Binary Isn’t

There’s a very interesting piece in Nature today about how science is making it more clear than ever that the binary nature of the sexes isn’t actually binary at all — that there are a lot of gradiations in biological sexual development, brought on not only via chromosomal differentation (the old “XX” and “XY” thing) but a host of other processes. This is how people with XY chromosomes can (rarely) get pregnant and give birth, and how a man who fathered four children can be discovered to have a womb. Biology: It’s wacky.

I don’t imagine this report will make essentialists (“There’s men and there’s women and that’s it!”) particularly happy, but then it’s not actually the job of science to reinforce people’s comfort zones — or bigotries, to be less polite about it. But I look forward to the mental two-step some of these folks will take to try to cram this information into their understanding of the world, rather than to expand their understanding of the world based on this information. That should be interesting, and a little bit sad.

51 Comments on “Binary Isn’t”

  1. It’s not very hard. “Science is [blank],” where blank = wrong/biased/funded by people who want to destroy America/etc., etc., etc.

    I for one find it interesting and I look forward to seeing what happens.

  2. Dichotomized (binary) thinking is actually a trauma symptom, and it’s also perfectionistic. Not surprisingly, it’s also a characteristic of right-wing authoritarians. I’ll put in another pitch for social psychologist Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians, which people can download free on the Web.

    Basically, dichotomization is a pretty dysfunctional mindset personally, but it’s also a big obstacle to social progress.

  3. I’d have a quiet little snicker to myself about their heads exploding, but then I thought- nah, they don’t read science articles anyway, because it’s obviously all a commie plot to steal their guns, or dicks, or massive fuel-guzzlers. Or something.

  4. I’m going to pop some popcorn, then go look for articles that attempt to mansplain this article away.

  5. I imagine it will go similarly to one of the common sexual orientation two-steps:

    Step 1) “Homosexuality isn’t natural!”

    “Um, actually, homosexuality is common animal behavior.”

    Step 2) “We should be better than animals!”

  6. Certainly puts the kibosh on the theists’ master watchmaker argument. But such discoveries shouldn’t come as a surprise. The universe is clearly built on bell curves, where everything exists on a spectrum, rather than in two discrete boxes.

    My own preference is to see our universe as just a rough draft on the way to the real, perfect one. The theory explains so much.

  7. @Bearpaw: Isn’t it usually a three-step?

    Step 1) “Homosexuality isn’t natural!”

    “Um, actually, homosexuality is common animal behavior.”

    Step 2) “We should be better than animals!”

    “But by invoking the natural order, you just implied that we should behave like animals, or at least the way you imagine animals to be.”

    Step 3) “Shut up, you white-knighting gamma mangina!”

  8. Just to be clear here: Surgically unmodified transfolk are not what this article is discussing.

    (But oh yes, the world is stranger than we know–than we can know, and I’ve just unearthed the big bowl, some popcorn, and a bit of butter…)

  9. I don’t think they’ll have trouble adjusting to the news at all. The default position is “I don’t agree with it. Therefore it’s a lie.”

  10. Great article John. I actually read this post of yours after reading a post at another site about transphobia and the Catholic Church… said church stance being that trans-sex people are just making shit up. The article you link to helps bring into focus that just because you own a certain set of genitalia, gonads or chromosomes, there is no one determining factor for what you feel is your sex. I especially loved the last paragraph of the Nature article.

  11. Matt: I’d agree with you, but I’ve known too many conservative Theists who insist that everything would have been perfect, and anomalies like that wouldn’t exist, if not for the presence of sin brought about by our failure in Eden.

    I’m related to some of them. It’s very sad.

  12. I think it’s fair to say that comfort zones end and bigotry begins when the question is about whether or not someone else exists. It’s no longer “agree to disagree” when discussing personal identity.

    “Sorry, but you aren’t who you are” shouldn’t get a seat at the table, and people who say it shouldn’t be surprised and hurt to be shut out of the conversation.

  13. A college friend who went into medical research described it to me this way in the 1990’s: humanity is like a cartoon dumbbell. There are two large spheres of “male” and “female” with a bar connecting the two containing people with varying degrees of both.

    That made perfect sense to me.

  14. I think you are overestimating the reaction from people who don’t want to have to think about this type of thing. They just won’t — Won’t read the article, won’t hear about the article, won’t know what you’re talking about.

    I’m going to go read it now because I do like thinking about this type of thing.

  15. I think one of the reasons people get upset by non-binary gender is because they were taught in high school that XY=boy, XX=girl. Since they were taught that it must be right. Sadly, most high school teachers either don’t know or don’t want to confuse students with the full details, which they don’t have time to get into anyway. We’ve known that gender isn’t binary for a long time. Even without the recent new revelations we have a pretty large taxonomy of human gender:

  16. The dumbbell and bell curve comments make the most sense if you look at how the distribution of everything over the natural world seems to be arrayed. Unfortunately, most of the above comments are actually taking a binary position (those whack-job righties are all the same). Who is attempting a binary overlay here? The “we” of enlightened progressive liberals who are correct about everything, or those backwater religious zealot conservatives who lack any ability to see beyond the interpretation of scripture they’ve been handed. All of this self-congratulation does nothing vis-a-vis a hypothesis that, in general, there are significant distinctions in characteristics (physically, emotional, etc.) between the male and female of the human species — with a legitimate ability (and benefit) to identifying male and female characteristics in some ways on a first approximation basis. Makes more sense to me than lumping everyone (and everyone’s trait distribution prevalence) together in monolithic fashion. It seems to me that the male and female bell curves that apply to many relevant, particular characteristics do not overlay one another completely (perhaps not even closely in certain instances), but as there are multiple different characteristics, there can be different bell curves for the male and female relating to each such characteristics. It’s complicated, distributed and nuanced (not easy), and this applies not only to life in general, but is applicable as much to liberals and conservatives as it is for men and women.

  17. In RE Hillary Rettig’s comment:

    Dichotomized (binary) thinking is actually a trauma symptom, and it’s also perfectionistic. Not surprisingly, it’s also a characteristic of right-wing authoritarians.

    That is absolutely correct. It is equally a characteristic of left-wing authoritarians. Not very many of those, I agree, but a close relative of mine (now deceased) was unquestionably one of them.

    For context, I also lean decidedly left-wing, but after having dealt with the authoritarian in our family woodpile for nearly half a century, I work hard to avoid repeating his binary thinking.

  18. What frustrates me, mostly, is the number of people who look at this and then declare that male and female are “social constructs” and nothing more.

    When you can take a pair of cats with testicles, and put them in a box, and get kittens, I will believe that sex is “entirely socially constructed”. Until then, I think that the categories are real, even though they have fuzzy and ambiguous boundaries because biology is messy.

  19. Actually, I know someone who was XY and had kids. He transitioned to male, and I was his best man. In fact, I was the only member of the wedding party with, as I quipped at the time, “OEM Genitalia”. . .

  20. Seebs: What I usually hear is that sex is a real thing (albeit one with messy borders, as discussed here), but that gender is a social construct. That is, we use the word gender to mean all those socially constructed things, which may or may not line up with the sex we’re born into (or are born on the edges of, or are born in-between, or whatever).

    Your biology is your biology, but gender is how we think and talk about it.

  21. Even in the digital circuitry world, “binary” is constructed, depending on sampling at the correct times and not sampling during transitions.

    We have our mental models, and we have reality. All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

  22. ::When you can take a pair of cats with testicles, and put them in a box, and get kittens, I will believe that sex is “entirely socially constructed”. ::

    Clearly somebody didn’t read, or watch, JURASSIC PARK, because it challenged HIS prejudices!

    @proth – beats me where you’re getting this “Leftist Doctrinaire” straw person you’re smacking around. Most of the discussions on here have been about A Certain Class of Loudmouth Conservative that takes up too much air in the room at the moment – it’s certainly not “Right Wing=STUPID AND EVIL!” (Though of course they all are….) ::In case you’re a self-righteous or humorless on either side of the political spectrum – that last is known as “sarcasm”.::

    What you need to do, if you don’t want everybody assuming every conservative is an ignorant bigot? Is convince those conservatives who aren’t – to effing speak up and be counted! They’re as bad as those “liberals” who “don’t want to cause a fuss”….

  23. And then there is the case of the woman with a chimera twin.

    Long story short, she and hubby getting divorced, DNA on kids did not match her. Police arrested her for kidnapping. She is pregnant at the time. Police there when child is born, chain of evidence clear. DNA test on that child – not her DNA. WTF?

    Turns out she had absorbed her twin. They did DNA from several organs – two sets of DNA, hers and a sibling. I think they made a House episode based on the case. I remember at least one other case of the same thing.

    Not to mention XXY and XYY cases. Fairly rare, but does occur. Also hermaphrodites are documented in medical literature. Also in the literature: women with clitorises the size of a penis, or with what looks like a penis.

    God has a *wicked* sense of humor…

    And with 3d printing of organs, penises are only a few years away, which makes F->M trans surgery “more better”. There are already 3d printed vaginas, usually for women with birth defects where it is to short to reach the uterus.

  24. “… try to cram this information into their understanding of the world, rather than to expand their understanding of the world based on this information.”

    What a nice, succinct description. And with a little reworking for general context, one that could be used in a LOT of other situations as well.

  25. @timliebe: Clearly somebody didn’t read, or watch, JURASSIC PARK, because it challenged HIS prejudices!

    Jurassic Park involved dinosaurs. It did not involve an amusement park filled with genetically altered kittens, made to attract cooing tourists, which goes horribly wrong when they get a taste for human bl-

    ‘Scuse me, I have to go and write a novel.

  26. The job of Fifth Grade Science Teachers (and their Fifth Grade Science Textbooks) is to simplify science enough so that Fifth Grade Students can correctly answer Standardized Fifth Grade Multiple Choice Exams. Too many of us reject any Science beyond that because it’s Too Complicated.

    As for me, it took until 40+ years after Fifth Grade for me to develop in my own mind The One Absolute Truth About Science and Stuff: (you may want to write this down)

  27. The article discusses intersex conditions as a subset of the nonbinary nature of biological sex. Intersex is sometimes described as “the forgotten I” of the “LGBTQQIA” acronym. Many children with intersex conditions are surgically altered at birth to match what the doctors “think” their biological sex should be…and the doctors don’t always guess right with relation to how the child will feel later in life as they develop their gender identity. I know a couple of intersex people, and one of them persuaded me to make our hospitality suite at the recent Creating Change conference more inclusive, by changing the ostensible “Transgender Hospitality Suite” to the “Trans*, Intersex, and Nonbinary Hospitality Suite.”

    Biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all on different axes from one another, and all of them are a continuum, not just a binary. It makes thinking about these issues really difficult, because there are so many individual possibilities that each person may be different.

    (Incidentally, the Creating Change conference is convened each year by the National LGBTQ Task Force, which only recently changed its name from the “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.” Everybody’s increasing their understanding and inclusivity all the time…)

  28. My husband used to be a medical laboratory technologist. Once, on a very quiet night shift, the coroner invited him down to the morgue to observe an autopsy. The deceased was homosexual, and my man had a first-hand lesson on the physical distinctions between the male and female brains. The subject of the autopsy had clearly female brain characteristics.
    Genetics was one of my favourite classes in university, and I was astounded at the variation in XXY and XYY chromosonal characteristics and how they displayed (phenotype) in the living person.
    We’re all people, people.

  29. Unfortunately, I suspect that this will fall under the “creationism default” — we don’t TEACH that -genetics- stuff… our favorite book of rules for the Universe says that there are only men and women.” Me — I much prefer the Hitchhiker’s Guide as a rulebook, but to each hir own.

  30. I’m just tired of the word “binary”. It’s SO overused these days… Oh, the article thing? Yeah, peeplz iz peeplz, man, that’s all you gotta understand. Hey, that’s kind of catchy… Think I’ll go write myself a tune.

  31. Thanks for posting this! I’ve linked it on my class site, and will be talking about it next class. The timing is so perfect – *just* finished the unit on sex determination systems/sex linkage of genes/etc.

  32. Thanks for finding this article :) I think I just discovered a media assignment article for my non majors this semester. It will go perfectly with the chromosomes and genetics unit.

  33. I’m tired.

    I’m tired of writing comments, again and again, in Charisma News, and Breitbart, and Town Hall Daily, and The Federalist and Christian News Service… but at least I haven’t been banned there, as I have from Free Republic, Catholic Answers Forum, and Democratic Underground. None of those three are interested in mere facts, only writings supporting the Party Line, be it that Sex and Gender are 100% Binary and Immutable, or 0% Binary and completely Mutable. The Left-wing sites get particularly vicious, calling for the extermination of the genetically impure, where the Right-wing ones just want them exorcised to banish their Earthly forms back to Hell from whence they came..

    Worse in some ways, the battles at WSJ and the LA Times, where those whose biological education stopped at 5th grade spout the most egregious nonsense, and viciously attack anyone who points out that there might possibly be more to it than that.

    Then there’s the Judiciary… on the whole good, but with pockets of arrogant ignorance that ignores the science, in this article and others.

    The proposed legislation that gives a $2500 bounty for detecting an Intersex or Trans schoolkid using a restroom at school (Kentucky). The other legislation making it a felony for someone Intersex to use a public restroom (Florida). I doubt either will pass. but we can’t let our guard down, for some really nasty bills have.

    The repeal at the statewide level of all local ordnances protecting Trans and Intersex people (Tennessee, recently Arkansas, several states to follow) undoing 30 years of effort at the grassroots level. The recent decision of the Mass court of appeals that the 8th amendment applies differently to Trans and Intersex people than everyone else. That it basically doesn’t apply.

    This kind of stuff:
    Senator PRATT: So you would like to see, if religious exemptions were to continue, intersex status specifically taken out of those exemptions?
    Gina Wilson : Certainly. To allow anybody to discriminate against intersex people and to allow religious organisations to have an exemption from the law is no different to allowing a religious organisation to discriminate on the basis of colour of skin or a disability that you were born with.
    Senator BRANDIS: No, it is not, because there is an ethical difference.
    Gina Wilson : We are born differently.
    Senator BRANDIS: The church says, rightly or wrongly, that in its view certain behaviours are sins.

    Senator PRATT: But what if someone is of indeterminate gender? I am unclear whether they should have the right, according to the way you would argue it, to be part of such a union.

    Mr Meney : People suffering from Turner syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome and things of that ilk are typically infertile or regarded as being mentally handicapped in some way. Many things about marriage require people to have the capacity to consent to what marriage is all about, so a significant mental incapacity might be something that might mitigate against a person being able to consent to a contract of marriage. But that is true of any marriage.

    Rev. Slucki : I think we are coming up against statute law, which wants to try and make provision for every eventuality, as opposed to common law, which tries to do the right thing in principle for the overwhelming majority. That is what this tried and true definition of marriage is—it for the overwhelming majority. The definition we have at the moment has worked well throughout the centuries and that is what we should stick with. Yes, there are unusual instances. But I think we get into dangers and difficulties when we try to fit every eventuality into our laws. I do not think we should do that. I think we should leave it.

    Reverend Slucki, Convener, Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Australia,
    Mr Meney, Director of the Life, Marriage & Family Centre, Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

    Which is why Intersex people can’t marry in Australia. They’re not “mentally handicapped”, but are indeed often regarded that way – or mentally ill, or possessed by demons of rape (as Colorado Rep Klingenschmitt puts it), or just plain perverts who deserve all they get.

    Now I better get back to it. I just needed to Vent.

  34. We make the universe with our words and thoughts, that includes science and religion and everything in between. And we need them to function. The problem is that we get attached to them.

  35. Quoting onyxpnina,

    Just to be clear here: Surgically unmodified transfolk are not what this article is discussing.

    I mostly agree; however, just to complicate things further, some trans folk are also intersex folk. Almost every statement attempting to be ‘clear’ on a subject of this complexity probably has some (inconvenient?) exceptions attached to it. Each of the variations of differences of sex development (DSD) obviously have their own characteristics and demographics; the overlapping of those demographics with trans folk can be comparatively smaller than the usual society-wide prevalence of people with gender dysphoria (such seems to be the case with women with CAIS) – or similar in proportion, or rather greater than typical (e.g., PAIS).

    Also, to slightly derail, one of the geneticists interviewed in Claire Ainsworth’s article, Professor Vincent Harley of the Prince Henry Institute, has published on the androgen receptor (AR) gene of the X-chromosome, which is suspected as one likely component influencing transgenderism in trans-feminine people; similarly, other “genes involved in sex steroidogenesis” are strongly implicated as influences in trans-masculine people. If so, this would seem to be another complication of the narrative that is out there, which insists that trans folks’ motivations about their gender are entirely owing to socialisation, and have no underlying biological basis or possible etiology. While it might be a pleasant fantasy to imagine nature has nice, sharp cut-offs and dividing lines — it very likely doesn’t!</end trans derail>

  36. First, of course,

    [The rest deleted because there’s no “of course” about what Scorpius had next to say, and because Scorpius apparently does not seem to understand that points on a line do not have to have their constituents evenly distributed in terms of raw numbers. He also does not appear to actually have read the article. Scorpius’ comment immediately following this one was also deleted for garden variety transphobia. Speaking of dealing with things as an adult, Scorpius, please grow up — JS]

  37. [Deleted for being a repost of a deleted post. Scorpius, for being an ass, you get some time in the moderation queue. Let’s say two weeks. Maybe that will calm you down — JS]

  38. Well, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve had my own survey of odd effects caused by genetic and developmental oddities that complicate alleged male/female dimorphism for almost seven years — with sidelights on Olympic Games sex-testing (they had to give up), unintended consequences of laws like the 2008 California Marriage Protection Act, and much more. I think it may also be of interest, here. (Some details from the Nature article such as the fascinating details about microchimaerism aren’t covered, but I think for a piece from 2008 mine’s still pretty comprehensive.)

    Best Regards,
    Rick Moen

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