Do women exist?  – the science of sex, the politics of gender, and the materialist and dialectical thinking needed to distinguish the two

With law changes pending in the UK, New Zealand and other places that will make it simpler for people to change the sex marker on their birth certificates (and moves in the opposite direction apparently being discussed in the US government circles), scientists have waded into the debate on transgender ideology. They are not shy about waving about their scientific credentials as they attempt to answer what is fundamentally a political rather than a scientific question. And in doing so, they are not only joining an assault on women’s rights, but also doing a great disservice to scientific thinking. You don’t have to be a scientific expert to see this.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Siouxsie Wiles is an Associate Professor in Molecular Medicine and Pathology at Auckland University, who popularises scientific ideas in various media including Radio New Zealand and Stuff. She published an article  on Stuff 26 November is headed Sex chromosomes more complicated than XY and XX.

After a brief discussion of the fact that there are people whose sex chromosomes do not correspond to the typical XX or XY norm, Wiles says, “In other words, the reality is that people don’t fit into two neat categories [male and female – JR], and sometimes, they know they don’t fit the sex they were assigned at birth.”

The word ‘assigned’ is a poor choice of word here, with its implication that the person doing the ‘assigning’ has some influence over the baby’s sex, or some choice in the matter. In fact, the baby’s sex is observed and recorded, based on the evidence available to the doctor or midwife who makes the record (the evidence being, usually, the outward appearance of the infant’s genitalia). This is how scientific knowledge proceeds. The midwife might make a mistake or misread the evidence, but such a mistake would not alter the child’s sex in any way. The child’s sex is decided by nature, not by any human act of ‘assigning.’

Modern science rests on materialist conception, that the material world exists independently of human perceptions. Dinosaurs lived and died long before there were any humans in existence to perceive them.

Modern science rests on the assumption that the material world exists independently of human perception of it. For example, over a period of a hundred million years, the dinosaurs lived, foraged, ate, fought, reproduced sexually, then declined and vanished to extinction – and all this happened many millions of years before there were any human beings to perceive their existence, let alone assign a sex to any individual dinosaur.

The task of science is to discover the facts of the material world and its laws of motion. This is consistent with the materialist conception of existence and the materialist theory of knowledge ­matter precedes mind. The opposite of materialism is the idealist conception, which places thought or spirit as primary, and sees the material world as an imperfect reflection of the spirit. The idealist conception was encapsulated by Rene Descartes in the aphorism “I think, therefore I am.”

For a scientist to depart from the materialist conception today puts them on dangerous ground scientifically. The materialist foundations of science are under threat from the politics of gender interfering in the science of sex, in particular, by the drive to find scientific justification for including some biological males in the category of ‘women.’ The consequences for scientific thinking are dire. And Professor Wiles is not alone in this, as we shall see.

The sex of a baby is observed, and on that basis, social roles – gender – are assigned. Conflation of sex and gender are at the heart of the debate, and these scientists are adding to the confusion.

But first, let us return to the new-born baby. At the instant the baby’s sex is recognised, society also imposes on the baby – ‘assigns,’ if you like – a social role pertaining to that sex. From birth, male and female babies are treated differently, subjected to different expectations and different social conditioning – this is sometimes symbolised by wrapping the newborn in clothing that is pink for girls and blue for boys. This social role goes by the term ‘gender’ in current usage, although that is a fairly recent use of the word. The second-wave feminist writers of the 1960s and 70s generally used the term ‘sex roles’ to describe this phenomenon, and had that term been adhered to, much confusion could have been avoided.

Confusion between sex and gender, between objective biological fact and the social consequences of that fact, lies at the heart of this discussion and makes the issues unusually difficult to disentangle. Even relatively careful journalists, such as those at the New York Times, when covering the debate on changing the sex designation on birth certificates and related issues, frequently refer to this as changing one’s gender, or use the terms sex and gender interchangeably.

It is not gender but sex that is recorded on a birth certificate. I have looked at many examples of birth certificates from many different countries, and every one I have seen lists ‘sex’ not ‘gender.’  It is possible that in some jurisdictions there may have been recent changes in this regard that I am not aware of – if anyone can show me a birth certificate that records gender, I would be interested to see it. But irrespective of what is written on the birth certificate – I repeat – the sex of a baby is not decided by any conscious human action, but by nature.

Having confused sex and gender, our scientists then proceed to lay out the biological case for more than two sexes, and to slip in non-biological criteria for determining sex.

Siouxsie Wiles tackles the first task, focusing on chromosomes. “What we learned in school science classes [is that] humans come as males or females. Of our 46 chromosomes, two are the sex chromosomes: XY for male, XX for female. Simple. As with most things in life, it turns out to be a little more complicated than that. Some people are born with a single sex chromosome (X or Y), and others with three or more (XXX, XYY, XXY, and so on) … Because of this, the Government is proposing to make it easier for people to change the sex recorded on their birth certificate to reflect how they know they truly are [my emphasis – JR], whether that’s as the opposite sex, intersex, or an unspecified sex.”

There are many errors, and equally important omissions, in these lines – to begin with, the proposed law changes don’t just apply to people with atypical chromosomes. The video that accompanies the article, on which Wiles seems to be basing her argument, only confuses matters further. “A lot of biological, sociological and psychological factors go into the definitions of man or woman, or neither” says one of the smug talking heads in the video, thereby explicitly conflating the biological category of sex with the social category of gender, while leaving these ‘factors’ conveniently vague and undefined. They continue, “So really, biological sex is not black or white because there are so many different variables going into it that are not necessarily correlated with one another. … Which is why there is good evidence to say that there are more than two biological sexes.”

Thus, having invoked the ‘sociological and psychological factors,’ they return to draw conclusions in the realm of biology. In other words, sociology and psychology determine biology. It is honestly hard to believe that this video comes from a website that claims to promote science, and that a science professor like Wiles bases her arguments upon it.

A similar argument is made in this article in Time on October 23 by Elizabeth Reis, a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York. “Sex is not so binary as we have assumed. A small but substantial portion of the population is born with intersex traits, including atypical sex development and sometimes genital and chromosomal ambiguity…. chromosomes aren’t the perfect sex markers we might think. Only fairly recently have we been able to see that chromosomes do not define a person’s “true” sex, if we insist on seeing sex as a simple male-female binary.”

This article by Alexandra Kralick, an anthropology Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled We Finally Understand That Gender Isn’t Binary. Sex Isn’t, Either was published in Sapiens, then reprinted in Slate and The Atlantic, and has circulated widely on social media. “An increasing recognition of this complexity by researchers and the public has affirmed that gender sits on a spectrum…But underlying all of this is the perception that no matter the gender a person identifies as, they have an underlying sex they were born with. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of biological sex. Science keeps showing us that sex also doesn’t fit in a binary, whether it be determined by genitals, chromosomes, hormones, or bones (which are the subject of my research).

Kralick continues: “The perception of a hard-and-fast separation between the sexes started to disintegrate during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. In the decades that followed, we learned that about 1.7 percent of babies are born with intersex traits; that behavior, body shape, and size overlap significantly between the sexes, and both men and women have the same circulating hormones; and that there is nothing inherently female about the X chromosome. Biological realities are complicated. People living their lives as women can be found, even late in life, to be XXY or XY…

“For generations, the false perception that there are two distinct biological sexes has had many negative indirect effects… The famous cases of strong, athletic, and audacious female athletes who have had their careers derailed by the Olympic “gender tests” exemplify how misguided it is to classify sex or gender as binary. These women are, like all of us, part of a sex spectrum, not a sex binary. The more we as a society recognize that, the less we will humiliate and unnecessarily scrutinize people—and the less discriminatory our world will be.”

And a final example: the statement signed by more than 2,600 scientists in the United States protesting a proposal apparently being circulated by the US Department of Health and Human Services and presumed to indicate US President Trump’s policy intentions in respect to transgender rights. A leaked memo outlining these proposals was described in the New York Times. (It should be noted that the Trump administration has not made any official statement on the matter).

The scientists say, “…The proposed policy seeks to erase the identities of millions of Americans who identify as transgender (individuals whose gender identification differs from their assigned sex at birth) or have intersex bodies (individuals with biologically atypical patterns of male and female traits). In transgender individuals, the existence and validity of a distinct gender identity is supported by a number of neuroanatomical studies. Though scientists are just beginning to understand the biological basis of gender identity, it is clear that many factors, known and unknown, mediate the complex links between identity, genes, and anatomy.”

Let us critically examine these arguments.

At face value, the statement by Reis (and echoed by Kralick and Wiles) that “chromosomes aren’t the perfect sex markers we might think” is true enough. However, they draw false conclusions from this because of a failure to distinguish between genotype and phenotype, between the genetic ‘information’ influencing sex and the actual physical form of sex. Chromosome arrangement is one of the primary mechanisms determining sex in an individual, but not the only one. Hormones also play a major role, and these are not all governed by genes on the X or Y chromosomes. The outcome of sex determination, the sex of a human being, is the form of the reproductive tract. There are only male and female forms. Intersex conditions commonly result in incompletely developed sex organs, but even among the small percentage of the population who have atypical chromosome arrangements and intersex conditions, ambiguity of the reproductive organs is rare.

Maria José Martínez-Patiño, Olympic hurdler unfairly disqualified and humiliated by sex verification policies at the time. Her own account can be read here.

The existence of atypical chromosomes among people who are unaware of it proves only that chromosomes are an imperfect predictor of sex, not that a multiplicity of sexes exists. The case cited at the beginning of Kralick’s article, of a female athlete, Maria José Martínez-Patiño, who was unfairly disqualified and humiliated because she turned out to have XY chromosomes, proves the folly of relying too rigidly on chromosome configuration as a marker for sex. It does not at all prove Kralick’s claim that “[it is] misguided to classify sex … as binary.”

Distinct sexes arose in natural history as a condition of sexual reproduction. Everywhere in nature that sexual reproduction occurs, in both plants and animals, the process of sexual reproduction involves recombining matching pairs of chromosomes, one element of the pair from the male, the other from the female. A pair can only be created from two elements. There is no form of sexual reproduction known which involves more or less than two sexes. Sexual reproduction is universally binary.

The process of splitting, replicating and pairing chromosomes is a physical one, and consequently, an imperfect process, not without occasional ‘errors’ that result in missing or extra copies of chromosomes or parts of chromosomes, including the sex chromosomes. Some of these atypical chromosome conditions have little effect, others cause developmental disabilities, endocrine disorders, and in the case of extra or missing sex chromosomes, sterility. The fact that all three scientists quoted here, Wiles, Kralick and Reis, neglect to mention that many people born with sex chromosomes other than the typical XX or XY pattern have some kind of developmental and/or reproductive disability, and often lifelong health problems, is disingenuous to say the least.

The point here is that people with intersex conditions or atypical chromosomes do not constitute additional sexes. They are the exceptions that prove the rule of two sexes.

Nor is it a new discovery that the line separating the two sexes is indistinct.

Stephen Jay Gould 1941-2002. photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once remarked that of all the many questions his readers wrote to him to ask about, one little oddity of nature stood out as the most frequently asked question: male nipples. Why is it that male humans (and the males of other mammal species) have nipples? What function do they serve, when only the female lactates?1

The puzzle of the male nipples is an old one. Gould quotes a discussion of the subject in the eighteenth century by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the father of evolution, as well as speculations by the ancient philosopher Plato that “mankind with all the other animals were originally hermaphrodites during the infancy of the world, and were in process of time separated into male and female.”

Gould explains the puzzle in this way: “Males and females are not separate entities, shaped independently by natural selection. Both sexes are variants upon a single ground plan, elaborated in later embryology. Male mammals have nipples because females need them – and the embryonic pathway to their development builds precursors in all mammalian foetuses, enlarging the breasts later in females but leaving them small (and without evident function) in males.”

In the very young embryo, he explains, it is very difficult to distinguish the sexes at all by outward appearance, even after the sex organs develop. The reason is because the sex organs develop as homologous pairs: the male penis and the female clitoris are indistinguishable, until later in the male embryo’s development the penis is enlarged by the action of testosterone. Similarly, the tissues that form the labia majora in females are also present in the male embryo; in the male they later enlarge, fold over and fuse in the centre, forming the scrotal sac.

Similarly with the hormones that are central to sexual development: males have not only the ‘male’ hormone testosterone, but also the ‘female’ hormone oestrogen, which performs some essential functions in the male body. Likewise, females have oestrogen, but also testosterone. The complex interactions of these hormones and others in both men and women result in wide variations in the secondary sex characteristics, including body shape, facial and body hair, and so on, that give the appearance of a continuum of variation in secondary sex characteristics between the sexes. (Kralick’s statement that “both men and women have the same circulating hormones” is an over-simplification of this situation. Both sexes have both hormones, but in different proportions.) 2

But none of this ‘blurriness’ between males and females contradicts the division into two and only two distinct sexes. In dialectical terms, this blurriness is known as the interpenetration of opposites, and it is the norm for complex entities in nature and human society. The interpenetration of opposites does not annihilate distinct categories.

This can perhaps be seen more easily by looking at some analogies from biology, sociology, and medical science that are less politically and emotionally charged than the present discussion.

Within the single species of tigers, there are distinct sub-species, geographically separated, which could in time evolve into separate species. Graphic: WWF

The concept of species is central to biology. Yet the boundaries of a species are often blurry – not only are no two individual organisms within the species identical, but in many species more or less clearly-defined sub-species exist, which might over time separate to become distinct species. Up until the recent extinction of most of them, distinct subspecies of tigers existed on each of the main islands of the Indonesian archipelago, as well as on the Asian mainland. Tigers and lions can mate to produce infertile, and sometimes even fertile, hybrid offspring. Were it not for such variation within the species and ‘blurriness’ of species boundaries, the process of evolution would grind to a halt. The Darwinian theory of evolution takes as its starting point such random variations within a species. We recognise that the boundaries of a species are not ‘hard-and-fast.’ Yet we do not dispense with the concept of species on that account. There is not a continuum of felines. There are lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, lynx, and so on.

The binary distinction between adult and child is important in human society. Yet every adult human being alive has gone through a phase where they were not quite child, not quite adult. Growing to maturity is a complex and contradictory process. It is impossible to determine the exact moment when any child becomes adult; there are many transitional states. Does it follow, then, that the distinction between adult and child is a ‘false binary,’ and therefore we should, say, abolish age-of-consent laws, children’s courts, and other protections for children? 3

In medical practice, it is important to be able to distinguish between a living patient and a dead one. But this is not necessarily ‘black and white,’ to borrow an expression from Wiles’s video. On the one hand, in patients that are most definitely alive, some cells in their bodies – the outermost layer of skin cells, for example, are constantly in a state of dying and decay. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for a dying patient to become suspended, sometimes for an extended period, between life and death, with some of their organs effectively dead, others still functioning, still others functioning but dependent on life support machines. Does this interpenetration of life and death mean that the distinction between life and death should be discarded as a ‘false binary’? Does it prove a “fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of biological death?” (to adapt a phrase from the Kralick article above). Would it clarify thinking about this situation to postulate some third state of being, for an organism that is neither living nor dead, or a spectrum of states? Obviously not. There are good reasons why medical personnel who switch off life-support equipment are not charged with murder.

Georg Wilhelm Hegel in 1831. Hegel developed the logic of evolution and revolution known as dialectics. Portrait by Jacob Schlesinger

The false reasoning which assumes that hard-and-fast, black-and-white categories are the only valid ones, and that therefore the existence of transitional and intermediate forms constitutes evidence that the categories don’t exist, is called formal logic. The limitations of formal logic are illustrated by these analogies, as well as by the false arguments against the binary nature of sex put forward by the scientists in this discussion.  Dialectical logic looks at things in motion, their origins, development, and eventual negation. Dialectics is the logic of evolution and revolution. It brings human thought into closer correspondence with the constant motion and transformations of things in the real world.


All these scientists accept that transgender people “know [what] they truly are, whether that’s … the opposite sex, intersex, or an unspecified sex” (quoting Wiles). One might ask, how can a scientist be sure that transgender people know what sex they truly are? What verifiable evidence is there to support this knowledge, if this knowledge contradicts the evidence of their physical bodies?

The only such evidence offered by any of these articles and statements is a few studies of those parts of the human brain that vary in size between males and females. Size of these parts, an overview study claims, correlates more closely to ‘gender identity’ than to biological sex. One need only read the abstract of this study to see that it is highly tentative, indirect evidence, and there is also contrary evidence in the study itself. This is inconclusive, to say the least, and the video attached to the Wiles article concedes that.

Clearly, the acceptance of such ‘knowledge of the sex they truly are’ by these scientists rests not on such tentative studies, but rather on the expressions of feeling by the transgender people making the claims and on the stated desire of the scientists to affirm them. Confronted with the lack of reliable scientific evidence, the scientists fall back on the argument that since the biology of sex is so very, very complicated, we have to rely on the evidence of the feelings expressed by transgender people themselves. As the letter of the 2,600 scientists phrases it, “Though scientists are just beginning to understand the biological basis of gender identity, it is clear that many factors, known and unknown, mediate the complex links between identity, genes, and anatomy…[therefore] affirmation of gender identity is paramount to the survival, health, and livelihood of transgender and intersex people.” But affirmation of something for which the scientists themselves admit there is little scientific evidence is a dangerous leap of faith.

Feelings of being born in the ‘wrong body’ are unverifiable, no matter how strongly felt and expressed. They do not constitute scientific evidence of objective material reality. Thus, with affirmations like this, scientific method flies out the window, and the scientists depart from the world of materialist science altogether. By accepting such ‘knowledge of the truth,’ these scientists are, perhaps unwittingly, passing from materialist science over into the realm of mind-over-matter idealism. “I think I am a woman, therefore I am a woman” is the purest kind of idealist thought. On such grounds one could make equally valid scientific arguments that sincere religious believers know the true nature of God.

I dispute neither the sincerity, nor the strength of feeling, nor the degree of mental and emotional distress suffered by people who claim to have been born in the ‘wrong body.’ These are things that I am not in a position to judge. It is not my wish to prolong anyone’s distress. However, I don’t accept that overthrowing the established facts of biological science can provide anything other than illusory relief from this suffering, and for scientists to ‘affirm’ this course can only do more harm than good.

In affirming ‘transgender identity,’ these scientists bind themselves to affirm the central idea that the category ‘women’ is a term that describes a gender rather than a sex, and therefore that it can include biological males,4 overturning a central fact of biological science in the process.  Many proponents of transgender ideology insist on using a special term for adult human females, cis-women (a term which also excludes women who transition to male gender), or even a separate word that does not include the word ‘women’ at all, such as ‘menstruators’ and ‘uterus-havers.’ Contemptible and offensive as this may be, it is the logical corollary of adopting the gender-definition of the word ‘women.’ The de-humanising of biological women is its necessary consequence.


Mudskipper getting a breath of air and a taste for the terrestrial life – recognisably a fish, but already in transition to non-fish. Photo: James Robb

One of the laws of dialectics is the law of negation: Everything that exists eventually turns into its opposite – even when, for a time, the outward appearance may have changed little. Thus the seed is negated by the bud, the bud by the flower, the flower by the seed. The aquatic, gill-breathing fish is transformed by evolution into a non-fish, a lung-breathing terrestrial quadruped – though in the first stages of this transformation, it is still recognisably a fish. Dead revolutionaries are resurrected by their enemies as harmless reformists. The greatest working class revolution of the twentieth century, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, transformed into the most monstrous counter-revolution against the working class of the twentieth century – though the regime which carried out the counter-revolution still flew the same banner of communism as the revolution it overthrew.

Transgender ideology also supplies an interesting example of the law of negation.

Simone de Beauvoir 1908-1986

In a discussion with a friend about the fallacy of using the gender-definition of ‘women’, my friend responded that this was the definition used by the pioneer feminist of the second wave, Simone de Beauvoir, and referred me to the famous quote from the beginning of the first chapter, where she writes “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

This quote is used by the academic Judith Butler in a 1986 essay entitled Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, and it is Butler who initiates the negation. It is interesting to follow her reasoning. Butler writes, “Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation distinguishes sex from gender and suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired. The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… With the distinction intact, it is no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity, and neither can we refer meaningfully to natural or unnatural gendered behaviour: all gender is, by definition, unnatural.  Moreover, if the distinction is consistently applied, it becomes unclear whether being a given sex has any consequence for becoming a given gender… the female body is the arbitrary locus of the gender ‘woman’ and there is no reason to preclude the possibility of that body becoming the locus of other constructions of gender… with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sorts of being. This last insight, I would suggest, is the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Judith Butler in 2013
Photo:  University of California, Berkeley

Behind the wall of impenetrable academic language a crude sleight-of-hand has been performed: Butler has turned de Beauvoir into an apostle of the gender-definition of ‘woman.’ The very thing that de Beauvoir fought to destroy has become the definition of ‘being a woman.’ This is a frame-up!

De Beauvoir’s own definition of women is indicated clearly enough in the title of her book – the book is called The Second Sex, not the second gender. No one who has even the shallowest acquaintance with the book could misunderstand the intention behind de Beauvoir’s formulation: the entire book is an impassioned protest against the oppressive gender roles imposed on women by men: “her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.”

For Butler to claim that “it becomes unclear whether being a given sex has any consequence for becoming a given gender” rips women out of the historical context – the ‘great historical defeat of the female sex’ that de Beauvoir laboured to bring to light.  To transform de Beauvoir’s protest against the gender roles imposed on the female sex into the idea that “‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sorts of being” is not just a misinterpretation, it is … a negation. The dead feminist fighter has been resurrected as a liberal academic professor of ‘gender studies.’

Gender ideology banner in the sex-stereotyping colours of link and blue. Trans rights demonstration, University of Minnesota, 8 November 2018. Photo: Courtney Deutz, Minnesota Daily

The final step of the transformation is to raise the gender roles themselves from a form of oppression to a political identity in the pantheon of identity politics. Is this any different from other political identities that are formed out of dispossession and oppression, such as Black nationalism in the US, or Gay pride? Yes it is: Black nationalist and Gay pride identities championed the humanity of the oppressed groups in the fight against their particular forms of oppression. Gender-identity, on the other hand, champions the oppression itself. It is not by accident that on its banner are emblazoned the twin colours of sex-stereotyping, pink and blue.

With transgender ideology, the same fate of negation befalls the ideology of two great (and connected) social liberation movements of forty years ago, the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. The liberating ideas which taught us to celebrate our physical bodies and sexuality as they are, and to fight to break down the oppressive feminine and masculine gender roles imposed on the sexes (and most heavily on women) are transformed into their opposite: In transgender ideology, gender is taken as fixed and unchangeable, the very definition of womanhood. This ideology teaches that physical bodies must be altered to fit the perceived gender, through the use of hormones and surgery.

A clearer example of dialectical negation would be hard to find. The teachings of the movement which brought women to centre stage, proclaimed their humanity, and insisted that biology was not women’s destiny, is transformed into a set of ideas which marginalise and de-humanise them, rob them of the title ‘women’ and reduce them to their sexual organs and biological functions as ‘menstruators’ and ‘uterus-havers.’

This will not be the end of the matter. The negation is also negated in its turn. And while the negation of second-wave feminism has taken place in the realm of ideas, the stage is being set for a renewed political struggle of women fighting in the streets for their emancipation, and this is most likely where the negation of the negation will be fought out. For women do still exist, and as the true character and scope of the ideological assault on them becomes clear, they will assert their humanity in ways that will surpass the earlier waves of struggle for women’s equality in their breadth, depth and force.

Capitalist society, meanwhile, is entering a phase in which it devours its own children, destroying not just the institutions of bourgeois democracy that formed the bedrock of its rule in an earlier period, but also its own cultural conquests, including the forms of thought on which bourgeois science has depended throughout the capitalist epoch. For about the last four hundred years, science has rested on a materialist outlook, albeit a kind of pragmatic, semi-conscious materialism. Who would have guessed a decade ago that there would be 2600 scientists in the United States willing to sign a petition declaring that the category of ‘women’ includes men? That it would be necessary in the third millennium of the Common Era to defend the idea that women are adult female human beings, and that they do indeed exist?

George Novack’s An Introduction to the Logic of Marxism is an excellent introduction to materialist dialectical logic.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Frederick Engels argued that science could make great advances if it could integrate into scientific thinking a conscious materialism in place of the largely unconscious and muddled materialism that prevailed, and dialectical thinking in place of the fixed categories of formal logic5. With a few exceptions (which included the founders of quantum physics in the early twentieth century, and some evolutionary biologists of the 1930s in the UK and USSR) little progress was made along those lines. Now it seems that without such tools of thought as conscious materialism and dialectics, science is driven abruptly into reverse.



  1. See the essay ‘Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples,’ in Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus. Stephen Jay Gould was one of the few bourgeois scientists who did understand the dialectic of nature– albeit that his understanding was still mostly an unconscious one, developed out of a deep understanding of Darwinian evolution rather than a study of logic. His essays on Alfred Kinsey’s taxonomy of wasps, Of Wasps and WASPs (which endorses Kinsey’s rejection of the essentialist view of species, while suggesting that Kinsey went too far in seeing only a continuum of variation), on the Portuguese Man-o-war, A Most Ingenious Paradox (describing the nineteenth-century controversy over whether this organism is an individual or a colony), his essays on the politics of science, and many others, are outstanding examples of dialectical and materialist thinking. They are a great place to study and learn the dialectic today. In my opinion, the best introduction to dialectics in general is An introduction to the Logic of Marxism, by George Novack.
  2. Some scientists reject the idea that the hormones testosterone and estrogen are inherently ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones respectively, and argue instead that it is their respective proportions in the body that create the conditions of maleness and femaleness. I have some sympathy for this proposition, but don’t know enough about the science to have an opinion of my own on it.
  3. Let me make a prediction: the advance guard of the advocates of ‘transgender rights’ will make such an argument in relation to age-of-consent laws, if it has not already happened.
  4. Even if one is inclined to accept this ‘gender definition’ of ‘women,’ it would still be necessary to answer the question: On whom is this gender role imposed? Circular definitions such as ‘a woman is anyone who thinks they are a woman’ don’t address this at all. The biological basis of womanhood cannot be evaded. The only possible scientific definition of ‘woman’ is ‘an adult human female,’ as it always has been.
  5. Engels’ Dialectic of Nature comes down to us as an unedited collection of notes, some of which refer to now-obscure questions of science, but large parts of it are brilliant.






33 responses to “Do women exist?  – the science of sex, the politics of gender, and the materialist and dialectical thinking needed to distinguish the two

  1. James Robb, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to discover this essay, and a communist who actually seems to understand Marx. The rise of gender ideology on the left and among many ‘marxists’ in recent years has been a horrible thing to witness. Your essay helped me clarify my thinking in certain respects, and I will be re-reading to try to work out my thoughts on the parts I’m not sure of. I’ll be following and reading the rest of this website too.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Simon. I would be interested to know what you think of the other posts, too, when you get to them – including any disagreements.

  2. Thank you so very much for this important article. You have described the crux of the conflict so well, and provided much needed information that will hopefully bring deeper understanding.

  3. Thanks for this clear train of thought. I would add one other thing regarding the arguments put forward by transgender proponents: the chromosomal variation argument is peddled frequently and left dangling as a kind of ‘gotcha’, however at a recent conference the head of the UK GIDS said, in their cohort of patients there is no evidence of chromosomal abnormality, thus negating this as a line of evidence.

    • Thanks for your comment. “the chromosomal variation argument is peddled frequently and left dangling as a kind of ‘gotcha’” – this is a very accurate description of how these arguments are used. It is never followed through to the end – because in the end it provides no evidence – but just thrown into the discussion as a way of vaguely raising doubts about the established notion of sex.

    • Thank you for your comment. And thanks for translating and re-posting, if it was you who did that. (But I clicked on the pingback link, and it doesn’t seem to be working??)

  4. Pingback: ¿Existen las mujeres? – La ciencia del sexo, las políticas de género y el pensamiento materialista y dialéctico necesario para distinguir ambas [Traducción] – Dworkinista·

  5. Excellent article James, but your reliance on ‘dialectical logic’ (and hence on that arch-idealist and confused mystic, Hegel) was a serious mistake, and it only weakens your argument. Formal Logic does not to do what you suggest (which is probably why you quote not one single logic text in support). I suspect you have simply copied these ideas off very poor ‘Marxist’ books/articles on ‘dialectics’, which similarly quote not one logic text in support of this Hegelian fantasy (and I say that as a Marxist, too)

    I have covered this topic in extensive detail, here:

    • Thank you Rosa. You are right in believing that for the understanding I have of dialectics (such as it is – I certainly don’t claim any kind of expertise in this field!) I rely mainly on Marxist literature rather than Hegel himself (or Aristotle for that matter). In the past I have attempted to read Hegel (in translation), but find him almost as impenetrable as Judith Butler. Certainly, he was an arch-idealist, and that makes everything even more impenetrable. However, I am prepared to defer to Marx and Engels for their interpretations of Hegel (as well as Lenin Trotsky, Novack and a few others.) I will read the article you linked, but I say in advance that it it appears to be arguing against some fairly weighty authorities.

      • Sorry, that should read (please lose the other reply!):

        Thanks for that, James, but the ‘authorities’ you mention knew no logic — there is much evidence in favour of that controversial allegation (as I show in my Essay), but it can easily be seen from the fact that they quoted not one single logic text in support of the claim that formal logic deals only with static forms and can’t cope with change (not that Marx himself ever advanced that claim). Amazingly, not even Novack supports his wild allegations about Formal Logic with a single quote from a logic text, ancient or modern!

        As I also show in my Essay, anyone familiar with Aristotle knows he was the first great theorist of change (no wonder Marx held him in such high esteem), and that his logic can easily cope with it, too. Modern logic, which most dialecticians seem ignorant of, can cope with it even better.

        I agree with you about Hegel — and Butler. It is a mystery to me why Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky took that confused mystic, Hegel, seriously.

      • Given that Marx developed his ideas as a critique of Hegel I don’t see how you can say that.. Without Hegel there would have been no Marx. and the idea of Marx without dialectics is very strange to me. Surely without dialectics you have the idea of Marxism as some kind of ‘science’ in the same sense as the physical sciences, which leads to ideology and dogma and authoritarianism. These are things I distrust in Marx*ism* and are some of the germs of the totalitarianism of the USSR.

  6. A searing essay with a very dry sense of humour too. Thank you, James

    If we look at the women’s liberation and then at the racial and gay equality movements then those took decades to achieve any notable results at all, the reason being that they were grassroots movements with very little money behind them, so progress was very slow. This radical trans movement has blown up so quickly that it is clear that it has serious financial clout behind it. You need look no further than Big Pharma to ascertain where this push and this money is coming from. For every individual that swallows this propaganda, Big Pharma stand to make tens of thousands of pounds from people who are locked into a literal lifetime of extremely expensive drugs and surgeries.

    • Thanks for your comment C. Oh. I must say, however, that I don’t think that ‘money from Big Pharma’ idea explains very much about the phenomenon. Certainly, Big Pharma has an interest in promoting it – it’s true that people will get locked into a lifetime of drugs and surgeries, and this is part of a broader trend to medicalise social problems in order to avoid social solutions (similarly with ‘treating’ depression, for example). And I don’t dismiss the evidence I’ve seen for the support given by moneyed charities etc. But none of those things seem sufficient to explain how widely the transgender ideology is accepted among liberal and left political currents. These people are not just dupes of Big Pharma for the most part. The only explanation that I find convincing is the ‘negation’ one in the article: since the outward forms have changed little, most people assume that ‘trans rights’ is just a small extension of women’s and gay rights, instead of the negation of those movements. The best analogy I can think of is the fate of the Russian revolution: since Stalin spoke the same general language as the Bolsheviks and flew the same flag, it was extremely difficult for most people to see that Stalinism was the negation of Bolshevism, rather than its continuity.

  7. Pingback: Do women exist?  – the science of sex, the politics of gender, and the materialist and dialectical thinking needed to distinguish the two | Situations Vacant·

  8. It’s obviously not the central issue here, but Descartes was a dualist, not an idealist. “I think therefore I am”, for D, establishes mind, and he uses a theological argument to establish matter, with which mind supposedly interacts via the pineal gland. Probably the best known idealist was Berkeley, who argued against Cartesian dualism. It’s a pity to let such sloppy scholarship detract from your otherwise very worthy article.

    • You are right about Descartes’ philosophy in general. The way I see it, (and I admit I am not very knowledgeable about this) he was one of the scientist-philosophers who came out of the Idealist tradition and struggled to place science on a materialist basis – with only partial success. I did hesitate about quoting him for that reason. Nevertheless, I think the aphorism for which he is so well known does express very neatly the idealist starting point – that thought precedes material existence – irrespective of how Descartes himself developed that idea.

  9. Thank you for this essay; it’s extremely illuminating and elegant in its philosophical and scientific coherence. You may be interested in my blog as I also critique Trans gender ideology on a Marxist Radical Feminist material basis, albeit without your incredible scientific and philosophical knowledge (especially the science). Solidarity, from Sara Kollantai, blogging at

    • Agreed Kevin Ovenden. I think that the entire so called Marxist left needs to read essays like this one, stop no platforming Marxist Radical Feminists such as myself and acquaint themselves with the basic tenets of radical feminism and dialectical materialist critiques of patriarchal, capitalist societies like ours. I blog at Solidarity and thanks to all your male socialist types willing to put your necks on the line to support your victimised and witchhunted comrade sisters such as myself and females everywhere who dare to assert that our female biology is real and that we have the right to sex based separate services and spaces away from biological male sex predators and trans male bodied bullies and thugs. Sara, A Woman’s Place campaign Pontypridd, South Wales and a supporter of Lleisiau Merched Cymru (Women’s Voices Wales)’

  10. Pingback: Aotearoa 2018: year of the ‘waking’ left | Situations Vacant·

  11. This quote from Engels comes to mind

    “Did feudalism ever correspond to its concept? Founded in the kingdom of the West Franks, further developed in Normandy by the Norwegian conquerors, its formation continued by the French Norsemen in England and Southern Italy, it came nearest to its concept – in Jerusalem, in the kingdom of a day, which in the Assises de Jerusalem left behind it the most classic expression of the feudal order. Was this order therefore a fiction because it only achieved a short-lived existence in full classical form in Palestine, and even that mostly only on paper?”

    “Or are the concepts which prevail in the natural sciences fictions because they by no means always coincide with reality? From the moment we accept the theory of evolution all our concepts of organic life correspond only approximately to reality. Otherwise there would be no change: on the day when concepts and reality completely coincide in the organic world development comes to an end. The concept fish includes a life in water and breathing through gills: how are you going to get from fish to amphibian without breaking through this concept? And it has been broken through and we know a whole series of fish which have developed their air bladders further into lungs and can breathe air. How, without bringing one or both concepts into conflict with reality are you going to get from the egg-laying reptile to the mammal, which gives birth to living young? And in reality we have in the monotremata a whole sub-class of egg-laying mammals – in 1843, I saw the eggs of the duck-bill in Manchester and with arrogant narrow-mindedness mocked at such stupidity – as if a mammal could lay eggs – and now it has been proved! So do not behave to the conceptions of value in the way I had later to beg the duck-bill’s pardon for!”

    Letter to Comrad Schmidt. 1895

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