top of page

By any other name!

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet;”

One of the most recognizable quotes in the English language, but it’s important to realize that the name itself is important. In case you haven’t already realized, the image above is a rose, but it’s likely not the image that comes into your mind when you think of a rose.

Is this more like it?

Probably, for most people. The point is that labels are useful, but also problematic. I have previously mentioned A. E. van Vogt’s Null-A novels (, which frequently comment on the relationships between concept and reality, using phrases like: “the word is not the thing”, and “the map is not the territory” ( #TIL about Bonini’s paradox (, which can be simply stated by the (translated) quote from Paul Valéry: “If it’s simple, it’s always false. If it’s not, it’s unusable.”

Labels can be used to describe people, but are they useful?

Let’s peek down a few rabbit-holes, shall we?

I could describe myself as a heterosexual, cisgender male who is white. In current parlance, this describes my sexuality, gender, sex, and race, and completely defines “me”, right?

No. Not even close, but let’s have a look anyway. To look at this in an even remotely useful way, the first thing we need to do is define some terms. For convenience and simplicity, I used WebMD ( as an overview for some of this. Each of these terms are heavily overloaded, and have various meanings which frequently overlap. They are used in both colloquial and technical contexts, and can vary widely by culture, language, and discipline, and also by historical context. It’s pretty messy.

Sexuality can be defined as including such elements as who you are attracted to, your sexual behaviour, and your identity. It can be influenced by multiple factors, including biology, societal norms, and relationships. It’s also a spectrum, though society traditionally “pushes” people towards one “box” or another. It seems likely to me that sexuality is a (mostly) bimodal distribution (, where most people are clustered into two main groups which overlap. The problem in proving such an assertion is the difficulty around obtaining accurate and honest data, and in measuring the degree to which societal forces influence sexuality. I expect that there will be a lot of research in this area in years to come.

Gender ( can be described as the relationships between your sex, sexuality, and societal norms. It generally focuses on gender identity, and whether or not that correlates with your sex at birth. It should be noted that our “current” definition of gender is a recent evolution – until the 20th century, the term “gender” was almost entirely a grammatical term. That said, there was clearly a need to draw a distinction between (biological) sex and gender as a societal concept, and the word “gender” was used to establish that distinction. The question I find most interesting is around the relationships between sex, sexuality, and culture. For example, will we reach a point at which the concept of gender is irrelevant, and society treats all people in the same way except where otherwise warranted by biological factors like healthcare? I have no idea.

Moving on to sex. This part should be easy, right?

Possibly easier, but that’s at least partly because we have more objective data and are able to more precisely describe the issue and measure it. But it’s not the simple binary that many people assume. A “female” typically has two X chromosomes, ovaries, and several other characteristics, while a “male” typically has one X and one Y chromosomes, testes, and so on. A very large majority of people fall into one of these two categories, and the rest are described as “intersex” ( Estimates of the number of intersex births vary dramatically, depending on what conditions are counted, but even the lowest estimates represent a very large number of people. (Assuming the lowest estimate I found, 0.018% of 7,800,000,000 people, you would still have more than 1.4 million intersex people in the world today)

So, now we have a working definition of a heterosexual, cisgender male. Does that mean that you have fully described me? Or described me in any meaningful way?

Nope. Not even close.

Ok, then. Let’s talk about race...

This one is even more complicated. First of all, does the term “race” have any real scientific meaning or value in the first place? Well, that depends on several factors.

When discussing biology, the term ( is not consistently defined or used, but can be described (vaguely) as either a level below the subspecies, or as equivalent to subspecies. But then you have to address the fact that “race” can be defined in multiple ways, using criteria including genetics, geographical range, and physiology or behaviour.

For humans, the term “race” is used extensively in social and political discourse, but is there any objective way of biologically distinguishing human “races” in any useful way?

The short answer seems to be: “No”, though many have tried ( Most have focused on visible ( features such as body shape, skin colour, hair texture (, and similar traits. Wholly aside from ridiculous assertions made about the relevance of such traits, the simple fact of the matter is that wide variations exist across all human groups, and only the most extreme variations in isolated groups are likely to be even potentially relevant.

So far as I know, no one is seriously attempting to define “race” using genetic markers – probably because there is so much variation across human populations that there are no markers which could be used effectively, and because there is so much overlap that the answers would probably not be the ones that people interested in defining “race” in that way want to see.

Then we get to socio-political and economic issues, which is where things get “real”. Even though there may be no useful way of defining “race” biologically, race is currently an enormously important factor in our political, economic, and social environment. Anyone who fails to realize and acknowledge that is living in a fantasy. (Sadly, that includes Canadian politicians who should definitely know better,, but at least know when to apologize. Whether that will have any practical impact is a separate question – I’m not going to hold my breath...)

The evidence of systemic racism which is easiest to digest is the number of “resume experiments” which have been conducted (, where identical resumes are sent under different names, some “white-sounding” and some “black-sounding” (Multiple variations have been tested, including sex and age as other biases to be studied). Most of these have found strong evidence of bias.

To get back to the point, race labels are even more problematic than sexuality/gender/sex, in terms of “knowing” a person, though we are far too ready to assume a list of traits based on a list of labels, or even on one label.

Far too often, the Internet is where nuance goes to die, and once you label a person, you know everything about them and can dismiss their arguments because “reasons”. We can have as many labels as we have describable traits but, to paraphrase the quote above: “If you don’t have enough labels, your assumptions are always false. If you have enough, there are too many to be usable.”

Not as eloquent as the original, but I’ll keep working on it.



bottom of page