August 1, 2023

Why is it so hard for a scientist like Richard Dawkins to understand the difference between sex and gender?

Richard Dawkins find it hard to grasp the difference between gender and biological sex, reducing gender identity to a matter of procreation in the process. No wonder he is loved by transphobic TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists).

Richard Dawkins is now actively helping anti-trans activists. How can such a renowned scientist end up in such a bad place?

Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Ray Blanchard all belong to what I would call a school of traditional gender role thinking masquerading as science based facts. 

If  you go through their arguments it soon becomes clear that the statement "gender is biological sex" is simply a rephrasing of the sentence "biological sex is biological sex and biological sex," which explains nothing. But this is clearly about reproduction. Gender is reduced to sperm and eggs. They cannot grasp reality of the concept of gender as something related to, but still different from, biological sex. 

Dawkins discusses trans people with a gender critical TERF

In the video below, where Dawkins discusses transgender identities with Helen Joyce,  Dawkins find it "distinctly weird that people can simply declare that 'I am a woman, though I have a penis'". He sees this as "a strange distortion of language."

In other words, this renowned scientist is not even able to imagine that a gendered sense of self can be influenced by other factors than his own understanding of biological sex, whether these factors are biological (pre-natal hormonal development) or caused by the simple fact that gender (as in identity, expression or sexuality) is not binary. 

In the end what we are facing here is a man who is deeply anchored in traditional gender thinking that his own scientific work cannot but reinforce existing stereotypes. Which is why he now ends up helping a transphobic TERF like Helen Joyce. 

Richard Dawkins. Photo by Marty Stone (CC)

Intellectual lock-in reinforces stereotypes

How is it possible for a man that is clearly able to read science papers to have missed all the research on the formation of gender identity?

As one who has studied the history of science, I think it is important to keep the following in mind:

1. Scientists are human beings, and as such they are affected by cultural prejudices and interests as much as everyone else.

2. The scientific method aims at liberating scientists from such intellectual lock-ins, and in many cases it does help them achieve this goal. Still, most scientist  only win the publish or perish race if they stay within their own disciplinary silo, interacting with scientists like themselves. This leads to an intellectual feedback loop reinforcing existing beliefs.

3. The different disciplines of scientific cultures are affected differently by different cultural prejudices. Sciences who believe they are completely "objective" and "disinterested" are more likely to exhibit political and cultural bias than those who recognize the effects society has on all researchers.

This does not, of course, apply to all researchers within a discipline. A broad interest in history and psychology will normally inoculate them from the hubris of The Infallible Professor. Note also that scientists and scholars from the humanities and the social sciences may be just as biased.

Evolutionary biology

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. Evolutionary biology is based on the premise that human traits are developed through an evolutionary process. Beneficial abilities and behaviors helps individuals survive in a  specific environment, which increases their chances of having offspring. These scientist believe that a division of labor between male and females are based on different inborn abilities and traits, and that this also – at least to some extent – applies to humans. 

Even though history has shown that the abilities assigned to men and women  by evolutionary scientist  is mostly based on cultural prejudices, many of them stick to the idea that biology is at the core of the differences between men and women.

It is this that causes some of them to believe that gender identities have to be in harmony with "the biological sex", even if the very existence of trans people shows that this is not always the case.

A lot of evolutionary biologists know that their discipline often leads scientist to replicate traditional gender views, and they take that into consideration, but Dawkins is clearly not among those.

Transgender identities are real

Science is about looking at specific observable phenomena, trying to explain why they are as they are and to understand their role in larger systems. Science is not limited to physical objects that can be weighed and measured. Science also look at behaviors,  emotions and thinking.

Transgender identities are real. They are observable.  There are people who persistently and strongly experience that their gender is not in harmony with the gender role they are forced to play. This is a scientific fact. And trans people  have been around for millennia. 

Gender incongruence is real. Gender dysphoria is real. This is clearly not about people just deciding, on a whim, that they are male or female.

So would it not make sense for a curious scientist to try to understand this phenomenon  instead of dismissing it is a "distortion of reality"?

Dawkins reminds me of the Jesuit scholars who dismissed Galileo not because he was wrong, but because his heliocentric view of the universe was unthinkable within the traditional Christian view of the universe.

And the idea that we cannot change the use of language or come up with new concepts to describe observable phenomena is just preposterous in a scientific context. This is the man who came up with the original concept of a "meme" (which in turn became a meme). He knows that science often needs to coin new terms when exploring unknown phenomena.

Helen Joyce

Helen Joyce, who turned the renowned news and business magazine The Economist into an anti-trans publication, is a mathematician. She makes a point of this in the interview. I know of a lot of mathematicians that understand the way culture, prejudices and politics affect human beliefs. Joyce, on the other hand, dismisses gender studies as not being based in reality. 

She also seems to believe that an understanding of gender that is not based on biology is a new idea, which it is not. For instance: Most feminists have, for the last hundred years or so, argued that the way we experience and understand gender and gender roles is strongly influenced by cultural mores and social power structures. In pre-modern Western societies gender was defined by law and divine decree, not by biology.

Professor Grace Lavery has written an excellent essay on the way transphobic "gender critical" thinking has shaped the current discourse on transgender lives. She writes this about Joyce:

Helen Joyce, an Irish mathematics scholar who had a stint editing the finance pages of The Economist, embarks upon the 2022 reprint of her book Trans: Where Ideology Meets Reality with the following words: “The arguments in this book are based on facts that until recently were universally accepted: that humans cannot change sex; that males are on average much stronger than females and commit nearly all violent and sexual crime.”

An emphasis on the novelty of the position Joyce calls “gender self-identification” underpins much that follows. It is as though Joyce has wandered into a classroom during the penultimate lecture of the course, declared that feminist philosophy as such is garbage, demanded the right to deliver the final lecture herself, and inexplicably been granted it. 

Lavery refers to Joyce's book "an incoherent set of vapid polemics by an author of singular incuriosity." 

Indeed, incuriosity is the keyword here. Neither Dawkins nor Joyce understand what they are talking about. Nor are they interested in learning more about the complexity of the world of sex and gender, because they like the simplicity of the misleading "gender is biological sex" trope. It makes them feel superior to the  trans activists and gender scholars. But they are still talking about trans people as if they understand. 

That tells us a lot about how a social system can harness the work of anyone to make sure existing power relationships remain the way they are.

See also:
Science and Transphobia: Ray Blanchard is Now Assisting TERFs and White Supremacists. Why?
Richard Dawkins used his new podcast to promote more transphobic lies
Elevatorgate, Richard Dawkins and sexism in the atheist community
Richard Dawkins has abandoned science to justify his transphobia


  1. The problem with someone like Dawkins is that he is so literal in his world view that he dismisses all nuance. Such a black and white perspective will of course denigrate spirituality but also any human mechanics  which cannot readily be measured. Thinking that one has a penis therefore automatically identifies a certain way is most especially the type of argument he would adhere to and he is a perfect ally for the criticals.      

  2. In other words, everything is reduced to the quantifiable which much of our existence is not.

  3. I think you are putting words into their mouths. They never say trans people do not exist. They say that a particular narrative that some trans people, particularly activists are pushing is pseudoscience and incorrect. I’ve heard Joyce in particular speak about this numerous times and she is consistently upheld that trans people exist are real and have gender dysphoria.

    1. There is a video of Joyce clearly talking about how the movement must be stopped. She is very much on the record regarding making things as difficult as possible for trans people. Acknowledging we exist does not mean she wants us to live with dignity and rights.

    2. Actually there are numerous ones although I was thinking of one particular one I watched but cannot recall the name of. A simple search on YouTube using her name and watching them through will give you a taste of her philosophy on trans people. Classic TERF

  4. Accepting that a trans woman is "real" does not make much of a difference if you treat her as a man. Joyce's approach to gender dysphoria brings us back to the old concept of "gender identity disorder" and the idea that gender incongruence is a mental illness. That has been throughly dismissed by contemporary experts on gender dysphoria, including biologists and medical researchers, as is reflected in the fact that the relevant medical manuals no longer refer to gender incongruence as a mental illness.

    That being said, a lot of TERFs these day argue that trans peolle do not exist, which is why attacking them is not transphobic.

    They are all transphobes.

  5. Maybe trans people are an exception to a common binary. I do not think it is that simple, but let for the sake of argument say that it is so. That does not make the exceptions to the rule, which will be intersex and transgender people, less real. That does not make their identities and their experiences a figment of their imagination.

    We cannot let the common use of both everyday and scientific language stop us from understanding what being trans is and means. Because the only reason for doing that would be to force intersex and transgender people into hiding, so that the dogma of fearful people can continue to rule us all. That is that is not science. That is toxic politics.

  6. I find the scientific angle interesting because since trans people have always existed that should spur the idea that this is a natural phenomenon. If this is the case, accommodation is the logical response instead of attempts at stigmatizing and eradication

  7. We have stories about transgender people from ancient Rome (Apuleius) and ancient India (The Kama Sutra), so, yes, we know that gender incongruence is not a result of post-modern thinking and "trans propaganda", as many TERFs and transphobes seem to believe. Gender variance is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

    1. This is precisely why I think there is a large measure of disingenuous approach to the current attitudes. These people aren't stupid but prefer to sell the types of narratives that has some believe in crackpot theories like rapid onset gender dysphoria.

  8. I've seen Helen Joyce being called transphobic, but have not seen any evidence that she fears or dislikes anyone. Can anybody provide some?

  9. Hello Anonymous,

    Until this morning I'd not heard of Helen Joyce so I did some quick googling. Her book,"TRANS: When Ideology Meets Reality" seems to boil down into a worry that since trans people must self-identify as trans, and that trans people are making inroads into gendered places (e.g., restrooms) and sports, that that opens the door to people falsely claiming that they are trans in order to gain access to such spaces.

    I am a trans woman, self-identified only because there is no other way to determine if one is trans. Very happy in my skin since transitioning six years ago. So, you might think I'm biased. But here's the thing: although I cannot imagine anyone claiming to be trans who is not, that doesn't mean it will not and doesn't happen. I think we can agree that there are are people out there who might do such a thing (for whatever reason), and enough of them, that her concern is valid if only at the margins. And maybe the margins is where we should focus and after that, consider whether they matter.

    For example, at one time (during my lifetime as it happens) Black people weren't allowed in restrooms, to use water fountains, and to sit in areas that were segregated for whites. Why? There was no real reason, just suspicions and fears that over the last half-century have proven unjustified and led to unjust treatment of people simply because of the color of their skin. To be clear, we've made strides in tearing down such barriers but there's more to be done.

    The "problem" if you will for trans people is that there's no objective test to validate what they know or come to learn about their gender identity.

    So (and sorry for such a meandering response) maybe Ms. Joyce isn't transphobic per se but the volume and passion that she puts into her views easily leads one to think she is. After all, why not put her energy into voicing her concerns (which, as I tried to say earlier, seem real although so small as to be de minimus) in a way that doesn't add fuel to the anti-trans fire?

    BTW: Jack, this is from Emma. Remember me? For some reason I can't log in to write this post non-anonymously.

  10. You write: “ How is it possible for a man that is clearly able to read science papers to have missed all the research on the formation of gender identity?”. I ask where/what are all these research papers? Because when I look I don’t find any that state gender identity is formed in utero. Nor do I find papers that explain how in utero hormone exposure would lead to such an identity. Up to now the best arguments I’ve seen are extremely speculative and lack scientific evidence. The best argument I have seen is sexual orientation being the source for trans identities.

    1. Look for the YouTube vídeo "bill nye vs pseudoscience part one", and jump to the 25 minutes mark. Plenty of research Papers there. Cheers!


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