Yet More Science

Thanks to a recent repeat I was able to catch up on a 2013 BBC Horizon program. This was a fix-up show using archive footage from a number of early programs, and connected by a framing narrative provided by Alice Roberts. The subject of the program was Sex, and it is still available on iPlayer.

The first thing that struck me about the show is that Alice’s segments were clearly filmed in Cabot Circus in Bristol. Well, Alice did used to teach at Bristol University, but the idea of Bristol being the UK’s hub of knowledge about sex amused me. There was also some great archive footage of interviews with Alfred Kinsey and some of his subjects. But what interested me were the two segments on gender identity.

The first was from a show about the disastrous affair of Dr. John Money and David Reimer, which I presume you are all familiar with. What I hadn’t seen before were clips from a 2002 film featuring a trans man called Alex Toth. Alex had the dubious honor of being put through a battery of physical, psychological and medical tests before and after his testosterone treatment. The differences, even on the tests of his brain activity, were significant. Judging by the needs of program-making and the changes in Alex’s appearance in the “before” and “after” tests, I don’t think he can have been on testosterone for more than a year or two between them. Nevertheless there were major changes in his appearance, his physical skills, and the way in which his brain worked.

Nevertheless, our TERF friends continue to asset that trans women are “really” men, will always be so, and no amount of medical intervention can change that; and that “science” proves this. Maybe the hormone magic only works one way. Or maybe heads are firmly in the sand.

Science! It Is Getting Everywhere

While I was having a go at the New Statesman over their lack of understanding of biology, people with far more knowledge of the subject than me were also beavering away on articles.

You have probably already seen this article in Nature, if only because John Scalzi blogged about it. Truly, biology is far more weird and wonderful than most of us can imagine.

I’d also recommend this follow-up piece by Vanessa Heggie in the Guardian (science pages, of course, where being nice to trans people is allowed). It points out, quite rightly, that all this is by no means new. One of the mentions goes to Anne Fausto-Sterling whose work was the basis for Melissa Scott’s novel, Shadow Man.

Something that was new to me from that article was the work of Keith L Moore who proposes a nine-axis definition of sexual identity, those components being external genital appearance, internal reproductive organs, structure of the gonads, endocrinologic sex, genetic sex, nuclear sex, chromosomal sex, psychological sex and social sex. I need to check out what some of those mean, but at a first glance it appears that trans women would count as female on only four out of nine, which would inevitably lead to people saying, “Less that half”! See, science proves you are not female!!!”

Then again, I am prepared to forgive Moore a lot for saying this:

Females have been declared ineligible for athletic competition for no other apparent reason than the presence of an extra chromosome…[these tests] cannot be used as indicators of ‘true sex’

Oh how Germaine Greer must hate him.

By the way, as Roz pointed out on Twitter yesterday, science is generally held by RadFems to be an Evil Patriarchal Plot (remember this?) except when it can be twisted to “prove” that trans women are men.

While I’m here, I’d also like to point you at a recent letter to the Guardian attacking Stonewall’s decision to support trans people. I’m often asked why some gay and lesbian people hate trans folk. This brings up some of the issues. In particular there’s this:

Pressure groups are usually single-issue institutions, and this is true of Stonewall and other gay and bisexual charities: the issue being the acceptance of same sex attraction as not being a disease of body nor an illness of the mind. This has been the central platform for the acceptance of all gay rights.

Transsexualism is defined as the disjunction between a mind of one sex and the body of another, a physical or a mental dysmorphia between gender and physical sex, requiring a cure – surgery. This is the opposite of everything that LGB groups, and feminist groups, have been fighting for…

The implication here, of course, is that trans people are sick, whereas same sex attraction is “normal”. And of course the writer claims that this is not a “transphobic” idea, presumably because he thinks it is a “fact”.

The main problem with this is that by no means all trans people either want or need medical intervention. Fighting for trans rights is first and foremost about the right to not have to conform to binary gender roles. That’s an issue that lots of LGB people ought to be able to get behind.

Secondly, what medical options are offered to trans people (by responsible doctors, not by Bindel and her pals) are not intended to stop people being trans, but are quite the opposite. I quite understand the fear that older LGB people have of “cures”, because the sorts of things they remember with horror are still done to trans people. However, there is a huge difference between medical treatment intended to support someone’s sense of self, and medical treatment intended to destroy that identity. I don’t think that support for trans people is the slippery slope that the letter writer fears it might be.

What we should be doing is not trying to claim that one group of people is “normal” while others are “sick”, but to move away from the stigmatization of people who require some medical intervention to get on with their lives happily.

Intersectionality, it is about understanding that other people’s oppression is just as real to them as yours is to you.

Scientifically Illiterate, Medically Dangerous

The other major piece of anti-trans propaganda that appeared in the media recently is, of course, in the New Statesman. I am fast coming to the conclusion that Helen Lewis and her staff don’t just hate trans women, they want to cause us actual harm. First there was their trolling of Leelah Alcorn, and now this. Let me explain.

For the most part the article is a truly dreadful attempt at Oppression Olympics. It goes on and on about how evil, “McCarthyist” trans women are preventing feminists from saying, well, anything really. The most spectacular part of it is where it tries to insinuate that BlockBot, a tool developed by feminists on Twitter to protect themselves from GamerGate, is in fact a weapon invented by trans women to shut down feminist debate. (And here once again we see the accusation that by refusing to listen to the hate being directed at us we are somehow “censoring” our opponents.)

The reason I am interested in the article, however, is that it makes some specific scientific claims about trans women. (And by the way, you can always tell nonsense articles about trans people because they talk almost exclusively about trans women.) I’d like to take a look at these claims and see how they stand up.

The first thing I did on reading the article was to check the author to see if they had any scientific credentials. The byline is “Terry Macdonald”, which the article freely admits is a pseudonym. I’m guessing that this is an attempt to insinuate that writing about trans women is not safe, and the author has to remain anonymous for their own protection. Goodness only knows how long a New Statesman writer would survive in the shoes of Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn or Brianna Wu, who are actually risking their lives. But hey, trans women, the greatest threat to civilization the world has ever known and all that.

Or possibly, of course, it is some complicated shell game that will end with Sarah Ditum yelling, “See you misgendered me, you are a transphobe, I WIN!!!” Given that the situation is uncertain, I shall use gender-neutral pronouns for Macdonald.

Anyway, the point is that there is no evidence of scientific credentials. Nevertheless, scientific claims are made. In particular there is this:

The core of the ideology I’m referring to is the assertion that ‘trans women are women’. (We hear a lot less from and about trans men.) Exactly what this statement means depends on whether the speaker is using the word ‘women’ to refer to a social category or a biological one. In the first case there is a discussion to be had (though people may reasonably differ in their conclusions), but in the second case the assertion is patently false. Trans women are not, by definition, biological females. Yet in the most extreme version of the ideology, you cannot say that without being labelled a TERF.

I note in passing that there is a third meaning to the statement ‘trans women are women’, and that is a legal one. The good old Gender Recognition Act might have many flaws, but one thing that it has done is make thousands of trans women legally female. Macdonald conveniently ignores this. As to social categories, TERFS are all over how gender is a social construct, except when it applies to trans women, in which case their right to be socially female is suddenly questionable.

I also note that the reason we don’t hear a lot from trans men is that no one is devoting pages and pages of newsprint to preventing trans men from using men’s bathrooms. It is generally accepted that trans men are men.

The claim I want to look at, however, is this one about trans women not being “biological females”. What does it mean? Macdonald doesn’t say, so I am going to run through a bunch of possibilities to try to work out what this is all about.

The most obvious starting point is physical appearance. I often see people claiming that the breasts of trans women are “fake”, implying that they are the result of silicon implants. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can assure you that mine grew naturally, under the influence of estrogen, just like any other woman’s would. Some people also like to claim, because trans women have had their genitalia reconstructed, that our new genitalia are somehow made of dead flesh, and even that they smell of necrosis. The plastic surgeons are much better than that, I can assure you. Finally it is sometimes claimed that because we have our penises “cut off” we are incapable of enjoying sex, a comment so inaccurate that it tends to make me giggle uncontrollably.

How about internal organs, then? Well, trans women don’t have wombs or ovaries, but some cis women have to have them removed for medical reasons and that doesn’t stop them being women, does it? I think not.

One area in which trans women are often accused of being “biologically male” is sport. There is an assumption that a trans woman will have an unfair advantage over a “real” woman because of her “male” body. Well, as luck would have it, there are parts of the Guardian that do publish socially progressive articles about trans people. Their science and technology section can be quite good, but yesterday it was their sports section that stepped up to the plate by carrying an interview with Fallon Fox.

The article quotes Dr Eric Vilain, director of the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA, who helped the Association of Boxing Commissions write its transgender policy, and Dr Marci Bowers, an OB-GYN specialist and a leader in the field of transition-related surgeries. Both of them dismiss the idea that Fox has some sort of unnatural advantage over other female contestants. Dr Vilain is quoted as saying, “male to female transsexuals have significantly less muscle strength and bone density, and higher fat mass, than males”. Obviously there is a range of abilities, because not every woman is the same, but Bowers says of Fox, “There are taller women than her, there are bigger women than her, there are stronger women than her.”

The author of the article, Jos Truit, adds that, “transition could mean a hormonal disadvantage for Fox because of her low testosterone levels.” I’m highlighting that because what the experts say about Fox are not comments on her status as someone who has identified as female from an early age, but on her status as someone who has undergone gender surgery and hormone treatment. That’s important.

Hormones are hugely powerful chemicals responsible for all sorts of systems in the body. There’s a fascinating program about them currently available on iPlayer. Testosterone and estrogen are particularly important. Post-surgery, trans women no longer make testosterone naturally, but they can’t make estrogen either. Because of this, we are put on a lifetime prescription of what is essentially hormone replacement therapy. We are supposed to get regular blood tests too, because the doctors want to be sure that our estrogen levels are typical for adult women. It is a health issue, we are told.

Estrogen, of course, is what causes pre-pubescent girls to turn into adult women; and testosterone turns boys into men. But the hormones don’t suddenly stop working just because you have become an adult. That’s why trans women are able to grow breasts naturally. Estrogen treatment causes other effects as well, including the loss of muscle strength and bone density, and the gain in fat, reported by Dr Vilain.

The upshot of this is that if you were to take a blood sample from a trans woman, or check a whole bunch of characteristics such as those mentioned in connection with Fox, the results you got back would be typical of a woman, not of a man.

So where are we? Trans women appear to be “biologically female” from their external appearance and a whole battery of internal tests. Is there anything else we can look at? Well, Macdonald does admit that some research suggests that trans women have brains that look more like those of women than like those of men. This is fairly contentious stuff, and to be really safe researchers have to be very careful to ensure that what they are measuring is the pre-transition brain, not the brain that has been bathed in estrogen for decades. Up until yesterday I was not prepared to state that a biological basis for gender identity had been discovered.

Then this was published. It is a paper in an academic journal called Endocrine Practice, and it takes the form of a literature review, meaning that it looks at evidence from a wide range of studies. The conclusion of the paper is, “Although the mechanisms remain to determined, there is strong support from the literature that there is a biological basis for gender identity.”

Michael Dillon would be so happy. I don’t suppose that Macdonald has had a chance to read the paper yet, but I’d be interested to know what they make of it.

Finally, of course, we come to chromosomes. That’s the usual last resort of those who wish to “prove” that trans women are “really” men. Women have XX chromosomes, and men have XY, and all trans women are XY, right?

Well, no. Macdonald admits that intersex people exist, but doesn’t seem to know much about them. One of the better known intersex conditions is Klinefelter’s syndrome, which generally involves having XXY chromosomes, though the best known example, Caroline Cossey, has XXXY. The point about Klinefelter’s is that people with that condition are born looking male, and are assigned male at birth. Some of them identify as female, and like Cossey choose to go through gender surgery. They may identify as trans women — Cossey does. I’m interested to know how Macdonald would classify them. Are they “really men”, or do they get a pass because they are also intersex?

One of the most spectacular intersex conditions, however, is androgen insensitivity syndrome. People with this condition have XY chromosomes, but their bodies are unable to process androgens, which are male sex hormones. As a result their bodies develop looking female, and they are assigned female at birth. Their only significant difference from XX people is that they don’t normally have wombs or ovaries.

So if chromosomes trump everything, are people with AIS “biologically male”? Or do they get a pass and count as “biologically female” because they have AIS? And if so, how is a trans woman, whose body doesn’t process androgens because she can’t make them anymore, different?

I suspect that some mumbling about age might be happening in the New Statesman bunker (buried deep underground for fear of nuclear strikes by angry trans women) right now. And there we come to another interesting question: trans kids.

As I mention above, hormones are responsible for the massive changes that humans undergo at puberty. These days, trans kids are able to access treatments that allow them to go through puberty in their preferred gender. A young trans woman today will never have been through male puberty. She will have been through female puberty. How is she not “biologically female”?

But, but… Time for one last throw of the dice. Macdonald says,

Other arguments espoused by some trans activists are entirely lacking in scientific support, since they deny the existence of human sexual dimorphism.

Oh, right humans are a sexually dimorphic species, so males and females must be different. Paging Dr Bowers here:

“Sexual dimorphism refers to the amount of physical difference between the sexes,” Bowers explains. “The fact is, human beings actually differ very little in their sexual dimorphism, much less so than other species.”

That lack of difference is, of course, much less pronounced in children than in adults. And, you know, isn’t that one of the central tenets of feminism: that when it comes down to it men and women are not that different? Why, then, is it so important for some feminists to insist that trans women are, and can only ever be, men?

Basically, I suspect, it is all down to willies. It used to be that TERFs would claim that gender was a social construct, and that trans women were constructed male in childhood and could never change that. As trans girls began to transition at younger and younger ages, it eventually came down to, “but they had willies when they were born, and that makes them men!”

It is the same with the biology. Trans women can be as close as possible, biologically speaking, to cis women — certainly well within the natural range on most tests — and they can transition as young as possible, never going through male puberty. But eventually it will all come down to, “but they had willies when they were born!”

The main point I wanted to make here, though, is not that Macdonald’s argument is scientifically illiterate. I also want to note that it is medically dangerous.

One of the things that modern medical science is discovering is that the health of the body is very much dependent on what gender it is. And that’s not a question of chromosomes, or what gender it was assigned at birth, it is mostly down to hormones. For trans women to remain healthy, it is important for doctors to treat them, in most cases, as biologically female, because their bodies will react like those of other women. By encouraging people to think, against all scientific evidence, that trans women are biologically male, Macdonald and their friends are putting trans women’s health at risk.

Doubtless the argument in the New Statesman bunker is that the thing to do would be to ban gender medicine. Then all of the trans women would commit suicide and the problem would be solved in what they would regard as a humane and civilized manner. Thankfully much of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to share their views.

Making Engineering Fun

One of the great holiday season traditions in the UK is the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Started by Michael Faraday in 1825, these lectures feature a top scientist talking to an audience of children. The BBC naturally picked up on this, and have been broadcasting the lectures for longer than I’ve been around. When I was a kid I would have been thrilled by lectures from the likes of David Attenborough and Eric Laithwaite (the inventor of MagLev). While I was at university Carl Sagan did a series. It was great stuff.

Of course in the early days the lectures were quite stuffy and the lecturers mostly male. That has most definitely changed. This year’s lectures were given by Danielle George who is a professor of engineering at Manchester University. And the lectures are not just being given by a women engineer, they are being given by a heavily pregnant woman engineer, because it is important to show the kids in the audience that mums can be engineers too.

Prof. George has a lot of fun in her three lectures. For each one she set herself an engineering challenge to do something awesome with fairly everyday kit.

Lecture 1 saw her turn the side of the Shell Center in London into a giant Tetris game, playable by wifi with a remote console.

Lecture 2 involved getting her assistant for the show to be telepresent in the lecture theatre as a talking hologram, and adding in kit to demonstrate the state of the art technology for remote touch, taste and smell.

And finally lecture 3 saw the Doctor Who theme being played live in the lecture theatre by a robot orchestra. In addition to more traditional instruments, the orchestra included a dot matrix printer, a cymbal played by a flying drone, and a theremin played by a humanoid robot. Keyboards were played by members of the University of Plymouth robot soccer team (each of six robots taking one portion of the keys).

All three lectures were a lot of fun. Those of you in the UK can find the programmes on iPlayer. The RI website has information about seeing the programmes in other countries — currently Singapore and Japan. It also has an archive of some of the star past lecture series, and these may be available anywhere.

Enjoy. 🙂

Man Trouble

While I was out and about in Bristol yesterday, my Twitter feed was buzzing with comment from outraged women. There were two main issues.

The first one is that Dave Truesdale has gone and put his foot in his mouth again. The regularity with which he does this is such that a generous interpretation would assume that he understands outrage marketing and was deliberately trolling female writers and fans in search of traffic for his website. Sadly I’m not convinced that Truesdale is that bright. When he says that he’s not seen even a smidgeon of racism or sexism in science fiction, what he probably means is that he views the supposed intellectual and moral superiority of the white male as a scientific fact, and that therefore stating it cannot be seen as discrimination.

Of course this is the sort of attitude that leads to Men’s Rights Activism and claims of “reverse racism” when it comes up against how the rest of the world sees things.

Anyway, the day did produce one superb blog post: this one in which Amal El-Mohtar recruits famous female SF writers from the past to make her case for her.

While women readers and writers of science fiction around the world were dealing with an actual case of sexism, the white feminist media cabal in the UK (otherwise known as the Lobster & Bolly Set) were up in arms over what they believe to be a far more dangerous threat to feminism: trans women.

Yes, it has been penis panic time again. Our TERF friends appear convinced that all trans women have secret penises with which they will mercilessly abuse any non-trans women that they can find. Now it is certainly true that not all trans women have surgery. Some can’t afford it, some have good medical reasons for not risking it, many are simply on their way through transition, and some have their own reasons for not opting for it. But for the TERFs it is a case of once-a-penis-always-a-penis. So I guess I have a political penis: it might not exist in reality, but for TERF political purposes it is just as real as any man’s pride & joy, if not more so.

Pressed on this, the TERFs are likely to claim that anyone raised as male (even if only for the few brief years needed for them to learn to talk) will have been culturally conditioned for masculinity, and will forever more exhibit behavior that is ineluctably masculine (yes, I did choose that word deliberately). However, even if they were to find a trans woman who looked and behaved in a way they deemed entirely female, they would simply claim that this person had successfully “deceived” them by hiding their “true” nature.

So there you have it. As far as your typical British media feminist is concerned, my supposed political penis is far more threatening to them than anything that Dave Truesdale, or even Elliot Rodger, could come up with. It is good to know that they are keeping their eye on the really important issues while the rest of us are busy with trivial stuff like campaigning on behalf of women writers.

I’d like to see some of them come to Finncon and demand that I be forced to use the men’s sauna.

Meanwhile, because at least one of them is undoubtedly screaming BUT SCIENCE! at this point, here’s an actual science article titled, “What your science teacher told you about sex chromosomes is wrong”. Odd that the same bad-science excuses used by men to justify sexism are used by TERFs to justify their hatred of trans women, isn’t it.

Update: via CN Lester on Twitter here is an excellent overview of how different types of animals decide what sex they are. Hint: it is hardly ever anything to do with chromosomes.

More Mad Gender Biology

Via Gio Clairval on Twitter I found this article from Cosmos magazine. It is primarily about the way in which the function of the Y chromosome has evolved in mammals. From my point of view, the most startling thing about it is that two species of rodent — mole voles of Eastern Europe and spiny rats of Japan — have no Y chromosomes at all, and yet they still manage to produce males.

Those TERFs who yell “but science!” in support of their contention that chromosomes can be used to rigidly divide humans into males and females are looking sillier and sillier all the time.

The Pelican Takes Flight

Yesterday evening I attended an event at the Watershed in Bristol. It was part of the Festival of Ideas, and was held to celebrate the re-launch of Pelican, the non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books. Sir Allen Lane, the publishing entrepreneur who founded Penguin, was born in Bristol, so the city has a special connection with his companies.

The business plan for Pelican was to provide top quality books on a variety of complex issues that were both cheap and written in a manner accessible to the general public. I own several of them, mostly inherited from my father, though they are all in California. The imprint was closed down in 1990, but has been resurrected this year.

The new Pelican was launched with five titles. Four of the authors were on hand for the event in Bristol. Sadly the only woman, Melissa Lane, lives in the USA and could not make it. The books are as follows:

Economics: The User’s Guide, by Ha-Joon Chang (Cambridge). This sounds very promising. Chang is an amusing speaker, and he has a very important qualification for an economist: his view of the subject is not tied to a religious attachment to any particular political dogma.

Human Evolution, by Robin Dunbar (Oxford). Dunbar is already famous for having a number named after him. This book is all about how and why humans came to evolve on the plains of Africa, developing language, culture and, eventually, civilization. The book sounds interesting, but listening to Dunbar I found myself wishing that Karen Joy Fowler was there to debate human exceptionalism with him.

Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, Orlando Figes (Birkbeck). Figes has a good point that Russia’s revolution is ongoing, and what is happening now under Putin is at least in part a consequence of what happened under Yeltsin, Gorbachev and Khrushchev. However, history is notoriously subjective and I don’t know enough about Russia to judge his interpretation. To my mind the most interesting thing he talked about was how revolutions can’t be sustained over more than about three generations because by that time the young people no longer have any intellectual or emotional connection to the issues that sparked the movement. I think there are lessons there for feminism.

Greek and Roman Political Ideas, Melissa Lane (Princeton). This sounds fascinating, because so many of our political ideas are deeply rooted in the Classical world. I do wish Lane had been there to talk about it.

The Domesticated Brain, Bruce Hood (Bristol). Possibly the most interesting of the lot, especially for a science fiction writer. We know (from Dunbar’s book) that homo sapiens evolved in a period of significant environmental stress (climate change brought on by the closing of the straits between North and South America, according to last weekend’s Cosmos). We also know that we are currently undergoing rapid technological and social change, with a major climate disaster waiting in the wings.

Hood notes that humans have become domesticated. Since the last Ice Age our brains have shrunk by around 10% in size. The same phenomenon can be observed in animals that are domesticated. The lack of need to survive in the wild seems to take the edge off a species. Of course Hood isn’t arguing for some sort of Libertarian paradise in which evolution can be kickstarted. However, he is worried about how we’ll cope in the new world of social media.

Much of what gets said about the Internet by pundits reminds me of 19th Century scaremongers saying that humans could never travel fast in trains because our internal organs would get shaken around and damaged. Dunbar said at one point in the evening that it was impossible for humans to negotiate a compromise if they only interacted online. I think that’s a rather hasty judgement. After all, it took us thousands of years to develop civilization, and we’ve had social media for less time than it takes for a human to reach adulthood.

What worries Hood, and me, is what will happen while we learn to adapt to the new world. When Judeline and I were discussing friendship on Women’s Outlook earlier in the day we had touched on the fact that many people now live alone and have no local community. This is particularly hard on the elderly who have a poor grasp of technology. Hood says that being alone is significantly worse for your heath than being overweight. It is all a bit troubling.

The issue of the Internet also touches on the core philosophy of Pelican. Modern day doomsayers are quick to claim that the Youth of Today, having been corrupted by television and the Internet, simply don’t have sufficient attention span to read a whole book on a scientific theory. It is as much as they can to do absorb an infographic, allegedly. The new Pelican imprint is betting on this being wrong. I very much hope it succeeds.

I should also add that Hood’s book also touches on the development of identity. In his talk he specifically mentioned how children acquire a sense of gender. I talked to him after the event and he says he hasn’t studied trans kids himself, but he knows someone in Vancouver who is doing so. He also mentioned that other aspects of identity appear to be acquired fairly early on in life (around age 3) and are very difficult to change thereafter. These may include sexuality and even ethnic identity. This doesn’t solve the nature/nurture debate, but it does narrow the focus, and will hopefully stop people peddling “cures” for certain identities.

So yeah, I need to read Hood’s book. I shall report back.

In the meantime, best of luck to Pelican in its new incarnation. Can we have a book on cosmology next, please?

Psychology, Animals and the Evolution of Patriarchy

Karen Joy Fowler was in Bristol last night promoting her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which has just launched in the UK. As ever, Karen had a lot of interesting things to say, and consequently my thoughts rambled over a number of issues.

One of the big lessons of the book is how little psychologists knew back in the 20th Century, and how arrogant they were about what little knowledge they had. Pavlov was able to train dogs. Everything else was assumed to flow from there. The novel is, in a large part, about a psychology experiment that went disastrously wrong. And yet it is also about the malleability of memory — something that we now understand to be very real.

What struck me, listening in the audience is that there are things we can do to each other very easily, such as instill false memories, but there are others that prove hugely intractable. For example, we are unable to “cure” people of their sexuality or gender identity, despite the huge amounts of effort that has been poured into such endeavors, and the strong social desire to make such things possible. Why are some forms of what we rather blithely call “brainwashing” so much easier than we thought, and others so much more difficult?

I asked Karen for her views, and she said she thought it was all about working with what was there. Pavlov trained dogs to do things using behaviors that were natural to dogs (slobbering). The same techniques might have been much less effective had he tried to get the dogs to do things that dogs don’t normally do. She also talked about educational theories that suggest that children’s personalities are fixed at birth. You can teach kids to do all sorts of things, but training a naturally shy kid to be outgoing, or a naturally pessimistic kid to be more optimistic, is very hard.

The conversation also strayed onto issues of animal behavior, and Karen noted that chimpanzee society is strongly patriarchal and very violent. We now know that, in the wild, chimpanzee groups engage in wars of aggression against other chimp groups, something we once thought only humans did to each other. In contrast, bonobo society is matriarchal, and while violence does occur, is it much less prevalent than in chimp society. Apparently we’d see a lot more bonobos in zoos were it not for their fondness for casual sex, which is apparently deemed inappropriate for family viewing.

Now chimps and bonobos are as close as you can get to humans in evolutionary terms. Socially speaking, we seem to be rather closer to chimps than bonobos (though Kevin tells me that genetically it is the other way around). At some point in evolutionary history all three species probably had a common ancestor. So there is an open question as to whether susceptibility to patriarchy is something that is hardwired into human and chimp behavior, or something that we developed as an evolutionary response at some point in the past, and which has become fossilized in our social behavior, handed down from parents to children.

This also reminds me or Mary Beard’s recent London Review of Books lecture on The Public Voice of Women. Mary, being a classicist, made a point of tracing the exclusion of women from political discourse back to Greece and Rome, and for the UK that’s a fair point. But it occurred to me that similarly gendered attitudes are common in societies that owe very little to the classical world. I’ve been told that my voice, being somewhat deeper than that of an average woman, is good for radio because it carries an air of authority. Again, how much of that is hardwired, and how much something we pick up as children?

Finally, Karen talked about our relationship with animals. In particular she noted that small babies are given animal toys, and most books for children feature anthropomorphized animals as characters. Yet at some point we are supposed to “grow out of” such ideas, and to see animals as lesser beings. Why do we do this? Is it some part of how we learn to be those arrogant and ruthless creatures called humans? Is it just a behavior we have fallen into and have lost the original rationale for? It is certainly very odd.

All that from an hour of an author chatting about her work. I do so love listening to clever science fiction writers.

SF & Astronomy, A Boy Thing, Apparently

I have email from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific announcing that they have updated their list of science fiction that contains good information about astronomy and related issues. This is a good thing, I thought. We should be educating readers as well as entertaining then. Then I went and looked at the list.

COCKFOREST ALERT!!!

It is a very big list. I haven’t counted them. I did count the works by, or partly by, women (but not including those where the women are editors). That was a lot easier, though I may still have missed some due to initials, pseudonyms, etc. We have:

  • The Cassiopeia Affair, by Chloe Zerwick & Harrison Brown
  • “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, by James Tiptree Jr.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “Amnesty”, by Octavia Butler
  • “The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model”, by Charlie Jane Anders
  • “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, by Pat Cadigan
  • “Schwarzschild Radius”, by Connie Willis

Is that all, really? Does nothing that Catherine Asaro or Joan Slonczewski has written qualify? Then again, Peter Watts isn’t on the list for good alien lifeforms, so maybe they just need to read a bit more widely. Can we help them out, please?

Update: I’ve been informed that Alex Brett, author of Cold Dark Matter, is also female. However, we are still only at about 3%.

Biology: Stranger Than You Think

I’m still reading the new Julia Serano book, Excluded, which is very impressive. Part of the reason why Serano is so good on gender issues is that she’s an actual biologist — a proper scientist, not someone who uses a few scientific ideas to advance a political theory. So when she writes about biological aspects of gender she does so from the point of view of skeptical inquiry, rather than from faith in a grossly simplified distortion of science, or faith in the evil of science, as we generally see in such discussions.

Some of you may remember that when I was researching Michael Dillon I came across a condition called hypospadias. People with this condition are often assigned female at birth despite being chromosomally male. Back at the beginning of the 20th Century many doctors were aware of the problem, and would happily write a letter to the authorities asking that a person with hypospadias be re-assigned as male. I suspect that the surgeon who performed Dillon’s top surgery used this as a cover for getting Dillon’s gender re-assigned, even though he did not have hypospadias.

Well one of the chapters of Excluded that I have just read mentioned a related condition, cloacal exstrophy. The reason that Serano mentions is is that she knows of a follow-up study of 14 people with this condition, all of whom had been raised female. By adolescence 8 of them had declared themselves to be male, despite having no knowledge of their male chromosomes. All of them, regardless of how they identified, were reported by the researchers as exhibiting male-typical behavior.

Part of the reason why this resonated so strongly with me is that yesterday The Independent ran an article about intersex people who have the condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome. This is another condition whereby people with male chromosomes are assigned female at birth, and yet people with this condition typically are very happy being raised female and continue to identify as such. Many are distraught to discover, as adults, that they are infertile.

So there we have two groups of people, both with male chromosomes, both liable to be assigned female at birth. And yet one group mostly grows up to adopt male gender behavior and identity, while the other group mostly grows up to adopt female gender behavior and identity. Mostly, but not all, because our biology is amazingly complex. The idea of master control switches that turn certain behaviors on and off is a gross simplification.

And yet we still have people who claim that science “proves” that anyone with XY chromosomes is “really” a man. *sigh*

Biology Is Not Faith-Based

There’s an awful lot of fairly crass sexism and misogyny going on in my corner of the Internet these days, and equally a lot of very capable people debunking it. I’ve largely stayed out of it because other people are doing a perfectly good job without me. Anyway, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to debunk the “women are naturally inferior” argument. Where I do want to stick my oar in is to caution against using the same type of faith-based biology to argue that men and women are in fact identical. Specifically I saw someone tweet that if you did brain scans of men and women you would not be able to tell the difference. Tweets are, of necessity, devoid of subtlety, so I don’t want to call anyone out, but I do want to explain why that sort of argument worries me.

Firstly I think it is probably factually wrong. I’m not a neuroscientist myself, but do take an interest in brain science and I’m pretty sure that a trained professional in that field would stand a good chance of telling a scan of a male brain from a scan of a female one, in much the same way as a trained medical professional can tell a male skeleton from a female skeleton.

Secondly, medical science is slowly coming to the realization that there are important differences in the way that male and female bodies respond to treatment. It is crucially important for women’s health that these differences are recognized and studied. Insisting that we are “all the same” will tend to result in medical treatment defaulting to the current social norm, which means favoring males over females (see here for some of the issues).

And finally, this is the sort of thing that leads to transphobia. The idea that men and women are identical in all respects except possession or not of ovaries was a major factor in causing second wave feminists to insist that trans people could not possibly exist.

When people attack the idea of gender-based brain difference they often quote Cordelia Fine. But Fine doesn’t say that there are no physical differences. Some of the studies that purport to identify differences are highly dodgy, but much more importantly the arguments that extrapolate from real or supposed differences in brain structure to differences is abilities and behavior are, at best, bad science, and at worst pure snake oil.

The thing about human beings is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Some of us are better at some things than others. Some of this is biological, and some of it down to cultural influences. What isn’t true is that all of Group X are naturally better than all of Group Y because of their characteristic, Z. People are people, and no one should be assumed inferior because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality and so on.

Besides, most of you, dear readers, also read science fiction. Even if we never encounter sentient aliens, it seems increasingly likely that we will soon be able to make people that are, in biological terms, a different species from us. Those people will still be people, and our understanding of “human” rights will have to evolve to cope with that.

Science Fiction and Innovation

Jon Turney’s working paper on the impact of science fiction on technology is now available from the sponsors, NESTA. There is also a complimentary paper from some folks at Sussex University available here.

Jon blogs about the paper here. Despite his kind comments, I should note that the words in the paper are almost entirely his and I can take no credit for all of the smart stuff therein. I am, however, very proud to have helped his thinking along the way, and to have made it possible for a bunch of my smart friends to provide their own input.

There has been some reaction to the paper online. It was mentioned in The Guardian, and science writer Holly Cave has a thoughtful response.

If only a few more people were prepared to pay decent money for projects that are even half as much fun.

Gender Difference Follow-Up

Further to my remarks about gender earlier today, you may find this article interesting. Part of me wonders how anyone can get any academic credit for stating something so obvious, but of course what these people have done is get data, and that makes a world of difference.

The issue is very simple. Most of these statements of the form “men are better than women at X” (or vice versa) tend to be based either on anecdata, in which case they are worthless, or they are based on studies that quote averages. What the averages don’t tell you is how much overlap there is. So it may well be correct to say that men are better than women at tennis, but Serena Williams can still thrash anyone except the top male professionals. What this means is that appointing a man to a job because “men are better than women” at that work is a nonsense because your list of applicants may well include women who are better than all of the male applicants. And vice versa, of course.

The researchers went further and looked for correlations between characteristics. They did find some in physical traits. For example, if a man is taller than a woman, it is highly likely that he’ll have broader shoulders than her as well. But when it comes to abilities and attitudes there’s no such effect. A man may be better than a woman at math, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be better than her at repairing cars, or less empathetic, or less interested in fashion than she is. And vice versa. In other words, gender stereotypes are a nonsense.

So the question now is, why are we so fond of them?

How To Make Intersex Mice

Slowly but surely, some of the mysteries about how gender is determined in animals are being solved. It is absolutely not a simple issue of one set of chromosomes or another. For example, take this fascinating piece of research. By altering a single gene, scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Mainz have been able to cause mice that have male chromosomes to develop physically as females. Obviously this currently applies only to mice, and no one is going to do experiments of this sort on human embryos, but the mere fact that it happens ought to be enough to give the lie to the people who yell about how intersex people are “not natural”.

Ada Lovelace Day (one day late)

I missed getting an Ada Lovelace Day posting up yesterday because of all the rushing around. Here’s a very brief one.

Thanks to guesting on @Bristol52 this week I discovered that the first woman to graduate from medical school in the USA, Elizabeth Blackwell, was born in Bristol. Her Wikipedia bio is quite spectacular. As well as being a pioneer of women’s rights, she campaigned against slavery and against vivisection. She’s not such a great model as a woman scientist: having been brought up a devout Christian she was convinced that illness was a result of moral depravity, not bacteria, but I suspect that sort of view was common back then.

Making Girls From Girls

Here’s a follow-up to my post about parthenogenesis the other day. It turns out there maybe other ways to create a viable female-only society.

As you may know, stem cells are really useful things, because you can encourage them to develop into other types of cell. Lots of other types of cell. But can you use stem cells to grow sperm cells? And if so, can you grow sperm cells from stem cells harvested from a woman? If so, would those sperm cells be able to fertilize an egg? Alternatively, can you make an egg cell from a stem cell harvested from a man?

The point of doing this is that you can then create children that are the true genetic offspring of same-(chromosome)-sex couples. As well as helping lesbians and gays, it would also allow trans women and women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome to become mothers.

This Telegraph article talks about the current state of research, which reports on a successful attempt to make sperm cells from female embryonic stem cells.

Interesting, especially if you happen to be writing feminist SF.

Hola San Antonio: Panel Suggestion

I’ve just done a slightly tongue in cheek post for the Bristolcon website. Behind it, however, is a very serious piece of physics. NASA scientists are actively considering the ideas of Professor Miguel Alcubierre for constructing a warp drive for faster-than-light travel. Alcubierre got his doctorate at the University of Wales in Cardiff, and therefore deserves a place in the annals of Welsh science fiction (rumors that he worked part-time helping to set up the Torchwood Institute while he was in Cardiff have been officially denied by the Welsh Parliament). However, Alcubierre is Mexican by birth, and as of this year he is back home heading up the the Nuclear Sciences Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. So, friends in San Antonio, how about talking to NASA and getting them to send you Alcubierre and one of their experts to talk about FTL drives?

Gender: Stranger Than We Thought

Gender science is a complicated business. Quite aside from the difficulties of doing the job, you have to somehow steer a path between the idiot males who assume that any slight biological difference (such as having boobies) is scientific proof that all females are inferior to all males in every way, and the equally daft hardline feminists who refuse to countenance any biological difference whatsoever. Nevertheless, people still persist in trying to find ways in which male and female behavior might somehow be defined by biology. One of the reasons that they may not have got very far is that in many animals the source of difference may not be in the brain, but in the nose.

Yes, you read that right. Most vertebrates have a small sensory organ in the nose called the vomeronasal organ. Recent research in Harvard has discovered that, at least in mice, this organ controls gender-specific behavior. Remove that organ from an adult female mouse, and she’ll start adopting typical male gendered behavior, including becoming sexually aggressive and losing interest in child-rearing. Hormone levels in the female mice were unaffected.

Mice, of course, are not humans. To start with we, in common with our nearest primate relatives, do not have a vomeronasal organ. Also we have larger brains and complex social behaviors that all help complicate the issue of gender. Nevertheless, the discovery that an apparently unrelated organ can have such a dramatic effect on gendered behavior has thrown a huge spanner in the works of gender science. The more we find out, the more we discover that we don’t understand.

Here too is a question for those evolutionary biologists who love to concoct theories as to why arbitrary social codes are the result of evolutionary necessity. How come higher primates evolved to lose this organ which so successfully suppresses male-like behavior in females? Could it be that, for highly intelligent and social animals, having strong gendered behavioral differences proved a disadvantage?

(On second thoughts, don’t answer that. Quite enough nonsense gets talked under the banner of evolutionary biology already. Let’s not create more wild hypotheses.)