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DEC. 3, 2019

Exploring the Gradient

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Over the past few years we have been ramping up our faculty and student diversity, equality, and inclusivity education here at Eagle’s Nest. This fall we added some biological perspectives in The Outdoor Academy’s Natural Science class as two students chose to research and discuss gender in the natural world for their honors topics. Both reviewed Jean Roughgarden’s seminal book Evolution’s Rainbow – Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People and I think it’s fair to report that Sam was right when he said “prepare to have your socks blown through the roof!” Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, we were treated to some pretty eye-opening stuff that day.

In light of the genetic story we understand today, it’s difficult to imagine that, until quite recently, homosexuality was considered to be a behaviorial and immoral choice, unrelated to gene expression. Tragically, it was also often illegal (and still is in many places.) In the wider vertebrate world, Roughgarden recounts of how the sexual genotypes of the embryo carry the developmental potential for both female and male and reminds us of science’s search for the “gay gene.” This isn’t new. In the male-dominated British nineteenth century, Charles Darwin, noticing that capons (castrated roosters) will incubate eggs, mentioned the “latent instincts even in the brain of the male. Every animal is surely hermaphrodite.” Even then, there was a glimmering that sex and gender may be complicated. In I, Mammal, Liam Drew even suggests that up to one-third of all animals may be hermaphrodites. Despite Darwin’s liberal observation, he went on to postulate a more narrow theory of sexual selection that we can’t seem to shake or adjust – the classic aggressive male, coy female model and for the last 150 years we have been trying to fit all sexual behaviors and identities into that limited view. Granted, Darwin was correct about oh so very much, but I think Roughgarden may be right to suggest that it is time to replace the term sexual selection with the more accurate social selection.

Last week in our class Caden and Sam illustrated the wide physiological gradient and diverse behaviors present in the natural world: switching sexes, sexual dimorphism, incubating males, alternates to XX and XY determinants, multiple genders, hermaphrodites and intersex, and the myth of female monogamy/male polygamy. Clearly, sex and gender are complicated in the coral reefs and rainforests of the world and unless one believes in a divine animation of Homo sapiens; that we are a separate creation unrelated to the animal world, it would be a difficult argument indeed to propose that we are the exceptions; that the reality in the natural world cannot or must not apply to humans. Our recent research of the complex gene alliances that contribute to the gradient of sexual and gender expression simply cannot be ignored and it is satisfying to see science uncovering the rational foundations for our cultural reality.

And, it is more than satisfying to be in discussion with these young minds as they apply their curiosity to some of our most confounding topics in Natural Science class.  Occasionally, that rare, original question or comment from an OA student arrives in a discussion and I mean a perspective that is new to me even after 49 semesters. I have to stop the class so we can work our way through their logic, realizing that I have simply never heard this before. Astonishing.

 

By Ted Wesemann