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Unformatted text preview: or the past thirty years immunologists have studied no
other organ so intensely. Much of what we now claim to know about
how the immune system works we’ve learned from thymectomized
mice (mice from which the thymus was surgically removed).
In 2006, though, a funny thing happened. Hans-Reimer Rotewald—
working at the University of Ulm in Germany—discovered that mice
have more than one thymus. In addition to the thymus near the heart
everyone knew about, Rotewald and his coworkers discovered that mice
have an additional thymus or thymuses in their necks—extra thymuses
that everyone had overlooked all this time.16 Well, not all this time—in
the 1960s, Lloyd Law, working at the National Institutes of Health, had
shown that mice had other thymic material in their necks. But almost as
soon as Law published his findings they were forgotten, mostly because
they were an inconvenience. As a result, I worked for over thirty years
in immunology and never heard a word about extra thymuses.
Then Rotewald proved that neck thymuses work every bit as well
as near-heart thymuses, and that changed the way everybody thought
about most everything immunological—as recently as 2006. That fractured my once-fervent belief that anatomy was a dead science and that
we had little to learn from any further study of the appearance, shape,
contours, and crevices of the human body. Similarly, less than five years
ago, any knowledgeable neuroscientist would have told you unequivocally that brains don’t make new neurons. You are born with all you
will ever have, and that’s it. This is absolutely wrong.17 And until just a
few months ago, we were told that most mammals began life with all of
the eggs they would ever have, and for at least some mammals that is
Regardless of these discoveries, most of us—especially those of us A Brief History of Sex 25 in science—believe that we’ve finally got it right. We look at research
done twenty or certainly one hundred years ago as we might look at a
confused ancestor—affectionately but without belief. The efforts of last
century’s scientists appear almost humorous; they meant well, they just
didn’t know any better. Never do we imagine that fifty or one hundred
years from now scientists may view with equal amusement the work
we do today—the foolishness of our theories and hypotheses about the
world and the human body.
I no longer assume that our perception of the sexual anatomies
of males and females is static and beyond revision. If such important
things as an extra thymus or thymuses or new brain neurons could be
ignored into the twenty-first century, what else have we overlooked?
What more will we still find among the human rubble we have been
staring at so persistently for so long?
Another Side of Sex: A Brief history of Intersex
While Hippocrates and Galen and Vesalius and Columbus were offering their opinions about what people really looked like, another story
ran like old water underneath these anatomists’ tales—a story of other
sexes and other lives, a story that still threatens to topple the house of
cards we have built on the unsteady table of the two-sex life.
While most of us find talk of sex a little unsettling, we do speak
of it. The meaning and the determination of the sexes, along with the
importance and inevitability of intersex, though, we tend to bury in the
back pages of medical textbooks.
It has not always been so. The Old Testament tells of how men
and women arose from a single being. Perhaps Adam himself was the
first androgyne. And as long ago as two or three hundred years B.C.E.,
Greek and Roman tales told of children born with parts of both sexes.19
Often these children were thought to be oracles, and their births—surrounded by phantoms—portended catastrophic events for the empire.
Greek mythology also tells the story of Hermaphroditus, the
androgynous offspring of Aphrodite and Hermes, who would lend his
name to generations of intersex people to come. 26 Between XX and XY From the moment he laid eyes on her, Hermes was smitten with
Aphrodite. Soon after they wed, she gave birth to many sons. One of
them, Hermaphroditus, was a strikingly handsome boy. For the first
fifteen years of his life, Hermaphroditus lived with the Naiads in the
caves of Mount Ida on Crete. He grew restless, though, and set off to
discover unknown lands. Near the land of Lycia, he came upon a pool
of water so crystalline he could see to the bottom. He stood and stared,
for he had never seen water such as this. Salmacis, a nymph of the pool,
saw him there and was so stricken by his beauty that she pleaded with
Hermaphroditus to marry her. He refused and threatened to leave if she
didn’t stop. Salmacis withdrew, uttering apologies, and hid among the
Hermaphroditus, feeling the day’s heat, stripped to his skin and
waded into the water. Salmacis watched from her hiding place, and
once Hermaphroditus was fully in the water, she too stripped off her
clothes and dove in after him...
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- Spring '14