3. The Ancient World

From: The 7 Sexes

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3 The Ancient World Cellular life, sex determination, reproduction, and the processes associatedwithgestationarelargelyunseenandunknowablewithoutthetools of science. A major reason for this is the scale at which life takes place. Most of the fundamental processes occur at the level of cells, chromosomes , genes, and molecules, none of which are visible to the unaided eye. Even the concepts of cells, chromosomes, genes, and molecules were not known to the ancient world except in the vaguest theoretical or speculative ways (e.g., atoms as ultimate units that are indivisible, or atoms as vortices of energy or motion). In Greek philosophic writings, Democritus of Abdera (460–370 bce) believed females arose from the left testis and males from the right testis. Pythagoras (580–500 bce) believedthemalesemengaverisetothe“nobleparts”ofthebodyandthe female semen gave rise to the “gross parts.” Hippocrates (460–377 bce) referred to the “liquor” or “sperma” produced by a copulating couple, and he believed strong sperma from either sex would produce males, whileweakspermafromeithersexwouldproducefemales.The“liquors” were believed to represent the entire body of the individual at the time of copulation, a view not too far from Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) idea of pangenesis in 1868.1 Plato used a philosophic approach (427–347 bce) in his dialogue, The Symposium, in which Aristophanes (446–386 bce), the playwright andaguestatthesymposium,claims“theoriginalhumannaturewasnot like the present but different. In the first place the sexes were originally three in number, not as they are now; there was man, woman, and the union of the two having a name corresponding to this double nature; they once had a real existence, but it is now lost, and the name only is preserved as a term of reproach.” He goes on to explain that each of The Ancient World 13 these three forms was double and after irking the gods, they were split apart, each seeking reunion with the lost member. This accounts for the origin of homosexual gay males, lesbians, and heterosexual couples (the original “hermaphrodites” according to Aristophanes).2 The ancient world also had an empirical tradition. Aristotle (384– 322 bce) used dissection to classify organisms. He distinguished between warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals, characterizing warmbloodedanimalsasmammalsandassociatinghairandmammaryglands assharedattributesofmammals.Healsoassociatedheatandlowhumiditywithmalesexdeterminationandcooltemperatureandhigherhumid itywithfemalesexdeterminationinbothhumansandotheranimals .Aristotle also used some of the reasoning and inventiveness of scientists.3 In his study of the development of the chicken’s egg, he distinguished between “fertile eggs” that give rise to chicks; and “wind eggs,” as his contemporariescalledthem,thatwerelaidbyhensbutwhichdidnotdevelop even when incubated by the hens. He broke open an egg each day of the 21 days of the gestation cycle of chickens and noted what he saw. He did not see a tiny chicken enlarging. He saw a spot that later showed some signs of peripheral blood and a thin mass of tissue that lay like a blister over the surface of the yolk, occupying only a tiny portion of that yolk’s surface. Each day new changes appeared, of which Aristotle took careful note; he concluded that development proceeds not by enlargement of a preformed chicken but by “epigenetic development.” How could he interpret this unfolding drama he was witnessing? To Aristotle there was a form emerging by degrees by some imposed contribution of the male to the bulk of the egg, or a portion of it, receiving this potential for form. This made the egg’s contribution a material one, undeniable because of the palpable reality of the egg laid. But the egg was considered to be essentially without form; it was seen as “disorganized matter” that the hen presents when she receives the semen from the rooster. That rooster’s watery fluid was also without form, but to it Aristotle assigned the potential for form, because without copulation there would be no fertile egg undergoing development to produce a chick pecking its way out of the shell. Aristotle saw the egg as a type of container or external uterus that housed the contents, both in “wind eggs” and in fertile eggs. 14 The 7 Sexes Aristotle’s biological views of what was happening in chickens matched his interpretations of the biology of human reproduction. He accepted, as did his contemporaries, that blood was the stuff of life— bleed a lot andyou die. If blood is thevitalfluid fromwhichalllifeforms, then the early appearance of peripheral blood before there was a beating heart suggested that blood is organized into both the organs of the chicken and the other fluids of the living organism, such as semen in the male ejaculate. The human male, then, does not give a...