The modern science of genetics has provided a scientific explanation about how an offspring becomes either female or male. Based on the discovery that among the chromosomes present in the body cells, a special pair of sex chromosomes exist that bear the genes determining the sex of the offspring. In the human female, these chromosomes are identical and are called X chromosomes (indicated by XX). The male has one X chromosome and one smaller Y chromosome, which is dominant for maleness. During the process of producing reproductive cells (see meiosis), each of these chromosomes is segregated into a different gamete. Thus, when fertilization occurs, according to Mendelian law, 50% of the offspring will be XX (female) and 50% XY (male). Deviations from this rule do occur, but it is generally true.
The rule also helps to explain the inheritance of sex-linked characteristics such as hemophilia (a blood clotting disorder) and red-green color blindness, since the X chromosome also carries some genes for nonsexual traits. The Y chromosome carries very few genes for nonsexual traits; these few (including one for hairy ears) are called holandric genes. Certain inherited characteristics comprise X-linked traits, so called because a single X chromosome occurs in males. A recessive characteristic, e.g., when a gene leads to the expression of a disease such as hemophilia, may locate on the X sex chromosome in males and thus appear in that family.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.