Biological science rejects the sex binary, and it’s good for humanity
Photo: Ruvim Noga/Unsplash
- During recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, a senator sparked controversy when she asked Jackson to define the word “woman.”
- After Jackson’s refusal, several Republican congressmen chimed in with definitions ranging from dubious to shocking, including “the weaker sex” and “someone who has a womb.”
- Today, a chorus of scientific-sounding claims about “blue and pink” brains, testosterone, and male primate aggression are being touted as natural explanations for male and female behavior.
- These claims and beliefs are false. Commitment to a simple binary vision creates a fictional model for a “battle of the sexes” that manifests in bad parenting and violence.
- By recognizing the true diversity of human experience, humanity can embrace a broad and multifaceted way of viewing and experiencing human nature.
During recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, Senator Marsha Blackburn sparked controversy when she asked Jackson to define the word “woman.” After Jackson’s refusal, several Republican congressmen chimed in with definitions of “woman” that ranged from dubious to shocking, including “the weaker sex,” “someone who has a uterus,” and “X chromosomes, no tallywhacker”.
Such notions have not changed much since 1871, when naturalist Charles Darwin told the world that “man is braver, pugnacious, and energetic than women, and has a more inventive genius.” Most evolutionary theories (and theorists) of the 19th and 20th centuries claimed that evolution created two types of creatures – male and female – and that the behavior and nature of individuals reflected this biological binary.
Today, a chorus of science-sounding claims about “blue and pink” brains, testosterone, and male primate aggression are being touted as natural explanations for male and female behavior, as well as pay gaps, differences in male and female behavior. employment, political and economic leadership and sexuality. In the political and legal realms, the belief that biology creates two types of humans is invoked in a series of attempts to impose and enforce how humans should behave.
These claims and beliefs are false. Moreover, the commitment to a simple binary view creates a fictional model for a “battle of the sexes” that manifests itself in poor education about basic biology, denigration of women’s rights, justifications for incel violence and “men’s rights”, and the creation of anti-transgender laws.
Science points to a more accurate and hopeful way to understand the biology of sex. By recognizing the true diversity of human experience, humanity can embrace a broad and multifaceted way of viewing and experiencing human nature. This evidence-based perspective is not only much more interesting than the simplistic and incorrect “tallywhacker versus no tallywhacker” perspective, but also more conducive to respect and fulfilment.
From the most basic level of animal biology, there are a myriad of ways to be female or male or both. The oceans are filled with species of fish that change from sex to sex in midlife, and some that change again. There are invertebrate hermaphrodites and female-only lizards that reproduce by recombining their own chromosomes. In some mammals, females are full of testosterone and have large penises. In various fishes and mammals, males handle all infant care. And in a variety of species, females are bossy, promiscuous and – yes, Darwin – pugnacious.
Of course, there are differences between females and males in many species. But there’s a lot more diversity, complexity, and collaboration than most people realize. When one takes a closer look at the biology of sex in animals, including humans, it’s clear that Darwin, biologist EO Wilson, geneticist Angus Bateman, and various Republican politicians are a bit off the mark and most of the time completely wrong.
Man/woman and masculine/feminine are neither biological terms nor exclusively biological roots. Sex, biologically, is not simply defined or uniformly adopted. In humans, having two X chromosomes or one X chromosome and one Y chromosome does not create binary bodies, destinies or lives. If we could crawl into the womb with a fetus around six to eight weeks old, we would see a few clusters of cells in the emerging body being nudged by DNA activity and starting to generate new organs. , including clitoris and penis, labia and scrotum, ovaries and testicles. All genitals are made of exactly the same material. Since they have a few different final functions, their final shape is different. But there is a lot of overlap.
In fact, of the 140 million babies born last year, at least 280,000 did not fit a clear pattern of penis-to-labia sex determination. Genitals, hormone levels and chromosomes are not reliable determinants of sex. There are, for example, people with XY chromosomes that have female characteristics, people with ambiguous genitalia, and women with testosterone levels outside the typical “female” range.
Biologically, there is no simple dichotomy between female and male. As I demonstrate in my book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You, brains are no more “sexed” at birth than kidneys and livers. Rather, brains are “mosaics” of typically female and male characteristics.
Of course, there are clear bodily differences in childbirth and lactation abilities, and pattern ranges in the development and distribution of body size, strength, and a myriad of other processes. But these patterns mostly overlap, and only a few are broken down into clear or functional dichotomies. Many studies have shown that the differences between adult males and females are overestimated and largely influenced by the dynamics of biology and culture. Humans are nature-natural – a fusion of nature and nurture.
For example, many explanations of the differences between men and women rely on assumptions about the disparate evolved reproductive costs between them. But human reproduction is more complex than two individuals having sex, then the female giving birth and caring for the offspring. While it is common in many societies today for women to raise their children alone or with a man (who often does not contribute equally to the upbringing of the children), this configuration has developed very recently in human history.
There is overwhelming evidence that gender Homo (humans) evolved over a million years ago taking care of complex cooperatives, changing the patterns and pressures of our evolution. Such “alloparenting” practices are still prevalent among many human groups, in which mothers and fathers, grandparents, other female and male relatives, and boys and girls in the community all help to feed, educate and care for children. This complex overlap of social and reproductive roles is exciting and hopeful. When it comes to raising children, humans are not of two types. Rather, we have evolved into a collaborative and creative community.
The bottom line, based on the data, is that “male/female” and “male/female” are neither biological terms nor rooted exclusively in biology. The lack of an explicit binary is particularly evident in humans given the complex neurobiology, life histories, and morphological dynamics of our species. There are many biologically diverse and successful ways to be human, and millions of people embody this diversity. Growing up human means growing up in a world where gender expectations, body types, reproductive options, family structures, and sexual orientations vary.
So, instead of listening to misogynistic, sexist or homo/transphobic people; incel; or politicians who base their ideologies on a biological sex binary and myths about its evolution, we can and must be open to a serious understanding of biology and its best options for human flourishing. The simple masculine/feminine binary does not effectively express the normal human range. Understanding this and integrating it into our education, our lives and our laws provides greater opportunities, greater equity and more joy for human society.
This article was first published by SAPIENS.