Biological essentialism, dead theories, and the plight of Kathleen Stock


The other day, this popped up in my Twitter feed:

My first thought was that I do shed some tears for Professor Kathleen Stock. I do not celebrate academics being hounded out of their jobs just because I disagree with them. On the other hand, it is perfectly justifiable that (say) Dr Andrew Wakefield was hounded (and eventually sacked) from his post – although this was not just because he promoted vaccine phobia, he was also a fraud and a danger to his patients.

So what is “Biological Essentialism”? Is it (as at least one person in my timeline has suggested) part of a set of ideas that are akin to anti-vaccinism? And is it a “dead theory”? Is belief in this theory good grounds for defenestration? And does Kathleen Stock subscribe to this theory?

Let us investigate …..

Dead Theories

Some theories can reasonably described as “dead”. Phlogiston theory springs to mind in this context. But this theory was a scientific theory that was eventually killed by empirical evidence.

Purely philosophical theories are harder to kill.

This is a bit of a technical example but Karl Popper’s philosophical theory of Verisimilitude was (arguably[i]) killed by Pavel Tichý, but that is because the logic of Popper’s theory was faulty and led to contradictions.

A more typical example of a philosophical theory (one which is easier for lay people to get their heads around) is Cartesian dualism[ii] – a theory in which our material bodies are inhabited by an immaterial spirit or soul. Few serious philosophers subscribe to such ideas these days (though I once attended a lecture by a serious philosopher who did[iii]) but most (and certainly most religious people) people probably do subscribe to something like this. There are, ultimately, no empirical findings or knock-down rational arguments that could kill this type of theory stone dead.

(It might be noted here that, at least, some proponents of notions of “gender identity” seem to be arguing that our physical bodies possess gendered souls.)

So what type of theory is “Biological Essentialism”?


In philosophy, “essentialism” is the doctrine that things have one or more characteristics or attributes that are essential to their identity. For example, Plato (an essentialist[iv]) might have argued[v] that all activities we call “games” must have one or more essential features in common that makes it possible for us to use the word “game” in all such cases.

Wittgenstein argued the exact opposite. He (though these are not his examples) would have pointed out that some games (like cricket) have lots of equipment; some games (like tig) do not. Some games (like Australian football) have lots of players; some games (like solo video games) do not. Some games (like ice hockey) involve strenuous physical activity; other games (like chess) do not. Some games (like quidditch) have codified rules; other games (like frisbee) do not – and one of these is a fictional game.

Wittgenstein concludes that the terms we use do not need to correspond to real-world things that have essential features in common for our use of language to work.

An example where this begins to become more relevant to our present purposes concerns biological sex. There are a tiny number of people who the proverbial man (or woman) on the Clapham Omnibus would have no hesitation in classifying as a “man” (or a “woman”) but who were not born with the standard XY (or XX) chromosomal arrangements. Faced with an XYY individual, I suppose the strict[vi] essentialist would have to say that an XYY individual is not really a man. The non-essentialist encounters no such problems.

I am, however, unsure as to how such considerations help opponents of Kathleen Stock. For one thing, trans people are (as far as I am aware) almost exclusively people with standard karyotypes. For another, it is precisely the people who assert that “trans women are women” (and “trans men are men”) who would seem to be the essentialists here. Such people argue that all women do have one thing (and only one thing) in common: their gender identity.

But are we talking about the right sort of “essentialism” here?

Biological Essentialism

I decided to google this term. The first thing that came up was this definition (from Oxford Reference):

The belief that ‘human nature’, an individual's personality, or some specific quality (such as intelligence, creativity, homosexuality, masculinity, femininity, or a male propensity to aggression) is an innate and natural ‘essence’ (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture). The concept is typically invoked where there is a focus on difference, as where females are seen as essentially different from males: see gender essentialism. The term has often been used pejoratively by constructionists; it is also often used synonymously with biological determinism. See also essentialism; compare strategic essentialism.

This sort of essentialism is something completely different. We are back to the nature versus nurture question here with “essentialism” being identified with belief in the importance of nature rather than nurture. (I am not sure why “determinism” crops up here. That is a whole other debate.)

Science tells us that sexuality is (largely – not entirely) an innate and natural essence of someone’s being rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture. That is why “conversion therapies” do not work.

But consider a different example:

The black pop singer Michael Jackson apparently identified as a white person, and used skin lightening and hair straightening chemicals, and extensive plastic surgery in order to change his appearance. Was his desire to become a white person an innate and natural essence of his being, or a product of the (historically racist) culture into which he was born?

And which of these two examples is (say) a teenage girl’s yearning to become a boy more similar to?

Different people will give different answers to these questions, but, once again, it seems to me that it is those who assert that “trans women are women” (and “trans men are men”) who are the essentialists. It is they who seem to be asserting that gender is (like sexuality) an innate essence of someone’s being rather than a product of circumstances.


I think we have established that the meaning of the term “essentialism” is far from clear and that different people use this term to mean very different things.

If we consider the first definition I looked at, we see that the debate has been going on for millennia and will undoubtedly continue far into the future. The theory is wounded but far from dead.

If we consider the second definition I looked at, the theory will be established (or disestablished) for all sorts of different aspects of the human condition as science progresses and we figure out what causes what. The theory may well be declared dead in some areas but very much alive and kicking in others.

On either definition, it seems to me that it is the opponents of Professor Stock who are more “essentialist” when it comes to gender identity.

And whoever is or is not an “essentialist”, and whoever is right about what is or is not “essential”, the intellectual enquiry needs to continue. I am not sure whether Andrew Wakefield is mad or bad; but he is one (or both) of these things and was a danger to the public. Kathleen Stock is none of these things. She is (or was) an academic writing about ideas. It is absolutely appalling that so many students and colleagues are actively trying to prevent her from making further contributions to that enquiry.

It is not even clear that she has ever been guilty of the “crime” of “biological essentialism“ - on any definition of that term. She rebuts the allegation here for example. But I intend to find out.

My interest piqued by the tweet I quoted, and in solidarity with someone who has been treated appallingly, I have ordered a copy of Professor Kathleen Stock’s book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism.


[i] I should certainly so argue.

[ii] An explanation aimed at school students rather than academics, but a perfectly good starting point for lay people.

[iii] And nobody in the audience called for his resignation.

[iv] Though I am not aware he ever used this description for himself, and I am not sure many people who get described as “essentialists” would.

[v] I do not think Plato ever ruminated on this specific topic.

[vi] We can imagine how a less fastidious essentialist might tweak his criteria to accommodate such anomalies.


Five Years

How we finally regained some kind of control over our lives after Brexit snatched this from us

The Vote

We woke at 5 in the morning exactly 5 years ago today to the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU and I was seized with a feeling of angst that has never quite gone away.

Karin, my German wife of 35 years, has been somewhat less downhearted than me about the whole thing. Of course, she has had a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights over Brexit but, having grown in the in the former German “Democratic” Republic, she was more accustomed to living in a country whose government lied as a matter of course, used words to mean what it wanted them to mean, and which carried out the wishes of the Russian leader. The whole thing was more of a new experience for me.

A rather Orwellian notion of “permanent”

It took until 2017 October 19 for Teresa May to finally announce that EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today would be able to stay - though it later transpired that what she actually meant was that EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today would be able to apply for permission to stay. Until that point the UK government had insisted on using EU citizen as bargaining chips in negotiations with the EU and kept them guessing as to what their fate would be.

We had, on the morning of 2016 June 24, already begun to worry about how we could secure Karin’s right to continue living here in the UK with me and our two children.

We should remember that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and Priti Patel had, as leading figures in Vote Leave, made the following promises:

there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.

In the end, all three promises would be broken:

  •          There were changes for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK;
  •          those EU citizens were not automatically granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK; and
  •          those EU citizens were treated less favourably than they had been before Brexit.

It also turned out that the UK had its own idiosyncratic interpretation of “lawfully resident”.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

In 2016 June, the only option for Karin was to apply for was something called “Permanent Residency” (PR). The application for PR was 85 pages long, cost £65, and demanded that we detail every single trip Karin had made in or out of the UK since first coming here in 1985.

But after:

  •          much correspondence involving a hostile Home Office, our MP, the minister for immigration Robert Goodwill, the Ombudsman, and the Office of the Information Commissioner;
  •          the involvement of a solicitor;
  •          a £10 “Subject Access Request” (SAR) to the Home office;
  •          an application to HMRC to obtain a printout of Karin’s NI contribution record;
  •          collecting bank statements, employer references, and a whole tranche of other supporting documents;
  •          a 30 mile round trip to the office where we could submit all the documents and have Karin’s ID documents checked; and
  •          a few weeks of waiting,

we finally – in 2017 April – obtained a holographically embossed blue ID card “Certifying [Karin’s] Permanent Residence” in the UK.

Within a few months, the Home Office had announced that PR was to be abolished. Karin’s “permanent” status was to be rather temporary. Her card did, however, retain its validity until the end of 2020 and it turned out that we had probably done the right thing in applying for this – now redundant – piece of cardboard.

“Comprehensive Sickness Insurance” CSI (an aside)

This bit of the story is a bit “down in the weeds”, but it is a crucial element of the full picture.

When worried EU citizens first began applying for PR, about 34% were being turned down – some then being told for good measure that they were here unlawfully and should pack up and leave the UK.

The most common reason (not the only reason) for refusals at that time seems to have been the failure of applicants to provide proof of “Comprehensive Sickness Insurance”. People could not provide proof of this because they did not have it or need it. The UK government insisted that they were simply following EU law here but, according to the EU, the Home Office was in breach of this EU law when it insisted, retrospectively, that some categories of UK residents who had been legally using NHS services all their lives required evidence of health insurance before they could apply for residency. The whole thing is explained in far more detail here.

The CSI issue mainly affected housewives/househusbands, carers, students, benefit claimants, the homeless, and other categories of people with independent means. Someone like Karin with her almost complete (and obtainable) National Insurance record was safe. But hundreds of thousands of other EU citizens were potentially facing deportation from the UK if they could not provide the required documentation. They could not retrospectively obtain insurance which the Home Office had never demanded at the time and the Home Office, in any case, refused to define what constituted comprehensive insurance.

The HMRC record element of the PR application was more crucial than we ever realized at the time.

Settled status

When Theresa May announced her plans to create a new “Settled Status” (SS) scheme (in place of the PR scheme) in 2017 October, EU citizens were able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The bogus CSI “requirement” had been dropped and the whole thing was to be streamlined and online. EU citizens who had already obtained PR would be fast-tracked through the application.

The SS scheme has been a success - if we can describe a scheme designed to strip millions of people of their existing rights and provide (most of) them with inferior rights in such terms. Of the 5 million or so applicants, 53% have been granted SS, 44% have been granted the lesser “pre-settled status” and 3% have had “other outcomes” - including 55,950 outright refusals.

As this heart-wrenching story illustrates, the creation of this new status does not result in EU citizens (and their UK families) being treated “no less favourably”. It would take too long to list all the drawbacks of SS and many of them are rather technical. But given that she has (i.e. we have) children settled in Britain, a mother (who is not getting any younger) in Germany, and an English husband (me) who she will almost certainly outlive, all kinds of future scenarios come to mind whereby SS could leave her trapped in the UK or excluded from the UK.

And then I received this:

In response to one of my many rants on Twitter about the injustice of the whole situation.

Applying for a blue passport

Being “married to a nice man” actually made no difference, and if Karin had simply wanted to stay in the UK, she would have been (mostly) fine with SS. It is, paradoxically, precisely EU citizens who might consider leaving the UK for a while who really need the security of a UK passport before they can consider doing so.

There was a window of opportunity during “transition” for Karin for apply for a UK passport but retain her German passport (Germany normally only allows dual citizenship for people who are citizens of other EU countries – i.e. for people who would never need it) and we decided to go for it.

Karin’s earlier successful application for PR turned out to be crucial however. Before you can even begin the process of applying for UK citizenship you need to have obtained PR – or now, SS. But, and it is a big “but”, the Home Office, having dropped the CSI “requirement” for obtaining SS, has quietly resurrected it for citizenship applications from EU citizens who apply using SS. Because Karin was able to apply with PR rather than with SS, she was able to jump straight through this new hoop.

Nonetheless, Karin’s application involved a lot of new hoops and involved jumping through many of the same hoops she had had to jump through in order to obtain PR. We had to fork out £1300 and make three trips to Manchester (we live in West Yorkshire) at £60 a pop. One of these was for her “Life in the UK” test. The peculiarities of this test have been written about extensively elsewhere. It is a curious melange of genuine questions about life in the UK (circa 1980), tendentious British history questions, and pro-British propaganda. Again, having lived in the GDR, Karin quickly learned that the trick was to provide that answers she thought were wanted rather than the answers she thought were true. After months of cramming in preparation, she passed with 100%.

At least she was spared the language test on account of her Masters degree from a UK University.

We finally submitted her application in 2019 March and received an acknowledgement:

Your application has been received and is being considered.

It may take up to six months to make a decision on your case. If we are unable to process your application within six months we will tell you as soon as possible.

Six months came and went with no decision and no communication to say that a decision had been delayed. An enquiry at six months yielded a grudging acknowledgement and then a letter in the post a couple of weeks later:

“As I am sure you are aware, naturalization is not an automatic process …”

That word “automatic” again. Obviously, one who has dealt with the Home Office is fully aware that nothing is “automatic”. Moreover, how “automatic” the thing is was entirely tangential to our enquiry.

The letter went on to make dark noises about the Home Office conducting checks with “government departments and external agencies [sic]” in order to assess Karin’s “good character” – all nonsense of course. She (a school teacher) had just had to obtain an enhanced DBS check from the Home Office. It took about a week.

A year and one month after that (i.e. 19 months after our original application) – with many interventions from our MP and ne’er a word of (plausible) explanation or apology. The Home Office finally deigned to process Karin’s application and sent out a letter confirming that she had been successful.

She then had to attend a “ceremony” at which, because of Covid-19 restrictions, she and the registrar were the only attendees. It was all the usual god and monarchy stuff. Just as well I was not allowed in or I should have felt compelled to make inappropriate remarks! Karin was presented with a certificate from the Home Office which she then had to send back to the Home Office (there is a kind of pattern here) and which they finally returned – torn and crumpled – and she finally got her blue-black British-passport-in-mourning almost exactly two years after her original application.

I have lost my freedom of movement in 29 countries but at least Karin has managed to retain hers in 31 countries - including the UK.

I suppose we can now "move on with our lives". 

Just don't ever ask me again to feel proud of our country, or reconciled to Brexit, or to respect the decision of the half of our nation who voted to inflict all this anguish, inconvenience and expense on families like mine.

I don't respect that decision and I never shall.


Covid-19 and the Culture War over “Herd Immunity”

 While the details are extremely complex, most people understand the general principle of immunity to disease in individuals and that two of the main ways in which immunity can be acquired are through vaccination or “natural” exposure-to-an-infectious-agent-that-does-not-result-in-death. Arguments tend to be about how good, and how long lasting, such immunity might be in the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (responsible for Covid-19 infections), and that is something we just do not know yet.

The notion of immunity within a population (or “herd”) is a more imprecise notion which seem to be at the heart of a burgeoning culture war on social and traditional media.

Let us try and unpick the various issues:

We do not need to speculate too much about what happens when contagious disease (i.e. disease that spreads from person to person) disperses unchecked through a population with no immunity because we have plenty of examples within living memory.

Prior to 1954, measles might arrive in a small relatively isolated community and spread rapidly through it. Some individuals might die, others might suffer serious injury[i], but most would recover and most of these individuals would thereby acquire immunity to the measles virus – immunity that would usually (though not always) remain with them for the rest of their lives.

What is of note here is that the measles virus would not necessarily need to infect every individual in the isolated community before cases of measles disappeared in that community. Measles is highly contagious, but once a certain threshold of immunity (around 91-94%[ii]) is reached within a randomly mixing community[iii], the virus will normally cease its spread and disappear from that community.

The 6-9% who never became infected are now safe – protected by all those who did become infected and survived. Moreover, even if a new infected person arrives in the community, it is unlikely (though obviously not impossible) that they will pass on their infection to anyone in the community.

The protection (such as it is) from measles for that isolated community may last for a generation, but as more and more people die of old age and more and more new children are born without immunity, that community protection weakens. Eventually, a new epidemic of measles will devastate the community.

This is one reason why infections may come in waves.

Those bad old days are behind us and, pace the activities and influence of various anti-vaccination fanatics, we can achieve 90% or more immunity against measles across a population by vaccinating everyone we can.

So far so good, and we have not even mentioned the boo term yet …

Mass vaccination is the context in which the term “herd immunity” (AKA “community immunity”) is most often encountered these days, but, as this definition from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes clear, use the term is not restricted to immunity that is acquired from vaccination programmes:

Community immunity: A situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community. Also known as herd immunity.

But even this definition leaves some loose threads untied. As Fine, Eames, and Heymann have put it[iv]:

The term “herd immunity” is widely used but carries a variety of meanings. Some authors use it to describe the proportion immune among individuals in a population. Others use it with reference to a particular threshold proportion of immune individuals that should lead to a decline in incidence of infection. Still others use it to refer to a pattern of immunity that should protect a population from invasion of a new infection. A common implication of the term is that the risk of infection among susceptible individuals in a population is reduced by the presence and proximity of immune individuals (this is sometimes referred to as “indirect protection” or a “herd effect”).

To illustrate the three usages using the measles example:

1.   An example of “herd immunity1” might be “There is only 80% herd immunity against measles in the UK at the moment and that is too low.”

2.   An example of “herd immunity2” might be “Cases of measles will only start to decline towards zero in the UK once 90%+ of the population have been vaccinated (or have recovered from the illness) and herd immunity is achieved.”

3.   An example of “herd immunity3” might be “An epidemic of measles in Finland would be impossible because of the level of herd immunity there achieved through high MMR uptake.”

I should argue that usage “3” overlaps with “1” and “2”, but this is all getting a bit pedantic. I think we can make do with the “common implication of the term” that “the risk of infection among susceptible individuals in a population is reduced by the presence and proximity of immune individuals” and all agree that that is true.

I do not see any good reason for a culture war over terminology here!


So what about the SARS-CoV-2 virus? (I hear you all cry.)

There is still huge uncertainly about Covid-19. All scientists can do as we look ahead is to use complicated mathematical models to predict what might happen given certain assumptions.

Inputs to these models are things like how many people currently have Covid-19; how long they remain infectious; how many people they each infect; how likely they are to die and in what time-frame; and, yes, how many have recovered from and infection and thereby (it is to be hoped) gained immunity.

I say “it is to be hoped” because, as is often pointed out, the immune response that defeated the virus in a particular individual may not persist, or a new strains of the virus may evolve against which immunity previously acquired is no longer effective.

There is, I should wish to contend, a growing body of evidence that the people who gleefully point these things out are being unduly pessimistic. But time will tell.

On the other hand, there is (putting my pessimist’s hat back on) growing evidence that a lot of people who “recover” do not fully recover from Covid-19[v].

So, as an earlier famous Vladimir had it: “Что делать?” – “What is to be done?”.

It is strange – I often reflect – that someone’s views on our trade relationships with other European countries should be such an accurate predictor of their views on virology. But this seems to be very much the case.

There is a vocal body of people on social and traditional media who argue (alongside venting their spleen at the Belgians or whoever) that we should moderate or abandon our efforts to control the spread of the virus and let nature take its course. Such people often use the term “herd immunity” to describe the happy state that would emerge after the “unfortunate deaths of a few old people who would have died soon anyway”.

Other people appalled (rightly IMHO) at such a suggestion often seize on the term “herd immunity” and seem to have invented yet another definition:

  1. “herd immunity4”: “The belief that we should accept the death and disability of hundreds of thousands of people with equanimity.”


But do the more moderate members of the let-nature-take-its-course brigade have a point? Could we somehow arrange for everyone who would fully recover from Covid-19 infection to be infected while protecting all the more vulnerable people?

The short answer is “no!”.

The slightly longer answer is that if let Covid-19 spread freely across the globe (with or without attempting to protect people we assume are most at risk of death or disability) far too many people would end up dead or disabled – including perhaps people even "lockdown sceptics" care about.

The slight caveat here is that we are currently allowing as much normal activity as we feel is safe to allow at any one time and thus striking a balance between risks to vulnerable people and other considerations – including risks to people who are vulnerable to non-Covid related dangers[vi]. In doing this, it is, I submit, often reasonable and ethical to try and decrease risks to the more vulnerable even where this increases risks to the less vulnerable.

It is not wrong or evil to point out that there are, sadly, always difficult trade offs to be made in life.

In the meantime all we can do is try and get a test and trace system in place that actually works, continue our social distancing, continue targeted social measures – which will inevitably involve a lot of trial and error – and hope for a vaccine as soon as possible.

[i] Which is why everyone should vaccinate their children with the MMR jab.

[iii] Of course, real communities do not mix entirely randomly.

[v] https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3489

[vi] Listen to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000mt1l for a rather harrowing report on the plight of women having babies in our current situation.