The Muddling of the American Mind: Part I

What does Steven Novella get wrong about sex?

In a recent blog post on the web site Science Based Medicine, Steven Novella asks the question “What does the science actually say about biological sex?” His motivations are made quite clear in the opening paragraphs where he wants to clear up “misconceptions” about sex that mean we do not know how “best to approach people who identify as transgender or non-binary”.

But rather than clear up misconceptions, Novella wades in neck deep into specious arguments about sex and only adds to the confusion. In this post I wish to show where Novella goes wrong and suggest some reasons why that might be.

There are a lot of muddles. Strap in. We will cover this in two parts. Here is Part I.

Novella sums up his argument in a paragraph,

Biological Sex Is Not Binary

The notion that sex is not strictly binary is not even scientifically controversial. Among experts it is a given, an unavoidable conclusion derived from actually understanding the biology of sex. It is more accurate to describe biological sex in humans as bimodal, but not strictly binary. Bimodal means that there are essentially two dimensions to the continuum of biological sex. In order for sex to be binary there would need to be two non-overlapping and unambiguous ends to that continuum, but there clearly isn’t. There is every conceivable type of overlap in the middle – hence bimodal, but not binary.

This is quite an extraordinary claim for the simple reason that not a single peer reviewed biology paper, written by a biologist, has ever claimed that sex is best described as “bimodal”. There may be papers that characterise sex differences in various features (the amount of dimorphism etc) as being bimodal, but not sex itself. How can Novella be so confident in saying that the “bimodality” of sex is uncontroversial among experts when not a single expert has ever said it in their primary literature? This needs explaining.

The case that sex is categorical and a dichotomy of male and female

Novella starts by accepting that sex has two “poles” – male and female. The twoness of sex exists at least at some level for him.

What does the biology actually tell us? What case can we make for a “binary”? I will spend a little time on this as it is crucial to understand.

The first fact we must acknowledge is that sex is an evolved mechanism of reproduction. Everything must be grounded in this reproductive reality. That Novella talks so little about reproduction in an article that sets out to explain “the science of biological sex” should be a big red flag. Indeed, Novella tries to brush this foundation of reproduction away as “incredibly reductionist”, although he does not say why being reductive at this point is a bad thing, and chooses instead to retreat into an equivocation of sex also meaning “the act of sexual intercourse”.

So, sex is about reproduction. But not all life reproduces sexually. Some simple organisms simply split in two, or bud off new copies of themselves, taking a new copy of their chromosomes with them. At some point in evolution, perhaps over a billion years ago, a strange thing happened where reproduction required two individuals to share genetic material to create a new organism. On the face of it, this looks half as efficient as simply budding off a new copy of yourself, and has been the subject of much research. We will not look at this here – we just need to accept that almost all complex life goes through a strange two-stage lifecycle.

The first stage is the somatic stage where an organism consists of many complex and differentiated cells containing two copies of each chromosome – diploid cells. You are in this lifecycle stage right now. Through the process of meiosis the next life stage occurs where single cells are produced that contain only one copy of each chromosome – haploid cells. Two of these haploid cells, from different parents (typically) then combine to form a new diploid cell that reproduces by ordinary division to create a new somatic stage – a new multi-celled organism.

This is the fundamental feature of sexual reproduction: this two stage process of cell replication with one stage requiring two combining haploid cells. The number two is already deeply locked in here with a discrete functional aspect. But this is not in itself enough to give rise to the concept of male and female.

Male and female, as a biological concept, arise from another rather bizarre evolutionary development. Organisms started reproducing only by the combination of two very different types of haploid cells – the two gamete types. One gamete was massive and immobile and the other gamete much smaller and mobile. This is called anisogamy. One gamete type is required of each type for reproduction. Again, why this happened has been a puzzle for biologists but appears to be an inevitable result if different organisms tried to gain reproductive advantage with different gamete sizes. So, biological systems associated with small gametes are called male, and systems associated with large gametes, female. The extreme divergence in gamete size is associated with extreme divergence in function too. There is no gradient of gamete sizes in a species – it is a discrete, categorical, and countable system: and the count is exactly two. There are no evolved intermediate gamete size producers, or no mixed-function gamete types.

The last fact we must take note of is that evolution has produced a number of systems to support male or female function. In some species, one individual can play the role of either male or female , either simultaneously (like worms and slugs) or sequentially (like the famous clownfish). These are called hermaphrodites. But almost all species do another strange thing and have evolved two types of somatic stage individuals – one type supports only sperm, the other eggs. This is called gonochoric in amimals (or dioecious in plants.) This is what we mean when we say an individual organism is male or female. A male is an organism that has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with sperm, and a female is an organism that has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with eggs.

Now, I am sure Novella would agree with much I have written here – all up to this last sentence where he appears to reject this clean dichotomy of discrete and categorical male and female organisms, where we appear to be able to objectively talk about the two classes of male and female individuals. So, we need to look at the many reasons he claims this is not possible.

What is being claimed by saying “sex is bimodal”?

Steven Novella rejects idea that sex is “binary” and claims that is it ‘not even controversial’ that sex is “bimodal”. In doing so, he is saying that we can characterise an organism’s sex, not by a discrete classification, but by some degree along a continuum of maleness or femaleness. There is in essence no such thing as 100% male or female, but all organisms are some sort of amalgam of features and function from both ideals. It is though quite difficult to understand quite what Novella means by “bimodal” as his explanation is, at best , somewhat vague.

The thing is that a bimodal distribution is not a vague notion, but a well defined type of statistical distribution that can be well characterised. That characterisation is lacking in Novella’s account, and instead gives a number of handwaving arguments in its favour (which we shall look at below). Novella does not cite any biology literature that explains how sex is bimodal but instead points to a diagram taken from the web site of a real-estate and crypto “entrepreneur”, Cade Hildreth. And indeed, Novella’s arguments appear to very much parallel the muddled discusion on Hildreth’s website. Hildreth also offers many more “scientific” insights into the health benefits of protein powders, vitamin and mineral supplements, and also claims to be the founder of the “world’s largest stem cell industry news site”. Novella’s web site also has a keen interest in these subjects like stem cell clinics, although on all matters bar the nature of sex, Novella’s and Hildreth’s views diverge somewhat.

But saying a measurement follows a bimodal distribution is a very precise claim. A bimodal distribution is a probability distribution of some measurement of a population that has two “modes” or most common values.

The claim sex is bimodal suggests we can make a measurement on an individual and use that to plot them along a distribution. The most basic question you can ask about a bimodal distribution is “what is the measurement you are taking that leads to this bimodal distribution”? We are not told this in Novella’s blog. At least, not one that defines “sex”. If you are going to claim “sex is bimodal” you need to say what measurement characterises sex. No-one ever has.

We might, for example, be an ecologist and take measurements of fruit size from a tree in a population of similar trees. Typically, we would see a “most probable value” for the weight of a fruit – the average (or mode) fruit weight. If we saw two modes, say at 80g and 40g, we would have to ask why? Statisticians tell us that a bimodal distribution is telling is that we are not looking at a single population, but two distinct populations. In these case, we might have two very closely related, but different species of that fruit tree – a “dwarf” variety and a large variety. If we were an ecologist catching field voles and weighing them, we might again see a bimodal distribution. Again, we might be seeing two different species of vole. Or that voles are significantly sexually dimorphic – males are heavier than females on average: two distinct populations. It does not mean the sex of voles is bimodal, just that the weight of voles is bimodal because there are two different sex populations. The sex of voles is still very much categorical. Weight does not define what sex you are – heavy voles are not necessarily male, just less likely to be male; weight is a consequence of having a discrete sex – males tend to be heavier. This type of conceptual muddle is at the heart of much of Novella’s thinking. We shall explore this more.

The muddling of sex and karyotype

The first “killer” argument put forward is a common one found on twitter threads and blogs. It claims that it is false to think there is a one-to-one link between sex chromosome configurations and the sexes. That is that XX ‘means’ female and XY ‘means” male. This is a straw man as no biologist thinks this.

The XX/XY chromosome pairs in humans determine sex. Inherit two X chromosomes and, notwithstanding genetic errors, you will develop as female. Obtain an X and a Y and you will develop along the male pathway.

There are nuances we need to cover, of course.

Nature has provided an abundance of sex determining mechanisms that lead to males and females. In birds, different sets of chromosomes determine male and female – the ZZ/ZW mechanism where ZW leads to egg laying female birds. Crocodiles use environmental temperature to switch between male and female development. There is no necessary link between XX/XY and males and females. But of all these mechanism, only males and females result, for the reasons discussed above.

There are also chromosome anomalies where, for example, a male might get an extra copy of the X chromosome. Their karyotype is XXY. They are still male though. Such anomalies, or aneuploidies, occur not just on the sex chromosomes. Most are fatal to the embryo. The most common one is perhaps on chromosome 21 and causes Down Syndrome. An extra copy of chromosome 21 results in significant development issues. Sex chromosome aneuploidies, like XXY (Kleinfelter) Syndrome, can also result in a range of development problems, like learning delays, language learning difficulties and motor development. But, again, each aneuploidy only results in either males or females depending on the type. With XXY Syndrome, some males may even still be fertile as males. Their sex is unambiguously male.

Such chromosomal anomalies do not result in a “spectrum of sexes” and they most definitely do not lead us to conclude sex is “bimodal”. Data from such individuals cannot be used to show any such statistical distribution of sex. People are male or female. A few also have a rare aneuploidy. This notion again is a fundamental conceptual muddle about what a sex is.

The muddling of sex and dimorphism and morphological variation

The next muddle is about the nature of sexual dimorphism. It is often claimed that because so many sex-based features show a bimodal-like distribution that this means sex itself is bimodal. As we saw with our field vole example above, it is possible to measure a bimodal distribution in some sex-linked measurement (like the weight of our voles) and still have distinct categories of sex.

Sexual dimorphism describes the degree of difference in morphology between the two sexes. Some species are highly dimorphic – with incredible differences between males and females (like angler fish). Other species show little external clues to differentiate between males and females. In birds we see the extreme plumage differences between peacocks and peahens. Yet in other species, the ornithologist has real trouble telling if they are looking at a male or female. The Griffon vulture is near indistinguishable, but there are subtle population differences in wings span, bill length etc that give small clues if you look closely enough. Nonetheless, both peafowl and vultures have distinct and categorical males and females, despite our practical ignorance in sexing the latter. The vultures appear to know – which is what matters, of course. A male vulture is just as male as a male peacock, even he chooses not to make much of a song and dance about it.

Humans are significantly, but moderately, sexually dimorphic. Amongst our ape family, we can see the huge differences between male and female gorillas and orang-utans, and near identical features of the gibbon. Humans appear to sit in the middle.

Perfect dimorphism is rare though in any given feature. There are very tall women (I have worked a lot in the Netherlands). There are males with small hands. But being a small handed male does not make you a lesser male on some sort of spectrum. A male is a male regardless of the size of your things. Morphological variation does not create a spectrum of sex and bimodal distributions of sex related traits does not make sex bimodal. The idea that you are a lesser female human for being more flat chested is as offensive as it sounds.

The dichotomy of sex is not equivalent to dimorphism in sex. These are two different concepts. Just because dimorphism may be low in humans, does not mean the sex dichotomy is weakened.

The muddling of sex and mutations and intersex

Moving on from variations in chromosome number, Novella tell us that genetic mutations can create “intersex” individuals. He starts by saying “XY individuals with extra copies of the WNT4 gene can develop atypical genitals and gonads, and a rudimentary uterus and Fallopian tubes” and points to a paper describing this, but neglects to say these individuals are mice.

But it is true that genetic mutations, gene duplications, transpositions and deletions can seriously affect sex development. Perhaps a well known example is that of the athlete Caster Semenya.

Semenya has a genetic condition known as 5α-Reductase 2 deficiency which is caused by a mutation on the gene SRD5A2. This mutation can occur in both males and females but only adversely affects males. Semenya is male and has a so-called “intersex” condition of 5α-Reductase 2 deficiency.

What happens to a male with this condition is essentially that their penis is under-developed in the womb. At birth, their genitals then have a superficially female appearance. But nonetheless, the penis, albeit very small, has the associated structures of a male organ. As the boy grows though, they undergo a pretty normal male puberty and their penis can indeed then develop in size. (The male puberty is what gives Semenya sporting advantage.) Some males with this condition may even be fertile. In apartheid township South Africa, a baby boy with this condition was unlikely to get a proper medical diagnosis and so was raised as if they were female. They may though have a ‘sex identity’ as female because they have been misinformed and probably misled in later life.

This condition is exceptionally rare and only a few hundred cases have been recorded. Novella though gives us the impression that “intersex” births are very common.

Novella cites a figure of 2% for “intersex” from a paper “How Sexually Dimorphic Are We? Review and Synthesis” by M Blackless et al, 2000.

This is a curious paper that appears to base its claims on some dubious and unscientific assumptions: that there exists a “platonic ideal” of male and female and that humans display “absolute sexual dimorphism”. These are both absurd straw-man arguments.

The lead author, Melanie Blackness, appears to have left no trace in the world, with just this one citation in the literature to her name, and no mention on the staff pages of the cited affiliated university. However, the corresponding author is much more well known: Anne Fausto Sterling.

Fausto Sterling left an early career in biology to join the “Gender Studies” crowd. She has then published various essays and books with eccentric claims like there are ‘five sexes‘. (A claim she later appear to withdrew telling us she wrote her work with her “tongue in her cheek”).

She is responsible though for introducing to the world the idea that about 2% of the population are “intersex”. Fausto-Sterling, more than anyone, is responsible for introducing the fashionable nonsense that sex is a continuum and “bimodal”. She published these ideas in book form (not peer reviewed) and they were quickly demolished as nonsense. Her (more accurate) 1.7% “intersex” figure could only be obtained by including large numbers of medical conditions where there is absolutely no ambiguity about sex – the patients are unambiguously male or female. The vast majority of that 1.7% figures comes from late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia which accounts for 1.5% of that total. Included also are the many aneuploidies like Kleinfelter Syndrome where, again, no ambiguity in sex exists. Even rare mutations like Semenya’s do not result in ambiguous sex, but just potential for not recognising the sex correctly at birth.

Fausto Sterling has politicised the term “intersex”. She transformed it from a colloquial and archaic term for various exceptionally rare development conditions into an “identity”. It has now become part of the identity youth movement where people co-opt the term as an expression of so-called “gender identity” without having any medical diagnosis. It has got to the point online where if someone describes themselves as “intersex” it is likely they will have no medical diagnosis or reason to doubt they are not straightforwardly male or female.

What do we mean by “ambiguity in sex”?

But there may be some births where genuine ambiguity, or difficulty in recognising sex, exists. So what is the nature of this ambiguity? When can we say that a person does indeed have ambiguity in their sex?

We have seen that when we say an organism has a sex, what we mean is that it has developed along one of the two evolved pathways that support one of the two gamete types. This allows us to classify in principle any individual in a gonochoric species (one sex per individual) as either male or female. We must observe which reproductive anatomy has developed: is it associated with sperm or eggs? We have also seen that there are wide classes of development conditions, mutations and chromosome issues that still result in entirely unambiguous sexes because they still show development along a single reproductive anatomy pathway.

We might have genuine ambiguity if there is a mixture of development of male and female organs and tissues in an individual. And Novella does indeed point out that such developments can occur. He says there are individuals with ovotestes that produce both eggs and sperm (but neglects to say the individuals in the paper he points to are prawns and lobsters – there is some real Jordan Peterson energy here .

But ovotestes is also a name given to some very rare medical conditions in humans where gonads may have mixed development. Let us explore that. Whilst we have now seen that saying “sex is bimodal” has no formal definition with no formal parameter to define “sex”, and is therefore nonsense, we might allow Novella to say the bimodal idea is more metaphorical in nature, and people born with ovotestes “fall in the middle”.

We must first note that such “mixed development” is exceptionally rare with ovotesticular disorder only having ever been document in 500 cases or so. We are a long way from Fausto Sterling’s vastly over inflated figure of 2% of the population.

Such mixed sex development is exceptional rare because evolution has ensured development has mechanisms to make sure this is so. A growing embryo will be wasting resources if it develops organs and tissues that cannot contribute to future reproduction. Novella’s paper on mice (above) is actually about a gene that appears to be involved in cross-sex development suppression. Put simply, our development of reproductive anatomy is absolutely not a pick ‘n’ mix of organs and tissues from male and female parts that might just result in enough of one sex parts to enable an individual to be fertile and reproduce. Instead, it is a tightly regulated cascade of genetic events along a pathway that puts all development effort into male or female development. That is why pretty much everyone ends up as unambiguously male or female even when significant development conditions occur. Male and female development are mutually antagonistic.

Very rarely, and for not well understood reasons, the brakes may come off this cross-sex development and tissue development that ought to be suppressed starts to grow. It is a bit like a cancer where the normal growth regulating mechanisms fail. And indeed ovotesticular disorder is associated with malignancies of these tissues, so are often surgically removed soon after diagnosis to prevent lethal cancers.

What is not observed is an individual who is fertile both as a male and female. If fertile at all, it will be as one sex. The cross-sex tissue is typically under-developed. No human is a true hermaphrodite (in the biological sense as being able to reproduce as both a male and female). Unfortunately, medicine also uses the term “true hermaphrodite” to describe people with these very rare disorders. Do not be fooled by this equivocation.

So despite this cross-sex development, can we still say what sex a person is? That is a complex question as we are dealing with disorders that are so rare and with so many different causes and outcomes that a blanket statement is not easy. Doctors publish individual case reports where it may be clear a person has undergone predominately one sex development and in which case we may be confident in calling someone male or female. It is a matter of debate if there exist individuals where sex development is so mixed that such a classification is inherently meaningless.

Summary of Part I

Steven Novella sets out with the explicit political intention of showing how people with trans identities fall into the middle of a “bimodal distribution of sex”. He claims this characterisation of sex is settled and non-controversial.

What we have seen is that biology understands how sex is a strict dichotomy of male and female based on anisogamy (two distinct gamete types). No peer reviewed biology paper has ever characterised sex as bimodal and shown how to create this statistical distribution from measured data of sex. At best the bimodal idea is a metaphor. At worst, it is handwaving nonsense. The idea has not come from biological science but from academics in “gender studies” with explicit political agendas.

We have seen how in order to support the bimodal idea, various specious arguments about sex are made. We see muddles about sex determination and karyotypes. We see conflations of sex and development disorders. We see muddling of the continuous and varied nature of dimorphism in species with the categorical nature of sex. We see how exceptionally rare ambiguities of sex development are used to justify the idea we cannot classify any person with any rigour or objectivity.

In Part II, we will look at how Novella ups a gear and introduces new muddles and conflations between sex and sexuality, sex and gendered expressions, how the controversy over brain dimorphism is exploited, and how incoherent ideas of “gender identity” muddy the waters. Finally, I will address why this massive muddle exists. What is going on where so many people are believing things that is just not expressed in the actual primary biology? How did Novella come to write such a tangled web of nonsense?


66 Comments on The Muddling of the American Mind: Part I

  1. I am not aware of any evidence that shows that those with any DSD are overrepresented among those who claim to be transgender. In fact, there is evidence from the clinicians at the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock that shows the contrary: the prevalence of DSDs among individuals referred to GIDS with Gender Dysphoria (GD) is just the same as the general population, with the clinic not even bothering now to karyotype anyone who passes through their doors.

    Karyotype

    Initially the approach with GD was similar to that for disorder of sex development, with a karyotype being routinely requested. An audit of UK clinics from 2013 to 2015 (Table 1) revealed no differences from cytogenetic surveys of the UK newborn population and elsewhere.10 11 Therefore, routine karyotyping of a child or adolescent with GD is not required unless any specific clinical features determine this to be necessary.[1]

    DSDs are a red herring.

    __________
    1 Butler G, De Graaf, Nastasja, Wren, Bernadette, et al. Assessment and support of children and adolescents with gender dysphoria | Archives of Disease in Childhood. bmj, Diseases in Childhood 2018;103.https://adc.bmj.com/content/103/7/631 (accessed 20 Dec 2019).

    • The deception of patients (known as the practice of “sex assignment”) has long been practiced by medicine on female infants with CAH and male infants with CAIS. When you read the clinical justifications they seem so unbelievably demented. The gender dysphoria that such patients experience seem to be clinically induced to an extent.

      The fight against this deception seem to be a focus of the intersex rights movement, which now seems to have become completely incoherent as it has been captured by the new gender religion movement.

  2. As I put in my own comment to Steve’s article, the disagreement over the meaning of sex is linguistic and ontological, not scientific.

    It seems the US is so insanely polarised at the moment that it’s hard for many to see that there are multiple groups using the same words to mean different things; activists have their arguments sharpened against a politically powerful religious right who do seem to use ‘biological sex’ to mean all the things Steve includes, leaving them confused when others use the words to disambiguate those diverse aspects in service of a position that also opposes traditionalist conceptions of sex and gender.

    • Quite agree with you that “there are multiple groups using the same words to mean different things”.

      Many people – mostly the more credible biologists – are using “male” and “female” as sexes to denote those with either of two types of functional gonads, but many are using them as genders – without ever specifying exactly what differentiates the female (gender) from the male (gender). See Wikipedia’s article on “female” for example.

      And semi-recently Merriam-Webster has endorsed “male” and “female” as, gawd help us, “gender identities”, again without ever specifying what differentiates the “female (gender identity)” from the “male (gender identity)” – and all of the myriad of other (entirely subjective) “gender identities” on tap.

      As I put it on a Graham Linehan Substack post recently relative Merriam-Webster:

      “Merriam-Webster: ‘female: having a gender identity that is the opposite of male.’
      And if you look at their definition for ‘male’ it says this:
      ‘male: having a gender identity that is the opposite of female.’
      What a bunch of idiots; ‘Circular definitions R Us’. …”

  3. “muddling”, indeed; one might reasonably wonder what Novella “gets right about sex”.

    But quite agree with your, “A bimodal distribution is a probability distribution of some measurement of a population that has two ‘modes’ or most common values.”

    Some serious and quite unscientific cluelessness on the part of Novella to argue that, in effect, because, in the classic case of a plot of a range of heights versus their frequency in the whole population, the distribution shows two peaks – men, in general and on average, are some 4 inches taller than women, on average – it therefore follows that sex itself is a spectrum.

    However, I quite disagree with your entirely unevidenced claim that “A male is an organism that has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with sperm, and a female is an organism that has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with eggs.”

    It’s great that you linked to the article on “Gamete competition, gamete limitation, and the evolution of the two sexes” in the Oxford Journal of Molecular Human Reproduction by biologists Parker (FRS) and Lehtonen, but I wonder whether you ever read much of it, the Glossary in particular that offers these definitions for the sexes:

    “Female: Biologically, the female sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the larger gametes in anisogamous systems.

    Male: Biologically, the male sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the smaller gametes in anisogamous systems.”

    I see diddly-squat there about any “evolved somatic pathways”. Clear as day that the “necessary and sufficient condition” for sex category membership, according to the biological definitions, is functional gonads of either of two types.

    And Lehtonen, in an 2017 article in the Springer “Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science” – though Springer has since put the article behind a paywall – underlines the fact that the biological definitions for the sexes are “stipulative ones”. Biologists have asserted that, by definition, “male” and “female” denote those members of all sexually-reproducing species who actually have, right now, functional gonads of either of two types:

    “Female gametes are larger than male gametes. This is not an empirical observation, but a definition: in a system with two markedly different gamete sizes, we DEFINE females to be the sex that produces the larger gametes and vice-versa for males (Parker et al. 1972) ….”

    • Perhaps you would like to give us what names a biologist would give respectively to the organisms that develop along the pathways associated with each gamete.

      • Good question, one that you might ask of some biologists who are worth their salt – not as many as there should be.

        But it seems to depend somewhat on what stage those organisms are at on that “pathway”. If they haven’t yet reached, or are no longer at the stage of actually producing sperm or ova, on a regular basis, then I expect they would say that such organisms are neither male nor female, that they are, ipso facto, sexless.

        For some corroboration of that view, you might take a gander at an excellent article at Aeon (September 2020), one which should get more coverage than it so far has, titled “Sex is Real” by Paul Griffiths – university prof, philosophy of biology, co-author of Genetics and Philosophy. I’d post the link but the comment might get trapped in your spam filter so will hold-off on that until desired or I’m cleared to do so.

        But one passage in particular, of several, speaks rather clearly and unambiguously to that point:

        “Nothing in the biological definition of sex requires that every organism be a member of one sex or the other. That might seem surprising, but it follows naturally from DEFINING each sex by the ability to do one thing: make eggs or make sperm. Some organisms can do both, while some can’t do either [ergo, sexless].”

        He doesn’t actually say “sexless” himself, but it seems a manifestly obvious conclusion: IF we define “male” and “female” on the basis of actually producing sperm or ova, if actually producing those gametes are the necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in those categories, THEN it necessarily follows that those who produce neither are, ipso facto, neither male nor female – ergo, sexless.

        Somewhat closer to home, your may wish to take a close look at a recent post by your good buddy ;-), and so-called “biologist” P.Z. Myers on Walsh’s “What is a Woman?” documentary. Of particular note are several comments by one “Fred Kadiddlehopper” – yours truly – which links to a tweet by PZ wherein he endorses that view from which it necessarily follows that, as he put it, by “the technical definition”, many “cis women are not females”.

        That is in fact one of the major stumbling blocks in the whole transgender clusterfuck – the desperate insistence by so many – many of whom should know better, details on request – that everyone – every organism of every sexually-reproducing species, for that matter – has to have a sex. That most emphatically does NOT logically follow from the biological definitions.

      • I note you did not answer the question. You do accept evolution has produced pathways that lead to male or female reproductive roles? But you think we cannot give names to organisms following that development? Like you cannot give a name to a juvenile with male reproductive anatomy who is not yet producing sperm? That is quite some eccentric view you have there.

      • Can you give an example of a “sexless organism”?

        This “philosopher” falls into several of the traps I describe above and fails to be clear in what question he is actually asking – as do you.

      • Andy,

        Don’t think you can reasonably say that I didn’t answer your question. Rather clearly Griffiths and PZ would say that they were sexless. Or, to dot the Is & cross the Ts, “sexless individuals who are potentially or who were previously male or female”.

        We can shorten that definition and give names to the former – “boys” and “girls” for example if we redefine or clarify those definitions as “prepubescent individuals likely to become males or females”. And, for the latter, menopausees or eunuchs or vasectomees – “-ee” being a perfectly reasonable suffix.

        But “eccentric” seems a stretch – particularly given the endorsement by Griffiths and PZ. “unorthodox” certainly, but there’s clearly a great deal of logical justification for the biological definitions and their logical consequences. You really might want to take a close look at that article by Griffiths. He goes off into the weeds a bit, but he draws attention to the profound and seriously problematic conflict between the biological definitions and what Marco Del Giudice, of the University of New Mexico, called the “patchwork definition of the [so-called] social sciences”:

        “On a deeper level, the ‘patchwork’ definition of sex used in the social sciences [and by Emma Hilton and Company] is purely descriptive and lacks a functional rationale. This contrasts sharply with how the sexes are defined in biology. From a biological standpoint, what distinguishes the males and females of a species is the size of their gametes: males produce [present tense indefinite] small gametes (e.g., sperm), females produce [present tense indefinite] large gametes (e.g., eggs; Kodric-Brown & Brown, 1987)”

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/346447193_Ideological_Bias_in_the_Psychology_of_Sex_and_Gender

      • Your approach is one of the most extraordinary pedantry and inability to generalise. What do you think a chicken farmer is doing when she sexes day old chicks to sort out the productive egg layers from those that are economically worthless on an egg farm? Is she not sorting them into males and females – or only potential males and females? Would you stand next to this farmer and tell her that these are not female chicks? A potential male is never going to become an actualised female. It is developing male anatomy as a very fast rate. It is a male chicken. Or maybe you think it is not a chicken, but only a potential chicken?

      • Andy: “Can you give an example of a ‘sexless organism?”

        I’ve already given several: the prepubescent, menopausees, eunuchs – transwomen who cut their nuts off, & vasectomees. And a previous version of Wikipedia’s article – before the Woke got their dirty mitts on it – on clownfish asserts the same about newly hatched clownfish:

        “If the female dies, the male gains weight and becomes the female for that group. The largest non-breeding fish then sexually matures and BECOMES the male of the group.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?

        title=Sequential_hermaphroditism&diff=926078049&oldid=917680304

        Clownfish change their sex – BECOME male or female – when they change the type of gamete they produce. They can’t “become” males if they were born males.

        Try starting from the axiom, the premise, that the necessary and sufficient condition to qualify as male or female is to have functional gonads of either of two types. That axiom, that stipulative definition is like the axioms of Euclidean geometry. We can’t PROVE that they’re “true” – we ASSERT, as something of a premise or a working hypothesis, that they’re true. If we find out later that they don’t correspond to “reality” then we change our axioms – as with non-Euclidean geometry.

        Andy: This ‘philosopher’ falls into several of the traps I describe above and fails to be clear in what question he is actually asking – as do you.”

        Don’t see what you’re getting at there at all. What “traps”? He has defined what he – what “biology” means – by male and female. Which are the same definitions endorsed by many – including Lehtonen and Parker and many others. You might try Googling “female definition” – and looking at the results. Wikipedia and Lexico and Google(OED) say:

        “Female (symbol: ♀) is the sex of an organism that produces the large non-motile ova (egg cells), the type of gamete (sex cell) that fuses with the male gamete during sexual reproduction.”

        Absolutely diddly-squat in any of them about any “developmental pathways”. They’re ALL about functional gonads. Period.

      • Andy: “extraordinary pedantry and inability to generalise …”

        You might look at the article on lumpers & splitters:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumpers_and_splitters

        When push comes to shove, we HAVE to be able to say EXACTLY what it is that are the necessary and sufficient conditions for category membership. See the article on extensional and intensional definitions:

        “An intensional definition gives meaning to a term by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions for when the term should be used. In the case of nouns, this is equivalent to specifying the properties that an object needs to have in order to be counted as a referent of the term.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extensional_and_intensional_definitions

        EXACTLY what are the properties that, according to biological definitions, organisms MUST “have to be counted as referents of the terms” “male” and “female”?

        Andy: “Would you stand next to this farmer and tell her that these are not female chicks?”

        Are you going to stand next to someone who says that the sun is rising and tell them that the sun doesn’t actually move, that it doesn’t actually circle the earth, that the earth is not the center of all creation? Apparently, according to either Sagan or Pigliucci in the latter’s “Nonsense on Stilts” – highly recommended, a rather large percentage of the population still thinks that that is the case.

        We can and do get sloppy about language all the time because in many cases it’s a reasonable approximation. But you might reflect on Francis Bacon’s quip that, “Therefore shoddy and inept application of words lays siege to the intellect in wondrous ways” (Aphorism 43):

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novum_Organum#The_Idols_(Idola)

        You might also reflect on the article on proxies: genitalia are “mere” proxies for PROBABLE sex – the possession of any type is not a guarantee of membership in the (biologically defined) sex categories:

        “Proxy (statistics), a measured variable used to infer the value of a variable of interest”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_(statistics)

        Andy: “Or maybe you think it is not a chicken, but only a potential chicken?”

        NOMINALLY a chicken, in name only, for reference purpose only.

        “nominally (adverb): in name or thought but not in fact, or not as things really are”

        https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/nominally

        As many have pointed out, calling a dog’s tail a leg doesn’t actually make it one:

        https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/abraham_lincoln_107482

      • Well this is my last response to you, You have made your point and I will leave you to your absurd literalism. The explanation I have given in my post for what a sex is and how to define it is coherent with how all use the terms male and female, including a farmer selecting female chicks, taking about a male puppy or a female embryo. The utility and coherence of this is self evident and so is its reflection of the facts of evolution, reproduction and development.

      • Andy: “absurd literalism.”

        GMAFB. You haven’t actually addressed anything at all of what I’ve said or linked to.

        Do the Lexico, OED, & Wikipedia definitions – ones endorsed if not created by Parker, Lehtonen, & Griffiths – say ANYTHING at all about “developmental pathways”? You think they’re all “absurd literalists” for not doing so?

        You may wish to tweet some or all of this conversation to some “biologists” who have subscribed to that “patchwork definition” of yours and theirs – Emma Hilton in particular given her tweet about a letter to the UK Times (hardly a peer-reviewed biological journal):

        “Individuals that have developed anatomies for producing either small or large gametes, regardless of their past, present or future functionality, are referred to as ‘males’ and ‘females’, respectively.”

        https://twitter.com/FondOfBeetles/status/1207663359589527554

        You may also wish to look at my Substack for some elaborations on the definitions – and mis-definitions – for sex, gender and gender identity:

        https://humanuseofhumanbeings.substack.com/p/welcome

        Don’t think we’re going to resolve the transgender clusterfuck without a lot more intellectual honesty from pretty much all and sundry.

    • “However, I quite disagree with your entirely unevidenced claim that ‘A male is an organism that has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with sperm, and a female is an organism that has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with eggs.'”

      I wouldn’t call this unevidenced at all. You seem to insist that “male” and “female” should refer only to those actually currently producing sperm and ova, respectively. In practice, though, we do use “male” to describe one who “has developed along the evolved somatic pathway associated with sperm,” even if he is too young to produce sperm (e.g. juvenile males or young boys) or has lost the capacity to produce sperm due to injury, disease, or medical intervention (e.g. a male who has been castrated). You may not like that use of “male” or “female”, but it’s how the language is used. If you like, you can consider it an artifact of how we’ve referred to males and females long before we even knew gametes existed.

      • And I would argue much more than a artefact of language but a recognition of reality that gonochoric species go through a lifecycle of somatic males and females that result in a process of maturation and reproductive capability.

      • J.J. Ramsey: “I wouldn’t call this unevidenced at all. You seem to insist that “male” and “female” should refer only to those actually currently producing sperm and ova, respectively.”

        First and foremost, it’s a question of definitions. And, by definition, the biological definitions STIPULATE that to have a sex is to have functional gonads of either of two types – those with neither are, ipso facto, sexless.

        https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/by%20definition

        Do a Google of “female definition”; note that the top one – from Google/OED – SAYS:

        “female (adjective): of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.”

        You see absolutely anything there about “developmental pathways”? It’s all about functional gonads, about being able to produce gametes – right now; not sometime down the road or in the distant past.

        And most other credible dictionaries have the SAME definitions at the top of all the others.

        J.J. Ramsey: “You may not like that use of ‘male’ or ‘female’, but it’s how the language is used.”

        So effen what? That some people use the language imprecisely or inaccurately is hardly justification to follow them over the cliff.

        Lots of people talk about the sun rising and setting. Is that actually accurate? Sloppy language is often a trap for the unwary and a pretext for equivocation, an opportunity for grifters and charlatans to engage in some bait-and-switch. As I mentioned, Francis Bacon noted those potential problems centuries ago:

        “Therefore shoddy and inept application of words lays siege to the intellect in wondrous ways”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novum_Organum

  4. Great Article but I think you should revise this section for clarity:

    “The vast majority of that 1.7% figures comes from late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia which accounts for 1.5% of that total. ”

    The wording makes it sound like it’s 1.5% of the 1.7% . It’s 1.5% of the total population and I believe it’s something like 88% of the 1.7%

  5. I can’t say that either Novella or you seem to have a good grasp of what “bimodal” means.

    I cringe when Novella writes, “Bimodal means that there are essentially two dimensions to the continuum of biological sex.” No, that’s not what it means. You can easily have a one-dimensional bimodal distribution. A histogram with two peaks would be a simple way to visualize such a distribution.

    This from you, though, is not quite right, either: “The claim sex is bimodal suggests we can make a measurement on an individual and use that to plot them along a distribution.” That would be true if the claim were that sex has a *one-dimensional* bimodal distribution. However, that need not be the case. A simple example of a two-dimensional multimodal distribution would be a mapping of the relative frequency of height and weight. If I put a large sheet of paper on a corkboard, labeled the horizontal axis “height” and the vertical axis “weight”, and then put pins in this paper at the points corresponding to the tuples of height and weight for a large sample of individuals, I might (if I’m lucky) see the pins cluster along three bands, corresponding to the body types “ectomorphic”, “mesomorphic”, and “endomorphic.” Those bands would be near the modes of the height-weight distribution.

    Similarly, one could generate a frequency distribution of some combination of traits and measurements related to sex. (Note that there’s no requirement that the traits or measurements be continuous.) If one picked more than two traits, it would be more difficult to visualize than pins on paper, but one could probably find some way to indicate the features of this this distribution. You’d see this distribution have two peaks, corresponding to male and female. That would be a bimodal distribution. The presence of intersex conditions wouldn’t make this distribution any less bimodal. Rather, the frequency of intersex conditions would affect how concentrated or diffuse the peaks were. In practice, of course, intersex conditions are rare, so the peaks are fairly sharp. Saying that sex is bimodally distributed simply accounts for both the obvious presence of male and female sexes and the odd biological outliers. It’s nothing fancier than that.

    • “Saying that sex is bimodally distributed simply accounts for both the obvious presence of male and female sexes and the odd biological outliers. It’s nothing fancier than that.”

      The question still is “outliers of what?” What exactly am I measuring to find these outliers? I do suggest you read my article as I address much of this above.

      I do not think my argument changes one bit if you extend “bimodal” into other dimensions. It is still a muddle about what we mean by a sex.

      • “What exactly am I measuring to find these outliers?”

        It doesn’t matter. One could try several different measurement schemas, and unless one’s approach to sex is totally unmoored from reality, one should end up with data that can be massaged into a bimodal distribution, provided that there are enough samples. As to why “[n]o peer reviewed biology paper has ever characterised sex as bimodal and shown how to create this statistical distribution from measured data of sex,” it’s because it would be boring and probably not very useful.

      • For what it’s worth, here’s the general idea of how I’d treat “sex” as a distribution:

        1) Create a working definition of “sex” as some tuple of traits. These traits could be continuous or discrete.

        2) Collect data on those traits. One should end up with a long list of tuples.

        3) Estimate the distribution from the list of tuples, either through the kind of binning used to make a histogram, or possibly kernel density estimation.

        I’d expect that multiple reasonable working definitions of “sex” would get me roughly similar results: a distribution with two peaks on a hyper-landscape of dimension N+1, where N is the length of the tuple used in the working definition (and the additional dimension is probability density or probability mass).

        I suspect that when, say, Jerry Coyne describes sex as bimodal, this is more or less what he has in mind.

      • JJ Ramsey: … “1) Create a working definition of “sex” as some tuple of traits. These traits could be continuous or discrete. ….”

        What a pile of ignorant and clueless blathering – being charitable. You don’t get to make up your own definitions – as we don’t get to drive on any side of the road we want whenever we want.

        Creating definitions isn’t a free-for-all, it’s not a game of Dungeons and Dragons where you can make up your own rules on the fly whenever you want. The biological definitions for the sexes – endorsed by Wikipedia, Lexico, Google/OED, biologists Parker (FRS) & Lehtonen, philosopher of biology Paul Griffiths, and many others including various reputable biological journals – are based on having functional gonads of either of two types, and are generally based on sound philosophical, logical, and scientific principles. There IS some rhyme and reason to the process which most Johnny-come-latelys and neophytes still wet behind the ears haven’t got an effen clue about – and are too pigheaded to even try learning anything about those reasons and principles.

        But several so-called biologists – Emma Hilton, Colin Wright, & Heather Heying – have made a stab at creating their own rather idiosyncratic and quite unscientific definitions. Which has the marginal benefit of being more or less consistent with “folk biology” – unlikely to find much favour among more rational and knowledgeable biologists and biological journals:

        “Individuals that have developed anatomies for producing either small or large gametes, regardless of their past, present or future functionality, are referred to as ‘males’ and ‘females’, respectively.”

        https://twitter.com/FondOfBeetles/status/1207663359589527554

        They don’t seem to have clue, haven’t got the foggiest idea that those definitions boil down in to what are called “polythetic categories”, a fancy name for saying spectra. Each of their “sexes” is a spectrum – 2 ends and one in the middle being sufficient – and one might reasonably argue that there’s overlap such that sex itself is a spectrum, that there’s really nothing that uniquely differentiates one sex from the other.

        “scientism” is being charitable.

        JJ Ramsey: “For what it’s worth …”

        Not much more than diddly-squat.

      • Tell me. If we are to take your literalist approach seriously, you will need to be clear about what you mean by “functional gonads”. Does the gonad need to be actively undergoing meiosis to create new haploid cells? Like a testicle actively producing sperm? Or do you have some other approach to decide what is functional and what is not?

      • Andy: “If we are to take your literalist approach seriously, you will need to be clear about what you mean by ‘functional gonads’. …”

        Good question, the $64,000 one – adjusted for inflation … 😉

        Which I’ve already more or less answered in a qualification to the definitions in the Glossary of that Parker and Lehtonen article. Although I’ll concede it’s a fine but important point that’s easily missed:

        “Female: Biologically, the female sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the larger gametes in anisogamous systems.

        Male: Biologically, the male sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the smaller gametes in anisogamous systems.”

        See Grammarly’s definition for that “present tense indefinite”:

        “We use the simple present tense when an action is happening right now, or when it happens regularly (or unceasingly, which is why it’s sometimes called present indefinite).”

        https://www.grammarly.com/blog/simple-present/

        If any member of any sexually-reproducing species is producing either type of gamete on a regular basis – daily or monthly – THAT CAN BE USED IN THE PROCESS OF REPRODUCTION then, ipso facto, they are members of the male or female categories. Why I think you made several entirely justified criticisms of Novella – see my recent comment(s) there (as OaringAbout) – particularly for his “decoupling” of the definitions for the sexes from actual reproduction. Note the definition for “sex” from Lexico:

        “sex (noun): Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”

        https://www.lexico.com/definition/sex

        “REPRODUCTIVE FUNCTIONS”: i.e., no function, no sex. Q.E.D.

        You might also take a look at the definition for “produce”:

        “produce: 1.2) Create or form (something) as part of a physical, biological, or chemical process.
        3 Show or provide (something) for consideration, inspection, or use.”

        The process in question is reproduction; the gametes have to be available for USE in that biological PROCESS. People or organisms of other species with their gonads removed can’t reasonably be said to be able to make any gametes available for use in the process of reproduction.

        The biological definitions are all about functions, about processes; NOT about structures that don’t exhibit or manifest them.

        You’ve credibly championed that process in your criticisms of Novella; don’t think you can credibly defend definitions that exclude them.

        BTW and en passant, how do I post images? That joint probability distribution one seems relevant to the discussion in general.

      • Chocolate bar machine

        If a chocolate bar machine is a mechanical device that produces chocolate bars (present tense indefinite), is it still a chocolate bar machine when switched off?

      • Andy: “…, is it still a chocolate bar machine when switched off? ….”

        🙂 Nominally so, in name only, for reference purposes only. But can it be easily be turned into an actual “candy bar machine”, one that produces, right now, chocolate bars? Can people who’ve had their gonads removed be easily turned into ones that can produce gametes for reproduction? Though that’s certainly the case for “women” on birth control pills – women one month and “not-women” the next – and for vasectomies that can be surgically reversed.

        But, more broadly, is it still a “chocolate bar machine” when it’s been pounded into rubble, melted down and cast into ingots, and forged into can openers?

        “Philosopher” – I use the term loosely – Jane Clare Jones would seem to argue that that’s the case for clocks:

        https://janeclarejones.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/7-july-infertile-women-are-women.pdf

        Wherein she peddles her own mantra of MWAW!!! (Menopausal Women Are Women!!11!!)

        But you and she and far too many others don’t seem to get – or don’t want to get – that the presence of various functions – telling time, producing gametes, producing chocolate bars, carrying people – is very often a necessary and sufficient condition for category membership. Very good essay at Psychology Today by Robert King on that point:

        “No one has the essence of maleness or femaleness, for one simple reason: Since the 17th century, what science has been showing, in every single field, is that the folk notion of an ‘essence’ is not reflected in reality. There are no essences in nature. For the last three hundred years or so, the advance of science has been in lockstep with the insight that is what really exists are processes [functions], not essences.”:

        https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hive-mind/202003/terf-wars-what-is-biological-sex

        BTW and once again, how do I post images? You have a Help file on the topic?

  6. J.J. Ramsey: “I can’t say that either Novella or you seem to have a good grasp of what ‘bimodal’ means.”

    Lot of people are confused if not totally clueless (eg, Novella) about frequency/probability distributions – but “lies, damned lies, and statistics”; some “counter-intuitive” aspects that aren’t easily grasped.

    “Biologist” Colin Wright had a couple of more or less decent tweets to the effect that the X-axis can be any number of “morphological traits” – for EACH sex, depending on how we define male and female:

    https://twitter.com/SwipeWright/status/1233299015246045184

    Adding the individual frequencies for each sex gives the bimodal shape.

    But I had created a three-dimensional “joint probability distribution” – by height and karyotype – that illustrates that as well:

    https://imgur.com/a/AVeL1rZ

    Presumably, summarizing those 6 distributions by karyotype would give 6 such “modes” or peaks, even if local ones.

    • TGGP: “… ‘bimodal’ from Jerry Coyne …”

      Coyne: “The point is that these exceptions are rare. I don’t know the figures for males and females that fit neatly into the classes I’ve given above, but I’d guess it would be about 98% of humanity …”

      Don’t think Coyne has a clue what he’s talking about there. If everyone has a sex and not everyone is either male or female then sex is a spectrum – he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. He and Novella might turn out to be fast friends …

      Though many others have been peddling the same ignorant schlock; for example see “biologist” Colin Wright’s more or less credible take:

      “1/ Many well-meaning people try to strike a nuanced compromise between the ‘sex is a spectrum’ & ‘sex is binary’ people by claiming ‘sex is bimodal.’ This simply isn’t true. A bimodal distribution requires a continuous X axis. Male & female are not continuous variables.”

      https://twitter.com/SwipeWright/status/1233299015246045184

      About the most sensible thing he said, in a later tweet, was this:

      “4/ As usual, the ‘sex is bimodal’ argument confuses traits *influenced* by one’s sex with biological sex itself. Sex-related phenotypes like facial hair, voice depth, height, strength, etc. ARE bimodal (see figure below).

      Sex itself, however, is NOT.”

      Though it is maybe less to do with “influenced” and more to do with “correlation” – correlation not being causation. Which you can really only get by comparing the two distribution curves, one for each sex as that tweet nicely illustrates.

      Though I’m not sure that Wright isn’t muddying the waters himself because of various cognitive distortions of his own. In particular, he too is rather desperate to put every one into either of two sexes – which he really can’t do because his definitions are totally incompatible with the standard biological definitions by which to have a sex is to have functional gonads of either of two types, those with neither being, ipso facto, sexless.

  7. I am a little confused about the definition of sex with gamete producers.
    My understanding is that eggs are produced in the female embryo, making them female by that definition.
    So a female embryo has a sex, and a post puberty male has a sex, but no girls or women has as sex?

    • Soren: “My understanding is that eggs are produced in the female embryo, making them female by that definition.”

      Good question. Bit of a obscure point but XXers aren’t born with fully-functional ova; what they’re born with don’t actually mature into that form until ovulation which cannot take place until after the onset of puberty. See:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oogenesis#Maturation_into_ovum

      But of particular note:

      “Oogenesis starts with the process of developing primary oocytes, which occurs via the transformation of oogonia into primary oocytes, a process called oocytogenesis. …. Both polar bodies disintegrate at the end of Meiosis II, leaving only the ootid, which then eventually undergoes maturation into a mature ovum.”

      Girls are born with 1-2 million of those “primary oocytes”, but only some 500 mature into actual ova that can actually be used in reproduction. A woman only PRODUCES (present tense indefinite) some 500 ova from puberty to menopause.

      Baby and prepubescent girls can not yet make available for reproduction mature ova so don’t qualify as females – they can not do so until the onset of puberty. And “menopausees” no longer have that ability to turn those “ootids” into mature ova that can be used in reproduction so they no longer qualify as females.

      • So, at what point is a person “female” and when do they stop being “female”. Can you define these end-points in your eccentric world view of sex, Colin?

      • Andy: “So, at what point is a person ‘female’ and when do they stop being ‘female’. Can you define these end-points in your eccentric world view of sex?”

        Think I already did – puberty and menopause for XXers. Puberty, and the removal of testicles or the disabling of the “delivery system” for XYers.

        But hardly “eccentric” when it’s endorsed by Griffiths, Parker (FRS), Lehtonen, Wikipedia, Lexico, Google/OED, etc., etc., etc.

        Andy: “Colin?”

        ?? As in Colin Wright? Neither he nor his partners in crime (Lysenkoism) recognize any such “end-points”.

        BTW, have you not seen my previous comment to yours about my “literalist approach”? Bit odd when one might argue that literalism – as opposed to the subjective and metaphorical? – is more or less the claim to fame and fortune of science itself. But I can re-submit it if it’s been lost in the bit-bucket …

  8. Sorry forgot to add. Why mention vasectomy?
    You produce sperm cells after a vasectomy, so it has no bearing on whether you are sexed by the definition above

  9. I look forward to reading the Aeon essay you’ve linked. I’m interested to see how a philosopher can define “ability” so that it only relates to a “realised ability”. So pre pubescent and post menopausal people, infertile people and vasectomised males (are we eunuchs, I suppose we are) are “sexless”, in spite of having every other aspect of the sexual architecture of their respective sexes? It seems to me to be a failure of reasoning I wouldn’t expect from a philosopher..

    • Paul: “I look forward to reading the Aeon essay you’ve linked.”

      It is an excellent essay for any number of reasons; some very good points that deserve a far wider discussion. Would be interested to hear your take on them – his closing comment in particular which seems the crux of the matter:

      “On the other hand, whatever its shortcomings as an institutional definition, the concept of biological sex remains essential to understand the diversity of life. It shouldn’t be discarded or distorted because of arguments about its use in law, sport or medicine. That would be a tragic mistake.”

      That is the worst part of the schlock that Novella and Wright and Co are peddling: discarding and distorting the biological definitions for the sexes that are foundational to the whole edifice of biology. Outright Lysenkoism: the “deliberate distortion of scientific facts or theories for purposes that are deemed politically, religiously or socially desirable.”

      Paul: “I’m interested to see how a philosopher can define ‘ability’ so that it only relates to a ‘realized ability’. …”

      It’s something of a fine point that’s easily missed, particularly as it doesn’t have a lot of “currency” these days. I’ve addressed it in a recent comment to Andy – which seems to be still awaiting moderation – but it boils down to the concept of “present tense indefinite”. Current function is an essential property of the categories “male” and “female”; the ability to produce – right now – gametes for use in reproduction is a necessary and sufficient condition to qualify as a member of the male and female sex categories. See the biological definitions I’ve quoted from the Parker and Lehtonen article, and the Grammarly definition for “present tense indefinite”:

      “Female: Biologically, the female sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the larger gametes in anisogamous systems.

      Male: Biologically, the male sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the smaller gametes in anisogamous systems.”

      Grammarly’s definition for that “present tense indefinite”:

      “We use the simple present tense when an action is happening right now, or when it happens regularly (or unceasingly, which is why it’s sometimes called present indefinite).”

      https://www.grammarly.com/blog/simple-present/

      • “We use the simple present tense when an action is happening right now, or when it happens regularly (or unceasingly, which is why it’s sometimes called present indefinite).”

        The key phrase here is regularly – which implies a period of time – not a instant point in time. The period of time could include the whole life of a human being, so a pre-pubescent male – would be a male!

      • Stephen: “The period of time could include the whole life of a human being, so a pre-pubescent male – would be a male!”

        Nope, sorry; you’re grabbing at straws.

        Look closely at the definition for “regularly” from Google/Oxford-Languages (OED):

        “regularly (adverb): 1) with a constant or definite pattern, especially with the same space between individual items: ‘regularly spaced buildings’
        2) at uniform intervals of time: ‘the reunion has taken place regularly every two years'”

        Women – XXers not on birth control pills and between puberty & menopause – produce ova on a regular basis of once a month; men – XYers between puberty and castration or vasectomies – produce sperm, that can be used in reproduction, on a regular if not continuous basis of daily, hourly, and minutely.

        Too many are trying to turn the sexes into “immutable identities” based on some “mythic essences”. By the standard biological definitions, the words only denote quite transitory biological capabilities that are “the necessary and sufficient conditions” for category membership. Look at the definition for intensional definitions:

        “An intensional definition gives meaning to a term by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions for when the term should be used. In the case of nouns, this is equivalent to specifying the properties that an object needs to have in order to be counted as a referent of the term.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extensional_and_intensional_definitions

  10. Well Halfpenny vasectomied humans can still have a sex. the definition only mentions that they should be producing gametes, not that they shoould be able to — hmm — deliver them!
    “Biologically, the male sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces the smaller gametes in anisogamous systems”

  11. It occurred to me that you wouldn’t have to resort to describing sex in terms of a tuple of quantities to get the idea of sex as a bimodal distribution. It could be done far more trivially. An example would be a five-point scale like this:

    1 – Definitely male
    2 – Likely male
    3 – Can’t tell
    4 – Likely male
    5 – Definitely female

    This is, of course, not so much a continuum of “maleness” or “femaleness” as it is a way of quantifying how well one fits into one of two mutually exclusive categories.

    If you classify members of some species along this scale, the vast bulk of them will probably be 1s or 5s, with only a few 2s, 3s, or 4s, due to various DSDs. There’s your bimodal distribution, plain as day.

    • You have not read Andy’s article properly. Like Novella you have not specified what criteria you are using. If we use the chromosomes only 1 and 5 exist. Proper understanding and genetic testing means nobody is intersex anymore.

      In fact those with those conditions prefer to be described as having a DSD or GDSD ((Genetic)Differences of Sexual Development)).

      • “If we use the chromosomes only 1 and 5 exist.”

        Two problems with this. First, not all species even use chromosomes. Indeed, it’s ironic that you say that I didn’t read Andy’s article probably when he points out that crocodiles are one such species. Second, even in species that do use chromosomes, the chromosomes sometimes fail. For example, someone with XY chromosomes could have androgen insensitivity syndrome. This will lead to external genitals that either look female or ambiguous. You could try to say that someone like that is “really” male but only appears female, but at this point this person has aspects of somatic pathways associated with both sperm and egg, and both of those pathways took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. For such a person, insisting that they are definitely male or female is misleading and does not reflect the underlying messy reality.

        And if you think that allowing for people who don’t cleanly fit in the male or female category is somehow a slippery slope to allowing the woke postmodern Marxist trans agenda to pollute our precious bodily fluids (if you’ll pardon the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole), well, there’s a reason that it’s called the slippery slope fallacy.

      • “Most DSDs are sex specific. Which conditions would this scale apply to?”

        Ones that involve ambiguous genitalia, for example. I already mentioned androgen insensitivity syndrome.

      • They are male, they have testes, a diagnosis can detect they are male. CAIS can only affect males. The scale does not make sense for them.

        Granted they only have sex differences from Y chromosome effects and no androgenization effects.

  12. I am someone who can correctly sex newborn mice. They’re a bit like the vultures. At birth both sexes have a urethral opening and an anus. No vagina is visible and the testes have not descended. But a binary population still exists and can be SEEN (not everyone can). The distance between the urethra and anus is significantly greater in males than females. This is because sperm competition is rife in mice so accordingly the penis is small and the testes are very large. Mickey Mouse should waddle around legs apart.

    The thing about ovo-testes in humans is likely due to chimerism. Individuals made of two individual’s cells. In that case one male and one female. During development the gonadal ridge is populated by both sorts which associate only with each other leading to an ovo-testis.

    The first human chimera discovered was a gender non conforming male in California who developed a patchy but mottled rash. That it was patchy was because those patches of his skin were made with female cells. It was mottled due to X-inactivation.

    Chimerism between two individuals of the same sex is hard to pick up. But cross sex chimeras are easier. Estimates of chimerism in humans vary but they are likely more common than we might think. Basically two very early embryos fuse utterly. This produces a chimera.

    Note: when we talk about mice being chimeric we usually mean they contain some proportion of Embryonic Stem Cells with a change like a gene knockout in them. A mouse with a different coat colour is used so chimeras can be spotted more easily.

  13. Thanks Andy for this. I read Steven Novella’s piece and it struck me as being not overly too well thought out. The question of what is a women/man in biological terms is pretty clear cut in the large majority of cases. What this debate really needs is for societies to work out if there is a need to use the individual sex of a person for how societies function. If there is, then we need to decide how people who are not biological women/men can transition and be so recognised. I see this as a social issue to which science can provide some facts.

    But it seems that some wish to muddy the waters by denying there is a male/female dichotomy, therefore there is no need to distinguish between the two, in fact it is impossible to do so.

    If we are not careful, the science will be thrown out with the extremely murky waters of individual rights of self expression.

    • “What this debate really needs is for societies to work out if there is a need to use the individual sex of a person for how societies function.”

      We already know we do. Look at the sex imbalance in violent criminality, the desire of females to have female only spaces to avoid that violent criminality etc.

  14. “They are male, they have testes, a diagnosis can detect they are male. CAIS can only affect males. The scale does not make sense for them.

    “Granted they only have sex differences from Y chromosome effects and no androgenization effects.”

    In other words, you believe that someone who is partly on the somatic pathway associated with eggs to the point that they have a vagina is nonetheless “definitely male.”

    Ok, Procrustes.

    • CAIS are phenotypically and genotypically female because, without any response to testosterone, the fetus develops into a female starting about 6 weeks into pregnancy. You have a large gametes body with little gametes underdeveloped testes that serve as an estrogen source.

      • Nonsense. Zygotes are sexed. CAIS are genetic males, they have Y chromosome action. The do not have two X chromosomes required for normal female development.

        Do CAIS have a uterus? Why not? Do they have ovaries? Do they have any internal female genitals? What about their height distribution?

      • James: “CAIS are phenotypically and genotypically female because …”

        But they’re still sexless because they can’t produce either sperm or ova for reproduction.

        Seems people should try thinking that not everyone has to have a sex, to use the standard biological definitions for the sexes as a touchstone, as a final arbiter:

        “Female: Biologically, the female sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the larger gametes in anisogamous systems.

        Male: Biologically, the male sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the smaller gametes in anisogamous systems.”

        https://academic.oup.com/molehr/article/20/12/1161/1062990

      • Mittimithai: “Nonsense. Zygotes are sexed.”

        Nope, sorry. By the standard biological definitions, to have a sex is to have functional gonads of either of two types. Which we generally don’t acquire until puberty. And CAIS have neither, ergo, sexless.

        See the standard definitions from the Glossary of this paper in the “Oxford Journal of Molecular Human Reproduction” by biologists Parker (FRS) and Lehtonen, definitions that are pretty much standard in many dictionaries (Lexico, Google/OED) and encyclopedias (Wikipedia):

        “Female: Biologically, the female sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the larger gametes in anisogamous systems.

        Male: Biologically, the male sex is defined as the adult phenotype that produces [present tense indefinite] the smaller gametes in anisogamous systems.”

        https://academic.oup.com/molehr/article/20/12/1161/1062990

      • No that’s not at all correct. You’ve lost your mind in the philosophy of categories. Have you read any work on serious scientific research about sex differences? Do you really think anyone there is as confused as you are or abides by the ridiculous definitions you do? Go to google scholar and look for things like “female zygote” and let me know what you find.

  15. Steersan – your idiosyncratic insistence on interpreting the definition of sex in this way is getting very tiring and. is very unhelpful.

    Biologists do not use the terms male and female in this way – in the above defintion the concept of “adult phenotype” is about the case not the instance. As described above, two types of phenotype have evolved – male and female – one associate with each gamete type. If your narrow interpretation was true, biologists could not talk about juvenile males and females, for example. Since they do, your narrow insistence on how the word is used is wrong. It is wrong linguistically and empirically. And you muddy the waters by keeping going with your pedantry. Can you please leave off this now?

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