Fintan Steele

I read Jon Caldara’s April 16 column, “The trans movement in a can,” with some interest, particularly his claims to believing in science. But that is untrue: the science supports just the opposite of his views.

I’m not taking issue with Caldara’s musings on tolerance or the First Amendment. I believe we all have every right to say whatever we want, no matter how ugly or silly or snarky. We have every right to express our personal likes/dislikes and to ask for respect for them, whether deserved or not. But he is demonstrably wrong to dismiss people with less common sexual and gender differences by incorrectly claiming that science supports human dimorphism (two sex forms only) as an immutable biological truth, anatomically or genetically.

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Let me start with a simple but not well-understood biological concept: Genes are not destiny. It is understandable why many people think they are, especially when you see simplistic ads for various genetic services that claim to offer deep truths about the customer. And some of the hype that accompanied the Human Genome Project was outrageous. But in these post-Human Genome Project years we have learned, more than ever, that the genome is not the book of life. It is not a blueprint, nor even a kind of Google Maps. It is simply a parts list, with complicated assembly instructions that make even IKEA furniture manuals look simplistic. Ultimately, each human (or virtually any organism) develops over time as a kind of complex genetic mosaic, interacting with its environments to give evolution the chance to experiment with potentially beneficial changes across a range of human organismal and behavioral traits.

As a result, our species — and each of its members — is not a biological monolith but exists instead on a bell-shaped spectrum curve for any given physical or behavioral trait, including sex and gender. Yes, the majority appear to fit into some kind of “norm,” but the norm by definition is not the full picture of biological reality, nor is it a model all others should follow.

It is certainly true that in our past limited ability to peer deeply into biology made it seem obvious to define male and female by their chromosome complement (XX vs. XY) and anatomical sexual characteristics (e.g., the “bulge” as Caldara put it). Indeed, past philosophers and theologians built whole moral systems around the idea that men and women were distinct entities.

But not anymore. The fact of a spectrum of human sexuality, sexual/gender identity and behavior, which Darwin only hinted at in his theories about sexual selection, was first made explicit in the data published in the mid-20th century Kinsey Reports on human sexual behavior. This spectrum is increasingly being proven true as biological science rapidly advances, particularly in understanding the molecular neurobiology underlying human consciousness and behaviors.

Today we have, at best, maybe a 5% grasp of the complexity of biological processes in space and time. That intricacy is what makes it so hard to build an overarching narrative that fully captures the truth of things like human sexuality, much less to issue valid statements about what is “normal” and what is not. All we can say for sure is that black and white, dualistic, dimorphic kinds of assertions are certainly false, resting on an outdated and biased understanding of biology. To be fair, we cannot yet make strong biological claims for many less-prevalent expressions along the spectrum: The data are simply not yet there. We still have a lot of work to do to understand the underlying biological reality of sexuality and gender. But we know enough now that we can’t simply dismiss any individual’s personal reality because we choose not to understand or believe it based on our ignorance.

In short, I’m glad Caldara feels free to openly share his opinions. But I wish he (and others who use these kind of arguments) would test them out against modern biological facts before airing them in private or in print.

Fintan Steele is a science writer and editor with a doctorate in genetics/biological sciences from the University of Notre Dame. Following postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health and at Johns Hopkins University, his career focused on scientific communications and publishing. He and his husband live in Hygiene.

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