Note: Greg Laden has made a comment on this post saying that I misrepresented his position. I am open to the possibility and have therefore asked some follow-up questions, but at the time of writing this note (2012-07-26 22:23 GMT +1 DST), Laden has not clarified the situation for me. Keep this in mind while reading this post. Will update this again when he does.
Note: I just noticed (2012-07-28 22:08 GTM +1 DST) that Heina Dadabhoy did not mean what she actually said, but said it as a joke in response to a tweet by Zvan. There is an alternative explanation, namely as a post hoc rationalization when Heina discovered that she had been called on it, but it seems less likely. In essence, this means that we can probably consider both the claim made by Greg and Heina to be jokes or awkwardly expressed science. The only think left now is for Greg to finish writing up his follow-up and/or setting me straight by explaining more in detail in what way I misrepresented him.
Note: As a clarification (2012-07-28 23:06 GMT +1 DST) for Kelseigh Nieforth (@Nezchan), I reject this alternative explanation. It is possible, but relatively implausible. I did not intend to sound “mean-spirited & insulting”, quite the opposite. My intent was to rebuke what I felt was going to be the standard misogynist reply (i.e. claiming that Heina only said it was a joke when she noticed it had gotten a lot of attention and reflected badly upon her).
Note: Greg Laden has clarified his position over at his Scienceblogs blog. The general idea is that testosterone alters the male brain during different stages of development and “damaged” referred to the fact that androgens and other biosocial factors influence certain men to be more statistically likely to exhibit socially noxious and harmful behaviors that are incompatible with progressive, egalitarian and peaceful world. I have no general problems with this position (note added 2012-08-03 20:16 GTM +1 DST).
Note: This blog post has been linked by a men’s rights activist blog. All forms of discrimination is morally wrong, but most men’s rights activism I have come across seems to be equal parts pseudoscience and blanket anti-feminism. I therefore, in general, reject men’s rights activism. This post should not, and cannot, be interpreted as giving men’s rights activism any support, whatsoever (clarification added 2012-08-04 14:14 GMT +1 DST).
The background to this story is that Heina Dadabhoy and Greg Laden, at a panel discussion on gender differences at SkepchickCon/CONvergence, claimed that the Y chromosome was “broken” and that the male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone. Amidst substantial criticism of these claims, the FtB blogger Stephanie Zvan decided to take upon herself to defend these flawed notions. As we shall see, her attempt is filled with incorrect characterizations and selective use of the scientific literature,
But first, let us make sure we have understood the claims being put forward in the video, so that we do not incorrectly characterize them as something they are not. A video of the panel discussion can be found here. I will post enough of the discussion for context, but readers are encouraged to check if I have gotten everything right. Laden was especially hard to take a transcript of, because he talks very fast and often changes mid-sentence, but hopefully I got the gist. It starts with a question from the audience at 35:41 about the gender differences in autism diagnosis and how males are supposedly more often autistic than females:
Heina Dadabhoy: That is an underdiagnosis issue, actually. They have been doing more and more research on women and autism. A lot of us women who fall on the spectrum only find out when we are adults, because a lot of the behaviors that manifest…the ways that girl tend to manifest it is slightly different and you know a girl who gets obsessed with something they are like “oh, well she is a girl and she has her little obsessions, how cute and when it is a boy it is like “oh, why isn’t he out beating up his peers?” so that is a big issue with autism.
Member in the audience: …inaudible… [probably something to do with differential disease susceptibility between genders e. g. red-green color blindness or hemophilia – E. K.]
Heina Dadabhoy: That is the Y chromosome. It’s broken [Dadabhoy smiles and laughs – E. K.]
Greg Laden: There is… there is … One thing that psychology does…There is some reasonable evidence that certain….There are gender differences.. [inaudible]. But there are gender differences. One of the most important gender differences.. in other words males versus females do not overlap that much at all… in certain areas and one of…one place they do not overlap at all, and you can’t change this… with culture… much..like you can change spatial orientation by giving everyone Tetris when they are born and will be the same. What we can’t change is that, for example, is the number of kids that cannot read until much later…the age at which you start to read and how you have dyslexia and so on that are boys is an order of magnitude higher in girls and you can do everything you want to fix that and you can only fix them a little bit. Most of those differences disappear and are not necessarily that significant, but is real. You know, the male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone in various stages in it’s life. I think probably there are some very interesting adult difference…you cannot look at at a person and say that, but population differences between males and females that has to do with brain development because hormonal differences and…most of them are probably kind of trivial but there probably are some…yeah autism…I don’t think that is an example of one, but there probably are some things but if we where that different, it would be a hard time communicating…[inaudible].
So, right of the bat we can see that Zvan has incorrectly characterized both what Dadabhoy and Laden had stated. Dadabhoy stated that the Y chromosome was broken, not, as Zvan wants to have it that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome. Laden stated that male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone in various stages in it’s life and did not use the term development. As we shall see, it is these false characterizations that Zvan’s bases her arguments on, but the bigger problem is that Zvan has no scientific foundation for her argument, leading the entire tortuous justification of the notion that men are genetically and neurologically “broken” to collapses onto itself.
The Y chromosome is not broken, but contains 86 unique and functioning genes
In her attempt to justify the absurd notion that men are genetically broken, Zvan appeals to the fact that the Y chromosome cannot recombine with the X chromosome to the same degree that the X chromosome can with another X chromosome. While this is true, this does not justify the original claim that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome, or the stronger claim that the Y chromosome is broken. In fact, the Y chromosome contains 86 fully functioning genes and this does not even count the genes that exists on both the X and Y chromosome. For the vast majority of individuals, the Y chromosome is fully functional and does not produce genetic defects or pathology. So nothing is actually “broken”.
X-linked recessive disorders signify a problem with the X chromosome, not the Y one
Zvan points out that males are more at risk for certain heritable disease because the related gene only occurs once, while in females it occurs twice (since they have two X chromosomes). This is also true, but the causative factor is the disabling mutation in the X chromosome that causes the disease, not something to do with the Y chromosome. So in other words, what is “broken” in these cases, is the X chromosome, not the Y.
Lack of large-scale recombination is sometimes a good thing
The loss of an ability for large-scale recombination is not something uniformly bad. In fact, if large-scale recombination between the Y chromosome and X chromosome was possible, it could result in males without the necessary sex-determining or sex-influencing regions in their Y chromosomes and females with harmful genes only found on the Y chromosomes, so the lack of large-scale recombination between X and Y is clearly adaptive. A loss does not need to be evolutionary or physiologically detrimental. Read more of this post