The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Live Blog of CFI Chicago’s “Dangerous Nonsense” Conference – Entry #1

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 24, 2010

Well, here I am at the Chicago CFI’s conference titled “Dangerous Nonsense: Exploring the Gulf Between Science and Its Imposters” in lovely, foggy downtown Chicago.  Adam Walker, director for Chicago CFI is getting ready to get us started this morning.

There’s about 100-120 people in attendance today, and a nice number of people who are from out of town (about 20%).

Adam Walker is talking about how we should (as Americans) be reigniting the love of learning, learning how to ask questions, digging deeper, rejecting pat answers.  However, we see tens of thousands of young people tromping through the Creation Museum in KY – of course the Grand Canyon was carved in a weekend!  We also see the Obama administration appealing the ruling by a federal court ruling that the National Day of Prayer is a constitutional violation of church-state separation.  We also grit our teeth as the State Board of Education in Texas is giving Phyllis Schlafley the same status as Thomas Jefferson’s framing of the Constitution equal importance in history textbooks.

This is where groups like CFI Chicago comes in: we stand for reason & rationality.  We also provide opportunities to skeptics & freethinkers to join together and socialize.

Today’s topic is “Dangerous Nonsense”, because when America allows itself to be influenced by fakers & deniers because it eats away at our core principles of the Enlightenment & rationalism.

Unfortunately, Dr. Massimo Pigliucci cannot attend.  He was apparently detained by the Vatican in Rome (just kidding!), so…

Speaker #1: Our first speaker is Dr. Veronica Drantz, professor of physiology, speaking about myth, science & sexuality.  To start with the big myth, we’ll talk about Adam & Eve – which is of course a myth because it gives the impression there are only two types of people, and it excludes gays, bisexuals, etc.

We’ll start with the science and then get on to the nonsense.  First, we’ll talk about the formation of genetalia, also known as the organization activation mechanism.  A typical male has a Y chromosome, whereas a female has no Y chromosome.  The absence of the Y chromosome makes one female.  A really important gene is the SRY gene on the Y chromosome, which is what helps to express other genes that create proteins which affect physiological changes the gonad from female to a male testes.

Internally, in the embryonic stage mammals start out as hermophrodites, with the sexual organs of both male & female.  The question is which set of organs develop & dominate.  By the 7th week, the external genetalia are starting to reorganize into either male or female – with the clitoris turning into the penis in males, and the outer labia turning into the scrotum in males. Without any influence from the Y chromosome, the gonads in the mammal will naturally develop into an ovary, which makes females the “default sex”.

So the gonads are organized before birth, and later during puberty hormones activate them.

To cause the female organs to whither away, the male has to make two hormones which also allows the female body plan transform into the male body plan.  Surges of testosterone for males come three times: as a fetus, shortly after birth, and at puberty.

Think of hormone molecules as little 3D keys which will fit into a receptor which allows it to bind to DNA in a certain way that will allow certain genes to be expressed, thus allowing for the transformation of the female body plan into the male.

Thus: to physiologists, there is only one sex, because males are really just adjusted females!

Because this entire process is governed by hormone levels, then there can be uncommon results beyond the standard heterosexual female & male.  In addition, sex has many levels…

*genetic sex – chromosomes

*gonadal sex – ovaries/testis

*hormonal sex – estrogen/testosterone

*somatic sex – body anatomy/physiology

*psychological sex – sexual identity (is this biological or learned?)

*and, of course, sexual orientation

Core Sexuality – Nature or Nurture?  Genetalia are obviously inborm in other mammals, but what about people?  What about sexual behavior?  Is the brain organized by the presence or absence of sex hormones before birth?

John Money, a psychologist, has a psychosexuality “neutrality-at-birth” theory.  Sexual behavior is all nurture.

Milton Diamond, a biologist, has the “sexuality at birth” theory.  Sexuality is inherent as “built-in” due to hormonal & evolutionary influences.

1959 – Breakthrough at Univ. of Kansas: Female guinea pigs were given hormones as embryos, and after birth they acted like males!  This means that animal’s (mammal’s) sexuality is influenced quite strongly by their biology, and this includes humans!

Diamond (as a grad student) challenged Money on this, and Money (having much prestige) kept responding with “but those are animals, people can change their behavior!”

John Money was allowed to get involved in the John/Joan “Twins Case”, where there was a pair of identical twins, where one of the boys had an accident and had his genitals mutilated.  Money said that the parents should castrate him, do some surgery, and lie to the child, telling him that he was in fact a girl and everything would end up just fine.  Money kept reporting that the “girl” (Brenda) was doing well growing up & happy, when in fact she was quite miserable.  Feminists at the time loved Money’s views on this, but the fact is that sex is partly destined by biology!

Eventually, when Brenda was given estrogen treatments, things started to unravel. Finally, the parents started to question Money, and at age 14 Joan/John became Brenda/David when he said that he “just felt male”.  David eventually married a woman and had a family.

The entire time John Money kept telling the medical community that Joan/Brenda is a happy girl/woman and then claims to lose track of her; Milton diamond finds Joan/Brenda living as David!  It was discovered that thousands of intersex babies have suffered a similar plight, and sadly these people have been lost track of over the years, so many don’t even know they are intersex!

Curtis Hinkle: “The fact that the binary sex system is a fiction is written in the bodies of intersex people.”

The incidence of intersexuality is about 1.7-2.5% of the population, and there are a wide variety of them.

For example, what happens if the androgen receptor doesn’t work, and as a result testosterone hormones don’t work?  These people have XY chromosomes, but because the testosterone doesn’t work, they have absolutely no internal sex organs at all.  They end up looking like women physiologically, but they don’t have any menstruation during puberty.  Many high-powered fashion models fall into this category, believe it or not!  This creates a lot of problems for these people because there is no place in society for them.

Other conditions can result in very ambiguous external genitalia, leading to a lot of personal issues.

Dr. Drantz brought a friend, Alex, who is an intersex person, with her.  At birth, his parent’s were told he was male, but a few hours after that they were told he was female.  In keeping with John Money’s ideas, the parents had him undergo “corrective” surgery, and he has had a very difficult life as a result.

In addition, all lot of sexuality is literally in the brain.  Research has shown that homosexuality is quite common in the animal kingdom, which is a result of the influence of the hypothalamus.  All animals have a hypothalamus.  For example, about 8% of rams (male sheep) are exclusively homosexual, and these rams had adjusted hypothalami.

In Samoa (which is essentially a non-homophobic society), there is a third sex called fa-afafine, gay males who fill a role in society, acting like females (helping babysit, etc).  These people are happy & well-adjusted because they are fully accepted into Samoan society.

Sex is not gender!

Sex is biological, and gender is cultural.  There are numerous examples worldwide of societies where gay, lesbian, intersex, etc people are fully accepted & integrated.

Dangerous Nonsense from ACP: ACP is a southern anti-gay group which pushes a lot of the old nonsense.  Their motives are religiously-based, because they view things like homosexuality through a fundamentalist lens of sin & evil.

The medical profession should not mess with the genitalia, they should just allow the kid to grow up, develop, and figure out who they are on their own without society attempting to mold them into something they don’t want to be.

Too many pediatricians (guided by the APA) view an intersex infant as a “major crisis” that needs to be “corrected” by hormonal therapy, surgery, etc.  How about teaching the parents that this is natural?  How about leaving the genitals alone and allowing the kid to grow up a bit first?

There are also a host of issues with transgender people.  Most of it boils down again to the idea that because our society is so locked into the Adam & Eve duality, we don’t have a place for these people.

Final Word: Difference does not equate to Disorder!!!

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