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TERF Wars 3: Undoing Biologies

Updated: Jul 2, 2020




A BIT OF BACKGROUND

Of all the arguments maintained by TERFs, perhaps the most commonly used is the one that supports biological essentialism. It is also all the more interesting to me for reasons I will explain.

The outline of the biological essentialism is simple. There are two sexes, no more, no less. Even if a trans woman undergoes sex reassignment surgery, that person will not truly be a woman because her chromosomes and other biological markers cannot be completely modified. While the different ways in which we express our individuality may be switched from one gender to another because they are a social construct (blue for boys and pink for girls), the category of sex is biologically defined by our sexual organs, reproductive systems and hormonal levels. That seems to be an objective enough statement. But, is it?

Back in my university years, I remember a pivotal moment in one of the classes. We were in the midst of a heated argument. I don’t remember what was the topic, but I do remember that the most popular argument was “because science says so”. When something was said by science it seemed to win every argument, not leaving room for refutals. My classmates used it knowing that it was the point where the debate went to die. Because if science says so, it must be true. But something wasn’t right for me.

When I disagree with a theory, it starts with a hunch. I do not know why something doesn’t look right for me, it just doesn’t, so I shut up, listen and wait. It takes me an awful lot of time to come up with an opinion regarding any topic, but by the time I do my opinion has been carefully considered. I’m always scared that hunches may be prejudices. It so happens that sometimes, the hunch is right and eventually, I acquire the tools to back it up. My other philosopher friends used to call the hunches the“philosophical sense of smell” when you are onto something and can get past the bullshit. I never fully trusted my philosophical smell, but I am here today writing about what I think I saw in the fog and that I ended up including in my dissertation. Mr Wonderful mugs got nothing on me.

So I was in class, hearing that “because science says so” and then I dared to say this: “Aren’t we putting all our faith in science?” and hell broke loose. My classmates were pulling their hair out, throwing chairs at me and wanting to burn me at the stake. Well, maybe it was not that bad, but my comment wasn’t very well received. I get it, not even I knew exactly what I meant, it was just a hunch and I back then I had not the necessary tools to articulate that thought. Still, I feel grateful to have studied in such a place that I could throw a crazy idea to my classmates, get into a heated argument and then go get beers as if nothing happened. I think we all need more of that in our lives.

For some reason, that idea got stuck in my mind and I kept coming back to it, still powerless to articulate it. Last year, I did some eye-opener research and finally, I can put down in writing my – still – work in progress.

DODGY STATISTICS

My idea was that, even though the data extracted from scientific research can be objective, the narratives constructed upon that data are human, and the way to use – and misuse – that data might not be objective. Statistics can be tweaked omitting certain data from the picture. A recent example of that is a TikTok of a teenager arguing with her mother about police shootings concerning the assassination of George Floyd.


The mother claims that in 2017 in the U.S. more white people were shot by the police, meaning to say that there is no bias against black people. The daughter responds that 76% of the population is white and only 13% is black, so if both groups were shot at the same rate the number of black people murdered should be lower. All data considered, blacks are killed at a higher rate and whites, as usual, have the upper hand.

If it is that easy to misinterpret data to say that there is no racism in North America as this mother did, I wonder, what else are we getting wrong. You might think “well, is not the same, misused statistics is not the same as scientific findings”. Well, that’s true, statistics are like a picture. Take a close-up and you’ll miss the background. Technically, if we consider all data, statements like that TikTok mother would not cut it.

But even if we have all the pertinent information. Some data is objective and undeniable, like counting how many police killings there are in a given year and place. If those numbers have been registered and counted right, I’m not here to say that they are incorrect. But those numbers are a tool from which we draw conclusions, and oh boy! That process is purely human, and as human, is fallible. I do not mean to say with this that statistics of sciences are false and we should all become hermits and live in a cave (although that might help with climate change). I’m just saying that the humane part of the science-making process is often overlooked, assuming that whatever we infer from scientific data will be our truest truth and completely objective. However, at the end of the day, we are only human and one needs only to open a history book to see how humans are.

READING DARWIN AGAINST THE GRAIN

The preferred transphobic argument is that even when people alter their appearance and body, they can’t change sex. According to TERFs, sex cannot be changed or fluid, it is biologically binary, because that is what science tells us. What I propose here is to favour alternative readings of biology.

Evolution, as it is studied, is a zero-sum game. An example of that is poker: When a player has a good hand because he takes all the good cards, there are less good cards in the deck for the other players. When somebody cuts a piece of cake, the bigger the piece the less that is left for the others. In a zero-sum game, the size of the cake and the value of the cards in the deck are already established. Therefore, evolution seen as a zero-sum game is based in imposition, not collaboration. A species flourishes because of its adaptability and use of the resources and with that power, it takes a bigger piece of café. Zero-sum games have always winners and losers.

From Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and its synthesis, the units (genes, cells, organism, species, ecosystems) are described in competition against each other. Darwinism is about adaptation to the environment: Within a population group there are mutations, and if those mutations improve adaptability and competitivity of the species in its environment, the mutation is adopted and is incorporated to the biological configuration of that species.

Natural selection is fighting for survival, and evolution is a history of that fight. But the modern synthesis of Darwinism seems to be lacking when confronted with symbiosis, that is, the collaboration between species. Darwinism is prepared to explain the species domination but it struggles when if has to explain the collaborative behaviours and coexistence. (More of these in Van Dooren and Despret in references).

In the last years, alternative biologies started to be taken into consideration. The rate at which we are destroying the planet got the academics thinking that perhaps we have the wrong perspective, and thinking life in terms of domination might not be beneficial for everyone.

BEE ORCHIDS

So, what do alternative biologies look like? Here I must enlist the help of Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers and their eye-opener article “Involutionary Momentum”, alongside with Donna Haraway, who is always a step ahead of anybody else.

The topic is orchids. Fun fact: orchid flowers resemble the female sexual organs of the bees that pollinate them. Male bees approach the orchid drawn to the shape, colour and feromones of these flowers. Neo-Darwinism reads this phenomenon as deception. A plant wishes to reproduce and, being rooted to the ground, they need insects to transport their pollen grains. In the case of orchids, the resemblance to a female bee is a trick, a biological fraud in which the plant exploits the insect. The orchid cheats and get what she wants (zero-sum game).

And here is the most delicate part that Haraway conveys so beautifully. Using an alternative reading towards biology; such as Hustak and Myers’ opens a whole new set of doors to the way we see science:

“The stories of mutation, adaptation, and natural selection are not silenced; but they are not turned up so loud as to deafen scientists (…) when increasingly something more complex is audible in research across fields. ‘This requires reading with our senses attuned to stories told in otherwise muted registers.’” (Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, p. 69)

What Haraway says is that alternative readings do not erase our data or negate what we already know but they are willing to listen to other voices, they are kinder towards new possibilities and they are not rigidly closing the doors to diversity. Stories such as the battle for survival is not eliminated, but open-mindedness will allow us to see how plants and insects live intertwined. Instead of utilitarism and adaptation, improvisation and collaboration.

Perhaps this is too complex or abstract, but an example of the mindset that I’m talking about is xkcd’s cartoon “Bee Orchid”:



CONCLUSION

The cartoon makes me think that when we consider the world’s history not from the perspective of us as the dominant species but in terms of affects, inter-species relationships and coexistence, history changes completely. With the same data, we have painted a different picture. Since I learned about the orchids I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was certain that the orchid example was not only applicable to plants, or biology. I knew new ways of looking at the world were at the turn of every corner, provided that the human gaze becomes more open and less orthodox.

And on that note, why not apply that to the sex topic. When TERFs say that there are two sexes, I think that although the biological characteristics of the sexes are there, they are no louder than alternative forms of sexualities, identities and coexistence. These forms are configuring right here, right now, and every day there is something new to learn. Instead of being deaf, we should listen.

Binary sex is the main reading, the Darwinist story where reproduction and the necessity of maintaining the species is the only goal. Let’s listen to other stories now. If we can see the orchid for something more than her deception, we can also look at sex as more than its mere reproductive function. If not, we are once again looking at a close-up and missing out the background.

To claim that there are two sexes and link an article on human anatomy as TERFs often do is not gonna be denied. But I just want to say that after the orchids, after Hustak and Myers, and after Haraway, I am not deaf anymore.



BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hachadourian, Marc and Groskin, Luke “Orchids: Masters of Deception” Science Friday, April 15, 2016. https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/orchids-masters-of-deception/

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2016.

Hustak, Carla and Myers, Natasha. "Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters." Differences 23, no. 3 (2012): 74-118.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996. (1962)

Van Dooren, Tom and Vinciane Despret “Evolution: Lessons from Some Cooperative Ravens” In The Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies, edited by Lynn Turner, Ron Broglio, and Undine Sellbach.

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