Our venerable Department of Defense is offering $20,000 to anyone who can tell them how to distinguish the menfolk from the womenfolk. They want to do this at a dis
tance and on the fly, because the jam they’re in is that they keep killing non-combattants, and it’s particularly bad press when those non-combattants are women and children. In other words, they want identity to be legible from 5,000 ft in the air.
They seem not to have read the recent results of the Caster Semenya story, she being the female runner from South Africa who was too masculine for some. The New Yorker wrote about how hard it is to make that call, morphologically, endocrinologically (?), etc., and how culture and identity and history make the blurred line even less clear. Basically, this is another one of those differences-witihout-a-distinction that people get to choose for themselves. The sports authorities had to come up with something, though, and after a
year and a half they have this:
A female athlete will be permitted to compete in women’s competition if their androgen levels are below the male range. If a female athlete has androgen levels within the male range, they may compete if they have an androgen resistance, which would reduce any competitive advantage.
I’m inclined to submit this to the DoD and cash the $20k check, but I’m guessing it’s not what they were hoping for.
Quick: male or female? It isn’t so easy after all, is it?
The difficulty of distinguishing gender, be it from 5,000 ft or from within a laboratory, reminds me of chick sexing. This is one of those parables that are awesome to tell, and that has a million uses.
Do you know what this [photo] is? Yes, it’s a baby chick. But do you know its gender? Of course, not. But you would if you were a professional chick sexer. In the poultry industry, it is very important to separate out male and female chicks almost immediately after birth: the males are less valuable – they can’t lay eggs and their meat isn’t nearly so tender – and they end up competing with the female chicks for food. So you need to pick the males out and get rid of them. This job falls to the professionally trained chick sexer, who turning the chicks over gently in his or her hand is able to sort out male from female at a rate of 1,000 per hour and at an accuracy rate of 99%.
What makes this feat so astonishing, though, is that there just isn’t any readily discernable, or at least articulable, difference in the anatomy of newborn chicks. All zoologists agree that this is so. If you ask a professionally trained chick sexer what he is looking for, don’t expect a satisfying answer.
Either he’ll confabulate, telling you some fantastic and silly story about the inability of the male chick to look him straight in the eye. Or more candidly, he’ll just shrug his shoulders.
But while the nature of the chicksexer’s skill may be inexplicable, how he acquired it isn’t. To become chicksexers, individuals go off for an extended period of study with a chick sexing grandmaster. He doesn’t give lectures or assign texts. Instead he exposes his pupils to slides– “male,” “female,” “male,” “male,” “female,” “female,” “male” – continuing on in this way until the students acquire the same special power to intuitively perceive the gender of a newborn chick, even without being able to cogently explain how.
That’s Dan Kahan at the 2006 Yale Law School commencement, using the parable to explain what was wrong with John Yoo’s torture memo: he hadn’t spent enough time fondling the metaphorical chicks. But feel free to use that anecdote anytime.
(Like all good stories, this one probably isn’t 100% true, if “R.D. Martin B.A(Melb) B.Ed Dip.Ed” and the internet are to be believed.)