All posts filed under: biology

National Borders are Not Going Away

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a passage in Mark Moffett’s book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (Basic Books, 2019).   A great songwriter once asked us to imagine a world without countries. Could our societies ever willingly eliminate their borders and come together as one? All evidence indicates the dreamer John Lennon had been imagining the unattainable. Certainly, among other species, fusion of healthy societies is vanishingly rare. Chimpanzee societies, called communities, exemplify this: the only “mergers” strain that word’s meaning. Primatologist Frans de Waal tells me that captive chimps from different sources can be integrated into one community, but such a merger is a nightmare for zookeepers that requires months of careful introductions, with bloody skirmishes along the way. Meanwhile, the bonobo, an easygoing relative of the more xenophobic chimp, has an aptitude for befriending strangers. That allows individuals who have not met before to forge a new community from scratch with comparatively little fuss. Yet in both apes such arrang­ed societies are artifacts of confinement where, …

On Sex and Gender, The New England Journal of Medicine Has Abandoned Its Scientific Mission

Two years ago, “Titania McGrath,” whose satirical Twitter account regularly skewers the ideological excesses of social-justice culture, suggested that “we should remove biological sex from birth certificates altogether to prevent any more mistakes.” The joke (obvious to those who follow the culture wars closely, but perhaps obscure to those who don’t) was directed at gender activists who insist that male and female designations “assigned at birth” are misleading (and even dangerous), since they may misrepresent a person’s true “gender identity”—that internally felt soul-like quality that supposedly transcends such superficial physical indicia as gonads and genitalia. But the line between satire and sincerity has become blurry on this issue. Last Thursday, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious medical journal, published an article entitled Failed Assignments—Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates, arguing that (in the words of the abstract) “sex designations on birth certificates offer no clinical utility, and they can be harmful for intersex and transgender people.” The resemblance to Titania McGrath’s 2018-era Twitter feed is uncanny. …

Like It Or Not, Keira Bell Has Opened Up a Real Conversation About Gender Dysphoria

“I look back with a lot of sadness,” says Keira Bell. “There was nothing wrong with my body. I was just lost and without proper support. Transition gave me the facility to hide from myself even more than before. It was a temporary fix.” In the debate about transitioning children who experience gender dysphoria, Ms. Bell’s case represents an important turning point. Ms. Bell, now 23, was 16 years old when she presented to the Tavistock Centre in London, which runs Britain’s Gender Identity Development Service. In a landmark ruling delivered earlier this month, a British court upheld her claim that she’d been rushed through gender reassignment without proper safeguards. In addition to receiving treatments that left her with facial hair and a deep voice, Ms. Bell had a double mastectomy at age 20, and now faces a host of possible long-term side-effects, including infertility. As a result of the court’s judgment, Tavistock has suspended referrals for puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for young patients. Treatment will remain available, but new cases now will be …

On the Cusp of a Vaccine—and a Historic Scientific Triumph

More than a century separated the first wave of Spanish flu in 1918 from the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Yet as Nicholas Christakis writes in his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, there are people who’ve been laid low by both plagues, and even lived to tell the tale. These include Marilee Harris, who caught the Spanish flu as a six-year-old child in Chicago. She survived, then a century passed—during which time she became a sculptor, got married (twice), wrote a book about her life, and moved to Washington, DC, where, still a working artist at age 107, she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Doctors called her daughter with the grave news that she only had hours to live. (The COVID-19 death rate for those aged 85 and over is estimated to be 630 times higher than for young adults.) Amazingly, she survived, went home, and lived another five months before passing away on September 11th. As Christakis shows, there are some aspects of …

The Evolutionary History of Man’s Best Friend Revealed

Man and dog share a long history. In much of the world, a history as old as humanity. The latest genetic evidence now tells us that the emergence of the domestic dog lineage occurred soon after the human expansion out of Africa 50,000 years ago, in the depths of the last Ice Age. We came. We saw. And we befriended. This we knew, but now we can closely examine how. A paper out today in Science uses 27 ancient dog genomes from the past 11,000 years to construct an evolutionary history nearly as rich as that produced by human population geneticists over the last decade. The authors found five lineages of ancient dogs that were present at the end of the last Ice Age. These were the dogs that interacted with human migrations during the rise of agriculture and the fall of civilizations to produce the riotous dog diversity that we know today. Familiar breeds like the Pekingese and the St. Bernard, as well as stray Asian village mutts, they’re all the products of a …

Keeping Male Bodies Out of Women’s Rugby

From November 2015 until February 2020, World Rugby, rugby’s global governing body, incorporated guidelines established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on transgender participation in sports. According to these rules, males who wish to self-identify into women’s rugby could do so if they committed to reducing their testosterone levels to 10 nmol per liter or lower for at least 12 months. (The average level for men is about seven times that level.) During this period, instances of biological males playing in the women’s game increased, and some participants began to express alarm. One rugby referee posted on the website Fair Play for Women, for instance, that “being forced to prioritize hurt feelings over broken bones exposes me to personal litigation from female players who have been harmed by players who are biologically male. This is driving female players and referees out of the game.” Another wrote, “I volunteer my time to officiate matches because I love my sport. But I won’t continue much longer if I have stay quiet about the unfairness I see on …

Reducing the Chance of New Pandemics

It has been months since the novel coronavirus hit Western countries, and many are now wondering how and when normality will return and what a new normal might look like. Some expect that a second wave of infection will be avoided by seasonal properties inherent in the virus, while others contend that this will only happen if strong action is taken to contain it. Some expect that a vaccine will allow a rapid return to the world we had before, while others argue that even if such a vaccine were to be developed, it would permit no such thing. Absent from many of these discussions is how to avoid another situation like this one. The argument can be framed in simple economic terms or in more complex terms related to existential risk and the very future of our species on Earth. The current pandemic is estimated to have cost nations on average a third of the world’s GDP—over 30 trillion US dollars—so spending billions on even a marginal reduction of the probability of another such …

Rethinking Health Disparities

In the last few decades, the proliferation of diversity, inclusivity, and equity literature throughout the medical profession has become institutionalized. Medical organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institute of Health (NIH), and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) have embraced this ideology and its accompanying bureaucracies and web-based material, and have called for cultural changes in some of our most important fields of study. Reforms are ostensibly intended to address healthcare disparities between groups, and new initiatives are frequently justified with reference to what the Sullivan Commission called the “ghosts of discrimination.” 1 The authors of reports like these will invariably go on to talk about implicit bias, the need for diversity in the healthcare workforce, and an examination of structural forces and power distributions that shape group disparities in health outcomes. In January 2020, the ACC published a cover story stating that healthcare group disparities and the lack of diversity in healthcare were a “national emergency” and strongly promoted the use of the Implicit Association Test (IAT).2 Even as late as …

JK Rowling Is Right—Sex Is Real and It Is Not a “Spectrum”

JK Rowling recently drew fire on social media for tweeting the statements to the effect that “biological sex is real.” The tweets began when she mocked an opinion piece that used the term “people who menstruate” in place of “women” to account for the fact that transgender men also menstruate, and prefer not to be described as women. If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth. — J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020 The backlash on Twitter has been swift and cacophonous, and headlines have followed. GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy group, issued a response on Twitter, calling Rowling’s tweets “inaccurate and cruel.” One commenter wrote “I know you know this because you have been told over and over and over again, but transgender men can menstruate. Non-binary people menstruate. I, a 37-year old woman …

We ‘Gender-Critical’ Feminists Pay a Price for Speaking Out. But the Price of Silence is Higher

Disagreement over sex and gender have cleaved the feminist community between those who believe that biological sex is immutable, and those who believe that transitioning sex to align body with brain is not only possible, but a legally binding marker of identity. Courts, social-services organizations and schools all have been pushed to adopt the most doctrinaire precepts of trans-rights advocacy. In some cases, the issue has divided “gender-critical” women’s-rights advocates from strident trans-rights advocates. It also has caused schisms within feminism; and even within families, with some parents split over the best course of action for their kids. While this drama unfolds publicly in legislatures, town councils and on social media, it also takes a personal toll on those who’ve gotten caught up in this unusually vicious front in the culture war. This includes “Susan” (all names changed), a gender-critical feminist and mother who plans to attend a forthcoming talk on the subject at the Seattle Public Library. An email exchange between Susan and her brother “Craig” recently was shared by the Hands Across the …