“Nature is Amazing”: Feathers Fly Over Claim of Scientific American Editor that Some Birds Have Four Sexes

We recently discussed the controversy involving a University of Pittsburgh anthropology professor who declared that you cannot tell the gender of an individual from their bones. Now the editor-in-chief of Scientific American Laura Helmuth is under fire for claiming that certain birds have four sexes.

On May 17, Helmuth tweeted a statement with a 2017 article in Audubon Notebook stating “White-throated sparrows have four chromosomally distinct sexes that pair up in fascinating ways. P.S. Nature is amazing[.] P.P.S. Sex is not binary.”

Various commentators cried “fowl.” They noted that the article in question referred to two types of males and two types of females with different feather stripping. The two different sets of feather markings produced different reproductive patterns between white-stripped and tan-stripped members.

University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller tweeted “Why are you outright lying about what the paper says? A ‘type’ of reproductive strategy within a sex is not the same as a sex. Shameful that the editor of @sciam is showing zero scientific integrity.”

Similarly, biologist Colin Wright wrote “I don’t know if you genuinely don’t understand the paper or if you’re wilfully misinterpreting it. But either way, as the editor of @sciam this is embarrassing.”

The paper itself engages in what it calls an “oversimplification” and said that it is “almost as if” there were four genders:

“So the morphs differ in traits that parallel the usual differences between the sexes in birds. Looking at White-throats in the breeding season, we see four distinct types. To oversimplify, we could call them super-aggressive males, more nurturing males, somewhat aggressive females, and super-nurturing females. It’s almost as if the White-throated Sparrow has four sexes. That may sound like a joke, but it’s actually a good description of what’s going on.”

Various critics have objected that Scientific American has become more political and more woke under Helmuth.

This month the magazine published an article by Agustín Fuentes titled “Here’s Why Human Sex Is Not Binary. Ova don’t make a woman, and sperm don’t make a man.”

Fuentes stresses “As far as we know, there’s no other bird in the world with this unique arrangement.” However, he does attempt to tie this research to the ongoing debate over human sex. He notes:

“While sperm and ova matter, they are not the entirety of biology and don’t tell us all we need to know about sex, especially human sex.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that differences in sex biology do not matter. They do. Nor am I asserting that reproductive physiology is not an important aspect of all animal lives.”


117 thoughts on ““Nature is Amazing”: Feathers Fly Over Claim of Scientific American Editor that Some Birds Have Four Sexes”

  1. This is what happens when you abandon actual science for the pseudoscience of mentally-ill people who have populated the culture war. I’ve lived through so much of this. This stuff that comes out of the left is so bad that It makes flat-earth science look credible.

  2. He states the obvious…I don’t know why that concerns ppl really…..I got a flock of birds and it’s trie…makes win on quial…..but birds aren’t exactly peopple. There are glaring differences….for one birds don’t have psychiatry…..whose original mission was to rule out organic but morphed to big pharmacy poll pushing. So nothing psychiatry says can be taken seriously any more. They just big pill. And now the people know it so it’s predictable….any one who won’t go along is diagnosed! How clever! But I wAnna know how Diane lane died? How Mr Stewart died and how Mr jordan diec? It could be unrelated….but we do y ever know unless someone looks! Will anyone?

  3. Oforpetessake. A chromosomal mutation that’s apparently gone over the top because it increased aggressiveness and didn’t impair fertility…

    Laura Helmuth, note, is not herself a scientist but a “science journalist”.

  4. Helmuth has superimposed her political ideology over bird reproduction and behavior. I’m pretty sure these birds would object – in the form of screeching and violent self-defense – to having their genitals removed and gluing the plumage of opposite sex birds their bodies.

  5. Next, woke bird watchers will claim that the bird calls of certain species are based on the use of correct pronouns in their songs…otherwise other birds will not respond. This will be followed by some version of birds being ‘transsexual’ or some other gibberish. People opposing the woke interpretations will of course immediately be labelled homophobic, transphobic, etc.

    1. @Yerhenious,

      Well, I’ve been watching the Geese along the Chicago River. Here you see parents raising their young ones. But you also see males who are on their own.
      While some would say that they lost out to other males during the mating season… I’m sure others will just say that they are gay and didn’t want to mate.

      It seems that the editor of the Journal really doesn’t know much about science and was trying to promote an ideology that wasn’t correct.

      If you read what was quoted from the article, the authors were merely pointing out that there were two traits of the males that were distinguishable by their coloration. One was more agressive/dominant while the other was more of a nurturer. Its not to say that there were multiple sexes, but that there appears to be a trait that was indicated by their coloration. It could be a point of deviation into two different species that only time will tell. Unfortunately this was lost in how they described it as ‘almost being two different sexes’ Hence the 4 sexes misinterpretation.

      I’m surprised that the potential for a divergence in species was completely missed.


      1. “the authors were merely pointing out that there were two traits of the males that were distinguishable by their coloration.”

        You’re mistaken. It’s not “merely” that. You can read the original paper to understand better why: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(15)01562-6
        There are two male morphs and also two female morphs, and in both cases, they’re distinguished not only by color and behavior but also chromosomally via a supergene: “Tan-striped birds have two identical copies of chromosome 2, but in white-striped birds, one copy of chromosome 2 has a large section inverted, … [and] scrambled in a variety of ways. … Many different genes here are tightly linked to form a “supergene,” so that birds of one color morph also inherit a whole range of behaviors.” Moreover, “mated pairs of White-throats almost always involved one bird of each color morph: Either a tan-striped male with a white-striped female, or a white-striped male with a tan-striped female,” as the pairs with either both being white-striped or both being tan-striped are less adaptive in raising young.

  6. “Sex is not binary.”

    Fascinating — except for the pesky fact that the concept “non-binary” assumes the concept “binary.”

    1. What’s the problem? Both the concept of “binary” and the concept of “non-binary” exist.

    2. @Sam

      Just as Trans gender also supposes on two sexes. (Transitioning from one to the other)

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