Ascent of the Women


There’s nothing like a good invasion to get the male warrior mojo going. Sure, the army deployed more female soldiers in this war than ever before, but the most lasting image of an American female in this battle will be of blond damsel in distress Jessica Lynch. That’s why it’s such an intriguing moment to read Y: The Descent of Men by genetics professor Steve Jones of University College, London. The book’s selling point is an apocalyptic prediction: “Males are wilting away” and will eventually be phased out like an obsolete computer.

Forget the cultural crisis in masculinity—Jones says that men are biologically doomed. Although his specialty is the study of snail DNA, Jones expresses his opinions in a surprisingly spiky, media-savvy way. He takes obvious pleasure in assembling evidence that proves men are the weaker sex, growing more feeble all the time. For instance, men’s life expectancy is shorter than women’s, sperm counts are dropping, and soon fathers may not even be needed for procreation. (Jones cites recent animal experiments that created offspring without male involvement.) Worst of all, men’s genetic makeup grows progressively more decrepit with every generation. The Y chromosome—the very thing that defines masculinity and endows man with his penis and testicles—”is a microscopic metaphor of those who bear it, for it is the most decayed, redundant, and parasitic of the lot.”

While women carry two strong, juicy X chromosomes in their gene pool, men have an XY pair. This Y chromosome is in a shambles. It has trapped itself in a corner so that it can’t ditch any of its damaged elements and so has become “a haven for degenerates.” Jones, whose prose style is fruity and sometimes downright bitchy, declares, “Like most closed societies, it becomes both selfish and wasteful.” Jones predicts that the male race will gradually be feminized.

Just as sexual chromosomes come together in pairs, so do books about them. The X in Sex, by Professor David Bainbridge, bills itself as a passionate defense of the X chromosome but veers into much of the same territory as Jones, often with more lucidity. Although the two books reach similar conclusions, they take different tones. Jones pities the male, while Bainbridge defends his honor.

Jones declares that everyone’s default gender is female: It takes a concerted effort and a small army of hormones to switch an embryo over to the male camp. But Bainbridge writes playfully of “genes on the Y chromosome heroically wrestling the child away from its passive female side to a bright, aggressive male future.” He adds, “The march of maleness seems so purposeful and defiant—is human sexuality simply about deciding whether to be male or not? Is there only a choice between man and non-man?”Jones may be intent on riling up his fellow dudes, but Bainbridge courts them:

Boys are the result of a neat chain of events reaching back to the inheritance of a Y chromosome, whereas girls are the result of that chain reaction not taking place. Is this really a true reflection of the X chromosome and femininity—a litany of negativity, delay, passivity, and inertia?

This kind of inflammatory talk is mostly just window dressing, though—a flashy way to entice ordinary folks into reading about genetics. Jones drops the polemic pretty quickly, and instead prowls through the mysteries of maleness: erections, circumcision, paternity, dysfunction, and castration. (He slyly makes a case for castration as “a great restorative,” pointing to American men who were castrated in the ’30s as punishment and/or treatment for various crimes: They lived an average of 13 years longer than intact guys.)

Y has been compared to Women, Natalie Angier’s bestselling book on female physiology—an apt comparison if you can get past the lumps of scientific explanations that clog up the text. Y is full of fascinating facts that shift the ground on many current gender debates. For instance, Jones suggests that women aren’t the only ones who should be worrying over their ticking fertility clock: Not only does a man’s ability to get it up decrease as he ages, but the quality of his sperm plummets too.

Both writers camouflage their academic roots with wisecracking humor. Jones begins Y with this stunning sentence: “Ejaculate, if you are so minded and equipped, into a glass of chilled Perrier.” And Bainbridge likes to frame complex ideas in familiar terms: “Think of sex as a restaurant, with sex chromosomes for customers. This may not be the kind of restaurant you want to eat in, but bear with me.”

These days, scientists can find a biological explanation for every facet of our lives. Blond hair? Bad sense of direction? Mental illness? There’s a gene for that. So it’s surprising that these DNA dudes admit their ambivalence on the subject. Both devote substantial portions of their books to sketching the interplay of genetics and culture (how wars or dowry affected various societies’ gender balances, the link between inheritance laws and genetics, etc.). One of the most amusing chapters of The X in Sex is a wacked-out alternative history that follows a rogue gene that may have ravaged the royal families of Europe, killing off would-be kings and possibly even leading to the Russian Revolution.

Jones in particular draws a line between sex (the biological stuff) and gender (the cultural aspects of masculinity). He seems pretty skeptical about the connection between the two. For example, excessive testosterone doesn’t necessarily lead to Rambo-style machismo. Jones cites one study that showed testosterone-heavy upper-class men were less violent than their blue-collar equivalents, suggesting economic rather than physical factors. And when he proposes the demise of men, he’s also taking into account changes in society—the great leaps that women have made in cultural and economic terms over the last century that have led to 2 million more females than males in American universities. “Gender differences have been consumed by social change,” Jones declares. “We are in the midst of an ascent of women matched with an equivalent descent of men.” In the end, Jones’s hyped-up rhetoric is kind of silly, because when he declares the end of maleness, he means in thousands of years—not tomorrow. But read together, Y and The X in Sex offer a provocative glimpse of the gender wars, from the inside out.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2003

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