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July 02, 2003

"Run-Away Science"?

Everybody knows that you're either born a little boy or a little girl . . . that is of course, unless you're not. Then you can be all sorts of unique things, both in between and none of the above. As Jared Diamond points out, you can be a female pseudohermaphrodite with the female bits on the inside and the dangly parts on the outside or you can be a male pseudohermaphrodite with all the male bits on the inside and an *cough* all too female outside [1]. Or you can be just the plain old-fashioned double-equipped non-pseudo variety of hermaphrodite. You can have all sorts of rare sexual chromosome disorders such as the X-double-Y mythical "hyper-male" combination, or a triple, quadruple, and even quintuple X. But that's besides the point, which is that most people who weren't raised by wolves in the forest are aware of these kinds of biological possibilities and, subsequently that 'maleness' and 'femaleness' aren't some impregnable categories of Platonic essentialness. All possible ambiguities of biological gender have occurred already through Mother Nature's mistakes and they have been observed, recorded, and classified. This is part of the reason why this latest news story confuses me:

"Scientists in the United States have created hybrid human “she-males,” mixing male and female cells in the same embryo, in a move that has outraged fertility experts and anti-abortionists. DR. NORBERT GLEICHER of the Foundation for Reproductive Medicine in Chicago and a colleague injected male cells into female embryos in research which they believe could lead to better treatments or cures for single gene disorders. But their work provoked revulsion when they presented it to the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Madrid, Spain. “There are very good reasons why this type of research is generally rejected by the international research community,” Dr Francoise Shenfield of ESHRE said on Wednesday. “I cannot conceive of any situation in which this particular technique would be acceptable, and if it cannot be applied there is not much use in experimenting with it,” she added. Gleicher and his colleague used male cells because they were easier to track as they studied the development of the embryos up to six days. Their work also sparked outrage from abortion opponents who described it as run-away science. “This is gross manipulation of human life,” said Nuala Scarisbrick of the British anti-abortion group Life. “The creation of a ‘she-male’ is disgusting, but not surprising.”

Now come on, I can understand this kind of metaphysical outrage coming from the "life begins at conception" crowd, but I refuse to accept it from anywhere else. I mean, let's face it, a "male/female hybrid" is not some sort of unreal, shockingly alien concept, that would force us to re-evaluate ourselves and our place in nature and the universe (like say, a chimp/human hybrid), but an almost banal sort of medical abnormality; so the sci-fi sensationalism/outrage would be misplaced even if these cells weren't going to be destroyed before they took any sort of form visible to the human eye.

And calling this thing a "she-male"? Get real. Humans with a penis, a vagina, facial hair, and breasts already exist, and you can find them at the various porn sites scattered across the net that I avoid like the plague. Those are She-males. What Dr. Gleicher is noodling with, on the other hand, is just another organic lump of non-sentient sexless dirt. Please, this thing is not a male or a female, or even a human in any meaningful sense - it's a tiny clump of tissue with no value but what it can do for real people with real sentience and the real capability to suffer. These clods of skin hold many important secrets - secrets that might help dear old Granny from dying of a painful heart condition or Gram'pa from losing all his memories, like say, your name. Those are the humans we should be worrying about the well-being and dignity of, not some microscopic abstraction in a petri dish. And that doesn't just go out to the bona fide mystics, but to the media and everyone else who is susceptible to the anthropomorphic trap.

[1] From the article: ". . .[a male pseudohermaphrodite] looks like a normal woman. Indeed, “she” often conforms to the male ideal of feminine beauty even more than the average woman does because her breasts tend to be well developed and her legs long and graceful. Her complexion is usually flawless and she tends to have the added height of a man. Hence, cases have turned up repeatedly among female fashion models. ".

-Jason Malloy 7/2/03

Posted by Jason Malloy at 09:20 PM

your notation is tweaky!

now, what if a gay couple wanted to genetically engineer a gay child? is that against nature???

Posted by: razib at July 2, 2003 09:26 PM

Only if they want it to join them. ;)

Posted by: Jason Malloy at July 2, 2003 09:31 PM

what fashion models?

Posted by: Stephen at July 2, 2003 10:31 PM

Considering most homosexuals say they're not gay "by choice", I don't see why they would want to engineer a gay child.

That being the case, the more gays come out of the closet, the fewer will get married and have kids, and any alleged "gay genes" will die out relatively soon.

Nature solves the problem on its own, though we might want to engineer a few gays now and then for comedic value. You know, to perpetuate the stereotypes, keep them fresh in the public's mind so that gay jokes will still be funny.

Posted by: PhlegmAsiv at July 3, 2003 10:04 AM

well, being brown, or white, or black isn't a "choice" either, but people who adopt want to adopt the same race. also-homosexuality can easily spread as a non-expressed gene in siblings of homosexuals if that non-expressed gene has benefits that out-weight the negative cost to fitness of a man or woman who will have a minority of non-reproductive homosexual children.

Posted by: razib at July 3, 2003 10:09 AM

Tall, large breasts, perfect complexions. Nature's warning signs.

Posted by: zizka at July 3, 2003 01:02 PM

I hypothesize that a black person who wishes he could have been white will adopt a white child. Many people marry interracially for this very reason. Furthermore, being of a different race is quite normal. Homosexuality is not. I know many gays wish they could be straight and normal, so I see no reason why they would want an abnormal child.

Posted by: PhlegmAsiv at July 3, 2003 01:38 PM

One other note - there are also examples of mosaicism in nature, that is, different sex chromosome makeup for different clumps of cells in the body due to errors very early in embryonic development (for example some X0 and some XY). So you can't even make a good case for this being totally unnatural, though I imagine the specific combinations they created would have been astronomically rare in nature -

Posted by: bbartlog at July 3, 2003 02:26 PM