Fractals, not pyramids: Why “8th grade biology” isn’t enough

Zinnia JonesPreviously: Chromosomes: Cis expectations vs. trans reality, How sex hormones work, and their use by trans people

In the years I’ve spent covering gender topics on YouTube, I’ve occasionally encountered one particularly strange objection to the core principle of transness, that a person’s gender can differ from their assigned sex. This typically takes the form of an overt appeal to simplicity in support of a model of human sex and gender that precludes trans identities entirely, usually phrased as “There are only two genders, male and female”, or “There are only two sexes, XX and XY”, or “If you have XY chromosomes, you’re a man – it’s 8th grade biology!”

Such comments seemingly contend that trans people’s genders run contrary to some absolute, incontrovertible, foundational truth about biological sex and gender identity. But calling on the simplicity of a middle school science class (sometimes also “elementary school science”, or “high school biology”) to refute trans people’s identities is a deliberate choice to ignore the genuine complexity of transness. And not only is such a claim wrong about how the process of education works, it is exactly wrong: education functions in the diametrically opposite way.

Those who invoke this argument seem to model schooling as a kind of pyramid, where one layer of undeniable truths are taught, followed by another layer, and another, with a higher layer never being permitted to contradict a lower one. In a pyramid-like construction, the topmost layers will necessarily be more disposable than the base, and to support the simplified model of sex that they desire, they regard these “foundational” basic truths as somehow being the most authoritative.

In reality, the progression of curriculum is more like the geometry of a fractal. Its initial stages are broad and simple, but each step fills in these basic areas with more and more detail and nuance.

Three steps of the fractal Peano curve.

In areas less contentious than transness, this fact of education is taken as fairly obvious. A pre-K student may only know of the natural numbers (1, 2, 3…) and might not learn about zero until kindergarten or 1st grade. A 3rd grader will be taught about negative numbers, something which a kindergarten student might regard as nonsensical (“how can there be negative three of something?”). Later, they’ll encounter even more interesting phenomena like the constant pi, which can’t be written in its totality or even as a fraction. Constructs like matrices and imaginary numbers will follow, even as younger students might protest that a 2×2 grid of digits in brackets, or the square root of -1, “aren’t really numbers”.

At no point would such objections be regarded as legitimate – it makes no sense to select a cutoff point where every lesson before is “real” mathematics, while every lesson after can be dismissed as unimportant because “it’s 4th grade math!” Everyone understands that as more areas of mathematics are taught, these new lessons complicate what’s already been learned, rather than leaving it untouched while merely building on top of it. The science of transgender phenomena also needs to be understood in this way.

Understanding the nuances of transness often does require certain details that you’d be likely to miss out on if you stick to “high school biology” only. Trans people can be considered an edge case – a point where simpler models, originally designed to capture broad generalizations about the population, will break down. The alignment of sex chromosomes with gender identity holds true for the vast majority of people; for trans people, it does not. The complexity of our situation doesn’t cease to exist just because a simpler model doesn’t account for it: models serve to reflect reality, not vice versa. A model can be wrong – a trans person’s existence is not wrong just because a model omits it.

Gender broadly, and trans topics specifically, are incredibly wide-ranging fields. Depending on the particular subject, someone who’s learning about transness may need to know certain facts from the fields of psychiatry, sociology, endocrinology, public health, epidemiology, medical ethics, media studies, civil rights law, and so on. Without incorporating the relevant facts from these fields, a person’s understanding of a given topic can be compromised to the point of uselessness. Here, the broad overview of a high school education is simply not enough to capture all of these important details. But the arbitrary stance that education is “good” up to a certain preselected point, after which it can be ignored, serves only to wipe away this nuance – which is unfortunate for you if you’re one of the nuances.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.

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