Science

Richard Dawkins Doesn’t Know What a Woman Is

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The other day I was on Twitch murdering people with friends and Richard Dawkins’ name came up and I cluelessly asked if he was still “alive,” by which I meant I assume he’s not dead because that would probably have made the news but surely he’s not still sticking his foot in his mouth on Twitter, right? Well friends, I regret to inform you that I learned that day Richard Dawkins is very much “alive” and doing what “sceptics” in the UK are quickly becoming world famous for: being wrong about trans people.

First up I learned that he was approvingly retweeting a Times article by Trevor Phillips, which I found quite exciting at first because I was genuinely curious what he’d been up to since GTA V. Turns out it’s someone else. Someone extremely dumb. This Trevor Phillips is very upset because putting a period after the word “great” in a text message is seen by some younger people as sarcastic, and he does not understand that and it scares him. This is somehow related to a Guardian columnist who resigned after stating that transwomen aren’t women, which is both rude and obviously wrong because hello, the word “women” is right there in “transwomen.” It’s like saying that airplane mechanics aren’t mechanics, only mechanics are mechanics.

Also, according to Phillips, it’s very upsetting that Cambridge University has “been manipulated into overturning centuries of dedication to freedom of thought and tolerance.” What did they do to destroy free thought? Well, they are “proposing a change in statutes that would require staff to display respect for the views of all colleagues.”

I…hold on. So by asking staff to respect all views, that’s….that’s less free speech? Wouldn’t that…wouldn’t respecting all views lead to more free speech? Because people holding controversial views would feel more free to express them? Since the staff would be discouraged from disrespecting those views?

I’m honestly so confused about this, because I’m pretty sure if Cambridge University announced that they would not respect, say, anti-transgender views (to pick something at random), then Phillips and Dawkins and others would be extremely upset. I say this as someone who is often extremely disrespectful of differing opinions when I feel they do substantial harm to the rest of the world: in a university setting, it’s okay to have some standards of professionalism. I’m not going to walk into some Christian theology professor’s classroom at Cambridge and shout “your magical skydaddy likes watching you jerk off!” That would be disrespectful. It’s a university, not r/atheism.

PZ Myers notes on Pharyngula that Dawkins was recently featured on a radio program discussing this very upsetting Cambridge University “respect” rule. PZ transcribes a bit of it so that we don’t have to subject ourselves:

“The radio host brings up a message from a listener, Zoe. Zoe says “as a post-op transsexual woman married to a man and being a respectful member of society, I would hope to be respected as a person rather than being merely tolerated, otherwise incorrect assumptions and bigotry will thrive,” and akss what Dawkins would say to Zoe. This is his reply.

“‘I would say if she wants to be called she, I am very happy to call her she. That’s a matter of courtesy. But if she wants me to say she’s a woman, when she has an XY karyotype, then as a biologist, then I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype. That’s a matter of definition. People can say what they want to be called, and I’m happy as a matter of courtesy, I do this myself, a person who was a man who becomes a woman, I’m happy to use pronouns like she, but I’m not happy to be dictated to and told that you must use this pronoun as a matter of law or coercion.’”

PZ rightly points out that that didn’t answer the woman’s question at all. She didn’t ask what Dawkins thought of pronouns, only if he thought that she deserved to be respected as a human being with thoughts and feelings.

But also I want to point out this seriously embarrassing bit: “I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype.” Yikes. One in 2,500 girls is born with only one X chromosome, a condition known as Turner’s syndrome. That’s about 3 million women living in the world today who do not fit Richard Dawkins’ personal definition of a woman. And fyi, Turner’s Syndrome, or XO mosaicism, is one of the rarer karyotypes.

That’s why people who actually study sex chromosomes tend to push back against this overly simplistic understanding of genetics, like evolutionary geneticist Dr. Shay-Akil McLean who points out on Twitter “In humans there are 6 common sex karyotypes: XX, XY, XXY, XXXY, & XYYY. & there are 4 rare sex karyotypes: XO, XO/XX mosaicism, XY/XXY mosacism, XXY/XXXY/XXXXY mosaicism.” It is helpful to teach little children the simplest version of our genetic story because it’s easier for them to understand: that girls have XX chromosomes and boys have XY chromosomes. But once you’re an adult, if you’ve had any schooling at all you should know better, and if you’re a biologist — even one who hasn’t actually worked in the sciences in several decades — you should know a lot better.

Luckily for Dawkins, if he’s ever invited back to Cambridge University his pseudoscientific understanding of genetics would not be shut down with rotten tomatoes as it maybe ought to be, but instead will be respectfully corrected by working scientists who actually know what they’re talking about. Sadly, I don’t expect him to see the irony.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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5 Comments

  1. Apparently, Dr. Shay-Akil McLean, for all his boldly proclaimed qualifications, is unable to count (or bad at attention-to-detail). He claims there are 6 common sex karyotypes, yet lists 5 … which is it?

    In light of the claim that Richard Dawkins doesn’t know what a woman is – perhaps you can enlighten us:
    What is your definition of a woman?

    1. He mentions it in the next tweet, you fucking dumbass: YO, which is fatal in utero. And Dr. McLean’s qualifications aren’t “proclaimed” so much as they were earned at the UIUC School of Integrative Biology’s Program for Ecology, Evolution, & Conservation. That’s just his PhD, though, and I’m not sure where he earned his degrees in biological anthropology (BA & MA) & sociology (BA & MA). But don’t worry, Trevor, I’m sure if he needs help with…(looks at profile pic)…his laptop running slowly he’ll be sure to ask you for your expertise.

  2. “proposing a change in statutes that would require staff to display respect for the views of all colleagues.”

    Anyone who understands logic or science understands that not all arguments (“views”) are equally valid. That seems a strange proposal for an institution that is in the business of promoting both.

    I wonder if they got this right or if the actual language something closer to “proposing a change in statutes that would require staff to display respect for all colleagues.”

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