I’ve been reluctant to blog on this subject given the great sensitivities that arise from several perspectives, but I just can’t shake a long slew of thoughts from my mind. A couple of weeks ago, a story broke about a Canadian couple who refused to disclose the sex of their child, suggesting that the child has the right to grow up to determine its own identity without gender determined societal roles/functions imposed on either sex bearing early influence on the child.
The story made international headlines in a very short matter of time, and I guess it brought 15 minutes of fame to the family for whatever that’s worth. I’m not one to argue whether any of this is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but it does raise deep and controversial thoughts about the direction that we are heading as a society – culturally, and potentially biologically.
A short bit of homework about the sexes reveals that while the fundamental norm is genetically male or female; denoted as chromosomes XY or XX respectively. As genetics tends to do, there are a few (albeit rare) variations that result in outward appearance of either sex, but hormonal and consequently behavioral differences that make it difficult to definitively classify the person as ‘male’ or ‘female’. In many cases, the person can live a completely normal and healthy life and lifestyle. I guess my point is that perhaps the outward appearance of men and women on the street does not define the person or their role in the family, or in society.
What we don’t know about this recent news breaking story is whether the child has a rare genetic mutation that would cause a question of gender, or if the parents are experimenting with their kid.
If the latter, this is just flat wrong. For millions of years, the genus Homo has been born male or female, with each sex carrying out distinct biological functions to reproduce and carry out the success and evolution of our species. These biological roles have implications in our culture, and as the two have been woven through time, their threads have become increasingly complex with same sex relationships becoming more outwardly visible – though the core function of man and woman stays the same – we are here, like every other animal on this planet – to reproduce.
Not every animal here on earth has had such a black and white existence however. Many invertebrates, both marine and terrestrial dwelling, are hermaphroditic – that is they carry out both male and female reproductive functions. In some cases this is a sequential process, in others it is simultaneous. Regardless, the animal can change as needed – subject to numerous ecological and physiological factors – to reproduce, though generally not self-reproduce. More primitive creature do indeed self reproduce. Many cnidarians for example can reproduce via budding, pedal laceration, or bilateral fission – literally leaving traces of themselves behind as they move forward and each trace grows to a new animal. Very fascinating biology indeed.
Back to being human – at this stage in our existence, we need male and female parts for this to work. Period. However, could social and cultural shifts towards gender equality, or even non-specific gender identity lead towards a hermaphroditic species of Homo? Not today or tomorrow, but over the next several hundred thousand to millions of years? I’m not sure that we have any trends to support a hypothesis just yet, but its an interesting concept nonetheless.
Millions of years from now, our mobile technology induced couch potato syndrome might very well leave us humans sitting in a cocoon and communicating and bulk data sharing via telepathic channels with no need for personal interaction whatsoever. Perhaps the only means to reproduce at that point is as oneself. It’s scary to think that far ahead, as our reflection in the mirror might mimic those little white beings that visit us from the future.
Anyway, we should keep an eye on this little experiment going on in Canada – this may very well be the start of a homogeneous humanity.
Michael Lombardi (2010). The gametogenic cycle of the sea anemone Metridium senile in teh Gulf of Maine JEMBE DOI: 10.1016/j.jembe.2010.04.004