Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brett the Vet - Gender Matters

A simplistic look at the complicated biology of gender.

Aspects of gender came up controversially in international athletics. Diverging opinions and speculation ensued on this sensitive matter. Extraordinary feats and appearances attract attention not least when ambiguous gender challenges our perceptions and assumptions.

Both sex hormones exist in humans and other animals. Usually females have more oestrogen. In males androgens predominate. There is a unique balance. Either hormone can also be in excess in males or females with predictable outward signs. Intersex or hermaphrodite is characterised by the presence of male and female organs in the same organism. This is typical for earthworms and snails. In other species it is an unusual state although normal for the individual, and constitutes the rare and fantastical third sex.

A relatively common but unfair advantage in competitive sport is the presence of an excessive level of natural or artificial androgens in the body. If equalizing properties of the male hormone responsible for improving physical strength were to be given to all contestants in equal measure it still wouldn’t constitute fair game.

When one looks at the animal world the rules in horse racing are paradoxically more egalitarian. There are age categories for colts and geldings, fillies, and also mixed events. Jockeys, who can be male or female, control and manipulate the races so the best horse may, or may not win. Of all the factors that might influence the outcome of a race, from conformation to doping, gender is the least controversial and often the most surprising. Natural competition among horses would revolve around the realities of food availability, hierarchy, or mates, rather than enforced galloping around a track.

Modified sex hormones to promote muscle mass are used in the meat industry. They are used as growth stimulants in feedlots for bulls and heifers. This is still legal in South Africa, but banned in the EU because of the dangers to human health when meat contains hormones. The advantage in farming this way is that feed conversion is greatly improved. Cattle can be slaughtered at a much younger age. As the carcasses are almost identical, gender becomes irrelevant. The exaggerated muscles are all soft and tender from fast growth and lack of exercise.

Involuntary removal of parts of the reproductive organs has become routine in farm animals and pets. The modifications make them no less male or female. In a bygone era, male singers known as castrati were deprived of their testicles at a young age to preserve their mellifluous soprano voices. Eunuchs were emasculated to reduce libido and prevent procreation. Thankfully such intervention would be unacceptable today. One cannot have a glib answer for such complex territory.

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