The Trans Question

Question from Fraser:

Is it okay to be trans?

Answer by SmartLX:

From an atheist perspective, why wouldn’t it be?

So many of the condemnations of transgender people are rooted in the essentialist idea that God (or whoever) deliberately created two genders and the apparent gender at one’s birth is one’s divine destiny. Without this idea we are left with fairly simple facts.

Gender is in most cases determined by chromosomes, with most of us possessing either XX or XY. Transgender people’s brains have not received the usual effects of this, six to eight weeks after pregnancy, leaving them with traits putting them much closer to brains of those of the opposite gender. In a sense, they literally have a man’s brain in a woman’s body or vice versa.

There is nothing they can do about their brains, but they may choose to change their bodies or at least outwardly adopt a transgender identity. This is a far more honest expression of who they truly are than to simply accept the gender they were assigned at birth. If others have strongly negative emotional responses to this, they may try to rationalise them with the aforementioned essentialism but in the end it’s their own problem, until they start to attack trans people. When these attacks are justified using religion, atheists have an opportunity to point out that using religion to police the actions of others is counter to any secular society.

Sex Isn’t Gender Anymore

Question from Claire:
I am a college student taking a Philosophy of Gender class and need to interview people of different religions, including an atheist, on their opinions on sex and gender, and I realized I don’t know any atheists. I was wondering if you would be willing to give your answer to the following questions for me (and allow me to use them in a paper).

1. Please define what you think “biological sex” means. For example, when someone says that “Paul is biologically male” or “Jennifer biologically female,” what do you think that means?

2. What does “gender” mean? Is it different than biological sex or the same? If the same, why do you believe this? If different, how are they different?

3. What would you say is the basis for your answers? For example, science, religion, tradition/upbringing, etc.? Why do you trust that basis?

I realize this is a lot to answer but if you had the time I would really appreciate it and if not I understand. Thank you,

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s not so much to answer. You may use my responses in your paper. So, let’s get to it.

1. “Biological sex” is the sex of your body’s anatomy, including hormones and chromosomes as well as genitals and other obvious features. If someone is biologically male, either he lives as a man and their body suits the role or she feels she’s a woman and may need to explore the possibility of transitioning.

2. Gender is imposed by culture and society. It’s what a man or a woman should be, do, and want. “Biological gender” is sometimes used to mean the same as “biological sex” above, but only because “sex” and “gender” are so often treated as interchangeable when people aren’t thinking about gender issues. “Gender” is not the same as “sex” or “biological sex” because, and this is what blows people’s minds, it has nothing to do with the state of one’s body. This is why people with one sex essentially belong in the other gender, or somewhere in between.

3. As trans people and others in related situations (e.g. intersex, bigender) are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories and be open about their circumstances (including a good friend of mine), it’s becoming increasingly clear that traditional and most or all religious positions on these issues apply very poorly to reality. in these worldviews a person should not grow up as an unhappy man and suddenly begin to flourish as a woman or vice versa because sex is equivalent to gender, but it happens and it gets sillier and sillier to deny it. So I try to keep up with the biological science but I mostly go by academic positions based on large-scale survey data. These are based on what people say about their own situations and what their doctors say about them, but they have sufficient sample sizes and statistical analysis to go beyond the anecdotal. It’s the best kind of source to tell you what’s really going on.

The Human Body: The Amazing Multitudinous Dichotomy

Question from Robert:
Message: To whom it may concern: How can you explain the amazing complexity of human beings? The average human body has between 75 to 100 trillion cells. If no God, how could trillions of cells, which have no brain, collect themselves together and then change into all the highly specialized cells of the human body?

Also it takes a man and woman to create a baby. Therefore, a male and female body would have had to evolve at exactly the same time~! And a hermaphroditic human being still poses the same problem. The male and female parts would have needed to evolve — AT THE SAME EXACT TIME~! That is absolutely impossible.

Answer by SmartLX:
Didn’t actually go looking for answers to these, did you? You immediately took them to be ideal rhetorical blunt objects to beat any “Darwinist” into silence. The second one isn’t even a question, and you claim it’s impossible; this is not the language of someone who genuinely wants to know. Even if there were no answers to either one, to assume that there is no possible explanation without actually ruling any out is an argument from ignorance. Thing is, there are quite reasonable answers to each.

Today there are plenty of living things with no brain, and they assemble themselves just fine. Even the creatures with brains must start their self-assembly before the brain is formed, so brains have little or nothing to do with it. One cell automatically divides into two, then four, then eight and so on, held together with membranes. The DNA contained in each and shared by all contains the necessary information to allow each of these “stem cells” to metamorphose into a skin cell, a brain cell, a liver cell or whatever is needed. The cells can send biochemical signals to each other, so for example a cell is informed that there are enough lung cells for the moment and it becomes a bone cell instead. Once enough of an organ has come together, it reflexively begins its specific function: the brain manipulates electrical energy, the kidneys process liquids, the bones produce blood cells.

As for why there are so many cells in a body, there are many factors that limit the size of a living thing but for us none of them really kick in until the trillions. There’s enough food to feed them, they’re light enough not to collapse under their own weight, they’re strong enough not to break apart without significant force. There are obvious advantages of having so many of them together, too: they can defend themselves against similarly large threats, huge numbers of cells can be cut away or killed while the rest survive, they can reproduce fast enough to replace short-lived cells like skin cells. Once early single-celled organisms first fused together and shared their DNA about one billion years ago, there was nothing to stop them from amassing more and more cells per organism for all that time. Exponential growth has led to the huge conglomerates that are modern plants and animals.

In the same fashion that cells differentiate into many different types, the human body as a whole is triggered by its chromosomes to specialise as one of two types, male or female. (Sometimes this goes wrong: the body gets mixed signals and you get intersex babies, or hermaphrodites.) In our evolutionary history this would have started as a much less pronounced difference between two groups in the one microscopic species. Importantly, they remained part of the same species because they exchanged genetic material directly, perhaps by simply pushing it through their cell walls. It immediately conferred an advantage in terms of survival and procreation because the DNA of every new offspring was a recombination of two sets instead of a clone of just one. More new combinations, more mutations and overall faster evolution. (This effect has been observed directly in adjacent populations of small fish, some of which reproduce heterosexually and some unisexually. The ones who have sex with each other build immunity to new diseases in fewer generations.) Once that was happening, the differences within the species were free to develop further, and a similar distinction was already present in every other species that descended from it.

Picking various amazing things about the body (or our planet, or the universe) and claiming they’re unachievable without a god is a terrible way to logically arrive at the necessity of a god, partly because of the argument from ignorance but mostly because there’s usually been a lot of work done to determine the method and it’s liable to be plonked in front of you. This approach is however an excellent way to reassure believers, who are less likely to research a claim that supports their beliefs, that they are justified in their faith. Consider the possibility that this is the spirit in which these ideas were conveyed to you, because they just plain don’t work on atheists.

Sex, Evolution and Everything

Questions from Tabassum:
1. Things are existing around us. Why do they exist? Someone once answered that things exist because they just have to. But why do they HAVE to? How do I answer this without metaphysical ideas?

2. Evolution.
How did genders arise? People usually answer by giving some of the benefits of sexual reproduction but I am asking the how not the why. I mean how can we believe that genetic mutations led to perfectly complementary organisms when the two organisms (male and female) are separated in space and time? Or do I have the concept wrong here?

3. Evolution.
Evolution does not violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as I was taught. This is because there is energy continually being supplied to the organism so it can have the opportunity to become more sophisticated. Overall, the universe becomes more complex because the energy released from the sun increases the randomness of the overall system of the universe.

My query is:
If energy is being made available to the organism constantly, how would the organism use that energy. Shouldn’t there be a system to consume and use that energy in a useful way in the first place? So there needs to have evolved a system to use the energy, but it could only have evolved if it was able to use energy. Or maybe it can evolve without consuming energy? Answers?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The short answer is that we don’t know, but that’s not a good reason to assert any particular explanation.

Matter exists right now either because it has always existed or because it came into existence at some point. If it always existed in some form, then like most people’s concept of a god it has no need of an origin. If it came into existence, not only do we not know how but we don’t know if it needed a cause at all. We’ve never seen anything come into existence from nothingness, so for all we know it could be entirely spontaneous, though very rare. The exception is in quantum mechanics where current theory suggests that (and of course this is a gross oversimplification) small particles are regularly winking in and out of existence, without any known cause or even much of an effect. This hardly supports the idea of deliberate creation of matter.

2. The most popular hypothesis is that gender and sexual reproduction began as a simple transfer of DNA material between two almost identical entities. We know it evolved extremely early in eukaryotic single-celled organisms, and for such creatures an exchange like this could be as simple as pushing material through their cell walls while in contact. Even if this happened regularly but by accident, it would have altered the population’s overall genome much more quickly than cell division alone. That would have meant disaster for many individual cells that got the short end of the helix, but overall it meant more unique material for natural selection, faster evolution and better survival prospects. The organisms that won out and continued to reproduce would have been the ones that made this exchange a hard-wired part of their life cycle. After that, all that was required to achieve genders as we understand them today was the emergence of a DNA structure with a switch, or a split probability of going one way or the other – in other words, a chromosome.

3. Living organisms have evolved very efficient means of harnessing energy from outside themselves, like photosynthesis and digestive systems, but while such complex mechanisms are useful they are not essential. There are chemical reactions caused by light, water, oxygen and especially heat which have nothing to do with life at all. Molecules break down and recombine, elements move between states of matter and so on. For a crude thought experiment, imagine a variety of inorganic objects and what happens to them in a pot of boiling water, or on a stove, or when left in the sun all day.

The very first living organisms simply needed to include substances within their membranes that could absorb heat, light and maybe bits of other organisms, and use the material to do something chemically interesting enough to keep the whole thing running for another few seconds until it happened again.