No, Science Does Not Say There Are Only Two Genders

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This sign is wrong.

One of the Conservative criticisms of the generally left-leaning March for Science is the refusal of many modern scientists to embrace the so-called fact that “there are only two genders”. The problem with this criticism is that it is not based on fact at all.

While used interchangeably in casual speech, sex and gender are not really the same thing. Sex refers to an organism’s reproductive structures, which are determined by hormones and chromosomes. Gender refers to a role that a human[1] takes in their society, which is often, but not always, determined by sex. While modern Conservatives may prefer a society that has only two genders that are always determined by a person’s sex[2], not all human societies agree with that (this can be explored at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/ ). Science generally and anthropology specifically therefore says that “there are as many genders as society says there are.”

The question then moves from “how many genders are there?” to “how many genders should society allow?” and “who is allowed to identify as what gender?”. While Conservatives have made their preferences quite clear on that subject, they have not presented convincing arguments for why society should conform to their preferences. Thus far two arguments have been advanced. The first is the vicious lie that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms designated for the opposite sex puts children or cis-women in danger of sexual assault by trans-people (Brady 2016). The second argument is the fact that it can be confusing to keep track of the seemingly ever-expanding number genders other than masculine/male and feminine/female and the pronouns that people in those genders may prefer.

The idea that transgender people represent a threat to cis-gender people has already been disproven (Brady 2016) so there is no need to engage with it further. The fact that keeping track of people’s gender and pronoun preferences can be confusing, is not a good reason to fail to accommodate them within reason. Our society already accommodates dietary preferences, both religious and otherwise, even if we do not find veganism or the idea that pork is “unclean” ethically or theologically compelling. We have also learned to accept the occasional turban, hijab, or yarmulke in an otherwise “no-hats” workplace. Referring to someone by their preferred gender and pronoun really is not any more difficult.

While most humans belong to one of two sexes, gender is socially variable and there does not seem to be any social disadvantage to multiple genders or people identifying as a gender that does not “match” their sex. As a result, from this scientist’s perspective the answer to “how many genders should society allow?” is “as many as people want to have” and the answer to “who is allowed to identify as what gender?” is “every person can decide for themself[3]”. While not a scientific principle per se, “live and let live” is a highly rational philosophy.

References:

Anonymous. “A Map of Gender Diverse Cultures” PBS http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/ Accessed 24-Apr-2017

Brady, J. 15-May-2016. “When A Transgender Person Uses A Public Bathroom, Who Is At Risk?” NPR. http://www.npr.org/2016/05/15/477954537/when-a-transgender-person-uses-a-public-bathroom-who-is-at-risk Accessed 24-Apr-2017

Gruber, K. 23-Sep-2016. “Five wild lionesses grow a mane and start acting like males”. New Scientist https://www.newscientist.com/article/2106866-five-wild-lionesses-grow-a-mane-and-start-acting-like-males/ Accessed 24-Apr-2017

Marshall, M. 9-Nov-2011. “Zoologger: The only cross-dressing bird of prey”. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21138-zoologger-the-only-cross-dressing-bird-of-prey/ Accessed 24-Apr-2017

[1] Although there are reports of female lions that act like males (Gruber 2016) and male harriers that act like females (Marshall 2011).

[2] They seem to ignore the fact that not all humans are XX females or XY males.

[3] This seems like a good time for the singular “they”.

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Social Justice and the Zombie Apocalypse (Based on a Conversation with Levi Lewis)

In 1974, Garrett Hardin published his controversial essay “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” in Psychology Today. In this essay, he argues that rich countries should neither give food aid to poor countries nor should they allow people from those countries to “come to the food” by immigrating to rich countries. While many find this policy immoral, Hardin contends that efforts to relieve starvation in the short run do nothing to change the unsustainable population growth of poor countries and lead to greater harm in the long run as the demands of increasing numbers of poor people begin to outstrip the entire planet’s supply of resources. Hardin compares the citizens of rich countries to the passengers of a nearly-full lifeboat surrounded by multitudes of drowning swimmers, where allowing more people to board would risk swamping the lifeboat and dooming everybody. He asserts that just as in the lifeboat situation it would be moral to prevent additional swimmers from boarding, it is moral for the rich to deny the poor the “lifeline” of food aid or immigration.

 

While some individuals find Hardin’s analogy compelling, and English landlords during the Great Irish Famine would certainly have appreciated it, it makes some important and inaccurate simplifications. The first is that on a lifeboat the main limiting resource is space, something that each passenger uses roughly the same amount of. On our planet however, space is not the primary limiting factor. We are much more limited by food, water, and energy, which rich and poor people use in vastly different quantities. In fact, in 1999, it was estimated that the richest 16% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its natural resources (Utley 12-Oct-1999). If the richest 16% of people were willing to take steps to correct this imbalance and live a somewhat less luxurious, but by no means food-insecure, lifestyle at least some of those currently starving could be adequately fed. While Hardin claims that the “lifeboat” of food-security is already filled to capacity by passengers, it seems that in reality some of the “space” is taken up by the equivalent of Louis Vuitton suitcases that could be thrown overboard to make room for additional people and save additional lives.

Lifeboat

Hardin’s second oversimplification may be even more misleading than his first. In his lifeboat example, any people denied boarding will have no means of retaliation, at least not on this side of eternity. The passengers will remain perfectly safe as the swimmers drown all around them. There are reasons to suspect, however, that the rich will not remain safe while the poor starve. Not everyone denied food aid or the opportunity to immigrate dies instantly[1] and some of the survivors may resent those who could have helped them and did not. Enough resentful survivors could represent a serious security risk to the rich countries that expected them to quietly starve to death. Perhaps a better analogy than a lifeboat after a shipwreck would be a well-stocked fortress at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. While the gatekeepers can turn those seeking shelter away, and may have justifiable reasons for doing so, there is no guarantee those denied entry will not come back later, perhaps in a much more dangerous form[2]. While Hardin is correct to point out that there are ecological risks to aid policies designed to help the poor, refusing to help is not a perfectly safe option.

 

While the concept of “Lifeboat Ethics” makes for a good catch phrase it ignores the fact that modern food shortages are due to inequitable distribution rather than global shortage and neglects some very frightening security implications. While many people have legitimate fears about the ecological consequences of an increasing human population, those concerns should not be used as an excuse to behave like a 19th century absentee landlord. Instead, let us try to prevent women from being forced to breed either by rape or by forced marriage and to make family planning safer and more widely available. Hardinian thinking should be thrown out of the lifeboat along with those Louis Vuitton suitcases.

 

References:

Hardin, G. Sep-1974. “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor” http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_lifeboat_ethics_case_against_helping_poor.html (Accessed 4-Apr-2017).

Utley, G. 12-Oct-1999. “World’s wealthiest 16 percent uses 80 percent of natural resources”. CNN http://www.cnn.com/US/9910/12/population.cosumption/ (Accessed 4-Apr-2017)

[1] Anyone who uses this as justification for not helping the poor should really try to be more compassionate.

[2] This analogy is for explanatory purposes only. Obviously poor people do not actually resemble zombies.