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.”