Here we go again. Richard Dawkins pushes bad biology and hatred.
Remember me? I’ve been offline for a long long time — life has interfered, it’s been a busy semester, but right now it’s our Fall Break, so I have a little time to address some bad science by Richard Dawkins and others that has been nagging me for a while.
This article by Richard Dawkins is titled “Why biological sex matters,” and that’s possible the last line I agree with. The subheading continues “Some argue that lived experience and personal choice trump biology – but they are wrong,” and that’s where I have problems. I’d argue that biology trumps biology — when all you have to offer is a simplistic, reductionist version of biology, then a fuller understanding of the depth and complexity of biology ought to be appreciated more.
Dawkins has long been an advocate of a gene-centric version of biology that focuses on the differential survival of competing alleles, that sees higher order phenomena like interactions between individuals, communities, and species as echoes of the activity of genes. This is a valid and useful perspective on evolution and ecology, but it’s only a small part of the story. A fundamental part, for sure, but biology has multiple levels and ignoring the reality of organisms to focus entirely on what is ultimately an abstraction is going to lead you into a delusion.
Also at play here is an ideological commitment to traditional stereotypes. If you have an a priori commitment to the idea that men and women must be different, then it is easy to find the differences — but then you must magnify those differences and ignore the similarities to justify your position. One of the noteworthy and horrifying features of this article is that Dawkins is nailing his colors to the mast and making his transphobia blatantly obvious. I don’t want to dwell on it here, but he openly makes his alignment clear.
If the editor had challenged me to come up with examples where the discontinuous mind really does get it right, I’d have struggled. Tall vs short, fat vs thin, strong vs weak, fast vs slow, old vs young, drunk vs sober, safe vs unsafe, even guilty vs not guilty: these are the ends of continuous if not always bell-shaped distributions. As a biologist, the only strongly discontinuous binary I can think of has weirdly become violently controversial. It is sex: male vs female. You can be cancelled, vilified, even physically threatened if you dare to suggest that an adult human must be either man or woman. But it is true; for once, the discontinuous mind is right. And the tyranny comes from the other direction, as that brave hero JK Rowling could testify.
When you say “violently controversial”, the description really only applies to one side of the debate. Yes, you can be “cancelled” for being a homophobe, a racist, or a transphobe, but it’s a toothless fate — you can go on being rich and so well respected that you get invitations to air your ugly opinions in the media. Meanwhile, trans people are being tortured, denied health care, or murdered for your collaboration with the wretched idea of a rigid sexual binary. “Brave Hero” JK Rowling gets book deals, movie rights, and can buy multiple mansions, and is not at all comparable to a teenager who gets thrown out of their home, forced to live on the streets, or the Texas trans kid who is denied puberty blockers or hormone treatments or even basic therapy, and has to negotiate vigilante cops patrolling the highways to make sure no one can go out of state for treatment. The violence, much of it state-sanctioned, is all going one way.
In this article, Dawkins admits that the range of human variation is continuous and broad, so his mission is to find one thing where there is a sharp discontinuity that will allow him to support the bigotry of Rowling with “Science,” an a priori commitment that will bias his conclusion. There’s a long history of bigots carrying out this kind of exercise, where they reduce the whole of human experience to just one thing that is discrete that will demolish all arguments for diversity. He comes up with one, a familiar claim: it’s all about gametes. Forget about the fact that we’re complex multicellular organisms, let’s crunch every factor that makes us human into one property, one cell that defines everything.
Sex is a true binary. It all started with the evolution of anisogamy – sexual reproduction where the gametes are of two discontinuous sizes: macrogametes or eggs, and microgametes or sperm. The difference is huge. You could pack 15,000 sperm into one human egg. When two individuals jointly invest in a baby, and one invests 15,000 times as much as the other, you might say that she (see how pronouns creep in unannounced) has made a greater commitment to the partnership.
Right. Throw away minds and bodies and society, and you can distill us down to a single cell, a spermatozoan or an ovum. He sees no problem at all with this extreme reductionism, but I do. He’s also throwing most of biology. I have a couple of objections.
The first is an obvious error. How can you sweep away all the factors that affect the cost of reproduction and treat it as a matter of gamete size? That might matter in echinoderms, but it’s not a significant factor in big, complex, multicellular and social organisms. Dawkins ‘analysis’ is neither informed nor appropriate.
- Gametes are a trivial cost in multicellular organisms like us. Trivial? I mean negligible. The numbers he mentions are an excellent example of biased reporting. It’s true: eggs have a much larger volume than sperm. But if you’re talking about relative investment, ovulating people produce one relatively gigantic egg per month. Humans with testes produce 1500 sperm per minute. That means that that egg volume represents 10 minutes of sperm production, and that goes on constantly, throughout most of your post-adolescent life. A month is about 44,000 minutes long; that means that in that time, a person with ovaries makes one gamete, while a persion with testes makes 65,000,000 gametes.
The significant difference here is not in cost, or relative investment, it’s in selectivity or in relative opportunity to produce offspring. It’s quantity vs. quality. But you can’t argue that the differences between male and female in complex multicellular organisms rest entirely on the properties of gametes.
A further problem here is that he is sweeping away all of the interesting differences.
- There is a significant difference between the biological sexes, but it’s not gametes (unless you are an extreme reductionist who can’t see the other differences.) Far more important to us is menstruation, not simple anisogamy. The basal metabolic rate of an average medium-sized person is about 1300 kilocalories per day. The menstrual cycle can increase that by 70-150 kilocalories per day, or about a 10% increase in caloric requirements.
That’s small, but it matters. If we’re comparing sexes, though, the difference is offset by the average larger size, and therefore greater metabolic requirements, of people with testosterone percolating through their system. Furthermore, we don’t identify women as people who menstruate (or produce ova, for that matter), so it’s all a bit irrelevant. Constructing and shedding a thickened endometrium every month is neither necessary nor sufficient for defining “womanhood”.
It also has nothing directly to do with gametes.
- The larger cost difference is obviously pregnancy. Making an egg cell? Pfft. Cheap and easy. Bearing a child? There’s the expense. The total energy cost of making a baby is about 77,000 kilocalories. A pregnant person is experiencing an increased cost of about 470 kilocalories per day in the third trimester. That’s a hard workout every single day.
Again, this is not about gametes. Pregnancy is a whole body workout requiring significantly greater nutritional input. Fortunately, or perhaps hopefully, we are social organisms and that additional cost can be supported in part by a partner, or an extended family, or a whole community. Alloparenting starts here, and alloparenting doesn’t care if you’re cis or trans, an auntie or a cousin, a grandfather or grandmother. The role of supporting a mother should not involve a sexual difference.
- Many people are not aware of this, but pregnancy isn’t the expensive bit: it’s breastfeeding. A year of breastfeeding is going to cost the nursing parent close to 200,000 kilocalories…and of course somewhere in that year that child is going to start eating other foods, that the family will have to provide for them. Then the biological reality really sets in, and you realize that this child is helpless and needy and is going to have to be fully supported by the foraging and earnings of the adults in the group for 20 years.
The costs of reproduction are, or should be, shared by a community. Biology constrains the permissible roles of the parents, but human evolution, and the evolution of all multicellular organisms, is about opening up the range of contributions every member of the population can make, and reducing the complexity of reproduction to a simplistic “Men inseminate, women get pregnant” does a vast disservice to the diversity of roles required to build a society we all benefit from.
A further problem with Dawkins’ logic is that many human beings do not produce any gametes at all, or choose not to reproduce. A man with a vasectomy has not necessarily changed sex. A woman with a hysterectomy does not necessarily cease to be a woman. By hinging your definition of sex on one practically invisible property of a single cell type, you are answering your question of “why biological sex matters” with a negation. It mostly doesn’t. It matters in a relationship that desires to produce children, but otherwise, no — in all my day-to-day interactions with a multitude of people to build a good life and contribute to society, the question, “Do you produce viable gametes?” has never once come up. It is literally the least relevant question I could ask of any other human being on the planet, since I’m not a doctor involved with reproductive health, and will not be having any more children myself.
Here’s a statistic for you: 15-20% of American women will not have children at all. Some of them by a biological inability, but the majority by personal choice: they have better things to do with their life than raising children. This is a valid choice, and most of them are not going to be complaining on their deathbeds that they never got around to getting pregnant. Are we seriously going to argue that these women are not women, or that they fail to make a good contribution to society, or that they’ve wasted their lives? Of course not. That is a conclusion we might arrive at if we decide that gonads are destiny. We do a deep disservice to human beings when we define them by reproductive potential — there is a hell of a lot people can accomplish without reproducing.
Biology is complex and messy and does not dictate who you must be — it generates an explosion of variety. Do not let a biologist, whether it’s stodgy old Dawkins or stodgy old Myers, use biology as a cudgel to tell you who you must be. Look around you and realize that there diverse sex and gender roles, which should tell you that gametes as a model are too simplistic and primitive, and recognize that biology frees you to be whoever you want to be.
The substance of Dawkins’ article was embarrassing enough, but then I got to the end where, like a good scientist, he credits his sources for all this misinformation. Look at this — not a single biologist among them, only some anti-trans bigots.
today’s unfortunate children who, latching on to a playground craze, find themselves eagerly affirmed by “supportive” teachers, and au courant doctors with knives and hormones. See Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (2020); Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (2021); and Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (2021). Many of us know people who choose to identify with the sex opposite to their biological reality. It is polite and friendly to call them by the name and pronouns that they prefer. They have a right to that respect and sympathy. Their militantly vocal supporters do not have a right to commandeer our words and impose idiosyncratic redefinitions on the rest of us. You have a right to your private lexicon, but you are not entitled to insist that we change our language to suit your whim. And you absolutely have no right to bully and intimidate those who follow common usage and biological reality in their usage of “woman” as honoured descriptor for half the population. A woman is an adult human female, free of Y chromosomes.
Look. Shrier, Stock, and Joyce are not credible sources. They are ideologues with axes to grind.
Trans health care does not involve going after children with knives. It’s not a “playground craze.”
Words are flexible, and we have every right to adapt their usage to meet the needs of people. People always have. It’s not a matter of “whims” to recognize that words can be used to disrespect people, and your denials are not persuasive.
Trans men and women are not bullying you when they ask you to respect their identity and the biological reality of their lives. The only bullying going is by people who demand that everyone must conform to the dictates of a small set of cells in their groins, and deny the reality of their minds and bodies.
And then to end on “adult human female,” a vacuous tautology if ever there was one, and the “Y chromosome” canard? What a ridiculous and unscientific article. It’s a disgraceful abuse of science, the product of a narrow, limited, conservative mind that has lost all ability to appreciate the glorious complexity of humanity. He’s simply pandering to a hateful clique.
That’s all I wanted to say. Dawkins continues his trajectory of disappointment and regressive failure to recognize the reality of human existence, and I felt compelled to call him out, and all the other nasty people abusing science to prop up a shameful ideology of hatred. I swear, the older I get, the more disappointed and cynical I feel — I really should have stayed young and gullible and optimistic. Was that an option?
At least I still have all these people reassuring me that a humane decency can persevere and who even make a material contribution to the promotion of my weird and seemingly minority perspective. Thanks to everyone on Patreon, and if you want to restore my faith in humanity (and also help support freethoughtblogs, and my growing collection of spider-friends) you can join, too. Even a dollar a month will keep bloggers typing away, and feed a lot of spiders.
Yeah, I know, if I could say I was using the money to feed kittens, I’d probably get more donations. But spiders are adorkable, too, and I like keeping them healthy.
I wish I could promise to post videos more regularly, but my classes are crushing me right now, and there isn’t a lot of relief in sight. In January, I’ll be teaching a course in ecological developmental biology, which I haven’t taught in several years, and I’m frantically trying to update the course before the term smacks me in the face. Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone, and talk about my research and readings on the intersection between the environment and embryos? That might be useful to me, you’ll have to let me know if it would be useful to you.
Later, everyone! And don’t listen to anyone who tries to condense your identity down to a single cell type — remember, you’re all magnificent multicellular social organisms!