Into hard (biological) SF? Fancy an anthology with top name writers produced in collaboration with the European Astrobiology Institute? That’s your serious speculation on alien life right there. The only catch is that it is currently on Kickstarter, so it needs pledges in order to happen. But look, it will include stories by Mary Robinette Kowal, Peter Watts, Premee Mohamed, Gregory Benford, Tobias S. Buckell, Julie E. Czerneda, Malka Older, Stephen Baxter, Bogi Takács and many more. And it is co-edited by my good friend Julie Nováková. The title is Life Beyond Us, and you can back it here.
As I mentioned yesterday, my Ujima show for this week got postponed until yesterday morning thanks to technical issues. It is now available on the Listen Again service, and you can find it here. That page might not say it is Women’s Outlook, but that’s because it is an automated system.
I only had one interview this week. It is with Professor Julian Gough who used to be at Bristol University and is at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge (MRC). He’s involved in a project to look at possible genetic links to COVID-19 susceptibility. This is obviously of interest at Ujima because of the much higher death rates in people from non-white ethnic backgrounds.
There’s a potentially contentious issue here because of the focus of people like Cummings on eugenics, but that’s medical nonsense. All human DNA is very similar. The difference between individual humans is around 0.1%, and we are only 1.2% different from chimps. So the racist nonsense that somehow white people are completely different and massively superior to all other humans is just that, nonsense. However, as Professor Gough explains, some genes are linked to specific diseases (breast cancer, for example), and sometimes those genes are more prevalent in some ethnic groups than others. Furthermore, if there is a C-19 gene, it might not be ethnically linked, but instead be widespread throughout the population, because we already know that systemic racism is a major cause of health inequalities.
A key part of Professor Gough’s work is that he needs data, and you can help. Or at least you can if you have had your DNA sequenced. It doesn’t matter whether you know whether you have had C-19 or not, or even if you’ve had no symptoms. And it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, because the pandemic is global. So if you have DNA data, Professor Gough would love to hear from you. You can join the project here.
By the way, I did ask about data security. UK universities are very strict about such things. Your data is far more at risk from the private companies that do the seqencing than from the MRC.
The rest of the show was taken up with me pontificating about statues taking dip in Bristol harbour, and playing lots of civil rights songs by Black artists. Here’s the playlist:
- Tracy Chapman – Taking about a Revolution
- Tom Robinson Band – Long Hot Summer
- David Byrne – Hell You Talmbout
- Bob Marley – Slave Driver
- Black Roots – Bristol Rock
- Amaal Nuux – Last Ones Down
- The Specials – Racist Friend
- Eddy Grant – Boys in the Street
- Beyoncé – Freedom
- Jimmy Cliff – Peace Officer
- Prince – Baltimore
- Alicia Keys – We Gotta Pray
- Stevie Wonder – Living for the City
- James Brown – Black and I’m Proud
- Otis Redding – Change is Gonna Come
- Janelle Monáe – Hell You Talmbout
Silence is the Enemy, and Sound is the Weapon.
An exciting opportuity for young trans people is coming up in Bristol in March. As per the flyer above, there will be a series of workshops looking at the history of gender and science. The fabulous Jason Barker from Gendered Intelligence will be involved, as will the lovely people from the Rethinking Sexology project at Exeter University. The Wellcome Trust is providing the funding.
Given that this involves trans history, you might have guess that it could involve me in some way. You’d be right. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I have definitely signed up to help on the workshop on March 16th.
More information will be forthcoming in the next few weeks. Also Jen Grove from Exeter Uni should be at the LGBT History Month event I am curating at M Shed on the 16th to promote the workshops. In the meantime there’s a schedule and an opportunity to register interest here.
I have been catching up with Hannah Fry’s BBC 4 series, Magic Numbers, which is a history of mathematics. Today I watched the second episode in which Hannah touched on some of the revolutions in mathematical thinking that took place at the end of the 19th Century. One of those revolutions was the development of non-Euclidian geometry, which is a perfectly respectable field of mathematical study. I, of course, started to think of something else.
These days we tend to think of Lovecraft as a horror writer, but I suspect that he saw himself as much more of a science fiction writer. Many of his stories involved aliens, and he seemed to keep up with what was happening in science, and in maths. He was very much disturbed by the way in which the foundations of human knowledge, which had been accepted for hundreds of years, were being eroded.
Euclid’s geometric theorems had been the basis of much of mathematical thought since the time of Classical Greece. They still hold good today, but only in certain circumstances. Because the Earth is so large we can approximate living on it to living on a flat surface. On such a surface, if you follow a path that turns through four right-angles, with equal distances between each turn, you get back to where you started. But, as Fry demonstrated in the program, that’s not the case if you live on the surface of a cube. In that case you only have to turn through three right-angles to get back where you started. That’s very weird.
The program also touched on the story of the German Mathematician, Georg Cantor. He was responsible for the development of Set Theory, as part of which he discovered that some infinities are bigger than others. This too is very weird. In the latter part of his life Cantor had very poor mental health and was institutionalised on several occasions. You can just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Famous mathematician driven mad by contemplating infinity!”
If you then throw in the development of quantum physics, which was also happening around the time that Lovecraft was writing, it is easy to see how one might come to the conclusion that unravelling the mysteries of the universe might drive men mad.
On Thursday evening I attended two feminist-themed events at the Watershed in Bristol. Both of them were organized by the Bristol Festival of Ideas.
First up was science journalist, Angela Saini, promoting her new book. Inferior, expansively subtitled, How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, is all about how gender bias, sometimes unconscious and sometimes not, has been a feature of science over the years. Mostly the book is about biology, because this is an area in which men have used dubious science to claim superiority over women. This has been going on for a very long time. Aristotle has a lot to answer for, and Darwin was no better.
The biggest problem area is evolutionary psychology, where people make the most bizarre claims. Saini focused on the question as to why human women (uniquely among primates, but not the entire animal kingdom) live for a long time after they have ceased to be fertile. Many people on Twitter and Facebook reacting to my posts mentioned the sensible idea that older women are useful to society and it is good to keep them alive. There is an alternative theory (developed by men) that old women are ugly so there is no need for them to be fertile, and consequently they have lost the ability to breed.
Those of you who are on social media may have seen this week’s joke evolutionary psychology theory: that women have evolved to become bisexual because men love watching lesbian sex.
It doesn’t take much to poke fun at this stuff, but it is useful to have someone like Saini around to work on the more serious bad science. Fans of Cordelia Fine will doubtless love her book. I’m looking forward to it too, but I can’t read it just yet because the event only had a limited number of pre-publication copies and they sold out.
The reason why I was late getting in the queue is that I’d made a couple of new friends. One is a psychologist from Boston who understands the need to consider trans issues in her work. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about what she’s doing next week. In the meantime I’m going to check out the work of Charlotte Tate, who is also doing good work in this area.
My other new pal is Virginia Bergin, a Bristol-based writer of YA science fiction. Her latest book, Who Runs the World, is a pretty obvious candidate for the Tiptree. My chagrin at not having heard of Virginia before was mollified slightly by the fact that Virginia had no idea that Bristol had an SF&F community. We plan to rectify both of these issues.
The second event featured anti-FGM campaigner and Women’s Equality Party parliamentary candidate, Nimco Ali. She’s an amazing person who has done a huge amount to get the UK authorities to take FGM seriously. I recorded a brief interview with her after the talk which I’ll air on my June 7th Women’s Outlook show.
My thanks are due to Nimco for helping me understand what was going on in Rome as successive emperors attempted to ban child castration. It all makes much more sense now.
Now if only we could get the UK to ban surgery on intersex children.
Being British, I feel very guilty whenever I say I can’t come to someone’s event because I am too busy. Practically, however, doing everything just isn’t possible. Today is a case in point.
I would love to be at CN Lester’s book and album launch, but it is in London and I have many local things I could be doing.
Skunk Anansie are playing at the O2 Academy in Bristol.
The Bristol Bad Film Club are showing a truly terrible science fiction movie, Space Mutiny!.
The Bristol Festival of Ideas has several events on tonight, three of which are of interest to me. We have Angela Saini on how science has failed women; WEP parliamentary candidate, Nimko Ali, talking about vaginas; and trans man Thomas Page McBee doing a book launch.
I’m going to do the Angela Saini event, and may stay on for Nimko depending on how tired I am by then and whether any work emergencies come in today.
Arrival winning the Bradbury on Saturday has reminded me to tell you that if you don’t have a copy of the film on disc then you should go get one, because the extras are great.
First up, of course, there’s an interview with Ted. This makes me absurdly happy. His stories are so good, and he deserves some time in the limelight.
There are also interviews with Stephen Wolfram whose software was used to create and display the alien language, and with the linguist who worked as a consultant on the film. Of course a whole bunch of the film crew are interviewed. I was delighted to hear that both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner signed up immediately on reading the screenplay.
The topics for the interview range over linguistics, the nature of time and the complications of making science fiction movies.
The extras also made me think about how the film is put together. It has an actual infodump (Ian’s “what we know about heptapods” voiceover), and uses Dos Passos techniques in the TV news clips.
Finally it occurs to me how appropriate it would be for a film about language to win a Hugo at a Worldcon in a non-English-speaking country.
While most of the reading I am doing at the moment is either history research or Tiptree-related, occasionally I have to read books because they are relevant to doing trans awareness training. This means that I get to read Cordelia Fine for work. Result!
The latest book by my favorite Australian feminist is Testosterone Rex, a scathing excoriation of the idea that everything about Patriarchy; from the supposed superiority of men over women, to the supposed innately violent nature of men; from the idea that men can’t look after children to the idea that trans women can never be women; all of this is explainable by one central fact: that men’s bodies are suffused with testosterone and women’s are not. The subtitle of Testosterone Rex is, “Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds,” and the book aims to deconstruct the idea of men being from Mars and women from Venus with the same ruthless efficiency that Fine’s previous best-seller, Delusions of Gender, destroyed foolish ideas about gendered bodies.
But wait, Cheryl, I hear you say, surely this does you no good. Surely the cause of trans people is crucially dependent on their being actual, fundamental differences between men and women. Shouldn’t you and Ms. Fine be enemies?
Well, no. Firstly there is the entirely practical point that I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to get into a philosophical debate with than Professor Fine. She has a mind like a laser cutter and I know I’d end up in tiny pieces. Besides, she doesn’t argue that men and women are identical; that would be foolish. What she does argue is that the differences between men and women are by no means as all-encompassing as is generally claimed, and that what differences that do exist are rarely explained solely by chromosomes and/or hormones.
What Fine argues against is biological essentialism. And it so happens that biological essentialism is also at the root of the TERF argument against trans women. Because we have Y chromosomes, they argue, and because our bodies have, at least for a while, been suffused with testosterone, we have an innate and inescapable violent nature that we can never shake off. That, they say, makes us a danger to women, and makes it important that we be excluded from women-only spaces. It is rather ironic that the arguments TERFs use to claim superiority over trans women are rooted in the same fallacy that men use to claim superiority over women.
So I see Fine as being on my side. She’s arguing that the biology of gender is much more complicated than most people think it is, and that’s fine by me.
She’s also not averse to poking fun at the whole nonsense edifice of gender mythology. Here’s an example:
Over the past eight years or so, I’ve taken part in a lot of discussions about how to increase sex equality in the workplace. Here, I would like to clearly state for the record that castration has never been mentioned as a possible solution. (Not even in the Top Secret Feminist Meetings where we plot our global military coup.)
Elsewhere in the book she explains how a biological catalyst called aromatase that exists in human cells is capable of turning testosterone into estrogen. She notes, “even the ‘sex hormones’ defy the gender binary.”
Talking of which, did you know they female gonads make testosterone as well as estrogen? Most women do have testosterone in their bodies, just at a much lower level than men. No one is entirely sure why. It occurs to me, however, that trans women are different. Those of us who no longer have testes are on hormone replacement regimes that only supply estrogen. Trans women thus eventually end up have less testosterone in their bodies than cis women.
The book is full of fascinating and very accessible explanations of cutting edge scientific research that blows gaping holes in the nonsense ideas of evolutionary psychologists and shows us just how weird the natural world can be. My favorite set of stories involves an East African fish called Haplochromis burtoni, a species of chiclid. In a series of elegant experiments various biologists have shown that large body size and high levels of testosterone are a product of, not the cause of, social dominance. You can take a “submissive” male chiclid from one colony, put it in a different tank where it has more chance of winning fights against the local males, and it will magically take on all of the biological characteristics of a “dominant” male.
Even better, one experiment identified a lone male chiclid who, despite the fact that he won fights more often than not, did not establish a territory or a dominant social position among the other fish. His testosterone levels were way down compared to his fellow bruisers. The scientist who discovered this fish suggested that he didn’t have sufficient self-confidence to believe that he was a winner, even though his fighting record was good. I suggest a possible alternative explanation: that they simply didn’t identify as that sort of fish.
There’s nothing in Testosterone Rex that specifically supports the validity of trans identities. However, the more evidence we have that biology, and in particular human biology, is way more complicated than tabloid newspapers pretend that it is, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Social inequality is based on the idea that certain groups of people are fundamentally superior to other groups of people. If such differences don’t really exist, and no one is better than Professor Fine as dispelling them, then the cause of equality is advanced.
I’d like to end with one more scientific anecdote. It is about the idea of “failure-as-an-asset”. Here’s Fine:
It turns out that presenting men with evidence that they have done poorly at something at which women tend to excel provides a little boost to their self-esteem, because incompetence in low-status femininity helps establish high-status masculinity.
Fine goes on to explain that men can increase their chances of getting a job by talking about how bad they are at “feminine” activities in their resumes and interviews.
Which is all very well if you are actually hunting for a job, but it just goes to show that sexist nonsense means that there are activities that men are effectively barred from because of sexism. If we get rid of the nonsense, the barriers go away. Equality: it is better for everyone.
One of the issues that cropped up during this week’s insane event schedule is the issue of brain sex and the idea that being trans has been proved to be “real” because trans women have been found to have “female brains”. I do a lot of trans awareness training these days, and I never use arguments of this sort. I would be grateful if you could avoid them too.
At first sight it might seem that such ideas are helpful to the trans cause. Certainly you will see them bandied about by some trans activists on social media (I’m looking at you, India). I can totally understand the desire that trans people have to get some scientific justification for the way that they feel. I know that when I was first struggling with my identity I would have done anything for some sort of medical proof that I wasn’t crazy. I was devastated when I had a chromosome test and it came back as standard male. However, with time and experience I have come to understand that only four things are necessary to establish that being trans is a real thing:
- The fact that many people have lived trans lives many different countries at many different times throughout the history of mankind;
- The extreme distress experienced by trans people who cannot transition;
- The abject failure of attempts to use psychiatric techniques such as aversion therapy to cure people of being trans; and
- The thousands upon thousands of trans people living happy and fulfilled lives post-transition.
Brain sex arguments, on the other hand, are problematic in a number of ways. To start with, I have yet to see any study that I would be happy standing up and defending in front of a class as a cast iron proof. Proving science is (by design) very difficult. It is much easier, and much more effective, to use science to disprove the muddle-headed ideas about gender that are common in the media. We can provide circumstantial evidence of brain differences, but there is a lot of work to be done in accounting for sample sizes, possible other causes, and so on. To get a really solid proof we’d either have to do experiments on embryos, or do brain surgery on adult trans people, both of which have extreme ethical problems.
On the practical side, any attempt to bring brain sex into the discussion will immediately result in push-back from feminists, and with good reason. Ideas about differences between “male” and “female” brains have long been used as a justification for claiming that men are intellectually and morally superior to women. Personally I would be terrified of having to argue against Cordelia Fine because she’s ruthlessly effective at debunking this sort of thing. Also trans people have enough trouble with feminism as it is. The courses I run generally get very good feedback. Where I do get negative responses it is often from people who claim that I am “anti-feminist”, even when I had said in class that I’m a member for the Women’s Equality Party. Talking about brain sex would mean a whole lot more people would react negatively to my classes.
What I do say in classes is that the biology of gender is really, really complicated. It isn’t a simple matter of XX or XY chromosomes. All sorts of things go into the mix. And because that’s true, any brain sex studies that do turn up real evidence can only be a part of the story. They cannot, by themselves, explain everything about trans people. The suggested biological explanations I have seen for trans people only work for trans women, or only for trans women and trans men. All of them fall apart when faced by the existence of non-binary people.
The trouble with scientific “proofs” of why people are trans is that they will probably only cover a portion of the trans community. This can easily lead to new false binaries. Trans people’s identities will come to be judged on the basis of whether they have a particular medical condition, even if that condition only explains a small proportion of actual trans symptoms. Non-binary people in particular are concerned that medical tests for being trans would result in their being denied treatment. And of course this all feeds into the nonsense about who is a “true trans” and who isn’t.
Finally the idea that you can find evidence of someone’s trans nature in their brain is leading to people advocating brain surgery as a “cure” for being trans. People pushing this line will argue that because chromosomes cannot be changed (they are in every cell of the body) then trans people’s brains “must” be changed to “fix the problem”. I’m sure you can imagine how scary that is for trans people.
So please, let’s stay away from brain sex arguments. They are not needed, and they get us into all sorts of problems.
One of the things that came up on the show today was this news story involving Prof. Mike Benton, a palaeontologist from the University of Bristol. Up until now it was thought that all dinosaurs laid eggs, but a new discovery in China has turned all that on its head. A fossil of a plesiosaur-like creature called Dinocephalosaurus has evidence of what looks like a well-developed baby inside of the adult. That means that Dinocephalosaurus must have given birth to live young, just like whales and dolphins. On the face of it, this makes good sense. An animal that size isn’t going to find it easy to lay eggs on a beach the way turtles do. But it does seem to be a major new piece of evidence, always assuming of course that the news media has got it right.
Further to last week’s academic conference on fiction in archaeology, my new pal Anna has sent me a link to the website for the project she is working on. Here’s the headline blurb:
In recent decades, fiction writers have been creating new kinds of stories about science. They are exploring its practices, concepts, people, institutions, products and societal fall-out. What are the literary and social implications of this trend? What does contemporary fiction have to say about the human dimensions of science? Are its practitioners villains or heroes, drones or creative individuals, recluses or team players—stereotypes or multidimensional characters? Is this new wave of thinking about science in fiction leading to new literary forms? What is its role in science communication? Can a novel, film, or play make science more approachable, or inspire curiosity about scientific concepts?
I see that they have a conference planned for Toronto in May, featuring the very wonderful Karen Joy Fowler.
It all looks very interesting.
One of the most common attacks on trans people that I see can be summed up as, “But, CHROMOSOMES!!!”. We know, after all, that our chromosomes are in every cell of our bodies. We are, allegedly, indelibly either male or female. That, we are told, cannot be changed. People advancing this view always claim to be arguing scientifically. They know very little about science. Part of my job, in doing trans awareness training, is to disabuse them of their foolishness. When I discovered Sex Itself by Sarah S Richardson I knew I had to read it. I am very glad that I did.
Sex Itself is essentially a history of the science of sex chromosomes. It is a fairly short history, starting in the early 20th Century, but is none the less fascinating if you have enough of a science background to not be put off by the language, which gets very technical at times. It is an object lesson in how cultural attitudes inform scientific research. Even the term, “sex chromosomes” is controversial. I use it here primarily because I want people with a poor understanding of the issues to read this post, and I know how search engines work.
Let’s start with a simple statement (emphasis mine):
Biologists have never been under the illusion that genes and chromosomes are all there is to the biology of sex. […] Today, academic sexologists typically distinguish between chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, genital sex and sexual identity. Some would add sexual preference, gender identity, morphological sex, fertility and even brain sex to this list.
So yes, it has never been the case that science thought that sex was determined solely by chromosomes. Sorry, TERFs*.
Real science is complicated, messy. We still don’t really understand all of the biological pathways that result in the various facets of sex. What we can say is that X = female, Y = male is nonsense.
To start with, not all animals use the XX/XY system of chromosomes. Birds, for example, have a very different, and much more complicated system. And yet birds occur in male, female and intersex forms. There are species in which the form with XY chromosomes would normally be regarded as female (i.e. produces eggs rather than sperm). There is even a mammal species, the mole vole, that doesn’t have Y chromosomes. They have XX and XO variants, but the XOs still have recognizably male behavior and play a male role in reproduction.
Even in humans, “correct” configuration of the sex chromosomes is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a body of a particular sex. There is at least one well documented case of a person with XY chromosomes getting pregnant and giving birth (to a daughter with XY chromosomes). And differentiation of ovaries and testes in the embryo is dependent on two genes on other chromosomes as well as the XX/XY pair.
Despite all of this obvious science, the book chronicles endless attempts by scientists to find a magic switch that is “sex itself”, the ultimate determinant of human nature; and to prove once and for all that men are from Mars and women from Venus. One of the most ridiculous examples of this is the 2005 Nature paper by Carrell & Willard which claimed that there is as much, if not more, difference between the genome of a human male and a human female, than there is between that of a human and a chimpanzee. It doesn’t take much critical thinking to find the flaws in that, but Richardson, good scientist that she is, goes in detail into the different methods used to calculate “difference” in the human-male/human-female case, and in the human/chimpanzee case, to show that the comparison is invalid. And she makes the philosophical point that a genome is a property of a species, not of a sub-form of a species that is incapable of independent reproduction.
Another example is the ongoing debate between David Page and Jennifer Graves over the status of the Y chromosome. Page maintains that the Y is a noble beast and source of all that is great and good in humans; while Graves maintains that it is a wimpy runt with no great purpose nor any evolutionary future. I exaggerate a little for effect, but both scientists openly use sex war rhetoric in their debates so they really can’t complain. The controversy has found its way into the media, and into popular culture. Richardson cites Gwyneth Jones’s Life and Brian Vaughan & Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man as examples.
My own preconceptions were not immune from Richardson’s intellectual scalpel. The easiest way to explain the results of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (the intersex condition that gives rise to things like the aforementioned XY pregnancy) is that human bodies are default female, and need a variety of processes, triggered by the Y chromosome, to make a male. I now know that this isn’t strictly true. An embryo will not develop as fully female without other active processes.
This issue shows how complex the cultural issues surrounding gender science are. I used to think that I was being proudly feminist in stating that being female was the default state of mankind, and that being male was some sort of weird mutation. I now find that I am a dupe of the Patriarchy for believing that being female is a passive state waiting to be conquered and controlled by the masterful Y chromosome. I am suitably chastised.
Another area where I have had to modify my own understanding is the relationship between Klinefelter syndrome and gender identity. Klinefelter is a condition where the body has XXY chromosomes. When I was young, this was thought to be potentially diagnostic of trans women. I remember being distraught when my chromosome test came back as XY, because an XXY result would have fast-tracked me through the medical system. However, from what Richardson says it seems that trans women are not over-represented in the population of people who exhibit Klinefelter, and consequently the condition is neither diagnostic of, nor a potential explanation of, our gender identity.
This brings me to the most spectacular example of sex science nonsense in the book, and a possible explanation for the beliefs of the TERFs. Klinefelter is by no means the only condition in which a body’s chromosome mix is neither XX nor XY. One of many others is the so-called “super-male”, XYY. Back in 1965 Patricia Jacobs, a brilliant geneticist who discovered the biological cause of Klinefelter when she was just 21, published a study in Nature showing that inmates with XYY were over-represented in a high security psychiatric institution.
Sadly Jacobs wasn’t near as good at social science as she was at analyzing genes. There are all sorts of flaws with the study, including the later discover that XXY conditions were similarly over-represented. But before you could say “radical feminism”, the idea that a Y chromosome was an indicator of criminal violence, and two Ys doubly so, was all over popular culture. There was even a series of books, and later a TV series, called The XYY Man.
The idea that XYY was an indicator of a violently criminal nature has long since been debunked, but the idea that a Y chromosome is the seat of violence is still very much current among radical feminists and is often cited as “proof” of why trans women should not be allowed into female spaces. Personally I think that if there is any culprit then it would be testosterone, and the Nazi attempts to produce a super-soldier serum (based on research stolen from Magnus Hirschfeld’s sex clinic) would seem to back me up. Doubtless the TERFs would claim that it only takes one drop of testosterone in utero to turn a human into a violent psychopath, so trans women still can’t be trusted.
And yes, I did use the phrase “one drop” deliberately there. Many of the flawed scientific studies that Richardson describes in the book reek of eugenics, and a book I now want to read is Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, which chronicles scientific attempts to prove white supremacy.
Science, as I noted above, is complicated, and the interaction of science with society doubly so. I totally understand the need to examine how medical conditions differ between males and females (and indeed between people of different ethnic groups). As someone whose body is now physically intersex (thanks to medical intervention) I have a vested interest in such things. But the obsession that humans have with categorizing things in binaries, and with using popular misunderstandings of science as a crutch for bigotry, makes all such work very dangerous. I am very grateful to Sarah Richardson for shining a bright light on the murky issue of chromosomal sex. Hopefully I can do her work justice in future training courses.
* Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists
Because I need to get it out of my system, I’m going to do a post about all of the other things that were wrong with the talk I walked out of at the trans history conference. Think of this as a follow-up to this post.
So what else was wrong? History, for a start. Modern gender medicine did not begin with Lili Elbe, or even Dorchen Richter who preceded her. Trans men have been having surgery a lot longer. They didn’t get phalloplasty until the late 1940s when Sir Harold Gillies and Ralph Millard invented the techniques they used on Michael Dillon. But trans men could and did have hysterectomies and mastectomies. CN Lester tells me that such operations were performed on a man in Germany in 1912, and there’s a suggestion of a similar operation in the 1890s. I wouldn’t necessarily expect people to know that, but anyone with an interest in trans history should know about Alan Hart.
Hart lived in Portland Oregon and underwent surgery in 1917 and 1918. He’s pretty famous in trans history circles, through I see that his Wikipedia entry now contains reference to earlier operations in Germany. I can, however, think of a reason why the presenter of this talk might want to ignore Hart. You see, Hart was a doctor himself. He wasn’t persuaded into surgery by sexologists, he prevailed upon his medical friends to do the job for him. There’s no way that Hart can be painted as an innocent victim of the medical establishment, because he prescribed his own treatment. If the point you are trying to make is that medical transition is something forced on trans people by doctors then you’ll want to bury any knowledge of Hart.
The talk very much painted Lili as a victim of doctors. It did get right that she died as a result of an operation intended to allow her to have children but she was not, as far as I know, badgered into it. She’d got herself a boyfriend and wanted to marry him and have kids. She was 49 at the time, which seems rather ambitious, but the operation wasn’t doomed because allowing trans women to get pregnant is a daft thing to do, it was doomed because no one at the time knew much about organ transplants and the problems of tissue rejection. Had the surgeons known, there’s no way they would have tried it.
In any case, the idea of trans women wanting children is not ridiculous and unnecessary. It is certainly true that you don’t need to get pregnant to make you a “real” woman, but that doesn’t mean some of us might not want to do it. If womb transplants had been on offer when I was in my teens I’d have been very keen on the possibility.
Then there is science. Most people agree that the pink brain / blue brain thing is nonsensical. Certainly it is true that, as was claimed, if you put a man’s brain and a woman’s brain side by side on a table, a trained neurologist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them. But then if you put two lumps of coal, one made of Carbon-12 and one of Carbon-14, on a table together a chemist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them either.
The vast majority of gendered brain nonsense arises from people comparing the averages of two heavily overlapping distributions, which is bad science. That doesn’t mean that subtle differences cannot exist, nor that those differences might, in certain specialist functions, make a world of difference.
It is also true that there is no proof that differences in the way that embryos develop result in a trans identity. There is, however, good evidence that the embryo goes through a variety of different growth spurts, and the time during which the brain develops is quite separate from the time during which the gendered differentiation of the body happens, so there is a possibility.
There’s also a possibility of a genetic factor, in that a large number of trans women (including myself) have a preponderance of maternal aunts (that is, a maternal grandmother who had difficulty conceiving male babies). Such apparent coincidences are often clues to a genetic explanation.
In any case, if you poo-poo the whole idea of differences in embryo development then you are effectively erasing intersex people, because they very clearly develop differently from other humans when in the womb.
I’ll certainly agree that there is no evidence of a scientific cause of trans identities. I’d also speculate the any cause that we find will be complex, and quite possibly very different depending on whether the person in question is trans-masculine, trans-feminine or non-binary. Until such time as we know more, the right thing to do is to accept people as they are, not to insist that there absolutely is or is not a scientific explanation.
On to religion now. There are people of faith who believe that God (or Satan), deliberately or accidentally had some hand in making them trans. If that works for them, all well and good. Right now it is no better than any other explanation we have. I’m not going to descend to Dawkins-esque mockery of straw man theological positions to try to discredit them. Theologians have, after all, spent an awful lot of time pondering the meaning of evil and why it exists in the world. It is rather ironic that for an illustration the presenter chose William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”, which is not actually of God, but of Urizen, a figure who was part of Blake’s Gnostic-tinged theological explanation for the fact that God doesn’t make everything right for us.
And finally stargazy pie is not made from fish guts. I’ll admit that the heads and tails are put on the crust in part to freak out the emmets, but they are for decoration. Even if you cook whole fish into the pie, you fillet them first. It is, of course, rather delicious (and probably very good for you, being traditionally made from those oily fish that nutritionists keep badgering us to eat).
I’m perfectly happy for people to come up with whatever explanation for being trans works for them. It is a very difficult life in many ways. What I won’t tolerate is people who feel the need to delegitimize and mock everyone else’s coping strategy in order to prove that theirs is valid. And at an academic conference I won’t tolerate someone using bad history, bad science and bad theology to make such a point.
Now here’s a heartwarming story for International Women’s Day. Back in the 1960s, three brilliant African-American mathematicians — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson — were the brains behind NASA’s Friendship 7 program that launched John Glenn into space. Their story is told in the book, Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (due out in September). And recently casting has been announced for a 2017 movie based on the book. Taraji P. Henson was already on board to play Johnson. She has now been joined by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
Yep, that’s the Archandroid, in the movies, in a story about the early days of the space program. Awesome.
Kudos as well to Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley who are apparently in Shetterly’s book but not yet in the movie, probably because Hollywood likes to combine people into single roles for easy of story-telling.
To cap a week of wild science stories, here’s a claim from CERN that they have measured neutrinos traveling at faster than the speed of light.
That one I’m taking with a pinch of salt for now, but if it can be reproduced that’s all sorts of excitement for theoretical physics.
Update: And, you know, sometimes caution is warranted. Thanks to Andrew Butler for pointing me at this.
Yesterday I posted a a story about one of the classic themes of biological SF – regenerative medicine. However, there is one area of SF that sees quite a different aspect of biology as more important. Feminist SF has for some time been very keen on the idea of Parthenogenesis, the ability to have babies by asexual reproduction, without the need for men.
Can it be done? Well sure. Amoeba do it all the time. For that matter is has been observed in lizards, sharks and chickens. There are (according to Wikipedia) a few cases of it having been done on small mammals. But now a German-Israeli team of biologists think that they have found a genetic trigger that turns on the ability in any species that has that gene. Thus far they have only done it in plants, but that’s obviously just a start.
Here’s something I have been meaning to post about for a while. Earlier this week Bristol University issued a press release about a remarkable piece of work in bioinformatics. A big problem with regenerative medicine is that up until now if you wanted to grow new bits for a body you had to do so from stem cells. You can’t just take a random bunch of cells of one type and turn them into another type.
Mogrify (great name) is a software system developed by Professor Julian Gough and colleagues around the world which, “predicts how to create any human cell type from any other cell type directly”. That’s a pretty big claim, and the sort of things it might lead to are equally impressive:
The ability to produce numerous types of human cells will lead directly to tissue therapies of all kinds, to treat conditions from arthritis to macular degeneration, to heart disease. The fuller understanding, at the molecular level of cell production leading on from this, may allow us to grow whole organs from somebody’s own cells.
Cue journalists muttering about, “the stuff of science fiction”. Because it is. It is almost the biology version of FTL, except there is no inconvenient Einstein to claim that it is impossible.
Also I happen to have met Prof. Gough and he is a science fiction reader.
Obviously there is a long way to go yet before they are re-growing livers and kidneys instead of transplanting them, let alone re-growing legs or, perhaps, growing wombs inside trans women. However, the possibilities are jaw-dropping.
For those of you interested in reading further, here’s the paper.
There are many ways in which life is easier for trans kids these days. Of course there are ways it is harder too. I don’t know if I would have survived going through school as trans. But I could have avoided male puberty that way, which is an enormous incentive. It’s all about choices. What medical intervention do you want to risk? What can you afford? What are the payoffs? Some decisions are hard, and some are easy. If I were a teenager now I would be saving every penny I had for this.
It’s probably just as well I didn’t have the option, of course. I suspect I would have made a dreadful mother.
(Oh, and please don’t tell me that people with XY chromosomes can’t bear children. They can, and they have.)
OK, so “sex change” is not a approved term these days, and anyway doesn’t really happen as such, but that doesn’t stop people wishing. I know when I was a kid I used to go to bed dreaming that when I hit puberty I’d grow breasts and start to menstruate. It didn’t happen. I guess that trans boys go to sleep at night dreaming that when they hit puberty they’ll grow penises. And the interesting thing is that some of them get lucky. It really does happen.
Currently BBC2 is running a short series of medical documentaries fronted by Michael Mosley and titled, Countdown to Life. They are all about the weird and wonderful things that can go on during embryo development in the womb. Doctors tend to call these things “developmental disorders”. I prefer to call them expressions of natural human diversity. Some of the conditions Mosley talks about in the series are trans- and intersex-related.
Depending on exactly how things go as you are growing from an egg into a person, interesting things can happen that mark you out from the mass of humanity. You might become left-handed. You might become an albino. You might grow six digits on your hands and feet instead of five. Or you might develop an intersex condition.
You may have heard me talk before about Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. This is an intersex condition in which the body is unable to process testosterone. The child has XY chromosomes, but the Y has no effect because testosterone can’t do the job of masculinizing the body. These people are born looking perfectly female, grow up as girls, and go through puberty as girls. They grow breasts, but probably don’t menstruate. Often they don’t discover the truth about their biology until they have treatment for infertility and discover that they have no wombs.
Last night’s program introduced me to a different testosterone-related condition. It is known as Guevedoce, a term derived from a small Puerto Rican community where it is quite common. Children who have this condition lack the ability to make a special version of testosterone called dihydro-testosterone without which male genitalia do not develop in the womb. Consequently the children are assigned female at birth. But, like the people with AIS, these kids have XY chromosomes. The term Guevedoce translates as “penis at twelve”, because when puberty hits and a new surge of testosterone floods the body the developmental process gets kicked into gear and the kids, quite naturally, grow penises.
The really interesting thing about these two conditions is that most kids with AIS identify as girls, even before puberty, and tend to be distraught when their condition is discovered, especially if, as is generally the case they can’t have kids. In contrast, Guevedoces tend to identify as boys long before puberty reveals the truth about their biology, and they are delighted when they grow penises.
Here we have two very similar intersex conditions, one of which normally results in a gender identity at odds with the chromosomal sex, and one of which normally results in a gender identity congruent with the chromosomal sex. That’s pretty impressive circumstantial evidence that gender identity is a biological thing.
Mosley agrees. Later in the program he features a trans girl from California and explains, as I already knew, that the embryonic process that results in gender differentiation of the brain is separate from, and occurs at a different time to, the process that results in gender differentiation of the body. He sounded convinced that a biological explanation for being trans will be found.
Of course it isn’t that simple. It may well be that the process that causes someone with XY chromosomes to be trans is different from that which causes people with XX chromosomes to be trans. People who are non-binary may turn out to have a mild form of one or other of these conditions, or they may be something else entirely. In any case it shouldn’t matter. Trans people very obviously exist, and treatments are very obviously highly effective. We shouldn’t need a biological explanation to treat trans people as ordinary, sane human beings.
However, the more science like this we discover, the more obvious it becomes that those people who try to claim that “science” proves that trans people can’t exist make no more sense than those people who say that the Bible proves that trans people can’t exist. I think we’ve reached the point where we have to lump them in with evolution deniers and flat earthers.
Bristol seems to have a knack of being in the forefront of controversial developments in medical science. Michael Dillon, the first trans man to undergo full medical transition, began his journey while living in Bristol during WWII. Years later, Bristol was the location of the world’s first Test Tube Baby birth. Louise Brown was born on July 25, 1978. She has just written her autobiography. My guess is that her life has been nothing like what Heinlein imagined in Friday, but she is nevertheless a hugely important figure in the history of the way that humans meddle with their own biology. If nothing else, what she and her family went through in the years following her birth is a valuable case study in how modern society treats the results of such meddling. If you are interested in Louise’s story, you can pre-order the book from my friends at Tangent.