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“The animals went in twoby two”: the Noah’s Arkstory reminds us thatanimals come in twosorts – males andfemales. And to createnew ones, you usuallyneed to start with oneof each.
The sex we are depends onour genes and the hormonesthat we make. Normally,these turn us either into amale or into a female. But somepeople – those with an intersexcondition – fall somewherebetween the two, and are noteasily classiﬁed as one or the other.Even so, sex is usuallyconsidered ‘either/or’ – boy orgirl, man or woman, male orfemale. Our gender, by contrast,is a more complex concept thatincludes social roles, degrees of masculinity and femininity, andhow we think about ourselvesand are seen by others.
SEX DETERMINATION IN NATURE
Hormones at work
Birds: chromosomal, but many variations.
(a worm that lives in sewer sludge): males turn intohermaphrodites if they don’t ﬁnd a female.Slipper limpet: mates in stacks, females at bottom; as stack grows,males in middle turn into females.
(a marine worm): when two female wormsmeet, the smaller turns into a male and they mate; the male growsfaster and at a certain point they both swap sex and mate again.Crocodiles: temperature of egg determines sex.
The X and Y chromosomesdictate our sex, but it ishormones – sexhormones produced bythe gonads – thatactually make us maleor female.
Thanks to the
gene – themaleness geneon the Ychromosome– malesdevelop testes. These produce
, as wellas
, whichsuppresses the development of thefemale reproductive system.In females,the sex hormones
drive the formation of female bodystructures. Femalesalso make testosterone, but it isconverted into oestrogen. The most obvious effects of the sex hormones are onreproductive organs, but in fact they actthroughout the body. The period we spend in the womb, exposed tosex hormones, is therefore critical to our laterdevelopment. From about 18 months onwardschildren show sex-speciﬁc differences inbehaviour. Girls, for example, typically go formore ‘feminine’ toys – dolls rather than trucks– when given a free choice (this has been seenin monkeys, too). Boys tend to go in for more‘rough-and-tumble’ games.Is this because sex hormoneshave programmed theirbehaviour, or are childrenconforming to ‘typical’ boys’ andgirls’ behaviour or beinginﬂuenced by parents? It is hardto be certain – evidence existsfor all of these effects.In experimental animals, sex-speciﬁc behaviours aredependent on sex hormones.Block the action of thehormone and they do notappear. Sex hormones‘hard-wire’ brain structures – whenlevels drop back after birth, the brains retainthe male-speciﬁc or female-speciﬁc wiring andbehaviours. The production of sex hormones undergoes asecond major boost at
.Puberty has been likened to
: it converts us from a juvenilestate to an adult, able to survive independentlyof our parents. It is a period of extraordinarybiological change – some 20–30 per cent of the neurons in our brain are rearranged duringpuberty – and at the end of it formerly similarboys and girls have become physically quitedifferent men and women. The trigger for puberty remains uncertain. Thebest bet is that there is a
that senses how long an animal has lived, butthe onset of puberty is inﬂuenced by severalinternal factors (e.g. body weight) and externalinﬂuences (e.g. puberty may start earlier infemales from disrupted family backgrounds).
In humans, a chromosomal mechanism determines sex, but there are manyother ways to create males and females.
Penny Bailey, Giles Newton,Julie Reza, Jon Turney
Paul Burgoyne, Nan Davies,Melissa Hines, Anita Holdcroft, JonathanOsborne, Michael Reiss, Jerry Wellington,Deborah Youdell
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THE NATUREOF SEX