Genetic Explanations

Intersex, hermaphroditism and evolution.


“Intersex” is a modern term for hermaphroditism.  It is used to describe a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the commonly accepted definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to have a female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types.

There are signs of intersex issues filtering into mainstream life in the same way that transsexual issues did before Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity transition brought them into the limelight.  An MTV teen show, Faking It, features a character who happens to be intersex.  Intersex or hermaphroditism has been long recognised as a medical condition since ancient times.  What may have changed is society’s recent better acceptance of an indeterminate sex.  Or rather re-acceptance, as indeterminate sex was better accepted in ancient times – along with other un-modern concepts such as eunuchs.  It makes sense to allow an intersex individual to reach puberty before letting them make an informed choice regarding their body’s sex.  We know that the sex of their brain will make a big difference to the sex they will choose their body to be.

The development of the human body and brain into the sexes is a complex process.  This includes the interaction of genes, hormones and environmental factors (e.g. disease, drugs and pollutants) at different times during our development in the womb, immediately after birth and during puberty.  Variations in this elaborate process can cause brain development and body development to fall outside our commonly accepted ideas of gender.  For example a male brain inside a female body (or vice versa) and indeterminate sex organs. To this extent what we currently call “transsexual” and “intersex” have a similar root cause.

In terms of evolution it is important to understand that nature has no intent.  Evolution is not sentient and not trying to be anything.  Evolution is driven by natural selection and to work its magic it needs variation from which to choose.  Variation is driven by random genetic events.  Intersex individuals are therefore not unnatural and are just part of the evolutionary process that provides natural variation without which life on this planet would have stalled at the single cellular stage.  Of course if the natural variation results in a biological format with a reduced ability to reproduce we would expect their numbers to be low.  And in the case of intersex individuals they are relatively rare –  less than 1 in 2000.

If society is able to accept the modern view of evolution by natural selection then intersex individuals should not feel like freaks but simply as normal individuals who are different to the average.