Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Default Sex

The problem with scientists is that they—like most people—tend to be products of their time. This is why females, from the perspective of development biology, have been referred to as the “default sex” even up through my time in college (1998-2002, if you’re wondering). Apart from the social/cultural assumptions involved—which I’ll get back to, don’t worry—the reasoning behind this is in itself flawed, but it’s based on the fact that, in humans, even if your sex chromosomes are XY rather than XX (that is, “male” rather than “female”), if you don’t have “male” gonads and/or the hormones secreted by them, your secondary sex characteristics (genitalia, aspects of physical appearance) will generally develop as female. Of course, you still won’t have female primary sex characteristics (ovaries); also, the development of any primary sex characteristics, male or female, is an “active” process that requires various signaling cascades and genes being turned on and so forth: there’s no automatic female- or male-hood.

So to call any sex the “default” is the result of conflation as well as sexism. (See, I told you I’d get back to the assumptions. Because you just know that, if male secondary characteristics developed in the absence of “female” hormones, males wouldn’t have been called the “default.” You certainly don’t see any Judeo-Christian religious leaders referring to Adam as the “default” parent-of-the-race, now do you?)

On the positive side, the terminology is changing, and one of the most common (and I think best) undergrad textbooks reflects this not just in its section on sexual development but in an appendix piece on the inherent and long-standing chauvinism of this concept. —Which is great, but is all mere preface to the real subject of my post, which is the existence of a different “default sex” in our cultural mentality.

You see, the problem with people is that they—like most scientists—tend to be products of their time. This is why they usually refer to every single animal they see as “he,” unless—and sometimes even though—the animal in question is nursing or giving birth.

You may remember that I’ve complained about this before. Unfortunately, even my vast and compelling powers of persuasion have not been enough to cause a social revolution in language use—and so, since the behavior continues, I continue to complain about it.

Why do so at this moment, you may ask? A couple of reasons: one is that, this past weekend at the zoo, I heard even more visitors than usual blithely mis-pronoun-ing a host of animals; the other is that I’ve been rereading Seeing Voices, a book by Oliver Sacks about Sign language and language acquisition in deaf and hearing people. Sacks doesn’t address the misuse of male pronouns (in fact, even he—a hero!—consistently refers to a hypothetical child as “he”)—but he does, very briefly, touch on the idea of language being the means of not just conveying but shaping our reality. So when we indelibly gender the world, unnecessarily and inaccurately—when every animal, every unidentified “I” in a story, every author without a first name, is assumed to be male—we are structuring for ourselves a reality that is pervaded by maleness, in which all visible actors are male.

[Is this elephant male? It is holding
something pink...hmm...]

What then have we told ourselves, taught ourselves, about who among us is capable, or even present? What does a little girl visiting the zoo learn when her parents tell her that every animal she sees is a he? What does a little boy learn?

The process through which embryos develop involves tremendous, almost magical, changes—proliferation and reorganization and specification—in order to create tissues and organs and structures from a simple spherical collection of cells, a ball of potential. It’s a process that’s at once remarkably resilient and incredibly fragile. The signals an embryo receives—the cues, the interactions, the feedback, the impulses—determine how, and how well, it forms. In other words, the environment in which it develops has enduring consequences. I wonder, after all the textbooks change, how much longer it will take our language to rid itself of a default sex.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

A relevant meditation on science, language, and human perception--limited. I know I'm guilty, too, except when birds and other animals easily differentiate themselves.

Kathleen Cunningham said...

I know the He pronoun vastly predominates, but I have noticed a rise in the She pronoun when referring, say, to a child in a textbook, or a supreme bring. It's unlikely to change in this macho culture, but thanks for the thoughtful essay.

biobabbler said...

Interesting. I like the French use of "one" that is common in speech. "If one goes hiking early in the morning, one can enjoy the trail alone." When I was a kid I thought all cats were female, and all dogs male. Took a LOT of brain work to re-wire my assumptions. It seemed so OBvious and the reality so improbable.

I never thought of default as demeaning, but it made me think of species that clone, like anemones, and I think of that, birthing out baby clones as female-like, so that was the base model. But really, there's no gender there at all, so your point is well taken. Thanks for making me think. =)

Reminds me of the riddle that I FLUNKED re: a man brings in his seriously injured son to emergency room, kid's wheeled away to the operating room, the surgeon looks down and says "I can't operate on this kid, he's my son." Question is "How can this be?" Totally stumped me. It NEVER crossed my MIND that the doctor was a WOMAN. Wow. That woke me up. Me, science chick. SPLASH of cold water on face. oop. =)

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

That's the thing, isn't it? We have to have riddles like that to make us aware of assumptions--because they're sneaky--we have no idea we've made them until they confront us in some way. And the thing is, I don't mean to say it to make anyone feel guilty--because we all do it, and we don't always *want* to--but just to make us a little more aware. I have to work at it, too, often: that assumed "he" even if I'm saying "it."

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