The "biological argument"

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The "biological argument"

Postby felipefs » Wed Feb 15, 13:35 2017

This is a post I made on reddit.com/r/Feminism/ regarding the use of biological arguments regarding sexuality(and mating)/gender, and I wanted to share here.

Here is the text with fixed links:
The video submitted here days ago Trans women are not "biologically male" | Riley J. Dennis caught my attention because I'm a biologist (I'm male feminist just to be clear) that worked with evolutionary ecology and currently working with genomics. I'm sorry, this is gonna be a long, loooong post.

I will comment about what Riley said, what the youtube commenters said and add some points about what /u/DanyaRomulus said and /u/slutzombie said, because of the political importance of it, and because people mix mating system (reproduction) with sex (and this is very, very important).

What caught my attention is people (the commenters in the youtube page) (wrongly) appropriating of biological arguments to justify their hate. The most common argument is the XX/XY chromosomes define "sex." Sorry, if you are using knowledge of high school biology, it's very likely that you are using wrong information, since high school books on biology are oversimplistic.

I will comment here the points raised by Riley (which I agree with) and the youtube commenters (which I disagree with):

  • Genitals and gonads (by Riley), for the obvious reason that they are visible attributes, should be taken in account. People with varations in these parts are perfectly healthy, and the intersex parts might even be viable. Oddly, people want to put other people with genitals different than theirs inside a category of disease/disability, which doesn't have strong support by the scientific community. Variation is normal. Variation is part of the evolutionary process.
  • The objective of individuals is reproduction (by youtube commenters). Organisms have no objective. This is a misconception of evolution that organisms evolve to do something.
  • Hormones (by Riley). Yes, hormones are as important as genes. In fact, hormones might even regulate gene expression. People tend to assume that genes are the supreme commanders, but they are not. Together with gene regulation, hormones and epigenetic mechanisms(which include other substances) might cause gene methylation, leading into inability of a gene to be expressed. Hormones are non visible attributes, and they are as important as the visible attributes (genitals and gonads), as they will determine physiological develoment and change how the organism work (including neurological activity). However, there isn't the hormone that determines sex, and using such thing as testosterone test to determine sex is flawed, as there are many hormones that determine physiological development.
  • Sex(ual) determination (and mating system) is fixed (by youtube commenters). First, people are mixing sex(ual) determination, which can be the interest in partners and physiological attributes (non visible) that leads to having interest in those partners, and the mating system, which regards the capability to reproduce. And this is important, because people are wrongly making one dependent on the other: our political system only considers mating system and make assumptions based only on that.
  • Chromosomes (by Riley). I left this one for last ;). First, sexual chromossomes can regulate gene expression, one of the mechanisms is transposition (area I'm starting to work with, these days). And this regulation includes in other chromossomes. Now, transposition is, in short, the process of carrying a gene and putting it in another region of the genome, usually near the original region. This is important, because some genes are "surrounded" by regulatory regions. If a gene is carried and put in a region where it will not be regulated as before, that gene will be expressed differently. In other terms, a characteristic that was regulated by a sexual chromossome (X/Y) isn't anymore. Second, there are cases of XX men and XY women, which leads to more cases of ambiguous determination. In these cases, the individual is usually sterile. The chromossomes then leads to difference in the mating characteristic (the gonads) and the sexual (or gender identification) characteristic. And BOTH are biological, reason why I agree with Riley. If we were talking only about mating, then I would agree with the youtube commenters, but both are important.

Now, which of these are more important than the other to determine ones sex/mating I don't dare to say.

Don't take biology ipsis litteris into political arguments. Biology is a turbulent field that changes fast. Biology doesn't mean fair (see social darwinism). Everything depends on context. /u/DanyaRomulus and /u/slutzombie commented about the counterproductivity of the arguments in the political context: how these arguments can be used against the cause, as dismissing sex-based oppression and rights regarding based on "sex".

By /u/DanyaRomulus:
To sum up with an example, I think you'd have a hard time telling a transwoman battling testicular cancer that biological sex is just a social construct.


By /u/slutzombie:
Also, claiming that sex is fluid/an identity completely dismisses SEX based oppression, which isn't only relevant to gender, but biologically female anatomy- things like abortion and birth control access, which are really big issues for biological women right now and don't need to be dismissed or danced around anymore than they already are.


This can get even more complicated: what if it's a woman (yes, a woman) with testicular cancer (in this case, a woman with AIS)? What if she is trying to access her healthcare service?

I completely agree with /u/DanyaRomulus and /u/slutzombie. What I'm adding here is how dangerous is to use biological arguments, because it's not simple. It's not just "gender identity" and "biological sex". The "biological sex" can even be ramified into attributes that determine reproduction (genitalia/gonads, and can still be blurry), and attributes that have no context with reproduction (non visible attributes as genetics, hormonal production and neurological), but are still biological.

Ask a biologist about the subject if you need help. I would gladly help. I felt like these informations would be useful, not just to weaponize yourselves, but to not accept simplistic biological arguments just because they taught like that on high school.

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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby Sonic# » Thu Feb 16, 20:06 2017

You are not the only biologist on here. For instance, I think Eravial has pointed to women writing accessible books about neuroscience.

I've been reading Testosterone Rex, and even though I've known some of the broad sweeps of the argument, I've learned a lot about the history of gender, sex, and the sciences. It also helped me come up with a pretty concise way to explain gender: taking a large population, it may be possible to observe certain differences correlating some with sex, but it's impossible to predict someone's traits on the basis of sex. What you're calling the "biological argument" often tries to do the latter: predicting that women generally should have X traits and men generally should have Y traits, neglecting the overlap and variety that actually exists for individuals.

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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby felipefs » Sat Feb 18, 19:40 2017

I've been reading Testosterone Rex, and even though I've known some of the broad sweeps of the argument, I've learned a lot about the history of gender, sex, and the sciences.


I've heard good things about that book, but I then forgot about it and didn't get one to myself. I will look into it.

but it's impossible to predict someone's traits on the basis of sex.


My critique. All of our laws and social norm is based on single trait instead of considering that there many traits related to sexuality.

What you're calling the "biological argument" often tries to do the latter: predicting that women generally should have X traits and men generally should have Y traits, neglecting the overlap and variety that actually exists for individuals.


yup. Exactly that.

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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby tomokun » Mon Feb 20, 15:41 2017

WHOA! I saved this thread to pocket, because it's got some great stuff on here I would never have thought to research.

Are there are things like women getting testicular cancer which demonstrate how incredibly muddied these waters actually are? For a non-biologist science-phile like myself, that's exactly the sort of factoid that would be convenient to have on hand. Links to sources would be amazing too. I mean, I'm a championship Googler, but an actual credible source would be very useful (being useful is the reason you shared this post I'm assuming. :p)

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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby Eravial » Wed Feb 22, 0:24 2017

tomokun wrote:Are there are things like women getting testicular cancer which demonstrate how incredibly muddied these waters actually are? For a non-biologist science-phile like myself, that's exactly the sort of factoid that would be convenient to have on hand. Links to sources would be amazing too. I mean, I'm a championship Googler, but an actual credible source would be very useful (being useful is the reason you shared this post I'm assuming. :p)

Unless you're suggesting that non-operative transwomen aren't women (i.e. you at least partially still believe in biological determinism and/or that testes negate womanhood), this really shouldn't be that surprising.

But, yes, people assigned female at birth can also get testicular cancer. For example, people with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome are virtually always assigned female at birth, develop breasts and other secondary sex characteristics at puberty, and often only realize they have XY chromosomes when they never start menstruating. They have testicles, and in fact their risk of testicular cancer is even higher since they never descend, a condition that can happen in any body that is programmed to have testicles. Undescended testicles have a 4-6x higher chance of becoming malignant.
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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby tomokun » Wed Mar 1, 17:07 2017

Eravial wrote:Unless you're suggesting that non-operative transwomen aren't women (i.e. you at least partially still believe in biological determinism and/or that testes negate womanhood), this really shouldn't be that surprising.


I dunno - are you suggesting my surprise is indicative of anything but my ignorance of biological trivia? ;)

Yes, this was VERY surprising to me, because it never occurred to me that it was possible for someone who was born female to get testicular cancer. Sort of the same way that it may not have occurred to you that my dog really likes carrots.

Which he does. Even more than me.... since I only like carrots with hummus.

But I get it, 9 times out of 10 a statement on here like that is because of precisely what you suggested.

So... your links are GOLD to me... new knowledge! Thank you very much. I don't have any experience with the scenarios you outlined, so if there are more that are different, I would find them very useful when I advocate, etc.

Honestly, this... concern... about the possibility that I'm using a flawed understanding of biology to make an anti-trans case is one of the reasons why I think the problem isn't the science, but the language. The biological argument is a goal-post for the Dunning-Kruger effect. I'm not an idiot, but my understanding of biology is limited. However, I'm competent enough linguistically to recognize when language is being used with an expert's hand, so I know enough to shut-up and listen.

But this can get me in trouble when I'm dealing with someone who knows more than me, but has less finesse with English. It's like someone changed the road signs on me, and I suddenly have to adjust to the change in direction. Ignorance can account for so much misunderstanding, but if you lack the competency to determine whether the ignorance is in regards to the talent of communication, the topic being discussed, or the deeper philosophy of morality, you can misattribute the intent of the offending person.

Which is problematic, because the "cure" for these isms is education, but that necessitates a desire to be educated because you recognize your ignorance.

Which brings us back full-circle to Dunning-Kruger.

The biological argument "makes sense" if you don't know enough to know why it doesn't. And if you don't know enough to know why it doesn't, your "language group" is different from the person you are talking to. For lack of a better way of putting it, it's outside of your cultural group. Unless I'm mistaken on the science, we're hard-wired to find those "outside our group" less credible.

Which is a long way of saying, I don't think its about the argument, or the evidence.... it's about the source of these revelations.

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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby Eravial » Thu Mar 2, 14:46 2017

tomokun wrote:But this can get me in trouble when I'm dealing with someone who knows more than me, but has less finesse with English.
:eyebrow:


Eravial wrote:
tomokun wrote:Are there are things like women getting testicular cancer which demonstrate how incredibly muddied these waters actually are?

Unless you're suggesting that non-operative transwomen aren't women (i.e. you at least partially still believe in biological determinism and/or that testes negate womanhood), this really shouldn't be that surprising.

This point has NOTHING to do with your understanding of biology. You asked if women get testicular cancer. Note, you did not ask if "XX-chromosomed people" or "people assigned female at birth" or "people with ovaries" or even "female-bodied" or "biologically female" or even (gross) "natural women" get testicular cancer. No, you asked if WOMEN got testicular cancer. Transwomen get testicular cancer. Transwomen ARE WOMEN, even if they still have testes. So, AS I SAID, the only way the answer to your question could be surprising is if you believe nonoperative transwomen are NOT women, and/or that testes negate womanhood. I would give you this same response even if biology did operate under your unambiguously binary sex paradigm.

I won't stoop to telling you that you must not be very good at written communication, but if you mean to ask about a specific category, you probably ought to use a word or phrase that actually refers to that category. When someone responds to your unclear question in a way that gives you the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity for you to correct your error, maybe revisit your initial question and consider why the answer seems different from what you expected. Especially if your interlocutor managed to infer your true meaning and answered the question you meant to ask, maybe, just maybe, it isn't the language skill of your interlocutor that's the problem.

ETA: I am glad you learned something, though. Intersex is a very interesting (biologically) and impactful (socially) phenomenon with unique human rights issues that too few people know about.
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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby tomokun » Tue Mar 7, 13:25 2017

Eravial wrote:Eravial wrote:
tomokun wrote:
Are there are things like women getting testicular cancer which demonstrate how incredibly muddied these waters actually are?

Unless you're suggesting that non-operative transwomen aren't women (i.e. you at least partially still believe in biological determinism and/or that testes negate womanhood), this really shouldn't be that surprising.

This point has NOTHING to do with your understanding of biology. You asked if women get testicular cancer. Note, you did not ask if "XX-chromosomed people" or "people assigned female at birth" or "people with ovaries" or even "female-bodied" or "biologically female" or even (gross) "natural women" get testicular cancer. No, you asked if WOMEN got testicular cancer. Transwomen get testicular cancer. Transwomen ARE WOMEN, even if they still have testes. So, AS I SAID, the only way the answer to your question could be surprising is if you believe nonoperative transwomen are NOT women, and/or that testes negate womanhood. I would give you this same response even if biology did operate under your unambiguously binary sex paradigm.


Actually, yes, yes my response does require an understanding of biology.

I may have erred slightly when using the term "women", and instead should have used female. But the CONTEXT of my word-choice also matters. This semantic argument of yours ignores my very clear intent, which can be seen in every other aspect of everything else I have written. To rhetorically attempt to crucify me and label me as a "biological determinist" because of a single word out of PARAGRAPHS is to place more effort on making a semantic argument to criticize me than it would to ACTUALLY give me the benefit of the doubt by pointing out that I said women when I should have said female.

Veiled insults about my ability to communicate aside, you have demonstrated my point far more eloquently than I could have.

I am someone who has not made the biological argument in this thread (or elsewhere in this forum). I was actually glad to find a NEW way of rebutting what I think of as BAD arguments (I don't think the biological argument makes sense even as a semantic argument, because that would only be specific to biological rather than social contexts). And yet you have insisted on pigeon-holing me as a biological determinist because of a single word when you have multiple posts for context.

To what end?

To make the point that I should have used one word when I used another? You could have done that in a single sentence... and THAT would have actually been giving me the benefit of the doubt, rather than the implication that everything else I have said should be ignored because of a single, unconscious word choice in the context of being SUPPORTIVE of transpositive feminism.

In other words, I'm clearly on your side of this argument, and you opted to ignore that fact because of a "slip of the tounge". Hence my point that, "But I get it, 9 times out of 10 a statement on here like that is because of precisely what you suggested."

Curious question to everyone on here - within other feminist groups, are TERFS seeming... I don't know, more proactive? More aggressive? I'm seeing more "TERFY" responses in some Facebook groups I belong to... and I find it shocking.

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Re: The "biological argument"

Postby rowan » Tue Mar 7, 15:19 2017

I think pretty much all awfulness has seen an uptick. It's becoming more socially acceptable to say horrible things you* think even if you know they're harmful to people. Hence the uptick in all hate crimes lately.

*general "you" here
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