What are biological sexes?

Abstract

Biological sexes (male, female, hermaphrodite) are defined by different gametic strategies for reproduction. Sexes are regions of phenotypic space which implement those gametic reproductive strategies. Individual organisms pass in and out of these regions – sexes - one or more times during their lives. Importantly, sexes are life-history stages rather than applying to organisms over their entire lifespan. This fact has been obscured by concentrating on humans, and ignoring species which regularly change sex, as well as those with non-genetic or facultatively genetic sex determination systems. But the general point applies equally to humans. Assigning sexes to pre-reproductive life history stages involves ‘prospective narration’ – classifying the present in terms of its anticipated future. Assigning sexes to adult stages of non-reproductive castes or non-reproductive individuals is a complex matter whose biological meaning differs from case to case. The chromosomal and phenotypic ‘definitions’ of biological sex that are contested in philosophical discussions of sex are actually operational definitions which track gametic sex more or less effectively in some species or group of species. Neither ‘definition’ can be stated for species in general except by defining them in terms of gametic sex. The gametic definition of sex also features in widely accepted models which explain why two biological sexes – either in separate individuals or combined in hermaphroditic individuals - are almost universal in multicellular species. Finally, the fact that a species has only two biological sexes does not imply that every member of the species is either male, female or hermaphroditic, or that the sex of every individual organism is clear and determinate. The idea of biological sex is critical for understanding the diversity of life, but ill-suited to the job of determining the social or legal status of human beings as men or women.

Author's Profile

Paul Edmund Griffiths
University of Sydney

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