Here’s a question. What are some philosophical aspects of the increasingly bewildering ‘gender identity’ battlefield?

Here is a transgender weight-lifter setting new records:

The organization Save Women’s Sports also drew attention to Gregory on Facebook.

“Mary was born a man and is very proud of this cool new trophy from dominating the women’s division in powerlifting,” the group posted on Facebook. “Mary now has the women’s masters world squat record, open world bench record, masters world deadlift record, and masters world total record.” …

“Transgender inclusion in women’s sports will be the end of women’s sports. Now is the time to speak up!” the organization added.

Let’s look at first principles.

Why do we (usually) have separate sporting events for men and women? We don’t have them for cooking competitions, or maths or art or design or music competitions. Indeed, these days the very idea of having separate competitions in such fields would be seen as objectionable, somehow suggesting that there are key differences in intellectual abilities that need formally acknowledging. Why clamour for more women to take tough science degrees if women aren’t up to the challenge?

On the other hand, although many chess competitions are open to all there are also separate competitions for men and women and chess. It seems to be agreed that without them women would struggle to have any substantial role in the world rankings at the top end, and so separate competitions give women at least some recognition. Thus the top women in the world chess rankings is China’s Yifan Hou, who occupies a lowly 87th place. The next woman is far below her.

What’s going on here? Bias? Discrimination? Some sort of genetic difference? Does it matter anyway? The debate rages.

But in most physical sport it’s different. In many if not most sports men have clear ‘inbuilt’ advantages over women in terms of strength, height, muscle mass and so on. Of course in any sport you can think of there are plenty of women who can beat vast numbers of men. But at the top end, the very best men will be bigger, stronger, faster than the very best women:

Just in the single year 2017, Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Tori Bowie’s 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 was beaten 15,000 times by men and boys.  (Yes, that’s the right number of zeros.)

The same is true of Olympic, World, and U.S.  Champion Allyson Felix’s 400 meters lifetime best of 49.26.  Just in the single year 2017, men and boys around the world outperformed her more than 15,000 times.

Or this:

For example, swimmer and multiple Gold Medalist Missy Franklin is six feet two inches tall with a wing span of six feet four inches. Her world record in the 200 meters backstroke, set at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is 2:04.06. Ryan Lochte’s world record, set at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was a full nine seconds faster at 1:53.94. If Franklin had been in that race, at her best she would have been about a half a lap behind Lochte when he finished, even though they are the same height and have just about the same wingspan.

In a world in which competitors were categorized by height and wingspan (or just height or just wingspan) instead of sex, Franklin would not have had a world record; she would not have been on the podium; in fact, she would not have made the team. In those circumstances, we might not even know her name.

So what?” they hoot. Any so-called gender differences in these physical areas are down to centuries of discrimination and oppression. With the right social measures any such ‘gap’ can and will be closed!

Hmm. Even if that’s true as a matter of biology, it might take a while. Notably plenty more centuries.

So in the meantime if women (a not insignificant proportion of people on the planet) are ever to win anything in most sports, they need to compete only against other women.

Indeed, this has come to be been seen as an obvious fairness issue. For centuries women were ‘not allowed’ to compete in many sports. See eg the marathon:

When the Olympics were revived in 1896, women were again excluded. But, in March of 1896, Stamatis Rovithi became the first woman to run a marathon when she covered the proposed Olympic course from Marathon to Athens. The following month, a woman named Melpomene presented herself as an entrant in the Olympic Marathon. Race organizers denied her the opportunity to compete. Undiscouraged, Melpomene warmed up for the race out of sight.

When the starter’s gun sounded, she began to run along the side of the course. Eventually she fell behind the men, but as she continued on, stopping at Pikermi for a glass of water, she passed runners who dropped out of the race in exhaustion. She arrived at the stadium about an hour and a half after Spiridon Louis won the race. Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a half hours.

One Greek newspaper wrote that the Olympic organizers were discourteous to disallow Melpomene’s entry into the race, but nonetheless it would be nearly a century before another woman would run the Olympic Marathon.

It’s now insulting to suggest that women can’t last the course in tough sports. Wait … why do women only play three sets at tennis yet demand equal prize-money as men? Sexist! Maybe to level the tennis court men now should play only three sets?

So, it’s come to be accepted that it’s fair and reasonable to have different sporting events for women and men. BUT, and this is the nub of it, once you have such categories you need a test to decide who fits in which category.

It’s been clear ever since Aristotle that a category makes sense only if it includes some things and excludes others:

The pride of place in this classificatory scheme, according to Aristotle, goes to those entities that are neither said-of nor present-in anything. Such entities, Aristotle says, are primary substances (2a11). Although he only gives a negative characterization of primary substances in the Categories — they are neither said-of nor present-in — the examples of them that he provides allow us to form a more robust conception of what a primary substance is supposed to be. His favorite examples are an individual man and a horse.

A man is not a horse. A horse is not a man. They are not the same ‘natural kind’. But how to categorise natural kinds?

Consider, for instance, a maple tree. It is in the first instance a maple and so belongs in a class with all and only other maples. It is also, however, a tree and so belongs in a broader class, namely the class of trees, whose extension is wider than the class of maples. Continuing on, it is also a living thing and so belongs in a class whose extension is wider still than the class of trees. And so on.

Now, once this basic pattern is before us, we can ask the following question: does this increase in generality go on ad infinitum or does it end at a class that is the most general possible? Does it end, in other words, at a highest kind?

It might seem that the answer to this question is obvious: of course there is a highest kind — being. After all, someone might argue, everything exists. So the class that contains all and only beings must be the class with the greatest possible extension.

In the Metaphysics, however, Aristotle argues that being is not a genus (998b23, 1059b31). According to Aristotle, every genus must be differentiated by some differentia that falls outside that genus. Hence, if being were a genus, it would have to be differentiated by a differentia that fell outside of it.

In other words, being would have to be differentiated by some non-being, which, according to Aristotle, is a metaphysical absurdity. Although he does not explicitly make this claim, Aristotle’s argument, if cogent, would generalize to any proposal for a single highest kind.

Hence, he does not think that there is one single highest kind. Instead, he thinks that there are ten: (1) substance; (2) quantity; (3) quality; (4) relatives; (5) somewhere; (6) sometime; (7) being in a position; (8) having; (9) acting; and (10) being acted upon

Back to sport.

Our two basic categories of reflect what look like ‘common sense’ to almost anyone who has ever lived. If you asked everyone on Earth to take their clothes off and stand in one of two large groups called Men and Women, the overwhelmingly vast majority of people would know which group to join. It’s obvious!

Right at the heart of biology and life itself, there really is a basic biological difference between (a) humans who provide the magic potion that helps launch babies, and (b) humans who get pregnant and then emit babies. That raw fact is bound to have deep cultural and psychological and physical ramifications for humans, as it does for every life form in one way or another. Yes, plenty of these human ramifications may be ‘socially constructed’ or ‘invented’, although it’s not easy to identify what that modish claim in fact means. But that does not make them necessarily bad or unwise.

Even if the vast majority of people enthusiastically accept those two sporting categories of Men and Women, there are always going to be some tough cases of people who for some reason either do not fit biologically into one or other category, or who do fit one group but claim to feel that they ‘should’ be in the other one, or who have been brought up in one group but (arguably) fit more reasonably in the other.

What to do about them? This is a grim battle of rival fairnesses. Take a man called Henry. He’s really good at running. He decides that he wants to be called Henrietta and live as a women, and compete in women’s races. He duly wins all his races.

It’s ‘discrimination’ against him if this is not allowed. Boo! But it’s ‘discrimination’ against all his women competitors if it is allowed. The whole reason women’s sports exist is to stop men beating women most of the time! Boo!

Note that fairness in sport is an odd notion. Hard work and training count for a heck of a lot. But some people are just born with specific abilities or characteristics that in the right circumstances allow them to exceed everyone else. That’s good luck for them, bad luck for everyone else:

Likewise some people are born with characteristics that mean that whatever they do, they’ll never beat the very best. You need to be pretty tall to be a top tennis player – without that you just can’t cover the court to the max. That’s not ‘unfair’. It’s life.

Once ‘common sense’ and ‘natural kinds’ get dissolved in the sulphuric acid of post-modern gender studies ‘activism’, how to hold any line?

Once upon a time, sports officials would solemnly inspect the ‘external appearance of any athlete who might look to be in the ‘wrong’ category. A tricky job, but it had to be done. Nonetheless, this way of identifying categories might seem rather … superficial?

Hence the move to fall back on hard (sic) science.

Nature points us to a basic (nay ‘natural’) difference based on chromosomes:

All animals have a set of DNA coding for genes present on chromosomes. In humans, most mammals, and some other species, two of the chromosomes, called the X chromosome and Y chromosome, code for sex. In these species, one or more genes are present on their Y chromosome that determine maleness. I

In this process, an X chromosome and a Y chromosome act to determine the sex of offspring, often due to genes located on the Y chromosome that code for maleness. Offspring have two sex chromosomes: an offspring with two X chromosomes will develop female characteristics, and an offspring with an X and a Y chromosome will develop male characteristics.

Why not have tests based on that? Or on physical characteristics that flow from that, eg testosterone levels?

That’s what the International Association of Athletics Federations has done:

The new regulations require any athlete who has a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) that means her levels of circulating testosterone (in serum) are five (5) nmol/L or above and who is androgen-sensitive to meet the following criteria to be eligible to compete in Restricted Events in an International Competition (or set a world record in a Restricted Event at competition that is not an International Competition):

(a) she must be recognised at law either as female or as intersex (or equivalent);

(b) she must reduce her blood testosterone level to below five (5) nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months (e.g., by use of hormonal contraceptives); and

(c) thereafter she must maintain her blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (ie: whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to remain eligible.

Good plan. But some people are ‘intersex’ – they happen to be born with unusual combinations of ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. Hence the battles over South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who was brought up as a women but (it is reported) has male chromosomes. Not allowing her to compete as a woman even though she could just as reasonably compete as a man blatantly combines sexism with racism and anti-transism and humiliation and shaming in a steaming brew of discrimination!

The IAAF do their honest best to make their case:

Like many other sports we choose to have two classifications for our competition – men’s events and women’s events. This means we need to be clear about the competition criteria for these two categories.

Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes. The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD has cheated, they are about levelling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors.”

The IAAF are right. Once you have the ‘classifications’ you need rules for deciding who fits which classification.

Any such rules are indeed ‘arbitrary’ or even ‘socially constructed’ insofar as they could be different. But without some or other rules, the classifications collapse.

This is why statements like this are basically dishonest:

Historically, the weight of sex testing has always fallen on women’s sports. So it is also the place where the extremely difficult questions of defining gender boundaries are now being hashed out.

“People want to believe that there’s some essential difference between women and men that makes them completely distinct and explicit categories,” says trans author Julia Serano, who also has a PhD in biology. “That essence doesn’t exist in real life.”

Note the trite but sly rhetorical move here. It does not follow from the fact that these scientific categories are not invariably 100% ‘distinct and explicit’ that they’re worthless or irrelevant.

Point out the underlying absurdity of all this and you’re reviled and hounded:

“We’re not allowed to speak publicly about it because when we do, we are attacked for being horrible people. But we talk to each other, and I’ve never talked to another athlete in our events who isn’t frustrated, devastated, and completely fed up.”


Philosophy shows us that categories are meaningful only if you have a rule to explain how to identify what is in a category and what is not.

It is in the nature of human affairs that physical categories are not ‘perfectly’ measurable. Even the seemingly clear-cut category ‘people who weigh more than 60 kg‘ is, on the far margins unclear – it all boils down to how precise you want to be. Does an extra molecule here or there count? If not, why not? How accurately are your weighing-scales calibrated? Who weighs the International Prototype Kilogram to check that it’s just the correct weight?

Yes, it’s maybe ‘unfair’ on one way of looking at it (stereotypes!) if a ‘man’ who now ‘identifies’ or otherwise claims to be a ‘woman’ is not allowed to compete in women’s sports.

But it’s also not ‘fair’ if Antonia Joshua enters the ring and literally kills any women she fights against by sheer muscle-power. Or if hundreds of thousands of women runners who have trained for years now have no chance to win anything only because a man who would win nothing if he competed as a man with other male runners ‘transitions’, and then demands to be classified as a woman for sports purposes.