Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sex, Witches and Phlogiston

Categories are great. Categorization practices make the complexity of the world manageable. Like everything else in science, categorizations are not perfect, and revisions are needed. We used to categorize Pluto as a planet, but not anymore (it’s smaller than we thought). Sometimes we have good reasons to abandon a category. It happened to phlogiston and witches. I argue that current sex categories, female/male (F/M), should face the same fate of witches and phlogiston: we should abandon them.

There are two different lines of argument for my claim. First, F/M do not do the work they are supposed to do. F/M are not descriptively accurate. More and more research indicates that sex dimorphism is a myth. There are at least six markers related to sex (chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia, and internal genitalia) and they are not binary but can take, for each individual, different values along a spectrum (see e.g. here and here .)

Someone might count as male along one dimension and female in others. Individual variability in human bodies is not exceptional, but a norm. For this reason, F/M fails. To use a favorite in the philosophical jargon: it doesn’t “carve nature at its joints”. The Olympic committee ignores this evidence and insists on searching for the sex test that reveals who is a female and who is not. In the meantime, they ruin the careers of athletes (see here:  and here: ). They do not get the hint that sex is not about two kinds of people. Fortunately, more people are starting to accept this, and to realize the impact this should have on how we run our societies (here is a piece by California judge Noël Wise on how science does not support the legal requirement to determine whether someone is female or male).

But wait, isn’t it true that F/M categories help us successfully predict reality most of the time? That is, isn’t it true that if someone has XX chromosomes, you’ll be right most of the time if you predict that this person also has breasts, no facial hair, vagina, and uses the female public restrooms? Yes, there are regularities in relation to sex. However, this does not save F/M. Here is why. The reason why F/M categories are so often predictively successful is not the right reason, at least not all the time. We trust our categories because they get things right for the right reasons. We would not hold dear a category that helps us make good predictions by chance, or because we manipulate reality to fit the category. Usually, when we make a prediction about an entity appealing to its category membership (e.g. “this mushroom is edible, it’s a chanterelle”), we assume that what makes our prediction correct or incorrect has to do with properties of the entity; not chance, not our own skills tailoring reality to fit the category (Pluto cannot change its mass to fit the category of planet). We trust our categories because they parse the world in some interesting and systematic way and do so independent of anyone’s wishes (Pluto’s included). 

F/M, however, work differently. When they help make successful predictions, quite often they do so because reality adjusts to them. That is, we shape the world and ourselves to fit them. We wax, dress, and work out in particular ways to mask any deviations from the ideal dimorphism; we also get hormonal treatments and are even forced to undergo surgical interventions (as in the case of many intersex children.). A big part of the statistical regularities we observe are the result of our orchestrated determination to keep the F/M system working. If we care about why these regularities hold, as opposed to merely whether or not they hold, we see that the F/M picture is a poor caricature of the complexity of human bodies that works mostly because we are too in love with it.

The second line of argument appeals to moral and political reasons: F/M should be abandoned because the distinction does more harm than good. It imposes a norm on our complex bodies that for many is not possible to follow, and this inflicts harm (psychological and social punishments, unwarranted medical diagnoses and unnecessary interventions). For those who seem to fit the norm, it requires a cognitive, economic and social effort they could be spending on something more interesting and beneficial. Moreover, F/M is at the basis of one of the deepest divisions in our societies: women vs men. This division has historically worked to the benefit of the latter, although it is in general detrimental to every individual. Gender norms, based on sex dimorphism, are a burden we carry on every single day of our lives.

Using political and moral considerations to argue against the appropriateness of a scientific theory or category is dangerous: you might be accused of being anti-scientific. Let’s call this the naïve science lover (NSL) response. NSL urges us not to let our concerns for equality and social justice trump science. “Just look at the facts”, the NSL says, “there are females and males, clearly distinguished, everywhere”. But as I mentioned above, scientific research indicates that sexed bodies are much more complex than that. Evidence accumulates that questions long-accepted truths about differences between females and males. In this case the facts align with the political concerns. 

Amongst other flaws, NSL assumes that ordinary observed statistical regularities directly and straightforwardly tell you how reality is. This is not how science works. We need to ask why those regularities happen, and whether the underlying mechanism is independent of the very categorization practice. Some categories, F/M amongst them, influence the things they categorize. Ian Hacking calls these “looping effects.” We ourselves create much of the statistical regularities observed about sex. Taking statistical regularities as an accurate representation of the world is pretty much behaving like an internet search engine. And we don’t even call that intelligence.

In sum, either as a response to current scientific research on the complexity of sexed bodies, or to political considerations, or both, we need to rethink what current sex categories, female & male, do for us. I personally invite them to join witches and phlogiston.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Saray, thanks very much for this interesting post.

    I would like to suggest an argument nominally against your view that the distinction between male and female doesn’t carve nature at its joints. I agree completely that our ordinary notion of male and female does not do this and perhaps this is the only one you mean to dismiss. It’s hard to say exactly what the ordinary notion is, but it is safe to say that it tracks the basic phenomenon of sexual dimorphism, viz., a motley collection of phenotypic traits that do not constitute anything like necessary or sufficient conditions.

    However, as you know, science appropriates terms from the manifest image and assigns them technical meanings. And, over time, these terms often come to be known as the correct meanings. The manifest image of a fruit is something edible that is sweet and grows on trees. But the scientific image of a fruit is a seed-bearing something that grows from the ovaries of a flowering plant. Which is why we now smugly say that tomatoes and walnuts are ‘actually’ fruits, not vegetables or nuts.

    That’s what’s happened with sex, too. Scientists routinely speak of the difference between being genetically male and genetically female as the difference between having an X or a Y chromosome (XX or XY). This is a very real feature of human beings and it is strongly correlated with phenotypic sexual dimorphism. The explanation for this correlation as well as its many fascinating exceptions is incredibly complex, but the XX/XY distinction is foundational. This is the real binary notion of sex underlying our confused everyday notion.

    I doubt I’ve said much you would disagree with, but if not it seems like you may be arguing something more like this: the binary conception of sex found at the level of mammalian genetics does not provide any ontological justification for a binary conception of sex at the non-technical phenotypic level. In fact, once we understand the incredibly complex ways by which genes do and do not express themselves, we come to understand that the M/F distinction at the phenotypic level is woefully inadequate for grasping human sexual diversity. Which strikes me as correct.

    But maybe I am interpreting you too conservatively, and really what you are saying is that scientists should also jettison the terms “genetically male” and “genetically female” because they only reinforce the crude phenotypic distinction. After all, we don’t really need them at the scientific level at all now that we have XX and XY.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Randy. This is saray.
    Yes, I pretty much agree with you that we need to distinguish, even if ideally, between technical and ordinary notions or uses. The ordinary use of Female and Male is the real mess. I've also heard that in labs the most common way to distinguish sex is by the size of the gametes, perhaps a better proxy.
    But that still doesn't make a friend of the terms "genetically female/male"; with other species, the scientific chromosomes-only use might cut it, but with humans, it doesn't get us too far, for what we care about when we talk about sex is much more than what genes you have (e.g. we care about appearance, sometimes about reproductive capacity, others about certain assumes dispositions). So here is in more detail what I think: 1) current sex categories in their ordinary use are messy, inaccurate and wrong also in a political sense; and 2) we need ways to refer to sex-relevant properties (e.g. in order to decide who needs a prostate or a uterus screening), and the refined "genetically female/male" might not serve us well given what we expect from a notion of sex.
    What you are saying is compatible with my broader proposal (which i didn't have space to introduce): instead of using F/M, we should describe sex-relevant properties. One critical property is chromosomes . So instead of talking about "genetically female" and "genetically male", i'd say "has XX" and "has XY". And the same with all other properties that might be made relevant in different contexts (e.g. has a uterus, has this or that level of this or that hormone....)

    1. Saray, thanks for that. You say "what we care about when we talk about sex is much more than what genes you have." I agree. But(as Matt points out below)it is common for the extension of a term in ordinary language to become restricted (or expanded) once scientific usage sets the standard of correctness. It seems to me that your overall concerns may be equally well addressed by a process like this. Maybe you think that this process is unlikely to occur. But could it be still more likely than the one you are suggesting?

  3. Interesting post, Saray. I like a lot of what you are saying. There's a familiar issue from eliminativist programmes in philosophy of mind that needs to be addressed here, I think. That is, eliminativist approaches to a term, a distinction, or even a whole theory can be radical or conservative. Sometimes, as science and culture make their convoluted transitions over the decades, it becomes clear that the best way forward is just to scrap the old concept altogether. Demon theories of disease, and humour based medicine went this route. There just wasn't anything metaphysically or scientifically salvageable about those old views as new informations and discoveries came to light. But other terms, like "atom," were preserved. "Splitting an atom," is an apriori impossibility from the Greek perspective, but we kept the term as it proved to still serve some use in modern atomic theory. We're on the cusp of having to do something similar with terms like "consciousness," I think. So here's my question: granting that the old school binary divide between sex categories into simply male and female is something of a mess, is the most practical and helpful way forward to scrap the terms altogether? Or could it be that "male" and "female" still correlate well enough with some biological or sexual populations, and what's needed are some other terms to separate out several of the other populations you're referring thinking about? Are "male" and "female" more like what demon talk is to modern viral theory of disease, or could those terms shift to map onto our better grasp of biology the way "atom" shifted?

    It's also noteworthy that the other shifts we're talking about were driven by science and scientific discovery and then they ultimately pushed out into the social, cultural, and political sphere. But that process can be slow and tumultuous. Your Pluto example makes the point; while astronomers agree and are moving forward with a new taxonomy that redefines Pluto, the public is still howling in protest. Needless to say, if they are all that worked up about a planet/planetoid, it's going to be difficult to get them to accept a new scheme about sex categories. At the least, it's going to take a widespread, concerted effort from biology to drive a new scheme.

  4. this is saray; hi Matt, thank you for your comments. The eliminativist program is certainly relevant, and as you say, is has been a difficult part of scientific progress. But the eliminativist program has a metaphysical flavor that is not necessary for my take on F/M categories. Even though I used the examples of "witch" and "phlogiston" (a classical example of eliminativism; I used them as a catchy way to illustrate the idea of abandoning categories), the way I see female/male categories is not in eliminativist terms (if eliminativism means revealing that there is nothing "metaphysically or scientifically salvageable", as you say). I rather propose abolishing those terms; a different question is how much stuff, and of what sort, those terms have been used to refer to. My argument is not that there is nothing in reality that is even remotely related to what we call females or males (that'd be the sad case of phlogiston or witch) but that these terms are not helping us get to that reality. There are several physiological properties of sexed bodies that can be used to categorize people in groups (some of these properties are not stable and change over time and even during the same day, like testosterone level). F/M do not accurately track those properties.
    So as you and Randy seem to suggest, maybe a shift in the use of F/M categories will eventually come, by the hand of biology, and we just need to wait (and then howl and complaint, as with the Pluto case). This might be the case (clinical practice and sport committees could be the first places where this shift would hit). As you say, Matt, this case would cause even more howling than regular conceptual changes in scientific progress. I'm a bit skeptical that biology alone, however, would suffice for a change. Because we are talking about categories we use to define people (as opposed to "planet" or "atom"), and because this is the most basic categorization of people we have (one that sustains most of our social organization), I think biology is going to need some help in order to perform the shift.

  5. Saray, here is another, rather different question. Do you think there is an obvious solution to the sports eligibility issue you mention? It strikes me as a very difficult one. (I have not read the articles you linked to.)

  6. i'm not sure about that one. Testosterone seems to many as the best criterion to determine categories of competition. But I've read on how unreliable testosterone is as a basis for determining what counts as an advantage, and therefore as the basis for deciding who can compete in this or that category. I think we'll find here the same questions we find when we try to have "fair" categories in sport competitions with disabled athletes. I remember some of the criticisms addressed at the athlete O. Pistorious for having "superhuman" artificial limbs that gave him, so some argued, an advantage over merely human legs.
    It's going to be difficult to determine what gives you an advantage, and even more with regards to sex, because of the social and political weight of the conversation. And even when you determine that, we need to decide what advantages count as fair game: is a naturally occurring level of testosterone acceptable, as opposed to an externally/artificially generated? if the former, should all natural advantages count as fair? (after all, winning in sport has to do with exploiting some natural advantage) If so, then people categorized as female, like Maria Patiño or Dutee Chand, with naturally occurring testosterone should not be "accused" of having an unfair advantage. So yes, I agree this is a difficult question!!

  7. Oh, come on. First you take away Pluto, and now you take away Mars and Venus?

    Just kidding.

    My real question concerns the paragraph where you defend your second point, which is: "F/M should be abandoned because the distinction does more harm than good."

    It strikes me that the remainder of that paragraph, even if accepted one sentence at a time, still leaves us far short of the second point.

    Assume F/M is a fiction, a lie. Still, it might be a useful fiction, a noble lie. Indeed, isn't that the best explanation for why people would continue to believe in it, so strongly, for such a long time?

    Other supposedly "useful fictions" like right and wrong, God, and an afterlife are sometimes explained away for their socially beneficial consequences. (I'm not claiming the explanation works in those cases; I'm just trying to be the philosophical ventriloquist to give voice to those who do.) Might F/M also be like this? Sure, it causes its fair share of misery, but isn't' it outweighed by its overwhelming share of happiness, or even joy?

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  9. Hi Saray. Interesting post!

    I am inclined to make a distinction between M/F as a biological category, and M/F as a social category, or social norm. The traditional expectation is that everyone will adopt the social norm based on their biology. So for example, if your chromosomes are xx, we expect you to wear a dress and to be attracted to xy folks, and only to xy folks. In the really bad old days, we also insisted that your chromosomes determine your career. (Now, at least, we give lip service to the idea that they should not.) These expectations are invidious.

    I'm not persuaded that making a social distinction between M/F is a bad thing in principle, though I am open to the possibility. (Russell seems to give voice to the “vive la difference” sentiment, and I am sympathetic.) But it seems clear to me that the way we do this- and particularly, basing the social distinction on biological differences- is wrong.

    Now, you say:
    "F/M, however, work differently. When they help make successful predictions, quite often they do so because reality adjusts to them. That is, we shape the world and ourselves to fit them."

    I think your claim here can be interpreted in two ways:

    (1) As a claim about biological M/F: On a physical level, our bodies conform to our sex as defined by our chromosomes, e.g. in the development of secondary sexual characteristics. Prediction here is only statistical; there are anomalies, as you note. But on this level, the predictive value of one’s chromosomes is pretty good, and it is hard to see any sense in which reality is adjusting to fit the predictions. It’s true that sometimes, various sexual characteristics don’t develop along the path we normally expect from our chromosomes, and then we might make some physical adjustments- e.g. men supplement testosterone. But there is no predictive failure here if one recognizes that the physical predictions are statistical.

    I find it interesting that usually, when we make radical adjustments to our bodies, it is to take them *out* of conformity with what our chromosomes would predict. Transsexual women try as much as possible to make their xy bodies conform to femininity as a *biological* category, and vice versa. It is interesting, too, that they also usually adopt the social affectations associated with their modified bodies. I suspect that transsexuals are often motivated, at least in part, by the fact that they think they would be happier presenting themselves in the social role opposite to that normally determined by their chromosomes.

    (2) As a claim about social M/F: Here I think you are spot on. The adjustment we make is to bring our social presentations into accord with the gender norms that have traditionally been linked to M/F as a biological distinction- with unfortunate results. Here there is, at least potentially, a problem with prediction, since biological M/F, to the extent that it predicts *social* affectations, does so only accidentally. That is, having xx chromosomes is currently a fairly good (though imperfect) predictor that someone (at least in our culture) will wear dresses from time to time, whereas people who are xy do so much less often. But this is more or less accidental from the point of view of biology. (I say ‘more or less’ to leave open the possibility that some of these affectations might actually have a connection to biology.)

    In any case I think interpretation (2) above has a closer affinity with what you are saying than (1), though I doubt you will be satisfied with it. But in that case, what is the importance of trying to undermine M/F as a biological category, as long we hold our biological M/F predictions to biology, and understand that these are statistical rather than deterministic? It seems to me that what is called for here is to change the way we understand the *social* M/F distinction.

  10. Hi, Saray and everyone:

    In my view, discussing sex and/or gender is particularly difficult even in the the context of philosophy blogs - especially when one disagrees with the predominant view or views -, so I've been reluctant to reply, but I'll give it a shot.

    I think that sex is real, and the terms will not go away because they have widespread use in biology.
    In an informal setting, there are plenty of documentaries that describe different species - from lions to horses to many different species of fish, whales, etc. -, and they will describe males and females. Males and females do look and behave in different ways in every species of mammal, and actually nearly every species of animals (save for those in which every individual is hermaphrodite, or something like that, but that's very uncommon).

    In a more formal setting, there are papers on which those documentaries (the good ones, at least) are based. Barring intelligent design or things like that, it's only to be expected that there will be sexual dimorphism in humans. That includes both looks and minds.
    Sometimes, the differences in looks between males and females can be seen with the naked eye and from a distance; sometimes, one needs a closer inspection. That depends on the species. Also, the degree to which their behavior (and minds) differ depends on the species. But there are plenty of differences, and there are all over the animal kingdom.
    Moreover, sexual selection is a common form of selection: there are plenty of examples of that as well, e.g.

    Sexual selection would not be possible without distinct male and female behavior.

    While there is some research that debunks some specific claims of differences, the evidence from evolution is far too strong in my assessment to be neutralized or even significantly affected by those studies.
    In short, some studies may be pretty good at debunking false claims that some (many) people made about what the differences between human males and females were, but not about there being differences. On that note, and while I'm no fan of Jerry Coyne, he does get some matters (including the one about differences between sexes) right in my assessment (I don't endorse his view on gender, though), and provides some good evidence. I personally wouldn't be inclined to use the same language he uses, and would rather focus on the facts about the substantive matter rather than on the motivation of people who disagree with my views, but the points he makes about the substantive matters are mostly good ones. Here's a couple of links:


  11. With regard to some of the questions at hand:

    1. Does the female/male distinction carve nature at its joints?
    I'm not sure nature has (metaphorical) joints in the first place.
    But that aside, continuous rather than sharp changes seem to be pretty much everywhere in nature, unless (perhaps) one goes down to molecules, atoms or below.
    For example, does "species" carve nature at its joints?
    Neanderthals and ancient humans may have hybridized repeatedly, until there were only humans with some Neanderthal DNA in them. But that does not imply there were no Neanderthals as a distinct species. Okay, maybe they were a subspecies. Even then, that would not deny that there were real differences between Neanderthals and humans from Africa.
    Moreover, we can pick other examples, like polar bears and brown bears, or wolves and coyotes: they might in the future hybridize until one absorbes the other, but that does not give us good grounds I think to reject a distinction between wolves and coyotes, or between polar bears and brown bears, etc.

    At any rate, I would favor further research. But I don't think that the categories of male and female are likely to be abandoned, because they're real and too useful in science to be discarded.

    2. Do the male and female categories harm people?
    I think a question is whether the categories harm people, or what some people do with them does.
    For example, even if there is such thing as female and male humans (which I think is the case), and even such thing a female human mind and a male human mind (also), it does not follow that there is a moral obligation to be normal in that respect. Incidentally, some (perhaps most) of us are abnormal humans in some way or another. Maybe that's due to the fact that the environment in which we live changes over time much faster than our genes do, or maybe because of some other reason. But that does not need to entail a moral fault.

    That said, even if there is no claim about a moral obligation, some people will be upset and suffer if they are told that they are not normal with regard to sex, so there is still the matter as to whether we should refrain from using the categories and from saying there are human males and females, etc. - even if there are human males and females -, in order not to upset them. I do not think this is so in general (it may be prudent sometimes or often to shut up to avoid being treated badly - e.g., the Myers case in one of the links I provided in my previous post -, but that's another matter). I would like to see further research to figure out what things are different and which ones are not between human males and females. That's important for general knowledge of human psychology, and also to prevent suffering in the future. Moreover, I think denying real differences is harmful to people as well - including researchers who get accused in different ways.