The arrogance of TERFs

The Royal Society of Biology is celebrating Biology Week 2020, and some random TERFy twit saw it as an opportunity to declare that sex is determined at conception, observed at or before birth and is immutable, none of which is universally true. I’m particularly annoyed at the claim that sex is determined at conception. To a real biologist, “determination” is a specific term with a specific definition — “The normal process by which a less specialized cell develops or matures to become more distinct in form and function” — and sex is most definitely not determined at conception, but emerges progressively over time, requiring many genes and many cellular interactions to reach its final state. In humans, the process isn’t even complete at adolescence!

So take note of how the Royal Society of Biology responds to that TERFy intrusion.

“Please take your transphobia out of our hashtag please. BYE”. Hah.

You know, you can disagree with the consensus of biologists. You can disagree with the major scientific societies. You can disagree with the big name biology journals. But when you do that, you can no longer assert that biology, as a generic institution, supports your claims. To be honest, you have to admit to dissenting from biology, and then you’re likely to make gross errors of fact, as @TriciaFasman did with her claim that sex is determined at conception.

Yet they persist, and there’s Ms Fasman lecturing the Royal Society of Biology on biology to defend a fantasy author’s misconceptions about biology. Sweet. I’m used to TERFs hectoring me about their bogus understanding of biology, but wow, here’s one self-righteously wagging a finger at a whole scientific society. The arrogance is impressive.

But hey, if you really think fantasy authors have more authority in biology than, you know, biologists, you can always find that Neil Gaiman and Stephen King are saying the words “trans rights”, and they’re both far better writers than Rowling.

(Seriously, TERFs, if you try to comment here that you’ve got the backing of biology supporting your claims, I’m going to laugh at you and swing the banhammer, just as I do with racists and creationists who pretend that biology supports their fuckwittery. It doesn’t.)


  1. chrislawson says

    Apparently the conceptus has a tiny subcellular penis or vagina from the moment of fertilisation.

  2. says

    I have a hard time understanding the psychology behind this. If somebody was assigned male sex at birth, but they tell you they feel they are actually female, then that’s how they feel. That’s simple enough even without the complexities of the development of biological sex and the various ways forms of in-betweenness and mixedupedness that do objectively exist. That the psychology of gender identity could in some cases not correspond to the reproductive organs is not somehow logically excluded by biology. What is the source of this hangup? I suppose people are insecure in their own identity so they reflexively try to push away any possibility of doubt.

  3. says

    Her Twitter bio reads:

    Christian, wife, mother, daughter, sister. PhD in Biochemistry, Developmental Biologist, Teacher. Love God, my family & Science.

    So she has a PhD in biochemistry, yet calls herself a “developmental biologist”?

  4. skeptuckian says

    I liked how she use the word “immutable.” It reminded about the opposition to Darwin , Huxley, et al., and their arguments that species are mutable. She has placed herself in the same corner that religious dogmatists put themselves in the 19th Century natural selection debate. Some things don’t change, I mean, are immutable!

  5. anat says

    SQB @4:

    So she has a PhD in biochemistry, yet calls herself a “developmental biologist”?

    Well, this sort of thing does happen. Some people do research in a topic that falls in the realm of developmental biology while in an academic institution or department that grants PhD degrees in Biochemistry. Other people do their graduate work in biochemistry, later become heads of their own labs, and over the years their research interest shifts over to developmental biology and they publish mainly in that field. Without seeing her publication record one cannot evaluate her claim to be a developmental biologist, but from her tweet one can already conclude she is misusing basic terminology of the field.

  6. Vreejack says

    King is a hack; I have more respect for Rowling as a writer. But she is disappointing in other ways. Actually, she can be quite loopy if you just let her talk.

  7. says

    Yeah, my grad advisor got his PhD in immunology, switched to neuroscience in his first position, and later evolved to development and genetics. The point of a PhD is to demonstrate an ability to think and learn, so sure, someone can shift emphases (this is also why it’s so silly for creationists to think getting multiple degrees is somehow an advantage).

  8. PaulBC says

    Is there any evidence for the “F” part of “TERF” in this case? Based on the way this is written, I would guess she’s a rightwing “traditional values” type who also believes that long hours spent in the kitchen are “determined at conception.” (Not enough info to be sure.)

    I’m particularly annoyed at the claim that sex is determined at conception.

    I agree with this. In fact, I know someone with though it’s extremely rare. There’s nothing “new”, “woke”, or “postmodern” about it. There are women with XY chromosomes who are fully and uncontroversially female, though infertile, and would have been considered that way historically before karyotyping. I suppose it could have been “determined” by specific mutations, but in most cases, the actual cause is unknown and you can’t rule out conditions during embryo development. (At least I don’t see how.)

    And of course, any competent biologist should know that in some species, sex is determined by the temperature of developing eggs. (I mean, I didn’t know this until delving into the topic, but I’m not a biologist.)

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    It continually amazes me to see professed feminists proclaiming, “Anatomy is destiny!”

  10. bcwebb says

    @8. Strongly disagree, King may write mostly popular horror but his stories are internally logically consistent and his language and feeling for people fluid and believable. Rowling’s hackneyed solution to resolve every plot is to have something never before allowed or possible through magic become possible. Her world of magic is a dystopian bureaucratic fascist nightmare that would have inevitably led to total world destruction even with the jesus-like heroes she conjures up. King’s better horror stories like “Christine” and “the Shining” are not just horror stories but studies of human desire and failure. Read also his non-horror short stores like “the Shortcut” or “Shawshank Redemption.” I agree some of King’s stuff devolves to formula ( i can’t stand “It” and the “Fog”) but Rowling is all formula.

  11. says

    So, what is “determined at conception” for an XXY? Sorry, but the claim “determined at conception” requires a complete, internally consistent explanation for any purported “defective” conceptions, too… and if you don’t have one, your basic assertion fails of its own wait.

    Which still leaves the question of socially determined sex-based roles for argument, no matter what.

  12. PaulBC says

    bcwebb@12 I admit I thought of King as a hack back in the 80s, and never read anything by him. I’m less of a snob now. Now I think he’s a gifted writer who is also very prolific, and he’s been a smart and funny commentator for the Trump era. (Back when I still thought him as a hack, I grudgingly enjoyed the film adaptation of The Dead Zone a lot.) I should probably read some of his work before saying more. I am not going to trash Rowling for her writing either just because I disagree with her views on anything else. I like the Harry Potter books and film adaptations a great deal. On the other hand, I don’t like them more than every other work in the same genre.

  13. raven says

    I admit I thought of King as a hack back in the 80s, and never read anything by him.

    I thought King was going to be a hack because he was so popular with a lot of best sellers.

    Until I actually read some of his books.
    He is a good writer with an eye for detail and character. I find his earlier novels more interesting, Christine, The Stand, Carrie, and many others.

    I never read any Harry Potter and have no intention of doing so now. It’s a big world and I won’t miss Rowling.

  14. robert79 says

    At best I’d say that which genes/chromosomes you have are determined at conception (although, even then I can imagine some cases where that’s not clear cut… chimera’s, stuff like that.) They then seem to assume there are only two possible combinations of chromosomes (XX and XY… there are more) which then result in two distinct sexes (they do not.)

    I am not a biologist, so I am aware even this is probably an oversimplification…

  15. robert79 says

    @15 “I never read any Harry Potter and have no intention of doing so now. It’s a big world and I won’t miss Rowling.”

    I read some as a teenager, you’re not missing much. I thought it was a cheap knock off of Ursula le Guin’s “Wizard of Earthsea”, which I would recommend reading.

  16. says

    (Seriously, TERFs, if you try to comment here that you’ve got the backing of biology supporting your claims, I’m going to laugh at you and swing the banhammer, just as I do with racists and creationists who pretend that biology supports their fuckwittery. It doesn’t.)

    LOL. I’m putting the odds of some anti-trans asshat commenting here anyway at over 80%. Part of their inability to think through their specific anti-trans positions is too often the result of difficulty thinking generally. Shouting at PZ is going to be too tempting to resist for some of them. The only question is how quickly and widely knowledge of this thread spreads.

  17. Marissa van Eck says

    I have some serious atonement to do for nearly becoming a TERF back in college, an experience that was not helped by some very negative experiences with a stalky early-in-transition transwoman at the time. The science is what pulled me away from TERFdom eventually, to the point that even as just a pharmacy tech–a pill monkey–it baffles me how some of these people with advanced degrees in the life sciences can say these things.

    One very revealing question to put forth to a TERF, and the one that probably was instrumental in getting me out of their orbit for good, concerns Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. People with CAIS are the black swan or white raven TERFs demand to see, that unholy grail, the “woman with XY chromosomes.”

    When I brought this question up to a bunch of bigots on another forum–all men, if my guess is correct, as it’s a tech forum–not a single one would answer it. The closest I got was one of them saying “outliers don’t count,” followed by attempted ridicule.

    So what’s really going on here when people just completely ignore you and pretend you didn’t say the thing you said, the thing that breaks their argument in half, and keep going as if those inconvenient facts don’t exist? It hurts my mind.

  18. anat says

    Marissa van Eck @20:

    The closest I got was one of them saying “outliers don’t count,”

    Outliers that contradict our claim don’t count, others we don’t count as outliers. Or something.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    Whatever her literary capabilities and achievements, Rowling got a major cohort of kids to read, to read long books even.

    I have no idea of the numbers, but surely there are millions more adults who can and do read books now than there would otherwise be, thanks to Harry Potter. Rowling’s personal later-life crankiness darkens but does not diminish that social effect – in line with the mixed impact of so many other influential authors.

  20. says


    Whatever her literary capabilities and achievements, Rowling got a major cohort of kids to read, to read long books even.

    You know, I almost posted this exact sentiment. She wasn’t writing for 30 year olds, and the 8-13 year olds she was writing for loved her books so much that many that weren’t normally readers positively devoured the HP series.

    We want kids to practice their reading skills. This part of what she accomplished was a true service to lots of individual kids and their families. Younger was always a voracious reader. Older has been more average in her reading habits, when looking at her peers, but loved HP. If she hadn’t found HP, she would probably be a below-average reader now.

  21. says

    Not only are there infertile people with XY chromosomes and female phenotype (already mentioned CAIS), there are also fertile mosaic individuals with predominantly XY chromosomes, mostly female phenotype, ovotestes and identifying as female. -click-
    Seriously, any biologist claiming that sex is binary, immutable, and exactly determined at the point of fertilization should return their diploma and hang their head in shame.

  22. PaulBC says

    @23 My only reason for reading Harry Potter was to follow along with my kids’ choices in grade school (but I would have seen most of the movies anyway). I read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series for the same reasons (which unfortunately only have a terrible movie adaptation). I am also of the view that it doesn’t matter all that much what kids are reading if they’re reading voraciously. (Though there’s a lot of skimming going on too, and I wish I could have persuaded them to be better readers.)

    I think JK Rowling is a better writer than Rick Riordan, but I like Riordan’s characters more (not his treatment, just his choices). For having a vaguely similar premise, it all seemed a lot more down to earth, and maybe I preferred the American idiom as well. Riordan is more of a hack though, with less consistent world-building and seems more market-driven. I don’t think he did any better than the first Percy Jackson series.

    On the other hand, if a school like Hogwarts existed, I would like to see it shut down or reformed massively. It encourages elitism and favoritism. This is baked right into the first novel. The only founder who understands the job of educators (teach everybody!) was Hufflepuff. Harry Potter is an engaging fantasy, but one that seems very wrong in many ways. I think what I appreciated most was the account of Voldemort’s early years as Tom Riddle, starting out disadvantaged (except for magic) and developing a loner obsession first with preserving his life and then dominating others. There’s always the sense that he could have made better choices, but also that he was pushed by adversity. (But again, nothing new under the sun. Other people have written this story.)

    Neville Longbottom’s character arc is also wonderfully life-affirming. He’s my favorite character.

    So, mixed bag here. I think the works can stand on their own. I don’t take marching orders from JK Rowling on other matters. Am I allowed to like Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipaul, Nabokov, etc., all of whom have some views I would find objectionable?

    And… all right, I am perfectly willing to take marching orders from Ursula Le Guin on nearly anything, so maybe it’s not always a mixed bag.

  23. PaulBC says


    The closest I got was one of them saying “outliers don’t count,” followed by attempted ridicule.

    The term “outlier” concedes the basic point that we’re talking about statistical clusters and not Aristotelian categories (or whatever). We make up words for reality, but reality is under no obligation to conform to our words. That doesn’t make the words useless, but people who get very caught up in words are not thinking like scientists.

  24. says

    Well put, PaulBC #26.

    There is also something incredible ignorant AND arrogant in the way they they presume to know natures intent. Anything not conforming to some arbitrary definitions is automatically an error.

    Still, the central motif in most TERF’s seems tied up in “earning their place” somehow. Some are very focused on menstruation, and perhaps that’s not so strange considering the stigma of uncleanliness associated with it.

  25. says

    Today I saw a transphobe claim that your nose is not part of your anatomy, because it is located in your face and your face is not part of your body…

  26. unclefrogy says

    There is also something incredible ignorant AND arrogant in the way they they presume to know natures intent.

    there is an idea that carries so much it is hard to put it in words. it is exactly the problem that “nature” all of existence has an intent and some human being is so gifted as to know what that intent might be.
    I personally take as why I am here from some where in christian thought as I vaguely recall it is ” to bear witness”
    these people just want to everything I think that is an impossible task.
    uncle frogy

  27. unclefrogy says

    these people just want to control everything I thing that is an impossible task as well as completely pointless
    uncle frogy

  28. Silentbob says


    Christian, wife, mother, daughter, sister. PhD in Biochemistry, Developmental Biologist, Teacher. Love God, my family & Science.

    “The Royal Society of Biology should stop supporting trans rights. It’s unscientific.

    “Also, praise Lord Jesus, born of a virgin, who performed many miracles and died as a sacrifice for our sins.”

  29. says

    Well… my uterus is revolting (in both senses of the word). I’m in a bit of a mood rn. Defining people by their anatomy is just fucking silly. And annoying. And it’s… it reduces people to incubators and inseminators, and, well, ew.

    Today I saw a transphobe claim that your nose is not part of your anatomy, because it is located in your face and your face is not part of your body…

    I… they… buh… what. What. How does that even? I refuse to believe someone is that fucking stupid.

  30. PaulBC says

    I held back so far, but

    Witch: And this isn’t my nose, it’s a false one!
    [Bedevere lifts up the carrot to reveal the woman’s real nose]
    Bedevere: Well?
    One Villager: Well, we did do the nose.
    Bedevere: The nose?
    Villager: And the Hat. But she’s a witch!
    Villagers: Yeah! Burn her! Burn! Burn her!

  31. chrislawson says

    WMDKitty: “I refuse to believe someone is that fucking stupid.”

    About ten years ago I would have agreed with that. Not anymore.

  32. chrislawson says

    Excluding outliers is considered bad scientific practice bordering on outright fraud, acceptable only when the investigator can justify why outliers were excluded (e.g. response forms were sent to the wrong cohort, data entry error, the experimental apparatus was incorrectly calibrated, etc., not just “these data don’t fit my preferred hypothesis”).

    The “outliers” of intersex/atypical sex people are neither rare (best estimate = 1.7% of the population, i.e. more common than red hair in the US) nor sampling errors. They represent natural variation. So much for the transphobes’ professed commitment to scientific principles.

  33. dianne says

    There’s a lovely little TERF invasion on PZ’s FB page on this post if anyone is up for a fight. Caution, though: they are very, very ignorant and not apparently able to process facts.

  34. Arkady says

    dianne @ 37 – Yeah, I spotted that comment section but didn’t have the courage to participate under my real name. Well done for having the courage to do so. Most idiotic bit so far is the insistence that an individual with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome has to be male “because Y chromosome!” [facepalm].

    Did have the courage a few weeks ago on some local news articles when my old school was in the news for firing a teaching assistant over her opposition to the “No Outsiders” inclusivity/anti bullying programme in UK primary schools because it mentions the existence of trans people. Had fun both pointing out the biology illiteracy of the posters insisting on only 2 genders, while also pointing out that as a cis girl/woman who has never enjoyed most of the performative aspects of femininity, I’d have benefitted hugely from not being bullied over short hair or hairy legs.

  35. says

    dianne @37
    I did some posting. I have the same avatar but use my real name on fb. I’m in a place where I’m adjusting my political disposition and tactics towards transphobes so if anyone has suggestions I’ll take them. I’m trying to reduce or counteract the unplesanness of their presence as one goal. I don’t want to look like I’m arguing with them and I want to show the problems. It’s still a recent thing.

  36. says


    One thing I’ve done sometimes, though I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re looking for, is to simply quote a bit of wrong and laugh at it without arguing the point. Maybe I’ll say something about, “there’s a mistake that 30 seconds of googling could have prevented” or some such. The idea, of course, is to get readers off of that page & doing their own googling to see why you think the point has already been debunked to the point of laughability.

    If there are more than one of you, you can go back & forth saying, “Can you believe X said Y?” and laugh about it right there on the page. That’s often effective as well. When they try to engage you directly, ignore them.

  37. says

    @Crip Dyke
    I have thought about mockery and humor. I’m a bit slower here due to hard to generalize issues relating to privilege and neurodevelopment. As a result I take more care with mockery in general, but I don’t ignore it.

    I’ll process what you shared, thank you.

  38. dianne says

    Brony @39: Thank you for joining in. I thought your comments worked well and, given the outcomes, I’d say they were effective. The TERFs pretty much bowed out as soon as any opposition showed up. Well, what could they do? They were wrong and they know it. I know the studies saying that people’s minds aren’t changed by facts, but I suspect that people do start to feel uneasy when they find that their positions are counterfactual and that that uneasiness may lead to a paradigm shift in their world view even if they fight it all the harder at the time the data are first presented. Of course, this may also just be evidence that my opinion can’t be changed with facts either.

  39. dianne says

    I must say, I am a bit uncomfortable with the term “TERF”. There is nothing remotely feminist about TERFs. They’re parroting a biological essentialism about gender that would not be out of place in a fundamentalist preacher’s sermon. It’s the old “courtly sexism” trope all over again: women are separate and somehow better than men and anything that blurs the line is unacceptable and terrifying. How about TERSE: trans exclusionary radical sexist extremists?

  40. says

    @dianne 42
    Thank you for the impressions.
    I don’t have a sense if they know they are wrong. We are a species that as a majority thinks the room is half minority when it exceeds 10%. I figure if I hammer the overall traditional social narratives as untrustworthy and unreliable that serves several purposes. That works for gender and neurodiversity which are in similar categories here.

    What tips you off to the knowing dishonesty? I’ve been dissecting out dishonest things as bigoted political behavior. Some behaviors have versions in bigotry broadly like tying groups to individuals acting badly. That’s in partisan bigotry, and bigotry pointed at socialists and communists. I see lots of pieces and often the issue is which one, how, when…

  41. Skeletaldropkick says

    Can you all please stop referring to these bigoted homophobes as TERFs?
    First Radical Feminism is not a thing. It is something made up to discredit feminism.
    Second, these people are NOT feminists. They are not working towards equality. As long as they insult transgender people, they are insulting women.
    Just call them bigots, that is what they are.

  42. John Morales says


    First Radical Feminism is not a thing.

    Yeah, it is.


    blockquote>Second, these people are NOT feminists.


    Etymological fallacy.

    (‘Footage’ isn’t a length of film, it’s a generic term for a portion of (audio)video recording)

    Just call them bigots, that is what they are.

    But that’s not very specific, is it? Vagueness is not a virtue.

  43. Silentbob says

    Heh. I had to laugh following John Morales link @47. Describing actual radical feminism it reads:

    According to Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970): “[T]he end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”[4] While radical feminists believe that differences in genitalia and secondary sex characteristics should not matter culturally or politically, they also maintain that women’s special role in reproduction should be recognized and accommodated without penalty in the workplace, and some have argued compensation should be offered for this socially essential work[5].

    My bold.

    One thing’s for sure, TERFs (or whatever you call them) are sure as fuck not radical feminists.

  44. Silentbob says

    Actually, speaking of old school radical feminism, I’m reminded of a great historical document I’d like to quote.

    First some background. The original TERF transphobic “feminist” manifesto was The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond published in 1979. It was largely an attack on trans woman Sandy Stone who was part of the radical feminist movement in the 70s. As you can imagine, Stone copped a lot of bigotry. Her sisters in the lesbian separatist collective where she lived wrote a statement in her defence. Here’s an excerpt:

    A transsexual is a person who, from an early age (perhaps from birth), identifies as the opposite gender from her or his genetic sex. In the case of Sandy Stone, this means a person who grew up outwardly as a male, but who inwardly experienced being essentially female. In many cases this includes a feminist identification, which, because of imposed stereotypes, as well as the position of being female inside a male body, results in an extremely painful life situation. For many women, evolving a consciousness of class and sex oppression involves uncertainty, anger, and the turmoil which accompanies any major life process. For transsexuals, who are simultaneously evolving through confronting their true sexual identity, these processes are doubly difficult.

    [… ]

    Because Sandy decided to give up completely and permanently her male identity and live as a woman and a lesbian, she is now faced with the same kinds of oppression that other women and lesbians face. She must also cope with the ostracism that all of society imposes on a transsexual.

    In evaluating whom we will trust as a close ally, we take a person’s history into consideration, but our focus as political lesbians is on what her actions are now. If she is a person who comes from privilege, has she renounced that which is oppressive in her privilege, and is she sharing with other women that which is useful? Is she aware of her own oppression? Is she open to struggle around class, race, and other aspects of lesbian feminist politics? These were our yardsticks in deciding whether to work with a woman who grew up with male privilege. We felt that Sandy met those same criteria we apply to any woman with whom we [that] plan to work closely.

    Well will you look at that. That was written in 1977. What TERFs transphobes would call “trans ideology” being put forward by radical feminists in the 70s. Forty-three years ago.

    If TERFs transphobes try to tell you feminism has always been bio-essentialist, or ant-trans, or has never accepted trans women as women, THEY. ARE .FULL. OF. SHIT.

  45. PaulBC says

    John Morales@47

    But that’s not very specific, is it? Vagueness is not a virtue.

    Sure it is.

    At least, an expression that contains only pertinent factors is superior to one that includes superfluous detail. If i say “You are a liar.” my point is clear. If I say “You are a liar who likes chocolate cake.” this is more specific, but it’s actually less clear unless my point included the thing about cake.

    In this case, it’s sometimes relevant that “TERFs” are self-styled feminists. When it’s not relevant, it’s perfectly reasonable to condemn them as bigots to emphasize the trait you object to.

  46. Dunc says

    Silentbob, @50: Speaking of the Ancient Texts, here’s Andrea Dworkin from 1974:

    Transsexuality* is currently considered a gender disorder, that is, a person learns a gender role which contradicts his/her visible sex. It is a “disease” with a cure: a sex-change operation will change the person’s visible sex and make it consonant with the person’s felt identity.

    Since we know very little about sex identity, and since psychiatrists are committed to the propagation of the cultural structure as it is, it would be premature and not very intelligent to accept the psychiatric judgement that transsexuality is caused by a faulty socialization. More probably, transsexuality is caused by a faulty society. Transsexuality can be defined as one particular formation of our general multisexuality which is unable to achieve its natural development because of extremely adverse social conditions.

    There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here.

    One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition.

    Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.

    Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.

    [* In 1974, “transsexual” was the term for what we now call “transgender.”]

    [From Woman Hating, quoted from secondary source by Twisty Faster at Shirley there’s nothing more to say on the subject of Radfems vs Trans Women?, footnote added by Twisty. The whole post is worth reading.]

    Everything old is new again.