Welcome to the “Human Use of Human Beings” Substack wherein I hope to “entertain” various ideas - as Aristotle supposedly argued - without suggesting that I consider them any sort of “gospel truth”. Though some purists have apparently objected to the particular phrasing ascribed to him.
But it is going to be loosely built around a book of the same name by cybernetist Norbert Wiener, in part because it encompasses a broad range of useful principles, many of which I have only the barest handle on; very much a “work-in-progress”. Although, more importantly for the first “topic du jour”, it’s more because of its subtheme of the “social issues raised by the dramatically increasing role of science and technology in the new age”. There are far too many issues and problems facing us of a scientific and technological nature that we can afford to have, as Carl Sagan argued, some 90% of us in the “scientifically illiterate” category.
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Although I think he was somewhat uncharitable, particularly in light of the ubiquity of various bookstores and popularizers of science. However, many of those who subscribe to those sources seem to have never heard of Pope’s quip, “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. It’s not enough to just have a bunch of facts; it seems far more important to have a handle on various scientific, logical, and philosophical principles without which those facts are often more of a hindrance than a help: the difference between data and wisdom - and “conspiracy theory”:
But the first and foremost of those issues is going to be transgenderism and many related ones, most of which are characterized by some rather decidedly unscientific “arguments”, cognitive distortions, misperceptions and outright pigheaded ignorance of those principles. Nothing seems to characterize that profoundly acrimonious if not enervating debate so much as a very wide and well-populated range of quite contradictory definitions for both sex and gender. Many of which - for both - are defended with a tenacity, if not a toxic and vicious dogmatism more characteristic of religious fundamentalists and sectarian warfare than of devotees of Reason and of the Enlightenment:
As Mark Twain once put it:
“We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. It is held in reverence. Some think it the voice of God.”
Sex: Binary, Spectrum or “Socially Constructed”?
More particularly and to begin with, there are the various “theories” about sex itself, about whether it’s a spectrum, or a binary; about whether the binary is to be based on structure-absent-function or function-only; about whether it is - gawd help us all - merely a “social construction”. For instance, both Nature and Scientific American - supposedly credible and authoritative journals - seriously beclowned themselves by endorsing the position that “The idea of two sexes is simplistic”. Which was particularly amusing, in a gallows-humor sort of way, in light of the fact that the author, biologist Claire Ainsworth, subsequently repudiated that suggestion and headline. One might reasonably have expected something in the way of a retraction or even a discussion of alternatives on their platforms - which I certainly never saw. “ideologically captured”, indeed.
But then there’s the seriously and profoundly problematic controversy over the “structure-absent-function” definition versus the “function-only” definition. The former being what Marco Del Giudice of the University of New Mexico calls the “patchwork definition of the [so-called] social sciences”:
On a deeper level, the ‘patchwork’ definition of sex used in the social sciences [and by Emma Hilton and Company] is purely descriptive and lacks a functional rationale. This contrasts sharply with how the sexes are defined in biology. From a biological standpoint, what distinguishes the males and females of a species is the size of their gametes: males produce [present tense indefinite] small gametes (e.g., sperm), females produce [present tense indefinite] large gametes (e.g., eggs; Kodric-Brown & Brown, 1987).
Skeptic Michael Shermer, in a Substack post of his own, attempts to defend that “patchwork definition” by trying to anchor his argument in Wittgenstein’s idea of “family resemblances”. However, as I’ve argued there, that idea basically boils down into the sexes and sex itself being spectra. Given that many of those subscribing to that “patchwork definition” were front-and-center in throwing stones at Nature and Scientific American for their articles which touted that idea, one might reasonably see that as a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Politics and strange bedfellows.
But finally, rounding out that rogue’s gallery in the sex department, many seem to have no clue at all that while our definitions are, in fact and of course, “socially constructed” (Moses didn’t bring the first dictionary down from Mt. Sinai on tablets A through Z), the “brute facts” often denoted by the defined words most certainly aren’t.
Basically, the difference between those socially constructed definitions and those brute facts is what is encompassed by the “map-territory” dichotomy: we, of course, create the maps, although generally not the territory. How we define the words “male” and “female” is something of a matter of taste or of current knowledge or of the objectives in mind, but it is a brute fact that those who do produce either of two types of gamete can reproduce and that those who don’t can’t. Rather remarkably clueless to insist - as so many postmodernists apparently do - that because we’ve created the maps the territories are therefore merely figments of our imagination.
But if the definitions we create are contradictory and inconsistent then, Houston, we have a serious and “mission-critical” problem. As physicist Sabine Hossenfelder put it:
The maybe most important lesson physicists have learned over the past centuries is that if a theory has internal inconsistencies, it is wrong. By internal inconsistencies, I mean that the theory’s axioms lead to statements that contradict each other.
In the same vein, the view taken by “Alice”:
"The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."
At best those contradictory definitions are traps for the unwary; at worst they’re pretexts and golden opportunities for politically motivated charlatans and grifters to engage in obfuscation and equivocation. As the principle of explosion puts it: “ex falso [sequitur] quodlibet, from falsehood (or contradiction), anything [follows]”.
But all of that pales in comparison to the battle royal over gender and the ensuing dog’s breakfast. You could probably survey any number of feminists - even fewer than 21 - and wind up with at least 21 different opinions and perspectives on the concept - at least given that there are apparently at least that many “sects” within that particular “religion”. Although there are a number of more common positions such as the one endorsed by the WHO:
Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with others.
A definition that is more or less endorsed, to a greater or lesser extent, by many including: the British Medical Journal; Wikipedia; an excellent article at 4th Wave Now (No Child is Born in the Wrong Body) by Malone, Wright, & Robertson; a generally illuminating and informative essay, linked to by Malone & Company, by (feminists, if not radfems) Cordelia Fine, Daphna Joel and Gina Rippon at The Scholar & Feminist Online; and a similarly informative essay by (feminists, if not radfems) Laeti Harris, Louise Moody, and Pam Thompson at The Electric Agora. Although both the 4th Wave Now and Electric Agora articles are somewhat less focused on gender itself and more focused on gender identity - sort of like the dichotomy between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde … But more of that later.
However, the fly in the ointment with the WHO, S&F Online, and Electric Agora articles is that their definition for “gender” apparently includes only those traits that they think are “socially constructed” - such as pink and blue clothes for babies - while more or less excluding those traits from the category that many other sources, Wikipedia for example, more credibly argue should be included. An exclusion which is often contradicted by their own arguments and research; for instance, S&F Online:
We use “gender” to refer to socially constructed expectations concerning the roles, identities, and behaviors associated with being either female or male. As we discuss below, both sex and gender can affect brain and behavior, either independently or in interaction.
Is it just the “expectations” that are “socially constructed” or is it, as per the WHO manifesto, the actual characteristics themselves? Rather muddled thinking - or motivated reasoning or “ideological bias” - by someone there. Or is it, more plausibly, that those “roles, identities, and behaviours” are partly due to social factors and partly due to biological ones? Wikipedia certainly endorses the latter:
“Femininity can be understood as socially constructed, and there is also some evidence that some behaviors considered feminine are influenced by both cultural factors and biological factors. To what extent femininity is biologically or socially influenced is subject to debate.”
However, many of those “radfems” seem desperately committed to that “socially constructed”-only idea since they couldn’t otherwise - rationally or logically - hope to actually “abolish” it - how do you abolish brute facts? Some reason to call that perspective “barking [mad]” as “gender-critical feminist” and philosopher Kathleen Stock put it recently, particularly or in part, one assumes, relative to one of the authors of the S&F Online article (Daphna Joel):
Daphna Joel argued that “It is time for a world with no gender. A world with no gender means that the form of one’s genitals, whether female, male or intersex, has no social meaning—just as being right- or left-handed has no inherent meaning.”
But Stock usefully and credibly emphasizes or alludes to solid evidence of biological contributions to that spectrum and category of “gender”:
There are a couple of possible ways in which the dialectic could proceed at this point. One route would be to say that nature in males and females extends beyond basic automatic physiological processes, spilling over into concrete aspects of psychology and behaviour as well. In that case, at least some of what we now take to be socioculturally plastic “gender” would not be as plastic as we think. And in that case, there would be no point trying to abolish what is naturally bestowed …
That rather dogmatic and head-in-the-sand exclusion of those “concrete aspects” from the category of “gender” by the Radfem cohort of feminism is part and parcel of the previously linked Del Giudice article on “The Ideological Bias in the Psychology of Sex and Gender”. Although even Stock herself betrays some “prior commitments” to some untenable premises that may preclude much in the way of an honest assessment of the problems within a feminism riven by many of those biases and “risible absurdities”. And that in large part because far too much of feminism is more of a political project - sort of like Lysenkoism - than “one oriented toward truth or knowledge” as UK philosopher Amia Srinivasan once put it.
But that is partly why I argue later in favour of a “rationalization” of the concept of gender; there is some hope of putting the idea on a more scientific footing than most feminists are willing to countenance, or know how to proceed on. Though somewhat moot whether the scene will be worth the candle, whether the tool will be of any particular benefit or use. But whatever the result, it may help to draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the concept.
However, feminists are, sadly or not, not the only “usual suspects” in the docket, not the only contributors to the transgender clusterfuck. There’s another entirely different bunch on the other side of the coin who entirely reject the term “gender” and/or who insist that it’s synonymous with the term and category “sex” - all while rather dogmatically refusing to even define what they mean by both or either. Although both subgroups of the latter have some degree of philosophical, logical, and etymological justifications for some aspects of their positions.
More particularly, philosopher and Substacker Michael Robillard had a decent article at Quillette late last year on The Incoherence of Gender Ideology - more or which later in the Gender Identity section. However, somewhat more pertinent is his post at American Greatness where he more or less anathematizes the whole concept:
By now, it should be abundantly clear to anyone even halfway paying attention, that the singular term, “gender” has become the primary source of confusion, frustration, and consistent defeat for conservatives within the present transgender debate specifically, and the larger culture war generally.
Here’s a novel idea; stop using the word “gender” altogether.
One can certainly sympathize with his frustration, but it seems that he is conflating “gender” and “gender identity” - and that despite having acknowledged some clear differences. One might reasonably see some potential merit in the concept of gender as a synonym for personalities - which many people and sources, including some of those cited above, have agreed with - while not giving the time of day to anyone peddling anything to do with gender identity.
As Robillard put it in the Quillette article:
The second source and primary culprit of confusion within the present transgender debate, however, is the notion of “gender identity.” This is so since “gender identity,” on the gender theorist’s own account, is defined entirely by one’s own wholly subjective determination.
If there are no objective criteria that determine category membership, no properties that entities MUST possess to qualify as referents of the terms in question - as per the requirements of intensional definitions - then it is hard if not impossible to see how such definitions have any value, meaning, or use at all.
Along the same line and as mentioned, the Electric Agora article does a pretty solid job of criticizing gender identity from the same perspective. As well as providing some illuminating and fascinating insights into several different “cognitive distortions” similar to gender dysphoria.
However, it’s also something of a dog’s breakfast based on any number of misperceptions, cognitive distortions of their own, sloppy philosophy, and untenable premises - not least of which is their clear adherence to that “patchwork [and structure-absent-function] definition of the [so-called] social sciences”. For example, they argue that “proponents of gender identity ideology (GI) often make at least four substantive claims”, the first one of which is:
 Gender identity supersedes a person’s biological sex; i.e. a person’s feelings, rather than their biological sex, is what metaphysically makes someone a man, woman, both, or perhaps neither.
But I don’t think they - and far too many others - realize that not all those arguing for either “gender ideology” or for its more egregiously untenable if not pathological doppelgänger “gender identity” are using the terms “male”, “female”, “man” and “woman” in the same way that the Electric Agora authors and many others are using them. No doubt that some grifters and charlatans are trying to redefine those terms to perpetrate a fraud, to engage in bit of bait-and-switch for fun and profit. But not all of them. For instance, even Merriam-Webster argues in favour of “man” and “woman” as genders, as denoting those who, basically, exhibit any sort of “family resemblance” to those who happen to be “adult human males (sex)” or to be “adult human females (sex)”.
And sadly, even Wikipedia endorses the use of “male” and “female” as genders, although on pretty much anything to do with the topic of gender Wikipedia is almost as “ideologically captured” as is Stonewall; see my article on Wikipedia’s Lysenkoism for details. But that is why I periodically suggest that if the objective is clear communication - assuming everyone is actually committed to it which seems moot … - then we would more likely meet it by qualifying every use of each and every one of those words: e.g., “female (sex)”, “female (gender)”, “man (sex)”, “man (gender)”, etc. Whatever gender and gender-identity ideologues mean by those terms is most frequently not at all what most credible biologists, philosophers of biology, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and journals mean by the terms - for many very solid reasons based on sound principles.
However, somewhat more importantly, the Electric Agora authors also seem to make heavy weather out of denying membership in categories to those who can’t provide objective evidence of being able to “pay the membership dues”, although they do eventually reach that conclusion:
Together, the disciplines of biology, neuroscience, and philosophy plausibly demonstrate that biological sex is what makes us male or female and that the feeling of gender identity is not innate but is a subjective identification with socially constructed markers of masculinity or femininity.
But I think those rather evasive and self-serving peregrinations are partly due to their “prior commitments” to that “patchwork [and structure-absent-function] definition”. If their criteria for qualifying as a male and female are so loosey-goosey as to include the infertile then it’s maybe not surprising that they gave anything more more than the time of day to gender-identity ideologues and their entirely subjective claims.
I don’t think they quite realize that the biological definitions are stipulative ones, that, by definition, “what makes us male or female”, what makes all individuals of ALL sexually-reproducing species male or female, is having functional gonads of either of two types. A logical consequence of which is that those with neither are, ipso facto, sexless. But a particularly egregious failing since they cite, if not quote explicitly from an article by two of the foremost authorities on the question - i.e., Parker’s (FRS) & Lehtonen’s essay in the Journal of Molecular Human Reproduction on Gamete competition, gamete limitation, and the evolution of the two sexes:
Biologically, males are defined as the sex that produces the smaller gametes (e.g. sperm), implying that the male and female sexes only exist in species with gamete dimorphism (anisogamy). ….
To see this, we must be clear about how the two sexes are defined in a broad sense: males are those individuals that produce the smaller gametes (e.g. sperm), while females are defined as those that produce the larger gametes (e.g. Parker et al., 1972; Bell, 1982; Lessells et al., 2009; Togashi and Cox, 2011). Of course, in many species a whole suite of secondary sexual traits exists, but the fundamental definition is rooted in this difference in gametes, and the question of the origin of the two sexes is then equal to the question of why do gametes come in two different sizes.
Which brings us to …
It is something of a popular perception that gender is a spectrum - some 133 million results on a Google search of “gender spectrum”. However, the arguments for, and descriptions of the individual genders supposedly encompassed by that spectrum is pretty much a dog’s breakfast of incoherent blathering and quite unscientific twaddle. Facebook listed some 56 options at one point, and Teen Talk (Canada) is not sure whether there are 3 or 4, or 7 or 8 of them, but are still quite sure that there are “a whole bunch”. 🙄
If gender really is a spectrum, for which there is in fact a great deal of evidentiary justification, then we should, as Lord Kelvin argued, be able to put a number on where any individual is on the spectrum of each and every trait that contributes to the “totality” of a person’s gender. Which may have a great deal of value in dispelling the mephitic miasma surrounding the whole concept of gender.
But to start with, Wikipedia asserts the following about gender and about femininity, one-half of the “gender spectrum” - see the analogy tendered by Justice Scalia in a 1994 case. Somewhat like the reddish or bluish ends of the colour spectrum, though with trillions of colours in between:
Femininity (also called womanliness) is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with women and girls. …. Traits traditionally cited as feminine include gracefulness, gentleness, empathy, humility, and sensitivity, ….
Given that range - “The area of variation between upper and lower limits on a particular scale” - is more or less equivalent to a spectrum - “Used to classify something in terms of its position on a scale between two extreme points” - one is justified in arguing, as many do, that gender constitutes a spectrum. Which is further justified by noting that each of the traits listed for “femininity” exhibit a range of variation - many “adult human females (sex)” will exhibit different levels or degrees of those traits between whatever maximum and minimum levels or limits are found for the whole population.
But the number of males and females exhibiting each level of all of those traits - including those more characteristic or strongly associated with males - can be plotted in what is called a joint probability distribution. Although, because one of the two variables is a binary (sex), it is possible to plot the two graphs as overlays - as with an “Agreeableness by Sex” graph, posted at Wikimedia, originally from Frontiers in Psychology which is “simplified”, more or less accurately, into a pair of standard normal distributions with this program for “visualizing sex differences”:
Given that 3.7 on the Agreeableness scale can be called the “masculine” pole and similarly for 4.2 as the “feminine” pole, we might then reasonably say that someone - of either sex - who had an agreeableness factor of 4.0 was at 0.6 - (4.0-3.7)/(4.2-3.7) - on the Agreeableness (M-F) spectrum, was more feminine than masculine on that scale. But a spectrum with a normalized span of 1.0 between those limits - 0 and 1.0 - is thereby defined by the two means. In addition to which, since 99.7% of any given population is covered by plus and minus 3 standard deviations (SD) from the mean, we might then say that the normalized span - a scaling applicable to all traits - is from -3 to +4. From which it also follows that those on either side of the 0.0 and 1.0 limits or poles are “hyper-masculine” or “hyper-feminine” - like Jessica Rabbit, not really bad, just drawn that way …
However, there are also a number of flies in that particular ointment. A primary one of which is that the means for “masculine” and “feminine” for each trait do not always correspond to the 0.0 and 1.0 limits, respectively - as in the Agreeableness spectrum above. For instance, the corresponding spectrum for the height trait is such as to place the feminine mean at the 0.0 limit and the masculine mean at the 1.0 limit:
From which we might say that someone - of either sex - who had a height of 173 cm was at 0.8 - (173-165)/(175-165) - on the Height (F-M) spectrum, was more (>= 0.5) masculine than feminine on that scale, on that axis of the multi-dimensional gender spectrum.
But the foregoing emphasizes that anyone can be more masculine on some traits, on some axes of that multi-dimensional gender spectrum, while being more feminine on other traits. For example, a person, of either sex, who is very agreeable and 6 ft. 1 in. tall (185. cm) is therefore hyper-feminine AND hyper-masculine, although on entirely different axes. So a great deal of justification to argue that gender is in fact a spectrum, but it’s a seriously problematic misperception to suggest that it’s only one-dimensional. Quite an illuminating article - Gender Similarities and Differences - by Janet Hyde on that perspective:
Moreover, this difference or distance is along a dimension in multivariate space that is a linear combination of the original variables, but this dimension is uninterpretable. What does it mean to say that there are large differences in personality, lumping together distinct aspects such as emotional stability, dominance, and vigilance? Certainly contemporary personality theorists do not argue that there is a single dimension to personality.
A great many sources and credible researchers - Malone & Hyde in particular - endorse the view that gender is more or less synonymous with personalities and personality types. However, even limiting gender to what are called The Big Five personality traits means at least 5 dimensions to gender. But one might reasonably argue that any trait that shows some differences - on average - between males and females - like heights for example - also constitutes another entirely different dimension, another axis in that multi-dimensional gender spectrum.
For instance, given that there are apparently at least 6000 genes that are expressed differently in males (sex) and females (sex), one might reasonably suggest that there could well be at least that many dimensions to that gender spectrum. A major task to decide which are the most important ones for any given application.
Clearly, far too much of the fractious debate over sex and gender is caused by conflicting and inconsistent definitions, and by pigheaded ignorance of fundamental principles, most of which should be well within the grasp if not reach of anyone willing to spend a bit of effort thinking about them. Clearly something in the way of a “Summit Conference on Sex and Gender” is urgently required. Which more than a few are calling for:
Which brings me to my plea: Could each side stop escalating and instead come to the table so we can talk about what’s best for these gender dysphoric kids?
No doubt we all have our biases, our “prior commitments” of one sort or another. But some urgent necessity to have a public and wide-ranging discussion on which ones might be more more scientifically, logically, and socially justifiable and applicable than others.
When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
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