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US Biology Textbooks Promoting ‘Misguided Assumptions’ on Sex and Gender

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Sex and gender

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Research indicates that the textbooks utilized in American schools are presenting young individuals with an obsolete perspective on sex and gender.

Biology textbooks

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A recent study, featured in the journal Science, examined six of the most commonly used high school biology textbooks in the U.S. and revealed that many of them blur the distinction between sex and gender, despite these being recognized as distinct concepts within the scientific community.

Acknowledging

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Rather than acknowledging the nuanced understanding of sex and gender, these textbooks tend to promote an “essentialist” viewpoint, suggesting that sex and gender are interchangeable and that men and women possess inherent differences.

Oversimplified

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The researchers caution that this oversimplified approach may contribute to discrimination against women and individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms.

Essentialist ideas

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“Our study suggests that the material that adolescents are exposed to in school textbooks might itself—even if unintentionally—be a source of essentialist ideas,” Brian Donovan, a senior research scientist at BSCS Science Learning, a nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, and one of the co-authors of the study, expressed this sentiment in a statement.

Not unusual

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“It’s not unusual for textbooks to discuss ideas that were considered accurate earlier in the history of science and are now known to be incomplete. But essentialism is not a scientific model—it’s an overly simplistic lay view that is at odds with the scientific consensus on sex and gender,” Donovan said. “It should have no place in the biology curriculum.”

Six textbooks

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The research examined six textbooks released between 2009 and 2016, which are used in the majority of high school biology classes in the United States.

Clear distinction

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These textbooks were found to lack a clear distinction between sex and gender, contrary to the scientific consensus that views sex as a biological aspect and gender as a social construct.

Scientific exploration

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Scientific exploration of sex and gender reveals that while these terms are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct facets of identity. Sex typically pertains to the biological attributes that differentiate male and female bodies, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones.

Male or female

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While most individuals align with either male or female sexes, there are exceptions, such as intersex individuals who possess variations in sex characteristics that do not conform to conventional male or female definitions.

Norms

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Gender is a concept that is shaped by social and cultural norms, encompassing the roles, behaviors, activities, and characteristics that a specific society deems appropriate for individuals based on their perceived gender.

Gender identity

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Gender identity refers to how individuals view themselves and the terms they use to describe themselves, which may or may not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Diverse

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Gender identity is diverse and can encompass a range of identities, including male, female, non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, and others.

Expectations

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In essence, while sex primarily denotes biological attributes, gender pertains to the societal and cultural expectations and identities. Although sex and gender are often congruent (for instance, someone identified as female at birth typically identifies as a woman), they are not always synonymous, and individuals may identify with a gender that differs from their biological sex.

Consistent

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“Overall, the ways in which textbooks described sex and gender are more consistent with essentialism than with the scientific consensus on these topics.” In the statement, Catherine Riegle-Crumb, a professor within the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the co-authors of the study, conveyed this information.

Essentialism

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Essentialism is a widely held belief that inaccurately suggests there is a genetic essence that determines the characteristics of men and women, leading to the assumption that they are entirely distinct groups in terms of anatomy, psychology, and behavior. However, this perspective has been debunked as inaccurate.

Genetic variations

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Furthermore, the textbooks imply that genetic variations within and between genders or sexes are solely attributed to genes inherited in sex chromosomes, which is also scientifically incorrect, as environmental factors and other non-sex chromosomes play a significant role.

Researchers

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The researchers are concerned that teaching young individuals these essentialist ideas could have detrimental effects for both those who conform to traditional gender norms and those who do not. These consequences may include reinforcing gender stereotypes, fostering misogyny, and promoting transphobia.

Call to action

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“The findings serve as a call to action—it is important that the high school biology curriculum is revised so that it reflects accurate scientific knowledge rather than misguided assumptions that may foster gender stereotyping and discrimination,” was a statement by Andrei Cimpian, a professor in the Department of Psychology at New York University and one of the co-authors of the paper, shared his perspective.

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