Life Sciences Icon Life Sciences

Is Gender in Penguins a Human Construct?


“Gay penguins at London aquarium are raising ‘genderless’ chick.” So announced NBC News on September 10, 2019.

The penguins are of the Gentoo species. According to the Irish Post, “Staff have taken the decision not to describe the Gentoo penguin as either male or female because they say gender is more of a human construct.”

The penguins caring for the chick at the London aquarium are both females. There have also been reports of two male penguins caring for chicks. In Gentoos and other penguin species, males share responsibility with females to incubate eggs.

Penguins have no external genitalia. Even as adults, the males and females can be difficult to tell apart. In many cases, the only way to distinguish reliably between male and female penguins is to examine their chromosomes or their internal organs.

At the chromosomal level, gender in penguins (like gender in humans) is binary. An XX human is a female, while an XY human is a male. (About 0.06 percent of humans have fewer or more sex chromosomes, but they are still chromosomally either female or male.) Penguin sex chromosomes are labeled W and Z instead of X and Y — and (in the reverse of the human situation) a WZ penguin is a female, while a ZZ penguin is a male.

So the chick being raised by the oh-so-woke staff of the London aquarium is not genderless. It is either male or female, and if the staff wanted to know which they could do a blood test. The only “human construct” here is the “genderless” label.

Oh, and the penguins raising the chick are not “gay.” There is no indication whatsoever that they are in a homosexual relationship. In this story, “gay” is as much a “human construct” as “genderless.” 

Photo: Gentoo penguins, Antarctica, by Arturo de Frias Marques [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.