This is a transcript of a speech by developmental biologist Dr Emma Hilton delivered on 29 November 2020 for the ‘Feminist Academics Talk Back!’ meeting. This talk was originally published by womentalkback.org
Sex denialists have captured existing journals
We are dealing with a new religion
Thank you for the invitation to speak today, as a feminist academic fighting back.
As ever, let’s begin with a story. And, trust me, by the end of this talk, you’re going to know a lot more about creationism that you expected:
1. In the 1920s, in concert with many other American states, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed the Butler Act, making it illegal for state public schools to: “teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” In other words, banning schools from teaching the theory of evolution.
Three months later, Tennessee science teacher John Scopes was on trial, charged with teaching the theory of evolution, a crime he was ultimately found guilty of. He was fined $100 – about $1500 in today’s money – so it could have been an expensive affair for him, had he not got off on a really boring administrative technicality.
Yet, despite the evidence against him and his own confession, he was an innocent man. Scopes was not guilty of teaching the theory of evolution. He admitted to a crime he had not committed. He even coached his students in their testimonies against him. So why would he admit to this wrongdoing of which he was entirely innocent? Why would he contrive apparent guilt? In protest. In protest against a law he viewed as fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of scientific truth.
2. The history of creationism and education laws in the US is turbulent and often opaquely legalese, especially for those of us unfamiliar with US law. Some of the methods of the wider creationist movement, however, will be immediately recognisable as they are employed by a new movement, one which seeks to erase another scientific truth, the fact of sex.
Method 1. The framing of human classifications, whether it’s species or sex, as “arbitrary”. This leads to the premise that such phenomena are “social constructs” that need not exist if we chose to reject them. That truth must be relative and consensual. Never mind that these “arbitrary” classifications appear to be surprisingly similar classifications across all cultures and civilisations.
It also necessarily spotlights tricky boundary cases – not really a personal problem for the long-dead evolutionary missing links, but a very real problem in the modern world for people whose sex is atypical and who are constantly invoked, even fetishized, as “not males” or “not females” to prove sex classification is somehow no more than human whimsy.
People with DSDs have complex and often traumatic medical histories, perhaps struggling to understand their bodies, and they deserve more respect than to be casually and thoughtlessly used as a postemodernist “gotcha” by the very people so horribly triggered by a pronoun.
Method 2. The distortion of science and the development of sciencey language to create a veneer of academic rigour. Creationists invented “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” while Sex denialists try to beat people over the head with their dazzling arrays of “bimodal distributions arranged in n-dimensional space”.
Creationists, unable to publish in mainstream science journals because they weren’t producing, well, science, established their own journals. “Journals”. Sex denialists have captured existing journals – albeit limited to more newsy ones and to occasional editorials and blogs about gender (which is not sex), about how developmental biology is soooo complicated (which does not mean sex is complicated – I mean, the internal combustion engine is complicated but cars still fundamentally go forwards or backwards), about how discussing the biology of sex is mean (OK, good luck with that at your doctor’s surgery). Many such blogs and articles are written by scientists who simultaneously deny sex to their social media audience while writing academic papers about how female fruitflies make shells for their eggs (no matter how queer they are), about the development of ovaries or testes in fish and about how males make sperm.
The current editor-in-chief at Nature, the first female to hold this position, studied sex determination in worms for her PhD, and she now presides over a journal with an editorial policy to insert disclaimers about the binary nature of sex into spotlight features about research on, for example, different death rates in male and female cystic fibrosis patients.
The authors of the studies are not prevaricating or handwaving about sex, but the editorial team is “bending the knee”. I used to research a genetic disorder that was male-lethal – that is, male human babies died early in gestation. I’d love to know if this disclaimer would be applied there.
Method 3. Debate strategies like The Gish Gallop. This method is named for Duane Gish, who is a prominent creationist. What it boils down to is: throw any old argument, regardless of its validity, in quick succession at your opponent and then claim any dismissal or missed response or even hesitation in response as a score for your side. In Twitter parlance, we know this as “sealioning”, in political propaganda as the “firehose of falsehood”, although Wikipedia also suggests that it is covered by the term “bullshit”. So, what about intersex people? what about this article? what about an XY person with a uterus? what about the fa’afafine? what about that article? look at this pretty picture. what about what about whataboutery what about clownfish? The aim is not to discuss or debate, it is to force submission from frustration or exhaustion.
Method 4. The reification of humans as separate from not just monkeys but the rest of the living world. The special pleading for special descriptions that frame humans as the chosen ones, such that the same process of making new individuals, common to humans and asparagus, an observation I chose because it seems superficially silly – it could have been spinach – requires its own description, one that accounts for gender identity.
3. In the Scopes trial, which saw discussion of whether Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib and ruminations on where Cain got his wife, Scopes was defended by a legal group who had begun scouting for a test case subject as soon as the Tennessee ban was enacted. This legal group claimed to advocate for:
“Freedom of speech for ideas from the most extreme left such as anarchists and socialists, to the most extreme right including the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and others who would now be considered more toward the Fascist end of the spectrum.”
The legal group so keen to defend the right to speak the truth, in this case a fundamental, observable scientific truth? The American Civil Liberties Union, a group whose modern day social media presence promotes nonsense like:
“The notion of biological sex was developed for the exclusive purpose of being weaponized against people.”
“Sex and gender are different words for the same thing [that is] a set of politically and socially contingent notions of embodied and expressed identity.”
and shares articles asserting that biological sex is rooted in white supremacy.
Since the Scopes case, the ACLU have fought against many US laws preventing, or at least compromising, the teaching of evolution. I cannot process the irony of a group of people historically and consistently prepared to robustly defend the truth of evolution while now denying one of the most important biological foundations of evolution.
4. How do we fight this current craze of sex denialism? A major blow for creationism teaching was delivered in 1986 while the US Supreme Court were considering a Louisiana state law requiring creationism to be taught alongside evolution. The Louisiana law was struck down, in part influenced by the expert opinions, submitted to the court, of scientists who put aside their individual and, as one of them has since described “often violent” differences on Theory X and Experiment Y, to present a unified defence of scientific truth over religious belief. 76 Nobel laureates, 17 state academies of science and a handful of scientific organisations all got behind this single cause, and made a very real change.
Support for creationism has slowly ebbed away and the US is in a much more sensible position these days, although I still meet the occasional student from a Southern state who didn’t learn about evolution until college.
Sadly, one of the Nobel laureates has highlighted how unusual this collective response was and that he could not imagine any other issue that would receive the same groundswell of community support. Although he forged his career listening out for the Big Bang, so maybe I need to go through the list and find the biologists.
Part of the problem petitioning biologists to speak out is not necessarily fear of being cancelled or whatever, but simple lack of awareness of the issue, or incredulity that it is being taken remotely seriously. I’ve been working on a legal document and was discussing with a colleague about my efforts to find a citation for the statement, “there are two sexes, male and female”. He laughed at the idea that this would require a citation, told me to check a textbook, then realised that this statement is so simple that it would not even be included in a textbook.
And he’s right. I can find chapters in textbooks and hundreds of academic papers dedicated to how males and females are made, how they develop, how they differ, yet very few that feel the need to preface any of this with the statement “There are two sexes, male and female”. It is apparently something that biologists do not think needs to be said.
But of course, I think they are wrong, and that we live in a time where it does need to be said, where some aspects of society are being restructured around a scientific untruth, and where females will suffer.
Without recognition of and language to describe our anatomy, and the experiences that stem from that anatomy, mostly uninvited, we can neither detect nor measure things like rates of violence against women, the medical experiences, the social experiences of women and girls.
And, as for creationism, the reality of sex perhaps needs to be said by those with scientific authority, in unambiguous terms. Otherwise, we are living in a society that tolerates nonsense like there is no such thing as male or female, that differences evident to our own eyes are not real, that anatomies readily observable and existing in monkey and man alike do not actually exist. I’m sure this last assertion has the full support of the creationist community. And perhaps, as for creationism, a true tipping point will be tested when it is our children being taught these scientific untruths, or worse, when it is illegal to say different.
5. At the end of his trial, the only words Scopes uttered in court were these:
“Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom—that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom.”
I do not exaggerate when I say we are dealing with a new type of religion, a new form of creationism and a new assault on scientific truth. I also do not exaggerate when I say it may take a high profile court case to rebalance the public discourse around sex. There is only so far letters and opinion articles can go.
Two things I predict: 1. It will not be defended by the ACLU, and 2. With the recent proposals on hate speech law, it will probably involve a Scottish John Scopes, who finds themself in front of a judge for the seditious crime of discussing the sex life of asparagus at their dinner table.
Dr Emma Hilton is a developmental biologist studying aspects of human genetic diseases, and her current research focuses on a congenital motor neurone disease affecting the genitourinary tract, and on respiratory dysfunction in cystic fibrosis. She teaches reproduction, genes, inheritance and genetic disorders. Emma has a special interest in fairness in female sports. A strong advocate for women and girls, Emma tweets as @FondofBeetles.