Building a human from a mind-numbing 3 billion base pairs is a complicated endeavor to say the least yet, somehow throughout our shared evolutionary history healthy fertile offspring are continuously being produced. So, it may come as a shock to some that producing fertile males is a process that is much more precarious than originally assumed, or so suggests a paper published last week by researchers, led by Michael Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., at Case Western Reserve University. Looking to families in which daughters share the same Y chromosomes with their fathers, Weiss and his colleagues were trying to determine just how sensitive the threshold is for the activation of the SRY (sex determining region Y) gene. What their research suggests is that the genetic programming that determines male sex is extremely fragile which seems counterintuitive to the idea of survival of the fitness. If the survival of the human species is predicated on our ability to produce fertile offspring, what would be the benefit of having such an inconsistent pathway for male sexual development?
One reason, that Weiss suggests, is that having such ambiguity in sexual development allows for greater variance and thus higher survival rates due to a greater ability to adapt to changing environments. It may also suggest that sex could be just as subject to social construction as gender is, especially as the body of research concerning intersex individuals grows. Given how fragile the SRY gene is, it could further research into how it’s possible for someone to be born with any combination of traditionally identified male and female sexual characteristics. In the past, it was often up to the discretion of physicians to determine the sex of an infant when they were born presenting characteristics of both sexes. Often these arbitrary decisions to raise a sexually ambiguous infant as either a male or a female was in opposition to what that child’s self-identified gender and or sex would grow to be. Needless to say, a good deal of psychological and emotional trauma was usually the result.
The notion of sex and gender being fluid is one that has been gaining more and more attention, which Weiss’ paper might help fuel. Traditionally, anyone deviating from the norm of sexual characteristics or traits was treated as a freak and usually pressured to fit themselves into one category or the other. As the transgendered and intersex communities continue to speak out about their personal experiences, it might be wise to re-evaluate the veracity of our binary system of gender and sex.
To hear more about his research and how it may impact our understanding of sex, gender and evolution, make sure to check out the Science Café event tonight at Market Garden Brewery. Dr. Weiss will be there to present his research and answer your questions.
And if you’re curious about the fluid nature of our gendered brains, check out the following site to find out where on the gender spectrum your brain is: