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.
The tragedy is that Angela Saini is the author of ”Inferior : How Science Got Women Wrong”. An excellent book that would be unnecessary if she genuinely believes that sex does not exist,
People like Angela Saini are HumptyDumptyists. ‘Words mean what I want them to mean!’ They are also experts in writing convoluted tosh that at first glance, seems to embody meaning. At second glance, however, it is obvious that it is tosh. Many of the sentences in her piece left me gasping for breath. I am sure that Ms Saini could prove that one plus one does not equal two!
Our men’s group has been struggling with a difference of view between sex as a dichotomy (the biological definition) and sex as a spectrum. It’s tempting for each side to want to demolish the other and win the argument. But this is so painful, that (as someone sympathetic to quackometer views) I’ve been trying to find some nutrition in the sex-spectrum view. After all, my friends who take this position are neither stupid nor evil.
So I’ve written a longer piece (Jeeves to the rescue) with this quick summary:
Quick summary: reconciling sex spectrum and sex dichotomy
1.Sex Spectrum and Sex dichotomy can both true, as each is using different concepts of sex, male, female.
The dispute can be understood as each side saying that their concept-set should be used when we say sex, male, female
So they’re arguing which concepts to use, while reality remains unchanged.
2. Word meanings shift according to usage, despite experts’ (pedants’?) resistance eg. disinterested, refute, enormity, less.
So uncomfortably for me, the meanings of “sex, male, female” may be shifting/ may have already shifted in their application to humans, to the concepts within the spectrum view. If they have, it would become true to say “sex is a spectrum”
Maybe that shift would be kinder to trans people.
However, the concepts within Sex dichotomy (applying to willow trees, frogs and people) are still valid and necessary, even if under a different name.
Here’s my full piece (3 pages)
Any argument can be won by first defining your terms such that this guarantees success. The trick is to base your definitions in an objective reality. Sex is an evolved biological reproductive mechanism. The point of my article is that if you try to remove sex from this reality, of course you can attempt to frame sex however you like. But as soon as you constrain yourself by what actually exists in the evolved biological world, you will fail. No peer reviewed biology paper has ever characterised sex as a spectrum for this reason. Only the fantasy world of postmodernist flapdoodle has done so because it feels no compulsion to be constrained by empirical reality.
You are just making the rather common “kindness before truth” argument. But this is almost always a false kindness. Lies are not kind.
Nice article, Jack but I can’t agree with your attempt to square the circle. This isn’t a semantic debate, postmodernists and trans-activists don’t just want to re-define the words male and female, they want to deny the concept of the sexual dichotomy. You say we might have to come up with other terms to describe male and female when applied to humans but you can bet your bottom dollar they would go after those terms as well. It is the concept of fact and truth that is under threat, not just a couple of words. And it would be a nonsense in biology to talk about a “male” frog but not have that same term used when discussing humans, it takes our species out of the evolutionary tree!
Thanks for reading my article, Niall. I do see that the extremists would go after any sex-dichotomy, however named. However, I am dialoguing with friends who are not extremists. I have to face the fact that they (and their shared culture group) are using the words sex, male and female according to the various indicators listed in my article. And the biological definition (big vs small gametes) is only one of these factors. I was shocked at their dismay when I attempted to climb onto the high ground and wave the definitional flag. They genuinely don’t understand sex, male, female, man, woman etc according to that definition. When I or like-minded quack-busters say that they are wrong in their use of language, then we appear no more persuasive than the person who complains about “enormity” being misused to mean something very big. It has changed its meaning now. Face it! I don’t think that this meaning-drift is the same point that the post-modernists are making though: there’s been no change in reality. I think that my sex-spectrum friends could be reasonably happy to have “ownership” of sex, male, female etc, as applied to humans, through a meaning shift to their usage. But of course, you and Andy are right to say that we all have to live with the reality of large gametes/small gametes being a category system applying to willow trees, frogs and humans. And they could spoil all the reconciliation if they try to invalidate that.
Excellent article, nicely put, even though I had to look up ‘deracination’!It’s good to hear someone speaking up for science-based, common-sense reasoning, cutting through a load of self-indulgent postmodernist fug. The definition of postmodernism shuld be “something non- and anti-scientists do to convince themselves they are as clever as scientists without having to put the work in”. Sadly a lot of people fall for it, too.
You cannot reason a person out of a position they did not reason themselves into in the first place as the saying goes. They know what sex is, all those people prattling the mantras and thought terminating cliches know exactly what a woman and man, female and male is. They’ve put themselves in a unscientific position where they’ve redefined that to suit themselves. And worse, are putting that definition out from the ideological bunker they are hiding out in. It’s something so weird, if a woman asserts herself she is claimed to be erasing people and denying their existence, yet thousands of such articles denying the existence of women are put out every year. Still biology chugs along, only females give birth and funnily enough if a couple wants a surrogate they know only one sex will do.
Just a few years back we laughed at po-mo nonsense, now it’s pretty much institutionalised. I think a big part of that is they want a biological basis for the false and unproven notion of gender identity, where people are supposed to have some type of psychic ability or gendered soul and know what it’s like to be another person. It’s not there and never will be, the only option is to destroy the concept of sex altogether. Then insert what you will. But it’s still there, still the same definition for all mammal species. Female: large immobile gametes, bears young and lactates, Male: small immobile gametes.
The fact that PoMo is finally overreaching may be a good thing. This may wake everyone up to the utter BS going on since 1950s when leftist academics were allowed to turn the Humanities into political rookeries. I see PostModernism as a kind of cultural virus that escaped the lab (I believe it was from Foucault’s office). It is nothing less than an attempt to eradicate empiricist epistemology and turn the clock back pre-enlightenment.
But there is an uncomfortable truth in this – that many victims of the movement’s excesses were champions of it as long as it was delivering the social engineering outcomes they wanted.
“The next source for Saini is Joan Roughgarden – a Christian trans theological biologist who rejects sexual selection in evolution.
How do you manage to stay sane in the face of having to debunk this nonsense? I’m impressed as well as sincerely concerned for your well-being having your senses assaulted by this sort of anti-science rhetoric repeatedly.
It’s nuts, isn’t it?! I’m staggered anyone would call themself a biologist appended by three words (Christian, trans, theological) all of which hinge upon belief systems which are completely unscientific – since believing in a god, or believing in trans ideology, in neither case requires actual evidence [since faith is belief sans evidence]. And those [political] belief systems should have no influence on one’s work as a biologist.
“sexual selection which is a foundational aspect of sex in biology – one of the triumphs of Darwin’s genius”
Based on your writing, I am guessing that you are not a biologist. Sexual selection as proposed by Darwin and refined by Bateman was highly flawed and unsupported by the evidence.
See for example these papers, for more detail:
Critics, such as Roughgarden, instead typically rely on more sophisticated models, often based on game theory which allow for explanations of species with alternative mating strategies.
Don’t be daft. Sexual selection is still a fundamental aspect of evolutionary theory – albeit moved on from Darwin;s time in depth of understanding. Roughgarden is a believer in theistic evolution and your papers do not undermine sex selection theory. e.g. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357836161_No_Evidence_Against_the_Greater_Male_Variability_Hypothesis_A_Commentary_on_Harrison_et_al%27s_Meta-Analysis_of_Animal_Personality
Yes, absolutely. Sexual selection is taught as standard in university biology courses. It’s pretty basic, proven scientific fact. Any mention of theistic stuff (whatever religion it may be) has no place in any discussion of biology.
This is a brilliant piece. Thank you for such a clear-headed, rational, detailed debunking of Saini’s (and so many others, sadly) postmodernist, muddled, weak writing, which passes itself off as enlightened and intellectual. It’s the opposite. We women are dumbfounded that our entire sex now seems to be a matter of opinion, rather than what we thought was a physical reality we’ve known since birth.
And as a biologist, I can confirm you’ve not made any mistakes re. sexual selection (ignore the rather strange comments which seem to be ignorant of the last 200 yrs of the history of science). [I’ve just discovered your website by the way – it’s a breath of fresh air in this world of pseudoscience.]
It is certainly a scary time to be a woman – I worry for those who are young, ‘tomboyish’ and impressionable. They’re being encouraged to think they aren’t ‘real’ women bc they aren’t ‘feminine’. It’s horrendous and regressive.
I’ve just caught up with this today, and the comments section, too. Andy’s piece is clear & welcome. Vee – you’re of course right to point to the serious impact on women of the gender woo.
The comments show two common supposed rejoinders to the fact sex is binary
1. But it depends how you define sex & also it’s kinder to trans people not to have a scientific definition of sex
2. Sex is binary comes from an old fashioned, outdated idea & anyone who thinks that way (in the words of the US twitterati) ‘hasn’t opened a biology textbook since grade school’
It’s exasperating. It’s exasperating that people are (on the whole) pretending they don’t know sex is binary. They’re lying to themselves & protecting themselves by saying they’re not bigots. The illogicality of ‘women & pregnant people’ (to be ‘inclusive’) is exasperating.
But it’s more than exasperating when women who see the need to defend their sexed spaces & services are silenced, sometimes violently, often threateningly. If we privilege someone’s ‘gender identity’ over their sex, then women literally cease to have sexed spaces & services. If we pretend some women who give birth are, in fact, men or non-binary (wtf?), then we are pretending there’s no sexism maternity care. To the people who are worried about ‘being kind’, this should matter .
“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.”
And off course that has also been used to attack gay men and women.
Off course the woman you mention does no such thing to begin with, nor do you give any proof.
Prospect Magazine (or rather, its readers) just awarded Kathleen Stock a “World’s Top Thinker” award.