randombio.com | Science Dies in Unblogginess | Believe All Science | Follow The Science
Monday, April 26, 2021

Sex and gender

Why do some people think biological sex is a continuum? Here are some commonly asked questions about sex and gender


M ost biologists find it inconceivable that anyone could think biological sex is a continuum. It is the biological equivalent of believing the Earth is flat. Yet many people do claim to believe it. Their reasoning seems to be that saying biological sex is dimorphic somehow excludes or 'erases' gays and trans people. In this article, I will explain in simple terms why these claims are false.

What is gender?

The idea of sex being a continuum originated in the conflation of the term 'gender' with 'sex'.

As we all know, gender originally meant the distinction of 'male' and 'female.' Some languages that associate male and female terms with words are said to have gender. Recently, the term has expanded to mean 'sexual preference.' In this usage, gender is no longer a linguistic term but a psychological one. There are an infinite number of possible psychological preferences. Some people claim that gender is a synonym for biological sex and therefore sex, too, is a continuum. This is not true.

Gender, when used in the new meaning, is infinitely malleable, but sex is not. So 'gender' is not the same as sex. Gender is socially constructed, which means it has no objective scientific meaning, only that which people think it has. Calling something a social construct is a polite way of saying it is all in your head.

What is sex, and how can I get more of it?

Sex is nature's mechanism for perpetuating the species. Sexual reproduction uses two different types of cells: one type carries genetic material to the other, and the other receives the new genetic material and combines it with its own to produce a new, genetically unique individual. While it is easy to imagine a world where there could be many different sexes, such an arrangement would require three or more people to mate more or less simultaneously in order to produce offspring. This would create logistical difficulties and reduce survivability, and it is probably the reason why we only have two sexes.

'Sex' also can refer to the sex act. If you want more of that, you are on the wrong web page.

Do trans persons mean sex is a continuum?

A trans person is someone who has been surgically altered and treated with hormones to resemble a person of the opposite sex. This would not be possible if sex was the same as gender. For example, it would be impossible to surgically alter someone to change them from a 'genderqueer' to a 'two-spirit' person. This is because genderqueer and two-spirit, along with the many other fanciful names for genders that people have invented, are social constructions, which means they are not real.

When people say that calling biological sex binary “denies the reality” or “excludes” gays and trans people, it is called a non sequitur, which means the logic does not follow. If someone's reality can be denied by a simple fact of nature, it means their reality is based on a falsehood.

What about homosexuality?

Despite popular claims, there is no scientific understanding of why or how a person becomes attracted to a person of the same sex. People have hypothesized that it might be caused by an imbalance of sex hormones during gestation, or that it is the result of psychological trauma during childhood. There are also claims that it is merely a choice or a fad. But the cause and nature of homosexuality are not scientifically known.

However, we do know two things:

  1. Despite much research, there is no evidence that homosexuality is a genetic trait.
  2. Homosexual persons are not a new sex.

More importantly, homosexual activity cannot produce offspring. Thus the existence of homosexuality is irrelevant to the number of sexes: it could exist if there was only one sex or a million.

Birth defects

Biological sex is extremely complicated and there are many cases of individuals born with genital abnormalities. For example, recently a baby was born with three penises. In other cases, babies may be born with mixed male and female organs. And it is obvious that some adults appear and act more masculine or more feminine than others.

These individuals are not examples of different sexes. Their abnormal anatomy and physiology are simply errors—birth defects—as shown by the fact that they can be induced by toxins or radiation. It is further evidence that there are only two sexes.

Likewise, the fact that individuals have an excess of masculinity or femininity or that some poor unfortunate people are tragically cursed with extreme good looks is irrelevant to the number of sexes. If anything, it affirms its dimorphic nature.

Chromosomal aneuploidy

There are rare cases of persons born with XXY, XYY, etc. instead of the normal XX (female) or XY (male) sex chromosomes. This is called chromosomal aneuploidy and it is caused by an error in how the cells perform the incredibly complex task of separating and recombining the DNA during fertilization. These individuals have a high incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders caused by the influence that these chromosomes have on the brain.

Recently one politician claimed that these genetic defects mean there are six different sexes. An American radio network called NPR has claimed that because you can have different numbers of X or Y chromosomes, therefore sex is a continuum. This is simply false. In order for sex to be a continuum, we would need two things:

  1. There would have to be an infinite number of possible combinations of sex chromosomes.
  2. An infinite number of people would be needed during coitus to produce a new individual. This would create obvious difficulties.

One way we could imagine sex being a continuum would be if there were a vast number of sex chromosomes (let's call them X1, X2, . . . Y1, Y2, . . .) that were all mutually incompatible. For example, maybe only X47 and Y385 could produce viable offspring. That would be a strange world indeed. However, a moment's reflection should convince you that in this case we are talking about different species, not different sexes. The ability to produce viable offspring through chromosomal compatibility is one definition of a species. And of course it still would not be a continuum.

Even if an individual could be, say, XXXXXY instead of XX and XY, it would not make them a new sex, because sex is determined functionally as well as by your chromosomes. Chromosomal aneuploidy does not change the binary nature of sex; these individuals are functionally potentially males or females, even if they are infertile.

Natural selection has created many ways of enforcing the binary nature of sex. For example, in females, one of the two X chromosomes becomes inactivated in each cell. This is thought to happen because having extra chromosomes causes biochemical problems. This means the cells in a person with XXXXXY would be struggling to get rid of the extra X chromosomes and restore their biochemical balance.

Stigma and erasure

People sometimes say that affirming the dimorphic nature of sex “erases” trans people, stigmatizes them, or even that it is a form of “violence.” If so, it may be tragic, but affirming mistaken beliefs does not benefit anyone in any way.

People often adopt false beliefs for political or religious reasons, or merely because it makes them happy. Scientists often remain silent because dispelling false beliefs seems like an endless task. They may also feel that the truth is so obvious it is not worth stating, and anyone who sincerely wishes the truth can easily find a biology textbook.

But permitting false beliefs to go unchallenged, no matter how bizarre or unintelligent they may be, can have harmful effects in society. Affirming someone's false belief also deprives them of the contact with reality they need to thrive. Lying to people to make them happy does no one any favors.


apr 26 2021, 5:06 am. updated apr 27 2021


Related Articles

What does the Y chromosome do?
Is it really possible for a person to change sex? Do other animals have Y chromosomes? Some facts about our most beloved chromosome

Does gender dysphoria have a biological basis?
In one sense it's tautological: everything we do has a biological basis. But what the heck causes it?

The era of dangerous medical fads is not over
A prominent website has drawn interesting connections between sex reassignment surgery and lobotomy.

First fake news, now fake biology
Gender essentialism is the latest buzzword for denying biological truth.


On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

back
science
book reviews
home