Do All Mammals Start as Female? Do All Humans Start as Female?
Mammals don’t start as females, they start as a blank slate with XX/XY genetic code, and for the first 5-6 weeks of gestation only the X gene expresses. Then when the Y gene starts expressing (in genetic XY-males), it releases androgens like testosterone, represses some X gene expression (and estrogen development), and expresses specific Y genes. This process is called sexual differentiation and it leads to what we call male and female.
Thus, although we can simplify this concept to, “all mammals essentially start as females” when speaking casually and be “sort of correct,” the idea that “all mammals start is females” or specifically “all humans start as females” is not technically correct.
It is more accurate to say, “until the sex-determination process begins, a developing human (technically an embryo) has no anatomic or hormonal sex (just XX or XY genetic code); AKA it is, genetic code aside, a “blank slate.” Then, from there, only the X gene expresses for the first 5-6 weeks of gestation in both XX and XY. During this time, undifferentiated bi-potential structures like the gonadal ridge are developed. Those structures will go on to become either “male” or “female” internal and external sex organs starting at about the 5-6 week mark when, in genetic XY-males, the Y gene expresses, androgens are released, and some X gene expression (and thus the expression of specific gonadal steroid hormones like estrogen) is repressed.”
From there it is a matter of genetic and hormonal expression based on genetic code (a complex process which can produce a range of results including what we call intersex).”
XX vs. XY: Which gene is the male gene and which is the female? In simple terms, the X gene is the gene responsible for “female” features. Meanwhile, in equally simple terms, the Y gene is responsible for repressing “female” features and expressing “male” features.
Bottomline on the question “do all humans start as females”: To rephrase the above before moving on. Since the X gene is what makes a developing human “female,” it is tempting to equate X gene expression in the early stages of embryonic development to the female sex. However, sexual differentiation doesn’t occur until about the 5-6th week of gestation (thus what the X gene is expressing in those first few weeks is really neither male or female). Before the 5-6 week mark, all embryos have undifferentiated structures that will become internal and external sex organs. Gonadal steroid hormones released starting at 5-6 weeks (and a host of complex factors pertaining to this process) dictate how those undifferentiated structures will develop into male or female internal and external sex organs. Thus, a developing human starts as “a blank slate” with undifferentiated structures, and although only the X gene expresses first, it isn’t exactly right to say “all humans start as female” (as sexual differentiation hasn’t occurred yet). Simply put, genetic code aside, all mammals including humans start as a “blank slate” and remain this way for about the first 5-6 weeks of gestation. Learn more about Sex Determination and Differentiation from USBC.edu.
In Common Language, We Can Say All Mammals Essentially Start as Females, but Technically that Statement isn’t Correct
Using the reasoning above, we can say “all mammals essentially start as females” to keep things simple, but as noted, this not totally correct.
Modern science thinks of the gonads being like a blank slate to start. The gonads then develop into testes and ovaries depending on genetic factors including, but not limited to, the presence of a Y chromosome.
The process is ongoing starting at around 6 weeks, and a complex cascade of genetic products in proper dosages and at precise times is required to for male/female structures like the traditional testes or ovaries to form.
The testes or ovaries, or a mix of both in some cases, help determine other the sex organs. Sex organs develop after the body releases hormones which may or may not be absorbed in a particular way if they occur at any given time, and in any doses, and interact in a specific way with a host of genetic factors. There is a lot of room for variation, making simple claims elusive.
Technically humans don’t start female, and even if they did X and Y aren’t technically “female or male” chromosomes; there are XX males for instance (the development of sex organs is more about hormonal express and reception then the instructions in the genetic code itself).
In other words, not only is making claims about sex complicated in the first few weeks of gestation, it is actually questionable that the binary male/female distinction can be properly made after development either.
Thus, saying all mammals start as female based on a lack of gonadal development and the expression of the X gene only isn’t correct in technical terms, but it is essentially correct in layman’s terms for to illustrate the general point in casual conversation (that is, for the first few weeks of gestation only the X gene expresses).
FACT: Both XX and XY have X genes. Once sexual differentiation occurs, both XX and XY release gonadal steroid hormones which release hormones like the “androgen” testosterone and estrogen. The difference is that, starting at that 5-6 week mark, the Y gene begins to repress some X gene expression and leads to more androgens being produced and recepted (on average).
TIP: When genetic and hormonal expression produces a mix of “male” and “female” features this results in what is known as intersex characteristics.
FACT: All humans start as a fertilized egg containing their genetic code. As the egg develops, gonads start developing as a common primordium (an organ in the earliest stage of development), in the form of gonadal ridges, and only later are differentiated to male or female sex organs. Thus all mammals are born with undeveloped gonads and is thus neither male or female physiologically, despite their genetic code. Then for the first few weeks only the X gene expresses, so in that way mammals are essentially female. Then, a complex cascade of factors occur and the result is sexual differentiation. Learn more about the Development of Gonads and the Stages of Growth: Month by Month.
We were all female (the title of the video; not a statement we are making). This is the quick, fun video. Also, see technical video below.
Testosterone and the Y Chromosome
The main culprit here is the traditionally male sex hormone testosterone, which is primarily released from the testes, although its blueprint is primarily contained in the Y gene; the ovaries also release testosterone.
Testosterone both promotes “male” features and restricts “female” features. For example, it restricts the full development of breasts in men to nipple development. It also affects the brain, causing neurological differences in “men” and “women.”
Testosterone also causes the labia to fuse to become the male scrotum. You can see the zipper-like ridge in the middle of the scrotum where the fetal labia joined. The clitoris becomes a penis, the voice deepens, and the prostate gland forms.
Again, in common language, we can say feminine features become masculine due to gene expression related to the Y gene, and only the X gene fires at first, but in technical terms, those statements carry less weight and it’s best to think of the initial pallet as a blank slate.
Sexual Differentiation. This is the technical video.
The Blastocyst, the X Chromosome, and mRNA
Although we say “all fetuses essentially start as female,” it is correct to say “the blastocyst (the fetus before it is a fetus) is developed from the X chromosome, and most early development is driven by maternal mRNA.” RNA consists of bits of genetic code that are being expressed.
Before the blastocyst becomes a blastocyst, it is a single fertilized egg with the baby’s full genetic code. By the time that “a fetus is technically a fetus” (about ten months) the Y gene will have already started expressing and limiting the X gene in males. (Learn more about the Stages of Development of the Fetus.)
So the basic model for humans and mammals comes from the X chromosome, which one can consider “female” in simple terms. It is tempered by the Y gene in males starting at about six weeks, although this isn’t the only determining factor in sex. Before the fertilized egg becomes a blastocyst, it would be hard to decide its sex, even semantically (hence the “blank slate” theory).
As long as we are clear on all the complex factors noted above, we can simplify this to “all humans and mammals start life as females” to transfer knowledge to others without becoming too confusing (although this is perhaps best expressed as a “blank slate” with only the X gene expressing at first). Thus a slightly more complex version but accurate version of the factoid is, “the gonads start as a blank slate and develop into either testes and ovaries based on gene expression.”
Reproductive System, part 4 – Pregnancy & Development: Crash Course A&P #43. “Science, where do babies come from?”
Why Does it Matter?
Understanding how mammals develop, and how both genetics (hardwired code) and epigenetics (how that code expresses) affect us, can help us to better understand mammalian, and particularly human nature regarding sex, gender, and sexuality.
The above phenomena help explain the similarities between male and female genitals and orgasms; it explains why men have nipples, and may also explain why sex, sexual identity, and sexual preference are spectrums rather than binary either/or things.
- Why do Men have Nipples? We all start life as a blank slate, thus there are many parts that are common to both sexes, including nipples. Nipples develop before the Y gene is expressed in males, and the Y gene goes on to suppress breast development in “males.” The process begins before any hormones are released, adding to the blank slate theory, but continue before the Y gene expresses (thus there is a female quality). This does not mean that one should attribute nipples to “starting as female” (that is arguably an under-simplification of the truth).
- Why is it thought that some people are born gay or born transgender? We all start life as being the same sex (essentially a blank slate that can become either sex based on genetic code and other factors). As we grow and our genes express, a wide spectrum of influences affects fetal development and the neonate. Many of these factors have to do with the Y chromosome and hormones, which affect the brain. Since a wide variety of influences impact the blastocyst and fetus, it is reasonable to expect a wide spectrum of results in the neonate. Androgens and Estrogen are present in both sexes, this and a host of other factors (some noted above and some not) offer solid supporting evidence to the argument for intersex (and transgender and even potentially other aspects of LGBT). This is however its own issue with much to discuss.
How Sex Genes Are More Complicated Than You Thought. More effects of X and Y chromosomes.