[Preview] Why There Are ‘Males’ & ‘Females’

Just why are there ‘males’ and ‘females’?

Why split up a species into distinct mating types—or sexes—such that they must expend time, effort and various resources searching for mates? Why split up a species such that both sexes are required to produce children, but only one sex can actually “give birth”?

At first glance, the sexual divide does not seem feasible as a means to efficiently maintain a population. And yet, this curious division is ubiquitous in the natural world, and commonly featured in most complex species.

It follows that there must be some profound advantage to such configuration.

* * *

The Role of Reproduction in Biology

All things in nature are subject to physical laws. The living thing—the organism—is no exception. The organism will wear, tear and physically deteriorate until it can no longer sustain its own life. And when the organism inevitably dies, the “blueprint” for its design is lost with it, unless the organism could somehow preserve its “blueprint” beyond its individual lifespan.

That mechanism is reproduction. Reproduction is the process by which the “blueprint” of an organism—encoded in genetic material—is transferred from one generation to the next. It is a fundamental feature of life, as old as the earliest base of life. So it is said that every organism—no matter how complex it appears to be—is first and foremost designed as a machine to reproduce; the survival of the organism itself is secondary, because it only needs to live long enough to pass on its genetic material.[1]

The role of reproduction in nature, because of an obvious consequence of such process, extends much further. As genetic material is passed down, it creates lineage: successive lines of organisms, each one inheriting genetic material from its predecessor, and all of them drawn from the same genetic legacy as the original ancestor. It is this descent of organisms that gives way to the evolution of life.[2] The evolutionary history of life can therefore be thought of as subsequent forms of life, where the higher species are those more adept at fulfilling their biological imperative.

Reproduction is thus central to biology, not only as a means for life to persist, but also as the key to what brings about all higher levels of biology.

Origin of the Sexes

For most of evolutionary history, reproduction was an asexual affair. There weren’t any males, females, or sexual mechanisms of any kind. Early species reproduced by replication: they split themselves into duplicate copies to create offspring. These species were genetically simple, so this was the ideal way to reproduce: cheap, easy and very little scope for replication errors. Consequently, their populations were large in numbers. Even if errors in replication did occur, the affected individuals could be left to their doom with negligible impact to the reproductive efficiency of the population.

However, the physical environments of early Earth were frequently marked by drastic changes resulting from volcanic activity, continental drift, glaciation, impact events, and changes to atmospheric and marine chemistry. There was the very real danger of extinction-level events that could wipe out huge numbers of species in the blink of an eye. To survive such treacherous and unpredictable surroundings, it is not enough just to maintain large populations; rather, populations must maximize reproductive efficiency such that nearly all individuals are healthy and fully functional. In this way, at least some of them may evolve to become more robust—or especially well-adapted—to survive against extinction.

With the arrival of more genetically complex species, reproduction by simple replication was becoming an increasingly expensive, difficult and error-prone process. The more complex an organism is genetically, the more expensive it is to reproduce and greater the chances of replication errors. Consequently, there were fewer of them in a population. This meant that random changes to genetic code—or mutations—caused by replication errors were potentially disastrous because the resulting malfunctioning individuals could negatively impact the reproductive efficiency of the population.

A genetically complex organism will have thousands of genes that are replicated a huge number of times during its development, and then during the course of its life. Given the odds, random replication errors are inevitable, occur frequently and rapidly accumulate. Some genetic damage can be repaired, but there are limits to the type and extent of damage that can be repaired correctly: an incomplete repair becomes a mutation. Environmental factors such as radiation also cause mutations. Left unchecked, deleterious mutations will result in large numbers of malfunctioning individuals in a population.

Dealing with the accumulation of deleterious mutations thus becomes the principal problem for a population.

Evolution of Anisogamy

The need for a novel mechanism to deal with deleterious mutations prompted the evolution of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction involves the fusion of sex cells called gametes from two parents to produce offspring. This process of recombination separates and then shuffles together genetic material from two parents such that clusters of deleterious mutations are dissolved, reducing their potential for damage and increasing the possibility for genetic repair. Recombination also creates genetic variation, increasing the potential for enhancing mutations as new combinations of genes are discovered.

However, in the long term, sexual reproduction exacerbated the very problem it was supposed to solve. Diluted deleterious mutations are distributed among the population over time, which results in progressive degradation and malfunction, preventing defective individuals from being efficiently purged by natural selection.

Compounding this problem was the cost of requiring gametes from two parents to produce one offspring. The first sexually-reproducing species were isogamous: their gametes were similar in size, so there were no sexes. As they became more genetically complex, larger gametes were needed to provision the development of offspring; but large gametes can only be produced in fewer numbers—given the limited resources for producing gametes—and are also weighed down from the provisions they carry. It is therefore not feasible for both parents to produce large gametes. On the other hand, smaller gametes can be produced in much larger numbers and they can be highly motile; but if both parents produced small gametes, provisioning offspring becomes a problem.

With the distinct advantages conferred by small and large gametes, the larger gametes got even larger, the smaller gametes got even smaller and sexually-reproducing species became anisogamous. The gametes then polarized into two types in an equilibrium where one gamete type is small, highly numerous and motile, to complement the other large, rare and sedentary gamete type.[3][4][5][6] The large gametes became specialized to store the tissue and resources required for the development of offspring and, in order to keep mutations away from the large gametes, the process of dealing with mutations was confined onto the small gametes. By separating the process of reproduction from the process of dealing with mutations, anisogamy solved both the problems that sexual reproduction had failed to solve.

As the gamete types polarized, so too did the adults they produced.

The Sexual Dichotomy

The large gametes are the egg cells and the adults that produce them are the females; the small gametes are the sperm cells and the adults that produce them are the males. Adult male and female organisms serve as elaborate extensions of their gametes, because, unlike their gametes, they are greatly exposed to the wider environment and for much longer.

Females allocate their efforts into producing and conceiving their expensive eggs, and then nurturing the developing offspring to adulthood. Females thus function as “genetic vessels” specialized to carefully carry genetic material from one generation to the next.

Males are specialized to function as “genetic filters.” Genetic material in males is radically exposed to natural selection, rendering them the prime target for mutations and thereby confining mutations away from loading on to the females. This exaggeration of mutations in males serves to skew their reproductive success according to their individual genetic quality: males loaded with deleterious mutations will increasingly fail to reproduce—taking their mutations with them out of the gene pool—while those males with enhancing mutations will have increasingly greater reproductive output. The male lineage thus becomes a genetic ‘sieve’ in which enhancing mutations are caught while deleterious mutations fall through until they end up in malfunctioning / dead individuals.[7][8]

The most obvious example of sexual specialization is the elaborate process by which the sperm must fertilize the egg. Hundreds of millions of sperm from the male race through various obstacles to fuse with the sedentary egg of the female; genetic material in the sperm is thus subject to selection on a massive scale as only the most robust sperm will finally fuse with the egg.

Males, females and their symbiotic specializations finally solve the problem of curating genetic material in biological systems: genetic material filtered through males are carried from one generation to the next by females, and so on, perpetually cleansing the gene pool.[9][10]

[See phenomenal publications by psychologist Steve Moxon on the origin of the sexes: www.stevemoxon.co.uk.]

Design of Males & Females

The dichotomy of function with males as “genetic filters” and females as “genetic vessels” forms the basis for the physiology and behaviour of the sexes. At every level of biology, beginning with root molecular levels and going upwards, there exist various mechanisms for sexual differentiation that have been finely tuned into the division we now see in nature.

Genetic material is arranged, interpreted, copied and regulated differently in males and females.[11] The genomes in sexual species are organized such that an overall greater proportion of genes are involved in male function, and those genes are located in favourable positions. This process has been dubbed the “masculinization of the genome.”[12][13][14][15][16] The vast majority of genetic material is shared between the sexes, however, the same genetic material is expressed differently in males and females.[17][18][19][20] Genetic material can also be tagged such that it is expressed differently according to whether it is inherited from the male parent, or the female parent.[21]

The distinct genetic architecture of the sexes conspire to produce greater selection on genetic material in males than in females.[22][23][24][25][26][27][28] As specific factors from both sexes become increasingly necessary for initiating and maximizing reproductive output, the sexes become increasingly polarized and difficult to eliminate, thereby maintaining the sexual divide.[29][30][31][32][33][34]

Sex-determination systems implement the distinct genetic “blueprints” of males and females that code for their distinct physiology. This involves an elaborate cascade of direct and indirect processes that serve as checkpoints to “roll out” the development of sexual characteristics.

In the XX/XY system, females possess two X chromosomes, but males have one X chromosome and a Y chromosome. This configuration necessarily subjects genes on male chromosomes to greater selection than genes on female chromosomes. The Y chromosome, which is clonally passed down the male lineage, is itself a blatant example of genetic material confined to males. Furthermore, XY and XX cells are intrinsically different, exerting direct sex-specific effects on development: male XY cells will express genes on the Y-chromosome that are not present in female XX cells and XX cells may receive a higher dose of X-chromosome genes that escape inactivation.[35][36][37][38][39][40][41][42][43]

Sex-determining genes on the sex chromosomes initiate the differentiation of male and female sex organs, which then secrete hormones that generate sex differences in the reproductive system, endocrine system, central nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, renal system, digestive system, exocrine system and skeletal system. As per the sex-specific genetic “blueprint,” hormones will first exert organizational effects on the developing fetus to create permanent sex-specific “wiring” in preparation for structural changes. Then, as the individual develops towards adulthood, hormones exert activational effects upon the pre-rendered “wiring” during key periods in development to complete the process of sexual differentiation.

The distinct physiology of males and females drives the most important aspect of sexual specialization: behaviour.

Mechanisms of Sexual Selection

Sex differences in behaviour set the stage for sexual selection—where the preferences of one sex selects the traits of the other—greatly compounding natural selection in the curation of genetic material.[44]

Males may actively seek out environments that put their physiological systems to the ultimate test in order to expose their individual genetic quality. They may compete fiercely with other males in order to gain access to females, or exhibit elaborate ornamentation and mating displays in order to attract females. Males may choose females with greater reproductive capacity as reliable vessels for their genetic material, whereas females may choose males with greater genetic quality whose genetic material they will carry to the next generation.

Sexual asymmetry enables the rapid adaptability necessary for highly complex species to survive in changing environments.

  • The expression of sexual traits tend to reflect the overall genetic quality of the individual. This condition dependence is especially true for male traits. Sexual asymmetry therefore subjects large parts of the genome—if not the entire genome—to selection.
  • Sexual asymmetry liberates males from the need to be fully compatible with female reproductive physiology. Radical changes can therefore be made to genetic material in males, and those changes can accumulate much faster. Males can therefore maintain highly sophisticated and extreme—even self-destructive—traits that are not possible for females. Rather than being at the sole mercy of the “dice roll” randomness inherent in biological systems, the male lineage can be shaped into a dedicated pipeline for evolutionary change.


[End of Preview]

The full article will be posted sometime in the future.


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14 thoughts on “[Preview] Why There Are ‘Males’ & ‘Females’

  1. I’ll post it here because it’s very related to the topic at hand.
    So, it happens that I’m fairly interested in politics and hence often read newspapers and websites to keep updated about what’s going on in the world. And well, incidentally I have noticed in the years (interestingly enough, I paid attention and it all started in year 2010) a huge number of articles about women being the stronger sex and men the weaker. All the articles have many and different reasons they adopt to make this point, so I can’t list them, but a brief reasearch online will suffice to know. My question is: is that true? are the points they make in such articles, often backed up by some research, true and the argumentation sound? Perhaps, since the gravity of the issue (this content is massively spread out to billions of people), it could be needed an article to address this point specifically, although in a sense other articles of this site deal with it from certain perspectives. I also feel that it would be simplistic to dismiss the topic saying men and women are different and hence can’t be compared.

  2. Thank you for your response.
    What you said relieved me a bit, I hope you’re right.
    If that outlined in our comments is the current situation, I am still a bit worried tho for the future, where men (perhaps together with women) could be rendered useless by technological advancements (robots doing most jobs and artificial sperm, eggs and womb instead of human physical sexual reproduction). That way, the deep reasons of why there are males and females could become meaningless and superseded by a completely different world where anyone can buy an engeneered baby online…

  3. ”They may compete fiercely with other males in order to gain access to females, or exhibit elaborate ornamentation and mating displays in order to attract females. Males may choose females with higher reproductive capacity as reliable vessels for their genetic material.”

    What’s interesting is that in the humans females also have ornamentation in the form of feminine beauty. Whilst male ornamentation is in the form of high-status.

    This is the result of mild polygyny and high levels of monogamy.

    1. This is not the full article, hence “preview.” I’ve been running into some technical issues, that is why I’ve had to post a preview first. The full article goes into greater detail about sexual selection mechanisms and its quirks.

  4. What do you think of Ants and the role of sex in it? A single mother with multiple drones offering their sperm. Whilst sterile females do everything else.

    They seem to be very stable phenotypically over 10’s of millions of years.

    1. The Haplodiploidy sexual system in Hymenoptera is particularly interesting. Because the males are haploid, any recessive deleterious genetic material will automatically be expressed—exposing them to natural selection—and is rapidly purged from the gene pool. The underlying ‘design’ of males as “genetic filters” and females as “genetic vessels” holds. 🙂

      “Stable” is exactly right. It is a finely tuned, near-perfect system that helps some species propagate in specific environments, but it is not viable for most highly complex species.

      1. “Stable” is exactly right. It is a finely tuned, near-perfect system that helps some species propagate in specific environments, but it is not viable for most highly complex species.”

        Do you think that if instead some of the species of Hymenoptera is a male tournament species like their most complex brethren where instead of a single mother there are multiple potential mothers that go to the victor that they are more apt to evolve complexity and outcompete the other members of their species?

        1. Sex determination systems go together with sexual selection mechanisms to set certain evolutionary limitations, but it is not that straightforward.

          Evolutionary mechanisms are not about progression: it serves to adapt to the local environment. The increasing complexity is only a consequence of this process; as organisms become more energy efficient within their local environments, more complex designs become viable for them. For example, consuming other living organisms provides much more energy than consuming dead organisms, or synthesizing energy from the sun, and so biological design becomes more complex as you go up the food chain. Like all things in nature, biology is subject to physical laws: it is based on the efficient use of fixed amounts of resources. Keep in mind that evolutionary history is chock full of dead-ends and failures; what we see are the very few designs that actually work. Without any drive to change, stable systems may dig themselves into evolutionary dead-ends.

          There are three main sexual selection mechanisms—mate choice, sperm competition and contests—and how it can “play out” depends on the dimensionality of the local environment. For example, physical contests are difficult to sustain in three-dimensional environments so mate choice and sperm competition are common in fish and birds. On the other hand, the 2D terrestrial environment is ideal for physical contests. Being “grounded” has many evolutionary advantages in terms of physical efficiency, hence why most complex species on Earth are terrestrial.

          The sexes are game-changing adaptations that allow for very high levels of complexity. Rapid and directional evolution is made possible because there is a distinct mating type (male) that does not have to be fully compatible with reproductive physiology (female).

            1. As I noted in my previous comment, rapid and directional evolution is made possible because there is a distinct mating type (male) that does not have to be fully compatible with reproductive physiology (female). Genes involved in male function evolve faster at the genomic level, transcriptomic levels as well as in gene expression and epigenetics. This is typical in the animal kingdom.

  5. Hello, I am one passionate reader of this website and I find it interesting because it deals with important topics and reliable because it is compiled with a fact-based rigorous method.
    I now express one of my deepest concerns about the damages feminism is having on society at large, in particular of course against men. I’m talking about the concentrated efforts (that, read in their entirety, clearly show a well thought plan) to not only promote the idea of inferior men by artificially depicting them as dumb and bad in all the media, but also by grounding this inferiority in biology. So we all know that feminism, as one of the predominant ideas of today’s western regime, has polluted everything from tv to school and workplace, and that is on a social-cultural level, that you can ignore or preferably warn everyone you know against its vile lies. But the destruction of all male values as well as men themselves is also carried out by spreading ideas such as (this is in no way a complete list): the demise of the Y chromosome, men’s shorter lifespan solely due to biological factors, men’s weaker immune system, merciless attacks on testosterone, men’s uselessness due to technological advances (of any kind, e.g. robots that will pave roads instead of humans as well as artificial sperm). This is often accompanied by strong efforts to feminize men, both culturally and biologically, for example saying that we are all female in the womb and that men have nipples to also lactate.
    It took me a long while to recover from the pain of these inhuman offences, but then I tried to check if these claims were indeed as true as they were presented. From what I could see after months (if not years) of gathering info, none of them holds and they are all false. Nothing but lies. Most of the times with no evidence whatsoever, other times maybe a minuscule grain of truth but then completely blown out of proportion. My personal opinion now, after diving in this monstruosities, is that males (humans as well as most species’ males) are in no way biologically inferior to females.
    Now, why am I writing this? Since I don’t have a strong science background (although, as a lawyer, I have a clear sight and can spot solid evidence), don’t have a way to reach many people at once (like, say, with a website) and have no time to arrange a complete rebuttal of the aforementioned claims, gathering all the necessary sources and proofs, I am here to ask the creator of Science vs Feminism to endeavour in debunking these and other supposedly biologically grounded claims of men’s inferiority. These ideas are causing immense harm to real boys and men all over the world, brainwashing them and making them feel bad for no reason. Author of this page as well as some intelligent commenters that I have seen here, please take the burden to study these and other claims and debunk them officially, in the most solid way possible and them give them the greatest publicity.
    I hope my request of help won’t be unheard and I long for reading a great article here and elsewhere about this crucial topic.
    Keep fighting feminism

    1. You need to understand that feminism is all about its ideology. It is what we call a “self-licking ice-cream cone”: its main purpose is to propagate itself. There are no feminists anywhere who are actually concerned with the well-being of women, or men, or people in general.

      For example, take a look at what has been happening with medical science research in the last 50 years.

      ‘Sex’ is the most important variable in medical science because men and women have fundamentally different physiology. Assessment and treatment of physical and psychological health should therefore be very sex-specific. Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, autism, fibromyalgia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and eating disorders all show large sex differences in their incidence and nature. Understanding these differences would not only help provide appropriate treatment for men and women, but would also help in better understanding of illnesses generally. But because male/female differences don’t fit with feminist “gender neutral” ideology, feminist academics and women in senior/administrative positions have sought to discourage, block and censor sex-related medical research. As a result, tens of millions of men and women have not received proper treatment for their health. Many of them—especially women—receive inappropriate treatment which often results in all kinds of serious problems in their children’s health as well.

      We are also decades behind in medical research with tens of thousands of worthless research papers failing to account for male/female physiology. The damage done is unthinkable. Even worse, feminist researchers will put out phony studies to push their narratives forward while actual research is censored. And while all of this is going on, feminists will claim women are not being included in medical research, and call for more women into senior/administrative positions, who will then further expand research censorship.

      This is how feminism operates. It is a “vulture cult” that feeds on the misfortunes of others to propagate itself. These are wretched people who have no sense of morals, or ethics, and will go to any lengths to secure their immediate “safe space.”

      > “So we all know that feminism, as one of the predominant ideas of today’s western regime, has polluted everything from tv to school and workplace, and that is on a social-cultural level, that you can ignore or preferably warn everyone you know against its vile lies. But the destruction of all male values as well as men themselves is also carried out by spreading ideas such as (this is in no way a complete list): the demise of the Y chromosome, men’s shorter lifespan solely due to biological factors, men’s weaker immune system, merciless attacks on testosterone, men’s uselessness due to technological advances (of any kind, e.g. robots that will pave roads instead of humans as well as artificial sperm). This is often accompanied by strong efforts to feminize men, both culturally and biologically …”

      +I’m very well aware of misandry in academia and in the media. I’ve addressed some of it here and there but I find a lot of it to be inconsequential, and distracts from matters of far greater importance as mentioned above.

      +The notion of superiority/inferiority is not meaningful in biology. Two entities, like males and females, that are different in kind cannot be equal, or inferior, or superior to the other. We can say that one sex is better suited than the other only within specific contexts. It might make more sense to compare men and women to males and females in other species; in which case, women are by far the ‘worst’ females nature has ever conceived. The woman is the only female in nature that will feed broken shards of glass to her own infant and laugh gleefully while the infant dies in horrifying agony.

      +In modern societies, differences within, and between, men and women are maximized because there aren’t many social barriers in the way. This means that the contrast between men and women of high quality and low quality become much more obvious. It doesn’t mean that men are being “feminized”; it’s just that unfeminine women and feminine men are more visible in modern society. Feminist social experiments don’t actually work; in every case, they backfire and create unruly individuals. These type of experiments typically involve abuse of children and other human rights violations.

      +In modern societies, women, not men, are the more redundant sex. “Feminine virtues” are long gone, and women have been reduced to the bare minimum. The family system as a whole primarily existed to support women, not men. In the present day, the crucial role of women in the family system is reduced to little more than vague baby-sitting. Similarly, long-term pair-bonding—or “marriage”—is a female-centric ritual, and is completely meaningless for men unless the partner is of very high quality. In the present day, we might want to start referring to “marriage” as “contractual prostitution.” There is no use for “feminine qualities” in any modern industry. Modern industry requires highly specialized aptitude, a wide range of personality profiles, and organizational social intelligence. These are male-typical traits that women barely possess, and women have little to gain from working in modern industry, hence why the workplace is still largely sex-segregated. The reason there are more women in the overall workforce is because they have nowhere else to go. For the same reason, the depiction of women in popular culture is mostly reduced to highly sexualized imagery. The profoundly negative effect of all this is taking its toll on women’s psychological health. As usual, the feminist “vulture cult” propagates itself by feeding off all this.

      +In modern societies, chivalry has become obsolete, and so feminism is reduced to a collection of meaningless tantrums. There is no other place or time anywhere in human history where men have lived better than women until we come to the 21st century where there is finally some parity in quality of life. See: unknownmisandry.blogspot.com, or The Privileged Sex by Martin van Creveld.

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