The phenomenon of transgender identities is a mystery which has thus far has no scientific explanation. But does it need one? An explanation is a double-edged sword and a number of observers are saying No. Without an explanation, there is the danger that medicine will revert to describing it as a form of mental illness. With one, there is the even greater danger that critics will try to “fix it”, leading to human rights abuses.
So, for the time being at least, apologists for the transgender phenomenon are treading water without one.
Transgender journalist Alex Barasch, who writes for publications like the Washington Post, Variety and Slate, argued earlier this year that seeking scientific explanations for transgender identities could do more harm than good. “The unfortunate reality is that biological essentialism doesn’t always help the cause,” he wrote. (“Biological essentialism” means what journalists normally describe as “the facts”.) Brain scans and genetics are sending mixed signals.
It doesn’t help the LGBTQ community to pin our validity on what we might learn, if only we could scan the right brains or pinpoint the right genes — and if we trust the volume of the frontal cortex over what a person tells us about themselves, we deny them their autonomy and their humanity. Rather than waiting for firmer biological footing, those who really want to advance the cause should start by believing trans people when they speak up about who they are.
However, scientists are insatiable in their search for causes. A political cause without a scientific cause will eventually deflate into no cause at all. So, moving on from biology, some transgender scientists are searching further afield.
In its most recent online publication, the International Journal of Sexual Health, for instance, features an article which proposes that one cause might be reincarnation. Yes, reincarnation. This is a theme which surfaces in manga comics and very weird blogs, but now it is part of the growing body of evidence supporting trans science.
In “Childhood Gender Nonconformity and Children’s Past-Life Memories”, four scientists from the University of Virginia School of Medicine examine data that suggest that girls who act like boys and boys who act like girls are remembering a past life as a different sex. “In addition to genetics and environmental influences, previous lives may be a third factor that shapes personality development,” the authors muse. “Our study demonstrates that among children who describe memories of a past life, a strong association exists between gender nonconformity and memories of a life as a member of a different sex.”
You might think that invoking reincarnation is absurdly unscientific. However, this is transgender science, so different standards of proof apply. Besides, the International Journal of Sexual Health is a peer-reviewed journal and who are you to question whether “proof” is need to advance the cause of transgender science? As Alex Barasch says, you “should start by believing trans people when they speak up about who they are” — even about their past lives as an Egyptian princess or a Viking berserker.
An even more troubling sign that science may be throwing in the towel is the position on transgender issues staked out by the world’s leading science journal, Nature.
In October a memo of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was leaked to the New York Times with a draft definition of gender based on genetics and genitalia. This would create a legal framework “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable” for sex-specific government rules and regulations.
In an editorial, “US proposal for defining gender has no basis in science” Nature exploded with fury. It argued that the proposal “is a terrible idea that should be killed off. It has no foundation in science and would undo decades of progress on understanding sex — a classification based on internal and external bodily characteristics — and gender, a social construct related to biological differences but also rooted in culture, societal norms and individual behaviour.”
Interestingly, at about the same time, The Economist, not a science journal, but scrupulously researched and socially progressive, published a sceptical review of the transgender controversy. Its concern was principally that a liberal interpretation of trans rights would put women and children at risk. It is far too early to change legislation incorporating a new understanding of the scientific issues, it argued. “The notion that gender and biological sex are entirely separate is new and poorly understood.”
So, might Nature’s blunt assertion that assigning sex based on genetics and genitalia “has no foundation in science” be too categorical? Perhaps what it really means is that the Trump Administration is ignoring an “expert consensus” which regards sex as complicated and gender as a spectrum.
The idea that an expert consensus constitutes scientific truth is a familiar legacy of the war over climate change. However, as many observers have pointed out, if consensus were the ultimate criterion, the Church was right and Galileo was wrong. Science works through observation, measurement, experiments, and replication. In the case of transgender issues, there is, thus far, precious little of these.
Ultimately, the concerns of transgender apologists are admirable: protecting the dignity of transgender and non-binary people. Nature describes the plans of the HHS as “the latest in a series of proposals that misuse and ignore science and harm marginalized groups as part of a quest to score cheap political points”.
But what kind of science? A science based on “expert consensus” rather than on the laborious application of the scientific method? A science based on reincarnation? Perhaps, given the paucity of biological facts and the political urgency of justifying transgender ideology, it's no wonder that some scientists are resorting to irrational and indemonstrable mysticism.
The transgender debate is corrupting the way that science works. If this dubious trend accelerates, will we see scientists studying the relationship between transgender and phrenology? Astrology? Homeopathy? Reason seems to be gurgling down the plughole. The immortal words of the hapless lawyer Dennis Denuto sum up the new scientifc method if transgender science becomes the expert consensus: “It’s justice. It’s law. It’s the vibe … I rest my case.”
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.