What does science tell us about gender?

Sounds good. However, a 17 year old recently got expelled from school in Scotland, basically because he told his teacher that science trumped the school’s political gender policy.

It seems there was a direct clash between the “science and reason” he had learned from childhood, and “ever changing secular values, morals and ethics,” and that the latter won over the former, and over the young man’s education and prospects.

I think his parents must have indoctrinated him in what they thought was true, which went against what the school (and according to the teacher, what the “national educational policy”) said is true.

The reason it went so far is that the school (and the local education authority) considered that his insistence on scientific truth was a moral failing, and a danger to society . He had been offered “the opportunity to keep quiet” but had chosen not to restrict his opinions to his own home.

So would it have been better to let the kid keep an open mind until the school system told him firmly what it is correct to think, or do parents have a responsibility that is higher than compliance with the state?


Do you mean this, where the pupil was parroting the apologetics falsehood in which evangelists claim that science says there are only two genders?

He wasn’t insisting on scientific truth at all, but on unscientific and probably religious-based bigotry.


Being an evangelist (evangelical Christian), I’m not qualified to answer, but how many genders does science say exist?

This is an interesting comment. I note that the definition of bigotry is as follows:

Bigotry: intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.

It is being intolerant of opinions. So is this issue of the number of genders that exist a matter of opinion or is it a matter of fact? It seems that there’s a potential disconnect here. You have juxtaposed scientific truth against religious-based bigotry, which may, potentially, be a false dichotomy. If the quantity of genders is based in fact, then it is not an opinion, therefore the issue would be denial and not bigotry, right? If it is not based in fact, and is instead an opinion, then then it would be an opinion. So, why the label of bigotry? I love the SF Giants and hate the Dodgers. Am I a bigot? (Because of that opinion, I mean…)


@Michael_Callen, I think in psychology the view is that it’s spectrum and has several components. Here’s an infographic that a psychologist friend sent me as “this is a good example of how the field views gender”:

I’m not making any claims, just trying to answer you question.

[Edit] Also, if you’re talking biologically, it’s a bit different story. There you have a the more binary XX/XY biological sex distinction, although that not by any means universal across all animals. That’s why people will distinguish between sex and gender.


Thanks Jordan. That makes good sense… This would pertain to psychology, which might vary from biology, and certainly only pertain to conscious beings, right? It would not, for instance, pertain to animals, except for animals like the parrotfish which switch from male to female on occasion.

It seems that the issue has many layers to it. There is the classical, biological, and also the self-identification aspect as with the Gingerbread Person.

The only reason I bring this up is that it is a very hot and touchy topic. The hotter and touchier they are, the easier it can be to broadbrush people and their opinions as being bigoted. The irony about bigotry is that it is a two way street. If one is intolerant of the other’s opinion, he’s a bigot. If the other is intolerant of the first’s, she’s a bigot. By definition, that is.

It’s really a vile word to throw around without proper consideration.

Fighting talk - but I would appreciate any shred of evidence that you have that the boy’s objection was religious (the teacher’s rejoinder was “Not all policies are scientific”), and the Royal College of General Practitioner would appreciate any hard science you can offer them on the multiplicity of genders, since their latest guidelines (a month or two ago) bewail the lack of a good science evidence base for gender assessment and management. But what do they know?

Perhaps you keep abreast of the literature, but as for me I was studying social psychology at the time (1973) when the hypothesis that gender is socially assigned came into vogue: it was postulated from a politically-based motivation, rather than being based on any on science, and the early research, which I studied, later proved to be largely fraudulent.

There was no hint of such a thing as more than two genders in the physical science I learned to do for medicine, and as far as I can see there has been none discovered in any hard research since.

New genders are purely sociologically, not biologically, based - and are based entirely on individuals’ own private assessment of their “real” gender: no correlation with biology has ever been found (I exclude rare intersex indivduals, who generally have no problem with choosing one of the two scientific sexes).

If you think that individual self-assessment is sufficient to ground scientific reality, then it’s hard to see why you should discount religious experience, which is based on exactly the same subjective evidence, but also supplemented with the shared public experience of faith-communities.



The is going off topic. Perhaps split the thread and recognize this is a mine field. Walk cautiously.


Done, and I agree. This is an important conversation to be had, but we can only have it if we stick to the rules.


The way that I understood it:

  • Sex is a biological classification term;

  • Gender is a grammatical classification term.

It seems that the meaning of “gender” has been changing. I’m not sure that it is appropriate to talk of matters of fact, when those fact claims depend on meanings that are changing.


So here’s a question that’s come up for me lately. Starting in June in my state of Kanas, people can now legally change the gender on their birth records (see below from the Wichita Eagle):

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has entered a consent judgment in a federal lawsuit to allow people to legally change the gender in their birth records by submitting a personal sworn statement of gender identity.

Now, a question I had is, are there any possible problems/negative impacts when, according to your chromosomes you are one sex, but your birth certificate, driver’s license, etc. say another? For instance, are there any medical or legal ramifications to gender identity being what is legally recorded and not biological sex?

For a sort of rough thought experiment (don’t read too much into it), if a person who’s birth certificate and driver’s license say they are male commits a crime and leave some blood evidence and they do a presumptive DNA test which assesses gender and it comes back female, will they discount that person as a suspect? Or, do police always use more complete genetic profiles. I know with drugs they often do field tests (presumptive) that are pretty rough, I just wonder if that’s still done with DNA. Maybe @NLENTS would know.


(EDIT: I would guess, and this is pure speculation, that if you go back in time, the meaning of the word gender was the very same as the word “sex.” I would further suggest that it was merely a replacement for the word “sex” because some people did not wish to use that term. Does anyone know if I’m correct about this @AllenWitmerMiller ?)

People can change their gender how they see fit, but they cannot change their sex. It is not mere religious bigotry that is the problem. There are functional, operational issues here that people have not thought out. Instead, in a rush to pander to feelings, they open a Pandora’s Box and are left to sort things out.

Their sex has a biological significance (generally, I know that there are outliers) but the gender (according to modern society and sociology/psychology) may be more fluid.

I don’t see a way of getting around this. Next becomes race. Will you be able to self-identify your race or ethnicity? If so, can you imagine what this will do to affirmative action? There will be no way to identify real adverse impact, or worse, real disparate impact. The same is true for the protection of women in the workplace through EEO laws. If men identify as women, there goes the protection for women. Right now, women are a protected class.

Yes, these are genuine problems. Some people are rushing headlong into a new future without having adequately thought it through.


There have been a lot of conversations lately about how the issue applies to sports, where women are also a protected class in most cases.

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First a preamble:
(a) Let’s keep in focus that the subject arose from Patrick’s ideal of (1) sound science and (2) changing morality in the upbringing of children. My point was that the two may, sometimes, clas.
(b) This area is relevant to my professional scientific training and 32 years of clinical practice, so I’m not just winging it!

With that set out, you’ll appreciate that the use of a picture by a psychologist does not make it scientific! Once, psychologists used pictures of phrenologial brain areas, now all debunked (aprt from Broca’s area). And for much of the 20th century, psycholgists divided the mind into Freud’s id, ego and superego, which are now considered unscientific.

So gendered ginger notwithstanding, sex differentiation does not originate in the genitalia, but in a chromosomal difference involving every genital, bone, muscle and brain cell in the body. And this explains not only physical differences, but the two distinct (though overlapping) distributions of mental characteristics found in the two sexes.

It’s also basic science that gingerbread men don’t have hearts… but also that the heart is not the seat of the affections. Extensive studies have shown that no physical differences govern sexual attraction, and that there are only very loose correlations with genetics in twin studies. The latter is not surprising, as no complex human activity is genetically determined. Attraction, therefore, is based in the complexities of the mind, as is evidenced by the fact that sexual orientation can, and frequently does, vary through life. We are unlikely to find out more about the causes of these things in our lifetimes, because such research has for decades been deemed unethical.

That brings us to identity (and particularly gender identity), which is also (as the diagram correctly says) based in our minds: no physical evidence pointing to opposite or new genders has been found. But bear in mind that those with “unconventional gender” fit neatly into the psychological spectrum associated with their biological sex.

As @nwrickert rightly says, gender was originally a grammatical concept (and in most languages there are three! Don’t forget neuter). The word was purloined, I think in the 60s, originally to justify the feminist contention that there are no real differences between the sexes: ergo, “gender identity” must be socially constructed, not biological. Hence “gender” was divorced from “biological sex” ideologically.

Unfortunately, a host of studies across the world and cross-culturally confirm that the mental differences of the sexes do have a strong biological basis, though the complexities of gender-roles are, of course, cultural (pink used to be a blokes’ colour!).

Extending from the feminist coining of gender came the work of sexologists like John Money, with an interest in what is now “gender dysphoria” (though rapidly being re-cast as “gender incongruity.” Clearly a non-biological basis for gender identity would fit that case too, and he claimed that a biological boy brought us consistently as a girl would fit the latter role. That’s the research that was ongoing when I studied psychology, and that’s the research that was later shown to be partly farudulent, and which ended tragically in the detransitioning and suicide of the index case.

Such was the sociological state of play in the 1970s, but note that even in these circles there were only two genders, although some individuals were thought to possess one that didn’t match their scientific sex.

So it took a further step of “gender fluidity” to multiply the number of gender identities beyond two. One of the leading psychiatrists involved for decades in gender identity cases at John Hopkins (until recently sacked, like young Murray in the Scottish school, for his scientific views!) believes that the rise in these multiple genders arose from the availability of online interest-groups, to which unhappy teenagers were attracted.

Be that as it may, activists claim anything up to 63 separate genders. But is this in any way scientific? There is no definitive list, with definitions, of genders in the scientific literature. And as already stated, there is no objective evidence for their existence beyond the stated mental experience of those possessing them. All of these have come into existence in recent years - as I said above, even the maverick sexologists of the 1970s recognised only two genders. And like sexual orientation, they can change during a lifetime (several studies confirm that untreated childhood gender dysphoria resolves in >90% of cases after adolescence - unless confirmed by adult medical interventions… but that’s another, rather serious, subject).

So, how do we define science? Surely it includes objective, publicly accessible, reproducible findings and, usually, a theory of causation. The multiplicity of genders is entirely based on individual feelings (even the genderbread theory agrees that it is purely mental). But there is a basic tenet of scientific psychiatry worth remembering before paying too much attention to plausible diagrams: “feelings ar not facts.”



I’ve read of at least one case where mistaken gender led to the death of a trans-gender woman: I think something like an ectopic pregnancy was (justifiably) misdiagnosed.

As for DNA evidence, I suppose in future years police may well have in mind the possibility that a crime leaving male DNA was actually committed by a transgender person. But with the paper trail effectively legally erased, you could no longer (for example) exclude half the population from DNA testing: everyone would have to be tested.

I suppose the alteration of legal documents based on mental identity will mess up those Agatha Christie stories in which the villain’s relationship to the victim is revealed by a trip to the records office. Now the past can be legally re-written, all kinds of things become possible (as Winston Smith well knew, in 1984).


OED (1911 edition) has only the grammatical use, but adds a brief note:" (jocular) sex. Hence genderLESS."

Incidentally, one (idiot) consultant psychiatrist who taught me claimed that the word “sex” was intended to make procreation seem dirty, being derived from Latin for “six,” ie the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The problem is, of course, that that’s the seventh commandment.

“Sex”, of course, actually derives from “seco”, I divide. And “gender” from “genus”, which is simply a type.


True. But when you say “some people”, you have to include governments, courts, media, education authorities, sporting bodies, professional medical bodies and even the WHO. The lemming myth comes to mind: it’s tough being the lemming that refuses to join the crowd.

In the case of young Murray, in the Scottish school, the rush to safeguard a (probably entirely theoretical, in that size of school) “protected category” meant that a seventeen year old knowing some science had his education terminated prematurely - and half the internet branding him a religious bigot.


As far as the DNA goes, in forensic casework, it would not cause a problem for identity matching. In no-suspect cases, it could theoretically throw investigators off the trail but I’ve never heard of a case like that. Considering that transgender individuals are among the least likely demographic to commit any crime, let alone violent crime, I doubt this will come up. As for most of the other discussion here about sex and gender, I think I should just leave it alone, not because I don’t like educating (I teach courses on this stuff and this is the topic of my next book), but I’m on vacation this week and not looking to sour my mood by arguing with people who, if they had a genuine desire to learn about this, could learn some of the basics with almost zero effort. Since some clearly haven’t done any reading on the topic, so I’m skeptical that there is much genuine desire to learn about gender.


Nathan, I know that I said a lot, and I come from a certain perspective (EEO in employment) where this issue is particularly problematic. I have a great deal of respect for you and would like to know where you stand, where you think I may be incorrect, and where some good resources may be located to learn more. That said, I don’t wish to disrupt your vacation. So, maybe you can take this issue up once again when you have more time to do so. I think that everyone would be interested to hear your position and opinions, as well as potential solutions to some of the practical / operational issues that can arise.