A Pinch of Expertise Plus a Ton of Speculation

Katja Thieme
5 min readFeb 17, 2020

In an op ed in the Wall Street Journal, Colin Wright and Emma Hilton (with Heather Heying in the background) try to argue that "transgender ideology harms women, gays — and especially feminine boys and masculine girls." Titled "The Dangerous Denial of Sex," it is a piece of speculation about issues on which the authors do not demonstrate expertise.

All three authors — two credited, one not — are biologists. Colin Wright researches collective behaviour in insects, Emma Hilton is a developmental biologist who studies mutations, and Heather Heying has published about frogs. In the op ed, the point that pertains most directly to their areas of training and research is their disagreement with articles in Nature, Scientific American, and The New York Times. These articles dispute the idea that there are exactly two sexes and instead propose thinking of a range larger than a simple binary of male and female. In contrast, Wright, Hilton, and Heying insist that sex has been and remains binary. They say their view is based in reality and to hold a different view "is false at every conceivable scale of resolution."

We can put Wright, Hilton, and Heying's discussion of binary biological sex aside as a debate between biologists. Should research in human biology continue to consider a fuller range of possibilities? Or, should biologists adhere to a strict binary categorization of male and female, as these three authors espouse? Why one or the other? What are the implications of this choice for work on the biology of various different types of organisms?

What Wright, Hilton, and Heying's disagreement with other biologists highlights is that such categorization is a subject of discussion. Categories that have worked under one paradigm for many decades might no longer work under another. New processes of categorization can be proposed. Better ways of thinking about categories can be put forward. Categorization can become a more dynamic process. What we need to note is that the designers of biological classification systems do not worry too much about either how individual, thinking organisms view themselves in relation to the systems that categorize them, or how these systems affect an individual's life and self-conception. Biological research usually does not have to consider such social questions. The authors state as much: not each organism "needs to be discretely assignable to one or the other sex in order for biological sex to be functionally binary."

Exit biology. Enter social and human sciences.

Here's the point where the op ed falls apart and tips into dangerous speculation that is detached from research in relevant areas of study. Suddenly, disagreeing with these authors' particular take on sexual classification in biology turns into "denying the reality of biological sex." Strangely, not sharing the authors' focus on questions of biological classification morphs into "supplanting [biological sex] with subjective 'gender identity.'"

When we speak about people's gender identities, what we speak about is social reality. Gender identity is a social concept. Biological classification does not tell us anything about gender in its social contexts. How do people express gender identities? What is the range of gender expressions that is considered accepted at a certain time in a particular community? How are individuals perceived within their society when their gender expression deviates from social norms? How do these norms change and shift? You can read research in history or sociology or anthropology to find out. Wright, Hilton, and Heying breezily dismiss these questions and their answers as "subjective" and "merely an eccentric academic theory."

But wait! The authors rush past the social concept of gender identity only to jump, hastily, into legal concepts. If they'd paused, they might have recognized that gender assignment and expression is a well-researched topic within legal discourse as well: how does the state register sex or gender; how and when can these designations be changed; should there be more than two categories and which ones; and what does the law say about discrimination on the basis of gender expression or sex characteristics?

Wright, Hilton, and Heying seem to have no time for questions from realms of research in which they are not experts. They immediately translate their personal conviction from within their own field of biology — "Sex is binary!"— to human rights concerns they see applying to "women, homosexuals, and children." Never mind that, for instance, a recent employment tribunal decision in the UK directly contradicts them by stating that an absolutist belief in immutable and binary sex is incompatible with the human dignity and rights of others. The authors also suggest that the "denial of biological sex" — flimsily diagnosed just a few paragraphs before — "erases homosexuality." Homosexuality, they insist, should only be asserted according to "scientific understanding" which, in their mind, must be based on a binary conception of biological sex. If it is not, they conjecture, then children, as those "most vulnerable to sex denialism," will suffer. The authors' presuppositions are piling up higher and higher. They are teetering far from relevant research. They are climbing in the lofty realm of speculation.

In that realm of inexpert speculation, concepts dangerously bend back on themselves. As in a reversal of history, it is now "objective biology" which mandated "laws to safeguard women from discrimination" due to the "different reproductive roles of males and females." Affirmative approaches to children's expressions of their gender identity are twisted— as in an unreal mirror world — into something "similar to gay 'conversion' therapy." In this distorted mirror, it somehow goes against people's own decisions when it is their "bodies instead of minds" that are being shaped into desired selves.

The pinch of expertise which the authors bring from their field of biology amounts to little more than an incantation of "Sex is binary!" Other views — including views held by many of their fellow biologists — they label as "antiscientific" and "denialism." From there they create a realm of speculation that is disconnected from research in relevant fields. If three biologists don't demonstrate knowledge on the social questions and research on which they try to comment, has the "time for politeness" passed?

Thanks to Willard for feedback on this piece.