The Illusion of “Neurosex”: Your Brain Is Not “Male” nor “Female”

There’s been an unfortunately increasingly popular tendency among many trans communities to rely on some notion of “brain sex“, “subconscious sex“, etc, to provide justificatory accounts of trans womanhood/manhood. The most obvious manifestation of this historically ignorant & sociologically uninformed way of thinking about trans-liberation is the appeal to “neuroscientific” studies that purportedly demonstrate that transness is intrinsic, “biological”, and in a way that trans people are scientifically their true gender (we are, of course, falling right into a naturalistic fallacy).

While this justificatory account of the production of scientific knowledge may be a fascinating sociology of science question, it’s more immediately a political question. The discourse about “male brains” and “female brains” has underpinned a large host of misogynist bioessentialist thought over the last few centuries, including & especially within the scientific sphere. This has elicited a quite justified* reaction from the host of radical, cultural, materialist, lesbian, queer, scientific and radical (trans)feminists who have given radical accounts of sex-gender based not in illusory biology (aside from cultural feminists), but in the material (re)production of difference.

What are the bases for this purported “neurosex”? There is a small, but growing, literature of sex difference research that is aimed at interrogating the purportedly neurobiological foundation of ‘transsexuality’. It is important to recognize that this burgeoning literature does not originate from a trans-inclusive or feminist perspective, but from a classificatory, pathologizing way of constraining trans subjectivity under the microscope of the scientific interlocutor. The transsexual becomes the subject of the scientist, for her (the subject is nearly always a trans woman) brain is a site for knowledge production. She is not considered as a person to be cared for, but as a subject to be poked, prodded & studied.

The “Science”

The ‘original’ study in the this line of literature purporting to demonstrate that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘female’/’male’ brains was a 1996 study done by Zhou et. al. It looked at the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis of the brain of 6 postmortem ‘male-to-female’ transsexuals in comparison with cis ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. The way that gender norms have infested scientific knowledge production is quite apparent from the start. Brains are presupposed to be dimorphically (that is ‘having two forms) sexed as “male” or “female” so that the finding that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains is either a justificatory or delegitimatizing account of their true sex-gender. But, as we will see later, it is not obvious, and in fact false, that brains are organized dimorphically.

This initial study has been cited 872 times, including in other literatures like explicitly bioessentialist work such as Lippa’s “Gender, nature and nurture”. It is perhaps the most focused upon within the entire literature, meaning it has been the subject of a number of critiques: the horrific sample size (n=6 for the trans individuals), the comparison group(s), sexuality composition, analyzing brain structure postmortem, whether or not the subjects had taken hormones. To  me, all of these critiques have important points to them, especially situating the sample size of the group within the replication crisis within neuroscience.

Whose Science?

Here we ought to consider the parent field of this series of studies: neuroscience. Neuroscience has received increased attention & funding as a revolutionary “neurocognitive” turn in many sciences (behavioral, psychological, etc). This “turn” has been the subject of a number of criticisms, not least by William Uttal. In his book “The New Phrenology“, he critiqued the notion that we can localize psychological processes to a particular region of the brain. That is, the very  subsets of the whole brain that are being interrogated for their sex differences, may not prove very useful in determining the behavioral consequences of these differences, whatever they may be. This idea that a person’s psychological attributes (emotions, intelligence) can be “located” in a particular region of the brain reminds many of the pseudoscience of phrenology, hence the title. Not only is there a theoretical objection to the knowledge that is asserted to be produced by neuroscientific studies, but there’s an empirical one. Despite the valorization of neuroscience in the media as another “biology” to ground the “nature” of the human body, it has a lower replication rate than psychology; famously affected by the replication crisis. In Uttal’s Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta Analysis, he analyzes the findings from the field and finds them very wanting in terms of empirical support. Other works critiquing naive neuroscience are Rees & Rose’s The New Brain Sciences, De Vos & Pluth’s Neuroscience and Critique: The Limits of the Neurological Turn, and Satel & Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed.

Scan, Compare, Contradict, Deny and Repeat

Returning back to the ‘transsexual brain studies’, a later set of studies after Zhou et. al have produced mixed findings. Some find that the sexuality composition of the ‘transsexual’ selection produces differing results as to the ‘grouping’ that ‘transsexuals’ fit into (i.e. straight [androphilic] trans women have ‘female’ brains in contrast to lesbian [gynephilic] trans women who have ‘male’ brains). Some find that it is not that ‘transsexuals’ have ‘male‘ or ‘female‘ brains, but brains intermediate between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ groupings. And still others confirm the initial finding that trans women have ‘female’ brains and trans men have ‘male’ brains.

For example, a 2000 study by Krujiver et. al again studied the “bed nucleus of the stria terminalis” and discovered that, in a sample of 42 individuals total, that ‘female-to-male’ transsexuals have a ‘male’ number of neurons while ‘male-to-female transsexuals’ have a ‘female’ number of neurons. They also reported that sexuality & hormone treatment did not affect the results. This cannot be considered a replication as 26 of the patients (most of whom were not trans) came from the original Zhou et. al ’96 study. Just as in the other study, all of the postmortem brains analyzed were medical deaths: they had died from a disease or other medical condition. This makes it difficult to interpret the results, especially in light of the inclusion of a large number of AIDS patients & the complex etiology and effects of these diseases. Indeed, one trans female patient had “cytomegaly of the brain”, along with one of the lowest brain weights in the entire study! It is also unclear as to how the authors made the inference that hormone therapy was irrelevant, as they included only one individual that was not on hormone therapy. This individual also happened to be 84 years old! They reported that they did not find an age interaction in any of the numbers, but this is severely limited by the small sample size & methodological heterogeneity.

To delve into the long list of poorly conducted studies would require too much space in this already lengthy article, so I will save this task for another period. There is, however, a useful review of the heterogeneity among study results here.

The “Female Brain”?

Let’s take a moment to consider what the findings that trans women have ‘a female brain’ means. In these studies, there is a comparison group of ‘normal‘ (i.e. cis) women who the ‘abnormal‘ (i.e. ‘transsexual’) women is compared to. The variability within cis women is elided and collapsed into a single ‘average’ value, an awfully unfruitful way of thinking about differences in brain structure. If we are to call a particular brain “size” of a specific section that of a “female” or “woman”, what of the other cis women who have “male” values? By sexing/gendering quantities, we are introducing quite an interesting site of (re)sexing the body. Not only do the studies collapse variability among cis control groups, but they completely elide any variability among ‘transsexual’ test subjects. It is not obvious that every trans woman will have a ‘female’ brain: this would be very unusual given that not all cis women do. But if a justificatory account of trans womanhood is supposed to emanate from this science, then how does one consider the trans woman with a ‘male’ brain? The typical correction to the  discussion of the cis woman with a ‘male’ brain is to shy away from sexing the brain, but this response is unintelligible and out of reach for the purportedly justificatory narrative, for both cis & trans women.

2019-05-16 10_50_39-Sci-Hub _ A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality

This discussion of ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains is awfully reminiscent of the ways that TECFs (trans-exclusionary cultural feminists) and other transphobes have talked about sexual difference: some body part is innately sexed, producing a particular meaning of sex that includes/excludes particular groups. It is not relevant that some individuals that we ought to consider women/men are included/excluded in/out of the wrong category, because there is the presumption that this particular physiological characteristic grounds and defines sex-gender. For the TECF, the intersex body produces a challenge of classification. For trans neuroessentialist, the cis women’s ‘male brain’ is the site of failure. For the traditional conservative bioessentialist, the masculine lesbian defies a particular way of thinking about the sex-gender equivalency. United in their exclusion is the thought that there must be a physiological/physiognomic way of defining a gender-sex that provides justification for a liberatory politics.

But as the discussion of the trans woman with the ‘male brain’ shows, none of these discussions of physiological grounding of sex-gender actually hold up theoretically. The anti-trans cultural feminist has provided a litany of valid objections to the ‘neurosex’ framework, the transfeminist an account of intersex bodies in sexual difference to object to the genital/chromosomal formations of sex-gender, the liberal feminist objects to the conservative account on the questioning of the connection between their theory of ‘sex roles’ and ‘sex’ (this of course may not be a useful distinction after all). If a neuroessentialist account provided meaningful justification for trans womanhood, one ought to see trans women getting their brains tested & compared to ‘female’ values. But we do not see this form of self-validation: scientific knowledge in the form of averages (i.e. the average volume of trans women’s brain structures in comparison to cis women/men) is assumed to apply to all trans women, regardless of what type of ‘bell curve‘ brains are supposed to be distributed on. A trans woman with SD=2 away from the mean is assumed to have just as much of a ‘female’ brain as a trans woman with SD=-2, despite one falling right as ‘hyper-female’ and another as ‘male’ in the original account of ‘brainsex’ (the one formulated by academic institutions).

Do trans women have “female brains” or simply “female ratios”? Often forgotten is that there is an average (as always, the reality of average sex differences exists on a continuum) difference between the size of the brains (and heads) of ‘males’ and ‘females’. On this account, trans women have ‘male’ brains: their average head (and thus brain) size would be firmly within the ‘male’ range, whatever this is supposed to mean. But the cited studies don’t compare total brain volume, but rather the size of particular brain structures corrected for total brain volume. This is supposed to fix the issue about whether sex differences in brain volumes are simply an artifact of total body size. It’s not entirely clear why the neuroessentialist ought to use this ratio standard rather than the ‘total volume’ standard.

The Male Brain is Empty

It must also be questioned what, exactly, a “male” brain is supposed to represent. If, for instance, the finding that trans women have a “female” brain is purportedly not neuroessentialist or reproductive of the gender roles trans people often deconstruct, then it begs the question of what does a ‘male’ brain mean? The typical meaning of ‘male’ brains within scientific spheres is typically within the framework that men & women have different brains, causally related to prenatal hormones & chromosomal differences, which then produces distinct behaviors. If this essentialist formulation of “male” brains is rejected by the trans affirmationist, then it seems there is not much left to a ‘male’ brain. If it is simply a quantitative average, then it is unclear why this would be in any way constitutive of trans women as women & trans men as men any more than the finding women are, on average, shorter than men is constitutive of tall women as ‘men’ and short men as ‘women’. It is interesting to note that the portions of the brain studied by scientists in (in)validating trans gender-sexes are typically the ones involved in the discussion of ‘innate’ gendered preferences: bed nucleus of the stria terminalis INAH3, etc. This review of the “trans brain” literature is filled with claims that sexed behavior is innate, specifically affirming the misogynist “brain organization hypothesis” that has been debunked time and time again.

The Queer Feminist Scientist’s Objection

Even more, the entire concept of a ‘male’ / ‘female’ brain must be questioned on more empirical grounds (rather than the theoretical objection that it provides a basis for pro-trans attitudes). There have been a litany of feminist empirical works seeking to question the mainstream narrative that ‘male’ brains produce ‘male’ behaviors, and ‘female’ brains ‘female’ behaviors. One of the first books (I skip over Ruth Bleier’s important work) attempting to debunk this idea is Anne Fausto-Sterling (whose name one might recognize for producing a book Sexing the Body that is commonly cited & discussed by the very same people trying to push neuroessentialism) and her Myths of Gender. Although the book is partially devoted to disproving the oft-cited ‘greater male variability’ hypothesis that has been revived (in James Damore) and other silly arguments about IQ, innate differences in aggression, it also has an addendum to the second edition discussing sex differences in the brain. She (FS) discusses the aforementioned issue of total brain volume corrected for body size & the illusory corpus callosum. The numerous methodological choices one makes in measuring the body have a profound influence on the results obtained: a point obvious to any scholar of the sociology of science. The particular way that one cuts the corpus callosum will affect the presence or absence of sex differences, the size of the difference, and the qualitative differences one finds. Whether one “scans” the brain with an MRI or “photographs” and “dissects” it with a postmortem analysis is also important. But a point Fausto-Sterling makes earlier in the book, in the chapter on genes, seems most important & most fruitful to me: that brains developed at the interaction of a complex system of genes, cellular environments, biological and social environments. As more & more research has demonstrated, the biological and social are not easily separable, and the ontogeny of found differences, whether or not they meaningful exist, cannot be assumed from the existence of the differences.

Another infamous book on the sex differences in the brain is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender [apologize for the link]. While her focus is mostly on the connection between purported sex differences in the brain & the behaviors they are supposed to be causally connected to, she does talk about the complex ways that social learning & socialization can manifest themselves literally as biology. In chapters 15 and 16, she discusses the now seemingly obvious finding that behavior, the social world, environmental factors influences development, including of the brain: neuroplasticity. This novel concept is used to help explain sex differences: perhaps it isn’t that sex differences in the brain are determined by one’s genes at birth, but rather by a complex interaction between genes & environment, nature and nurture. Or perhaps, as developmental systems theorists put it, there is no distinction between nature and nurture.

The most recent magnum opus (skipping over Lise Eliot’s Pink Brains, Blue Brains) on “brains” is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain. I have unfortunately been unable to obtain a copy, but she repeats and elaborates on the many arguments formed within Cordelia Fine & other’s books. She argues that brains cannot be gendered dimorphically (or sexed in most cases) because there is more variation within ‘sexes’/’genders’ than between. This is reminiscent of the Lewontin argument against the existence of races on genetic grounds: there is more genetic variability within races than between them. While we may be able to “statistically distinguish” brains based on some overfit machine learning algorithm, how is that supposed to tell us anything about the differences between brains other than that we can create all sorts of hyperpredictive models. That is, statistical abstraction doesn’t inform us about the ontology of sex differences. Most often cited is a 2015 study done by Daphna Joel (who is very trans-affirming: see my post here) that purported to show that brains are not ‘sexed’, they are intersex. In her study, she demonstrated that most brains are not ‘extreme’: they don’t have all of the ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics on each side of the ‘dimorphic’ spectrum. Most brains are a heterogeneous composition of differently ‘sexed’ portions: someone may have a ‘male’ amygdala, but a ‘female’ hypothalamus.

Who Benefits

Now we have to return to the issue at hand: whether “neurosex” exists & supports trans narratives. If someone can have parts of their brain that are differently sexed, then how does one “sex” the brain as a whole? Do we privilege specific parts of the brain that we think are most relevant to ‘determining’ sex? That seems like an inevitably social decision that won’t satisfy any critics. I think it has become clear that not only does the neuroessentialist narrative of “trans women have female brains” & “trans men have male brains” not justify a trans-affirming narrative, but that brains aren’t dimorphic enough to even justify classifications of ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains.

Next, we must turn to the consequences of adopting this narrative: how the entire trans community is supposed to fit within it. Obviously, this discussion of ‘male’ brains and ‘female’ brains has already started to adopt an exorsexist conceptualization of gendered difference, privileging binary gender legitimacy over that of nonbinary people. But how are nonbinary people supposed to fit within this “male brain” – “female brain” conceptualization. Some people have suggested we ought to conceive “brainsex” as yet another spectrum. This may seem plausible at first: nonbinary individuals are neither “male” nor “female”, but it immediately raises a few questions. First, what of the nonbinary identities that exist outside the already exorsexist framework of a gender ‘spectrum’ (presuming polarity and opposition)? The myth of nonbinary as “between” male and female has been the subject of numerous critiques for not only being explicitly misrepresentative of nonbinary identity, but exorsexist/transphobic for imposing a particular view of transness onto nonbinary identity. Are agender & bigender people supposed to occupy neither ends of the ‘brainsex’ spectrum or both, respectively? Or are they to be thrown under the bus in a respectability politic in the goal of transsexual legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public & medical establishment? Second, if we are appealing to a spectrum to legitimize transness, then how are we to pick where “male” starts & “nonbinary” begins. If there is a range from -1 to 1, where 1 represents maleness and -1 represents femaleness, then where does femaleness end, nonbinary begin & end & maleness start? Do ‘female brains’ go from -1 to -1/3, nonbinary from -1/3 to 1/3, and ‘male brains’ from 1/3 to 1? This would divide up the spectrum evenly. But then we encounter our earlier objection: given that brains don’t exist in dichotomies, they exist in distributions within groups, there are going to be trans women whose brains are “nonbinary” or “male”, nonbinary people with “male” or “female” brains & trans men with “nonbinary” or “female” brains. Here we have just legitimized a privileged few whose brains were lucky enough to be the “right” size and/or “right” proportions.

Who is “neurosex” serving? Not women, not men, not trans people, not nonbinary people, not feminists nor transfeminists. The only people it “serves” is the academic misogynists, the “sex difference” evolutionary psychologists, the right-wing reactionaries. It’s time for transfeminists to abandon this model.


Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The essential difference: Men, women and the extreme male brain. London: Penguin.

Bleier, R. (1984). Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Themes on Women, New York: Pergamon (ed.) (1986) Feminist Approaches to Science, New York: Pergamon.

Brizendine L. 2006. The Female BrainNew YorkMorgan Road

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge.

Canguilhem, G. (1989). The normal and the pathological. New York: Zone Books. Originally published as Le normal et le pathologique (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1966).

Canguilhem, G. (2008). Knowledge of Life. Translated from the French by Stefanos
Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg. New York: Fordham University Press.

Caselles, E. L. (2018). Dismantling the Transgender Brain. Graduate Journal of Social Science, 14(2), 135-159.

Delphy, C. (1993) ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’, Women’s Studies International Forum 16(1): 1–9.

Dumont, É. C. (2009). What is the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis? Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 33(8), 1289–1290.doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2009.07.006

Echols, A. (1984). The Taming of the Id: Feminist Sexual Politics, 1968-83 In Carol Vance (Eds.), Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality (p. 50-72). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Fausto-SterlingA. (1992). Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. New YorkBasic Books.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction
of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Fear-Segal J and Tillett R (eds) (2013) Indigenous Bodies: Reviewing, Relocating, Reclaiming. New York, NY: SUNY Pres

Fine, Cordelia (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, New York: Norton.

Fine, C., Jordan-Young, R., Kaiser, A., & Rippon, G. (2013). Plasticity, plasticity, plasticity…and the rigid problem of sex. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(11), 550–551.doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.08.010

Griffiths, P. E., & Tabery, J. (2013). Developmental Systems Theory. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 65–94. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-397947-6.00003-9

Griffiths PE, Hochman A (2015). Developmental systems theory. In: eLS. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.doi:10.1002/9780470015902.a0003452.pub2.

Hahn, A., Kranz, G. S., Küblböck, M., Kaufmann, U., Ganger, S., Hummer, A., … Lanzenberger, R. (2014). Structural Connectivity Networks of Transgender People. Cerebral Cortex, 25(10), 3527–3534.doi:10.1093/cercor/bhu194

Heller, J. (2018). Constructed Gender but Unconstructed Sex? Historical Roots of Sociological Practice. The American Sociologist. doi:10.1007/s12108-018-9396-y

Joel, D. (2011). Male or Female? Brains are Intersex. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 5.doi:10.3389/fnint.2011.00057

Joel, D. (2012). Genetic-gonadal-genitals sex (3G-sex) and the misconception of brain and gender, or, why 3G-males and 3G-females have intersex brain and intersex gender. Biology of Sex Differences, 3(1), 27.doi:10.1186/2042-6410-3-27

Joel, D., Berman, Z., Tavor, I., Wexler, N., Gaber, O., Stein, Y., … Assaf, Y. (2015). Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(50), 15468–15473.doi:10.1073/pnas.1509654112

Joel, D., Perisco, A., Hänggi, J., Pool, J. & Berman, Z. (2016). Reply to Del Giudice et al., Chekroud et al., and Rosenblatt: Do brains of females and males belong to two distinct populations? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(14), 1969–1970.doi:10.1073/pnas.1509654112

Joel, D., Hänggi, J., & Pool, J. (2016). Reply to Glezerman: Why differences between brains of females and brains of males do not “add up” to create two types of brains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(14), E1972–E1972.doi:10.1073/pnas.1600791113

Joel, D., Persico, A., Salhov, M., Berman, Z., Oligschläger, S., Meilijson, I., & Averbuch, A. (2018). Analysis of Human Brain Structure Reveals that the Brain “Types” Typical of Males Are Also Typical of Females, and Vice Versa. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00399

Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brainstorm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Kruijver, F. P. M., Zhou, J.-N., Pool, C. W., Hofman, M. A., Gooren, L. J. G., & Swaab, D. F. (2000). Male-to-Female Transsexuals Have Female Neuron Numbers in a Limbic Nucleus. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 85(5), 2034–2041.doi:10.1210/jcem.85.5.6564

Lippa, R. A. (2005). Gender, nature, and nurture. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Lewontin, R. C. (1972). The Apportionment of Human Diversity. Evolutionary Biology, 381–398.doi:10.1007/978-1-4684-9063-3_14

Marwha, D., Halari, M., & Eliot, L. (2017). Meta-analysis reveals a lack of sexual dimorphism in human amygdala volume. NeuroImage, 147, 282–294.doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.12.021

Ottman, R. (1996). Gene–Environment Interaction: Definitions and Study Design. Preventive Medicine, 25(6), 764–770.doi:10.1006/pmed.1996.0117

Parker Jones, O., Alfaro-Almagro, F., & Jbabdi, S. (2018). An empirical, 21st century evaluation of phrenology. Cortex, 106, 26–35.doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2018.04.011

Pearson, Karl (1906). The Relative Brain-Weights Of Man And Woman. The British Medical Journal, 1(2352), 232-233.

Rippon, Gina (2019). Gendered Brain: the new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.

Satel S & Lilienfeld SO (2013). Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2013.

Savic, I., & Arver, S. (2011). Sex Dimorphism of the Brain in Male-to-Female Transsexuals. Cerebral Cortex, 21(11), 2525–2533.doi:10.1093/cercor/bhr032

Swaab, D., & Bao, A.-M. (2013). Sexual Differentiation of the Human Brain in Relation to Gender-Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Neuropsychiatric Disorders. Neuroscience in the 21st Century, 2973–2998. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-1997-6_115

Uttal WR (2001). The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Uttal WR (2012). Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-meta Analysis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williams, C. (2013). You might be a TERF if…. TransAdvocate.

Wittig M. (1981). One is not born a woman. Fem. Issues Fall:4754.

Zhou, J.-N., Hofman, M. A., Gooren, L. J. G., & Swaab, D. F. (1995). A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality. Nature, 378(6552), 68–70.doi:10.1038/378068a0


Who’d You Just Cite?

If you’ve ever delved into the depths of online trans discourse, you’d be surprised to see the types of people that anti-trans devotees will cite. It ranges anywhere from blatant misogynists to ardently pro-trans people, but the actual positions of the author needn’t matter: only the arguments they are making. I suspect this is because they have a paucity of actually coherent theorists who are adept enough at writing that they can get published in journals and publishing outlets, so they have to go (cherry)picking for arguments.

Misogynists, Reactionaries and Anti-Feminists

Leonard Sax

Unfortunately, too often are intersex people wielded as weapons in the ‘trans debate’. While their existence is important to the discussion of the ontology and metaphysics of sex, discourse about trans rights has too often erased the lived experiences of intersex people. Often people cite the figure that ‘intersex people are about 2% of the population’. This was first reported in Blackless et. al’s seminal study on the topic, demonstrating that around 2 in 100 individuals deviate from the “Platonic ideal” of sex by virtue of their sexed chromosomes, their gonadal structure, hormone levels or internal and external genitalia. In an article published two years later, Leonard Sax made his name in the “gender critical” community by providing a critique of Blackless et. al’s research. In it, he claims that Anne Fausto-Sterling (who is the main subject of the critique for the use of the Blackless et. al research in her book Sexing the Body) systematically overestimated the frequency of intersex people in the population to bolster her ideological commitment to … who knows, really? I don’t think it’s worth responding to his article in depth here since it’s so insultingly bad, but I’ve covered the basics on Twitter in the past.

Little do most anti-trans feminists know, but Sax is just as, if not more, ideologically committed to a particular worldview on sex and gender. He is described as a “conservative psychologist” and is infamous in feminist circles for insisting that sex differences are innate, inborn.

Let’s review his ‘accomplishments’:

  • He argues that differences are ‘hardwired’ so that we are obliged to teach girls and boys in same-sex schools.
  • He believes that ‘gender’ is not a construct created by patriarchy, but that it is ‘built in’ before birth and cites the neuromyths to defend his thesis. Notice the misinterpretation of Butler’s thesis & conflation of Butler with Cordelia Fine. For a response to some of the “points” within, see Rippon’s article here.
  • He’s positioned as an anti-feminist author, being cited as an “ex-feminist read” and situating himself in contrast to a feminist perspective on popular literature.
  • He has also positioned himself against the well-supported APA guidelines on masculinity; in an article for the conservative pro-birth and homophobic “Institute for Family Studies”, he criticizes the aforementioned guidelines, a criticism that was readily picked up by MRA organizations like the “National Parents Organization” and right-wing websites like “Intellectual Takeout“.
  • Sax has been mentioned, criticized and been put under the microscope for his aforementioned book “Why Gender Matters”, as he is part of the scientific milieu who is religiously devoted to creating sex differences.
  • Indeed, Leonard Sax is often a direct target of some of neuroscientists like Cordelia Fine (pages XVII, 112, 162, 168, 191) and Lise Eliot.

The academic and social spheres he’s situated himself within aren’t exactly “feminist” ones either:

Ray Blanchard and co(ult)

One of the most common theories that TECFs latch onto as to the aetiology of trans people’s existence (besides the incoherent it’s just dislike of gender roles) is Blanchard’s “autogynephilia” thesis. I won’t go over the details here, but I’ve critiqued the theory at length (in fact, it’s why I started this blog!) here.

Unsurprisingly, along with the blantant lesbophobia of his actual work, the anti-feminist viewpoints necessary to endorse the ‘theory’ of autogynephilia, he’s also a blatant homophobe and misogynist in real life. In an interview he had with Vice, he stated that he would have promoted the long-critiqued homophobic and misogynistic paradigm of sexual intercourse such that only sex for reproduction is considered ‘normal’:

I would say if one could start from scratch, ignore all the history of removing homosexuality from the DSM, normal sexuality is whatever is related to reproduction.

He even believes that gay people are “abnormal”:

It has been 40 years since homosexuality was removed as a mental illness from the DSM. But given a clean slate, Blanchard said he would still classify homosexual sex as abnormal.

Even more, he promotes not-so-subtly lesbophobic and misogynistic opinions about lesbian couples:

I think there are some glaring differences between acceptance of transsexualism and acceptance of homosexuality. Let’s say that a friend comes to you and says she’s a lesbian, you aren’t seeing your friend performing cunnilingus on her girlfriend. All this requires is acceptance of what you don’t have to see.

Beyond that, Blanchard’s model of treatment for trans people is blatantly anti-feminist, misogynistic and reproduces the patriarchy. For instance, Blanchard promotes the view that gender is innate and built into people’s brains at birth. As such, his thesis is that ‘feminine homosexual men’ are sometimes born with ‘female brains‘ so that they ‘become transsexuals’ and feel the need to transition.

More recently, Holly Lawford-Smith cited Anne Lawrence’s profoundly non-scientific book on autogynephilia to attempt to demean particular types of trans women. (Hopefully) unbeknownst to Lawford-Smith, but Lawrence is a sexual predator who wouldn’t know how to form a scientific hypothesis if it hit her in the head. Her website and half-cobbled theories (a result of her education at a quack school) have caused material harm to numerous trans people.

Another member of the tiny Blanchardian cult is James Cantor, who thinks that pedophilia is built into the brain and that we should add a “P” to LGBT;

He even goes as far as to position his belief against that of “nonbinary feminism”

He believes that pedophilia is a ‘sexual orientation‘, and fascinatingly the profoundly non-feminist belief that gender dysphoria is biological. He even defends child sex dolls

And has used that as a way to move towards the legalization of child porn.

He has gotten acceptance among the so-called “gender critical feminists” because he’s willing to espouse anti-trans talking points. And it’s not a one-way street: he promotes anti-trans feminists too:

But in another move, will criticize them for “tell[ing] … us what we can/can’t do with our bodies”;

He has even gotten into tangles with anti-trans feminists over what constitutes feminism and about specifics of feminist theory:

I also personally suspect he is a pedophile himself;


Feminist Scientists

Cordelia Fine

One of my favorite authors these days is Cordelia Fine. She has written devastating critiques of the idea of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain, the naturalization of gender roles and the myths surrounding testosterone. Strangely, ‘gender critical feminists’ (or more accurately TECFs) cite Cordelia Fine as if she supports their project. Obviously Cordelia Fine is a welcome antidote to the essentialism of conservatives, but the claim that her project somehow refutes trans people is quite strange.

The few times that Cordelia Fine talks about trans people in her research or in interviews, she is decidedly not antagonistic, and if anything, is affirming and supportive. In a discussion with the “Parenting Science Gang”, she states:

Cultural evolutionary scientists definitely regard the prestige or status of an individual as important, but also I think group identification.

There are studies showing that even preschool kids already are more drawn to activities and objects modelled by children of the same gender (also the case for trans kids

In contrast, TECFs deny the existence of trans kids;


Even more, the few times that she talks about trans people in her books, she uses their existence to bolster her thesis. Chapter 1 of Delusions of Gender begins:

The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.
-Jan Morris, a male-to-female transsexual describing her posttransition experiences in her autobiography, Conundrum (1987)

Chapter 5 starts with:

In her book Scientists Anonymous, Patricia Fara describes how, around the turn of the nineteenth century, botanist Jeanne Baret and mathematician Sophie Germain were obliged to present themselves as men to carry out their research.1 Unlike Baret, today’s female biologists do not have to pretend to be men to carry out fieldwork. Nor do contemporary female mathematicians need to employ Germain’s subterfuge, studying by correspondence under cover of a male identity. Yet even today, the evidence suggests that it would be a shrewd career move for a woman to disguise herself as a man. People who have transformed their identity in this way-namely, female-to-male transsexuals-report decidedly beneficial consequences in the workplace. Ben Barres is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, and a femaleto-male transsexual. In an article in Nature he recalls that “[s]hortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.'” Similar stories cropped up in a recent interview study of twenty-nine female-to-male transsexuals. Kirsten Schilt, a Research Fellow at Houston’s Rice University, interviewed the men about their work experiences both before and after their transition from women to men. Her study reveals that many immediately enjoyed greater recognition and respect. Thomas, an attorney, related how a colleague praised the boss for getting rid of Susan, whom he regarded as incompetent. He then added that the “new guy,” Thomas, was “just delightful”-not realizing, of course, that Thomas and Susan were one and the same. Roger, in retail, found that now that he is a man people bypass his female boss and beeline straight to him with their questions. Paul, continuing his work in secondary education, suddenly found himself being continually called upon in meetings to offer his newly valuable opinions. And several blue-collar workers reported that work is a great deal easier since transition.

Rebecca Jordan-Young

Another member of the Neurogenderings network of feminist scholars that TECFs love to cite is Rebecca Jordan-Young and her 2010 book Brain Storm. She is, however, decidedly not a part of their academic milieu.

Jordan-Young talks sparingly about trans people in her aformentioned magnum opus; she focuses more on intersex individuals/individuals with diversities of sex development. As such, her discussion of trans biology is replete (?) of …

On page 38, she notes:

While cohort studies begin with information about exposures, casecontrol studies begin from the opposite direction, grouping people according to outcomes and then looking for information on exposures. (In epidemiology the outcome of interest is usually, but not always, a disease; increasingly one sees studies of “positive” conditions like resistance to disease.) For case-control studies, scientists must have fairly distinct groups to compare, and in brain organization research this means scientists begin with people they consider to be sexually different from the majority—including gay men, lesbians, and sometimes bisexuals, as well as transsexual or transgender people. Some investigators approach the difference among these various sexual minorities as a matter of degree, and others treat them as categorically distinct, but virtually all studies consider bisexuals, gay men or lesbians, and transgender people to have at least partial “cross-sex” psychosexual differentiation, a result that would presumably follow prenatal exposure to “cross-sex” hormones. (I don’t mean to endorse this notion. In Chapter 7 in particular, I’ll show that it is a troubled proposition that creates a lot of tension within brain organization studies. My point here is simply to explain that it is a core assumption of brain organization research.)

On page 90, she states:

Two small studies have suggested that left-handedness may be increased in individuals with CAH, but most studies (including all of the larger studies) have found no effect on handedness or other aspects of cognitive lateralization. Core gender identity is usually not affected by CAH. There are higher rates of both gender dissatisfaction and/or ambivalence, as well as transgender/transsexuality in genetic females with CAH, compared with the general population, but most women with CAH have typical gender identity.

On page 93, she notes:

This article was the first in a stream of investigations into a possible relationship between biochemical responses to hormone injections (the LH surge response or the positive estrogen feedback effect) and male and female homosexuality and transsexuality. These studies are variously referred to as testing “neuroendocrine function,” “LH surge,” “gonadostat,” or “response to estrogen challenge.” Unlike the “Pepsi Challenge” commercials that were made around the same time as these studies, featuring blinded taste tests between Coke and Pepsi, there were no clear winners in the “Estrogen Challenge” tests. They turned out to not differentiate very well between homosexual and heterosexual men, or conventionally gendered versus transsexual people.

On page 101:

Other traits studied in sexual minorities do not follow these same patterns. For example, consider digit-length ratios, which have now been extensively examined in both men and women. The relative length of the second to the fourth fingers (known as the 2D:4D ratio) tends to be roughly equal in women, but lower in men, reflecting a longer “ring” finger than index finger. There have been seven studies comparing 2D:4D in gay and straight men, and the findings are all over the map. Three studies find higher (feminized) ratios in gay men (McFadden 2002; Lippa 2003; Collaer, Reimers, and Manning 2007), but two other studies found gay men to have lower (hypermasculinized) ratios (Robinson and Manning 2000; Rahman and Wilson 2003) and two found no difference in digit ratios between gay and straight men (Williams et al. 2000; Voracek, Manning, and Ponocny 2005). Among women, two studies found lesbians to have “masculinized” digit ratios (Rahman and Wilson 2003; and Williams et al. 2000), but one small study (Anders and Hampson 2005) and the two largest studies (Lippa 2003; Collaer, Reimers, and Manning 2007) found no difference compared with heterosexual women. Only one study has reported a link between 2D:4D and gender identity, and this found a “feminized” pattern in male-to-female transsexuals, but no difference between female-to-male transsexuals and other genetic females (Schneider, Pickel, and Stalla 2006). In sum, if there is any link between digit ratio and sexual orientation or gender identity, it appears to be very small, and to be limited to (genetic) men. The evidence is similarly mixed for other indicators.

On page 104:

Though no studies have examined the brains of lesbians, one study has
now looked at the brains of male-to-female transsexuals (Zhou et al. 1995; Kruijver et al. 2000). The study, by Dick Swaab’s lab at the Netherlands Brain Institute and conducted in conjunction with Louis Gooren, a renowned clinician-researcher who works with transsexuals, concerns yet another portion of the hypothalamus, the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTc). In an initial report, Jiang-Ning Zhou and colleagues simultaneously reported a difference in the volume of the BSTc between nontranssexual men and women, and between transsexual and nontranssexual men. The study is particularly interesting because the scientists had sought to identify “a brain structure that was sexually dimorphic but was not influenced by sexual orientation, as male-to-female transsexuals may be ‘oriented’ to either sex with respect to sexual behavior” (Zhou et al. 1995, 68). (Most other brain organization researchers, especially in the early years, have missed this point about the variability of sexual orientation among transsexuals.) When Zhou and colleagues found that the six transsexuals they studied had, on average, a smaller BSTc volume than other genetic males, they concluded that they had found “a female brain structure in genetically male transsexuals,” which they said supported “the hypothesis that gender identity develops as a result of an interaction between the developing brain and sex hormones” (68). Swaab’s team later refined the analysis, determining that the volume differences they observed reflect a difference in cell number (Kruijver et al. 2000). They also ruled out a relationship between cell number and (male) sexual orientation, because nontranssexual men, regardless of sexual orientation, had almost twice as many of a specific kind of neuron (somatostatin neurons) as women in this brain area, and the number in male-tofemale transsexuals was similar to that of the women.13 (It’s worth emphasizing that the second paper is an elaboration, rather than a new study, because 26 of the 34 subjects in the main analysis were the same as those studied by Zhou et al. (1995). Thus, the finding of a relationship between the BSTc and gender identity has been extended but not replicated.)

On page 261:

Here is the promised return to Hausman’s reflections on the David Reimer story. Though Hausman raises the issue of the natural attitude about gender, she didn’t quite draw the conclusion that the reason David Reimer’s sex reassignment didn’t “take” was that it was recognized as “not the real thing.” Yet all accounts point to a myriad of ways that the natural attitude was ruptured in this case: no one actually believed that the child “was” a girl—they believed (or rather, hoped) that he might be made into a girl. In fact, they believed that, as unlikely as it might be, it was his
only chance of survival. In Colapinto’s fuller account (2001), it is obvious that parents, the broader family, clinicians, and teachers—among whom the child’s original male sex was an open secret—colluded in the heavyhanded enforcement of femininity. The fact that Money recruited transsexual women to try to convince the child to have vaginal construction may well have underscored for Reimer that what was under way was, in fact, a reconstruction of gender, a replacement rather than “the original.”

On page 265:

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (those with minority sexual orientations) are mostly not transgender (people who don’t identify with their “birth sex” or the gender in which they were reared), but LGBT communities overlap and have entangled histories. It is tempting to think that the distinction between gender and sexuality has influenced the history and politics of LGBT people, but the influence has been at least as strong in the other direction: political aspirations and intragroup struggles have shaped the very contours of gender and sexuality as these categories became conceptually distinct in the twentieth century. Anthropologist David Valentine (2007) has documented how gay and lesbian activists actively distinguished themselves from “gender deviants” (transsexuals, transvestites, and even such nondiagnosed but socially disdained groups as “fairies” and “bulldaggers”) in order to win social respectability and escape from the stigma of mental illness. This was not simply a cynical political strategy, of course, but fit well with some gay men’s and lesbians’ fundamental sense of being typical men or women in terms of gender.

By now, the copious number of tangential quotes should make the point clear by now: Jordan-Young is far from clearly antagonistic towards trans people. She is amenable to using trans-affirming language, cites a trans-affirming ethnography and refers to trans people as their actual gender where relevant.

Even more, her underlying schema of sex, gender and sexuality that she outlines in chapters 1, 6, 7, 9 is a delightful turn away from the typical TECF analysis. I recommend reading her book in full here.

Daphna Joel

The thorny issue of “brain sex” has centered an empirical conflict within the “transgender debate”; where some (bad) transfeminists promote the idea that our brains have ‘sexes’ that legitimizes trans existence, in contrast to some (also bad in other ways) ‘gender critical’ feminists who insist that brains are not ‘sexed’. To support this assertion, TECFs will cite Daphna Joel’s pioneering word on the brain mosaic, However, they tend to forget anything about her other work: namely the work she does on transgender people. Let’s review.

The first paper that she published on the topic was her 2014 paper Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individualsIn it, she and her colleagues study the formation of gender identity in ‘normative’ (or cis) individuals: specifically how the typical ideas we have about the demarcation between ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ don’t hold up. This article and her later work has become the basis for my article ‘Daphna Joel and the Limits of the Cis-Trans Binary’. In contrast to anti-trans feminists, Joel doesn’t demean or degrade trans lives by prima facie rejecting gender identity, she problematizes the notions we have about the relationality between cis and trans people.

She extends upon these foundations in her 2018 article An Exploration of the Relations Between Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in an Online Sample of Cisgender Individuals and her 2019 article Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexuality in an Online Sample of Cisgender, Transgender, and Gender-Diverse Individuals: An Exploratory Study. She then uses this body of research in the synthesis article from a set of feminist scientists ‘The Future of Sex and Gender in Psychology: Five Challenges to the Gender Binary‘, where she presents her research (both in neuroscience and in gender identity) as a challenge to the gender binary.

‘Second Wave’ Feminists

Margaret Atwood

If you’ve ever tried to explain why supporting trans people is not inherently anti-feminist (or is in fact a pro-feminist position), then you’re bound to have seen the pejorative “handmaiden” thrown around. Cis women allies of trans people & cis feminists are accused of being “handmaidens” to the patriarchy because they support trans people, which purportedly reproduces gender roles, or something. The term “handmaiden” has been in use in feminist circles for quite a while, but it was reinvigorated and popularized by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which described a ‘dystopian society‘ where women are organized hierarchically based on their reproductive ability (sound familiar?). The book and its themes are often used as a weapon against trans advocates:

Despite the fact that Margaret Atwood is explicitly supportive of trans people:

In a January 2018 interview with The Guardian, she responded to the question of her status as a feminist with:

It is always – ‘What do you mean by the word?’ For instance, some feminists have historically been against lipstick and letting transgender women into women’s washrooms. Those are not positions I have agreed with.

Later in March that year, she distinguished herself from TECFs by saying:

Tell me what you mean. I don’t sign blank cheques. Do you mean that I’m a 1972 feminist who felt that women were betraying their gender to have sex with men? I’m not that kind of feminist. And I’m not the kind that thinks that trans women are not women. So you tell me what you mean and I’ll tell you if I am one.

And in an April interview with TeenVogue the year before, she explained how trans people were actually built in to the TV/cinema adaptation of her book:

TeenVogue: There’s a foreshadowing scene early on where Ofglen asks Offred if she’d mind walking along the river on the way back home from their errands. Ofglen wants to see the Wall, where the authorities display those who have been executed. When they arrive at the Wall, Ofglen is drawn to the hanging corpse of someone who was LGBTQ. Can you talk about that scene and how you think it fits in with current events and contemporary culture?

MA: Absolutely. Gender treachery. That’s what they’re getting Ofglen for in the TV series. And there are people writing this stuff, now! Now they’re doing it! It’s about transgender people mostly, and they don’t exactly call it treachery, but they’re having none of it. You saw what the Trump administration did [to repeal trans people’s protections]. And if you want a take on why people get so popped up about it, it’s because it challenges their roles. So if there’s somebody who can change from being a man to a woman or a woman to a man, what does that make them? From whence derives their authority? When things are so wobbly, it makes them very insecure.

And indeed, the way that TECF discourse functions ends up reproducing the hierarchy and social network aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Judith Butler

I know this is a strange choice to include on a list of theorists/people that ‘gender critical’ and trans-antagonistic feminists would cite, but it’s sadly become (or rather became) a part of reality. Back before Judith Butler started doing interviews on how she supports trans people, she was occasionally cited by anti-trans feminists who believed that the observation that gender is a construct somehow inherently leads to the conclusion that trans people are invalid.

Because the internet was not preserved very well and is nearly impossible to search, we don’t have good records of when anti-trans feminists used to do this besides some attestations. For example, Cristan Williams wrote:

I suspect TERFs began to truly hate me when I published this article. Until this article, it wasn’t uncommon for TERFs to use Butler’s Gender Trouble to support their animus.

in reference to Butler’s interview with Williams.

Another trans individual said:

Maybe I greatly overestimate the proportion of TERFs who rely on a perversion of postmodern theories of gender, but I have had multiple TERFs quote Butler at me in a social constructionist context. My impression is that some of them interpret the theory of performative gender in such a shallow way as to suggest that when trans women are feminine, they are deliberately “putting on a performance” to trick cis women into accepting them into women’s spaces and that this reading of performativity exhibits trans women’s artificiality and intrinsic deceitfulness.

Edit: Oh! And I remember what gave me the strongest impression. When that ex-TERF did an AMA a few months ago, she and I talked briefly via PM about our mutual love for Butler in particular, and she mentioned that most of her friends while she was a TERF considered postmodern philosophers to be On Their Side, as it were.

There have been several other references to trans antagonistic feminists citing Butler in their anti-trans fury from veterans in the ‘debate’, but this has long since passed because of the aforementioned interviews.

We should note that despite the fact that these interpretations happened before Butler came out and cleared them up, they are very literally gross misinterpretations of even Butler’s original book Gender Trouble. Her theory of performativity does not entail any commitment to an anti-trans theory of gender and several other aspects of the theory directly contradict anti-trans views such as:

  • Butler’s claim that the sex/gender distinction isn’t very coherent since sex is gendered and ends up being discursively constructed as well.
  • Butler’s claim that we cannot abolish gender norms; instead we ought to destabilize and denaturalize them to emphasize that they are inherently artifactual.

Martha Nussbaum

Strangely, in the anti-trans feminist’s quest to find theorists to devalidate trans people, after realizing Judith Butler isn’t a transphobe, they turn right to another one of their arch-nemeses: Martha Nussbaum. Martha Nussbaum wrote a polemic of Judith Butler’s research in 1999 called The Professor of Parody, which has quickly become a favorite among anyone who derives pleasure from attributing any pro-trans views to “postmodernism” or “queer theory”, including and especially TECFs. Despite the fact that this article is a caricature of Butler’s views that was written when Butler was only a nascent philosopher, it has become a classic against anyone unwilling to read the original text and judge for themselves.

Ironically, the author of the very text, Martha Nussbaum, has written in favor of some very non-‘gender-critical-anti-trans-radical-feminist’ points of view: namely her academic defense of sex work. Because “radical feminism” has become almost synonymous with anti-porn and anti-“prostitution” feminism, it would be hard to present a defense of Nussbaum as a radical feminist professor rather than an unwilling ally against the devil of “Kweer Theory”. She is best-known as a ‘liberal feminist’ (or fun feminist in the TECF vocabulary) and as one of the main feminist critics of feminist philosophy as a distinct entity.

Beyond her detailed defense of ‘taking money for bodily services‘ that would incense anti-trans feminists, she has also come out in favor of trans rights, at least subliminally. In her recent bookMonarchy of Fear‘, she said:

“African-Americans were being lynched in the south. Communists were losing their jobs. Women were just barely beginning to enter prestigious universities and the work force … sexual harassment was a ubiquitous offense … Jews could not win partnerships in major law firms. Gays and lesbians, criminals under law, were almost always in the closet. People with disabilities had no rights to public space and public education. Transgender was a category that had … no name.

In a 2017 response, she noted:

I do agree strongly that an active citizenry is crucial, and that women’s solidarity is also very important as one part of active citizenship. However, I think that consumer movements are often more important than protest marches, and that they are one tool that concerned women and men can use and have used in the US to good effect. The baneful anti-transgender law in North Carolina was derailed largely through industrial boycotts spurred on by consumers, and there are many other similar examples. We need to be active on many fronts, not disdaining the market!

And in a 2017 interview, she stated:

Another example is bullying and harassment of gay, lesbian, and transgender children in schools. Their emotional life is warped in a very fundamental way when their peers and teachers do not show respect for them. Schools have improved a lot, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done.   Disability is a similar issue: individuals are emotionally crushed by insult and stigma. So let’s get rid of that behavior.  I do not think that it is too intrusive to ask all public school teachers to treat all their students with respect and to enforce norms of respect in the classroom.  I realize some Americans think this is intrusive, but then they used to think that racial integration was too intrusive.  In short: law protects our equal dignity and emotional health in many fundamental ways, and it should do this job better.

In sum, anti-trans feminists have made strange bedfellows in their attempt to construct a programme of critiques against the myriad of pro-trans writers.

Andrea Dworkin

Among the lengthy list of radical feminists that TECFs have appropriated is the most prominent of them all: Andrea Dworkin.

She has been cited as “the radical, visionary feminist we need in our terrible times” by Julie Bindel, cited to bolster anti-trans arguments, called a ‘hero’ by anti-trans feminists, and is cited in about just every way.

Despite this, she is less-known as being supportive of trans people, to the extent where people are surprised when it quotes from her are presented.

Her partner John Stoltenberg wrote an article (originally titled “Andrea Dworkin on Living Beyond Gender”) about how Andrea Dworkin was, in fact, inclusive of trans people. As noted in my article on radical feminism, she (and a number of other ‘second wave’ feminists) had an alternative conceptualization of the relation of sex (class[es]) and gender that demonstrated their incoherence.


Anti-trans feminists have an unpopular position: they try to position themself on the left while simultaneously taking reactionary positions. As such, they have cobbled together an incoherent set of positions from varying authors: those who agree with them on a select number of issues, but broadly disagree elsewhere. Whether it is feminists who are not anti-trans or right-wing anti-feminists, the contradiction of their citations echoes loudly to anyone educated in their sources. Beyond people like Andrea Dworkin and Leonard Sax, they have cited numerous other figures like Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Davis, and others who disagree with their positions. It’s difficult to fit all of these into a single article, so I leave with a single conclusion: once we remove the reactionaries and pro-trans feminists from the list, there isn’t an academic basis for the anti-trans feminist point of view. There’s, of course, a right-wing anti-feminist position they can take (and that we’ve slowly started to see appeals to), but it is a contradiction to consider oneself ‘on the left’ and simultaneously oppose trans rights.


It’s Biological, Duh!

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably realized that I’m not one of those people who likes to go around stating unproblematically that transness is “inborn” or due to “nature”. If you’ve ever read my Twitter account, this becomes even more clear that I dislike ‘innate-ness’ explanations.

So when there’s a person going around reddit posting some “masterpost” of how trans identity is biological, it’s sure to arouse some suspicion in me. In my previous post, I addressed the political, scientific and sociological aspects of “brainsex” within trans politics. But the “neuro”-origin myths about being trans are not the only ones that exist: There are also the hormonal ones & the genetic ones. “Biotroofs” are present in all sorts of manners, trying to inscribe identity, lived experience & group differences to various aspects of the body.

Not One, But Two?

One of the most common appeals is to mythical “genes”. Milton Diamond’s paper (forgive the constant misgendering) is especially famous for this, as he examined trans identity among twins. The problem with his study is that not only did he calculate heritability coefficients by using the MZ (monozygotic – identical twins) and DZ (dizygotic – fraternal twins) data that he collected, but he uses a scientific methodology that has been torn to pieces.

For those not acquainted with twin studies, they are a methodology originally created by Francis Galton to ‘determine’ the relative contributions of ‘genetics’ and ‘environment’ to his measures of intelligence. Essentially, they compare the similarity among MZ twins (their concordance rate) and their similarity among DZ twins (their concordance rate) and use that to estimate the genetic contribution. The typical model for this study involves the analysis of variances. Variance, V, of the population is presumed to be a combination of the variances in genes & environments; V=G+E. The way to calculate “G” and “E” was like this: we assume that the variances of twin phenotypes is simply the addition of genes and environment. Monozygotic twins, by virtue of sharing all their genes, had their correlation r_{MZ}=E+G. Dizygotic twins had the equation r_{DZ}=E+G/2 because they shared only half of their genes. Solving the set of simultaneously equations yields G=2(r_{MZ}-r_{DZ}), so r_{MZ}=E+G \implies r_{MZ}= E+2(r_{MZ}-r_{DZ}) \implies E=2r_{DZ}-r_{MZ}.

This is the original model that psychologists and eugenicists used in the early 1900s, but it has since been the subject of numerous critiques and some advancements. Notably, it has been noted that the “environment” is typically divided into two parts: shared environment (anything that makes twins more similar) and non-shared environment (anything that makes twins less similar). Researchers have also noted the interaction of genes and environment: a gene that “codes” for a particular phenotype may only do so in the presence of an environmental influence. This is typically denoted by GxE and has been the subject of a burgeoning literature, alongside statistical problems. It has been centered within the discussion of the controversial MAOA gene, allegedly* demonstrating that the gene only affects mental health outcomes in the presence of abusive environments.

While twin studies have been one of the most-used paradigms within the ‘heritability study’ scheme because they claim to be able to partition genes and environment, they have been subject to extensive critiques due to their inability to adequately control for confounds, as well as their uselessness in isolating the specific origins of a particular phenotype. Contrary to popular belief, the effects of genes and environment are not separable. As Lickliter so succinctly describes the heritability study methods, it is a fallacy of partitioning. Or as my friend always puts it “development doesn’t work that way“.

Beyond the conceptual disputes over what a heritability statistic means, there are some relevant biases that twin studies face. Most notably is known as the “equal environment assumption”. The equal environment assumption (or EEA) states that MZ twins and DZ twins share equal correlations in environment (i.e. that the environment will be no more similar for MZ twins than DZ twins). We have substantial reasons to believe that this is untrue, however. As a 2001 paper pointed out, one can potentially explain the entire difference in concordance rates between monozygotic twins and dizygotic twins by environmental similarity.

If we again review Diamond’s ‘transsexual twin’ study, we can note a few things. First: that he strangely refused to calculate the heritability statistic (from the naive traditional twin model), which from his Table 3, would be h^2=2(r_{MZ}-r_{DZ}) \implies h^2=2(.41-.10)=.62 for ‘males’ and h^2=2(.36-0)=.72 for ‘females’, from the bibliographic search. From Table 4, the survey search demonstrates h^2=2(.27-.0)=.54 for ‘males’, h^2=2(.14-0)=.28 for ‘females’. And from Table 5, the overall aggregated data implies h^2=2(.33-.05)=.56 for ‘males’ and h^2=2(.23-0)=.46. Interestingly, when we go to calculate the “shared environment” contribution to the phenotype, we get a model violation: c^2=r_{MZ}-h^2, which for ‘males’ is c^2=.33-.56=-0.23 and for ‘females’ is .23-.46=-.23. The ACE model described above does not permit for negative contributions, meaning that the computation of the statistic is meaningless. Regardless, if we calculate the ‘non-shared portion’ (E=1-A-C=1-r_{MZ}) we get E=1-.33=.67 for ‘males’ and E=1-.23=.77 for ‘females’. This would seemingly imply a very large non-shared environment contribution to the trait, but alas the statistic is meaningless. But as many recognize (note that this primer is uncritical of twins reared apart studies that have numerous problems), finding a negative estimate for c^2 would imply that either the EEA (equal environments assumption) or NNE (no non-additive effects) are false.

Second: there is another assumption that is almost certain to be violated: random selection & attrition, that is, ascertainment bias. When ‘gathering’ the twin data, especially for such rare identities like being trans, there is a gigantic problem with how data is collected. Because trans people are so rare, the methods that researchers use to identify them are already a huge issue in regular trans research, but in twin research, this problem is compounded: many times. Because twins that are both trans are much more noteworthy (and perhaps, because of the shared identity, the twins could have maintained a closer relationship during adulthood), it is certain that twins that are both trans (i.e. concordant) are more likely to be found by researchers & respond to surveys. This violation of ascertainment bias has been shown to upwardly bias estimates of heritability. Even more, the lack of zygosity testing (i.e. that more similar twins are more likely to consider themselves MZ when they are in actuality DZ) and the circular assumption of zygosity from narratives (i.e. presuming that similarity is a result of genetics and then concluded as such) are two more mechanisms by which the correlations of monozygotic twins are overestimated and dizygotic twins are underestimated.

And, of course, this circles right back to the underlying incoherence of the twin model. Development doesn’t work that way! Peter Taylor has demonstrated at length how underlying developmental heterogeneity invalidates the assumptions of heritability studies, while a review of the research in criminology has sparked a call for their abandonment. What is clear is that the research into the ‘genes’ of trans identity is inherently complex, politically fraught & not going to come to an end any time soon.

It’s Still In The Genes!

Despite the launch of attacks upon twin study methods I’ve alluded to, a careful reader might note that there have been reports of ‘transsexual genes‘ in the news, perhaps rebuking my critical analysis of the twins that Diamond has presented. A closer look, however, will note that it’s part of another failed tool from the hereditarian toolkit: the “candidate gene”. After decades of ‘heritability studies’ purportedly demonstrated that every trait in existence was, in part, genetic, the wave of genomics ushered in a new era of psychologist, geneticist and behavioral scientist alike, all hoping to ‘find the genes’. Their methodology was to identify a ‘locus’ involved in a particular body process. For depression, it was the 5-HTTLPR gene. For various personality traits, it was the DRD4 gene. For aggression, researchers presumed that MAOA gene may be involved. The entire ‘candidate gene’ shtick was nothing but a house of cards, with a recent psychiatric study making waves within genetics communities and the general public alike. Similar null results have been shown for the MAOA gene, and a review of the entire candidate gene literature found nothing but inconsistency and internal contradictions. The minuscule sample sizes (leading to both random and systematic error) for testing effects along with researcher degrees of freedom, p-hacking and publication bias have produced a research environment where non-existent genetic effects have been able to be touted as having large influences.

The paper in question is not much better. Along with the small sample size (N=112, 258), the association detected was only barely significantly at p=0.04Right under the 0.05 margin. You’ll note that once classified into subgroups of ‘long’ and ‘short’, the difference between the cis & trans groups is entirely insignificant:

The AR genotype, being X-linked, is hemizygous, and thus the comparison undertaken was between short and long genotypes. An independent samples t-test revealed no significant association for the AR gene when sub-classified (p > .05).

(Emphasis mine)

I noticed that they had an outlier: a trans individual with 36 CAG repeats, so I did a quick and dirty recomputation without. Following the methodology in the studies I will discuss afterwards, I didn’t calculate the base pairs (as this could artificially inflate significance and because I have yet to hear back from the authors on how to calculate these figures & even more, the following literature doesn’t do so), but rather just the number of repeats (note that this is a rough reconstruction from their Figure 1A).

Number of Repeats Trans Controls
12 0 1
13 0 1
14 0 2
15 0 1
16 2 3
17 9 5
18 9 8
19 9 14
20 17 20
21 12 11
22 9 8
23 13 13
24 7 7
25 2 2
26 5 4
27 1 2
28 5 1
29 0 1
30 0 1
32 0 1
36 2 0

I performed a basic one-tailed Student’s t-test for the sake of ease and got a t-value of 1.31906 and a p-value of .094307. Thus, the number of repeats between the groups was not significant. My suspicion is that the difference found was an artifact of converting the number of repeats into the number of base pairs. See Appendix B for input data & more information about the calculation.

Fascinatingly, there are not only one, but two subsequent papers disconfirming the link. A 2014 paper in Spain tested all of the purported candidate genes (ERβ, AR, and CYP19A1) in the largest sample size yet (N=915) and found no relationship. The study found marginal significance for repeat length and the CYP19A1 gene, finally completing the “significant” result for the trio. But as all previous and subsequent research has not found any association, it is certainly a spurious result. A 2009 study also tested the purported candidate genes for both trans men and trans women with relatively high sample sizes & failed to replicate the AR & ERβ results from previous research. They also found no associations for any of the testosterone/estrogen-related genes they tested (increasing the total number of candidate genes from previous research). We should also note that other studies purporting to link CAG repeats to reproductive/sex-related phenotypes have come up with contradictions and publication bias. I think this qualifies as a robust falsification of the hypothetical aetiology, at least until the gene people break out GWA and start making more bullshit developmentally-ignorant associations.

From Phrenology to Fingerology

Next-up in the never-ending train of purported biological influences on trans identity are the fingers. One might question the relevance of one’s digits to the seemingly neurologically grounded (at least according to the trans-essentialists!) trans identity, but researchers have ‘shown’ (to use the word lightly since this thesis has been challenged numerous times and the relationship to various gender attributes rarely replicates) that the ratio of one’s second finger to their fourth finger is associated with the prenatal level of testosterone, at least purportedly. This result has been thrown up as “evidence” that trans people’s identities are determinisically caused by prenatal hormone exposure, despite the data being so mixed. Let’s take a look.

After a 2017 study (which was both of little value and performed by a doctor that is known to be harmful to trans people) tested the widely reported, sometimes replicated and sometimes not, relationship between 2D:4D and trans identity, there was a comment on the paper. One was from a set of researchers I trust highly, who performed a meta-analysis on the disparate literature on the topic. They found that trans women had 2D:4D ratios that were significantly more “feminized” in their right-hand, while the difference in the left-hand was not significant (although it’s p-value was marginally above the significance level). Trans men did not have “masculinized” ratios on either of their hands (although the g effect sizes were trending in the ‘correct’ direction). Despite the claims of other papers, it did not seem that measurement method affected the results in the meta-analysis. The heterogeneity among studies, then, seems to result from sampling characteristics (perhaps things like ascertainment bias). Most notably, the results indicated that even in the case that the small positive among trans women’s right-hand was not driven by things like developmental heterogeneity (a correlation produced by the fact that the link between 2D:4D and prenatal androgen exposure is weak in the first place), publication bias, ascertainment bias or other sampling biases, this still indicates an overlap of somewhere from 92-98%. If we frame this in terms of diagnostic accuracy, it would only give 51.7-55.3%, only marginally above the random guess of 50%.

Rebuilding Transness

I can already hear people wondering that if I don’t think that transness is biologically inborn, then where do I think that transness arises from? To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very interesting or politically relevant question. Because trans identity is historically and socially contingent and the irrelevance of a ‘biological’/’genetic’ grounding to a trans-affirmative politics, whether or not transness (as formulated by medical gatekeepers) is ‘biological’ just seems like a non-sequitur to every issue facing trans people. As Canguilhem has demonstrated in The Normal and the Pathological, to investigate the cause of something is to pathologize it by casting it as abnormal and need of investigation. Why is it that we have never searched for the cause of cisgenderism, of heterosexuality, of gender-normative behavior? It is precisely because these are norms, the ideal upon which non-cisheteronormative individuals are compared to: to create difference.

Despite the many affirmations that biological explanations are favorable to trans (and LGBQA) people, it’s unclear why this form of biologism would convince anyone. As any cursory engagement with philosophy would tell us, one cannot derive an ought (a moral/normative/ethical/evaluative statement) from a set of is statements (descriptive/empirical statements) alone. Due to this fact, it is quite easy for an anti-trans individual to reject any narrative affirming trans people based solely on vacuous appeals to biological and psychiatric authority (which, of course, ends up reinscribing transmisic oppression). All they have to do is point out that any purported biological influences are not inconsistent with the right-wing’s favorite “mental illness model” (warning: transmisia & homomisia). They could also just deny that a biological grounding of the ever-illusory ‘gender identity’ has any bearing on their privileging of ‘sex’ based on ontological or normative grounds. This realization that a trans-affirmationist politics cannot be based solely on empirical results helps us question the relevance of these findings overall: if the efficacy of the research in debates inevitably reduces to an ontological, ethical and metaphysical debate, why not just start there in the first place?

Now that I’ve avoided presenting my model of gender identity long enough, I’ll release the pressure. For a long time, I just ignored any ‘model’ of gender identity since I didn’t (and still really don’t) believe it’s a coherent, unitary or separable construct. Despite my persistent concerns, it may be better to adopt a tenuous model: one that can be deployed only for those who are insistent that we have to have some idea of where gender identity comes from. One of my favorite authors is Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist, feminist & gender studies scholar (she is also known as a leading expert on the development of gender identity!). She is most renowned for her oft-cited book Sexing the Body. In her 2008 work, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, she analyzes the evidence as to what biological factors are associated with gender identity development. She concludes that chromosomes, gonads, reproductive organs, genitalia, prenatal & pubertal hormones do not have much, if any, evidence for a causal influence on gender identity. After reviewing the psychological literature on gender identity formation in early childhood (as well as the literature on intersex individuals), she concludes that gender identity is the result of a complex developmental process involving early postnatal gendered experiences and individual embodiment. I highly recommend reading the entire chapter (chapter 5: Am I A Boy Or A Girl? —The Emergence of Gender Identity). Since I follow her on Twitter, I noticed when she published a new article this year titled: Gender/Sex, Sexual Orientation, and Identity Are in the Body: How Did They Get There? Most of the article is focused on applying a phenomenological perspective to gender/sex, sexual orientation and identity, and in doing so, she develops a more thorough theory of embodied development: how sex/gender and sexual orientation arise and become a part of the body.

Appendix A

Because the focus of this article was on the alleged biological causes of trans identity, I didn’t focus on several other of the points that the reddit user drewiepoodle that sparked this ‘anti-genetics’ (to quote some famous hereditarian redditors) tirade made in their copypasta.

First up is the monkey myth:

A growing body of research is showing how biology influences gender expression, sexual orientation and gender identity — characteristics that can also fall outside of strict, socially defined categories. Toy-preference tests, a popular gauge of gender expression, have long shown that cis boys and cis girls will typically gravitate to toys that are stereotypically associated with their gender (cars and guns for boys, for instance, or plush toys for girls). While one might argue that this could be the by-product of a child’s environment — parental influence at play or an internalization of societal norms — Melissa Hines, a former UCLA researcher and current professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge, in England, has shown otherwise. In 2008, she demonstrated that monkeys showed the same sex-based toy preferences as humans — absent societal influence.

The “monkey studies” have been weaponized against the “gender feminists” (to borrow Christina Hoff Sommers’ term) who point out the pivotal role of socialization and gender roles in the development and expression of gendered preferences for various social features. Here the user is referencing Melissa Hines (who is, funnily enough, a critic of the brain organization thesis in many ways) and her team’s study on vervet monkeys. The study tested whether male or female vervet monkeys would have sex-typed preferences for toys, presumably because monkeys are free from social influence. They tested 6 toys, 2 ‘masculine’ (police car & ball), 2 ‘neutral’ (picture book & stuffed dog) and 2 ‘feminine’ (doll & cooking pan). Interesting, the toy of a ‘ball’ has previously been classified a ‘neutral’ toy in previously studies testing sex differentiation in toy preferences. Overall, male monkeys spent the most time with the dog (neutral) and equal amounts of time with the ball, police car (masculine) and cooking pan (feminine). The female monkeys spent the most time with the cooking pan (feminine), dog (neutral), then doll (feminine) and then less time with the police car and ball (masculine). While there was an overall statistical difference between male and female monkeys in their choices of ‘masculine’ vs ‘feminine’ toys, it doesn’t exactly explain why there were such heterogeneous results: why neutral toys dominated and why there were ‘cross-sex’ results for some toys. This is only compounded by looking at the other monkey study on toys, which is reviewed in Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain (pages 194-195), Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm (pages 234-236), and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (pages 123-129).

Not only do the actual results raise questions about what the actual preferences among monkeys is, it raises questions about monkeys themselves. People often assume that, no, animals don’t have complex social structure. The assumption is that since an animal exhibits a sex difference, the corresponding sex difference in humans is not only natural, but intractable. (Un)fortunately, this is a naive way of looking at development. Just like humans, many primate species have complex social structures with varying hierarchies. It might be anathema to some, but it has been shown that primates and other animals alike have forms of social learning, what some term “socialization”. Some research has even indicated that primates have a form of gender roles and perhaps even gender identity. This research has come alongside with a review of our anthropological concepts of culture and the realization that primates (and other animals!) indeed do have what can be termed ‘culture’. Because there are varying developmental experiences and trajectories among male and female primates, the fact that a difference emerged (however self-contradictory) is not evidence for an innate sex difference, it hints towards a complex developmental origin. In fact, a friend of mine has noted that the only thing that these ‘monkey studies’ can show is the particular troop dynamics.

Next up, a few lessons to anyone (including the subject of my critique) who may read this. Behavioral traits are, if genetic at all, polygenic, meaning originating from numerous genes. In fact, nearly all traits are polygenic, with the exception with a minuscule number of allele substitutions which produce strong changes in phenotype (sickle cell disease, for example). The claim that:

We have no idea what the details are (a gene, multiple genes, etc?) but we have pretty strong data that it’s something durable and biological.

indicates an underlying misunderstanding of the way that not only scientific research (and norms) work, but of how developmental genetics works. If there are going to be any genes that influence trans identity, it isn’t going to be gene or multiple genes, it’s going to be numerous. Estimates of polygenicity (a numerical quantification of how many genes are involved in the development of a phenotype) for traits such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia have estimated numbers of genes into the thousands, simply for a single trait. And again, to the extent that genes are purported to exist, they are very likely to be mediated, moderated and interact with environmental factors.

Of the final extraneous points I wanted to make is the discussion of intersex people & their gender identities;

Also, the attempts by the medical establishment to surgically change body parts of intersex children based on what seemed easiest surgically was not always in line with the person’s actual gender. The thinking back then(and even today) was that gender identity was not biological. When the data was carefully collected, a majority of kids treated this way have a gender identity at odds with their surgically created body parts and upbringing(socialized as male/female). This is proof that we cannot change the gender identity someone already has innately.

Rebecca Jordan-Young has reviewed the literature (in the aforementioned book Brain Storm) on a variety of research progammes investigating sex differences in various traits, mostly related to the purported causal link between hormones (testosterone, estrogen), brain development and the aforementioned social traits. One of those programmes of research has focused on the development of gender identity in intersex individuals. She has thoroughly demonstrated that the typical consensus that intersex individuals will ‘revert’ to their ‘biological gender identity’ is not back-up by the data (this still doesn’t mean we ought to mutilate intersex children).

Works Cited

Alexander, G. M., & Hines, M. (2002). Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(6), 467–479. doi:10.1016/s1090-5138(02)00107-1

Alia-Klein, N., Kriplani, A., Pradhan, K., Ma, J. Y., Logan, J., Williams, B., … Fowler, J. S. (2008). The MAO-A genotype does not modulate resting brain metabolism in adults. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 164(1), 73–76.doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2007.12.010

Ancelin ML, Ryan J. (2017). 5-HTTLPR × stress hypothesis: Is the debate over? Mol Psychiatry.doi: 10.1038/mp.2017.195

Berenbaum, S. A., Bryk, K. K., Nowak, N., Quigley, C. A., & Moffat, S. (2009). Fingers as a Marker of Prenatal Androgen Exposure. Endocrinology, 150(11), 5119–5124.doi:10.1210/en.2009-0774

Border R, Johnson EC, Evans LM, et al (2019). No support for historical candidate gene or candidate gene-by-interaction hypotheses for major depression across multiple large samples. Am J Psychiatry, 176:376–387.doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18070881

Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2014). Pulling Back the Curtain on Heritability Studies: Biosocial Criminology in the Postgenomic Era. Criminology, 52(2), 223–262. doi:10.1111/1745-9125.12036

Canguilhem, G. (1989). The normal and the pathological. New York: Zone Books. Originally published as Le normal et le pathologique (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1966).

Charney, E. (2008). Genes and Ideologies. Perspectives on Politics, 6(02).doi:10.1017/s1537592708080626

Charney, E., & English, W. (2012). Candidate Genes and Political Behavior. American Political Science Review, 106(01), 1–34.doi:10.1017/s0003055411000554

Cirulli, E. T., & Goldstein, D. B. (2007). In vitro assays fail to predict in vivo effects of regulatory polymorphisms. Human Molecular Genetics, 16(16), 1931–1939. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddm140

Daw, J., Guo, G., & Harris, K. M. (2015). Nurture net of nature: Re-evaluating the role of shared environments in academic achievement and verbal intelligence. Social Science Research, 52, 422–439.doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2015.02.011

Diamond, M. (2013). Transsexuality Among Twins: Identity Concordance, Transition, Rearing, and Orientation. International Journal of Transgenderism, 14(1), 24–38.doi:10.1080/15532739.2013.750222

Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction
of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/gender: Biology in a social world. New York: Routledge.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2019). Gender/Sex, Sexual Orientation, and Identity Are
in the Body: How Did They Get There? The Journal of Sex Research.doi:10.1080/00224499.2019.1581883

Favé, M.-J., Lamaze, F. C., Soave, D., Hodgkinson, A., Gauvin, H., Bruat, V., … Awadalla, P. (2018). Gene-by-environment interactions in urban populations modulate risk phenotypes. Nature Communications, 9(1).doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03202-2

Fernández, R., Esteva, I., Gómez-Gil, E., Rumbo, T., Almaraz, M. C., Roda, E., … Pásaro, E. (2014). Association Study of ERβ, AR, and CYP19A1 Genes and MtF Transsexualism. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11(12), 2986–2994. doi:10.1111/jsm.12673

Fine, Cordelia (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, New York: Norton.

Fosse, R., Joseph, J., & Richardson, K. (2015). A Critical Assessment of the Equal-Environment Assumption of the Twin Method for Schizophrenia. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 6.doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00062

Goldman, N., Glei, D. A., Lin, Y.-H., & Weinstein, M. (2010). The serotonin transporter polymorphism (5-HTTLPR): allelic variation and links with depressive symptoms. Depression and Anxiety, 27(3), 260–269. doi:10.1002/da.20660

Gottlieb, G. (1997). Synthesizing nature-nurture : prenatal roots of instinctive behavior. Hillsdale (N.J.): Erlbaum.

Guo, S.-W. (2001). Does Higher Concordance in Monozygotic Twins Than in Dizygotic Twins Suggest a Genetic Component? Human Heredity, 51(3), 121–132.doi:10.1159/000053333

Hare, L., Bernard, P., Sánchez, F. J., Baird, P. N., Vilain, E., Kennedy, T., & Harley, V. R. (2009). Androgen Receptor Repeat Length Polymorphism Associated with Male-to-Female Transsexualism. Biological Psychiatry, 65(1), 93–96.doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.08.033

Holland D.Frei O.Desikan R.Fan C.C.Shadrin A. A., Smeland O. B.Sundar V. S.Thompson P.Andreassen O. A.Dale A. M. (2019). Beyond SNP Heritability: Polygenicity and Discoverability of Phenotypes Estimated with a Univariate Gaussian Mixture Model

Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brainstorm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Joseph, J. (1998). The Equal Environment Assumption of the Classical Twin Method: A Critical AnalysisThe Journal of Mind and Behavior, 19(3), 325-358.

Joseph, J. (2015). The trouble with twin studies: A reassessment of twin research in the social and behavioral sciences. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Juhasz, G., Gonda, X., Hullam, G., Eszlari, N., Kovacs, D., Lazary, J., … Bagdy, G. (2015). Variability in the Effect of 5-HTTLPR on Depression in a Large European Population: The Role of Age, Symptom Profile, Type and Intensity of Life Stressors. PLOS ONE, 10(3), e0116316.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116316

Keller, E. F. (2010). The mirage of a space between nature and nurture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kendler, K. S., & Eaves, L. J. (1989). The Estimation of Probandwise Concordance in Twins: The Effect of Unequal Ascertainment. Acta Geneticae Medicae et Gemellologiae: Twin Research, 38(3-4), 253–270.doi:10.1017/s000156600000266x

Koehler, N., Simmons, L. W., & Rhodes, G. (2004). How well does second-to-fourth-digit ratio in hands correlate with other indications of masculinity in males? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271(Suppl_5), S296–S298.doi:10.1098/rsbl.2004.0163

Kohn, G. M. (2019). How social systems persist: Learning to build a social network in an uncertain world. Preprint.

Leadbeater, E., & Chittka, L. (2007). Social Learning in Insects — From Miniature Brains to Consensus Building. Current Biology, 17(16), R703–R713. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.012

Leinung, M., & Wu, C. (2017). The Biologic Basis of Transgender Identity: 2D:4D Finger Length Ratios Implicate A Role For Prenatal Androgen Activity. Endocrine Practice, 23(6), 669–671.doi:10.4158/ep161528.or

Lewontin, R. C. (2006). The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes. International Journal of Epidemiology, 35(3), 520–525.doi:10.1093/ije/dyl062

Lickliter, R. (2009). The Fallacy of Partitioning: Epigenetics’ Validation of the Organism-Environment System. Ecological Psychology, 21(2), 138–146.doi:10.1080/10407410902877157

Lippa, R. A. (2006). Finger lengths, 2D:4D ratios, and their relation to gender-related personality traits and the Big Five. Biological Psychology, 71(1), 116–121.doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2005.02.004

Maier, R. M., Visscher, P. M., Robinson, M. R., & Wray, N. R. (2017). Embracing polygenicity: a review of methods and tools for psychiatric genetics research. Psychological Medicine, 48(07), 1055–1067.doi:10.1017/s0033291717002318

Manning, J. T. (2017). Prenatal Sex Steroids And Transgender Identity: Is There A Link With Digit Ratio? Endocrine Practice, 23(6), 738–740.doi:10.4158/ep171843.co

McGrew W. C. (1998). Culture in Nonhuman Primates? Annual Review of Anthropology 27:1301-328.doi:10.2307/223373

Medland, S. E., Zayats, T., Glaser, B., Nyholt, D. R., Gordon, S. D., Wright, M. J., … Evans, D. M. (2010). A Variant in LIN28B Is Associated with 2D:4D Finger-Length Ratio, a Putative Retrospective Biomarker of Prenatal Testosterone Exposure. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 86(4), 519–525.doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2010.02.017

Moore, D. S., & Shenk, D. (2016). The heritability fallacy. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 8(1-2), e1400.doi:10.1002/wcs.1400

Nikulina, V., Widom, C. S., & Brzustowicz, L. M. (2012). Child Abuse and Neglect, MAOA, and Mental Health Outcomes: A Prospective Examination. Biological Psychiatry, 71(4), 350–357. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.09.008

Ottman R. (1996). Gene-environment interaction: definitions and study designsPreventive medicine25(6), 764–770.

Perry, S. (2016). Cultural Primatology. The International Encyclopedia of Primatology, 1–5.doi:10.1002/9781119179313.wbprim0201

Ptacek, R., Kuzelova, H., & Stefano, G. B. (2011). Dopamine D4 receptor gene DRD4 and its association with psychiatric disorders. Medical Science Monitor, 17(9), RA215–RA220.doi:10.12659/msm.881925

Richardson, K., & Norgate, S. (2005). The equal environments assumption of classical twin studies may not hold. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(3), 339–350.doi:10.1348/000709904×24690

Rippon, Gina (2019). Gendered Brain: the new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.

Samek, D. R., Bailey, J., Hill, K. G., Wilson, S., Lee, S., Keyes, M. A., … McGue, M. (2016). A Test-Replicate Approach to Candidate Gene Research on Addiction and Externalizing Disorders: A Collaboration Across Five Longitudinal Studies. Behavior Genetics, 46(5), 608–626. doi:10.1007/s10519-016-9800-8

Schönemann, P. H. (1997). On models and muddles of heritabilityGenetica, 99(2/3), 97–108.doi:10.1023/a:1018358504373

Schuppli, C., & van Schaik, C. P. (2019). Animal cultures: how we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 1. doi:10.1017/ehs.2019.1

Suhay, E., & Kalmoe, N. P. (2010). The equal environment assumption in twin studies of
political traits: Social confounds and suggested remedies. Unpublished manuscript.

Taylor, P. (2006). Heritability and Heterogeneity: The Limited Relevance of Heritability in Investigating Genetic and Environmental Factors. Biological Theory, 1(2), 150–164.doi:10.1162/biot.2006.1.2.150

Taylor, P. (2008). The Under-recognized Implications of Heterogeneity: Opportunities for Fresh Views on Scientific, Philosophical, and Social Debates about HeritabilityHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 30(3/4), 431-456.doi:10.2307/23334458

Taylor, P. (2008). Underlying heterogeneity: a problem for biological, philosophical, and other analyses of heritability? Biology & Philosophy, 23(4), 587–589.doi:10.1007/s10539-008-9114-1

Turkheimer, E. (2000). Three Laws of Behavior Genetics and What They Mean. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(5), 160–164.doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00084

Ujike, H., Otani, K., Nakatsuka, M., Ishii, K., Sasaki, A., Oishi, T., … Kuroda, S. (2009). Association study of gender identity disorder and sex hormone-related genes. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 33(7), 1241–1244.doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2009.07.008

Voracek, M., Kaden, A., Kossmeier, M., Pietschnig, J., & Tran, U. S. (2018). Meta-Analysis Shows Associations of Digit Ratio (2D:4D) and Transgender Identity Are Small At Best. Endocrine Practice, 24(4), 386–390.doi:10.4158/ep-2017-0024

Whiten, A. (2000). Primate Culture and Social Learning. Cognitive Science, 24(3), 477–508. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2403_6

Whiten, A., & van de Waal, E. (2018). The pervasive role of social learning in primate lifetime development. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 72(5). doi:10.1007/s00265-018-2489-3

Wilson, G. D. (1983). Finger-length as an index of assertiveness in women. Personality and Individual Differences, 4(1), 111–112. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(83)90061-2

Xiao, F., Lan, A., Lin, Z., Song, J., Zhang, Y., Li, J., … Yang, X. (2016). Impact of CAG repeat length in the androgen receptor gene on male infertility – a meta-analysis. Reproductive BioMedicine Online, 33(1), 39–49.doi:10.1016/j.rbmo.2016.03.012

Appendix B

Because I was lazy and my computer doesn’t like to install software these days, I just used an online t-test calculator.

For Treatment 1, I input: 16, 16, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, 25, 26, 26, 26, 26, 26, 27, 28, 28, 28, 28, 28, 36, 36

And for Treatment 2, I input: 12, 13, 14, 14, 15, 16, 16, 16, 17, 17, 17, 17, 17, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 18, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, 25, 26, 26, 26, 26, 27, 27, 28, 29, 30, 32

Note that these don’t actually reflect the actual numbers of the sample as these were reconstructed from frequency data. Because I didn’t want to go through the mess of multiplying the frequencies by the sample sizes for the trans & control groups, I just essentially ‘normalized’ the Ns to ~100 (the actual sizes were both slightly above 100 because of errors in estimating the frequency from the graph).


Radical Feminist Conceptualizations of Sex-Gender

Radical Feminism

Catherine MacKinnon

MacKinnon rejected the sex/gender distinction, referring to Ortner’s critique Is Male to Female as Nature Is to Culture?:

Much has been made of a supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 8 (Fall 1982). I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.

In her view, it isn’t precultural bodies that produce gendered distinctions via some mechanism of reproductive roles or bodily features. While important in determining the phylogeny of the regulatory apparatus of sexuality, they are instead postcultural justifications for the system of sexuality that produces sexual difference itself. By individuals’ roles in sexual intercourse (taking from Dworkin’s Intercourse), MacKinnon elaborates the way that it is social concepts of sexuality that themselves produce female subjects:

To make a theory feminist, it is not enough that it be authored by a biological female, nor that it describe female sexuality as different from (if equal to) male sexuality, or as if sexuality in women ineluctably exists in some realm beyond, beneath, above,
behind-in any event, fundamentally untouched and unmoved by an unequal social order. A theory of sexuality becomes feminist methodologically, meaning feminist in the post-marxist sense, to the extent it treats sexuality as a social construct of male power: defined by men, forced on women, and constitutive of the meaning of gender.

and further:

Sexuality, in feminist light, is not a discrete sphere of interaction or feeling or sensation or behavior in which preexisting social divisions may or may not be played out. It is a pervasive dimension of social life, one that permeates the whole, a dimension along which gender occurs and through which gender is socially constituted; it is a dimension along which other social divisions, like race and class, partly play themselves out

and finally:

This approach identifies not just a sexuality that is shaped under conditions of gender inequality but reveals this sexuality itself to be the dynamic of the inequality of the sexes. It is to argue that the excitement at reduction of a person to a thing, to less than a human being, as socially defined, is its fundamental motive force. It is to argue that sexual difference is a function of sexual dominance. It is to argue a sexual theory of the distribution of social power by gender, in which this sexuality that is sexuality is substantially what makes the gender division be what it is, which is male dominant, wherever it is, which is nearly everywhere.

In the same way that (cis) women’s sexualities are regulated, trans (women’s) sexualities are rendered unintelligible, either by casting any sexual feelings as some form of ‘autogynephilia’ or by reducing sexual expression to ‘male sexuality’. Even more, MacKinnon’s analysis of the pornography industry can be extended with an analysis of the regulatory discourses that produce the transsexual subject. In porn, the oft-recognized fetishization that ‘consumers’ have for the trans body itself is reminiscent of the way that black bodies and disabled bodies are considered within the pornographic sphere. Within MacKinnon’s framework, it would be ludicrous to ignore the harm done to trans subjectivity by trans pornography as an act of violence, exactly why she specifically included transsexuals as a class of individuals able to bring a class-action lawsuit against pornographers for the harm done against them as a sex class.


Dworkin, in contrast, took a much more traditional analytical route in analyzing sexual difference. In her magnum opus Woman Hating, Dworkin analyzed the way sexual difference as a continuum is reduced to a cultural dichotomy between male and female. She incorporated the psycho-sociological analyses of Money’s six aspects of sex (genetic, hormonal, gonadal, internal, external and psychosexual), her contemporary’s developments in the analysis of intersex bodies and the crosscultural ways sexual differences are represented to present sexual difference not as opposition, but as a spectrum upon which individuals vary in their location. For her, the idea of polarized ‘men’ and ‘women’ were simply caricatured fictions by which androgynous individuality is transformed into oppressive norms:

The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both. Culture as we know it legislates those fictive roles as normalcy.

While one might interpret this as simply the ‘gender role’ vs ‘sex’ disjunction feminists have made over the years, Dworkin suggests something much more radical. She argues that gender roles arises from the idea of sex as binary & fixed so that feminists are required to challenge this ideal:

There are, after all, men and women. They are different, demonstrably so. We are each of one sex or the other. If there are two discrete biological sexes, then it is not hard to argue that there are two discrete modes of human behavior, sex-related, sex-determined. One might argue for a liberalization of sex-based roles, but one cannot justifiably argue for their total redefinition

But just like feminist scientists in the 21st century, Dworkin draws upon a compendium of research demonstrating the opposite: that sex as a binary is a fiction:

… research … provide[s] basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words “male” and “female, ” “man” and “woman, ” are used only because as yet there are no others.

We can presume then that there is a great deal about human sexuality to be discovered, and that our notion of two discrete biological sexes cannot remain intact. We can presume then that we will discover cross-sexed phenomena in proportion to our ability to see them. In addition, we can account for the relative rarity of hermaphrodites in the general population, for the consistency o f male-female somatotypes that we do find, and for the relative rarity of cross-sexed characteristics in the general population (though they occur with more frequency than we are now willing to imagine) by recognizing that there is a process of cultural selection which, for people, supersedes natural selection in
importance. Cultural selection, as opposed to natural selection, does not necessarily serve to improve the species or to ensure survival. It does necessarily serve to uphold cultural norms and to ensure that deviant somatotypes and cross-sexed characteristics are systematically bred out of the population.

I highly recommend read the entire chapter Sexuality in Woman Hatingthen comparing it to Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body and then comparing those to Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow.


Continuing upon Dworkin’s cogent analysis, John Stoltenberg (himself Dworkin’s lifelong partner) analyzed the fiction of ‘sex’ and the multisexed nature of humanity in his book Refusing to Be a Man. Stoltenberg was moved by Dworkin’s analysis of sex-gender, and elaborated upon the specifics of the ideology of male sexuality & the male sex itself. For Stoltenberg, the male sex is an ideologically constructed fiction used to maintain dominance of men over women (sex classes):

The idea of the male sex is like the idea of an Aryan race. The Nazis believed in the idea of an Aryan race—they believed that the Aryan race really exists, physically, in nature—and they put a great deal of effort into making it real. The Nazis believed that from the blond hair and blue eyes occurring naturally in the human species, they could construe the existence of a separate race—a distinct category of human beings that was unambiguously rooted in the natural order of things. But traits do not a race make; traits only make traits

His distinction between bodily features, which may be precultural [or perhaps the body is itself constructed as Butler suggests], and the categories that traits are socially transformed into grounds his analysis of sex as an oppressive dichotomy:

Penises and ejaculate and prostate glands occur in nature, but the notion that these anatomical traits comprise a sex—a discrete class, separate and distinct, metaphysically divisible from some other sex, the “other sex” —is simply that: a notion, an idea. The penises exist; the male sex does not. The male sex is socially constructed. It is a political entity that flourishes only through acts of force and sexual terrorism. Apart from the global inferiorization and subordination of those who are defined as “nonmale,” the idea of personal membership in the male sex class would have no recognizable meaning. It would make no sense. No one could be a member of it and no one would think they should be a member of it. There would be no male sex to belong to. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be penises and ejaculate and prostate glands and such. It simply means that the center of our selfhood would not be required to reside inside an utterly fictitious category—a category that only seems real to the extent that those outside it are put down

He shares MacKinnon’s view that it is not sexuality that is gendered but that sexuality produces gender.


Marilyn Frye’s analysis of sex classes was far and few in her work, but perhaps her most relevant discussion of sex-gender was in her work Sexism. Frye takes perhaps the more traditional view of sex-gender in that sex is made culturally relevant via social processes that themselves constitute patriarchy. She discusses the instances where male dominance is produced in a sexless, genderless sphere of existence as a means of elucidating how reality itself becomes sexed/gendered. But as for Dworkin and Stoltenberg, sexual reality is not dichotomous nor sharp and opposing: it is instead variation ‘along the physical dimensions we think of as associated with maleness and femaleness’:

The pressure on each of us to guess or determine the sex of everybody else both generates and is exhibited in a great pressure on each of us to inform everybody all the time of our sex. For, if you strip humans of most of their cultural trappings, it is not always easy to tell without close inspection which are female, which are male. The tangible and visible physical differences between the sexes are not particularly sharp or numerous. Individual variation along the physical dimensions we think of as associated with maleness and femaleness are great, and the differences between the sexes could easily be obscured by bodily decoration, hair removal and the like.

Frye analyzes the way that we are obligated to announce and assert our sex(es) in a way that itself constitutes sexual dimorphism, in contrast to the ‘biological spectrum between two not-so-sharply defined poles’. The exemplaries of this analysis are intersex individuals, whose biological reality does not fit into the regulatory ideals that define sexual reality. Social processes reinforce preexisting differential averages to (re)produce, exaggerate and dichotomize sexual difference like genital reformation, dietary and exercise regimens and so on: 

The intense demand for marking and for asserting what sex each person is adds up to a strenuous requirement that there be two distinct and sharply dimorphic sexes. But, in reality, there are not. There are people who fit on a biological spectrum between two not-so-sharply defined poles. In about 5 percent of live births, possibly more, the babies are in some degree not perfect exemplars of male and female. There are individuals with chromosomal patterns other than XX and XY and individuals whose external genitalia at birth exhibit some degree of ambiguity. There are people who are chromosomally “normal” who are the far ends of normal spectra of secondary sex characteristics-height, musculature, hairiness, body density, distribution of fat, breast size, etc.-whose overall appearance fits the norm of people whose chromosomal sex is the opposite of theirs.

These variations not withstanding, persons (mainly men, of course) with the power to do so actually construct a world in which men are men and women are women and there is nothing in between and nothing ambiguous; they do it by chemically and/or surgically altering people whose bodies are indeterminate or ambiguous with respect to sex. Newborns with “imperfectly formed” genitals are immediately “corrected” by chemical or surgical means, children and adolescents are given hormone “therapies” if their bodies seem not to be developing according to what physicians and others declare to be the norm for what has been declared to be that individual’s sex. Persons with authority recommend and supply cosmetics and cosmetic regimens, diets, exercises, and all manner clothing to revise or disguise the too-hairy lip, the too-large breast, the too-slender stature, the too-large feet, the too-great or too-slight stature. Individuals whose bodies do not fit the picture of exactly two sharply dimorphic sexes are often quite willing to be altered or veiled for the obvious reason that the world punishes them severely for their failure to be the “facts” which would verify the doctrine of two sexes. The demand that the world be a world in which there are exactly two sexes is inexorable, and we are all compelled to answer to it empathetically, unconditionally, repetitiously and unambiguously.

For Frye, the fact that we do not mistake men for women and vice versa (very often at least!) is not because of naturally inborn and biological distinctions, but because of cultural processes that demand ambiguous individuals (perhaps Dworkin’s androgyny) not only signal their ‘true’ sex with cultural markers like clothing, jewelry and hairstyles, but physically alter, modify and mutilate their bodies in accordance with these sexual ideals. Feminism is thought of as a project to blur sexual difference, to break down that of which sexed ontology, sexed reality is even thought of. The liberal feminist’s reactionary defense of a dimorphically sexed society, for Frye, is not grounded in any theoretical or conceptual devotion, but rather in the very physical and ‘behavioral patterns’ that produce sexual difference.


GMOs and Reporting on Science

While I appreciate the Genetic Literacy Project’s elucidation of the issues with many science-critical claims (i.e. genetics), their cavalier attitude to the critics of GMOs seems to underlie a more serious issue with the organization: ignorance and hypocrisy. They recently published an article seemingly rebuking an article from Independent Science News on the FDA’s assessment of ‘golden rice’. ‘Golden rice’ is a genetically modified rice that seeks to increase the amount of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) in the rice in order to alleviate vitamin A deficiencies in several East Asian countries.

The article does offer some important news source and information, but overall paints a pretty misleading image of the entire issue regarding golden rice and fails to rebut many of the vital concerns brought up by the original Independent Science News’ article: external validity of American/Chinese studies, health risks, the actual total content of beta-carotene in the rice, etc.

However, an FDA approval carries a lot of gravitas worldwide, and the decision is being met with attempts by anti-GM groups to discredit the nutritional value and usefulness of Golden Rice.

The nutritional value/usefulness of golden rice is dubious regardless of FDA statement for or against it. It might be helpful to read the literature referenced in the Independent Science News article you allegedly read and responded to; Schaub et. al ’17 and indeed both FDA memos. Interestingly, as the ISN article notes, milled rice has a higher concentration of beta-carotene.

Just after the FDA’s approval, Independent Science News, a website known for its opposition to genetic engineering and recombinant technologies, published an article headlined “GMO Golden Rice Offers no Nutritional Benefits Says FDA.” Sustainable Pulse, another anti-GM organization reprinted the article, focusing on a misleading nutritional fact that both groups (among others) have perpetuated:

Couching the reporting of the websites in detailed descriptions of their heretical views seems to be typical of GLP articles.

This has been a common criticism of golden rice from groups like ISN and Greenpeace, which argue the approved version of Golden Rice doesn’t have enough beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, to make a nutritional difference. Instead, these groups advocate planting bananas, carrots, spinach or sweet potatoes, none of which are as affordable or even practical in places suffering from Vitamin A deficiency.

Fascinatingly enough, a comment on the ISN article elucidated a huge issue here: this is a blatant lie and the author of this article knows it. So much of a lie that the author, Andrew Porterfield, has linked to empirical research demonstrating that beta-carotene rich foods can and are grown in Southeast Asia. Even more disturbing is the seemingly deliberate exclusion of the alternative mentioned in the ISN article: Asians greens (Chandra-Hioe et. al 2017).

The FDA did state that. Also, Health Canada wrote that “Replacement of all rice and rice products in Canada with GR2E rice would result in a very small 0.8-8% (34 µg-239 µg per day) increase in ß-carotene intake.” But a health claim is not the same thing as a nutrition statement. So the FDA and Health Canada statements don’t translate into “no nutritional value,” nor does it mean that, as Latham and Wilson wrote, “the tradeoff experienced by the Golden Rice project between beta-carotene production and yield in its various GMO rices has not been resolved.”

I’d “concede” that the FDA letter is being partially misrepresented in the ISN article (I don’t work for them nor am I affiliated with them), but there is important information within that helps bolster golden rice’s critics claims; confirmation of relatively low beta carotene levels.

The FDA also has since rebutted Latham and Wilson’s article, saying the claim of “no value” is misleading. In the comments section of the ISN website, this response was posted from Marianna Naum, communications team lead from the FDA’s Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine:

Which was responded to in whole by Latham & Wilson, mostly convincingly. There is still the issue of the semantics of no nutritional claim vs no health claim that is (rightfully) brought up by the GLP article, but the Naum statement in no way ‘rebuts’ the majority of the content of the article, nor some of the interpretation of the FDA letter itself.

It’s Time For Math

Additionally, U.S. consumers eat rice at very low levels compared to consumers in the specific Asian countries with vitamin A deficiency for which golden rice was developed. IRRI reports that consumption of rice by children in Bangladesh is 12.5 g/kg body weight/day, compared to about 0.5 g/kg bw/d for U.S. consumers). Rice is the major staple in those countries and levels of rice consumption are many-fold higher than they are in the U.S. While a U.S Consumer would be unlikely to eat enough of the rice to achieve that value (10-19 % of the NDI or RDA), that does not mean that the level of consumption of golden rice in the targeted countries would be insufficient to accomplish the intended effect of supplementing their very low consumption of vitamin A-containing foods. Consuming rice containing the levels of pro-vitamin A in GR2E rice as a staple of the diet could have a significant public health impact in populations that suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

If we take the FDA figures at face value (dubious) and combine them with figures given earlier in the article (i.e. the Health Canada figures) we can compute the percent increase in beta-carotene that would result from a switch from current rice strains to golden rice. In the Health Canada statement, it notes that:

Replacement of all rice and rice products in Canada with GR2E rice would result in a very small 0.8-8% (34 µg-239 µg per day) increase in ß-carotene intake

We’ll use the entire range here.

In the FDA statement it states:

IRRI reports that consumption of rice by children in Bangladesh is 12.5 g/kg body weight/day, compared to about 0.5 g/kg bw/d for U.S. consumers).

Consequently, Bangladeshi children consume 25 times more rice than Americans per bw/d.

Now we run into some statistical/comparative issues: the Health Canada data is inferring the increase in beta carotene increase in the Canadian population, the FDA data talks about American consumers (presumably including adults) and the Bangladeshi data is about children. We have three incomparable figures that we can’t really use.

But even given the poor figures, we can give an (even rougher) estimate:

A 0.8-8% increase in North American populations * 25 = 20-200% increase in beta-carotene intake in a Bangladeshi population.

The questions now are:

  • How does that level of increase of beta carotene translate into vitamin A?
  • How much does that level of level of vitamin A increase affect vitamin A deficiency?
  • How well do the assumptions used in the Health Canada calculation hold up?
  • What is the external validity of Bangladeshi children data to other age populations & other countries?

Back To The GLP Article

In countries throughout Asia that consume up to 300 grams of rice every day, this means a lot more beta-carotene could be consumed than in the United States, where even 45 grams might be a high figure. Rice is a much cheaper stape, and also much more affordable than meat and other animal products, and colored fruits and vegetables like bananas and carrots (the latter which was bred to enhance beta-carotene content, incidentally, in the 14th century).

We finally have some (unsourced) data on the consumption of rice in Asian countries, noticeably using the upper limit of the range.

More Math

Again, we will take (at face value) the ratios of beta carotene in golden rice from the FDA; 0.504-2.35 mg/kg (see the Niederhuth quote from the GLP article).


0.504 mg/kg * 1 kg/1000 g * 300 g/day = 0.1512 mg beta carotene/day


2.35 mg/kg * 1 kg / 1000 g * 300 g/day = 0.705 mg beta carotene/day

We now have a figure for how much beta carotene Asians in the countries with the highest levels of rice consumption would consume in a ideal golden rice world.

We can compare this to the calculations Health Canada gave for Canadian rice replacement;

34 µg-239 µg per day

Or in other words; 0.034 mg-0.239 mg per day. This is an elegant confirmation that Canadians consume less rice than Asians.

Now, we must estimate what proportion of the daily amount of beta carotene this is.

We note that the standard amount of Vitamin A in the United States (which obviously isn’t a cross-cultural standard) is 900 mcg of Vitamin A. Beta carotene is a precursor to Vitamin A, meaning that 12 mg of beta carotene of required to produce 1 mg of vitamin A. Thus, the daily required amount of beta carotene is 900 mcg * 12 = 10800 mcg * 1 mg / 1000 mcg = 10.8 mg.

The amount consumed by these Asian countries by rice would be:


0.1512 mg / 10.8 mg =  1.4%


0.705 mg / 10.8 mg = 6.5%

This is evidently not very much vitamin A, even under the most generous of assumptions.

It is obvious in the FDA letter than beta carotene levels are considerably higher than that of normal rice. The FDA letter states that beta carotene in the non-Golden Rice controls was below the limit of quantification of 0.07 mg/kg, in Golden Rice it was 0.504 to 2.35 mg/kg…many times higher. Wilson and Latham never actually tell you how much higher Golden Rice’s beta carotene levels compared to equivalent consumed rice varieties. Instead they compare it to older versions of Golden Rrice or other crops like carrots.

While true, the issue at the core of the golden rice debate is one of risk-benefit calculations. As Wilson & Lantham point out, there are issues with the crop yield from golden rice that have to be balanced with whatever potential vitamin A benefits golden rice may yield, alongside concerns of proprietary genomes, health risks, environmental issues, transparency, food sovereignty and cost effectiveness.

These concerns cannot be dismissed simply by appealing to the higher concentration of beta carotene, especially in regards to well-tested native alternatives that have higher concentrations of beta carotene.

Other Calculations

There have been a myriad of calculations estimating how much beta carotene/retinol golden rice would provide a person.

A 2003 study going over the benefits and hazards of golden rice estimated that golden rice would only provide 70 micrograms of retinol per day, far below the required 1080 micrograms.

Greenpeace similarly estimated that an individual would have to eat 3.7 kilograms of golden rice to achieve their daily value.

The Assumptions

Throughout the FDA letter and this piece, a number of assumptions have been taken for granted: that the people who would eat golden rice have enough other macro/micronutrients to digest the beta carotene, that the rice would keep all of the beta carotene when stored, that people would actually adopt and eat the golden rice, that the implementation of golden rice in these countries wouldn’t have negative externalities.

During the whole Chinese golden rice experiment scandal, one of the major critiques of the paper was that the bioavailability of beta carotene is different in healthy Western(ized) populations with proper nutrition than in malnourished unhealthy populations: the very populations that the intervention is supposed to target. Because the individuals who are suffering from VAD (Vitamin A deficiency) are the same ones who do not receive enough fat in their diets: the very molecule necessary for bioconversion of beta carotene into vitamin A. As a result, it is very likely that the systematic malnutrition people with VAD experience will make it very difficult for the beta carotene to be efficacious in treating VAD.

Another issue with golden rice as a solution to vitamin A deficiency is that it rapidly degrades in temperate conditions,  the exact environments in which rice would be need to grown, distributed and stored. Given that vitamin A deficiency is disproportionately concentrated in rural areas, which have poor storage and temperature conditions, we can reasonably infer that large quantities of beta carotene within the rice will degrade. The distributional mechanisms by which golden rice would have to be produced and distributed (season-dependent growth) would mean that the golden rice would only have significant amounts of beta carotene during specific parts of the year, thus succumbing to the seasonal variability that golden rice advocates posit as an issue for native sources of vitamin A.

We also know that cooking rice and similar foods decreases the amount of carotenoids in them.

But even more than the issues influencing the actual quantity of beta carotene that is available and converts to vitamin A, all of that hinges on people accepting the rice and eating it. We know that populations are often picky about the texture and taste of particular foods and would pay premiums for their preferred versions of foods. Consumers do not prefer GM foods & when educated about them, desire them even less. Even exposure to positive information has minimal effect on customer’s willingness to purchase golden rice.

Now we all know that golden rice is yellow. But what does this have to do with the issues of golden rice as a solution for VAD? Well, unbeknownst to most, but there is a fatal disease of rice called “yellow rice disease” (or beriberi) that infects rice with a yellow color. While there are obviously visible physiological differences between golden rice and rice with yellow rice disease, a campaign mounted to promote golden rice would require eradicating the defense mechanism populations in developing countries have against yellow-coloured rice.


Now, it’s obvious from the calculations of this article that golden rice wouldn’t provide a meaningful solution to vitamin A deficiencies in Asia. But why is it that the FDA and other regulatory agencies are so willing to let products only tested by proprietary corporate labs go right on through the regulatory process?


Throughout the article, you may have noticed that I qualified all my collection of data figures from the FDA with statements like “at face value”. The issue with modern food politics is that the regulatory agencies that are supposed to safeguard our food and ensure quality and safety have been compromised by agribusiness. As anyone who’s paid nearly attention to the news lately, this issue isn’t solely confined to the FDA or food regulatory agencies, but is indicative of a broader societal problem of the corporatization of politics.

Politicians get money from corporate donors, “super PACs” and wealthy individuals. By virtue of the politicians role in selecting regulatory agency leaders, government agencies are inherently politicized and beholden to the interests of politicians, and by proxy, the agricultural industry. This presents a huge issue when interpreting the evaluations published by these regulatory agencies, as they rarely, if ever, make their data public.

Moreover, the people that should be playing a central role in the discourse over golden rice, the people directly affected by these decisions, have been excluded and marginalized in this discussion, only ostensibly included as tokens to promote a specific viewpoint. Indigenous concerns about food sovereignty and food colonialism are almost absent.


If golden rice isn’t sufficient to solve the vitamin A deficiency in Southeast Asia, then what is? Well, the current system uses vitamin A tablets (note that artificial vitamin A is just as good as natural), but hasn’t achieved widespread success. This is likely a result of the inherent problems of widespread distribution of any type of medicine, as well as the contributing factors of imperialist impotence and malice. Let us suppose that a proper vitamin A supplementation programme would not suffice. What other alternatives could we substitute to supplement diets?

Let’s start with the foods: Vandana Shiva, for all her flaws, has listed a number of traditional Indian foods alongside their vitamin A value. For Micronesia, bananas have been mentioned as a major source. Other yellow and green leafy vegetables have been noted for their high amounts of carotene.

What programmes could policymakers implement, one might ask.

There’s a whole literature of results on this! A 2002 review of how micronutrition deficiencies can be addressed covered most of the classical ones, but others have included home gardening (the follow-up study is here),  nutrient education, and fighting parasites. A 2017 review in the journal World Nutrition demonstrated the high efficacy of interventions with fortification, while a 2000 review emphasized the broad consensus that food-based strategies that center indigenous foods & education.


While there are problems with the rabid anti-GMO view that some corners of the internet have professed, it is equally anti-scientific to espouse the view that there are no concerns to be had. Much of the scientific journalism on the GMO question has uncritically espouse one view or the other. This is not a call for ‘both side-ism’, but for critical engagement with opposing arguments rather than the ideological dismissal we have seen here.