Discover more from Reality’s Last Stand
The Gender Revolution Comes for Biology Textbooks
A leading biology textbook has been slowly incorporating gender pseudoscience over the last decade.
About the Author
Alex Byrne is a Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. His main interests are philosophy of mind (especially perception), metaphysics (especially color) and epistemology (especially self-knowledge). A few years ago, Byrne started working on philosophical issues relating to sex and gender. He recently finished a book on these topics, Trouble with Gender: Sex Facts, Gender Fictions, which will be out in the UK in October of 2023 (later in the US).
Biology textbooks have sometimes been a political target. In Texas, creationists have periodically attempted to remove or amend textbooks that present Darwin’s theory of evolution as fact. This movement has unfolded in the public eye, subject to scrutiny and debate. Perhaps for that reason the creationists have been routed. But there is a more insidious form of influence on textbooks, whereby fashionable nonsense (to borrow the title of a book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont) seeps into the content by a kind of cultural osmosis. It’s hard to stop in advance and, once it’s there, even harder to remove.
This essay is a case study of this phenomenon. Consider Campbell Biology, an introductory college-level textbook that comes highly recommended for AP Biology and is cited as “an important book for postgraduate medical examinations.” Now in its 12th edition, the lead author reports that since its first edition in 1987, the book has been used by “12 million students” and is considered “the gold standard for accuracy.” The superb illustrations draw the reader in. It is published by the mighty Pearson Education, whose textbooks have been targeted by Texas creationists.
You may recall the “transgender tipping point,” the title of an iconic 2014 Time magazine cover story featuring the actress Laverne Cox. This was when the prevailing winds of sex and gender started to blow much harder, and when our story begins. The 2014 10th edition of Campbell Biology bears no sign of the gathering storm.
A straightforward section called “The Chromosomal Basis of Sex” opens:
Although the anatomical and physiological differences between women and men are numerous, the chromosomal basis for determining sex is rather simple.
The 2014 edition does not mention transgender people, or people with so-called “intersex” conditions. However, both topics are included in the following two editions, published in 2016 and 2020. Let’s start with intersex conditions.
The opening of “The Chromosomal Basis of Sex” in the 2016 11th edition strikes a very different note:
Although sex has traditionally been described as a pair of binary categories, we are coming to understand that sex classifications may be less distinct.
This teasingly hints that biologists have recently discovered that sex is on some sort of “spectrum.” The section concludes with a new paragraph mentioning that “some individuals are born with intermediate sexual (‘intersex’) characteristics.” Here one might quibble with the misleading “intersex” terminology, and a couple more sentences describing some examples would have been helpful, but this is fair enough.
The 2020 12th edition moves much closer to contemporary shibboleths about sex and gender. The first sentence of “The Chromosomal Basis of Sex” now questions the male/female binary classification of sex more assertively:
Although sex has traditionally been described as binary—male or female—we are coming to understand that this classification may be too simplistic.
A short section called “Biological Sex, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation in Human Sexuality” has also been added. Despite the fact that the book sexes many animals (“female butterflies,” “male frogs,” etc.), the new section suggests that sexing humans is more fraught:
A newborn baby is assigned a “biological sex” that typically reflects the genitals present at birth and the child’s chromosomes.
The quotation marks around “biological sex” indicate that the phrase is not completely kosher.
More details about intersex conditions are given:
Although most individuals are born male or female, roughly one in 100 is intersex, having both male and female biological characteristics. For example, intersex individuals may have a nonstandard chromosome set (such as XXY) or may differ in the hormone-directed pathways that control sexual development.
Both sentences have major problems. The first sentence implies that around 1 percent of babies are not “born male or female,” either because they are neither male nor female, or because they are both sexes at once. A 1 percent figure for DSDs (disorders of sex development) is too high. On the most expansive definition, the incidence is 1:200 to 1:300. Much more importantly, the vast majority of individuals with DSDs clearly fall within the sex binary. The second sentence is a case in point, as 47,XXY or Klinefelter syndrome (incidence 1:500 to 1:1000) only affects males. In fact, this is explicit in another chapter of the book: “Consider, for example, Klinefelter syndrome, in which males have an extra X chromosome.”
Turning to transgender issues, the 2016 edition says that some people are born “with anatomical features that do not match an individual’s sense of their own gender (‘transgender’ individuals). Sex determination is an active area of research that should yield a more sophisticated understanding in years to come.”
This makes it sound as if these “transgender individuals” are born with anomalous “anatomical features,” instead of being (as they almost invariably are) anatomically and physiologically completely normal. And why do the authors suggest that biological research into sex determination may help with understanding gender dysphoria? It won’t: the process of sex development has (almost always) not gone awry in transgender individuals. To think otherwise is to wrongly conflate having a DSD with being transgender.
The 2020 edition’s new section, “Biological Sex, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation in Human Sexuality,” says this about gender identity:
Although often confused with assigned sex, gender identity is distinct and refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination, or neither. The term cisgender describes a person having a gender identity in line with their assigned sex. In contrast, a transgender person experiences a mismatch between their gender identity and their assigned sex. Thus, for example, an individual may have an assigned sex of female, but a male gender identity.
This is not relevant to introductory biology. In any event, the passage hews to the orthodox activist position as if it were settled science. On this familiar view, everyone has a gender identity, which in the cisgender majority is aligned with a person’s “assigned sex”; when it is misaligned, a person may be distressed, “experiencing a mismatch.” In using “assigned sex” Campbell Biology in effect follows the 2017 recommendation of a group involved in transgender health care: “Authors should not use biological sex or natal sex…The term actual sex…should be avoided.”
Sexual orientation is new to the 2020 edition. At least that goes together with biology! As Campbell Biology states elsewhere, “mating behavior and mate choice play a major role in determining reproductive success.” But the remarks on sexual orientation are a little disappointing:
Whereas gender identity is about a person’s self, sexual orientation identifies the gender of people to whom an individual is attracted romantically, emotionally, and sexually. Members of a human population may have a sexual orientation that is heterosexual (straight), homosexual (lesbian or gay), bisexual, or asexual. As these descriptions make clear, human sexuality varies considerably.
No doubt I am out of touch with the youth of today, but I imagine that the existence of lesbians and gay men would not be news to most college freshmen. And notice that the textbook adopts the standard activist line that asexuality is a sexual orientation. It may be, but this is a point of ongoing debate. And does “gender” in this passage mean “sex”? The book’s earlier section, “The Chromosomal Basis of Sex,” suggests that it does not:
The term gender, previously used as a synonym of sex, is now more often used to refer to an individual’s own experience of identifying as male, female, or otherwise.
Using this understanding of “gender,” so-called sexual orientation, which the authors define as “the gender of people to whom an individual is attracted,” is attraction to gender identity rather than sex.
It would be enlightening for a biology textbook to include material about homosexual behavior across the animal kingdom or the evolutionary puzzle of exclusive male homosexuality (documented only in humans and domestic sheep). But if “same-sex attraction” is really attraction to the same gender identity, or if terms such as “biological sex” and “actual sex” are deemed inappropriate and “should be avoided,” no wonder these topics were passed over.
The 12th edition echoes many well-known activist claims in a few paragraphs. Sex is presented as “assigned” and more complicated than previously thought, with this (somehow) being relevant to transsexuality. Everyone is said to have a gender identity. Large numbers of “intersex” people supposedly lie outside the female/male sex binary. Same-sex attraction is construed as attraction to the same gender identity.
A few pages of alterations in a 1500-page textbook do not portend the collapse of civilization and the problem should not be exaggerated. Biology textbooks are not being rewritten wholesale and biologists are not being imprisoned, as they were in the USSR under Stalin. On the other hand, the problem should not be dismissed or ignored. The biologists Jerry Coyne and Luana S. Maroja have recently written that their discipline “faces a grave threat from ‘progressive’ politics that are changing the way our work is done.” They concentrate on overt examples of “ideological influence and control.” The alterations in Campbell Biology do not require orchestrated campaigns or malicious intent to be explained. Well-intentioned authors, guided by socially acceptable stances on sex and gender, can bring about such changes by themselves.
Campbell Biology can withstand these regressive revisions, and remains a great textbook that will continue to educate millions of students. But one does wonder about the 13th edition…
Reality’s Last Stand is 100% reader-supported. If you enjoyed this article, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription or making a recurring or one-time donation below. Your support is greatly appreciated.