An Endangered Gender

Today’s Independent contains a classic science scare story. It alleges that, because of certain types of chemicals that have been commonly used in recent times, the male gender is under threat, throughout the animal kingdom. Some of this is doubtless traditional journalistic scaremongering, but some of the studies on animals are quite startling, for example:

Research at the University of Florida earlier this year found that 40 per cent of the male cane toads – a species so indestructible that it has become a plague in Australia – had become hermaphrodites in a heavily farmed part of the state, with another 20 per cent undergoing lesser feminisation.

Fish are apparently the worst affected types of animals, but the effects have been noted all through the animal kingdom, including in otters, deer, antelope and polar bears. The report on which the story is based concludes:

Feminisation of the males of numerous vertebrate species is now a widespread occurrence. All vertebrates have similar sex hormone receptors, which have been conserved in evolution. Therefore, observations in one species may serve to highlight pollution issues of concern for other vertebrates, including humans.

Hard line feminists will doubtless continue to suggest that there is no biological component whatsoever to gender identity, and I’m not qualified to pronounce one way or another. However, here is an article by a qualified doctor who also happens to be a male-to-female transsexual and who was exposed to one of these “gender bending” chemicals in the womb.

I should note, by the way, that exposure to chemical pollutants is by no means the only possible cause of gender confusion. However, if it happens then it provides firm proof that biological mechanisms can be a contributory factor. And if that is the case then it is further reason to give short shift to those who prefer to believe that all gender variance is a form of sexual perversion.

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2 Responses to An Endangered Gender

  1. I think the news article must have meant to say that the male sex is endangered; male gender will still be around. 😉

    That bit of nitpicking aside, there’s definitely a continuum between male and female on a strictly biological level, and the boundaries are not so easy to determine as most people think. Rick wrote about the problem of definition in his essay about same-sex marriage.

    I do know a trans person whose mother was given “gender bending” chemicals while she was in the womb. Maybe DES, but I don’t recall being told.

    So far as I know, I’m biologically female, but who really knows, anyway? It’s complicated.

  2. Cheryl says:


    Actually I think the article may have it right. Biological sex is usually defined in terms of chromosomes, or at least in terms of primary sexual characteristics. As I understand it, some fish species do actually change sex so that functional males become functional females after exposure to the chemicals. Mammals, however, are rather more complex, and the differences tend to be in areas of secondary sexual characteristics. The hermaphrodite polar bears are a spectacular manifestation of the phenomenon, but in most cases we are seeing things like deer not growing antlers and so on. Those animals are chromosomaly male, and may even be fertile, but their gendered appearance is closer to female.

    And if these chemicals really are responsible for male-to-female transsexualism then they are indeed affecting gender rather than sex.

    Also it seems entirely reasonable that it would be much easier for a chemical to affect the development of gender in an embryo than to affect chromosomes.

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