Biologists claimed the anthropologist misrepresented their views
A Princeton professor of anthropology argued in a popular magazine article that “human sex is not binary,” and those who defend this basic principle think it is all we need to know about males and females.
“There are those, politicians, pundits and even a few scientists, who maintain that whether our bodies make ova or sperm are all we need to know about sex,” anthropologist Agustín Fuentes wrote Monday in Scientific American.
“They assert that men and women are defined by their production of these gamete cells, making them a distinct biological binary pair, and that our legal rights and social possibilities should flow from this divide,” Fuentes (pictured, left) continued. “Men are men. Women are women. Simple.”
But scientists, including the two Fuentes linked (Colin Wright and Jerry Coyne), pushed back against this view.
First, they reasserted the basic biological fact that two sexes exist.
They also condemned as a “straw man” argument Fuentes’ notion that asserting this scientific fact — in other words, affirming that there are two sexes and they don’t overlap — means upholding rigid, possibly untrue ideas about the differences between men and women.
A “straw man” argument is bad reasoning. Grammarly defines it as “distorting an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then arguing against that extreme version.”
“In creating a straw man argument, the arguer strips the opposing point of view of any nuance and often misrepresents it in a negative light,” it states.
For example, if politician Bob Smith argued that a city’s welfare budget should be reduced, and his political opponent said that Smith wants to “kill all poor people, and that’s evil” — that’s a straw man argument. Smith’s opponent unfairly distorted Smith’s position and then called the distorted version evil. But in doing so, the opponent didn’t successfully argue anything about what Smith really said.
“The production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals, nor is it the definition of a woman or a man,” Fuentes wrote.
But reputable scientists are not actually saying that. Several took to Twitter to say so.
“These articles do nothing but argue against strawmen,” evolutionary biologist Colin Wright wrote Monday, referring to Fuentes’ article. Wright (pictured, right) is employed by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
“We evolutionary biologists [Colin Wright, Jerry Coyne, Emma Hilton and others] are fascinated by the immense diversity in body and behavior of male and female organisms,” Carole Hooven, a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, tweeted Monday.
“We also understand that mammals come in two sexes, male and female, and that these are reproductive categories that are defined by the body plan for the production of either large or small gametes.”
Hooven is the author of “T: The Story of Testosterone.”
“Unfortunately, Fuentes has tarred all the members of a diverse group with the same brush, denigrating the motives of those who assert that sex is real, biological, binary and meaningful for social policy,” Hooven (pictured, below) continued.
In other words, asserting that there are two sexes doesn’t mean that you think women are “the weaker sex,” as Fuentes had suggested. It doesn’t mean that you think there’s no overlap between the biology, preferences, and behaviors of men and women.
“The bottom line is that while animal gametes can be described as binary (of two distinct kinds), the physiological systems, behaviors and individuals that produce them are not,” Fuentes wrote.
“Producing ova or sperm does not tell us everything (or even most things) biologically or socially, about an individual’s childcare capacity, homemaking tendencies, sexual attractions, interest in literature, engineering and math capabilities or tendencies towards gossip, violence, compassion, sense of identity, or love of, and competence for, sports,” Fuentes wrote.
Yes, obviously; scientists said.
“That sex is binary is obviously compatible with traits like interest in literature varying widely between the two sexes,” according to Hooven. “It is also compatible with the existence of significant differences between the sexes.”
“I’m still waiting for someone to highlight a single example of anyone saying that the gamete binary requires, implies, or even mildly suggests that every sex-related trait must also be binary (i.e. totally non-overlapping),” tweeted Wright, an evolutionary biologist.
“As far as I can tell, this is simply a made-up opponent used as a boogeyman to push their own political agenda,” he wrote.
Fuentes’ article confuses upholding biological fact with promoting caricatures of men and women. Hooven, Wright, and others want Fuentes and everyone else to know that good scientists know the difference.
IMAGES: Shutterstock/koya979; Princeton University; Manhattan Institute; Harvard University