“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. I stopped reading SA a decade and a half ago. Just because of this silly nonsense. Every article has a global warming or climate change mention. And more of such nonsense creeps in every year. The entire magazine pivots around the cause de jour of the left, with no actual science needed.

    1. Oh, my!

      Kernels of truth are popping up everywhere in the Union of American Socialist States (UASS).

  2. Sex is about reproducing and it is binary. If the more aggressive female white-throated sparrow and the more nurturing female white-throated sparrow fall in love and build a nest and love up on each other—there will still be no eggs laid in that nest.

    1. Oh, my!

      Kernels of truth are popping up everywhere in the Union of American Socialist States (UASS).

  3. It’s simple science, just like a male human who desires sex with a blond, brunette, and redhead. Put them all together and what you don’t have is four sexes – what you do have is a party.

    1. LOL…good one!

      Unless of course if the male gets off on seeing the women doing each other, a common heterosexual fetish, which means….wait, are we allowed to discuss these things on here? Maybe Darren needs a rise? ahem.

  4. The real problem is that psychologists, who are really modern day witch doctors, have labeled themselves as “scientists.” They are not. Neither are philosophers. I suppose psychiatrists could be since they are medical doctors.

  5. The Nantucket Sleigh Ride we’re in now on binary tells us not to conflate advocacy for consensus with achieving consensus. Consensus is earned the hard way by persuasion, not by screaming before being interrupted. We’re not there because the science is not yet there. Let’s not serve any wine before its time.

        1. Mike, so you’re not actually saying consensus on what – e.g., consensus that there are only two sexes, or consensus that there are more than two sexes – just consensus in general, right?

          1. That’s a fair take with the understanding that this writer’s sense that the prevailing consensus among us is binary, and that any new consensus brings us to Carl Sagan’s admonition that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Evidence not skewed by any censoring of who is speaking.

  6. Sheesh, I’m so tired of these ideologues and twisted souls pitching us this pitiful argument in which poor animals become their political footballs. Remember the gay penguin couple keeping a poor abandoned egg warm? What they did not show us was this couple engaged in “in flagrante.” Not even canoodling, just keeping warm and alive and lending a hand to another outcast. Heavens. If we are to attribute human characteristics to animals, why not attribute the best characteristics and not the least of them?

    1. “If we are to attribute human characteristics to animals, why not attribute the best characteristics and not the least of them?” What a great question. Another great question is why do we get so wrapped up in trivial debates of little consequence? If the facts are on your side, cite facts. If you have science on your side, cite science. If you have neither, make unsubstantiated reaches, or just scream and break things.

  7. In the context of today’s blog, woke is for the birds but it wasn’t always like this. In 1663, only 360 years ago, a friend and patron of Pope Urban VIII, a man named Galileo Galilei, ran into a problem when he wrote supportively of a theory espoused by Nicolaus Copernicus almost a century earlier that the Sun really didn’t revolve around the Earth as noted in biblical scriptures but that, instead, the Earth revolved around the Sun. Galileo was summoned before the Roman Inquisition that declared him a suspected heretic. Normally, in those days, heretics denounced by Inquisition authorities might be imprisoned or burnt at the stake but because Galileo was pals with the pope, he was sentenced to house arrest for about a decade before he passed on. For several hundred years thereafter, the Vatican continued to dodge the subject and it was not until 1979, some 346 years after Galileo was placed under house arrest, that Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo was correct. The conflict between faith and science often comes down to some reconciliation of the former with the latter. Our culture is currently in a woke phase but as in the case of Pope Urban and his successor, John Paul II, science will eventually prevail to dismiss the irrelevancies of this woke generation. It may take time for the bird brains among us to acknowledge this.

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

    If you having problems with understanding how the Medical experts got Covid to wrong, this is a great example. On “Scientist” lying and a “Scientific” journal, doubling down on the lie….all to advance a political agenda.

  9. This is what happens when ideology trumps science. It was all about getting to those last four words: “Sex is not binary.”

    How do I know this? Because even if one assumes everything preceding it is true, the statement itself does not logically follow. It would have logically followed to say, “Sex among white-throated sparrows is not binary.” But no, the author was not happy with that more precise phrasing, even though that too would have been factually wrong. Instead, she wanted to make a more sweeping statement that scoops in humans.

    Blech! The cancer of woke has invaded the hard tissue of science.

    1. Much of the intentional dishonesty flooding the infospace today is achieved by dropping qualifiers, and putting together 4 or 5 word talking point sentences, where the verb is “is” or “isn’t”. It’s a childish, almost infantile way to think and speak, but benefits from the drama of the oversimplified narrative.

  10. Dear Prof Turley,

    Throughout Mark Twain’s writings, he confuses the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with that of the Virgin Birth of Christ (DeVoto), although I’ve never really understood the distinction.

    As far as I know, there are no birds, or bees, in the world with this unique Non Binary sex arrangement.

    *A non binary bird will drop dead, frozen on the bough, ‘without ever feeling sorry for itself.’

    1. dgsnowden – Immaculate conception refers to the conception of Mary. As I understand it, Catholics believe Mary cannot have been infected with the condition of original sin – meaning, the sin nature inherited from Adam – because no such tainted vessel could have borne Christ. The virgin birth of Christ, by contrast, has to do with how Christ was conceived and born.


  11. GEB gets it in One and offers the long but polite version.

    Diogenes gets in One and offers the reality version.

    Leftism as opposed to the classical Liberal is a mental disorder and should be treated in the same way other serious mental disorders are treated.

    It is high time we fix the American Mental Health system and rebuild In-Patient facilities and re-instate Involuntary Commitments for those who are a threat to society.

  12. Only the highly educated can try to get away with confusing genetics with gender/sex
    What he is talking about is eye color, Attached ear lobes, proclivity to certain diseases. That is genetics. Farmers that never got past 8th grade are smart than to be fooled by this over educated political hacks. Make no mistake. this “scientist” is practicing politics, not science.

  13. Poor Scientific American, it has fallen down the woke rabbit hole and it can’t seem to get up. They have also run things like an article excoriating doctors weighing patients as racist because more black people tend to be overweight. A couple of years ago they ran an issue on bloopers they have advocated going back to the beginning of the magazine. With woke idiocy they are stocking up for the next mea culpa issue. I have been reluctant to drop my subscription because it dates back to my Dad in the 1930s. OTOH reinforcing their woke behavior with money encourages them.

  14. Newsflash–Life is not just about sex. It’s all about personal survival and procreation is about survival of your species and the most efficient and effective way to keep your species competitive. I read this article and the subsequent criticisms. The article was trash and most have been written by a politico and not a “scientist” but the sciences have been polluted and so much is trash and fails to follow the scientific method and editors of once great Journals no longer have the understanding or backbone to toss out the papers that fail even the most basic standards of research. That was one of the reasons for so much of the confusion with Covid. Agenda and trash articles and journals drowned out the real science and editors forgot how to edit. Also papers were being spread and interpreted before they even had peer review and critiques.
    It was all about the agenda and not the real facts and truth.

    1. I think that’s a great start. In about 30 seconds, I noticed that there’s many human genders; Men who like TV; Men who like movies; Men who get horny more than 10 times a day; Men who hate to ask for direcitons when lost; Women who like pink; Women who love animals; Women who like children; Women who cry.

  15. Transgender people commit suicide at nineteen times the rate of the general population. Transgenderism is an illness and should be treated with sympathy, but to call it a social movement is quackery. We don’t take a knee to schizophrenia and call that science… except in New York subways.

    The left has become a habitat for insanity.

    1. Diogenes, in Amherst Mass. a school committee member did not refer to a student by their desired pronoun. Now the student is supposedly suicidel. The parents hired a lawyer.

      1. That is pitiful, Bob. We can see where the child gets it from 🙁

        That is the problem with this whole pronoun thing. It becomes a minefield if you can’t read their minds.

        Meanwhile, they carelessly think asking a grown-ass man what his pronouns are isn’t an insult to his manhood. It is. I would be offended. They never think about that because it’s all about their own agenda to the exclusion of everyone else.

  16. This gives new meaning to the white-throated sparrow’s call of “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody.” The poor bird never realized it would be caught up in the gender identity wars.

    1. They meant: Follow the Money!
      Birds & Bees do ‘it’ for Money in the end game.

  17. These people want everything to be sexual.

    And confused sexually.

    Their right, but the problem comes when they impose their cults on the rest of us.

    Good news,they self identify as idiots as soon as they start talking.

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