UPDATE: Bill C-16 has been passed by the House of Commons. If passed by the Senate it will become law. For a Department of Justice statement on the bill’s Constitutional impacts, see here. Canadians can look forward to up to five years in jail for violating the premises of an anti-science ideology which will be soon enshrined into law, to the enduring embarrassment of the country.
The worlds of science and politics may seem like worlds apart to some, but all too often they are worlds colliding. So it is with the Government of Canada’s current Bill C-16. Its third reading looming, this bill would enshrine into the Canadian Constitution a scientifically flawed social theory. The results would be deleterious for Canadians.
Some background: In 2002, Canadian evolutionary theorist and linguist Steven Pinker wrote a landmark book, The Blank Slate, which took on social constructionism: a school of scholars and activists who diminish or even deny the role of genetics, and biology more broadly, in shaping human nature through the selective pressures of evolution. Our minds are not blank slates, written over with the text of social programming, but the product of evolutionary pressures. Few aspects of the human mind are more powerfully sculpted by evolution than the gendered qualities of our sexual differences: rooted in the fundamental differences of our gametes, resulting in a cascade of dimorphic mating preferences and behaviors that leverage prior biological and behavioral investments of resources.
Evolutionary thinkers acknowledge the role of phenotypes: the specific person we become through the interaction of our genes and environment. Phenotypes may partially explain the range of femininity and masculinity, respectively, within each of the two genders. However, the biology of parental investment establishes the physiology and behavior of gender. These gender differences are biologically baked into the psychology of every sexual species – including humans. So, while phenotypic differences exist, they are not limitless: not blank slates. Phenotypes are tethered to genotypes.
Pinker’s book remains widely lauded for its incisive critique of social constructionism. The promoters of the agenda, though, persist. Empirical evidence notwithstanding, they continue to dismiss the science as “reductionism” and “biological determinism” – rhetorical magical wands that supposedly disappear the material world. Extant gender differences in men and women, girls and boys, are explained by social attitudes and messages inculcated in early childhood, reinforced by “sexist” institutions and practices that process and mold us throughout our lives: e.g., schooling, Hollywood, advertising, video games.
As Pinker observed, social constructionism has a political agenda reminiscent of the mid-20th century totalitarian movements: conceiving human nature as malleable, subject to social engineering. A resistant human nature is inconvenient for such aspirations. So the science is dismissed or ignored. This science-myopia has led to social constructionist ideals of gender fluidity: gender’s apparent binary organization is a product of social conditioning. Not only are masculinity and femininity allegedly interchangeable, but gender isn’t even tied to sexuality. Overlaying the binary world of the two sexes there is supposedly a limitless space of possible genders. Consequently, the small number of individuals who experience gender dysphoria have found themselves on the front lines of a political conflict driven by social constructionism.
Scientists for the most part are a pretty liberal bunch, and I expect as a matter of courtesy few would object to an adult, born to one gender, adopting the trappings of the other if they desired being so treated. If we’re not to slide down the slippery slope of science denial, though, some facts cannot be compromised. Our chromosomes define our actual, biological gender: if you have YX you’re a male, if you have XX you’re a female. No one’s identity preferences can be privileged over material reality. Also, the idea of, say, a woman in a man’s body, comforting as may be the metaphor to some (and popular as is the Hollywood narrative trope), has no scientific foundation. Maybe, someday, genetics or endocrinology will identify biological facts that reliably predict the relevant psychological conditions. Today, the American College of Pediatricians defines gender dysphoria as a mental disorder.
This, though, is a million miles from claiming individuals can simply invent their own “gender,” as suggested by Bill C-16. The bill would amend the Canadian Charter of Rights, part of the country’s constitution, to recognize “gender identity” as a protected class (or, I suppose, an indefinite set of classes). The Canadian Department of Justice’s Q&A page devoted to Bill C-16 declines to define these terms, “to ensure that the law would be as inclusive as possible.” The rhetoric on all sides of the debate share an understanding that a long list of self-proclaimed genders are to be covered by the legislation. Indeed, the Justice Department’s Q&A page does define “gender diversity”: “This could include transgender, gender non-conforming, gender fluid, two-spirited, and intersex people, amongst others.” The Department of Justice also directs Canadians to the Ontario Human Rights Commission definition: “Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is a person’s sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.”
Again, most scientists would likely applaud the Government of Canada’s aim to protect all its citizens from discrimination. Pinker argued in The Blank Slate that the existence of biological differences does not warrant discrimination based on those differences. It is quite another thing though to claim to be avoiding the discrimination by denying the reality of the biological facts. Public policy will be affected by enshrining social constructionism’s aggressively anti-science agenda into the Canadian Constitution: e.g., education, health (including mental health), and all manner of targeted programs. Should start-up grants for women-run small businesses be awarded to males who identify as women? Will male convicts serve time in women’s prisons if they identify as women? What will be the legal impact for young children who frequently experience temporary gender dysphoria?
Policy impracticalities aside, at the heart of the matter is the rejection of science into which the Government of Canada is being lured. Social constructionism is not merely unscientific; many of its proponents are aggressively anti-science. Bill C-16 is the intellectual and ethical equivalent of aspiring to enshrine intelligent design into the constitution. The Government of Canada is on the brink of making a mockery of the country. Just as the legacy of the Scopes Trial has made Tennessee iconic of the folly of having legally enshrined creationism, Canada too will be a cautionary tale against abandoning science to popular passions.