A hermaphrodite is an organism having both male and female reproductive organs. In many species, hermaphroditism is a common part of the life-cycle, enabling a form of sexual reproduction in which the two sexes are not separated into distinct male and female types of individual. Hermaphroditism most commonly occurs in invertebrates, although it is also found in some fish, and to a lesser degree in other vertebrates.
In plants, the term is used to describe a flower that has both staminate (male, pollen-producing) and carpellate (female, ovule-producing) parts. Plants which have distinct male and female flowers on the same individual are termed mon(o)ecious.
Historically, the term hermaphrodite has also been used to describe ambiguous genitalia and gonadal mosaicism in individuals of gonochoristic species, especially human beings. The term comes from the name of the minor Greek god Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite (see below).
Recently, intersex has been used and preferred by many such individuals, encouraging medical professionals to use the term.Intersex Society of North America | A world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgery However, others with the condition do not like the connotations and misunderstanding of the word "intersexed" and thus prefer to use hermaphrodite instead.
Sequential hermaphrodites (dichogamy) are organisms born as one sex and then later change into the other sex, and can only function as one sex at one time. A few species in this group can change gender multiple times, but they can only function as one sex at a time. Unlike humans, these animals' DNA does not determine their gender, allowing full functional gender change without modifying the DNA.
The order of sequential hermaphroditism within a species is often driven by resource demands. In a population where resources are scarce and can support limited bearing of young, it is advantageous to have a larger population of males supporting one female. One would expect that a species that typically faces this scenario (such as many clownfish living in a single anemone) would have organisms that start as male, and perhaps one individual per group would have changed to be female at any given time. Where resources are abundant and can support bearing of many young, on the other hand, it is advantageous to have many females mating with a limited number of males, so that more young are produced. One would expect that a species that typically faces this scenario (such as parrotfish that can forage over large distances) would have individuals that start as female, and perhaps one individual per group would have changed to be male at any given time.
A simultaneous hermaphrodite (or synchronous hermaphrodite) is an adult organism that has both male and female sexual organs at the same time. Usually, self-fertilization does not occur.
Hyenas have a clitoris that is greatly enlarged, so much so, that they were described as hermaphrodites -- not only by the ancient Greeks, but as recently as the twentieth century among circus animal handlers -- until scientific information was provided that clarified the misunderstanding.
Hermaphrodite is used in botany to describe a flower that has both staminate (male, pollen-producing) and carpellate (female, ovule-producing) parts. This condition is seen in many common garden plants. A closer analogy to hermaphrodism in animals is the presence of separate male and female flowers on the same individual—such plants are called monoecious. Monoecy is especially common in conifers, but occurs in only about 7% of angiosperm species (Molnar, 2004).
Hermaphrodite was used to describe any person incompatible with the biological gender binary, but has recently been replaced by intersexual in medicine. Humans with typical reproductive organs but atypical clitoris/penis are called pseudohermaphrodites in medical literature.
Whether hermaphroditism is a disorder or merely an unusual condition is a matter of opinion. In most societies, the common assumption is that all people are, or at least should be, either male or female. This assumption can make life difficult for hermaphrodites.
People with intersex conditions sometimes choose to live exclusively as one sex or the other, using clothing, social cues, genital surgery, and hormone replacement therapy to blend into the sex they identify with more closely. Some people who are intersexed, such as some of those with Klinefelter's syndrome and androgen insensitivity syndrome, outwardly appear completely female or male already, without realizing they are intersexed. Other kinds of intersex conditions are identified immediately at birth because those with the condition have a sexual organ larger than a clitoris and smaller than a penis. Intersexuality is thought by some to be caused by unusual sex hormones; the unusual hormones may be caused by an atypical set of sex chromosomes.
Sigmund Freud (based on work by his associate Wilhelm Fliess) held fetal hermaphroditism to be a fact of the physiological development of humans. He was so certain of this, in fact, that he based much of his theory of innate sexuality on that assumption. Similarly, in contemporary times, fetuses before sexual differentiation are sometimes described as female by doctors explaining the process. Neither concept is technically true. Before this stage, humans are simply undifferentiated and possess a Müllerian duct, a Wolffian duct, and a genital tubercle.
The term "hermaphrodite" derives from Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology, who was fused with a nymph, Salmacis, resulting in one individual possessing physical traits of both genders. Thus Hermaphroditus could be called, using modern terminology, a simultaneous hermaphrodite. The mythological figure of Tiresias, who figures in the Oedipus cycle as well as the Odyssey, could be called a sequential hermaphrodite, having been changed from a man to a woman and back by the gods.
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