I Am a Woman
And a Biologist
Women are adult human females.
Adults are individuals who have attained the average age of first reproduction for their species. They have reached the age of maturity. The term adult applies across many species, and is used to distinguish them from juveniles, who are not yet capable of reproduction.
Humans are members of the genus Homo. Our relatives in the genus Australopithecus, now extinct, are sometimes categorized as human as well. Every individual Homo sapiens is a human.
Females are individuals who do or did or will or would, but for developmental or genetic anomalies, produce eggs. Eggs are large, sessile gametes. Gametes are sex cells. In plants and animals, and most other sexually reproducing organisms, there are two sexes: female and male. Like “adult,” the term female applies across many species. Female is used to distinguish such people from males, who produce small, mobile gametes (e.g. sperm, pollen).
It’s the definition of that last word—female—that will be difficult for some to accept.
Some people imagine that, because words are a social construct, so too, inherently, are the concepts that they describe. Some words do describe social constructs: offended, justified and controversy, for instance. These things have no reality in the physical universe, or if they do, that reality can be negotiated by social means.
Many words, however, do describe an underlying reality. Words like bulldozer, grasshopper, and woman.
Bulldozers don’t exist without humans—they are a human construct—but they are not a social construct. The distinction is important. Humans make things that have reality in the physical world. These things are therefore anthropogenic, and physically real. They cannot be negotiated out of existence with further words. You can’t argue a bulldozer into oblivion. By contrast, you can—under some circumstances—convince someone that they’re not offended, or that an act that they initially found troublesome is justified, or that a controversy doesn’t exist because some people have changed their minds.
Grasshoppers do exist without humans. They are neither a human construct, nor a social construct. Humans have named them in as many ways as there are distinct languages where grasshoppers exist on this Earth. In fact, humans have provided grasshoppers orders of magnitude more names than that, because the scientists who find and describe and name and classify grasshoppers—the taxonomists and systematists of grasshoppers—have identified more than 10,000 species of grasshoppers and their close relatives around the world. Over ten thousand species of grasshopper have been named by scientists. Those names are constructs. And in some cases, probably, the borders between the species being too finely drawn, the species distinctions are constructs as well. But the grasshoppers themselves? They are neither human construct, nor social construct. We came in with our science and our words and discovered truth about them, but that truth existed without us, and would continue to exist if we were to disappear.
Finally, women don’t exist without humans, but that is only because the category itself is defined by being a type of human. But women would continue to exist without there being words about women, or opinions, or stereotypes. Women exist outside of our framework for naming them.
There are other types of humans of course. There are Oregonians, for instance—people who live in the state of Oregon—of which I am, at present, one. But there are also native Oregonians—people born in Oregon—which I am not now and can never be. I cannot change history, my own or anyone else’s.
Similarly, each of us went down a non-reversible path very early in our existence, which established further pathways and systems—anatomical, physiological, endocrinological, neurological, more—which do not reverse, and which come to characterize one sex or the other. There are sometimes errors and anomalies—intersex people do exist. And there are sometimes mismatches between chromosomes and anatomy and brain—trans people do exist, but are extremely rare. And while trans people can attempt to bring their appearance into alignment with what their brains tell them they are—sometimes due to increasingly well understood genetic abnormalities—they cannot actually transition from one sex to the other. No mammal can do that.
The words transwoman and transman are thus neologisms, coined, we would hope, to offer respect to trans people. But the words are being weaponized, taken to mean their constituent parts. This is not how language works (but it is how sophistry works). Just as pineapples are not apples, transwomen are not women. Because transwomen are male.
There is so much to say on this and related topics. I have written and spoken extensively on the subjects of sex and gender elsewhere. Here are just a few:
On this week’s DarkHorse livestream (March 26, 2022), Bret Weinstein and I spent the whole episode talking about what a woman is, including a discussion of gametes and anisogamy, mechanisms of sex determination, and why we cannot let the sophists win.
And Bret and I spend a chapter each on Sex and Gender, and Parenthood and Relationship, in our NYT bestselling book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century.
My Areo essay from September 2020 includes analyses of the evolution of, as the title suggests, Sex, Love and Sexual Autism.
In 2018, I gave an invited talk at the Krishnamurti Institute titled Female and Male, Conflict and Cooperation: On the Evolution of Relationship
Here is a short Substack piece on male pregnancy in seahorses.
And in this tweet thread from April 1, 2021, I discuss the phylogenetic thinking behind the conclusion that, in our lineage, we have been sexually reproducing for at least 500 million years. Here’s another tweet thread that begins “Testosterone does not make the man.” I’ve done a number of tweet threads on sex and gender; if you want to find more, go to twitter search, search on @HeatherEHeying under “from these accounts” and search on e.g., sex, gender, gametes, or trans.
Subscribe for free to Natural Selections to receive posts to your inbox every Tuesday. Paying subscribers receive additional perks, including the ability to comment, audio reads of essays, and, with tomorrow’s audio of today’s post, captions for the pictures in the montage above.
Even in the rare cases where sexual reproduction is “lost,” as in whiptail lizards, the asexually reproducing species are understood to be made up entirely of females, because the individuals of such species produce eggs.
I explore the reason for anisogamy—two distinct gamete types—in several of the pieces referenced at the end of this post, and while this is well traveled territory in evolutionary biology, it is particularly well described in Daly & Wilson’s 1983 classic book, Sex, Evolution and Behavior.