Y by Steve Jones


The Descent of Man
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Maleness as survival strategy seems increasingly unwise in this elaboration on the Y chromosome.

As the old joke goes, referring to the two X chromosomes that determine female sex and the X-Y pair that confers maleness, everyone knows that women are cross (X) and men are wise (Y). Not in today’s world, laments the author, who counts the ways in which men are undone by forces genetic, behavioral, social, cultural, and environmental. To begin with, the Y is a very small chromosome that lacks counterparts of many genes on the X, so its bearer is heir to such diseases as hemophilia and muscular dystrophy that are carried on the X. But that’s just the beginning. Jones (Genetics/University College, London; The Language of Genes, 1994, etc.) deals with the origins of sexuality and Darwin’s notions of sexual selection: women choose, men compete. He then rings changes on sexual behavior across the animal kingdom, demonstrating just how wrong Darwin could be. Even the sex of offspring is not immutable but in some species can be altered at various stages in the life cycle. On the whole, Jones’s debunking is good and solid: no relation between baldness and virility, or an extra Y and criminality; no good reason for circumcision; no genes for homosexuality. He provides good information too on tracing human migrations using the Y chromosome. But arriving at these gems often means wading through masses of odd facts and tidbits Jones has collected, or (worse) suffering at length with coy references to the “member” in discourses on male anatomy, penile length, the nature of erections, and treatments for ED from time immemorial to Viagra. It seems that Jones is quite serious in bemoaning the dethroning of males in the third millennium, what with women outliving men, taking better care of themselves, and proving professionally competent.

Informative but off-putting unless you agree that “ascent of women” implies “descent of men.”

Pub Date: May 15th, 2003
ISBN: 0-618-13930-3
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2003


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