The neuroendocrinologists strike back

I keep seeing these naive pop culture simplifications of sex and gender — it’s all about gametes, or Y chromosomes, or hormone titers. It’s all about finding the one magic criterion that defines the unambiguous binary that certain people want. It’s the opposite of good science. You should be looking at the evidence to see that sex is messy and complicated and defies reduction to the state of a single variable.

It’s a relief, then, to look at the actual scientific literature and see that scientists working in the field all pretty much agree — it’s not a simple binary. So here’s an article by real, genuine, qualified neuroendocrinologists declaring that they’re fed up with the notion of a simple binary. It’s titled Deconstructing sex: Strategies for undoing binary thinking in neuroendocrinology and behavior by Massa, Aghi, and Hill. It’s also behind a paywall, goddamn it, but at least I have access. Here’s the introduction, which is pretty strong.

Neuroendocrinologists have long known that “sex” is a specious category. Much of our research relies on identifying mechanisms that produce differences in brain morphologies and behaviors, including how factors like hormones, chromosomes, and life experiences differences across “the sexes.” This work makes evident that “sex” is not a biologically coherent concept (Karkazis, 2019; Roughgarden, 2013) but is instead a constructed category reliant on several biological criteria that do not always align (Ainsworth, 2015). However, research across the biomedical sciences regularly treats “sex” as a single, internally consistent variable. And even while recognizing that “sex” is multifaceted and dynamic, even neuroendocrinologists often collapse the multiplicity (Karkazis, 2019) by selecting a single trait to sort research subjects and specimens into sex categories – a practice that obscures relevant physiologies and precludes the possibility of more specific (and more accurate) analyses.

While its shortcomings are well-established, “sex” remains deeply entrenched in our field. Scientists seeking to adopt more nuanced frameworks must contend with the limitations of existing resources, methods, and practices, much of which rely on binary (or otherwise simplistic) sex categorization. To encourage support for this paradigm shift, we first delineate how reliance on gross “sex” categories damages scientific knowledge and leads to harm of marginalized communities. We then examine how current policies may exacerbate these problems before providing reflective questions to help scientists critically examine the use of “sex” across the scientific enterprise. These questions, supported by a litany of neuroendocrine research, encourage researchers to conceptualize and study sexed physiologies as multiple, interacting, and variable. Furthermore, as an extension of discussions held during the SBN 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health, our guidance challenges researchers to break free of gendered preconceptions and conduct research which centers the impact, direct or indirect, on marginalized groups. We believe this critical reflection and scientific reorientation is vital to improve our science, widen the applicability of our findings, and deter the (mis)use of our research against marginalized groups.

This is what I’ve been saying all along, so obviously I agree with it. The authors go on to point out that sex is a multi-dimension category, not a simple variable.

“Sex” is a constructed category, not a biological variable – and our science should reflect that. Deconstructing “sex” and moving away from reductive approaches requires immediate local changes to experimental design and methodology as well as a deeper understanding of social influences on and of the scientific enterprise (purple and green, respectively, in Fig. 1). What follows are guiding questions we offer to facilitate this much-needed shift. We hope that thinking through these questions will impact how science is conducted – whether that means using specific relevant physiologies to determine sex category; moving to a multivariate, interacting, and continuous conceptualization of sexed variables; or moving past sex categories all together – and lead to a more comprehensive, accurate, and responsible scientific enterprise.

I have to say, though, that I’m not a fan of those kinds of meaningless diagrams. I’ll let it slide out of appreciation for the context.


  1. cartomancer says

    In a few decades binary gender mania will seem like 19th Century race science in its naievete and willful blindness to reality.

    Of course, we too would be naieve if we expected this sort of thing to die down without a fight. There are too many people who have invested money, time and identity in there being only two binary genders. But this sort of thing is a good start to move things in the right direction.

  2. wzrd1 says

    cartomancer @ 1, which is why extremist governments, once assuming power engage in their own “cultural revolution” and cull the educated and educational systems.
    Then, they install loyalists, who fail in epically tragic ways.
    So, let’s keep the far right and far left from power, if for no other reason than well, simple survival of the fittest. Lest we welcome Lamarck back again. Reintroducing him did ever so much good for Soviet and Chinese harvests – assuming famine was the desired outcome.

  3. raven says

    The article in the OP is behind a pay wall and the abstract doesn’t have a lot of detail.
    Here is one of the references, in Nature, and not behind a pay wall that says the same thing.

    The tl;dr version.
    .1. Sex is complicated and can be defined in a number of different ways.

    “…says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.””

    .2. Sex isn’t a binary. It is a continuum with two main peaks.

    Published: 18 February 2015
    Sex redefined
    Claire Ainsworth
    Nature volume 518, pages288–291 (2015) edited for length

    The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.

    Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD2.

    (My note here. Intersexes are usually given as 1.7% of the population.
    And there is a trend to drop the Disorders of Sex Development terminology for more neutral language like Differences in Sex Development.
    Some people don’t like being categorized as have a “Disorder” when they are otherwise normal people living their normal lives.)

    When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex.

    So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.

    This is a general discussion, easily understood by nonspecialists, and not very long. Read it yourself.

  4. kome says

    @1 cartomancer

    Race science hasn’t exactly gone away. It’s still going strong. And quite a few race scientists exist in some rather prominent academic positions, serve on journal editorial boards, and are organizers for conferences and workshops. So I don’t think sex binary thinking is going to go away anytime soon and will not universally be perceived as naive and founded on willful ignorance in service to bias.

  5. raven says

    In a few decades binary gender mania will seem like 19th Century race science in its naievete and willful blindness to reality.

    Yes, of course.
    We all know that racism is now dead.

    I know what you mean though, while racism isn’t dead, it is slowly in retreat.
    I said something similar in the last gamete thread so will just copy it.

    Ada Christine:

    personally i just want to know why it matters that i’m “biologically male” to anybody but a doctor?

    Most people don’t care. It is none of their business anyway.

    We saw this with gay people not so long ago. It is why opposition to single sex marriage failed.

    Are their gay people living on my road? Sure, it is a long road.
    Are they married?
    Got me. I don’t know or care.
    It doesn’t affect me one way or another. It’s irrelevant to my life.

    It’s the same with Trans people. It doesn’t affect the rest of us and it isn’t a concern for other people. It is a free country after all.

    Or put another way, as long as people aren’t hurting anyone else, they are free to live their life the way they want.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Slightly OT
    The culture war (hate the trans people, ignore the science) strategy passed on from the US Regressive Party to the UK Tories.
    This did not save them from the greatest post-war “by-election” turnaround – the tories got completely crushed in the two districts that elected new members of parliament.
    I insert this news item so you may start off the weekend in a good mood.

  7. Howard Brazee says

    Conservatives love a binary world. Everything is black or white. My guy is responsible for everything good, your guy is responsible for everything bad.

    Life is much simpler that way. Or at least it seems much simpler that way.

  8. Robbo says

    There are 10 types of people in the world.

    Those that understand binary and those that don’t.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    … I’m not a fan of those kinds of meaningless diagrams.

    Really – a chart about sex that’s NOT in pink and blue!!1!

    raven @ # 3, quoting Nature: Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems.

    Whoever wrote that did not experience my adolescence…

  10. wzrd1 says

    Robbo @ 8, entirely untrue.
    There are 11 types of people in the world.
    Those who understand binary, those who do not and those confused by hexadecimal.

    Pierce R. Butler @ 8, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing…” ;)
    I’ll just get my jacket…

  11. says

    But sex is definitively binary! You see, there are only two types of gametes, big and small, no intermediate. People who do not produce either type of gamete are then sorted into binary by whether or not they will produce said gamete in the future, or have produced it in the past, or which gamete they may have produced if their biology did not stray from the strict binary for some reason.
    Oops, my bad, I ended up acknowledging that actual whole people do not come in two neatly definable categories after all. It is actually inevitable if one wants to describe reality accurately and not to shoehorn it into our language’s limitations.

  12. magistramarla says

    When I was the mentor for a high school GSA group, they introduced me to the Kinsey Scale.It’s probably the simplest way to introduce people to the idea that sex is not binary and can be quite fluid.
    They had fun introducing themselves to each other, along with their “Kinsey number”. It started some interesting conversations.
    Since we were in Texas, I had absolutely nothing to do with their activities or conversations. I had to remain just “the adult in the room”. The group had a very bright student leader, who was adept at steering their conversations into discussions of pertinent issues.
    That didn’t keep them from teasing me, and trying to wheedle my “Kinsey number” out of me!
    I often think about that bright, endearing group of teens, and I hope that they have done well with their lives!

  13. Silentbob says

    @ 12 Charly

    It’s fine. If you’re ideology doesn’t match reality, you just declare the bits that don’t match a “disorder”, or too rare to count.

    That way you never have to worry about stupid reality refusing to conform to your ideology.

  14. khms says

    And what does the average human think about binary sex? If sex is binary, you can’t have an average human being.

  15. Matt G says

    That is a very weird diagram. What does cycloheptane have to do with sex or gender, and why so many different functional groups?

  16. says

    The weirdness of that diagram is surpassed only by its uselessness. Seriously, what does it even say? All those seven factors are part of “deconstructing sex?” “Deconstructing sex” leads to all those things, or all those things lead to it? I’m guessing it’s the former, but if so, the same thing could have been said in the table of contents. I guess someone just said “we need a Powerpoint slide! It seems to be the thing these days!”

  17. wzrd1 says

    Well, cycloheptane does greatly resemble an, erm, “assistive chair” used in some sex acts, does that count?

  18. wzrd1 says

    I do indeed say so, but do take it with a grain of salt, as my eyes are brown for a good reason. ;)

  19. Howard Brazee says

    Binary thinking makes things so simple. It is especially so when deciding who is good and who is evil and who to root for.

    But reality is complex.

  20. StevoR says

    @ ^ wzrd1 : Seems so to us maybe and I so wish that were true but then so very many people keep falling for the BS thus clearly indicating otherwise. At least for a whole lot of people. Even people that we’d expect to know better (eg. Dawkins, Harris, Benson, Arthur Conan Doyle, even Isaac Newton esp at the end of his life..)

  21. jeanmeslier says

    @PZ please dont let fal1 derail this thread (when his snail brain finds it). The essentialists have essentially one infinitely rehashed “argument”: in the past it was only X, so now it must still be X. So tiring

  22. says

    I’m sure his snail-brain did find it already — I, for one, mentioned it to him twice. I don’t expect him to show up here, because it has quotes from actual biologists flat-out refuting all his simplistic nonsense about “biological sex.”

  23. brightmoon says

    There’s a YouTuber named Blume who’s intersex . She describes her life . She is XY, has androgen insensitivity, has undescended testes and has a vagina and looks and (from what I can tell ) feels female .