Which sex is the default?

This small topic has taken up a surprising amount of my mental energy over the past few months. It all started when I sat in on a history class called “Women in Sickness and in Health,” which focuses on gender perceptions throughout western history. The first day of class covered the topic of a “default sex.”

In humans, science suggests, it is default to be female. Add testosterone to a person and they begin to show male secondary sex characteristics (deeper voices, facial hair, extra muscles, etc.). Add a Y chromosome to an embryo and you get a male. Though the norm is two, females can have any number of X chromosomes (see “trisomy X“) without ever showing any sign of being male. But so long as someone has a Y chromosome, that person is transformed into something different.

As a biology major, I was well familiar with these facts. But I wasn’t aware that some people interpreted these results as being sexist. The history class asked, “Can’t we also say that being male is a lack of having two X chromosomes? Or a lack of estrogen? Why are women the ones who are ‘missing’ something? Missing a penis, missing testosterone, missing a Y chromosome, always ‘missing,’ always ‘lesser.'”

As I mention in the last section, this answer is complicated but mostly “no.” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about “defaults.” Why does equating “female” with “default” mean that they are inferior? In fact, I’m used to the exact opposite:

The class’ interpretation being wrong:

When and where my dad grew up, men were seen as the default.

In the story of Adam and Eve, God creates man first. Later, woman is created from one of Adam’s ribs. My dad grew up believing that men were missing a rib, and that the first and original human was a man. This, in Christianity, was commonly used to justify males being superior: they were the First, the Original, the Platonic Ideal from which everything else is just a cheap Xerox copy.

This can even be seen in the English language: how often have we heard that “the deadliest creature is Man”? The word “man” itself is the default word onto which was added “wife” to create “wifeman,” the root word of our modern “woman.” A “woman,” linguistically, means “man who is also a wife.” There is “male,” onto which is added “fe” to create “female.” There is “he” onto which is added “s” to create “she.”

This exists in Spanish, as well. A group of females is indirectly referred to as “las,” a group of males is indirectly referred to as “los.” But when there is a group of mixed sexes, the default is “los,” the masculine version.

Apart from abstract linguistics, we can see this in plenty of other places throughout life. Let’s take writing and television. English teachers who hate using the singular “they” to refer to a single person often tell students to write “he or she” instead. But in older literature, this problem is remedied with a hypothetical “he.” Even now, I find it startling to read the sentence: “Suppose you have an artist, and she wants to paint a cat.” I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if the sentence had been “Suppose you have an artist, and he wants to paint a cat.”

Traditionally, male has been considered the default in our culture. Our stick figures are male unless we add on pigtails, our anatomy textbooks feature males unless comparing the sexes, and our cartoon characters are male unless we add eyelashes. Yet males are also traditionally considered the superior sex.

All of this leads us to the idea of the “default” human. Normally, when we picture a default human, it is a middle-aged white man. While this is far from the actual most average human (which is a 28-year-old Chinese man), it is something we are all familiar with. I recently watched a Youtube video analyzing the idea that many people hold that being white is the default. Understandably, the video’s creator finds this idea insulting, as he should.

Because traditionally, dominant groups consider themselves to be the default. The “default,” in our cultural perception, is a middle-aged white man. Perhaps the “white” is because our culture is a majority white, but the “man” most certainly is not.

So “default” doesn’t automatically equate to “lesser.” “Specialized” doesn’t mean “superior,” at least traditionally. Normally, it’s been the opposite.

So why all the fuss?

The class’ interpretation being right:

As it turns out, viewing males as specialized was common in the Victorian Era. A few days ago, in a different class, I came across this description of Victorian Era perceptions of male/female differences:

“Females experience arrested development when
compared to adult males. Consequently, females
resemble the young of their species by generally
being smaller, weaker, and of duller coloration than
males. In the case of humans, this was interpreted to
mean that women are more childlike, have imperfect
reasoning, and lack intellectual ability (Tuana,
1993). This idea corresponds with the notion that
males have been more subject to sexual selection
and are the more sexually selected sex

Because of males’ more complete development, they
are more complex and more variable than females.
After the theory of natural selection (Darwin, 1859)
gained popularity, this was also interpreted to mean
that males were more highly evolved than females…”

I only sat in on one class of Women in Sickness and in Health, so it wasn’t until a few days ago that I was exposed to these Victorian ideas. This is what the class was talking about. Although the Bible viewing males as the default justified patriarchy, Victorians viewing males as the specialized also justified patriarchy.

The history class was reacting to this attitude, leading the students in the class to question the objectivity of science. But, as we’ve seen, any group being seen as “default” or “specialized” can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

This doesn’t just exist with regards to sex, as I briefly mentioned above. I’ve frequently learned about early searches for the ancestral homelands of all humans. Nowadays, we know it to be Ethiopia. But this wasn’t always the case. Early European archaeologists insisted that white people must have been the first on Earth, that they were the Platonic Ideal from which every other cheap imitation was molded. White = default, default = best.

But after considerable scientific evidence established that humans originally came from Africa, and originally had far more melanin in their skin, the narrative changed. We’re all familiar with those Social Darwinists who said something along the lines of “Africans are the prototypes, Europeans are more evolved.” Even now, there are plenty of white supremacists who compare black people to our ape cousins (somehow under the impression that groups remaining in Africa wasn’t subejcted to any sort of evolutionary pressure of mutation in the last fifty thousand years ago, even though the continent has the greatest amount of human genetic diversity of any continent). When the proof came out that black people were the default, the conclusion changed. Black = default, default = inferior.

Science’s final say:

Science and politics are not inherently tied. Science, or pseudoscience, can often be used to justify five conflicting conclusions at once. As we’ve seen, whether male or female, black or white, is the default, the answer as to which is “superior” always turns out the same. With that in mind, what does science say on the topic of the “default” sex?

Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  • People with female bodies can have the sex chromosomes: X, XX, or XXX
    • A person with a female body can have a Y chromosome if they have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, mentioned below
  • People with male bodies can have sex chromosomes XY, XYY (Jacob’s syndrome), or XXY (Klinefelter syndrome).
    • XYY males are indistiguishable from XY males
    • XXY males are infertile and have some female characteristics
  • If a person’s cells cannot recognize/process testosterone, they experience Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Often, they are born with vaginas and go through female puberty to develop breasts (though never a period).
  • Transitioning men take testosterone supplements, and transitioning women take HRT (a mix of estrogens, progesterones, and occasional androgens)
  • The presence of the SRY gene on the Y chromosome initiates male differentiation. However, SRY also suppresses “anti-male” genes, and the FOXL2 gene promotes female differentiation. The absence of a female-promoting WNT-4 gene often results in a pseudo-penis.
  • Bird sex is determined with a WZ/ZZ chromosome system instead of an XY/XX system. Female birds have the WZ chromosomes, and males have the ZZ combination.
    • There is no consensus whether it is the presence of a W that causes female characteristics, or if it is the combined efforts of two Z’s that cause male characteristics.

In short, it’s complicated. But in mammals, the trend appears to shift in favor of females being the default and males being specialized. It seems that genes like FOXL2, conditions like XXY Syndrome, and the effects of estrogen on trans women imply that there are forces that turn a human female. But for the most part, forces like testosterone seem to make a male form a lot more difficult to achieve.

Does this mean that one sex is superior to another? Of course it f*cking doesn’t. Science doesn’t work that way.


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