Bill Nye Saves the World is not a serialized show, so I figure I can jump around a bit after reviewing the first episode. I’ve chosen to dive into Episode 9 in particular because I was surprised to discover the massive amount of push back it received.
I anticipated the Climate Change episode would be the most politically-charged episode in the U.S. After all, given all the robust science — from Kinsey to Masters and Johnson and beyond — can the sexual spectrum really still be such a public controversy? The answer, apparently, is a definite yes. So why didn’t the science explaining how we know what we know make it into the show?
Okay, so I didn’t love this episode. But I didn’t love it because it’s light on the actual science, a very different reason from, say, The Blaze, who called Bill Nye “not such a ‘science’ Guy” while perpetuating a brand new, false myth sparked by this episode that Nye had claimed gender was solely determined by our chromosomes on his previous show, Bill Nye the Science Guy.
The above meme is usually accompanied by claims of a conspiracy to “censor” Nye’s past show as part of some liberal plot to further the sinister “gay agenda.” According to Snopes, however, what Nye actually said while holding that first image was:
Our genes are stored in parts of our cells called chromosomes. They look like this. Chromosomes contain all of the genetic information, all of the instructions you need to make a person. Now humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46.
Of course, what Nye might have said 20 years ago is irrelevant because scientific understanding changes. As Nye illustrates in a different episode of Saves the World, his position on GMOs has radically shifted in just the past few years. That’s a real, documented example where he’s said something antithetical to his current position. And, like a good scientific mind, he’s proud to admit his views have changed.
The Abacus of Sex
The episode starts off well with Nye introducing his “Abacus of Sex.” He uses the abacus to distinguish four important categories: sex, gender, attraction, and expression.
Sex refers to biological sexual components like sexual organs and hormones. Gender refers more to how a person psychologically identifies. Attraction refers to sexual orientation such as homosexual or heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, etc. And expression refers to how one presents themselves in relation to cultural norms such as fashion, hair, and makeup.
In the “Bill Needs a Minute” segment, Nye asks those who respond to the idea of sexual and gender diversity as if it were a threat to their own way of life, “What do you care?” He continues, “Those people are not going to try to have sex with you … for more than one reason.”
It’s after this point that problems arise. Nye’s panel of experts didn’t bring the hard science. They discussed the lack of evidence for a “gay gene” and the rise of gender identities and sexual orientation labels as a recent cultural phenomenon.
Then, the final nine minutes of the episode transitions from science to the arts. Don’t get me wrong; I love the arts. But the bulk of this final chunk of the show is devoted to two segments unlikely to change the mind of someone who believes there is a “gay agenda” and that only two genders exist. A cartoon mocking scientifically debunked gay conversion therapy is followed by “My Sex Junk,” a comedic music performance by Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Bloom’s a funny and talented artist, but “My Sex Junk” is not her best work and, most importantly, it’s not persuasive.
So what does the science say?
Did I already mention gay conversion has been discredited? So, regardless of one’s critique of the ice cream cartoon segment on stylistic grounds — and I didn’t love it — it’s scientifically justified in its chosen subject of ridicule.
But what about The Abacus of Sex?
Nye started off with sex, relating to sexual organs. In addition to male and female, there is, in fact, a percentage of the population born “intersex,” defined as those born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit traditional binary sex categories of male and female. Not only is this observable among other species, but researchers such as Eric Vilain study the very real phenomenon in human populations. According to Vilain:
We’ve identified new molecular mechanisms of sex determination. In particular we’ve discovered genes, such as WNT4, that’s female-specific and not present in males, and that’s sort of shifted the paradigm of making a male as just activation of a bunch of male genes. In fact, it’s probably more complicated. What we’ve shown is that making a male, yes, is activating some male genes, but it’s also inhibiting some anti-male genes. It’s a much more complex network, a delicate dance between pro-male and anti-male molecules.
Next, there’s gender, how we psychologically identify. Is there something observably unique about a so-called “transgender brain”? The answer is an emphatic YES!
Overall the weight of these studies and others points strongly toward a biological basis for gender dysphoria. But given the variety of transgender people and the variation in the brains of men and women generally, it will be a long time, if ever, before a doctor can do a brain scan on a child and say, ‘Yes, this child is trans.’
Then we have attraction or sexual orientation. Clearly, it would be a herculean task to deny evidence of outward expressions of sexual attractions that defy normative notions that human pair bonding only goes “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But beyond mere human behavioral observation, we find homosexual behavior in at least 1500 animal species.
Now, as Nye’s panel concluded, there is no “gay gene” per se, but researchers concluded that “sexual orientation varies widely according to cultural norms and traditions,” though attraction develops similarly across the world; male and female sexual orientations develop along different patterns; biological factors such as prenatal hormones and specific genetic profiles likely are among many factors which contribute to sexual orientation, along with some environmental factors; and sexual orientation cannot be altered through social means, and increased social tolerance has not increased non-hetero-normative orientations.
Finally, we have expression. If you caught MTV’s recent Movie and TV Awards, you might have seen the first gender-neutral acting award presented by actor Asia Kate Dillon, who identifies non-binary. Dillon uses singular “they” pronouns. And along with Mr. and Ms., there is even a gender-neutral English-language honorific or title, Mx.
Now, if you’re like I was not long ago, you might have dismissed this sort of thing as just liberalism run amok and a new fad by iconoclasts trying too hard to get attention by being different. You too might have assumed there was no hard science behind transvestites like Eddie Izzard as well as non-binary individuals like Asia Kate Dillon and any other non-normative experience placed under the category of Pangender. Well, like Bill Nye on GMOs, I’m happy to admit it. Past me was dead wrong.
A 2015 paper in Nature found, “The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.” The piece begins with a case study of a pregnant woman who was found to have a body built of cells from twin embryos that merged in the womb. One set of cells had two X chromosomes, and the other had both an X and a Y. Only after having her third child in her fifties did she learn a significant part of her body was chromosomally male. The piece explores other pangender phenomena as well, and is worth the read.
Biologist PZ Myers adds, “[I]t’s not just biology that supports the idea that sex is a spectrum. It’s also the case of psychology and sociology — any science that has to address sex differences.” The UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics says, “It’s becoming more apparent there aren’t just men and women among us.” A feature in National Geographic explores more case studies of demonstrating the sexual spectrum.
Finally, Dr. Harriet Hall concludes:
Science has not been able to categorically distinguish a male from a female. There’s no one simple test to determine whether an individual is a woman or a man. It’s not an either/or dichotomy, but a multidimensional spectrum on several axes, from the biological to the social to the psychological. And science has not conclusively shown which characteristics are biologically determined. Nature and nurture interact and influence each other; it’s difficult to tease out the contributions of each. Each axis has its own continuum, with degrees of strength. A person can fall at the male end of the spectrum on some axes and at the female end of the spectrum on others.
Episode 9 of Bill Nye Saves the World is disappointing because it ignores much of the rich science that defends his thesis in favor of entertainment that will only reach the already converted. It’s not persuasive, and it could have been. And given the massive backlash from mostly political conservatives, it seems the sexual spectrum is a topic we need to better educate the public about.
Evolution is an undirected process, meaning there’s no intention guiding it. That many (though not all) species develop along a primarily binary male/female divide is mostly epiphenomenal, as in a side effect of some other survival advantage. But, because mutation via natural selection is such a messy process, exceptions that don’t seem to serve a survival advantage in any obvious way occur all the time.
Science shows us concrete, observable evidence that there exists in nature, within the human condition, a rich tapestry of pangender and non-binary phenomena across a wide sexual spectrum that’s far more interesting than a simple XX or XY. That diversity ought to be celebrated, not seen as a threat to the worldview of anyone open to the truth.