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‘Scientific American’ editor-in-chief thinks birds disprove sex binary


ANALYSIS: Academic journal continues to struggle to find someone who understands sex

Weeks after publishing a claim by an anthropologist that there are more than two sexes, the Scientific American‘s own editor-in-chief was fact-checked on her false claim that birds have four sexes.

“White-throated sparrows have four chromosomally distinct sexes that pair up in fascinating ways,” Laura Helmuth tweeted on May 17 along with a 2017 article in Audubon Notebook.

In case the implications of this were lost for the broader debate about transgenderism, Helmuth added: “P.S. Nature is amazing[.] P.P.S. Sex is not binary.”

But the different chromosomal options does not break the binary, as Twitter quickly informed the former president of the National Association of Science Writers.

“White-throated sparrows have 2 sexes with 4 unique chromosome combinations,” a fact-check stated. “There are still just 2 sexes that produce either sperm or eggs.”

“The female types are the white-striped females and the tan-striped females,” the note added. “The male birds are white-striped males and tan striped males.”

“Why are you outright lying about what the paper says? A ‘type’ of reproductive strategy within a sex is not the same as a sex,” University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller wrote in a tweet to Helmuth. “Shameful that the editor of @sciam is showing zero scientific integrity.”

“I don’t know if you genuinely don’t understand the paper or if you’re wilfully misinterpreting it,” scholar Colin Wight wrote. “But either way, as the editor of @sciam this is embarrassing.”

The relevant claims come from a 2016 paper in Current Biology which discusses the rare sex chromosomes seen in these birds. The authors wrote that “the species operates as though there are four sexes” and explains “the specific effectively has four sexes, wherein any individual can mate with only 1/4 of the individuals in the population.”

The paper even undermines Helmuth’s broader idea that a non-binary in sex is widespread. “Sexual systems with more than two sexes are exceedingly rare among animals, and theory predicts that they are unlikely to persist for long periods of time,” the authors wrote.

Commentator Zachary Faria, writing in the Washington Examiner, offered his thoughts.

Scientific American forfeited its right to claim it is an impartial journal of science, not least of which because it decided to give an endorsement in the 2020 presidential election,” Faria wrote. “The outlet makes a mockery of science under the direction of Helmuth to please left-wing activists, and all of its work should be viewed through that scope.”

MORE: Student sues after being banned for wearing ‘two genders’ shirt

IMAGE: Laura Helmuth/Twitter

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Matt has previously worked at Students for Life of America, Students for Life Action and Turning Point USA. While in college, he wrote for The College Fix as well as his college newspaper, The Loyola Phoenix. He holds a B.A. from Loyola University-Chicago and an M.A. from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He lives in northwest Indiana with his family.