The issue of transgender rights has come to the fore quite prominently in recent times, in part no doubt due to the clampdown on such rights by the Trump administration. Bans on serving in the military and a plethora of bathroom bills across the US have ensured a fiery reaction. It is unsurprising then that the number of articles and editorials on the nature of trans has increased in scientific publications, such as Nature and Scientific American. These articles have posited scientific evidence and facts that are likely to be well received by the transgender community. However, in a recent Quillette article, Colin Wright counters with an accusation that this movement could be dubbed ‘The New Evolution Deniers’. His analysis is explored here, where the question as to whether these articles claimed that biological sex should be considered a spectrum is scrutinised. This question is important because clarity is needed as to whether a trend exists, in these scientific publications, in moving away from a binary definition of biological sex.

Skeleton Digital Anatomy
Photo by Max Pixel under the CC Zero license.

It is worth noting at the outset that the treatment of the discussion here neither seeks to take a position on how biological sex should be defined, nor is it intended to be in any way hostile to Wright nor the articles he references. It is instead an attempt to look for objective facts that can form the basis of further discussions. It does seek to (unemotionally) unpick conflations to provide clarity on the fundamental issues. Finally, it is written in good faith with the intention of furthering the discussion rather than fuelling flames. Hopefully, that comes across or else it is a failure in the writing of this article itself.

Wright’s central concern is in what he sees as ‘social justice activists attempt to jump the epistemological shark by claiming that the very notion of biological sex […] is a social construct.’ He stakes out his own position as acknowledging ‘the existence of very rare cases in humans where sex is ambiguous’ but states that ‘this does not negate the reality that sex in humans is functionally binary.’ [1]

Wright takes issue with the journal Nature, which in his view, “published an editorial claiming that classifying people’s sex ‘on the basis of anatomy or genetics should be abandoned’”. [2] However, if one takes the fuller literal quote from the Nature article (which so happens to be its title and subtitle), the context sheds new light:

US proposal for defining gender has no basis in science.
A move to classify people on the basis of anatomy or genetics should be abandoned. [3]

We see that the subject is actually gender not sex, something that is non-obvious from how the quote was referenced in the Quillette article.

In a second extract from Nature, Wright finds the phrase ‘the research and medical community now sees sex as more complex than male and female’ as contrary to his position. [4] However, this quote does not indicate that Nature is calling for a non-binary definition of biological sex. The only thing clearly posited is that there is an underlying complexity that the scientific community, as well as the population at large, was unaware of.

In a third quotation of the Nature article, Wright examines the article’s motives, claiming that they are to counter the opinion that:

acknowledging the reality of biological sex will ‘undermine efforts to reduce discrimination against transgender people and those who do not fall into the binary categories of male or female.’ [5]

However, the phrase ‘who do not fall into the binary categories of male or female’ never claims to relate to biological sex in the Nature article. [6] It can be granted that the paragraph preceding it (in Nature) did refer to ‘the sex on a birth certificate’ as part of discussing the Department of Health and Human Services memo. [7] However, that is a separate paragraph and it is far more likely that the ‘male or female’ in the discrimination quote is referring to gender when talking about ‘binary categories’. [8]

It would appear that the Nature article has been carefully written to keep terminology such as sex and gender as distinct and appropriately utilised in all cases. And that the Quilette article is confused in its interpretation of it.

Moving onto the first of the Scientific American articles, Wright’s response is less susceptible to correction as the title and subtitle illustrate:

 Sex Redefined: The Idea of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic
 Biologists now think there is a larger spectrum than just binary female and male [9]

However, the main body of the article does not bear that out. The parts of it that come closest to doing so never cross the gender/sex line. For example, Ainsworth notes that ‘studies of DSDs have shown that sex is no simple dichotomy.’ [10] Initially, that may sound like a reaction to the idea of binary biological sex. However, a more nuanced reading shows that it:

a. Conveys the general spirit of the difficulty, in some cases, of assigning a biological sex (which is relatively uncontroversial) and

b. In no way rules out the possibility of biological sex as a dichotomy. It very much allows, and is compatible with, a hypothetical statement such as ‘Studies of DSDs have shown that sex is a complex dichotomy.’

The article comes closer to the topic of social constructs where Ainsworth writes, ‘when it comes to sex, there is still intense social pressure to conform to the binary model.’ [11] Again, at first glance this can seem like an attack on the binary biological sex model. However, the sentence that follows it, “This pressure has meant that people born with clear DSDs often undergo surgery to ‘normalize’ their genitals […] usually performed on babies, who are too young to consent, and risks assigning a sex at odds with the child’s ultimate gender identity”. [12] Again, it is clear that there is no call to redefine biological sex as a spectrum here, simply that ‘doctors and parents should at least wait until a child is old enough to communicate their gender identity’. [13]

Even the article’s closing quote by (an oft-referenced source in the article) Eric Vilain, ‘at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter’, revolves around gender, not biological sex. [14]

The only line where the article directly considers biological sex as a spectrum is:

Yet if biologists continue to show that sex is a spectrum, then society and state
will have to grapple with the consequences, and work out where and how to draw the line. [15]

Even in this case, Ainsworth appears to be alluding to the fact that the evidence presented is insufficient to make a strong claim of biological sex being a spectrum. Perhaps, the biggest source of confusion is between the article title/subtitle and its content. If one was to conclude that this epistemologically detracts from the article then it is unfortunate for the contents of the article itself, which outline an array of interesting science. Though Wright would seem to have some justification to cite this article as being in opposition to his point of view.

In the final article Wright references, again from Scientific American, entitled ‘Visualizing Sex as a Spectrum’ the author, Amanda Montañez, is unambiguous:

DSDs […] represent a robust, evidence-based argument to reject rigid assignations of sex and gender. [16]

In this case, it is clear that the article is worthy of being positioned as contrary to Wright’s definition of biological sex.

In summary, it would seem, ironically, that we have arrived at a spectrum of sorts; as we move from the Nature article to the latter of the Scientific American articles, we go from a place where no non-binary definitions of biological sex are being proposed towards one where there is.

Whilst this commentary takes no position on the definition of biological sex, there appears to be one point of agreement that can be universally stated. Whatever about a consensus view on the ‘spectrum of outcomes’, of observable and testable data points to objectively define biological sex 100% of the time, it is certain that the ‘spectrum of influences’, the genetic development and hormonal interactions, is much more complex than ever imagined. Perhaps this can form the basis of a productive discussion going forward - one that caters to the reality of each individual’s circumstances, while at the same time catering to the objective necessity of science. To channel Aristotle, we need to honour truth above our genitals.


  1.  Colin Wright, “The New Evolution Deniers - Quillette”, Quillette, 2018 [Accessed 1 December 2018].
  2. Wright, “The New Evolution Deniers”.
  3. US Proposal For Defining Gender Has No Basis In Science”, Nature, 563.7729 (2018), 5-5.
  4.  ”US Proposal For Defining Gender Has No Basis In Science”.
  5.  Wright, “The New Evolution Deniers”.
  6.  ”US Proposal For Defining Gender Has No Basis In Science”.
  7.  ”US Proposal For Defining Gender Has No Basis In Science”.
  8.  ”US Proposal For Defining Gender Has No Basis In Science”.
  9. Claire Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined: The Idea Of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic”, Scientific American, 2018 [Accessed 1 December 2018].
  10.  Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined”.
  11.  Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined”.
  12. Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined”.
  13.  Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined”.
  14.  Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined”.
  15.  Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined”.
  16.  Amanda Montañez, “Visualizing Sex As A Spectrum”, Scientific American Blog Network, 2018 [Accessed 3 December 2018].