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Francis C. Frankin / Wikimedia

When things get very complex, our categories can break down. Should we get rid of the categories?

Listening to a debate between YouTubers Blair White and Contra Points made me think about the rules by which we categorise things. Generally, when does a fact of something being a certain way make it a thing unto itself ? Or, specifically, do people with non-standard genitalia constitute a third sex? Are there, in reality, no sexes, just a variety of different characteristics which we mistakenly lump into sexes?

Is there a Third Sex?

During the debate, the topic of the third sex (or of there being more than two sexes) came up, with Blair saying that, because individuals whose morphology does not fit either male or female are so vanishingly rare, they do not constitute a their own sex. Contra Points countered by asking why something being rare made it not a thing unto itself.

This is to say, what makes something justify having its own category? I.e. is it a question of numbers, proportion, or something else? What is the difference between a fluke and something that is rare but still a class?

For context, here’s the description of the ‘intersex’ condition, from the Intersex Society of North America:

“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.

The confusing part, here, is that the penis and clitoris, labia and scrotum are derived from the same primordial material – the sexes are different modifications of a similar beginning. So, when a person presents with one of the anatomies described above, are they a member of a third (or other multiple) sex?

The distribution of sexual characteristics follows a bimodal distribution, an example of this type of distribution is shown below. It’s important to note that this is a statistical model, nature can and does diverge from the maths. In this distribution, the two peaks represent the sexes, and the valley in the middle, intersex. Nature and the maths diverge in this instance, in that intersex people are much rarer than in this idealised graph.

So, is the nature of the sexes like the nature of 0 and 1, one or the other? No. Though, when you look at the graph above, does it suggest to you that people who are intersex are a sex unto themselves, or rather people who are rare and extreme variations on one of the two sexes, represented by the two norms on the graph?

Obviously, there’s nothing right or wrong about the body bequeathed to us by nature – unfortunately, many societies think there is, leading to the problems faced by people who don’t fit in, intersex people among them. This relates to a tendency which Nassim Taleb explores in his book, The Black Swan: that of mistaking the map for the territory. We tend to explain the world in idealised ways, then distrust or ignore altogether instances when the world doesn’t match our models.

However, with so many different factors, I think that the numbers have to be a prime way in which we make the decision here. This is the problem of categorization for complex systems, and gets worse the more complex the system.

Combined with what we know about genetics, the numbers here might make even more sense. This is to say that bimodal distributions usually results from a cause in the environment, for example, modern traffic flow shows two peaks corresponding to the AM and PM rush hours. With respect to sex, the two peaks correspond to whether the Y chromosome is or is not present in the individual’s genetics, and the extent to which characteristics for which it codes are or are not expressed.

On a high level of abstraction, there is no sense in which a person with an XY genome is meant to be male – we’re dealing with things that occurred in nature, there is no intention. But, thinking in terms of the biological imperative – to reproduce – nature has failed someone with, for example, Klinefelter syndrome (possessing a Y chromosome and multiple Xs), in that they are sterile.

Are there any Sexes?

This brings me onto the second moment in the debate which was of interest: Contra Points said that to be male represents the presence of certain characteristics, all of which don’t have to occur at once. (This is to say that you can have a penis but also have narrow shoulders, for example.) And, thus, being male is essentially a fabrication of society, not a thing in and of itself.

Another interesting point, illustrating how we make judgements. I think that the most important response is that for complex things like people and species, the categories have to be somewhat fuzzy. This is to say that the sexual traits of human males don’t have to occur all at once but almost always do. The question is, therefore, is the category of ‘man’ useful or relevant or more so than a collection of other variables?

To explore this, consider the definition of ‘species’. This is relevant in that sex and species are ways of categorising massively complex biological systems, systems which were in no way meant to be easily classifiable.

A species is the largest group of individuals that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. This might sound fairly straightforward, but then take a look at ring species. For example, take an organism that originates on one side of an inhospitable area then spreads out around it and meets on the other side – in a ring species, because of genetic drift and other factors, the populations that meet on the far side of the inhospitable area cannot produce fertile offspring together, but intermediaries between the population living where the species originated and on the far side of the area can.

Are organisms like this, therefore, not a species? Is the concept of species useless? I’m open to be corrected on this, but I think that ring species don’t make the definition useless, but rather represent extreme cases wherein a useful definition comes into difficulty. I would say that the same is true for the concept of sex.

On some level and on both counts, Contra Points is right: the statement that sexes are clusters of characteristics that don’t have to appear all at once is not wrong. Nor is it wrong to ask, given these conditions, why there should be only two sexes when there are more than two possibilities.

There reaches a point, however, where one is being so analytical – diligently breaking down the elements of a system – that one creates a theory that is consistent but not descriptive (e.g. the concept of sex doesn’t always work). Meanwhile, I think in these case we can permit ourselves to seek a synthesis that is descriptive but sometimes inconsistent.

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