Book Review of Y : The Descent of Men By Steve Jones


In "Y: The Descent of Men," Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College in London and author of the much-admired "Darwin's Ghost" and "The Language of Genes," gives us one of the more arresting openers of this spring's crop of nonfiction.

"Ejaculate," he suggests, "if you are so minded and equipped, into a glass of chilled Perrier. There you will see a formless object, but look hard enough -- or at least so eighteenth-century biologists believed -- and a baby appears: the male gift to the female, whose only job is to incubate the child produced with so much labor by her mate. So central seemed a husband's role that his wife was a mere seedbed, a step below him in society, in the household, and, most of all, in herself." All that turned out to be quite wrong, of course.

Men, biologically speaking, are the true second sex, Jones reminds us...Manhood is nothing all that special, but it's complicated. Everybody starts as female. Then a mix of testosterone and the other powerful sex hormones take over, directing the developing Y-child away from its default destiny. Often the results are more ambiguous than people generally assume.

"Males are, in many ways, parasites upon their partners," Jones notes. "Their interests are to persuade the other party to invest in reproduction, while doing as little as they can themselves. Like all vermin, from viruses to tapeworms, they force their reluctant landlady to adapt or to be overwhelmed." his subtitle implies, "Y" is in part an echo of Charles Darwin's 1871 classic, "The Descent of Man." Darwin had in mind, mostly, our origin as a species, and he got much of that right. He erred, though, in assuming that social relations in general, and the male's lordly status in particular, were immutable products of natural selection.

Jones did a good job of checking the latest facts, and concludes: "Gender differences have been consumed by social change. We are in the midst of an ascent of women matched with an equivalent descent of men." So we are invited to lots of baby showers, but the biological relevance of the male in reproduction is questionable -- sperm, for instance, may soon be cranked out from stem cells, cutting men out of the deal altogether. "