The article entitled “Are Gender Feminists and Transgender Activists Undermining Science?” (LA Times, February 10, 2017) omits much of the pertinent scientific evidence on gender and obviates a core scientific principle. With respect to gender feminists, the article confuses sex with gender, ignores social anthropology research on culture and omits salient research on transgender causation. With respect to transgender activists, the article seeks to disqualify them from being able to criticize scientific studies and obviating self-correction in the scientific method.
Sex and gender are frequently confused and conflated by journalists and the public. But in order to maintain precision, scientists need to have clear definitions. Sex refers to the biological organs of reproduction and gender refers to gender behavior. Sex categories are male and female, declared at birth when a doctor inspects the external sex organs of a newborn.
Culture, not biology, develops gender systems and gender behavior categories. In our Western binary, cisgender system the gender behavior categories are masculine and feminine. This system requires that males should behave in the masculine gender behavior category and females in the feminine one. From social anthropology, we know culture determines its gender system and its constituent categories. Non-Western cultures include varying gender systems with up to 5 categories. Some cultures encourage free movement between categories but Western culture does not.
The existence of transgender people demonstrates the dissociation of sex and assigned gender behavior category. Being transgender involves behaving in in a gender behavior category that was not assigned at birth. The transgender genetic evidence indicates that people have a biological gender behavior predisposition. For transgender people this gender behavior predisposition is incongruent with their assigned gender behavior category.
Being transgender cannot begin until children first learn about gender behavior categories from their parents and the culture. Most all children can grasp the fundamentals of the cultural gender system by age 2-3. By age 4-5 transgender children start to emerge.
So, scientific evidence seems to support the feminist contention that gender behavior categories are formed by culture and are learned by children.
But the feminists are likely unaware of a biological gender factor indicating that people have a biological gender predisposition. The science involves twin studies, genetic marker studies and biomarker studies that indicate DNA genetic involvement in being transgender and supporting the existence of gender predisposition. People have many biological genetic predispositions including handedness, language learning ability, fear of mathematics, loneliness and many others.
Scientists should educate the public about the many studies that show anatomical and physiological brain sex differences in both human and infrahuman species. This process involves both genetics and testosterone. However, the available evidence indicates that development of gender behavioral predisposition does not depend on prenatal testosterone levels. Variation in prenatal testosterone levels is often claimed as is a factor in transgender causation. The theory results from a confounding of sex and gender. The idea is based on studies of rodent sexual behavior, not on human gender behavior. The actual evidence indicates that extremely high or low levels of testosterone are not factors in transgender causation.
Transgender activist criticism of scientific studies does not undermine science, instead it strengthens science. One of the key elements of the scientific method is that science is self-correcting. Scientific debate is vital to interpreting results, forming new theories and shaping new experiments. And pertinent criticism is welcome from all comers, not just scientists.
As a scientist, I happen to agree with transgender activist criticisms of current studies reporting on adult outcomes for transgender children. Conducting longitudinal studies is fraught with many pitfalls, especially in this case. For one, most of these studies were conducted on small groups of children in clinical settings. These groups were not selected to be representative of the population of transgender children. Second, longitudinal studies typically have large dropout rates making results hard to interpret. Did a person dropout because they were no longer transgender, or did the study just lose track of them? Third, in this case there are are potential response biases. Is it likely for a person to increasingly hide being transgender as they go through teenage and adult years in which transgender rejection intensifies? If a child received aversive reparative therapy at a clinic, what is the likelihood that they would continue in a study with that same clinic? The current studies are clearly inadequate.
As scientists, we have the responsibility to educate gender feminists, transgender activists and the public on relevant science and to encourage self-correction in the scientific method.
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