As a follow on to a previous blog entry of mine, Free and Open, I feel it worthwhile to do my bit to dismantle the pseudo-science and over simplification in the idea that gender is binary at a biological level.
TL;DR: Science simply does not support binary sexes or binary genders. Truth is a bit more complicated.
There is certainty and there are binary answers in mathematics. Things get less definitive in physics, certainly as soon as quantum is broached. Processes become more of an equilibrium between states in chemistry, never wholly one or the other. Yes, there is the oddity of absolute zero but no experiment has yet achieved that fully. It is accurate to describe physics as a development of applied mathematics and to view chemistry as applied physics. Biology, at the biochemical level, is applied chemistry. The sciences build on each other, "on the shoulders of giants", but at each level, some certainty is lost, some amount of uncertainty is expanded and measurements become probabilities, proportions and percentages.
Biology is dependent on biochemistry - chemistry is how a biological change results in a different organism. Physics is how that chemical change occurs - temperature, pressure and physical states are inherent to all chemical changes.
Outside laboratory constraints, few chemical reactions, especially in organic chemistry, produce one and only one result from two or more known reagents.
In biology, everyone is familiar with genetic mutations but a genetic mutation only happens because a biochemical reaction (hydrogen bonding of nucleobases) does not always produce the expected result. Every cell division, every viral infection, there is a finite probability that a change will occur. It might be a small number but it is never zero and can never be dismissed. This is obvious in the current Covid pandemic - genetic mutations result in new variants. Some variants are inviable, some variants produce no net change in the way that the viral particles infect adjacent cells. Sometimes, a mutation happens that changes everything. These mutations are not mistakes - these are simply changes with undetermined outcomes. Genetic changes are the foundation of biodiversity and variety is what allows lifeforms of all kinds to survive changes in environmental factors and/or changes in prevalent diseases.
It is precisely the same in humans, particularly in one of the principle spheres of human life that involves replicating genetic material - the creation of gametes for sexual reproduction. Every single time any DNA is copied, there is a finite chance that a different base will be put in place compared to the original. Copying genetic material is therefore non-binary. Given precisely the same initial conditions, the result is not always predictable and the range of how the results vary from one to another increases with every iteration.
Let me stress that - at the molecular level, no genetic operation in any biological lifeform has a truly binary result. Repeat that operation sufficiently often and an unexpected result WILL inevitably occur. It is a mathematical certainty that genetic changes will arise by attempting precisely the same genetic operation enough times. Genetic changes are fundamental to how lifeforms survive changing conditions. Life would likely have died out a long time ago on this planet if every genetic operation was perfect. Diversity is life. Similarity leads to extinction.
Viral load is interesting at this point. Someone can be infected with a virus, including coronavirus, by encountering a small number of viral particles. Some viruses, it may be a few hundred, some viruses may need a few thousand particles to infect a vulnerable host. But here's the thing, for that host to be at risk of infecting another host, the virus needs the host to produce billions upon billions of copies of the virus by taking over the genetic machinery within a huge number of cells in the host. This, as is accepted with Covid, is before the virus has been copied enough times to produce symptoms in the host. Before those symptoms become serious, billions more copies will be made. The numbers become unimaginable - and that is within a single host, let alone the 265 million (and counting) hosts in the current Covid19 pandemic. It's also no wonder that viral infections cause tiredness, the infection is diverting huge resources to propagating itself - before even considering the activity of the immune system.
It is idiocy of the highest order to expect all those copies to be identical. The rise of variants is inevitable - indeed essential - in all spheres of biology. A single viral particle is absolutely no threat of any kind - it must first get inside and then copy the genetic information in a host cell. This is where the complexity lies in the definition of life itself. A virus can be considered a lifeform but it is only able to reproduce using another, more complex, lifeform. In truth, a viral particle does not and cannot mutate. The infected host mutates the virus. The longer it takes that host to clear the infection, the more mutations that host will create and then potentially spread to others.
Now apply this to the creation of gametes in humans. With seven billion humans, the amount of copying of genetic material is not as large as the pandemic but it is still easy for everyone to understand that children do not merely combine the DNA of both parents. Changes happen. Human sexual reproduction is not as simple as 1 + 1 = 2. Sometimes, the copying of the genetic material produces an unexpected result. Sexual reproduction itself is non-binary. Sexual reproduction is not easy or simple for lifeforms to adopt - the diversity which results from the non-binary operations are exactly why so many lifeforms invest so much energy in reproducing in this way.
Whilst many genetic changes in humans will be benign or beneficial, I’d like to take an example of a genetic disorder that results from the non-binary nature of sex. Humans can be born with the XY phenotype - i.e. at a genetic level, the individual has the same combination of chromosomes as another XY individual but there are changes within the genes in those chromosomes. We accept this, some children of blonde parents do not have blonde hair, etc. There are also genetic changes where an XY phenotype is not binary. Some people, who at a genetic level would be almost identical to another person who is genetically male, have a genetic mutation which makes it impossible for the cells of that individual to respond to androgens (testosterone). (See Androgen insensitivity syndrome). Genetically, that individual has an X and a Y chromosome, just like many other individuals. However, due to a change in how the genes on those chromosomes were copied, that individual is biologically incapable of constructing the secondary sexual characteristics of a male. At a genetic level, the individual has the XY phenotype of a male. At the physical level, the individual has all the sexual characteristics of a female and none of the sexual characteristics of a male. The gender of that individual is not binary. Treatment is centred on supporting the individual and minimising some risks from the inactive genes on the Y chromosome.
Human sexual reproduction is non-binary. The results of any sexual reproduction in humans will not always produce the binary option of male or female. It is a lie to claim that human gender is binary. The science is in plain view and cannot be ignored.
Identifying as non-binary is not a "cop out" - it can be a biological, genetic, scientific fact.
Human sexuality and gender are malleable. Where genetic changes result in symptoms, these can be ameliorated by treatment with human sex hormones, like oestrogen and testosterone. There are valid medical uses for anabolic steroids and hormone replacement therapies to help individuals who, at a genetic level, have non-binary gender. These treatments can help align the physical outer signs with the personality and identity of the individual, whether with or without surgery. It is unacceptable to abandon such people to suffer life long discrimination and harassment by imposing a binary definition that has no basis in science.
When a human being has an XY phenotype, that human being is not necessarily male. That individual will be on a spectrum from female (left unaffected by sex hormones in the womb, the foetus will be female, even with an X and a Y chromosome), to various degrees of male.
So, at a genetic, biological level, it is a scientific fact that human beings do not have binary gender. There is no evidence that this is new to the modern era, there is no scientific basis for thinking that copying of genetic material was somehow perfectly reliable in earlier history, or that such mutations are specific to homo sapiens. Changes in genetic material provide the diversity to fight infections and adapt to changing environmental factors. Species have and will continue to go extinct if this diversity is absent.
With that out of the way, it is no longer a stretch to encompass other aspects of human non-binary genders beyond the known genetic syndromes based on changes in the XY phenotype. Science has not uncovered all of the ways that genes affect personality, behaviour, or identity.
How other, less studied, genetic changes affect the much more subtle human facets, especially anything to do with consciousness, identity, personality, sexuality and behaviour, is guesswork. All of these facets can and likely are being affected by genetic factors as well as environmental factors in an endless range of permutations. Personality traits are a beautiful and largely unknowable blend of genes and environment. Genetic information has a finite probability of changes at each and every iteration. Environmental factors are more akin to chaos theory. The idea that the results will fit into binary constructs is laughable.
Human society puts huge emphasis on societal norms. Individuals who do not fit into those norms suffer discrimination. The norms themselves have evolved over time as a response to various influences on human civilisation but most are not based on science. It is up to all humans in that society to call out discrimination, to call for changes in the accepted norms and support those who are marginalised. It is a precarious balance, one that humans rarely get right, but it must be based on an acceptance that variation is the natural state. Artificial constraints, like binary genders, must be dismantled because human beings and human sexual reproduction are not binary.
To those who think, "well it is for 99%", think again about Covid. 99% (or closer to 98%) of infected humans recover without notable after effects. That has still crippled the nations of the globe and humbled all those who tried to deny it. Five million human beings are dead because "most infected people recover".
Just because something only affects a proportion of human beings does not invalidate the suffering of those humans and the discrimination that those humans will face.
Societal norms are not necessarily correct. Religious and other influences typically obscure and ignore scientific fact and undermine human kindness.
The scientific truth of life on this planet is that gender is not binary.
The more complex the lifeform, the more factors will affect where on the spectrum any one individual will appear.
Just because we do not yet fully understand how genes affect human personality and sexuality, does not invalidate the science that variation is the natural order.
My previous blog about diversity is not just about male vs female, one nationality vs another, one ethnicity compared to another. Diversity is diverse. Diversity requires accepting that every facet of humanity is subject to variation. That leads to tension at times, it is inevitable. Tension against societal norms, tension against discrimination, tension around those individuals who would abuse the tolerance of others for their own gratification or from their own ignorance.
None of us are perfect, none of us have any of this fully sorted and all of us will make mistakes. Personally, I try to respect those around me. I will use whatever pronouns and other conventions that the person requests, from their perspective and not mine. To do otherwise is to deny the natural order and to deny the science.
Celebrate all diversity, it is the very stuff of life.
- Final comments:
The discussions around (typically female) bathroom facilities often miss the point. The concern is not about individuals who describe themselves as non-binary. The concern is about individuals who are fully certain of their own sexuality and who act as sexual predators for their own gratification. These people are acting out a lie for their own ends. The problem people are the predators, so stop blaming the victims who are just as at risk as anyone else who identifies as female. Maybe the best people to spot such predators are those who are non-binary, who have had to pretend to fit into societal norms. Just as travel can be a good antidote to racism, openness and discussion can be a tool to undermine the lies of sexual predators and reassure those who are justifiably fearful. There can never be a biological binary test of gender, there can never be any scientific justification for binary division of facilities.
Humanity itself is not binary, even life itself has blurry borders around comas, suspended animation and locked-in syndrome. Legal definitions of human death vary around the world.
The only common thread I have ever found is: Be kind to each other.
If you find anything above objectionable, then I can only suggest that you reconsider the science and learn to be kind to your fellow humans. None of us are getting out of this alive.
- Useful sources and further reading:
I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That - Ben Goldacre ISBN 978-0-00-750514-2 https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00HATQA8K/
- About me:
My degree is in pharmaceutical sciences and I practised community and hospital pharmacy for 20 years before moving into programming. I have direct experience of supporting people who were prescribed hormones to transition their physical characteristics to match their personal identity. I had a Christian upbringing but my work showed me that those religious norms were incompatible with being kind to others, so I rejected religion and I now consider myself a secular humanist.