Evolutionary biologist and Manhattan Institute fellow Colin Wright joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the male–female distinction and regulating gender medicine. 

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Colin Wright. He's an evolutionary biologist and a Manhattan Institute fellow. He's the founding editor of Reality's Last Stand on Substack and an academic advisor for the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine. And his work has been featured in a number of major outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Quillette, and he's also written for City Journal. He writes extensively about gender identity and the biology of sex. And today, we're going to discuss some of his recent work for CJ. So Colin, thanks very much for joining us.

Colin Wright: Thank you a lot. I appreciate being here.

Brian Anderson: So academics, activists have attacked the sex binary, something that you've written about for us, which is the division of humans into the biological categories of male and female.

Now, the gender theorists, the gender activists point to intersex conditions, which cause people to have ambiguous sexual anatomy, as proof that the sex binary is fictitious. They argue that intersex people prove that biological sex is actually a spectrum or exists on a spectrum and that the categories of male and female are a social construct, made up. So therefore, sorting people into two categories, male and female, is on their view harmful and inaccurate.

So let's start by just unpacking their reasoning. What do you think of it? And does the sex binary require that every person be unambiguously male or female?

Colin Wright: That's a great question that gets right to the fundamental aspect of everything, basically. I find that there's a lot of confusion on both sides of this debate about what the sex binary means.

You have people who are arguing for the reality of biological sex and empirical truth. And sometimes, they come across as saying that the sex binary means that every single individual today and in all of history can be unambiguously classified as either male or female.

And then you have, on the other side, these gender activists, who are trying to say that biological sex is a spectrum and that the binary necessarily entails that every single individual is classifiable. So therefore, if they can point to one single individual who is a stumper, then that means that sex is no longer binary, it exists on a spectrum. They take this small blur in the middle, and they try to extrapolate that to the entire picture.

Now, what I'm trying to convey to people in a lot of my City Journal pieces and other writings is that when biologists talk about the sex binary, they're actually saying something very simple. They're just saying that there are only two sexes that a person, or mammal, or a bird can be. It makes no statement about individual bodies, really, saying that everyone can be completely unambiguously classified as either male or female. I personally think that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people can clearly.

But the important thing to note here is that if someone were to present with a very complex case of primary sexual anatomy that seem to stump a lot of people, this ambiguity would just be sex ambiguity. It wouldn't be a third sex category. And this is because when we talk about the sex binary, the two sexes are rooted in the type of gamete that they're reproductive systems are organized around or produce. So males, they have the function of producing small gametes, which are sperm; females, large gametes, which are ova.

Because there's only two types of gametes that exist, there's no intermediate, there really can only be two sexes. A human that would be sexually ambiguous would just be a sexually ambiguous person. Similarly, in nature, we see examples of individuals that are what are called simultaneous hermaphrodites, where they're both male and female at the same time, existing in a single body. But again, this is not a new third sex. This just affirms the sex binary, because they're both sexes. So when we use the term, "You're one, not the other, you're both, or you're neither," all of these entail the binary nature of biological sex. So I hope that's clarifying.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, I think it is. How does this intersex question intersect with the transgenderism debate that the nation is in the midst of right now?

Colin Wright: It really shouldn't be. And that's something I tried to say in my most recent piece for City Journal. I call this the “intersex trap,” and it's the tendency of a lot of arguments that gender activists are making to try to steer all these arguments about transgenderism into the weeds, into complex discussions about various intersex conditions.

Take males in female sports, for instance. You have someone like Lia Thomas, who's unambiguously male, is fully intact, is male in every sense of the word of what a male is. Now, you get a lot of people who would try to say that Lia Thomas should be able to compete as a female, and then they would point to other athletes like Caster Semenya, who has an intersex condition, and they'll point to all these other intersex conditions, these intersex athletes.

It's a red herring. They're trying to distract you away from making the easy calls on Lia Thomas, saying that Lia Thomas is unambiguously male, by just bringing up someone like Caster Semenya, getting you to mumble and stumble your way through making assessments on really complex case studies of intersex conditions.

And what I try to say is that this should be completely irrelevant. We don't need to talk about intersex conditions when we're talking about trans issues. That's only done because it makes you stumble and seem stupid if you're in a debate or something. So the correct thing we should do is completely separate the intersex question from the transgender question and don't let these things be muddled together, because there really couldn't be more distinct topics.

Brian Anderson: Onto the transgenderism issue, unlike in European countries, or at least a number of European countries, where you're seeing a more cautious approach taken to gender medicine, especially as it is pertaining to children, the American medical establishment has embraced an incredibly aggressive treatment regimen, prioritizing puberty blockers, cross-sex hormone therapy, gender transition surgeries over a psychotherapeutic approach and other less invasive treatments.

So given the consequences and controversial nature of these practices, many states, as we're seeing, have sought to curb them through policy. So I think gender medicine does need regulation. But as you've written, the good intentions of some of these states might not guarantee good results, and poorly crafted legislation could be counterproductive.

So I wonder, what is your sense of the state of play on that? What makes a good state bill regulating gender medicine from a potentially disastrous one? And what is making the bad ones unsound?

Colin Wright: Yeah. This ultimately comes down to trying to make any policy less about politics and more about the science. Florida did a really good job about this, because they involved the Florida Medical Board or Medical Association. I can't remember the exact name. And so this wasn't seen as an overtly political act. They had the authority of the state medical board behind these decisions.

They conducted a review of the evidence, a systematic review of all the evidence to find that the state of the evidence on the efficacy of gender-affirming care, really the costs seem to outweigh the benefits. This is similar to what all the European countries are now starting to do. And importantly, every single country that has performed this systematic review of the evidence has found the evidence completely lacking in terms of actual benefits to individuals who are receiving gender-affirming care, long-term outcomes, et cetera. And there's plenty of room for caution.

A lot of states, we understand that given the state of evidence, we don't have a lot of medical boards that are coming on board to this. A lot of them have seemingly been ideologically captured by this. And so rightfully, a lot of people are going to their states to try to push this through legislatively. I'm for these moves, because there needs to be some sort of stop gap. But ultimately, I think these need to try their best to use the state medical boards, try to get them to do systematic reviews of the evidence.

But there's also ways that the states can go overboard with some of their policies. Some, I believe it was Texas, they put wording in their legislation that would allow children to sue their parents if the parents allowed them to go through with gender-affirming medicine that they came to regret. Now, this has been pointed out by some people that this could actually be a double-edged sword, and this could cause kids to be able to potentially sue their parents for not gender-affirming their children as well.

Other states, Utah, I believe they had something in their bill that would ban gender-affirming care well past the age of 18. I think it was up to 25. And this undermines the argument that this is really all about children and that consenting adults who are able to understand the state of the evidence and really what they're getting into are able to do what they like.

So I think that we need to focus really on the pediatric gender medicine, because really, honestly, kids sometimes are getting these interventions as early as nine years old in terms of puberty blockers, and then the surgeries can be as young as 12, 13 when they begin. So we need to focus really on the pediatric side of things. And then we also need to make sure that it's, to the best of its ability, grounded in evidence and trying to get states to work with their medical boards to do these systematic reviews of the evidence.

Brian Anderson: Issues of gender medicine and transgenderism have ascended really with unbelievable rapidity to the forefront of American policy and culture. So policymakers, commentators, parents, they're all being asked to make and act on judgment calls involving what are, as you've just suggested, complex medical questions.

As an evolutionary biologist, you're bringing, I think, very valuable scientific insight to this debate, as you've done in your pieces for us and on the Substack. How did you begin to focus, and this is really a personal question, on the gender identity debate and the biology of sex, and what drew you into the public debate? And second, relatedly, how does your training as a scientist inform your understanding of these issues?

Colin Wright: So I could not have imagined that this is what I would be doing full-time now. My work as an academic was investigating the collective personalities of insect and arachnid societies, so vastly different from what I'm doing now.

I had always been very interested in debunking pseudoscience. I had a blog before my Substack, so I had a blog in the late 2000s, early 2010s that was dedicated to debunking a lot of what was at the time this anti-evolution sentiment, intelligent design and creationism. And so I, as a hobby, would write essays debunking some of these things to stand up for biological reality.

And then when I was in grad school, I did less of that, because I was focused just on getting my Ph.D and graduating. And then I saw these narratives bubbling up about biological sex. And people were saying that there's five sexes, because they read something that Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote in the New York Times. There were articles coming out in Nature that talked about how biologists think that male and female is overly simplistic and that there's a spectrum. And this was followed by Scientific American, a very popular article about the sex spectrum, with this really big diagram of the spectrum.

And I just knew, given my training as a behavioral ecologist at the time, because we know that sex differences are some of the biggest behavioral differences out there. And so we study a lot about the fundamental aspect of what it means for individuals to be male or female across the entire animal kingdom. And I just knew that they were making a very simple mistake about what it means to be male or female.

And so initially, my articles were really focused on just, "I'm just going to make this scientific argument, because that's what scientists do. And then my colleagues are going to then neither agree or disagree. And if they disagree, they're going to make calm, scientific arguments in response."

And what I found was that, unlike any on other topic, that was not the case. The responses I got were not dealing with any of the scientific arguments. It was just straight to, "You're a bigoted transphobe. You're oppressing people. This is outdated." They would even throw in things like white supremacist, all that type of stuff.

And so I really just couldn't stop focusing on that, because my reason for being a scientist was I thought the halls of academia is where you're supposed to be able to ask deep, important questions and debate anything using logic and reason and evidence. And I realized that that was no longer the case.

Long story short, there was a big cancellation campaign around me that eventually drove me away from academia to work full time in this space where I can't be canceled anymore. My Substack is helping me do that.

And I think that I'm really glad I'm able to bring my expertise as a biologist to this topic. I do miss studying insects and spiders to some degree, but I think this is just a much more important topic. It's a fascinating topic. It's culturally relevant. It ticks all the boxes for something that I can be very interested in and write about. And I hope, I suppose, that I'm doing a good job of educating the masses to give them a better grasp on what this biological sex is, and how to see what the activists are saying, and how to deconstruct it, and how to respond effectively.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Colin. Don't forget to check out Colin Wright's work on the City Journal website. That's at www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page in the description, and you can also find him on Twitter, @SwipeWright, W-R-I-G-H-T. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram at CityJournal_MI.

And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Colin Wright, thanks very much for coming on, and looking forward to a lot more writing coming from you.

Colin Wright: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

More from 10 Blocks