Can Transgenderism Be Explained With Genetics?
Siddhartha Mukherjee explores the genetics of sex and sexual identity in his new book, The Gene: An Intimate History.
We love simplicity. If during your gestational period you wind up with an X and a Y chromosome, you enter the planet male; two exes, female. Nature elegantly presents its basic arguments; like a yin-yang, balance is king.
But that Taoist symbol reminds us there’s a little black in the white. Much of existence resides beyond polarizing opposition—the grey is where many play. Our bodies are no different. English endocrinologist Gerald Swyer discovered this in 1955.
Certain women, he found, are born anatomically and physiologically female, though when puberty comes knocking, they do not reach full sexual maturity: breast development is stunted; the pelvis and hips remain narrow; menstrual periods are absent. As it turns out, every cell in their body is chromosomally male. If hormone replacement therapy is not offered, they might never reach womanhood.
Where does such a woman fall in the spectrum of sexuality? By society’s standards, female, at least through their teenage years. (Some develop ‘streak gonads.’ If not surgically removed they risk tumor development.) Perhaps more interestingly at this moment, how do they identify sexually?
In The Gene: An Intimate History, physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee contemplates the difference between sex identity and sexual identity:
Whether sex is innate or acquired in the one-in-two-thousand babies born with ambiguous genitals does not typically incite debates about inheritance, preference, perversity, and choice. Whether sexual identity—the choice and preference of a sexual partner—is innate or acquired does, absolutely.
With a ludicrous debate over transgender bathroom rights occurring at state and local levels following Obama’s bathroom directive—eleven states are now suing his administration—gender identity has become the media’s cause célèbre. According to Mukherjee, the nature/nurture debate, which has raged in the public discourse over the last century, is unwarranted.
It is now clear that genes are vastly more influential than virtually any other force in shaping sex identity and gender identity—although in limited circumstances a few attributes of gender can be learned through cultural, social, and hormonal reprogramming.
It is understandable why gender identity infuriates the religious mind, as it calls into question the design of our vessel. Throughout his book, Mukherjee examines step-by-step our ever-deepening comprehension of the building blocks of life. Many follies have occurred along the way—the debate over gender identity is only the latest.
Rewind 2,400 years and we discover Greek philosopher Anaxagoras claiming that semen production in the left testicle results in male babies, while the right produces a girl. While such a theory is absurd, Mukherjee notes that it did place a seed into public consciousness: sex identity is random and not chosen, an important cognitive step forward from the chains of determinism. Jump ahead six hundred years to find the influential Greek physician Galen claiming that ovaries were merely internalized testicles.
Oddly, in all those millennia some still have not come to terms with the randomness of evolution. Initiatives like ‘praying the gay away,’ illegal in many states, still inspires forlorn parents to send their children to deprogramming camp. This is where the continual danger of genetics lives in the public imagination.
With many chapters devoted to the maturation and legacy of eugenics, most famously the Nazis (which actually did the world an unintended favor by making us aware of the lunacy of selective breeding), Mukherjee foresees dangers of tinkering with our microscopic software. While we do not yet understand the exact nature of the heritable elements that influence our sexual identity, that day is not far off.
What we do know now, as he explains to NPR, is that sexual identity is not an aberrant condition, but part of our genetic history. Environment can play some role, though Swyer Syndrome reminds us that a master regulator gene has the potential of influencing your identity.
Mukherjee compares the master regulator to an army commander. At top of the hierarchy is gender anatomy; countless variations exist downstream in the composition of the army, each with slightly different components. You might have male identity with differing sexual attractions, or you might have differing aspects of male identity. He continues,
The way that these genes—this genetic information percolates down into the individual, the way this hierarchy percolates down into an individual might be very different from one person to another and therefore create the kind of infinite ripples or variations in human identity that we experience in human life.
Early in his book Mukherjee warns of treating genetic mutations as mistakes. Mutations are responses to environments, internal and external. Thousands of years of believing in the formation of an ‘ideal’ race—the Spartans were especially keen on selective breeding—have resulted in chronic cultural wars and countless suicides, imprisonment, and social grief.
From single cells to the seemingly boundless array of life on this planet today, nature is our profound creator. Believing philosophical or moral programming lays behind the switches results in much suffering, as another Siddhartha warned. As Mukherjee told the New Yorker Radio Hour,
What we used to call fate, or destiny, is really a combination of random chance and environmental triggers impinging on the genome.
This relationship is our actual inheritance. Celebrating it in all its varied forms will be immeasurably more beneficial on future genomes than constantly tinkering and thwarting the splendid diversity of our kind.
Image: Yasuyoshi Chiba / Getty Images
Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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