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Date: November 2002


Descent of Men

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‘Men are having to think about their identity in a new way, and Y can help us do that.’

Y: The descent of men
Steve Jones
Little, Brown, 260pp
Review: Steve Tomkins

Being a man in the 21st century is like being a member of the modern royal family. We still live a life of privilege, generally doing less work for more money, and still don’t do our share of the housework, but something has changed.

In both cases the rest of the population has had a quiet revolution, cutting themselves a fairer slice of life’s big pie, and so our power and prestige are not what they once were.

You’d have to be mad, bad and a Daily Mail columnist to want to turn the clock back, but still we are left wondering for the first time in history what our role in life is now. Steve Jones, mass-market biologist from the stable of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, is here to help the men. The Queen can find her own biologist.

Y: The Descent of Men is an exploration of maleness. It is a book by a scientist rather than a science book. There is plenty of fascinating stuff about chromosomes and chemicals in it, but leavened by all manner of history, anthropology, religion, sociology and stories, for those of us who wouldn’t know which end of a test tube is up.

Jones steers us through beards and sperm-eating bacteria, circumcision and castration, naked athletics in ancient Greece and the elusive gay gene. He explores penile implants, papal birth control, the hormonal treatment of paedophiles, why Chinese surgeons inject superglue and how Viagra turns the air blue.

It’s racy and pacy – too much so in fact. Jones’s scattergun delivery of countless facts and stories about all aspects of manhood can leave you dazed, trying to work out what they have to do with each other and what his point is. And though he is a scientific expert, his comments on religious issues were misinformed enough to make me suspicious of all the other non-biological info the book is crammed with.

Despite this though, its a useful book. The unparalleled success of the women’s movement means that men are having to think about their identity in a new way, and Y can help us do that as intelligently as our genes permit.

For example, one of Jones’s main points is that woman is the first sex. Single sex species are basically female, producing eggs that simply grow into clones. The original girl power. It’s only later when things get more complicated that a sperm guy is needed to come and mix the genes in the egg up a bit.

This fact may seem a little remote and academic, but it makes you realise how unjust it is that humanity is so often considered basically male. All this rubbish about ‘mankind’, ‘the ascent of man’, ‘each to his own’ – as if the default setting of humanity were male, and the female an optional extra. The opposite is true; millennia of male myth-making have been rumbled, but the tables have not yet been turned enough.

This biological fact has still to be faced up to by some churches. It seems scandalous to me that various influential parts of the church still hold out against women ministers. There are two excuses. One is that priests represent all the people before God, and that only a man can do this - the ‘humanity is basically men’ fallacy.

The other is to appeal to St Paul: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.’ Doubtless, this was an appropriate line to take in first-century Ephesus, but we know that Paul’s natural history was wrong: if it matters, woman came first. It is shocking that such a comment is still quoted 2000 years later to oppose the restoration of women.

Of course, in the questions of the roles of the sexes science does not have all the answers – as Jones would be the first to say – but it has information we cannot ignore.

Find out more about Steve Jones