by Bryan Sykes
‘The human Y-chromosome is a graveyard of rotting genes, whose corpses are still sufficiently similar to active counterparts on the X-chromosome to be recognisable by their DNA sequence, but whose festering remains contain the evidence of their own demise.’
I seem to have a talent for picking up books with scary messages * and, despite my somewhat flippant title, Adam’s Curse is indeed one of those. The subtitle of the work says it all: A Future Without Men!
At his best, Professor Bryan Sykes has a flair for creative non-fiction unsurpassed in the popular science genre, and one which many novelists might envy. I have read some of his other works but only now got round to this one. Adam’s Curse is serious science and, though published as long ago as 2003, is still refreshingly topical and balefully prophetic.
Readers of Sykes’s The Seven Daughters of Eve will recognise his approach. Beginning with personal anecdote, he reveals how he pursued the origins of the Sykes name and discovered strong links between surnames and DNA. He describes how he went on to extract his own Y-chromosome and have a look at it through a microscope.
‘Let us first challenge the natural assumption that sex is essential for reproduction.’
Readers who are familiar with the science of reproduction may miss some chapters here because most of it has been described and discussed elsewhere. The essential points to remember: our body cells contain two sets of chromosomes, one set from each parent; the germline cells (those giving rise to eggs and sperm) behave differently from all other cells; two special chromosomes, named X and Y, combine in two different ways to determine sex (gender). Most females have two X chromosomes; most males have an X and a Y. It is the behaviour and fate of this Y-chromosome which gives the book its title, Adam’s Curse, and form much of the book’s theories and conclusions.
Throughout human history, Sykes argues, the Y-chromosome has been successful, and he judges this blind genetic entity as being responsible for the rise of patriarchal societies, in which success is measured by wealth and power.
‘In ten thousand years we have changed from an intelligent and resourceful animal . . . into a teeming species very rapidly destroying her beautiful planet.’
About five years before Adam’s Curse was published, in a book entitled The Alphabet and the Goddess, the American brain scientist Lleonard Shlain put forward a different theory for men’s desire to dominate women (and a rather more persuasive one in my view), that it began with the invention of writing. I’m not going to quote from this latter work; read it for yourself and judge. However, whichever theory one accepts (or neither), it seems likely that the age of male domination – in humans anyway – is coming to an end. The male Y-chromosome is shrinking. Mitochondrial DNA, present in the cytoplasm of all cells but inherited only by girls ** is winning the war of the sexes.
‘The world no longer reverberates to the sound of men clashing antlers.’
In the final chapters of the book, Bryan Sykes examines what might be the consequences of the Y-chromosome dying out altogether. He also asks some very sensitive and controversial questions. Of course, if reproduction depends solely on conventional sex, our species will become extinct. But might there be other ways of ensuring survival (well, of the female of the species at any rate)?
‘What is to stop the nuclear chromosomes coming not from a sperm but from another egg?’
Adam’s Curse is a fascinating read, a mixture of anecdote, real science and controversial theory. Its conclusions are perhaps not something we want to hear, yet it is a book which, for anyone interested in the science of genetics, is difficult to put down.
* see my reviews of Sapiens and Homo Deus
** see The Seven Daughters of Eve