defensively reached for perhaps betrays how uncertain the boundaries truly are.
The first tug of deracination begins in this paragraph. And it is a deliberate attempt to constrain our concept of sex in what we might say is “human specifics & appearances”. Sex is cast as species specific and arbitrarily defined. No mention of reproduction and development.
History shows that many supposed “facts” about human nature were actually always cultural constructions. Race is one. Gender is another. Now, some researchers believe that sex—generally seen as determined by anatomy, including chromosomes, hormones and genitalia—may to some extent be constructed, too. Binary categories of male and female, they say, certainly don’t fully encompass all the natural variation and complexity that we see in our species. It’s an approach that undercuts the whole debate by asking whether thinking about people as only men or women, and in significant respects as homogeneous within each category, is the problem to begin with.
This is ideologically deliberate. You will see this stunt pulled in all “genderists'” arguments. The golden rule is never to look at sex as an evolved, reproductive mechanism. Always look at human specifics and avoid context and generalisation. The other trick in this short paragraph is to state the binary categories “don’t fully encompass all the natural variation and complexity that we see in our species.” Of course sex does not. Sex just describes a fact about your reproductive development.
This is a subtle ploy to paint the opposition into gender ideology as regressives who wish to define people by their sex rather than define people’s reproductive development by their sex. This trick is vital to spot.
The next paragraph is an assertion from a historian about the “binary model [of sex] is inadequate” or something. The History Department is missing you, Sarah.
I’m told by Sarah Richardson, the Harvard historian and philosopher of science who directs the GenderSci Lab and thinks critically about scientific research on sex difference. “I see more medical and clinical researchers reaching to look beyond the binary.” She adds that simply introducing a third category, non-binary or intersex perhaps, isn’t enough. What is also needed is more interrogation of male and female categories themselves, and an appreciation of the enormous biological breadth that sits within them.
The next source for Saini is Joan Roughgarden – a Christian trans theological biologist who rejects sexual selection in evolution.
Roughgarden explicitly attacks sexual selection which is a foundational aspect of sex in biology – one of the triumphs of Darwin’s genius.
Now onto setting up some straw-man arguments about our sex determining chromosomes, XY. The common aspect of these arguments is to suggest biologists think XX/XY define female and male. They do not. They determine sex development in animals like humans. And as in all genetic mechanisms, they are subject to mutations and aneuploidies etc. This does not change the fact that only two sexes have evolved. These are not new sex classes and do not undermine our concept of what a sex is.
Saini then starts the headlong push into some serious conflation of intersex conditions, social castes and categories, and social trans identities. This is again a vital part of the Deracination Gambit – to blur these very different concepts.
We are now undergoing the smooth transition away from seeing sex as having a biological basis to switching the language to be about gender having social origins. We are being set up. Sex is too messy to bother with any more. A mere arbitrary concept.
Next up are some contradictory passages on why we cannot study differential medical issues in women & men because of “vast variation” but then we must take care of issues around “reproductive health and autoimmune diseases that disproportionately affect women”
“It’s impossible to generalise about all women, or all men.” Well that is certainly true if you deny these terms material meanings. For those of us grounded in reality, we can say definitively that men do not need to worry about conceiving children.
Saini then attacks the work of Caroline Criado Perez who fights against the “default male” in product design. Saini argues that although women tend to be smaller on average than men, women can still be tall and men in other countries can be short”. This rather misses the point. By designing for the default male, you will indeed disadvantage some short men, but you will disadvantage a hell of a lot more women. The average sex differences are real and work in aggregate against women.
We are introduced to Judith Butler now. Always a moment to send shivers down your spine. “Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled”. That may well be. The word “social” is key.
But this sociological assertion is then used to segue into the challenge that “the biological meaning of sex has not been exhaustively settled, either.” This is the payload of the Deracination Gambit – to create the idea we cannot speak definitively about what a sex is. If you can plant that idea in someone’s mind, then you can start to uproot sex as a meaningful entity in society – and fill the hole left in the ground with the magician’s bouquet of gender. Now you see it. Now you don’t.
The next essential authority in the Sex Deracination Gambit is comedy academic and foundational gender theologian Anne Fausto-Sterling. FS is quoted as saying, “the debates about whether “sex is fixed and binary or complex and changeable, appear to be about scientific truthiness. But they are really part of the for-the-moment unsettled process of world-building.” What does that even mean? I am sure we are just meant to be in awe of the profundity of it all. Let’s all do some world building.
Saini appears to fully embrace the postmodernist view that our reality is constructed and can be shaped by us. “If there is one thing that makes us human, it is our ability to build new worlds.” If a male with XY chromosomes, testes and a penis wants to be known as a woman, then society could build that world around him. And indeed that is trite and true. But there is a cost. And that is that the word “woman” has now been stripped of any objective meaning. Postmodernists of course deny that such objective meaning is possible. That is the deeply anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-rational force in postmodernism – its denial of the possibility of the liberal/rational worldview that came out of the Enlightenment.
And a world constructed without an objective word for “adult human female” – or even of “female” itself renders the objective and material reality of being a human female invisible. If there is anything in that reality that matters then we can no longer speak about it.
But let us remind ourselves what Saini has done. She says, “the lines [of male and female] themselves do not automatically and definitively exist in nature. ” And she achieves this by never discussing the actual biological basis of sex. We are never allowed to understand how the concept of a sex arises directly from an evolved reproductive strategy. Indeed, the word “reproduction” does not occur in Saini’s essay. Think about that. Saini wants us to rethink sex without ever discussing biological function.
The fundamental mechanisms of sexual reproduction based on the recombination of genetic material in two highly different gamete types is utterly ignored. The two gamete types lead directly to the two types of evolved phenotypic sex in organisms like us. Instead, we have handwaving allusions to genitals and hormones. We have the smokescreen of so-called intersex conditions or aneuploidies without acknowledging that we can only understand such things in the context of there being precisely two sexes.
The deracination of sex, so clearly expressed in Saini’s work here, is a rhetorical trick, a deceit and sleight of hand, designed to make you look the other way. Keep your eyes on the ball. Which cup is it under? It’s under the gender cup? Accept it, or you are a bigot.