The Future is Female
The male species is doomed, says Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at
Oxford University. And a Woman-only world is possible.
2003 August 17
The Irish Star
Regina Lavelle, honorary FSI member
The Sunday Times
Extracted from Adam's Curse
Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at Oxford University
It is no secret that men are basically genetically modified women. In this
respect, our evolution can be regarded as a gigantic and long-running GM
experiment. Its legacy has been to endow men and women with different and
often conflicting sets of genetic interests.
It is a weary lament to lay most acts of violence and aggression squarely at
the feet of men. Yet the association is strong and undeniable. Women only
rarely commit violent crimes, become tyrants or start wars.
The accusing finger points at the only piece of DNA which men possess and
women do not: the Y - chromosome. Ironically, although the Y - chromosome
has become synonymous with male aggression, it is intrinsically unstable.
Far from being vigorous and robust, this ultimate genetic symbol of male
machismo is decaying at such an alarming rate that, for humans at least, the
GM experiment will soon be over. Adam, it seems, is cursed. Like many
species before us that have lost their males, we run the real risk of
The Y - chromosome is in a mess - a genetic ruin littered with molecular
damage. Why is it such a shambles ? Originally, the Y - chromosome was a
perfectly respectable chromosome, just like the others, with a collection of
genes doing all sorts of useful things - but its fate was sealed when it
took on the mantle of deciding sex.
This probably happened in the early ancestors of the mammals, perhaps
100,000,000 years ago when they were small, insignificant creatures doing
their best to avoid the ruling dynasty of the time - the dinosaurs. A
mutation on one of those ancestral chromosomes suddenly, and quite by
chance, enabled it to switch on the pathway to male development.
The problem is that the Y - chromosome has never been able to heal itself.
Unlike X - chromosomes, which pair up and swap genes to minimise bad
mutations, the Y - chromosome, which has no partner, cannot repair the
damage inflicted by mutations, which keep accumulating. Like the face of the
moon, still pitted by craters from meteors that have ever fallen onto its
surface, Y ? chromosomes cannot heal their own scars. It is a dying
chromosome and one day it will become extinct.
Male infertility is on the increase. An astonishing 7% of men are either
infertile or sub-fertile. There are a whole host of causes but a substantial
proportion, that is between 1% and 2% of all men, are infertile because of
mutations on their Y - chromosomes. That is an astonishingly high figure.
The human Y - chromosome is crumbling before our very eyes. There is no
reason to think things will improve - quite the reverse, in fact. One by
one, Y - chromosomes will dissapear until eventually only one remains. When
that chromosome finally succubms, men will become extinct.
But when? By my estimate, the fertility caused by Y - chromosome decay drops
to 1% of its present level within 5,000 generations, which is about 125,000
years. Not exactly the day after tomorrow - but equally, not an unimaginably
long time ahead.
In June, the journal Nature announced the almost complete sequence of a
human Y - chromosome, which revealed something completely unexpected. There
were signs that amid the wreckage of once-active genes, the Y - chromosome
is still capable of safeguarding genes - but only by effectively having sex
with itself. Does this mean that men are now saved from extinction ? Sadly
not. Does the news extend men's day of reckoning ? Unfortunately not.
I deliberately use "men" instead of "our species" because only men require a
Y - chromosome. Of course, unless something changes in the way we breed,
women will vanish too and our entire species will dissapear at some time in
the next 100,000-200,000 years. The questions we face boil down to this. Do
we need men? Can we do without them ?
There are many, of course, who would rejoice at the extinction of men.