What Is A Woman?

Descriptors in Science and in Life

Yeo Shen Yong
6 min readJan 10, 2023
A promotional poster for ‘What Is a Woman?’ by Matt Walsh, taken from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt20256528/

I’m sure that some of you reading this article would find the title familiar. It is identical to the title of a documentary produced by Matt Walsh, a right-wing political commentator. The online documentary had very mixed reviews, which added fuel to the controversy surrounding transgender people. The topic on gender and gender identity has gain media traction quite recently, with both sides debating vehemently for their cause. On one hand, the more conservative perspective opposes the idea of gender fluidity, and perceives gender and sex as the same: a characteristic of a person determined by their biology. On the other hand, many argue that gender identity and gender expression could differ from person to person, regardless of their sex.

A lot of the arguments boil down to the use of definitions and descriptors. The biological definitions of male and female are clear to most, but can someone challenge these definitions and claim that they are something else?

Let’s find out.

Precision in Definition

Many would agree that our species’ dominance is a result of our ability to communicate effectively and hence work together. To communicate effectively is to use effective descriptors in language. For instance, if someone uses the descriptor ‘cat’ in a sentence, it is immediately obvious what they are referring to — an animal that walks on all fours, has whiskers, meows occasionally (or even frequently!) and is often cute.

A typical cute cat, taken from https://snapshot.canon-asia.com/vn/article/eng/3-ideas-for-cute-cat-photos

‘Cat’ is hence an effective descriptor. In fact, a lot of the English language have been optimised to be effective descriptors, with some ambiguous exceptions that can be compensated with additional descriptors.

In science, using effective descriptors is also important. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. An aspect of good science is to impart the newfound knowledge attained from one’s experiments for others to build on. To achieve that, the methods and results of one’s work must be accurately and precisely documented, such that other scientists are able to replicate the work without additional information.

Scientific language is designed to be precise to suit that very purpose. For example, while ‘cat’ is a suitable descriptor of a common household cat for day-to-day use, scientists prefer to use ‘Felis catus’. This is known as the binomial nomenclature (two-term naming system), where the first term refers to the genus and the second refers to the species of the organism. This system reduces possible ambiguities, such as confusing ‘household cats’ (Felis catus) with ‘the cat family’ (Felidae). In fact, all organisms are categorised by taxonomic ranks going from general to vague, according to certain characteristics: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species (although there are more sub-categories).

A simple taxonomic rank diagram, taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_(biology)

Precision in communication leads to unambiguity, which allows the scientific method to be consistent and reliable. Hence, precision is commonly positively framed in the scientific world. However, precision is not the sole aspect to effective communication. Another important aspect rivals it: applicability.

Precision vs Applicability

An illustration of why context matters, taken from https://samim.io/p/2019-12-24-context-matters-km-philosophy-science/

As with most other good things, too much precision can be detrimental to effective communication. For example, take water flowing through a pipe. A precise description of the water would be to break the water down into its most precise components: individual molecules, atoms, or even protons, neutrons and electrons in a constant and complex web of interactions with one another. However, this would be exceedingly complicated, and not effective. Instead, we use the emergent properties of the components to describe the phenomenon, which, to put simply, is the ‘overall effect’ of the complex system. We use concepts like ‘pressure’, ‘volume’ and ‘density’ instead, which is a more effective method of communication.

Applicability is important in science not only important for describing phenomena, but for understanding them. In the above example about water, both descriptions are equally accurate, but the difference in precision influences their utility. However, for certain scientific fields, descriptions could be less accurate because they are used outside their realm of applicability. For instance, in physics, classical mechanics, which allows us to describe the movement of everyday objects, break down in extreme circumstances. If the speed of an object is significant when compared to the speed of light, special relativity is used to describe the system instead. If the object is atomic in size, quantum mechanics is used, or the description would not be accurate.

Lastly, applicability is also important in layman language. In this case, ‘applicability’ is what we know as ‘context’. Context is crucial as it heavily contributes to the meanings of messages. In many languages such as Chinese, many words have identical pronunciations, and hence are impossible to differentiate in speech without context. The adjacent words and phrases used impart context to that word, allowing the interpretation of a specific meaning. The greater context of language and description is also important, because whole sentences can have varying interpretations. In fact, it is very easy to transform the meaning of text or speech by taking it out of context, which has fooled many on online platforms.

The consideration of applicability allows us to choose an appropriate level of precision for effective communication, which can be applied in both scientific discussions and layman language. With this in mind, let us return to the original topic of gender.

The Descriptors of Gender

Gender fluidity, taken fromhttps://www.health.com/mind-body/gender-fluid

To recap, there are two distinct systems of gender descriptors in conflict with each other. The traditional system views sex and gender as the same: a binary male-female dichotomy, usually differentiated based on genitalia. The modern, more liberal system emphasises the gender fluid ideology, where one’s gender identity and gender expression is flexible.

The distinction between the two systems exists in the different levels of precision. The traditional system is more precise, with less room for ambiguity, while the liberal system is less precise, as the definitions for each gender becomes fuzzy, or even nonexistent. When Matt Walsh asked the question “what is a woman?” in his documentary, he aims to reveal the liberal system’s lack of precision from the fact that many are unable to answer this seemingly simple question.

To determine the appropriate level of precision, understanding the applicability of the two descriptor systems is imperative. If you consider the context of medicine and healthcare, the traditional system is more effective, because of males and females having fundamental differences in physiology. If people were to be allowed to choose their own gender in such contexts, it would not be an accurate representation of their physiology, resulting in medicinal procedures being ineffective, or even dangerous. This can also be applied in other areas such as sports, where physiology significantly influences performance.

On the other hand, in the day-to-day context, where the distinction in physiology is unnecessary, the gender fluid ideology is reasonable. After all, the human brain is extremely complex, and we have trouble understanding our thoughts and expressions. Hence, we should come to terms with the modernisation of our species, instead of shunning it.

That being said, we should not criticise those who default to using the traditional descriptor system, because it is more precise, simpler to understand, and on top of that, has been convention until only recently. Accusing someone of ‘assuming your gender’ or ‘misgendering you’ is similar to you assuming the context of their words, which alters its meaning.

All in all, different systems of descriptors are effective if used in the right contexts. Let us be more tolerant of each other and clarify things when necessary, so as to reduce conflicts between one another.