Sexism, Transphobia and Arguments from Biology

A lot of you have probably seen the comment by Sam Harris quoted in the Washington Post where he claims “there’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women.” I’m more inclined to think the lack of interest from women is caused by the experience many have with this community of being less inclusive of women and minority groups. The more inclusive parts of the community is significantly more diverse than the circles Sam Harris seems to find himself in. Maybe, just maybe, it’s them, not us?

Anyhow. After a short interaction me and a number of other people had with Sam Harris on Twitter, several of his fans took it upon themselves to speak on behalf of him and scorn us for questioning his authority and play into his condescending dismissal of the issue. How dare anyone point out something Sam Harris said is sexist?

Screenshot from 2014-09-15 20:04:18

@SamHarrisOrg: Alright, fans of pointless controversy, you win. My next blog post will address my alleged sexism and misogyny. #EstrogenVibe”

@VeronicaInPink: . @SamHarrisOrg It’s promising that you start by describing our reaction as ‘pointless controversy’. #EstrogenVibe”

@pablobirdie: @VeronicaInPink @SamHarrisOrg Why is dismissing your reaction a problem?

There are two related topics I want to address after having interacted with some of Harris’ defenders. Firstly, it is the argument that how men and women are treated different by society is somehow based in biology – often argued via speculative evolutionary psychology claims. Secondly, I want to address how some of the same assumptions about sex is used to force trans* people into a Mars-Venus type binary thinking.

It’s natural to treat women like this because estrogen

The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men. –Sam Harris

When someone makes a sexist comment defended by the assumption that gender stereotypes are innate and biological, like Sam Harris has done here, there will be a lot of people coming out to claim that these “just so” claims are obvious and therefore true. Even objectively true, as opposed to “feminist nonsense”. Apparently feminists and academics who disagree are ignorant of basic biology. In fact the response is often framed in terms of a dichotomy where there either are gender differences, implying that such remarks are based in science; or there can be none, implying that feminists are all about post-modernist nonsense.

Screenshot from 2014-09-15 20:06:02

@MarcCountry: @VeronicaInPink Sounds like you probably should read The Blank Slate by @sapinker… Denying biological difference is pretty silly.

I have not read Pinker’s book, but I have read a good deal of literature on the subject – enough to know that “biological gender difference” is a huge topic, and a subject of significant academic debate. To claim Sam Harris is right simply because sexual dimorphism is a real biological process is a jump any self proclaimed critical thinker should know better than to make. Yet they do it all the time because it is a convenient way to dismiss criticism from feminists.

Most people familiar with the scientific process are aware of how bias both affects how studies are constructed and how data is interpreted. Rebecca Jordan-Young devoted an entire book titled “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences” to reviewing and comparing research on sex difference in the brain, pointing out a long list of weaknesses and inconsistencies in the field. Cordelia Fine has written a similar book titled “Delusions of Gender”, and Sarah S. Richardson recently released a book called “Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome” addressing how assumptions based in cultural gender roles interfere with the objectivity of research also in genetics. I have bought, but not read the last book yet, but I’ve read one of her articles on the subject.

Of course nobody is actually claiming that men and women are exactly the same. However most people who have studied the field a bit also know that sexual dimorphism is a process mainly driven by hormones and hormone responses, which again are subject to interference both from our own bodies and from the environment. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has studied these processes extensively, and her research reveals that how sex develops in the body is a complex process that has a spectrum of potential outcomes, a topic she discusses in her book “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality”. There is little to support the naive idea that nature produces two distinct categories of humans with distinct traits and capabilities. There is overlap on pretty much every conceivable axis of development.

Neither is there much evidence that there exist significant difference in cognitive abilities between the sexes. Some studies have found minor differences, but even they have been criticised for being weak. Cordelia Fine criticised one recent study that came out last year. She refers to its most significant finding saying that

Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.

She continues to point out how this study goes on to draw conclusions that follow social stereotypes rather than the actual data.

Yet the authors describe these differences as “pronounced” and as reflecting “behavioural complementarity” – scientific jargon-speak for “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”. Rather than drawing on their impressively rich data-set to empirically test questions about how brain connectivity characteristics relate to behaviour, the authors instead offer untested stereotype-based speculation. Even though, with such considerable overlap in male/female distributions, biological sex is a dismal guide to psychological ability.

Biological essentialism and determinism

The other problematic take many have on the biology of sex is the idea that biological classifications that are based on statistical probability are final and deterministic.

Screenshot from 2014-09-15 20:41:08

@VeronicaInPink: @n8p3 If you knew anything about sexual dimorphism you’d know that sex is pretty much hormones, but what do I know about my own body. Right?

@n8p3: @VeronicaInPink apparently nothing, because hormones don’t ever override a chromosomal reality.

This guy discovered that I am transgender and got a little defensive when I confronted him with his initial response about my sex and gender calling it transphobic. He then attempted to defend his comment by claiming there is an objective biological definition that demands everyone with an Y chromosome is male. And that’s that. “Chromosomal reality”, folks. It’s the law. I’m not saying here that hormones instead is the right way to classify sex, that is a claim with loads of problems on its own, I’m just pointing out that in terms of physical development, hormones are in control.

It is true that there is a definition in biology that classifies the Y chromosome as a typically male chromosome, and that it tend to results in a phenotypically male individual. There is however several exceptions to the XY male and the XX female. A number of genetic variations can interfere with this process, both Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), and even more interesting is the de la Chapelle syndrome which involves the key gene that determines male development being found on an X chromosome instead of the Y chromosome. These are all rare conditions, but the point is that biological classifications aren’t absolute truths, they are just classifications, and they are not always accurate.

Of course, the key point here is that biological classifications do not decide who I am as a person and how I should identify. There’s good reason to believe that also the development of the brain is influenced by hormones on at least a fundamental level, causing people like me to have an incongruence between our basic brain sex and how the rest of our body develops. This too is just another sex-characteristic on a relatively long list of such characteristics of the body. There is no law that dictates all these characteristics must align according to cultural and traditional understanding of sex, gender and gender roles. In fact all these classifications are made by us, and deeply rooted in our cultural understanding of how our bodies work.

I have to add that the last guy there was making claims about my physical sex, not the validity of my gender identity. However his claim that my chromosomes holds some cosmic truth that overrides all the other things that goes on in my body is just a version of the sexing of chromosomes that Sarah S. Richardson criticises. Medical transition tends to pull transgender people’s bodies well into the in-between regions of what is considered typically male and female. Classifying us by cherry picking physical characteristics is pointless, and if medical professionals do this it is actually irresponsible as it ignores the actual state of our body. It is not a point for me to claim that my body is (cis) female, nor is it (cis) male. It is, like the rest of me, trans*.

* * *

People make all sorts of uninformed claims about biology when it suits them. Being involved in both feminism and LGBT activism I get these arguments thrown my way all the time from people who claim to be critical thinkers. Usually they are just bad excuses for sexism or transphobia – or both as has been the case this time.

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  1. This, and a comment made on another blog I read today reminds me: It is a distinct and LARGE privilege to not have to think about things like gender, race, and sexual orientation, so having the sort of ignorant opinions many of us do is a good sign of privilege.

    Thanks for this article.

  2. It is amazing how easily ‘evolution’ can be coerced into duplicating last week’s ‘divine law.’ As a mental exercise: whenever you see an evo-psych justification, translate it into race and see how quickly you cringe.

    “Why it’s obvious that the neeegro hand is evolved for cotton-picking, while the anglo-saxon hand is evolved for julep-sipping. Why, all you have to do is gaze down from the veranda to see the truth….”

    It is a silly book, but ‘Sex at Dawn’ does a quick run through the silliness of evo-psych claims about sexuality…right before it uses the same rationalization to promote the authors’ preferred norms.

  3. I’ve recently been reading From Eve to Evolution, which looks at women’s rights activist reactions to Darwin’s works. It amazes me that I can read a bit from there, and forget that I am reading about the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  4. I could add a bunch of other examples. A bunch of sex chromosome variants other than XX and XY, for starters. Chimeras. Guevedoces. David Reimer (even if his was artificially induced). There are a lot of people whose life stories just don’t fit the simple “Y chromosome means penis means male, XX means vagina means female” narrative. But that’s not really the point. The point is, evopsych, at least as it is today, seems to readily slip into a neo-preformationism.

  5. Wow, between Bernstein’s article on Bayes’s Theorem and this one, I feel like I’ve got solid evidence I’m precognitive. Seven months ago, I did a lecture on gender and sex that talked quite a bit about sex differences. If you want a quick, one-paper refutation of large-scale sex differences, I recommend this:

    The striking result is that 30% of the effect sizes are in the close-to-zero range, and an additional 48% are in the small range. That is, 78% of gender differences are small or close to zero. This result is similar to that of Hyde and Plant (1995), who found that 60% of effect sizes for gender differences were in the small or close-to-zero range. The small magnitude of these effects is even more striking given that most of the meta-analyses addressed the classic gender differences questions—that is, areas in which gender differences were reputed to be reliable, such as mathematics performance, verbal ability, and aggressive
    behavior. For example, despite Tannen’s (1991) assertions, gender differences in most aspects of communication are small. Gilligan (1982) has argued that males and females speak in a different moral “voice,” yet meta-analyses show that gender differences in moral reasoning and moral orientation are small (Jaffee & Hyde, 2000). […]

    It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences. Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self-esteem problems among adolescents. Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data.
    Hyde, Janet Shibley. “The gender similarities hypothesis.” American psychologist 60.6 (2005): 581.

    There were only three areas Hyde was willing to concede ground on: physiological differences correlated to height (but these are refuted by trans* people), aggression differences (but if you read the data section you find this only applies to certain subsets of aggression, and I contend even the outliers are within the range that cultural factors can account for), and differences in sexuality (same story).

    If you want more in that vein, snoop around in my citation list or track down J.S. Hyde’s papers on Google Scholar. That’s on top of what Veronica recommends above (and there’s plenty more out there, as none of our citations overlap).

    1. Thanks for the reference!

      Yes, there’s a lot more out there. I just referenced some of the books that are best known for handling this topic. I have a good deal more material on my computer, but I’m always looking for more.

  6. Very interesting, thanks for writing this. This just seems exhausting – the amount of effort so many people have to put in to defending who they are and their right to be considered equal. It’s frustrating to watch some of this stuff play out and I hope that soon scientific studies that more accurately represent the truth will become common knowledge so at least that can stopped being used as an excuse for prejudice.
    I find it so confusing that so many people want to spend their time proving that others are somehow less than them. Why is that an important cause? It makes my brain hurt.

  7. It’s striking how many supposedly intelligent and well-educated people give flippant responses without apparent thought, on what is obviously a complicated and not well or completely understood field. Convenient also that all these ‘just so’ stories given as ripostes almost always tend to point towards reinforcing existing prejudices – one might almost think there’s possibly cognitive bias at work! Oh no, surely that isn’t so, considering their self-asserted critical posture. </sarcasm>

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