Richard Dawkin’s Discontinuous Mind

I mostly agree with Dawkins on this:

Everywhere you look, smooth continua are gratuitously carved into discrete categories. Social scientists count how many people lie below “the poverty line”, as though there really were a boundary, instead of a continuum measured in real income. “Pro-life” and pro-choice advocates fret about the moment in embryology when personhood begins, instead of recognising the reality, which is a smooth ascent from zygotehood. An American might be called “black”, even if seven eighths of his ancestors were white. …

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.

Imposing discrete boundaries on something which lacks them is quite dangerous, indeed. It’s also necessary to survive: imagine if I had to stop and consider whether or not a portion of a wall could be opened via the application of force, and where that force should be applied, instead of going “looks like a door with a twist handle, lemmie twist it to escape the fire behind me.” Some level of imposed boundaries are a must, otherwise words cannot exist, but it’s also important to remember these are abstractions imposed for convenience instead of fundamental features of the universe.

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.

…. Oooo-kay. Dawkins is claiming that biology has a discrete boundary, between the vast majority of the subject that lacks discrete boundaries, and one small portion (sex determination) which has discrete boundaries on a fundamental level. This smells heavily of special pleading. What makes sex determination distinct from the rest of biology?

To make a viable zygote you need the sum of two isogametes, each worth half a zygote. The same requisite sum can be achieved if one partner contributes a slightly smaller isogamete, but this will work only if the other partner chips in with a larger isogamete to redress the shortfall. You could say the minority investor is exploiting the partner who commits the larger gamete.

You can perhaps see where this argument is going, and it has indeed been modelled mathematically. Isogamy is unstable.

Ah, that distinctiveness comes from runaway selection leading to a strict dichotomy in sex determination. No other part of biology, such as bird tails or human brains, is subject to similar effects that would drive a continuum to polarize into discrete categories. As a result, we can neatly divide humanity into two sexes based solely on gamete size, with no exceptions. Emphasis added by me:

Because microgametes are so small, individuals who make them can afford to make many. Macrogametes have to be few because, as economists love to say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The imbalance also means that microgamete producers (“he/him”) can mate with lots of different macrogamete producers (“she/her”), deserting each one in turn. Or they can sequester for themselves a harem of she/hers.

This view is comically reductionist: it doesn’t matter how large your breasts are or whether you lactate, it doesn’t matter whether you can get an erection or possess a uterus, your sex is 100% determined by whether your gametes are large or small. At this point you’re probably queuing up examples where small gamete producers put in extraordinary investment in their young, which is a waste of time.

Hermaphrodites such as earthworms and land snails have testes and ovaries all in the same body at the same time. Snails are capable of exchanging sperm both ways, having first violently fired harpoons into each other.

See, Dawkins just did your work for you, by giving two examples where gamete size does not determine sex. He straight-up admits his dichotomy doesn’t exist! But he has a way to get out of the box he’s placed himself in.

Each body cell of a normal human has 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. Among these are two sex chromosomes, called X or Y, one from each parent. Females have two Xs, males one X and one Y. Any mammal with a Y chromosome will develop as a male. …

Babies can be born with ambiguous genitalia. These cases are rare. The highest estimate, 1.7 per cent of the population, comes from the US biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling. But she inflated her estimate hugely by including Klinefelter and Turner syndromes, neither of which are true intersexes. Klinefelter individuals have an extra X chromosome (XXY) but their Y chromosome ensures that they are obvious males, producing microgametes, albeit from reduced testes.

Except, contrary to what he claims, most people with Klinefelter syndrome don’t produce gametes. Thus at minimum there must be three sexes: large, small, and no gamete. Notice that Dawkins is also gradually shifting away from using gametes and towards chromosomes. He claims the Y “ensures” people “are obvious males,” even though he earlier said gametes were a more reliable indicator of sex. And yet again he is easily falsified, the Y chromosome is not determinative of sex.

Turner individuals are unambiguous females with no Y chromosome and only one (functioning) X chromosome. They have a vagina and uterus, and their ovaries, if any, are non-functional.

“Non-functional” means they do not produce gametes, and thus by Dawkin’s gamete definition these people are not female. According to his chromosome definition, though, they are female. So which is it? Where are these two neat and tidy boxes we can place every person into?!

Obviously, Klinefelter (always male) and Turner (always female) individuals must be eliminated from counts of intersexes, in which case Fausto-Sterling’s estimate shrinks from 1.7 per cent to less than 0.02 per cent. Genuine intersexes are way too rare to challenge the statement that sex is binary. There are two sexes in mammals, and that’s that.

Confession time: reading about Klinefelter syndrome raised the hair on the back of my neck. I match a few of the symptoms, such as unusual height and belly fat, and while that’s a solid minority of the full list Klinefelter syndrome has such a diverse presentation that roughly three-quarters of people with the condition are undiagnosed. Unlike some weirdos, though, I’ve never stared at my ejaculate under a microscope, let alone tore apart some of my cells and sorted the chromosomes in a neat little line. You cannot use genetic tests as a shortcut, either, you literally have to sort out those teeny-tiny chromosomes under a microscope to do a proper karyotype. I have no idea what size my gametes are, nor what karyotype I possess. According to Dawkins, I and everyone else I’ve interacted with must have no idea what sex I am. This would be news to them.

I’m willing to bet the same is true of you. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that less than one in a hundred of the people reading this has had someone examine their gamete size. If Dawkins is allowed to ignore millions of people to assert a binary, then I should be allowed to ignore the similar number of people who have ever been karyotyped or had their gametes examined. And If I can do that, then no human being has ever been karyotyped or had their gametes examined. If that sounds like I’m going too far, consider your cat or your snake. Far less than 0.02 percent of non-human species have ever been karyotyped or had their gametes examined, thus by Dawkin’s logic I can say that no other animal has ever had those procedures done to them. Even if a non-trivial number of human beings have been karyotyped, the sheer number of non-human beings who have not easily justifies the belief that we’re completely ignorant about biological sex!

I have to give Dawkins credit, he’s incredibly skilled at moving the goalposts. He went from saying it was all about gametes, to invoking chromosomes as well, and now has quietly tacked on the qualifier that there “are two sexes in mammals,” in an effort to gently sweep all parthenogenic animals under the rug. I find it strange that he’s never heard about the mammals who refuse to live the binary life, they’ve been around for as long as his PhD in biology.

However, rules are meant to be broken, and mammalian sex determination is no exception. Around a dozen therian mammals have been described with so-called “bizarre” and “weird” sex-determining systems which deviate from the standard therian mammal XX/XY mechanism. These species, all rodents, have puzzled scientists for nearly 60 years, since Robert Matthey, who characterized a fair share of these atypical systems, analyzed karyotypes of the mole vole Ellobius lutescens, in which the Y chromosome is missing. …

Overall, mammalian species with bizarre sex-determining systems have been poorly studied. Nevertheless, a sizeable body of new literature has appeared since the last comprehensive review on these species, almost 30 years ago. New weird sex-determining systems have been discovered, others have been revised, and our understanding of the ultimate and proximate mechanisms involved in their evolution has grown. In this paper, we attempt to present an updated critical review of the literature published about these species. We deliberately excluded the multiple sex chromosome system of monotremes, which has an independent origin from the rest of mammals, and was reviewed recently, as well as other mammalian species with sex-autosome fusions (e.g., XX/XY1Y2 or X1X1X2X2/X1X2Y systems), as the latter does not involve an alteration of the mechanism of sex determination per se.

Saunders, Paul A., and Frédéric Veyrunes. “Unusual mammalian sex determination systems: a cabinet of curiosities.” Genes 12.11 (2021): 1770.

An in-depth discussion of biology easily refutes Dawkin’s discontinous mind. Which must be why he gives up on subterfuge and heaves the goalposts over the garden wall.

But what about gender? What is gender, and how many genders are there? It is now fashionable to use “gender” for what we might call fictive sex: a person’s “gender” is the sex to which they feel that they belong, as opposed to their biological sex. In this meaning, “genders” have proliferated wildly. When I last heard, there were 83.

He flees the topic of sex and starts rambling on about gender instead. Given how poorly he’s understood biology, you can imagine how well this goes: no, gender is not the sex that people feel they belong to, it is “the norms, behaviours and roles associated with” socially constructed categories that we place people into. These categories can include “man” and “woman,” but also “two spirit” and “māhū” people, the burrnesha and bakla, and an entire globe’s worth of other types. Heck, even Canada and the US have the “tomboy.”

Sigh, I’m going to have to bring out the chart, aren’t I?

The Gender Unicorn, splitting human beings into five sex-related categories, four of which are continua.Hey look, kids, it’s the ol’ Gender Unicorn! It’s a decent attempt at capturing human diversity, but there’s a glaring oddity at the heart of it. Everything from “gender expression” (what most people would call “gender”) to emotional attraction lie along multiple continua, yet sex is a discontinous trinary? That seems to contradict all the examples Dawkins and I have brought to the table. Did the authors of this chart honestly believe that two people with Klinefelter and Turner syndromes are more alike than a cis woman is to a cis man?

It’s very difficult to track down the sex assignment procedure used at birth, but if you read between the lines of several studies and look up the tests performed on newborns, you get the impression that sex determination begins by looking at genitals. If they fit neatly into one of two categories, an “M” or “F” is marked down on the birth certificate and no further testing is done. Only if the genitals are ambiguous do doctors carry out hormone or chromosome tests, as far as I can tell, and in some cases they pull out the scalpel before those tests even reach a conclusion.

Of course not, because as I’ve pointed out before our society forces sex to be binary. The doctor who stared at your junk didn’t have the option of saying you were 68% female and 15% male, the form only had room for one of “M” or “F”. Some more enlightened governments have introduced an “X” option, but even this collapses multiple axes of human diversity into three discrete boxes. This has nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with imposed boundaries to make life simpler. The same is true of another dichotomy.

An important principle of the policy direction is that sex and gender are separate personal characteristics:

  • sex refers to biological characteristics, such as male, female or intersex
  • gender refers to a social identity, such as man, woman, non-binary or two-spirit

For many individuals, the distinction between sex and gender is not important. They will simply check the “M” or the “F” on a form without a second thought. However, the distinction between sex and gender is very important for those who have a gender identity or lived experience that does not align with their sex at birth. Studies have shown that people who have identity documents that do not correspond with their lived gender are more likely to face discrimination and violence.

“Sex” and “gender” are defined as two discontinuous categories, and yet not three paragraphs earlier that same government website also refers to X as “a new gender identifier.” The Ontario government states that anyone “with an Ontario birth registration may apply to change their sex designation on their birth registration so it matches with their gender identity.” This confusion makes perfect sense to me, thanks to my computer science training. I’m serious: one tactic of my field is to show that a solution to problem X would also solve problem Y, and since we’ve proven that solving Y is impossible, it must be the case that any solution to X is also impossible. If there is no solution to the nature-nurture debate, if we have no way to cleanly compartmentalize biological characteristics from social identity, then how can sex and gender be two distinct categories?

They can’t. At best, “sex” and “gender” are two idealized ends of a continuum, with reality sloshing around somewhere between. Hence why everyone, Dawkins included, seems to perpetually confuse the two. In my case, I use this as a slippery slope to argue that the continua and diversity we see with gender bleeds into sex as well. Dawkins uses the same argument, but in the opposite direction: since he thinks sex is a binary-ish, he argues gender must also be binary-ish as well.

In English, as in French, gender and sex align. All female animals are of feminine gender, all males are masculine, all inanimate things are neuter (with whimsical exceptions such as ships and nations, which can be feminine). Because of the perfect correlation between sex and gender in English grammar, it was natural for English speakers to adopt “gender” as a genteel euphemism for sex: “Sam is of female gender” sounded more polite than “of female sex”.

But that convention recently gave way to another one. The fashion for females to “identify as” male and for males to “identify as” female has emplaced an assertive new convention. Your genes and chromosomes may determine your sex, but your gender is whatever floats your boat: “I was assigned male at birth, but I identify as a woman.” Finally, the wheel turns full circle, and self-identification has now gone so far as to usurp even “sex”. A “woman” is defined as anyone who chooses to call herself a woman, and never mind if she has a penis and a hairy chest.

Oh geez, those goalposts have rocketed out of the atmosphere by this point! Now sex has nothing to do with gamete size nor chromosomes, but how hairy your chest is. Question: if I shave my chest, do I become a woman? If I lose my penis in an industrial accident, do I become a woman? Nothing has changed about my gamete production, so the Dawkins of seven paragraphs ago would say my sex has not changed. I still have the same chromosomal makeup, so the Dawkins of six paragraphs ago would say my sex has not changed. The Dawkins of this paragraph would state that, at minimum, I am no longer a man. This Dawkins would also struggle with Harnaam Kaur.

A photo of Harnaam Kaur, showing off her luxurious beard and hinting at a non-trivial amount of dark chest hair.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common condition, with maybe 3-10% of women experiencing it at some point. Like Klinefelter syndrome, its presentation is ridiculously diverse, but unlike the former we have no idea what causes it. The Dawkins of four paragraphs ago wouldn’t classify it as an intersex condition, but the Dawkins of this paragraph would. Rather than settle on a discrete boundary, Dawkins must tie himself in knots trying to organize all of humanity into three distinct boxes: man, woman, and “doesn’t count.”

But why is he so keen on this contortionist act? As a former biologist, he could have simply said all of biology consists of discontinuous categories and left it at that. So why instead did he engage in special pleading, and in the process show a humiliating level of ignorance about his field of expertise?

Rose et al cannot substantiate their allegation about sociobiologists believing in inevitable genetic determination, because the allegation is a simple lie. The myth of the “inevitability” of genetic effects has nothing whatever to do with sociobiology, and has everything to do with Rose et al’s paranoiac and demonological theology of science. Sociobiologists, such as myself (much as I have always disliked the name, this book finally provokes me to stand up and be counted), are in the business of trying to work out the conditions under which Darwinian theory might be applicable to behaviour. If we tried to do our Darwinian theorising without postulating genes affecting behaviour, we should get it wrong. That is why sociobiologists talk about genes so much, and that is all there is to it. The idea of “inevitability” never enters their heads.

I hate to break it to you, but he’s always placed ideology ahead of reality. The prior paragraph is from a 1985 review of “Not in Our Genes,” a book that took aim at the idea that animal behaviour was primarily driven by genetic influences. Back then the most vocal proponent of that idea was E. O. Wilson, who founded the field of sociobiology as the study of that topic, but he was by no means the first. Emphasis mine:

The quest for a “sociobiologization” of the biological sciences was not a new phenomenon. Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and later R.A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection and Julian Huxley’s Evolution: The Modem Synthesis, expressed varying levels of belief in the biological basis for complex human social behavior. And, to be sure, Wilson was not the first or only proponent of sociobiology in the late 20th century. The ethological work of Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris and Robert Ardry in the 1960s all laid the foundation for later sociobiologists. In the 1970s Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling The Selfish Gene, and David Barash, author of The Whisperings Within, were among the hundreds of natural and social scientists who worked from a sociobiological paradigm.

Yudell, Michael, and Rob Desalle. “Sociobiology: Twenty-Five Years Later.” Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 33, no. 3, 2000, pp. 577–84.

As you may have guessed, it was Dawkins who declared himself to be a sociobiologist. This might seem a bit irrelevant, as I bet you’ve never heard of sociobiology, but there’s good reason to bring it up.

Twenty-five years after the fact, most, but not all of the discord that characterized the original sociobiology debates is gone. Nevertheless, the controversy over the success of sociobiology as a discipline continues to resonate. Today sociobiology is generally referred to as “evolutionary psychology.” We were surprised to read in the preface to the anniversary edition that Wilson endorses this change. For all its shortcomings, Wilson’s vision for sociobiology attempted to integrate biological and cultural models in a rigorous scientific fashion. Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, is more a discipline for those on the fringes of evolutionary theory who like telling just-so stories. It veils itself in the language and methods of science, but is little more than pop-psychology.

Yudell et. al. Ibid.

Ah yes, evolutionary psychology. I’ve written quite a bit about it before, and I have to agree that it’s a pseudo-science. Anyone who knows a little about evolution should be able to see the flaws in its core premises. And yet, here’s a younger Richard Dawkins giving a friendly interview to David Buss, one of the founders of evolutionary psychology.

[6:53] DAWKINS: We have to be very clear, because people find this very easy to misunderstand. We are not talking about a kind of cognitive awareness of these selfish genetic consequences. An awful lot of people don’t get that. It really is important to understand the idea that these are – I almost said unconscious, I don’t really mean unconscious – but at least not understood in a biological sense. It’s not that that males understand the best way for me to maximize my genetic success is so-and-so and [???]. That’s not what we’re talking about, at all. It’s about pre-programmed brain mechanisms, which as evolutionary psychologists you can work out the reason for them, but the people experiencing those emotions- there’s no reason at all why they should understand.

One strong counter-argument against evolutionary psychology comes from nearly neutral theory. It’s very rare for a single gene to mutate from one generation to the next, for humans in particular there’s usually at least seventy mutations between parent and child. Since we’ve been evolving for billions of years, though, we’re near at least a local peak of genetic fitness; as a result, the majority of mutations are neutral and don’t confer any advantage; the majority of the remaining mutations are slightly harmful, making the organism a little less likely to survive; and the majority of what remains are not beneficial mutations but harmful ones that significantly decrease the odds of survival. Combining these two assertions, any positive mutation that arises will likely be accompanied by numerous neutral or slightly harmful mutations. The most likely outcome is a net negative fitness and the extinction of that positive mutation. On the off chance the positive mutation got lucky and was paired with only neutral or positive mutations, in the case of human beings it’ll only be expressed in one to eight other individuals. This does boost the odds of the positive mutation spreading to the entire population, but at this point the most likely outcome is still extinction. The upshot is that the mere appearance of a positive mutation isn’t enough to guarantee it spreads across an entire population; either it has to confer a very large fitness advantage (which is very unlikely, as we’re near a local fitness peak), or get ridiculously lucky.

That’s a huge problem for evolutionary psychology, as nearly all of it relies on extremely weak adaptive advantages surviving and snowballing over time. A slight advantage to mating with women with a hip-to-waist ratio of 0.7 led to all men preferring women with that ratio, for instance. Tiny benefits of mating with someone who blushes and thus sends a signal of honesty led to all men developing a preference for the colour red. Under nearly neutral theory, both hypotheses are as plausible as the moon being made of cheese.

That theory’s predecessor, neutral theory, is almost identical but lacks the category of slightly harmful mutations. Positive mutations are more likely to spread throughout a population under this theory, but the upshot remains the same: positive mutations need either be very advantageous or ridiculously lucky to become universal. Anyone who understands either neutral theory or nearly neutral theory should be extremely skeptical of evolutionary psychology, as a result.

[38:39] DAWKINS: … as a molecular geneticist, looking at the changes in gene frequencies – in gene pools – the neutral theory is probably right. So if you actually look at what causes the changes in gene frequencies, it’s not – in most cases it’s not [adaptive] selection, it’s drift. Well that’s fine, but those are not the things we’re interested in. We’re not molecular geneticists, we’re looking at real animals doing real things and so, uh, there –

Anything that you can actually see and touch, anything that you can actually observe on the outside, will be subject to natural selection. In even belly buttons, it’s not the presence or absence – you can’t do without them, they’re a necessary byproduct of the fact that you’re born with an umbilical cord, but nevertheless – there could be selection on the exact shape of the belly button because it, I don’t know, harbours bacteria or something of that sort, so there could be a kind of secondary “cleaning up” selection coming along afterwards, and we shouldn’t neglect that.

Well, Dawkins understands neutral theory, but he dodges its counter-argument by proposing that two different types of evolution operate simultaneously, neutral theory on the micro level and the adaptationalist cartoon demanded by evolutionary psychology on the macro level. This is creationist logic! And yet here’s Dawkins, in his prime, inventing ridiculous hypotheticals on-the-fly to justify putting ideology ahead of reality.

With this interpretation in mind, Dawkin’s essay makes a lot more sense. He was a conservative culture warrior long before most of us heard of the term, spouting talking points and dog-whistles that signal he’s on the fringe of the right wing. He was screeching about an evil cabal of postmodernists that had taken over academia back in 1998, and a quarter century later his claims have only gotten more grandiose.

High priests of postmodernism teach that lived experience and feelings trump science (which is just the mythology of a tribe of oppressive colonialists). Catholic (but not Protestant) theologians declare that consecrated wine actually becomes the blood of Christ. The dilute alcohol solution that remains in the chalice is but an Aristotelian “accidental”. The “whole substance” (hence the word “transubstantiation”) is divine blood in true reality. In the new religion of transsexual transubstantiation, a “woman’s penis” is just an “accidental”, a mere social construct.

Fun fact: the clitoris and penis both develop from the same phallic structure, and share most of the same components albeit arranged differently. The resulting range of variation is so large that researchers compiled tables of observed phallus length, and newborns who possessed a phallus length between two arbitrary bounds are declared “female” and forced to undergo cosmetic surgery to “correct” their genitals. Penises are indeed a social construct!

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).

Shrier’s book has been covered by me and others, and I feel comfortable declaring it to be ideology pretending to be journalism. Stock is one of those high-minded apologists for transphobia, who dress up rank bigotry to make it seem more acceptable. And here again we find Dawkins endorsing anti-semitic conspiracy theories about transgender people.

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.

This would be the same JK Rowling who uses her wealth and the threat of lawsuits to silence her critics? Who’s brave acts mostly consist of tweeting, and thereby directing mass harassment campaigns against people she dislikes? Who writes books featuring self-inserts that are martyred for daring to promote a gender binary? Dawkins and I have very different ideas of heroism.

A woman is an adult human female, free of Y chromosomes.

Dawkins ends his essay with one final dog-whistle, signalling support for a person who teams up with Nazis and engages in genocidal talk. By this point, that should not be a surprise. It fits into a multi-decade pattern of engaging in the culture wars and promoting wild conspiracies, a pattern of denying any science that threatens Dawkin’s discontinuous mind.

[2023-07-30 HJH]: Did I just fire off a 5,000 word critique of an article, and forget to link to the article I was critiquing?! How embarrassing. I’ve sprinkled in a few links to said article, so you can read the original and assess the quality of my critique.