Between+XX+and+XY:+Intersexuality+and+the+myth+of+two+sexes

But almost as soon as law published his findings they

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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 equally wrong.18 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 bushes. 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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