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Women Don’t Produce Eggs
...did I get that right?
Biology is really, really hard. Even though I’ve been teaching it for a couple decades, there’s so much more to learn, and so much to remember. New things are discovered all the time, so it’s hard to keep up. But, I’m the type of guy — I mean, person — who believes in lifelong learning. I’m always willing to change my opinion when I come across new information.
So, I was really surprised yesterday morning when I read the headline, “It’s Not Women That Produce Eggs” in The Washington Free Beacon. That’s a new one on me… I remember learning that they do. But, things change all the time, right? So, I started reading the article.
This revelation was made by Denver public school teacher, Sam Long: "It's not women that produce eggs: It's ovaries that produce eggs."
At first, I thought this was a completely animal-centric point of view. In fact, I thought it was downright exclusionary. What about all those plants like ferns that have archegonia that produce eggs, and antheridia that produce swimming sperm? And what about the bryophytes and gymnosperms? This seemed like blatant vege-phobia (I just made that word up)… Is Sam trying to erase plant existence? This’ll be offensive to vegetarians and botanists. Sam may need some plant sensitivity training.
Then, I calmed down and began to think about it. Maybe Sam never learned about plants. Maybe Sam doesn’t know that plants reproduce sexually. Then I thought some more. Maybe Sam was just trying to be precise.
No, that can’t be it, because to be precise about it, “ovaries” don’t produce eggs. Ovaries are complex organs with a lot of different cell types doing a lot of different things. They have a germinal epithelial layer, a layer of dense connective tissue, a connective tissue stroma, a medullary layer of loose connective tissue, and a rich neurovascular network. None of these produce eggs or — as we biologists call them — ova (singular: ovum).
Well, then, what’s producing the eggs? Early in embryological development, certain cells are singled out (by their genes) to become primordial germ cells. These cells migrate to the embryo’s genital ridge which is the somatic precursor of the gonads (ovaries or testes). So, actually, the cells that are going to become eggs or sperm “colonize” the gonad. The ovary is just the nurturing container. The primordial germ cells will develop into oogonia (sometimes called, “female gamete mother cells,” but we can’t say that now). Then, they’ll have to go through a couple more stages before becoming a viable ovum. So, that’s actually the specific answer.
To make an analogy, if I was being specific — as Sam is trying to be — I would not say something silly like, “The stomach produces gastric acid.” That would be wrong. I would say, “Secretory epithelial (or parietal) cells, located in the gastric glands of the fundus and body regions of the stomach produce gastric acid and some other chemicals.” Parietal cells happen to be located in the stomach, but the stomach, per se, doesn’t produce gastric acid.
On the other hand, maybe Sam wasn’t trying to be specific. Maybe Sam was just being intellectually lazy. So, I thought some more: If I dissect out an ovary and put it in a petri dish, it doesn’t release any eggs. The reason is that an ovary only works when it’s embedded in a larger, functioning biological system… We used to call that a “woman.” The ovary needs that larger system to harvest energy, and that larger system needs some kind of circulatory system, nervous system, endocrine system, and so on — all of which have to be functioning synergistically — to keep the eggs alive. Without the entire system, each individual part is useless.
Think of this toaster analogy: If I take the heating coil out of a toaster and lay it on a piece of bread, I’ll never get toast. (I did the experiment this morning. It doesn’t work.) The heating coil has to be integrated into a larger, properly functioning system (the toaster) that’s attached to an energy source. That’s the only way you get toast. So, it’d be stupid to say “Toasters don’t produce toast. Heating coils produce toast.”
Then it occurred to me. Women — I mean, people with ovaries —start producing oogonia (immature eggs) before they’re born. Oogenesis — the production of eggs — starts when the person is an embryo. Just before birth, each embryonic ovary contains about two million oogonia. No new oogonia are added after birth. So, people with ovaries develop all the eggs they’ll ever have before they’re born.
Wait a minute… a person with ovaries is actually born with all the eggs they’ll ever have? That means that to house the developing eggs, the ovary has to be embedded in a functioning human being (we used to call her “mother”) who is embedded in another functioning human being (we used to call her “grandmother”).
So, it may take a village to raise a child, but it takes two people and an ovary to make an egg. Biology is complicated.
At this point I was really confused. I hadn’t had my second cup of coffee. So, I clicked the “Gender-Inclusive Biology” website link in the article to learn what I could. I started with the “Teaching Guides.”
First, I learned that it was wrong to claim “Women produce eggs” because “All people, cis & trans, experience different bodies, reproduction, and families.” I didn’t quite get the connection (but it was still early in the morning). Then, I learned that I can’t teach “The mother carries the fetus for nine months” because “Many organisms thrive in stable families where a male-female relationship is only one of many options.” I still didn’t get it.
It began to make some sense when I got to the part that said I shouldn’t be using the phrase “male reproductive organs.” Instead, I have to say “penis and testicles.” Oh, I think I get it now. What I need to do is simply eliminate the words “male/man” and “female/woman,” and pretend that I don’t know that “male reproductive organs” also include the derivatives of the Wolffian duct system, the seminiferous tubules, epididymis, seminal vesicles, vas deferens, prostate, bulbourethral glands, and urethra.
By the way, why does the website say that I’m supposed to list the internal female organs (say: “Vulva, vagina, uterus, and ovaries”), but only the external male parts (say: “penis and testicles”)? Is that fair?
Maybe I’m still confused… and this makes me question our educational system. The newest Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson graduated from Harvard but couldn’t define the term “woman.” I got my PhD from The University Chicago, and I’m having trouble understanding where eggs come from.
I think I’ve got it figured out now. I’m going to give it a try.
Women don’t produce eggs, ovaries do. Men don’t cry, lacrimal glands do. People don’t see, eyes do. Toasters don’t produce toast, heating coils do. Got it!
And, please, remember that if you disagree with anything I’ve said, I didn’t type this. My fingers did.