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Sex redefined: the idea of two sexes is simplistic (nature.com)
102 points by Thevet on Feb 19, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 119 comments



"Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of [atypical sex]."

If the "simplistic" male/female binary explains >99% of observations, there does not seem to be a strong case for describing biological sex as a "spectrum"...

I am 10,000% behind tolerance and acceptance for people of all genders and sexes and orientations, and it's very useful to understand how much biological complexity and variation is possible. But... any honest interpretation of the data would suggest that "the idea of two sexes" is an highly accurate approximation for Homo sapiens.


1% of the world's 7 billion people[1] is 70 million people. That's a little less than the population of Congo, a little more than the population of France. [2]

I'll admit that what you're willing to call a "highly accurate approximation" is pretty arbitrary. There are some systems where I would call an approximation with a 1% margin of error a highly accurate approximation. But it's a pointless argument to make when your 1% margin of error includes 70 million people. I think we can all agree that issues which affect 70 million people are not negligible.

[1] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_dependen...


I would still take issue with the usage of spectrum. A spectrum is a scale with escalating/deescalating and predictable variation. As you go "up" and "down" the spectrum, I don't think you can say how you're supposed to interpret that.

In my opinion, we should be supporting or phasing out concepts depending on its usefulness as a predictive instrument. I don't think the "spectrum" lens offers any power over "two major sexes with many small discrete bins". But the spectrum view does seem forced, as if the intended effect is a more inclusive "we". Better would be to say that there are two major sexes, as well as some rather rare cases (MOST inclusive definition ~1%). They each belong in their discrete bins as domain-specific studies.

I also think you are letting your concern for humanity cloud your constructs. You seem to be very concerned about exclusion from normal. 70 million sounds like a big number if you were living in Europe at the time of the Bubonic plague. But this is the same problem with large numbers when we hear about state budgets. We hear titanic numbers, but it's hard to grasp how big or small it really is. How big is $100 billion to the state? Medium? A lot? A little? What if I said, hypothetically, that it was marginally less than 1% of the state budget?

Are you going to say to me, "Well, think about how even Bill Gates doesn't have $100 billion. Think about how much that would mean to you." ? If I brought it down to an intimate level, I would never be able to talk about huge numbers because it hits my intuition too hard.


Testosterone is a good example where just because there is a M/F differences does not mean that all M have more Testosterone than all F. So, within the Male designation there is a range of how Male someone is.


You see, "high" and "low" testosterone does make sense on a continuum. It is plausible to think that incremental jumps on this scale could mean incrementally different predictions. I could see how there could be some noisiness and complication, but that doesn't mean the construct lacks competitive utility.

However, I don't think the researchers would accept testosterone as an adequate spectrum to contain human sex. So what spectrum is proposed, then? I have difficulty imagining, because I think having a spectrum of Maleness vs Femaleness would be antithetical to what the researchers want.


>But it's a pointless argument to make when your 1% margin of error includes 70 million people.

You say that like it's some huge number. 70 million or not, it's still 1%. Numbers get their significance relatively, not in themselves.


> You say that like it's some huge number. 70 million or not, it's still 1%. Numbers get their significance relatively, not in themselves.

Relative to what? I can't believe I'm having this conversation.

70 million people is more than the number of people killed in both world wars. 70 million people is more than the population of the UK or Canada. Are you claiming that the world wars caused negligible deaths, or that the populations of the UK or Canada are negligible?

You can't just say 1% is a negligible amount without context. Whether 1% is a negligible margin of error is entirely dependent on context. 1% blood alcohol will probably kill you, 1% error on your taxes, if intentional, is enough to put you in jail, 1% error in floating point arithmetic is the difference between a missile that hits its target and a missile that lands in a civilian residence. But numbers get their significance relatively, right?

70 million people is a lot of people.


> 70 million people is more than the number of people killed in both world wars

Not that I necessarily disagree with your sentiment, but the world population was lower when those wars happened, so the the same number of people dying was far more than 1% at the time. Looks like WW2 alone was 3-4% of the global population. The world wars were also important for reasons other than number of deaths anyway.


That's a fair point on the change in population since WW2.

However, I think that the atypically-sexed population is important for reasons other than numbers, too.


Sure, but that's a totally different argument.


It's the argument esrauch was making.


I can't believe you're having this conversation either. You're correct, obviously; you've thrown out tons of trivially correct examples to make it clear to everyone just how right you are, none of which have anything to do with this. You are of course aware that 1% out of a population has nothing to do with the concept of a 1% error on your taxes or 1% blood alcohol. Alcohol does not affect you 1% of the time if you have a 1% BAC.

Everyone here knows that if you make the population arbitrarily large, the 1% sample becomes large too. But can you really argue that being able to represent 99% with a binary spectrum isn't a pretty good approximation? What percentage would be good enough for you? Or are you going to say "99.9% isn't good enough because 7 million is a lot of people. that's more than died in X'?


> I can't believe you're having this conversation either. You're correct, obviously; you've thrown out tons of trivially correct examples to make it clear to everyone just how right you are, none of which have anything to do with this. You are of course aware that 1% out of a population has nothing to do with the concept of a 1% error on your taxes or 1% blood alcohol. Alcohol does not affect you 1% of the time if you have a 1% BAC.

So you agree then that whether 1% is negligible is based on context?

> Everyone here knows that if you make the population arbitrarily large, the 1% sample becomes large too. But can you really argue that being able to represent 99% with a binary spectrum isn't a pretty good approximation? What percentage would be good enough for you? Or are you going to say "99.9% isn't good enough because 7 million is a lot of people. that's more than died in X'?

Yes. In case you didn't notice, 7 million people is a lot of people.


>So you agree then that whether 1% is negligible is based on context?

Yeah, or as I put it: "Numbers get their significance relatively, not in themselves".

Whereas you repeatedly stated how 70 million people is a huge number in itself.

E.g. If I told you there are 70 million people that have blue eyes, is that "a huge number?" No, it's actually a small number. One would expect blue-eyed people to be in the 100s of millions or billions.


> Whereas you repeatedly stated how 70 million people is a huge number in itself.

I haven't claimed that at all. I've said over and over that context indicates whether it's important.

> Whereas you repeatedly stated how 70 million people is a huge number in itself.

No, I've said 70 million people is a lot in terms of medical and social policy. It would be very possible, for example, for 1% of people to account for 10% of medical expenses--an amount you would probably care about at tax time. I think that's a number that matters to almost anyone's political goals.

In contrast, you've been repeatedly stating how 1% is not a large number. Based on what?

> E.g. If I told you there are 70 million people that have blue eyes, is that "a huge number?" No, it's actually a small number. One would expect blue-eyed people to be in the 100s of millions or billions.

Science doesn't give a shit about your expectations. "Expectations" are entirely irrelevant to whether a number is big or little. A number is big or little depending on what effects it causes and what effects you're trying to achieve.

You're accusing me of arguing that 70 million is inherently a large number, but you're arguing that 70 million is inherently a small number, completely arbitrarily. I'm not even saying 70 million people is a big or small number inherently, I'm saying that 70 million people is a huge number when the properties of that group have medical and social implications. 70 million blue-eyed people isn't a small or large number, it's an irrelevant number, because whether or not someone's eyes are blue has almost no implication that I care about. If you understand why it's not a big or small number, but an irrelevant number, you'll understand my point.


>Science doesn't give a shit about your expectations.

Language.

Also, I didn't say it's about "MY" expectations. It's about what the expected distribution is, which is the whole context that makes something big or small.

"Expectations" are entirely irrelevant to whether a number is big or little.

Actually, it's all about that. Bringing 10,000 times 6 by throwing dice 20,000 times is too big, because the expected outcome is about 1/6 throws to be 6.


Context is important, a 1% rate of serial killers would be a ridiculously huge issue for a country.


Example (with made up numbers):

0.1% of people fart right before falling asleep. 0.1% of people will commit murder in the next week. Now change the numbers to 20%.

In once case it matters a lot, another case it doesn't. Context matters when discussing populations also..


Yes, but so what? How do you link this argument back? 70 million is a lot of people in MORAL terms. What about scientifically?

We aren't talking about killing 70 million people. We're talking about the strength of constructs in terms of scientific utility.

This is also the problem with huge numbers. It's very hard to process and we are intuitively intimidated by the largeness, such as with numbers from the state budget. $70 billion? Oh my god. How am I supposed to process that number?

Also note that 1% is a figure arising from the most inclusive definitions.


> Yes, but so what? How do you link this argument back? 70 million is a lot of people in MORAL terms. What about scientifically?

What about scientifically? Scientifically, there's no concept of negligible or not negligible. On what scientific grounds did you decide 1% was negligible?

The negligibility of a percentage is only choosable based on your values and how much you value what exists in that percentage. My argument is that in most contexts, you probably care about 70 million people. If that's not the case, you may be a sociopath. But my guess is that you aren't a sociopath--you're just operating under some temporary delusion that because you've decided to say 1% of people instead of 70 million people, your decision that the group of people in question is negligible is scientific.

> We aren't talking about killing 70 million people. We're talking about the strength of constructs in terms of scientific utility.

If you're claiming that 70 million people have no scientific utility, I'd like to see what utility function you're using.

> This is also the problem with huge numbers. It's very hard to process and we are intuitively intimidated by the largeness, such as with numbers from the state budget. $70 billion? Oh my god. How am I supposed to process that number?

I'm not sure how the fact that large numbers are hard to process means that 70 million people is negligible. Certainly saying 1% instead of 70 million makes it easier to process, but playing to human mental limitations isn't a particularly good source of truth.

> Also note that 1% is a figure arising from the most inclusive definitions.

I'll happily make similar arguments about 7 million people instead of 70 million.


Actually, there is a way to decide if something is scientifically better. All you have to show is that your construct is competitive within the ecosystem of constructs. You can weakly improve upon an existing model by adding tons of domain-specific complications, which is what should've happened. But instead of saying that there are two predominant sexes, along with many abnormal and discrete bins, they propose a "continuum".

The researchers found that, in the most inclusive definitions, 1% of the population isn't sufficiently accounted for by traditional constructs.

But there's no new theory here. How do I predict complications based on what factors? What's the new model? The "spectrum"? A spectrum is a scale with escalating and deescalating values as you travel up and down, where jumps in the spectrum are connected to jumps in prediction. As for abnormal and discrete bins, well, the scientific community already has that. What's new to the table? A reformation of language so that we avoid the word "abnormal"? But where's the improved model?

Also note that you propose that there's no way to think about scientific or construct "betterness". Yes there is. You can measure by complexity, prediction, explanation, or generalizability. These are just a few ways. But you waved away scientific discussion, and instead choose only to use the moral lens, and bring up sociopathy.

Also, the reason I am talking about human limitations in processing large numbers is because I am accusing the opposition of abuse. I am not saying you should believe me because of X, I'm saying beware of opposition arguments because they are abusive to human minds.

And on the matter of using percentages to interpret numbers, I return to my example of state budgets, because that is a place where politicians often abuse psychology by stating what appears to be extravagant numbers. By extending your statements, I might say that not only is $70B a lot of money, but so is $7B. But then what if you told me that $70B is less than 1% of the state budget? What did you just do to that number?

Honestly, 10,000 people dying is a lot. Therefore, let's not talk about construct validity?


> Actually, there is a way to decide if something is scientifically better.

Not in a general sense, there isn't. "Better" can only be scientifically defined in terms of a utility function, a goal. If you're trying to conduct, copper is better than rubber, if you're trying to insulate, rubber is better than copper. If you're trying to provide adequate healthcare and social protection to people, then a lower margin of error would be better.

> All you have to show is that your construct is competitive within the ecosystem of constructs.

Competitive based on what utility function?

> But there's no new theory here. How do I predict complications based on what factors? What's the new model? The "spectrum"? A spectrum is a scale with escalating and deescalating values as you travel up and down, where jumps in the spectrum are connected to jumps in prediction. As for abnormal and discrete bins, well, the scientific community already has that. What's new to the table? A reformation of language so that we avoid the word "abnormal"? But where's the improved model?

I think an admission that the current model is inadequate goes a long way towards motivating the discovery of better models.

> Also note that you propose that there's no way to think about scientific or construct "betterness". Yes there is. You can measure by complexity, prediction, explanation, or generalizability.

Okay, so you've named a bunch of utility functions. Now do you really want to apply those to this situation? How do we apply these to the question of whether 1% is a negligible margin of error. Let's optimize for those:

1. Lower complexity: "everyone is a man" seemed to work back in the day. 2. Higher complexity: let's subdivide male and female. There are certainly other genetic traits besides X and Y chromosomes that we could include in our definition of sex. (Hint: It's silly to optimize for higher complexity, but why? I propose that the answer is based on your values.)


People are reading too much into this article- it's more like "1% of the population has this interesting genetic condition that may have impacts under some conditions" not "1% of the population is being discriminated against"


Yes, I think people are playing border politics without realizing it. They want to be more inclusive, but this is about construct validity and adding something new to the table, not talking about how 70 million people dying is tremendous.


>Relative to what? I can't believe I'm having this conversation.

Relative to the total population. Whether it's Canada, the US, France, or the Whole World you're taking into account, it's still 1% of it.

>You can't just say 1% is a negligible amount without context.

Probably you missed TFA and the whole conversation thread you're answering to?

The context was if only 1% of the population doing them is enough to call sexual preferences "a spectrum" (with regard to those "atypical sexual practices"). Something divided in 99% and 1% is not a "spectrum" by any stretch of the imagination. In fact there's a word for that 1%, outliers.

>1% blood alcohol will probably kill you, 1% error on your taxes, if intentional, is enough to put you in jail, 1% error in floating point arithmetic is the difference between a missile that hits its target and a missile that lands in a civilian residence. But numbers get their significance relatively, right?

Of course. 1% blood alcohol gets its significance not in what it is ("1% oh, so much") but RELATIVE to the amount that's OK for a human to stand.

1% error in missile calculations gets its significance RELATIVE to the target area it has to hit and the acceptable margin of error.


> Probably you missed TFA and the whole conversation thread you're answering to?

TFA and whole conversation are exactly the context which makes it ridiculous to claim that 1% is an acceptable margin of error.

> Of course. 1% blood alcohol gets its significance not in what it is ("1% oh, so much") but RELATIVE to the amount that's OK for a human to stand.

> 1% error in missile calculations gets its significance RELATIVE to the target area it has to hit and the acceptable margin of error.

Agreed. 1% error in judging the gender of people is significant relative to medical and social policy targets. On what grounds are you claiming that 70 million people are ignorable in medical and social policy?

Ironically, the only argument from you I've seen so far against sex being considered a spectrum is basically, "1%, oh, not so much". You said: "You say that like it's some huge number. 70 million or not, it's still 1%."

And ultimately, this is in research before we are even talking about medical and social policy. I'm not sure why we should just discard that 1% of data at all--there's no reason to artificially create error in reasoning that isn't imposed by data collection methods.


> 70 million people is more than the number of people killed in both world wars.

I've seen some estimates that suggest 72 million were killed in WWII alone, either from direct involvement or as civilian casualties. Considering the world population was ~2 billion at that time, close to 3.6% of the total world population died as a consequence of the war.

Oftentimes, it's helpful when comparing approximate statistics from different eras that you use the same relative baseline--in this case world population at the time those statistics were estimated rather than now.

Edit: Didn't see esrauch's sibling comment. Give 'em an upvote.


> 70 million people is a lot of people.

So one person isn't a lot of people ... are you saying one person is negligible? That one person's life doesn't matter?

Two can play this game.

1% is 1%. Every life is important, but 1% is still 1%. And 1% is not a lot. Whether it's people, apples, or pencils doesn't matter. It's a ratio.


> So one person isn't a lot of people ... are you saying one person is negligible? That one person's life doesn't matter?

Can we make laws, do medical research, etc. that will effectively help 1 person? I don't think so. If I see one person by the side of the road with a flat tire, I'll help that 1 person, but in the context of policy and research, 1 person usually doesn't matter because policy and research can't usually create a meaningful impact.

We can, however, make laws and do medical research that has an impact on 70 million people. I present as evidence for this the fact that life has gotten better (according to a variety of shared values which we could agree upon--fewer suicides, less violence) in the last few decades for people of atypical sexes.

> 1% is 1%. Every life is important, but 1% is still 1%. And 1% is not a lot. Whether it's people, apples, or pencils doesn't matter. It's a ratio.

No, context matters. If you don't think 1% is a lot in any context, maybe let's get you up to a 1% blood alcohol and see how you feel (hint: you won't feel).


>We can, however, make laws and do medical research that has an impact on 70 million people.

Which is nothing this thread of discussion was about.

Nobody said not to study or legally hep those people.

Just that 1% is not enough to describe the total of cases as a "spectrum".


> Which is nothing this thread of discussion was about.

> Nobody said not to study or legally hep those people.

> Just that 1% is not enough to describe the total of cases as a "spectrum".

Assuming that your medical and social policies are at all data-driven, failure to include people in your data is a guaranteed way to ensure that they are not studied or legally helped.


[flagged]


> > Relative to what?

> Relative to the total. Are you that fucking stupid?

Since we're answering rhetorical questions here, no, I'm not stupid.

My point is that the choice to compare the number to the total population is entirely arbitrary. That's why I compared it to the numbers of people killed in the world wars, and the populations of major countries. Why is your arbitrary choice of comparison somehow more valid than mine?


In other words, you're fucking stupid.


Cool story bro.


Numbers are perfectly significant in being themselves large. 70 million is a great market for a set of niche clothing lines, self-help books, sex toys, etc. It's just not enough of a market for governments to spend an extraordinary amount of effort on dealing with the specifics. This is a long-tail number, too; 'Male', 'Female', and 'Other' probably makes sense if you expect 1% of respondents to select other. However, 1% don't select other; They get offended that you don't have Facebook's 72-pronoun list, and even if you do, that doesn't cover their particular favorite.


> However, 1% don't select other; They get offended that you don't have Facebook's 72-pronoun list, and even if you do, that doesn't cover their particular favorite.

Keep in mind that social media generally exemplifies the dregs of humanity. The people who make a fuss about "Other" on the internet are not representative of the everyone in that 1%. I'm pretty sure you don't have enough information to make the statement you did above.


Given a free and unlimited choice, I'd happily bet the vast majority of this 1% would happily and wholeheartedly select either "male" or "female".

Moreover they'd probably be quite offended if you suggested they didn't belong in those categories, even if the wonders of medical science revealed they had certain abnormalities they might not even have been aware of or otherwise might have attempted to surgically "correct". Men with low sperm counts, men that discover they have a womb in their late seventies after fathering several children and even intersex people who had an operation a very long time ago are probably happier being bracketed as "men" than "somewhere fairly close to male on the gender spectrum", and the same goes for the women not wanting to be considered "further away from female on the gender spectrum" than their sisters because of polycystic ovaries. From this perspective we don't want to redefine gender as a spectrum so much as to accept that our definitions of "male" and "female" need to be sufficiently broad to encompass small quantities of genetic material transferred across umbilical cords and even the odd phenotypical abnormality.

Frankly, arguments against the gender binary are much better rooted in cultural phenomenon like South East Asian Katoeeys and Samoan Fa'afafine who openly define themselves as a third gender rather than medical abnormalities which for the most part people prefer to overlook or even medically "correct" to align themselves with a binary gender identity they feel mentally comfortable with.


> Given a free and unlimited choice, I'd happily bet the vast majority of this 1% would happily and wholeheartedly select either "male" or "female".

True, but sex has medical and social implications that go beyond people's preferred terminology. You've brought up some of these concerns yourself.

> Frankly, arguments against the gender binary are much better rooted in cultural phenomenon like South East Asian Katoeeys and Samoan Fa'afafine who openly define themselves as a third gender rather than medical abnormalities which for the most part people prefer to overlook or even medically "correct" to align themselves with a binary gender identity they feel mentally comfortable with.

I'm not sure what makes you think that nobody in Western countries defines themselves as a third gender.


> I'm not sure what makes you think that nobody in Western countries defines themselves as a third gender.

I'm not sure what makes you think I think that. But it's certainly considerably rarer.


Not being mean here, but purely looked at, these "atypical sexes" are deformities. I don't think it is accurate to call them anything else.


CO2 is 0.04% of atmospheric air by volume. Would it be a highly accurate approximation to say that air has no CO2? Could we then say that it is not possible to have problems with too much CO2 in the atmosphere, since our highly accurate approximation says there isn't any?

The article stands well on its merits. It's not political. It's talking about specific, measurable things with specific measurable effects, and 1% of a large number is still a large number.


Molecules in air do not exist on a spectrum from Nitrogen to Oxygen.


And cells don't exist on a spectrum between male (XY) and female (XX) - leaving aside cells with abnormal numbers of chromosomes.


Surely 1% of the population is enough that we should e.g. have a way to legally recognize them, instead of forcing everyone to fit themselves into one of the two options.


Also there is the fact that not all forms of atypical sexual development are really relevant to daily life.

For example it did not surprise me that the woman described in the beginning had no idea about her chimerism - after all her sexual organs were straight female (proved by the fact that she got pregnant, three times), so her blood was probably circulating lots of estrogen instead of lots of testosterone. Sure, her color vision was maybe working at the reduced, male level, but really - it is not that important.

On another note it is worth remembering that in vitro fertilization increases the risks of mosaicism and chimerism.


Yeah, from reading some of the comments here they act like it's the height of inhumanity that places only have 2 bathrooms instead of nine.


Why defend a "highly accurate" approximation that also happens to be oppressive to the people who fall outside of it? So far as I can see learning to incorporate more nuance into our social understanding is the way these oppressive institutions are overcome, and how more diverse groups learn to coexist. Defending approximations like this runs dangerously close to committing the "naturalistic fallacy" of taking the way things are as the way they ought to be.


Did you read the article? How is it oppressive? 1% of people have chromosomal problem that might affect fertility or have other medical impacts. This has nothing to do with an 'oppressed class'.


This is a reply to another post on here, that I think mistakenly got slotted at the root level.


> If the "simplistic" male/female binary explains >99% of observations, there does not seem to be a strong case for describing biological sex as a "spectrum"...

1% of the world population is nearly 70 million people. That is not a small population. One would hope that we might be more flexible in our descriptions considering how large of a population that is.


It's closish to 99.9% so 7 million. Which is a big enough population that we should consider how we draft our laws and policies but not nearly so large that "male" and "female" cease to be useful concepts for our everyday lives.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex#Population_figures


> not nearly so large that "male" and "female" cease to be useful concepts for our everyday lives.

Who says those are not useful? The point is to not make therm exclusive by forcing everybody to be identified by one of them when it's not a good fit.


The article is referencing "DND" or Disorders of Sex Development. This is a far larger group than what "intersex" covers.


Does that make a highly accurate approximation into a less accurate one?

At what point is it acceptable to say that something is an approximation, and should not expected to be precise and accurate in perfect detail?


> Does that make a highly accurate approximation into a less accurate one?

What we have right now is not an approximation, but a binary measurement. Turning sex into an approximation would be considered a significant step forward considering science tells us it is not binary.


As simon_ and Symmetry point out, that binary is in fact a pretty accurate approximation. So it seems we have both a binary measurement and an approximation in one. Perhaps we should consider that something can be both a binary measurement and a reasonably accurate approximation of a spectrum.

Regardless, my earlier question stands. At what point is it acceptable for an approximation to not be accurate in detail? What's the acceptable level of error in approximations?


> What's the acceptable level of error in approximations?

I'm fairly sure the lifes of those affected negatively by the error are outside the "acceptable level". We're talking about humans here, not mathematical rounding errors.


It seems your objection is not to approximations or the error inherent in them, but to what happens when people forget approximations are not reality. Is that correct?


The 'two-sexes approximation' is boolean, not binary. Boolean involves two possible values; binary involves an infinite number of possible values, represented in base-2.[1][2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boolean

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary


Not to be pedantic, but binary is entirely correct in this context. We aren't talking about computer science. Binary means relating to, composed of, or involving two things.

Boolean is simply a binary variable, having two possible values: true and false.


Yes, we should, because getting it wrong can ruin lives and even cause deaths.


When an approximation is confused for reality and policy formed, yes, the consequences can be very ugly. This must be avoided.

Does this mean approximations should not be used, or does it mean that one should be aware that the map is not the territory?


Can we agree that 70 million people is not a negligible number?


Depends on what you're dealing with and the significance of it. 70 million is not a significant number of atoms of most things, for instance.

The important question is the second one I posed. What is the acceptable level of error in an approximation?


> Depends on what you're dealing with

We're dealing with people.

> and the significance of it.

People are generally pretty significant. 70 million people is very significant.

> 70 million is not a significant number of atoms of most things, for instance.

70 million people is a pretty significant number of people.

> The important question is the second one I posed. What is the acceptable level of error in an approximation?

Since you seem to have mistaken my rhetorical question for an actual question, I'll restate it as a statement: 70 million people is not an acceptable level of error in an approximation.


OK. Then what is an acceptable level of error in approximation when dealing with people? 7 million, at a scale of billions? 7? 1?


I think an acceptable level of error in approximation in legal and scientific terms would be one where the error is not likely to affect people negatively according to shared values (a shared value might be: people shouldn't get beaten to death or commit suicide--both problems among atypically sexed people). That number is difficult to come up with: it would have to look at impact analysis to see whether programs can effectively help people. And as technology, social programs, and medicine become better, the margin of error would likely go down. I can't come up with that number exactly, but given that we've seen significant benefits from social programs for atypically sexed people in the last few decades, I think it's pretty clear that we can still provide more benefit.


In other words, your answer to the question is to say it's a problem when an approximation is confused for the reality and policy formed accordingly.

Is that a correct assessment of your position?


> Is that a correct assessment of your position?

That's a reasonable approximation, yes. :P


For comparison: Approximately 1.3% of black males are born with polydactylism.


Not really. There's 600 people in my office. The chance that all 600 match your approximation is about 0.2%.


I'm not sure what you're saying. If your model does not accurately reflect observations, your model is wrong. That's not to say it isn't useful - we still teach Newtonian mechanics, after all - but you wouldn't use it in any serious discussion of the topic.


You wouldn't use Newtonian mechanics in any serious discussion? This is a strange claim.


They probably meant 'serious discussion' as a proxy for 'discussion demanding the highest available accuracy.'

But that doesn't really work in this analogy because quantum physics essentially assumes Newtonian physics as axiomatic, so there is no way to avoid it no matter how 'serious' you're trying to be.


Why defend a "highly accurate" approximation that also happens to be oppressive to the people who fall outside of it? So far as I can see learning to incorporate more nuance into our social understanding is the way these oppressive institutions are overcome, and how more diverse groups learn to coexist. Defending approximations like this runs dangerously close to committing the "naturalistic fallacy" of taking the way things are as the way they ought to be.


A strong case can be made because the line is extremely blurry and there can be severe consequences for forcing a category on people that doesn't fit.

Sex and gender are shoved in people's faces practically every waking moment which means this "highly accurate approximation" breaks down billions of times a day with consequences ranging from discrimination and depression to sterilization and death.

How certain are you that you or some close doesn't fall outside the binary?


> highly accurate approximation

An approximation, by its nature, is simplistic compared to reality. That's what makes it an approximation.


> If the "simplistic" male/female binary explains >99% of observations, there does not seem to be a strong case for describing biological sex as a "spectrum"...

I'd suggest that it all comes down to how we're making those observations and what we're then doing with the classifications we've derived.

Why are we trying to describe the idea of biological sex? If it's for the sake of a scientific classification, then simplistic is a horrific idea. Biology by definition (in a modern world) is dealing with the small scale deviances and the nitty gritty. We're 99% rat, but the differences are somewhat remarkable.

We've been observing the wrong thing for thousands of years. Your assertion is almost correct; 99% of the time the _outcome_ of observation might be male or female, but it doesn't actually _explain_ anything. All it does is answer the question "does it have a penis"[1].

Which in 2015 has far less medical relevance than it did in centuries gone. "Well Mr. Smith, she is of the weaker species, this little touch of the vapours is to be expected, of course." is a diagnosis heard less and less. We're now increasingly diagnosing and categorizing conditions a genetic level, never-mind just what your second sex chromosome is. [2] From a technical point of view, it's already far more complicated than male/female. Simplifying science to that degree does it a disservice.

The big problem with binary though is the way it permeates through culture, language society and even thought.

Essentially, at birth, we clumsily label and categorise people based on their sex organs and worse, refuse to officially acknowledge the grey area. It's like asking someone with severe allergies if they want the shell fish or the peanuts. "Oh I'm sure they would both kill you, Sir[3], but you will be eating one for your entrée"

Put bluntly, I don't effing understand why everyone is so interested in what I have down my pants? You'd think it's entirely irrelevant except for some very specific circumstances, but instead we all have to publicly broadcast this binary allegiance all day every day. Everything. Pretty much every trivial form online makes me choose between "Mr", "Mrs", "Miss" or "Dr"[4] and usually as a mandatory field and yet you really don't need to know if I have a labia or not to be able to print my name and address and post me a parcel. It doesn't need to announce this on my bus pass or in nearly every english pronoun.

Through childhood I repeatedly went through conversations along the lines of "Which football team do you support?" I don't. I don't watch football. "That's fine, but which team do you support?"[5]. Not having an allegiance, even a lapsed one, is not an option.

By simplistically describing homosapien sex as binary it means anyone who doesn't conform is left out. It's not a legitimate option. Not viable, abnormal, mistakes, a freak of nature if you will. We're essentially saying that these people are inhuman and unnatural, which is obviously untrue.

The UK has allowed people to change their legal gender for over 10 years now[6], which legitimises the idea that external observation and internal state might not be linked. Simplifying that disparity to a binary state though, does a great disservice to the human condition. It seems odd that it's now legitimate not to identify as M||F but you've still got to identify as M||F.

"No", "Other" or "I don't know" should be a completely legitimate answer in response to sex or gender. It needs it's own category, it needs words to identify it and language to be able to describe it otherwise it's not a real thing, it's just anomalous.

And anyway, I'm disappointed; this is hacker news. Define it as either binary value or a boolean, but we should all be aware that as well as TRUE or FALSE, 0 or 1, variables can legitimately be undefined and it's something you have to be capable of handling.

apologies for the rambling answer.

--------------- [1] Admittedly a bit glib, but ignoring the last 120 years of science this is probably the most distinct observation we've been able to make of a live subject. Talking points might include testis and eunuchs, the ability to give birth and the difference between sex, gender and gender stereotyping... oh, and sea horses.

[2] http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/genetics/vgec/highereducati... vs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XY_sex-determination_system

[3] Penis

[4] which until rather too recently has basically meant "penis", "already owned by a penis", "has no rights, available to be owned (warranty void if introduced to thinking)" or "even more respected penis".

[5] Feel free to make your own analogies; I recommend some of the misunderstandings between religion and atheism or the futility of voting for a political party you don't like as starting points.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_Recognition_Act_2004


There is a spectrum of how many legs a human is born with. Some people are born with two, some with none, some one, some with three. Some people are born with between one and two legs that enable them to walk upright on the side of a slope. The idea of two legs is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. What I am getting at is, there is science and then there is the social context for a scientific fact. Some may be more useful than others in various contexts, but the pure scientific fact may not be useful at all, or actually confound your ability to understand things.


> the pure scientific fact may not be useful at all, or actually confound your ability to understand things.

That's true in the abstract (undeniably, some scientific fact is confounding -- I don't need to know about about quantum uncertainty to cook dinner) but I don't think it applies well to this issue.

This report may confound some people's understanding of sexuality, but to people who don't fit that conventional understanding, and to their loved ones, it does the opposite. Imagine a lifetime of being reminded that you don't belong -- every bathroom sign, do you attend the girls school or the boys, every form you fill out, every locker room experience, every medical procedure, etc etc. Addressing that seems much more important and fair than reducing the confusion that new ideas can bring.

This is the nature of change and progress: Humans naturally are very egocentric, and can be wholly unaware of others' experiences and perspectives. When the reality of those experiences is thrust upon us, we often object -- everything seems fine to us, after all, and our old theories explain our experiences.

Think of the responses to racial and gender discrimination, where many in the majority insist that it doesn't exist. After all, they haven't experienced it.


This is a fascinating article, and stands on its own merits. Go read it.

The point I'd like to make though is that sometimes we use science to justify intolerance, and time and again the science has caught up with what people have reported as their own life experience.


> time and again the science has caught up with what people have reported as their own life experience.

The problem is that most people's life experiences seemingly justify intolerance, in the sense that most people's experiences of most things are fairly typical. It's a serious epistemological problem with science, and is one of the major reasons why using science alone to create legislation is problematic.


We should not use science to justify intolerance of minority sexual identities. But we should also not use it to justify intolerance of people who express things in terms of the normal (in the statistical sense) gender distribution of male and female.

For example, this criticism of a woman expressing thoughts on her own experiences: http://jezebel.com/kirsten-dunst-thinks-ladies-in-relationsh...


>sometimes we use science to justify intolerance, and time and again the science has caught up with what people have reported as their own life experience.

Do you have any examples of this?


bennetfeely in a cousin post has a good Wikipedia link on it. At different times in history racism has been justified by religious and (then current) scientific thinking on biology and (possibly) evolution. It's been used to justify slavery and genocide or the general subjugation of nations of people.


> The point I'd like to make though is that sometimes we use science to justify intolerance

What? How can discovering the natural laws of the universe be a justification for intolerance?



I see that there is a history. But science, by its nature, is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes how the world is, not how it ought to be.

Pretend for a second that science discovered convincing/rigorous evidence that white people were less intelligent genetically than other races. That isn't justification for intolerance against white people. We get to choose our values as a society, independently of the reality of the world around us. Science is a poor justification for intolerance, no matter what arguments people may attempt to make.


People have used what they believe to be true from either actual scientific evidence or a particularly bizarre/inept interpretation of scientific evidence to justify their actions. Science is descriptive, but people turn it into a prescription for how to do or deal with X. Whatever X may be. People read the scientific report saying that a glass of red wine has some heart health benefits and they start drinking (or justifying the drinking they already did). That's at least a benign (assuming they don't go overboard on the drinking) example. At points in history, and those points are described in the linked article, people believed numerous things about the various "races". They based this on scientific or pseudo-scientific findings of the time, that often fit their pre-conceived notions. They used this to justify their prescribed solutions. Whether it was slavery, subjugation or genocide.

It is a poor justification for intolerance, and that's part of what the original poster was pointing out. But just because it's a poor justification doesn't mean it hasn't been done. People (as a collective) are not inherently rational or logical. They're easily led by the nose by charismatic speakers and those skilled in rhetoric. They want to believe they're special or that someone else is to blame and when someone presents something that helps them believe that they lap it up. It's happened throughout history, and it'll continue through the future. The best we can hope for is that our understanding of the universe and nature casts light on more things so those that would abuse it have fewer shadows to hide in.


> The best we can hope for is that our understanding of the universe and nature casts light on more things so those that would abuse it have fewer shadows to hide in.

I suppose. But the question still stands: what if there was rigorous evidence that one race was genetically more intelligent than another? We need to have an understanding that such data would in no way be justification for oppression or mistreatment. We get to choose our own values. That needs to be the message, IMO.


>Pretend for a second that science discovered convincing/rigorous evidence that white people were less intelligent genetically than other races. That isn't justification for intolerance against white people.

We would, however, expect white people to be underrepresented in positions that require high intelligence (medicine, STEM, politics, CEOs, etc) and understand that this underrepresentation would not be indicative of racial discrimination.


Yep, that is true. Good point.


Science is just a tool for gaining data. How you interpret this data is a totally different world.


The observation that a characteristic exists on a spectrum, and the observation that the vast majority of individuals fall on one of two extremes of that spectrum, are not mutually exclusive.

For the overwhelming majority of organisms, including Homo sapiens, all proposed indicators of sex (anatomy, hormones, cells, chromosomes) give the same answer. Reading the final two paragraphs of the paper, it's obvious that attempts to muddy this naturally clear water are being made for political, not scientific reasons.


Bingo. This is just another way to divide people and create pointless discussion about a non-issue so we can praise the "tolerant" and chastise those who see it for the agitprop it is.

FTFA: > So if the law requires that a person is [sic] male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash?

Easy, have laws not discriminate by gender. Isn't that the point? No need to discuss biology on and on to help some agenda.


Biologists now think that the idea of two sexes is simplistic? This was high school biology more than a decade ago.

Reality is never as neat as our models of it are. The question is what we do about it. This reads to me like a call to arms for handling the exceptional cases better. I could get behind that.

There's no need to throw out the male/female binary for most situations, though. Exceptions can be handled as exceptions, as long as you know they exist.

"[...] all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful." ~ George E. P. Box


The similar magnitudes of intra- and inter-sex differences are the best argument against sexism.

This seems more true for behaviour than it does for physiology, but findings like those in the article make it harder to draw even that distinction.


Some of the unusual situations mentioned are birth defects. About 3% of babies have birth defects.[1]

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/features/birthdefects...


So if you count out birth defects and dimorphisms that have no weight on "gender" you have an insignificant amount of variance.

Sounds to me like someone is reaching to make science match the way they feel about gender.


Ok, a practical question: for those of us required to get a value for "sex" into a database, what possible values would be appropriate to have?

// and yes, we have to ask as their a whole lot of laws and scholarships that reporting requires the number


IIRC, one database used by a large public-sector healthcare entity that I encountered used male, female, other, and unknown.

Of course, if you have external requirements to capture sex/gender, they probably also dictate the valid options. If you have multiple different external requirements, the options may be different for each and the correct value for the same individual may be different for different purposes. One value may not be sufficient.


If this is the case, then the headline and byline are clickbait oversimplifications in their own right.

If there are people in this world who wish to reject the concept of gender association with our biological reproductive systems, is there a need to provide additional classification, rules of governance, services, etc. other than "Denies classification"?

Otherwise, are we not chasing a long tail of specific situations in which everything can be deemed intolerant?


Even when I was a child (35 years ago) it was already common knowledge that hermaphrodites exist. So this is really not shocking news. It's interesting that they have new biological insights, but I'd say it's biologically interesting, not socially. Although it certainly seems wrong to operate babies to fix them on a gender - but I doubt there was ever a scientific rationale behind it.


Children born with ambiguous genitalia were often operated on to form one gender or the other. While this wasn't for a biological reason, the rationale was justified by social science. There are issues that arise from children not identifying with 99% of the population, and physicians and parents sought to avoid that. It turns out that it might be at least as problematic to choose "incorrectly" for your child.


One of the predicted outcomes of the Singularity is the removal of sex as a characteristic. Note that race would be removed as well. A posthuman (of whatever form) would be free of both sex and race.


Oh boy, I will maybe get flagkilled, but you are wrong: race, sex, clothing, and just about anything easily observable is used by humans to precondition the Bayesian probability of the outcome of any social interaction. I see no reason to expect that AI will be any different in this matter, perhaps only more efficient.


Your username intrigues me (in the context of a discussion about sex determination). Are you by any chance a monotreme?


I'm a cyborg platypus, nice catch. Just two chromosomes is not enough to express all the variations of an algorithmic gender. And by the way, we also sometimes have Z's (but that's considered a racial thing, so no asking).


It's hard to predict what beings more intelligent than us will do. Yes sex and race cease to become very valuable concepts when people can configure their bodies to be whatever they like in any mix at any time. But we can also consider that having machine-memory allows us to be very specific with the characteristics we want to advertise. e.g. from one of my favorite sci-fi books The Golden Age, the main character's full name is "Phaethon Prime Rhadamanth Humodified (augment) Uncomposed, Indepconsciousness, Base Neuroformed, Silver-Gray Manorial Schola, Era 7043". We won't lose labels, and objective superiority in certain areas won't go away. (A singular human-sized machine can't hope to compete intellectually with a Jupiter Brain. A machine made of bark will be physically weaker than a machine made of diamond.) But the negative associations could go away, which would largely end racism/sexism, the thing we really care about.


The Golden Age...thanks! Bought on Kindle.


That would only happen if you removed human bodies altogether.


And for that matter, bodiless posthumans could still chose to exhibit whichever characteristics they please. I'd wager that most people on second life, given the freedom to portray themselves however they wish, choose to portray themselves as humanoid with apparent gender.


Or free to choose.


Then it's no longer race or gender--it's something else. Not that we'll be using anything like English or Spanish then.


Redefining sex because of chimaerism? What is this, Nature Gender Studies?


The 'two-sexes approximation' is boolean, not binary. Boolean involves two possible values; binary involves an infinite number of possible values, represented in base-2.[1][2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boolean

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary

note: this is a re-post of a comment made on a child of the OP.


You are contradicted by the very Wikipedia article you posted: "Binary means composed of two pieces or two parts" You look it up in any dictionary and a similar definition will be given, which in the context of the article is a completely correct usage. Binary as a word predates computer science by quite a bit ...


No we are talking about binary.

In the very link you provided: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_binary


if we are considering wiki* sources legitimate, then let's visit the wiktionary page for "binary" that the Wikipedia page for "Binary" links to: [1]. The first definition is:

    Being in a state of one of two mutually exclusive conditions such as on or off, true or false, molten or frozen, presence or absence of a signal
So, the "two-sexes approximation" is binary :)

1: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/binary




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