Scientists call for terms 'male' and 'female' to be phased out amid crackdown on 'harmful language'

15 February 2023, 22:16 | Updated: 15 February 2023, 22:18

There have been calls for the words 'female' and 'male' to be phased out
There have been calls for the words 'female' and 'male' to be phased out. Picture: Alamy

By Chris Samuel

A group of researchers has suggested that terms such as “female” and “male” should be replaced in science as they reinforce the notion that sex is binary.

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Researchers should be encouraged to avoid “emphasising hetero-normative views” and use terms like “sperm-producing” or “egg-producing” or “XY/XX individual” instead, experts said.

Other terms and words flagged as problematic include man, woman, mother, father, primitive, advanced, alien, invasive, exotic, non-native and race, The Telegraph reported.

The terms were identified as part of a EEB (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) Language Project, founded by scientists in the US and Canada who believe some of the terminology used in scientific discussion isn't inclusive, and could even be harmful.

The project even advises that one of the most recognised scientific concepts, the “survival of the fittest” - a phrase that originates from Darwinian evolutionary theory - should be retired as it is linked to eugenics, and discriminates against people with disabilities.

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The terms "natural selection" or "survival differences" should be used instead, it states.

But critics have warned that dispensing with traditional terms for inclusivity's sake could leave science lacking necessary precision, and cause confusion.

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Prof Frank Furedi, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, told the outlet: “I think that when you characterise terms like male/female, mother/father as harmful you are abandoning science for ideological advocacy.

“Regardless of intent, the project of re-engineering language will cause confusion to many and the last thing that scientists need is a lack of clarity about the meaning of the words they use.”

The project, which was launched this month is gathering a list of words deemed harmful by scientists and offers alternative language.

The phrase “double-blind” - which is often used to refer to trials in which both volunteers and scientists are unaware whether participants are taking a drug or a placebo - has been flagged as potentially offensive to those with disabilities, according to the website.

The scientists claim other words terms such as “optimisation” should be done away with, as it perpetuates the false idea that a species evolves towards a fixed optimum.

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Dr Danielle Ignace, a researcher the University of British Colombia said: “The EEB Language Project will be a living document, as particular words that are harmful and their alternatives can change over time.

“People can submit their suggestions online and have their voices heard. They can also get more involved as an individual, as an institution, or at the community level.

"The hope is that this grassroots effort brings people together.”

Proponents of the move say that despite the fact that damaging language isn't usually used with the intention of causing harm, “inadvertent harm” can come about due to the “inherent complexities and historical legacies of language”.

Dr Kaitlyn Gaynor, one of the researchers who launched the project said it started "as a Twitter conversation among a few people discussing potentially harmful terminology.

“We reached out to different networks in ecology and evolution that were focused on increasing inclusion and equity in the field to rally support for one very specific action - revising terminology that might be harmful to certain people, particularly those from groups historically and currently excluded from science.”

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