Saturday, December 28, 2013


Now that we are able to “read” the double helix of chromosomes -- or for that matter the single line of code in half a chromosome or the reverse transcription of that code or snippets of genome or even the epigenome (that I envision as a sleeve on the chromosomal string) which can turn individual genes on and off, interposing the environment on the expression of this and that -- the world looks like a very different place.  It looks as though viruses, which are sort of free-ranging code, and bacteria, which are more like single cells with viruses as nucleus inside, are everywhere -- crowding the world with their teeming.

“Lousy Sex” is an anthology of short essays about this sort of thing, written by Gerald N. Callahan, who is billed by his publisher (University Press of Colorado) with neither Ph.D nor M.D., but identified as a microbiologist (though many of his subjects are SUBmicro), an immunologist and pathologist, and a teacher of creative nonfiction.   (In fact, he is a Ph.D.) He could also claim some credentials as a “sexologist” so long as you were talking about genetics instead of technique in bed.  He is the author of “Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes,” which is bound to throw a spanner into the sprockets of even the people who have embraced the myth of marriage as two people of opposite accoutrements who intend fertility.

Animal alternatives are considered in the essays.

1.  Animals with a full complement of chromosomes, one set of which is specific for controlling reproduction -- like us.  If the combination of the two halves is an X gene and a Y gene, the result will be a “male” creature which produces sperm (nucleuses with tails for traveling).  The means of delivery can be as simple as releasing in water or using some sort of device  attached to "papa."   If the two halves are both X, then the creature will specialize in being the receptor and gestator, though the eggs may be nurtured inside the body (mammals) or outside (eggs of some kind, as with shells) or in some compromise (marsupials).

2.  It’s possible for confusion and stuttering to produce an XXY, an XXX, or some other wretched excess but never a YY or YYY because there’s no egg.  In addition to that, X genes have some basic information encoded on them that is vital to survival.  Y’s are smaller and therefore Y’s are more vulnerable, with less information.

3.  The ovum or egg also includes mitochondria which appear to be “captured” one-celled creatures (bacteria) which have their own DNA which is invariant.

Bacteria flash mob

4.  The reason for the teasing title of the book, a publicist’s little joke, is that it was first discovered by studying pillbugs (wood lice) that bacteria could get into an ova and suppress the Y chromosome so that from then on the bug could only produce females full of the bacterium, which we would pejoratively label an “infection.”  There’s no way for them to “infect” a Y since Y’s don’t carry baggage -- just that whip of a motor.  If antibiotics are used to “cure” the ovum by killing all the bacteria, then the Y chromosome becomes operational and there are male bugs again.

5.  We’ve long puzzled over ants and bees which pattern some females NOT to reproduce and dump males early.  No new info on them in this book.

6.  The most sensational and rarest news is that the ancients’ notions of chimeras appear to be real, though not cross-species unless laboratory induced.  But evidently even in humans an egg, fertilized, can merge with another egg, fertilized, to produce a community of cells that develop as one adult instead of twins.  We discover this in humans when mothers have DNA at variance with their children, when genomes must be matched for transplantation (chimera make good receivers -- double -- but bad donors -- half unmatched) and sometimes when surgery reveals that internal sexual organs are not bilateral, even male on one side and female on the other side.  But chimeras can also develop as “mosaics,” mixing the two kinds of cells the way a tortoiseshell cat mixes at least two colors of fur.  In fact, some suggest that tortoiseshell cats may be natural chimeras. 

7.  Once we leave mammals, and especially when we get to fish and other marine creatures, the necessity of special packaging that dry land imposes is no longer a limit, and the possibilities are -- shall we say -- swimmingly various.  Individuals can be true “switch-hitters” going back and forth between producing ova and producing sperm -- after all, the difference is only baggage -- or just sticking with the old fav: mitosis which is splitting or budding, or mixing mitosis with meiosis.

by Malczewski

Now comes Callahan’s deepest question: to what extent does our “self,” our internal construct of behavior and preferences, respond to this same situation?  Some people “feel” female but have XY chromosomes or might go the opposite way or might combine their cultural identities in various ways as a mosaic.  Some are male for part of their lives and female other times.  Our rigid moralities are either shaken into a shambles or -- a more vicious solution -- the person is suppressed at the least and destroyed at the most.  Hetero-homo divisions are revealed as constructs -- and yet, are they really?  

The concept of “split personality” or even “multiple identities”  has been reworked and exploited so many times by movies and books that we almost believe we know something about them that is fact -- even useful.  We “know” that it is the product of abuse, particularly sexual abuse at a young age, or other trauma that forces “dissociation” which is a more defined state, something like hypnosis or fugue, a kind of detachment and translation to another place and state.  We think of this as pathology but is it?  Why isn’t it a positive skill?  Maybe we only know about such cases in terms of discomfort because the ones who find it effective and happy just go their own way, stay out of the lab.

I can envision a sci-fi story in which there is a planet where all the writers are chimeras, mosaic people, shape-shifters if you like.  Maybe there is a non-chimera who wants to be a writer, but his writing is so atypically flat that he cannot succeed.  It’s the shock of expectations not being met that makes the trouble.  But expectations draw us out, develop us, as much as they suppress us, deny us.

For humans and maybe dolphins, whales and elephants, these matters that begin in molecular patterns can end in consuming yearning.  Once I went to apply for a job in a zoo and was asked to wait for my interview alongside a tank that held a beluga whale -- not a "blackfish" but a white mammal with a big forehead like a baby.  The whale came to me, making sounds and trying to lead me like a pet that wants a door opened, but urgently.  A passing keeper told me that the whale was trying to get me to open a gate into another tank where there was a female in season.  His near-Wagnerian aria was meant to convey to me his yearning, his overwhelming need to get to what could only be called his lover.  I heard him, I felt him.

Much attention has been given to Tillicum, the brutalized Orca stud who kills humans, but I have not seen a movie about whales who love whales.  Or is it just lust?  They say that cetacean whales have a whole big brain section (that humans do NOT have) that is devoted to emotion and because they are in water, they are in direct contact with the emotional vibes of another creature.  Even humans, as some women who swim with dolphins discover with some distress and a loss of romantic constructs.  But the Greeks were wrong about a chimeric child resulting.  The yearning does.

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