What Kind of Sex Do We Need in the Lab?

The historian of science’s creed to begin with:

I believe in the material existence of beards, breasts and chest hair. I believe in the function of gonads and genitals. I believe in the usefulness of concepts like chromosomes and hormones. I believe in the ideal of meticulously controlled research trials covering a wide variety of test subjects.

However, I do not believe that vaginas are always accompanied by hairless chests and faces, and I am convinced that scrota and breasts sometimes adorn the same organism (pre-plastic surgery!). I believe that integrating sex/gender into scientific research as it is presented in the video below will lead us neither to a more reliable science nor to a better world altogether.

Londa Schiebinger, in her always stimulating Gendered Innovations newsletter, drew my attention to some contemporary attempts to promote sex/gender sensitive scientific research. A few days ago, she sent along the link to this video. It was produced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Gender and Health (IGH). The video tells us that the IGH’s vision is to “foster(s) research that explores how sex and gender influence health.” Their agenda: “We use these findings to tackle the biggest health challenges. Our vision includes everybody: men, women, girls, boys, and gender-diverse people.”

At the beginning of the video, we are asked the provocative question: “Imagine if we tested prostate cancer drugs only on female cell samples … DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?”

Well, something clearly doesn’t make sense here; but it’s the question itself, not the criticized research practice.

The problem lies in the assertion that “[e]very cell is sexed,” i.e., that there exists something like a “female cell.” As I understand it, the IGH divides the world into two sexes—just like Virgina H. Miller illustrated on Science Friday recently1: male and female, measurable on the cell level as XX resp. XY. (Only for this moment, let us assume that neither the Klinefelter nor the XYY syndromes exist to make this argument a little more straightforward.) Do you think prostate cancer cares for XX and XY chromosomes?

I don’t. I would say prostate cancer cares for prostates. And, as has been scientifically proven, there are XX individuals with prostates.2

Two hundred years ago, the life sciences didn’t have the means to determine all of the parameters Wikipedia is listing under the headline “Sexual differentiation”: chromosomal sex differences, gonadal differentiation, hormonal differentiation, internal and external genital differentiation, breast differentiation, hair differentiation, other body differentiation, brain differentiation, psychological and behavioral differentiation, biology of gender. But today we can measure the size of internal and external genitala, we can determine chromosomes and hormone levels, we can ask for sex/gender self-identification, etc.

Two hundred years ago, it might have been rigorously scientific to divide test subjects into just male and female. It isn’t any more. We know that there are individuals with so-called female chromosomes who also have prostates, and therefore bear the risk of developing prostate cancer.3 Consequently, if the IGH really wants to promote “better science,” it should acknowledge the diverse combinations of sex/gender parameters and our ability to determine many of them. Statistical calculations allow us to evaluate a wide range of variables, not only the binary category male/female or XY/XX. If the IGH longs for better controlled clinical trials, i.e., if it truly aims to “shap[e] science for a healthier world,” it should ask: “Imagine if we tested prostate cancer drugs only on cell samples taken from organisms without prostates. DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?”

That makes more sense, huh?

1 “Sex is the fundamental genetic difference between one half of the population and the other. So every cell, every person, is defined by whether or not they have an XX or an XY chromosome. These are the sex chromosomes: XX defining a woman, XY defining a man. And these chromosomes are set in an individual and really dictate the physiology throughout the life span, which includes susceptibility to disease, response to treatment, and outcome [italics added]. For what it’s worth, I believe in hormones, but not in sex hormones; cf. Rebecca M. Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm.

2 It might be disputable if this holds for any XX individual or only for some, e.g., those who are / would be diagnosed with the Chapelle syndrome.

3 Which is certainly not to say that they should undergo PSA screening, a diagnostic tool whose efficacy is questionable, as Robert A. Aronowitz has shown.


2 thoughts on “What Kind of Sex Do We Need in the Lab?

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