Platypus and Gender

Dear P,

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I hope you’re having a fantastic week! I have some seriously interesting genetics learnings to share with you. This week we’ve been learning about sex chromosomes and how our high school teachers were omitting some information when they divided the world solidly into Male (XY) and Female (XX) with a capital M and F.

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First of all, as anyone who has ever read the highly recommended “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, gender disorders in humans are very possible and confusing for everyone involved. There are many varieties of chromosomal diseases that have varying implications for their victims. Females with Triple X Syndrome (XXX) often never realize they possess an abnormality, but patients with more extreme chromosomal abnormalities, like the 25 women in all of medical literature who have suffered from XXXXX aneuploidy (abnormal number of chromosomes), have similar symptoms to individuals with Trisomy 21 (Down’s) syndrome.

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The Y chromosome is what determines official gender. If the individual has a Y chromosome, they are officially Male. If they have no Y chromosome, they are officially Female. Like many black and white rules, this definition causes almost as many problems as it solves. See “transsexuals” and any of the individuals with the above chromosomal abnormalities. The way gender ties into the way we see ourselves, and other see us, mean it can be very confusing for everyone. And you know how people hate being confused.

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In the animal world things get even more interesting. The reason there are a ton of pictures of platypus on this post, besides because they are cute, is because platypus have no less than ten sex chromosomes.So, these mammals- that lay eggs, have bills, and are venomous- just got that much weirder. And cooler. I think I have a new favorite animal.

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And things get even more bizarre when we move beyond the land of mammals. For most bees species, only the female sex is actually fertilized and have the full set of chromosomes. So the male sex have a haploid set of chromosomes. And the female bee egg cell doesn’t have to be fertilized to give birth to males. So, in bee world, a male bee is just half a female bee.

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Thinking about all these striations of gender make me consider that humans have it pretty good, equality-wise. I mean, imagine if we were only attracted to a sex that had half the number of genes that we did. I am going to remember that the next time I have to struggle to coax a guy to have a conversation in more than monosyllables.

This weird, wonderful, gray world of gender is the center of much controversy and false stereotyping. I hope, as we move throughout our lives, we can consider people without limiting by the expectations of their gender. People, like platypus, are bizarre and impossible to pin down.

And if you ever feel a little bit claustrophobic from the box people try to fit our sex in to, just remember:

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Always.

(I saw this ad and was reminded of your quest for the perfect sunglasses. Found them yet?)

I hope you are having a super-spectacular time! Give Steven Pinker a big kiss from me!

Love,

E

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