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Richard Dawkins's Strange Betrayal of Evolutionary Psychology

His trans-exclusionary stance defies reason.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
August 3, 2023; ported here on January 24, 2024

Richard Dawkins is one of the people I most admire. His book The Selfish Gene is one of the most important books on biology ever written. (The title refers to genes themselves being self-serving, not to genes that make us selfish.) He is an important communicator of scientific principles to a popular audience. And he is one of the most important debunkers of supernaturalism of our era.

He is also wrong about what being transgender means.

I'll try to sharpen the lines of the discussion. A transgender person is someone born a biological male who identifies psychologically as and presents socially as a woman, or someone born a biological female who identifies as and presents as a man. Someone is trans-exclusionary if they think that there is no such thing as an authentically or legitimately transgender person. In this view, someone who claims to be transgender really is lying or delusional.

Here I am not defending the position that every person who claims to be transgender is authentically so. It's plausible to me that some people who claim to be transgender are just confused, or swayed by "social contagion," or maybe even motivated by a desire to trick others or do them harm. Instead, here I am defending the softer position that some people who claim to be transgender—and for my purposes here I do not need to quantify this (I'd say "most")—are really or legitimately or authentically transgender.

I am aware that, by even admitting the possibility that some people who claim to be transgender are not authentically so, I am potentially opening myself up to mean insults by the worst sorts of people who claim to be trans activists. Whatever. On its face, at least, the claim that "all claims to be transgender are authentic" is as implausible as the claim that "no claims to be transgender are authentic." I address this essay to reasonable people, not to vicious zealots on either side.

Unfortunately, conservatives often point to any doubt that anyone who claims to be transgender is authentically so to try to undermine the very idea that there could be an authentically transgender person. Obviously that move is stupid and dishonest.

I am not transgender, and I do not claim to speak for any person who is. These are my views.

"What is a woman?" Any person who is not an idiot quickly realizes that very often we use the same term to mean different things in different contexts. Last year I proposed a two-part definition of "woman":

woman(1): Someone born with female reproductive organs including ovaries and a uterus [we can add "large gametes" or eggs].

woman(2): Anyone who expresses or identifies with traditionally female modes of self-awareness or behavior.

Or, as one of my friends summarized not quite precisely, "Sex is what's between the legs, gender is what's between the ears."

If you pretend that biological sex is the same thing as gender, or that the first definition of "woman" precludes the second, you just are not approaching the issue thoughtfully or honestly.

Unfortunately, that is precisely the pretense that Dawkins advances in his recent column for New Statesman. He spends much of the article tiresomely demonstrating that biological sex is binary—which is basically irrelevant to the issue of whether there is an authentic transgender experience.

No sensible person thinks that a transgender woman (someone born biologically male) somehow magically grows a vagina and a uterus, or begins to menstruate, or becomes able to get pregnant. "A transgender woman is a woman" in the second sense, not the first. Anyone who denies this, on either side, is just not being remotely considerate of reality.

If you take evolutionary psychology seriously, then you understand that many behaviors have a genetic and biological component (recognizing that genes sometimes express differently depending on environment), and this applies to many behaviors of males and females across many species. If this seems surprising to you, go spend some time watching YouTube videos of mating behaviors especially of males of various species.

In humans, too, gender has a genetic component. It also is "socially constructed" in important ways. There's nothing in our biology that attaches dresses or the color pink to women.

If your view is that gender is entirely socially constructed, then you might say that any gender claim is equally valid, or you might take a traditionalist approach and say we should follow our traditional gender roles for whatever bullshit "reason" you might wish to put forth.

If, on the other hand, you think that there is something real about gender deeper than what is socially constructed, then you recognize that biological sex does not mean the same thing as gender. The former pertains more to our organs outside the brain; the latter, to our psychology.

If you buy the evolutionary account that gender is not just socially constructed, then at some point you have to ask yourself (if you are a reasonable person), "Is there any reason to expect that biological sex always, in absolutely every case, perfectly corresponds with the gender typical of that sex?" It would be ridiculous to expect that.

Individuals of a species are not made from cookie cutters. There's enormous variation among individuals. To take another example, most men are sexually attracted to women, but some men are sexually attracted to other men. If you think it's possible for some men naturally to be sexually attracted to men, even though most men are sexually attracted to women, then you have just as much reason, at least at the gate, to think it's possible that some people do not conform to the gender typical of their sex. I don't see how you can logically reject this conclusion unless you reject evolutionary psychology. And obviously Dawkins doesn't want to do that.

Dawkins is trans-exclusionary, but at least, unlike many religious conservatives with whom he has allied himself on the issue, he is not openly hostile to transgender people. He writes:

Those who sincerely feel themselves born in the wrong body deserve sympathy and respect. . . . Many of us know people who choose to identify with the sex opposite to their biological reality. It is polite and friendly to call them by the name and pronouns that they prefer. They have a right to that respect and sympathy.

But it's not really showing transgender people respect when you treat their gender identity as something like a disease requiring sympathy. His attitude is something like, "I'm so sorry that you're transgender, as obviously that means there's something wrong with you, but I'll try to be as nice as I can about it." There's nothing wrong with being transgender, being transgender is perfectly fine, and transgender people as such deserve our respect, full stop.

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