Review: Through the Wormhole: Are There More Than Two Sexes?

| Jan 2, 2017
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Morgan Freeman

I have always respected Morgan Freeman both as an actor and as a show maker. His Through the Wormhole Series has always been a source of accurate science and entertainment. I have even enjoyed parts of his series exploring God. From astronomy to human and animal behavior, his shows have generally hit the mark.

But in this show Are There More Than Two Sexes his producers have let him down, just as Diane Sawyer’s producers let her down when she did the Bruce Jenner coming-out interview. They neglected to review the science available. The producers randomly found some interesting scientists, some more interesting than other, but their work was framed in a totally unscientific and inaccurate manner.

The major flaw in their presentation was the confounding of sex and gender as though the words did not refer to different things and their interchangeable use of male and masculine, and female and feminine. I have a friend who tells me that I should not be concerned with this but without precision of language, there can be no science or effective communication of science. This is particularly true in the case of behavioral phenomena.

Morgan starts out by following the script that says that it is genetic for fathers to have dark hair and for moms to have curly hair. The producers obviously have not visited their local beauty salon to know that male hair is often curly and female hair is often straight. There is a huge diversity in these traits. But predispositions to gender behavior categories can totally reverse things. I could have curly black hair in a couple of hours.

Then they say that transgender people believe that there is something in between male and female. Transgender people are usually aware of the existence of intersex people and sex because they know more about biological diversity than most people. But most transgender people pay attention to gender behavior rather than biological sex. They change sex organs in order to better fit into their predisposed genetic gender behavior category. We soon see, in this program, that the producers and most of the guest scientists belief that sex should be assigned according to the pattern of X and Y chromosomes and genes rather than the configuration of sex organs.

The first segment with endocrinologist Richard Holt, inventor of a grown hormone test for athletes, comes to the conclusion that sex cannot be determined by body inspection or testosterone levels but by “self-identification.” The segment does not tell us that chromosome and genetic testing for sex were discarded long before body inspection or testosterone measurement procedures by the Olympics. They may have omitted this because this would undercut some of the later scientists in the episode who still define sex in those terms. Maybe I am giving them too much credit for knowing this but it is a key scientific omission. Certainly Richard Holt knows the history of sex determination and could have been asked on camera. They depict the use of body inspection in the Olympics through a somewhat prurient scene.

Dutee Chan

The Holt segment does provide some important insights about testosterone blood levels. There is a considerable overlap between males and females and testosterone levels do not predict athletic performance. They provide an example of Dutee Chan whose testosterone levels were higher than the assumed female range and was banned from competition but had this ban reversed before the 2016 Olympics using scientific evidence. Otherwise the only way she could have competed was to take testosterone suppressing drugs. Imagine athletes having to take spironolactone or other drug to get their testosterone levels down. It is not clear what Holt is referring to as “self-identified,” whether self-identified sex or gender but the producers do not press the issue, which leaves me at a loss.

The next scientist is Daphna Joel, a psychologist from Israel, who ostensibly tested whether the supposed anatomical brain differences between males in females could be detected. So she looked at lots of MRIs of male and female brains and concluded that an individual brain could not be correctly classified as male or female. The problem with this conclusion is that there are parts of the brain that have been shown to differ between males and females but most of them cannot easily be seen on MRI scans. They are at the internal base of the brain and are relatively small. These “dimorphic” structures are closely hooked up to the genitals. There are only one or two neuron “relay” cells between them. Transgender people are particularly concerned about these structures because transsexuals have similar size and cell count structures to the opposite natal sex. I wonder if they asked her about these. And I wonder if she had any transsexual or transgender brains in her collection. We are at least 1% of the population.

Dr. Eric Vilain

The third scientist was Eric Vilain at UCLA who is famous for his search for genes that cause homosexuality. He presented a case in which a young female did not go into puberty and could not produce eggs. Her genitalia were female and gender presentation was feminine. She had X, Y chromosome configuration which usually results in male genitalia. He found a slight mutation of the SRY gene on the Y chromosome that runs in her family and produces these effects. All good science. But Villain kept insisting that she was male because of her X, Y chromosomes, even though all of her sex organs were anatomically female. The absurdity of this is that the very case he cited disproved the assertion that X, Y chromosome configuration and SRY gene always or usually results in male organs. Could he just not have said that she was female from the anatomy of her organs but there was a genetic defect that kept her from producing female hormones or eggs? Insisting that the patient was male, just heightened her shame and anxiety. Villain actually pointed this out. Wonder about his bedside manner. Also wonder why the producers did not question whether a body with female organs should not be considered female. We trans women believe this to be true although we cannot produce female hormones or eggs. And I know that there are many X, X females out there who for various reasons (like hysterectomy) do not have those capabilities. We would not consider them to be male.

The fourth scientist was Chris Hauk, a pediatric endocrinologist, who they said was from South Carolina although I think he actually works in Augusta University in Georgia. He has studied the Guevadoces phenomena and came the closest to actually use sex and gender appropriately. The Guevadoces are people with X, Y chromosomes and normal SRY genes that are born with female genitalia. This is so because their genes (on non-sex chromosomes) lack a particular enzyme that catalyzes testosterone into dihyrotestosterone (DHT), the more potent form of testosterone. DHT is gangbusters in changing sex organs (it is also responsible for male pattern baldness, but I digress). In the womb, there is not enough DHT to form male sex organs, so the person is born with female sex organs. At puberty, there is so much testosterone created that the enzyme is not needed to form DHT, so the persons female genitalia become male genitalia.

The program alludes to gender issues about this phenomena but none of which get answered. What is the person’s original gender behavior predisposition and did it change during transition? The endocrinologists and the writers who report on this phenomenon don’t ever seem to ask or get an answer to this question. The most important thing about the Guevadoces is that they are accepted within their own subcultures and the changes at puberty are totally anticipated. Whether from family trees or from some other indicators, they seem to know who will become a Guevadoce. The producers never brought these important facts to light. Holt says that sex and gender are not the same thing. He almost gets it right when he says that we have a mental sense which is internal and almost ethereal (his word) but then he says it is a sense of sex, not gender. Again confounding the two.

Ivanka Savik

So we are back to the mind-body problem again with this “mental state” business. The scientific killer question is that if the mind is not part of the body, then how does it exist and where is the anatomical interface to it? So transgender people want to change their bodies (not once was the word transsexual uttered in this show as if the producers did not know how to use it). We are then treated to watch the obligatory scenes in which trans woman pick out their slinkiest dress from the closet and put on makeup. The question is then asked as to where does the urge to change ones body come from and we are introduced to Ivanka Savik at the Karolina Institute in Sweden. She purports to have found a brain center wherein lies the “self” and believes that transgender people change their bodies because they have “weak communication” between this center and parts of the brain involved in body image.

The scientific problem is defining a “self center” so that we can validate her theory. We can’t really define “self” in any biological way and just because the prefrontal cortex is active during certain experimental manipulations does not mean that there is a center or that the self, if it exists, resides there. The self center could very easily be theorized as being less active when needed in order to disinhibit and therefore activate other parts of the brain. You see, many of the neuron (nerve) cells in the body inhibit the activity of other neurons and release them to become active when appropriate. The workings of the brain are complicated. And I am reminded of a joke: What is a drug? Answer: A drug is a substance which injected into a rat, produces a research publication. Same goes for fMRI brain scans. At $900 an hour to use an fMRI (my last quote) researchers can’t have experiments that flop. They have to publish.

The next segment was to appeal to sci-fi interest. They showed and described research on two ant species that are dependent on one another for mating. In order for a queen to produce workers, she has to be fertilized by a male of the other species. However, similar subjects in sci-fi have included requiring 3 sexes for fertilization and birth. Most have all been imagined and explored, although I am sure there is room for one more. But this is hardly new and imaginative.

The final segment showed that after the SRY gene (see above) is done forming a male, the DMRT1 gene is involved in maintaining the testes. If you knock this gene out using chemicals and radiation (they do not actually explain this), the FOXL2 gene will be expressed to turn male testes cells into female cells that will secret female hormones. The producers depict this as a literal tug-of-war with blue shirted DMRT1-labeled males and pink shirted FOXL2-labeled females pulling on a rope. This depiction is juvenile and unnecessary but all they have to show otherwise are cells that stain different colors for these genes. They have used more accurate animations in the past and this was the time for one. Maybe it was cheaper to hire extras. They advance the idea that we can knockout genes as a potential treatment for transgender people who want to change their bodies is interesting but far from feasible. It takes many tries to actually get the right knockout using chemicals and radiation which is dangerous and may have unintended consequences. Not ready for use on humans. The caveat is advanced that this also could be used to force people to change their sex through genetic manipulation and therefore society should be on guard. That is true for all forms of genetic manipulation, so we have not learned anything. Besides, it also makes possible knocking out the genes that cause being transgender through their effects on gender behavior predisposition. That would be a more interesting topic.

The show ends with Morgan telling us that the science they showed indicate new potential sexual arrangements, most of which sci-fi disciples and writers already have imagined. The example he cites is that it could be possible to turn a sperm into an egg so that a gay couple can mate or turning eggs into sperm for a lesbian couple. In 2009 it was demonstrated that skin cells could be induced to become either egg or sperm cells. Not a word on that scientific research line which is further ahead than the one they suggested. The show concludes that there may be more sex configurations “than we can ever imagine.” Knowledge of the human genome and gene manipulation has become commonplace; there is nothing new here either in the imagination or in the technology.

Seems like I am being forced to be a critic of both inadequate articles and TV shows, and in the New Year, it may get more frequent as anti-transgender policies and attitudes are introduced without adequate review of the science. But that is my duty as your personal biopsychologist.


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Category: Product Review, Transgender Body & Soul, Transgender Opinion

danabevan

About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at [email protected]

Comments (2)

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  1. KoolMcKool KoolMcKool says:

    I will say it again, we are beyond having TV shows to prove or justify transgenderism.
    Where we are is a point where we must demonstrate we are capable of doing more than changing genders. Show folks you bring real value to the workplace, real insights to the sciences, real opportunities and gains in finance and societal progress and do it without talking about transgenderism.

    The majority of Americans have hit “Peak Trans” and just want to live a comfortable life and if you are trans and cross their path, they just want you to make their day a good one.

    • says:

      Kool, you appeal once again to common sense BUT remember:

      “He who controls the language controls the masses”. – Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals

      As they say, keep your eyes on the prize that radicals are coveting, ie control of the masses.

      Btw, old Saul himself would be in big trouble with contemporary language authorities for the use of that “He”.

      🙂