Week 01: What is sex? What is gender?

Discussion Overview:

Hi all, thanks for coming to the first meeting of the ECL 290: Gender and Sexuality in Nature seminar! We’re really excited that this seminar is officially underway, and that we have a great group of people with diverse academic backgrounds to contribute to our weekly discussions.

The goal of our first meeting, aside from understanding course requirements and expectations, was to set a baseline for the quarter on our collective understanding: what is sex? what is gender?

Jacob provided an exercise to get us thinking about how we define sex and gender in biology (see Outreach Idea below). We then discussed the definitions that we are going to use for the course: Sex categorizes an individual based on the gametes it produces, where males produce small gametes (sperm), and females make large gametes (eggs). Gender, on the other hand, addresses how an organisms uses morphology and behavior to carry out a sexual role.

As a group, we acknowledge that sex and gender are not always so easily identified – some species only produce one gamete size, some species have individuals that make both gamete types (either at the same time or at different times in its life), and that there can be more than two genders for species that have only two sexes.

After, Jay gave an overview of the tradeoffs of sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction. Very briefly, with all else equal, asexual reproduction should be favored since it allows an individual to pass on 100% of its genetic information to the next generation. However, we know that planet earth is a dynamic place, with abiotic and ecological conditions changing through space and time. Thus, sexual reproduction might be favored because the benefit of mixing your genes with someone else’s might outweigh the cost of only passing on half of your genetic information to your offspring.

We’ve already covered a lot of ground, and we’re excited to start diving into these topics with more depth. Ash put together a flowchart of these ideas (pictured below) to serve as a road map for our discussion. We look forward to our future discussions, and we’re excited to refer back to this flowchart to see how these terms, categories, and ideas hold up for different groups of organisms with different evolutionary histories and ecological situations!

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Outreach Idea: Introducing the Topic

At first glance, it might seem like sex and gender are easily defined terms. We all know what makes a male a male, and a female a female. Right? However, it turns out these ideas are not so easily defined. One way to get your audience thinking about the complexities of sex and gender is to present the idea in the form of a “game”. Begin by showing the audience a variety of real-world examples that range from easily understood systems to more complex systems. Then, ask your audience to group individuals within each systems into different sexes and genders, and come up with their own definitions for the term.

To try out this idea, Jacob presented the class with examples from three different species. All species had two sexes, but a varying number of gender “morphs”:

1) Coho salmon, in which there is a large, aggressive male morph, and a small, sneaky male morph

2) White-tailed deer, in which both male and female sexes display antlered and antler-less morphs (some of which are fertile, and some that are not.

3) Side-blotched lizards, in which there are three distinct male morphs, and two distinct female morphs

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Working together, the group was able to come up with definitions for sex and gender that were very similar to what we will be using in the course. However, it was clear that, while the definition for sex seemed straightforward, arriving at the definition for gender was more complicated.

While this group is composed almost entirely of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, we think the exercise would still be useful to work through with a lay audience. The examples are interesting and not necessarily something that a lay person would be aware of, and it gets people thinking about how non-binary things can be in nature.

See you next week,

Jacob and Ash

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