Ivy League Sophistry about Sex and Gender
In opposition to the traditional view that sex is “binary,” i.e., that humans divide into males and females, Princeton University anthropology professor Agustín Fuentes claims that the traditional way of marking sex distinctions by reference to biological reproductive cells (sperm and egg cells), does not determine whether someone is male or female.
That, he says, is “bad science” because the production of sex cells "does not … tell us all we need to know about sex, especially human sex” and does not, therefore, determine the definitions of “woman” and “man.”
Fuentes also claims that to believe that sex is binary on those grounds is discriminatory: “When someone” claims that “an organism’s sex is defined by the type of gamete (sperm or ova) it produces and argues that legal and social policy should be 'rooted in properties of bodies,' they are not really talking about … sex biology [but are] arguing for a specific political, and discriminatory, definition of what is 'natural' and ‘right’ for humans …." To support this accusation of discrimination he refers to a paper by 6 biologists who argue that “‘sex’ is a constructed category” that enacts “harm on marginalized communities.” That is, Fuentes’ agenda is explicitly political, not scientific. Fuentes also betrays his political agenda when he blasts Republicans for criticizing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the SCOTUS hearings in 2022 for refusing to define what a woman is, saying, "I'm not a biologist."
In fact, Fuentes provides no scientific argument whatsoever that sex is non-binary. He presents an ideological view borrowed from “post-modernist” philosophy and disguised with some scientific jargon that our sex concepts are culturally constructed (and therefore easily “deconstructed”). Unfortunately, post-modernists make life very easy for themselves when they fallaciously infer from that trivial fact that we construct our concepts to the conclusion that we construct the reality represented by those concepts. Although there is an obvious sense in which our concept of a woman is culturally constructed that does not mean that there is not a reality to womanhood independent of human constructions.
Further, since post-Modernists reject the notion of truth they cannot consistently claim that their assertions are true. Post-Modernists just want to construct a narrative without going through labour of showing that it’s true. Since post-Modernists are not really after truth, their “arguments” generally consist in a confused mixture of platitudes, excessive verbiage and sophistries.
Consider first one of Fuentes’ platitudes, that: “While sperm and ova matter, they are not the entirety of biology and don’t tell us all we need to know about sex, especially human sex." Thanks for the platitude that any competent biology text lists additional aspects of sex and human sex, for example, that in most mammals males are larger than females. Fuentes’ simply attacks a “straw man” position that is easy to refute but which, unfortunately, avoids the real scientific or philosophical issues concerning sex and gender. Putting the same point in a different way, biology texts will list many defining features of “man” and “woman” but these will refer to real, not socially constructed, aspects of men and women.
Similarly, Fuentes’ claim that when someone “argues that legal and social policy should be 'rooted in properties of bodies,' they are not really talking about … sex biology” is a tautology. Thanks for informing us that making claims about “legal and social policy” is “not really talking about sex biology. We already knew that.
Further, Fuentes’ claim that sex is "cultural" because it is enmeshed in "social processes" proves nothing. Our talk about snow is enmeshed in social processes as well but that does not mean that snow is a social construct. The fact that the Eskimos have about 50 words for snow suggests that snow is not a social construct because this shows that the Eskimos have necessarily become more attentive to the reality of snow, so important to their lives, than typical Americans.
Similarly, biological heterosexual sex is also “enmeshed” in social and cultural processes but that does not make it social and cultural construct now does it? It is still just the transfer of sperm to ova via the usual biological processes that took place long before social and cultural processes ever existed!
The fact that Fuentes’ argument is not scientific is admitted in the article he cites to support his view. In that article, one of the biologists Fuentes cites, Sara Lipshutz, admits that "I actually came at this article from a political place, which is scary because I’m supposed to be the objective and neutral scientist. I was really upset at some of these policies aimed at harming transgender people."
Thanks Sara, for admitting that your views are not based on “neutral” science but on a political agenda. Unfortunately, it is not the job of scientists to make “nice nice” to any demographic group. It is their job to discover the truth about the world from an objective perspective. Second, Lipschutz’s claim that certain views “harm” the transgender community is question-begging (assumes what it purports to prove). For one cannot determine what harms or helps the transgender community unless one first determines the objective biological truth about that condition. That is, the notion of objective truth is conceptually prior to her claims about harm. It was not so long ago that everyone understood that this conceptually prior neutrality is the whole point of doing science. Fuentes, Lipschutz and the others are not doing science. They are doing philosophy, and conceptually confused philosophy, at that.
Fuentes is also wrong about Brown Jackson’s evasive refusal to define what a woman is. For there was this thing called a “woman’s rights movement” that we had all been led to believe was quite important. Apparently Brown Jackson has forgotten there are these things called dictionaries that contain lexical (conventional) definitions of English words needed for everyday communication. She was never asked for a scientific (theoretical) definition of a woman.
It is worth pointing out that Fuentes et al. could have argued that there are non-binary individuals, specifically, people with Klinefelter syndrome (XXY chromosomes) or Jacobsen’s syndrome (XYY chromosomes). However, these cases are exceptions based in biological reality, not fabricated by post-modernist activists in the service of a political ideology.
Given the depths to which academia has sunk under the influence of dishonest incoherent post-modern philosophy, it is necessary to point out that nothing about the claim that that it is biological reality that human sex is binary implies that we should not be respectful of LGBT people. The mistreatment of LGBT people, many of whom are great people, is just wrong (sometimes disgusting). Nor does anything in the claim that human sex is predominately binary mean that one should not respect people who don’t feel they conform to binary categories. That is a different question that requires a completely different kind of discussion. Put simply, an “is” does not imply an “ought.” One could actually have a serious respectful discussion of these issues, minus the post-modernist dodges and sophistries, if anyone is really interested.
One used to go to universities to get clarity on issues. Now one usually only gets a shell game.
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