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The concept of biological sex extends beyond a binary framework. This college course delves into the scientific exploration of sex diversity, encompassing humans, fungi, and various species throughout the animal kingdom

Unconventional Courses, an intermittent series from The Conversation U.S., showcases innovative approaches to education.

Course Title: Diversity of Biological Sex Characteristics

What inspired the creation of the course? Commonly, people perceive biological sex, linked to reproductive physical traits, in a simplistic and binary manner – either male or female. Even those acknowledging the complexity and nuances of gender, involving cultural norms and an individual’s internal sense of masculinity, femininity, or both, often fail to extend such recognition to biological sex. The prevailing belief is that variations in sex and gender are unique to humans and not present in nonhuman animals.

As a behavioral neurobiologist instructing human physiology since 1998, my focus on the biology of sex in recent years revealed that many students held misconceptions about sex characteristics, assuming that individuals are exclusively 100% male or 100% female physically.

The idea of developing a course on the biological diversity of sex in both nonhuman animals and humans emerged to challenge these misconceptions.

What are the key topics covered in the course? The course begins by exploring the evolutionary reasons behind sexual reproduction in various species, a topic still debated among biologists due to its inefficiency compared to asexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction involves cloning and is more resource-efficient as it eliminates the need to find a mate and allows every individual to produce offspring independently.

The course also delves into nonhuman sexual diversity, featuring fungi with thousands of sexes, aphids engaging in asexual reproduction predominantly but transitioning to sexual reproduction each fall, and other examples. Additionally, students learn about fish exhibiting different genders at various life stages, intersex crayfish, and female spotted hyenas equipped with a pseudo-penis.

Subsequently, we transition from nonhuman animals to humans, examining the brain. The course covers various small brain structures in vertebrates that likely play roles in reproduction, exhibiting different average sizes in females and males. It is revealed that individuals typically possess brain structures more akin to those of males, others resembling female-typical characteristics, and some demonstrating an intermediate profile – essentially, most individuals exhibit a mosaic of both female-typical and male-typical brain sex characteristics.

The course culminates with a focus on the biological sex characteristics of intersex individuals. Chromosomes and reproductive organs in intersex individuals display a mix of characteristics typically associated with females, males, or an intermediate state between the two.

Students then apply their understanding of the diversity of biological sex characteristics to engage in discussions about whether surgical interventions should be conducted on intersex infants to “correct” their genitals and debate the eligibility criteria for participation in girls’ and women’s athletics.

Why is this course pertinent now? In contemporary times, the discourse on the treatment of individuals who do not neatly fit into traditional female or male categories is more prevalent than ever. Widespread assumptions persist regarding the binary nature of biological sex, contributing to misconceptions and biases against transgender and nonbinary individuals. Furthermore, for decades, surgical procedures have been performed on intersex infants to conform to typical male or female appearances. Even those supportive of transgender, nonbinary, and intersex individuals often hold onto the binary view of biological sex, which lacks a solid foundation in evidence.

What will the course equip students to achieve? Students frequently express that, before enrolling in this course, they were unaware of the diverse nature of biological sex characteristics, despite having completed several biology courses.

Enhanced awareness of the intricate aspects of biological sex may empower future biologists in their research and teaching endeavors. This knowledge equips them to design experiments that consider the diversity within their subjects and fosters inclusivity in their teaching methodologies. Moreover, it enables all students to pose more informed questions and make sound judgments on social and political issues related to sex and gender.

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