Monday, December 13, 2004

The End of Men?

Christine on ms. musings notes that the NPR's All Things Considered will air a three-part program titled "The End of Men". The first part will be aired this afternoon.

I'm not going to listen to it, but this is what the NPR website tells us about the plot of this interesting science-fiction story:

The Y Chromosome: A Primer
Each of our cells contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two of those pairs are matched pairs, shared by men and women. The 23rd is different.
In women, the 23rd pair is made up of two X chromosomes. In men, it's made up of an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. That Y chromosome determines maleness in humans -- it holds genes necessary for forming testes and making sperm.
Y So Lonely?
The fact that it doesn't have a matching pair poses a bit of a problem for the Y chromosome.
All the other chromosomes come in two copies. Every time a cell divides, mistakes in genes can creep in. In paired chromosomes, that means that if there is a mistake on one chromosome, a cell can always get the correct gene sequence from the other chromosome.
Over time, mistakes have crept into the Y chromosome, too. But every time a gene on the Y chromosome went bad, it basically disappeared. Scientists theorize that the X and Y chromosome started out with about the same amount of genes -- about 1,000. Today, the Y chromosome has less than 80 genes.
Hope for Y's Future
Some geneticists think the Y chromosome is now little more than a genetic wasteland that will eventually just disappear. If that were to happen, it would certainly spell the end of sexual reproduction.
But David Page of MIT's Whitehead Institute vigorously disagrees. "At the same time that it is continuing to lose genes, it's found some new ways of replenishing itself," Page says.
Last year, Page and his colleagues reported a finding that brightened the outlook for the future of men: The Y chromosome has been secretly creating backup copies of its most important genes. These are stored in the DNA as mirror images, or palindromes -- which read the same way forwards and backwards. ("Madam, I'm Adam" is a famous example.)
In Y chromosome palindromes, the first half contains the gene and the second half contains the same information, just in reverse.
That means that many of the genes on the Y chromosome do occur as pairs. Page says members of these pairs appear to be swapping out or recombining with each other -- allowing the genes to repair themselves when they get damaged.

This is all just plain silly. Men are not dying out. They are roughly one half of all human beings, and there is no practical method of nonsexual reproduction for us humans. I'm not sure why NPR would want to broadcast this particular series, but I can guess some of the impact it might have: it sensationalizes something that is really just speculation within the biological science, and it oversells the importance of whatever is being discussed. This is science-fiction, after all, at least as far as anybody living now or in the foreseeable future is concerned.

It might also add wind to the sails of the "men are oppressed" camp, especially if victimization is ok for them but not for other groups. Whether this happens depends on how the series actually runs, but I'm pretty disappointed in the NPR not only going more wingnut but also more sensational.

Compare this approach to how the media talks about the disappeared girls in India and China. We don't hear about "The End of Women?", though the actual evidence here is much stronger.

Ok. I admit that I have written a whole post based on the advertizing on the NPR website, and that I should really listen to the series before I open my divine mouth. But that is boring and this is my blog.