UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 6, 2009

BOOK SHELF

BETWEEN XX AND XY: INTERSEXUALITY AND THE MYTH OF TWO SEXES

Gerald N. Callahan

Deborah Blum, New Scientist - "I am satisfied with a wild free Nature," the psychologist-philosopher William James once wrote to a quarrelsome colleague. "You seem to me to cherish and pursue an Italian Garden, where all things are kept in separate compartments, and one must follow straight-ruled walks."

I've always admired the way James challenged what he perceived as scientific dogma. In this case, he raised a conundrum we still wrestle with today. Science, with its love of classification, seeks to impose a strict order on the world around us. Yet life on Earth is (forgive the pun) by nature tangled, messy and, in James's words, "everywhere gothic".

This Jamesian perspective pervades Gerald Callahan's smart and compassionate book. Callahan's argument arises from the fact that human sexuality spans a slippery biological spectrum. . .

"We still see a gap where none exists," Callahan writes, "a mirage that shimmers over the hot land of sex." He argues instead that there is a range of sexual characteristics that stretches from the testosterone-inflated Tarzan to the womanly "perfection" of a stereotypical Jane and all the variations that lie in between. "In truth, we are all intersex," he concludes.

The standard model of human development is built on 46 chromosomes, including two that determine sex: XX for female, XY for male. But, as Callahan points out, not everyone ends up 46XX or 46XY.

Variations in sperm or egg, in the mixing of cells from mother and father and in the cell division that follows can all stir the genetic soup into alternative outcomes. . .

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