Whales are queering the fish-mammal binary

Cross-posted from Putanumonit

Categories in your head

In physical reality, light with wavelength between 380 and 700 nm passes through your eyeball and activates cells in your retina. In your mind, you perceive colors. This makes it tempting to think that your perception of color is simple a wavelength-detector, but that is not the case.

Sometimes the same exact light waves produce differently-perceived colors. Sometimes you perceive a color whose wavelength is missing. Sometimes you perceive a color that has no associated wavelength at all. And sometimes you eat a mushroom and perceive all the colors at once with your eyes closed. The wavelengths are out there, but the color is only in your mind a is a feature of your mind, not of reality.

This is true of all your perceptions, including things like your emotions, sense of self, and the very reality of objects.

An important feature of perception is categorization — you learn concepts for grouping similar perceptions together. Your categories then affect your immediate perception, downplaying differences within categories and amplifying differences between them. Modern Westerners see the rainbow as made up of 7 distinct colors — up from 3-4 in medieval times and 5 in the 18th century. The rainbow itself, of course, is a continuous spectrum that could be broken up into any number of bands.

A general principle of developing perception is: more discrimination is better. You can better make and enjoy visual art better if you can tell pumpkin orange from safety orange from tiger orange, as opposed to seeing them as the same rainbow stripe. The movie Inside Out taught you that there are only 5 emotions, but you can actually increase the range and granularity of your perception of emotion to understand others and manage your own feelings more skillfully. The more attention you pay to a domain, the more fruitful distinctions in perception you can make.

Queer whales

My friend points out: just because out there are two clusters of biological sex defined by gamete size, doesn’t mean that people’s perception of gender is identical to those. What my friend calls people’s “gendering faculty” is similar to their perception and discrimination of colors, and has a lot to do with the particularities of the society they inhabit — for example whether men in that society grow their hair long or wear kilts.

To continue with the color analogy: it’s basically impossible to make yourself see red as yellow, but it’s not that hard to learn to discriminate and enjoy a hundred subtle shades of orange.

In a famous essay on categories and gender, Scott Alexander explained that it’s not wrong to call a whale a fish if what you care about is where to hunt them and not phylogenetics. Since there’s no ground truth of what a “fish” is, we should call whales fish (or call schizophrenics emperors, or men — women) if it makes life easier for others for social reasons.

People pointed out in response: although the categorization schemata in our brains aren’t the same as categories in reality, we rely on them to track and predict reality. Subverting your categories isn’t costless. It makes inhabiting reality harder. We should figure out how to get the social benefits after accepting reality, not by denying it.

Learning about both the whale’s habitat and physiology shouldn’t make you confused or ambivalent about whether the whale is a fish or mammal. It should increase the number of categories you have to sort animals into: fish (in sea, lay eggs), whale-like (in sea, nurse young), land mammals (on land, nurse young). Adding categories makes you smarter about all animals. Once you learn how whales queer the fish-mammal binary, it doesn’t make sense to keep insisting on that binary.

Let a thousand genders bloom

Today, the phrases “trans men are men” and “I’m a genderqueer femme-presenting bisexual they/them” are associated with the same political tribe and position on gender ideology. This is a result of both strange memetic forces and the necessity of presenting a unified political front on the national level. But philosophically, these two phrases are in contradiction.

As a positive statement, “trans men are men” strongly suggests that there are only two genders and every person is more or less a central example of one or the other — the only question is whether this determination is made on the basis of biology or dress or self-identification. But whichever basis you choose, this binary is contradicted either by intersex people, or drag queens, or detransitioners, or genderqueer bisexual they/thems.

As a normative statement, “trans men are men” can mean “trans men should be treated as men” or “trans men should be perceived as men”. But it’s always at least somewhat the latter, both because trans people (like all people) care a lot about how they’re perceived gender-wise and also because, on a deep level, perception and action are the same thing. On a collective level, asking people to change their behavior by forcing them to flip their perception of gender is a dubious proposition.

On the other hand, treating gender as a multivariate socially-mediated cloud of perceptions that people can learn to discriminate myriad categories in has a lot of benefits.

Everyone already does this all the time. We don’t use our gendering faculty to predict someone’s chromosomes but to predict things like their sexual behavior and interests, and to that end little kids and very old people are also to a large extent a gender onto themselves. We make different assumptions about a slim, flamboyantly-dressed, effeminate man and a bushy-bearded pudgy man in overalls.  Reifying more of those categories with common names will make everyone less confused about everyone else’s gender expression. It will also give people more levers to shape other’s perception of them. For example, signaling which sex you’re attracted to via a particular style of flamboyant dress you wear, and thus affecting how they’re treated.

There’s a difference of course between my individual perception of a dozen genders and things that require social agreement, like bathrooms. But if society can go from 3 rainbow colors to 7 we can probably add at least a few genders as well. As soon as new categories become common knowledge people will shape themselves to match them, the way most cis people wear socially-gendered clothing today to be perceived as their desired gender.

Again, when we see someone walking into the women’s restroom and decide if it’s socially acceptable or not we go by their appearance and demeanor, we don’t run to measure their gamete size. Restroom policy should follow from a more accurate common understanding of gender, gender categorization shouldn’t follow from the fact that most buildings today have exactly two types of restrooms.

I don’t want to get too far in the weeds of politics and public norms. If some trans people want to fight against having to conform to any genders whether binary or more granular, or if they want to fight directly for restroom privileges based on self-identification regardless of perception, that’s their fight.

My blog is about personal epistemology. Personally, I think I’ve gained a more accurate picture of the world when I started perceiving “rationalist-adjacent female-attired somewhat-passing demisexual trans women who like hanging out with each other and write great Rust code” as their own gender. I make different predictions about what they like, how they’re seen by others, and how good they are at programming that I would about either men or women — more accurate predictions. I don’t know where it puts me politically on the great contemporary trans debate, but I’m in favor of more genders discrimination.

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From a completely different angle: Nietzsche

We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.

Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept "leaf" is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects.

We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us.

One may certainly admire man as a mighty genius of construction, who succeeds in piling an infinitely complicated dome of concepts upon an unstable foundation, and, as it were, on running water. Of course, in order to be supported by such a foundation, his construction must be like one constructed of spiders' webs: delicate enough to be carried along by the waves, strong enough not to be blown apart by every wind.

When someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking and finding "truth" within the realm of reason. If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare "look, a mammal' I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. 

I love this text and come back to it often. Isn't it true for everything? Reality is infinitely complex - the only way we can talk about it is by making abstractions that are very distant from reality as it 'really' is. Everything can be "zoomed in" upon and labeled with an infinite, expanding dictionary. 

I just call something a "plank", but a carpenter will know exactly from what tree it has come, how old it is, and what varnishes it has received. 

I talk about my "fingers", but a doctor knows the Latin names for all bones and tendons there. 

I notice "electral wires", an electrician says all kinds of complicated stuff about volts and amperes and types of wirings and grounding etcetera. 

When you delve into any subject, you will notice new distinctions, and gain new vocabulary to describe these distinctions. That's very helpful in many subjects! 

But do you want that with humans? Do you like it when somebody starts dividing up humans in "alphas" and "betas"? Should Facebook display your BMI? Do you want to make the near infinite depth of a human - of a mind, of a personality, of a complex genome, the unique set of things they've learned from their culture, their family and their friends - something that is easily legible to everyone? Something that ought to be legible? 

How we ought to behave, how we want to behave, studying humans and cultures, finding new norms for relationships and sex appropriate to the 21st century - these are fascinating subjects! They are worthy of attention, and I could understand the necessity to develop a deeper vocabulary to study them in detail. 

But I don't think creating some new boxes to fit people into, and demanding that special physical spaces are created for them, and making teens very confused about what box they ought to be in, is very helpful...

I'm from the Netherlands. We've always had fairly laid back attitudes towards gender. When I grew up, I didn't have hyperfeminine cheerleaders and hypermasculine bodybuilders in my class. Lots of girls wore pants and other 'non-feminine' clothing, and/or had short hair. 

Of course, there was a division in male/female, which 99% of the time, didn't matter. But things like showers and changing rooms were clearly separated between boys and girls. 

I notice that this post is a bit frustrating to me, because it feels regressive. 

But if society can go from 3 rainbow colors to 7 we can probably add at least a few genders as well. As soon as new categories become common knowledge people will shape themselves to match them

I grew up with two clear genders and infinite variation within those genders, and a general attitude against putting people in 'boxes'. It allows for individuality. I don't want to lose that variation and individuality and have it replaced by five or seven 'genders' which all have their own prescribed behavior, clothing, restroom and politics. 

I'm totally in favor of self-expression. If you're male and you want be emotionally sensitive, wear dresses and make-up and be quite flamboyant - that's fine. It's pretty close to Jack Sparrow! But that doesn't mean you've got to invent all kinds of special labels for it, and be 'confused' about your 'identity', or find a tribe to imitate. 

Jack Sparrow is clearly recognized as a man by me, you, and everyone we know. Maybe where you grew up all men were limited in their gender expression to be somewhere between Jack Sparrow and John Rambo, in which case you really wouldn't need more than two genders. But that doesn't begin to cover the range of gender expression we see, not in some abstract thought experiment or rare medical edge case but in our very own community.

I bought a new house last year, and it has an old empty workshop attached. I'd like to 'revive' it, but I've got little "workshop-experience". 

In preparation, I bought some books on woodworking and pottery. The woodworking books are very traditionally masculine. Men! Chest hair! Beer! BBQ! 

But the book on pottery is quite feminine. Bright photos, soft colors, everything is demonstrated by a female Instagram influencer. 

That doesn't matter in the slightest to me. I don't think my interest in pottery has any relationship to my gender. I don't feel less manly for it. I like making physical objects with my own hands and that's a human trait, not a gendered trait. 

You describe "female-attired trans women who write great Rust code" as worthy of being its own separate gender. Why? Why can't (trans) women who write great code just be... women? Is it impossible to simultaneously be defined as a woman and to be able to write great code? That feels sexist and backwards to me. 

IMHO, behaviours, skills and hobbies don't define your gender. Your genitals do. 

People born with male genitals are male - even if they like to wear dresses and do ballet. 
People born with female genitals are female - even if they wear pants and write great code. 
Trans women often want to be recognized as female - even if they are "demisexual" (people who want a strong emotional connection before they can feel sexual attraction) and write great Rust code. 
And trans men often want to be recognized as male - despite [stereotypical female activity]. 

Last but not least - aren't sexuality and gender completely detached? Why should a gay man be any less of a man? 

Wait, trans women are just women but people born with male genitals are male? Are you proposing to use the words "man/woman" differently from "male/female"? I honestly don't understand what your position is.

It's literally a semantical discussion. There is no true right or wrong here. If you want to use the word "male" to describe those born with male genitals only, excluding trans men - that's a valid definition. A lot of trans men want to be seen as male, and including them is a valid definition as well. IMHO, the latter definition is kinder. 

Voted strong disagreement because genitals define sex and the definition of gender is very central to the issue.

I can agree that differences in skills and hobbies don't flip genders. And it is quite so that we try to center the genders around the sexes. But what is between your legs also does not flip your gender. Gender is a lot about how you integrate socially and it does not need to be dependant on single issues.

So it is not the case that all individuals of the sex female have no hope of ever being the gender man.

Some bees work in a way where if the queen bee dies, some/one of the remaining workers will turn into queens. And while there is a queen in the hive alive no such transitions occurs. In that kind of arrangement there are males that can only be gender drone and females that can either be workers or queens. A particularly bossy worker does not constitute a queen. And queens and workers do different things but that is not what makes them queens or workers. If a queen would start to carry a leaf it would not make her into a worker.

How are the "two clear genders" supposed to work when there are people who (i) have XX chromosomes but look, to all appearances, male when naked (ii) have XY chromosomes but look, to all appearances, female when naked (iii) have a mixture of bodily features some of which are usually only found in males while others are usually only found in females, s.t. their overall appearance defies categorization?

What proportion of the population do these cover? If exceptions are exceptional, it does not matter, except to them, how or whether they are classified.

Ugh, yes, we are talking about a very small fraction of people. But this small (or a slightly larger but still small) fraction is the entire topic of this thread, AFAICT. If it doesn't matter, then nothing said in this thread matters. Also, people are allowed to care about other people.

The thread is not just about these exceptions, but about everyone else changing everything they say about "male" and "female" to deal with the supposed puzzle of the existing notions being fuzzy around the edges. All notions are fuzzy around the edges. Making more boxes does not solve the problem, so far as there is one, of there being boxes.

I don't know where are you getting "everyone else changing everything they say about male and female" from. AFAIU, the OP is talking about dealing with the "edge cases" by inventing a bunch of new categories for them. Which might or might not be a good idea, but it doesn't seem to contradict the fact most people are cis and therefore unambiguously male/female.

At some point in your ever increasing number of gender distinction you are just looking at personality traits.

Gender is the cluster of social norms that coalesce around a sex. When what you are looking at is not a social norm, or does not even remotely coalesce around a sex, speaking of gender does not seem to make any sense.

I cannot make out what you mean by the word "gender". (Or, for that matter, what anyone else means when they distinguish the words "sex" and "gender".) Can you present the concept without using the word?

[ staying with personal epistemics - public presentation and recognition remains under the "caring, respect, and kindness" topic for me, not necessarily carving reality at the joints. ]

I don't personally treat "“rationalist-adjacent female-attired somewhat-passing demisexual trans women who like hanging out with each other and write great Rust code” as a gender.  In my mind, I dissolve "gender" into multiple different things, and categorize people differently according to the reason for my categorization.  

There almost certainly IS a cluster of people who fit that description.  Actually, multiple clusters, since it includes "like hanging out with each other", and some otherwise-similar individuals will like hanging out with a different subset of that group.  

Noticing correlations and clusterings of people is an important fact about the world (while recognizing that reality is complex, and any compression or modeling is lossy).  Labeling them, especially with controversial terms where your private definition will cause problems if it leaks into public conversation, is a mistake.

It seems like you can just switch out the word "gender" for "category" or "cluster", right? (and not just for the reason that you can switch out any word for any sound). I don't think the word "gender" is adding anything here. If what you want is to create categories of people and give them names, sure, I guess, go for that. It's nothing new, that's what a stereotype is, that's what "tomboy" or "Macho" or "Nerd" is. Calling it gender, with all the baggage that comes with that, just seems like a bad decision.

The only thing I can see about the word "gender" that might be useful is that, judging from how I see it used, someone can only have one gender. So if you want to talk about exclusive categories (like men and women, instead of say, tomboy and nerd) maybe gender works well, though I'd still rather some completely new word than to use a word with so much baggage.