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According to Bryan Sykes, a 300 million year long experiment is about to conclude. The experiment is mammalian sex. The investigation into how best to reproduce and extend the species is running out of material - the Y chromosome. In a beautifully written, if somewhat suspect, work, Sykes surveys how sex became the driving force of evolution and what that means for humanity today - and tomorrow.
He describes the years of research, including many false starts, leading to the identity of the chromosomes determining our gender. Knowledge of the chromosomes came soon after Darwin's revelation of evolution by natural selection. Darwin realized that sex played a fundamental role in the mechanism of evolution, but the details remained an enigma. Unaware of genes, he still managed to envision the role of sexual selection among animals. When the process of cell division was understood, it led to searching for the means by which traits were transmitted through generations. "Dark blobs" observed by a Canadian military physician began the quest for their identity and significance. The find led to identity of the X-chromosome that forms females. The Y-chromosome, which drives a foetus to become a male, was a later discovery.
In Sykes' view, the human male's chromosome has been the major factor in human evolution and cultural development. Not only determining gender, it acts through a feedback loop. More powerful, aggressive males tend to reinforce their role in selecting mates and propagating traits in offspring. While the Sykes' progenitor has nearly ten thousand descendants, the MacDonald clan, long dominant in Scotland, has proliferated around the planet with nearly half a million progeny. The most numerous progeny, however, has resulted in 16 million descendants of Asia's Ghengis Khan scattered throughout Eurasia. The Khan is the most extreme example of the male's propensity for war, conquest, and, in Sykes' view, the "enslavement" of women. His descent into the depths of "political correctness" is brief and shallow, but telling for his thesis.
Today the planet is carpeted with humanity, the result of a society dominated by the Y-chromosome. When hunter-gatherer societies took up agriculture, it "chained women" to "serial pregnancies", depriving them of the "relaxation of a sedentary existence" while producing additional farm workers. The resulting population explosion ultimately drove the creation of our industrialized, polluting society. This condition, in Sykes' view, is now leading to a depletion of the Y-chromosome's prowess. Ultimately, he argues, human males will be replaced by a society of women. Whether men will be kept as breeding stock he doesn't predict.
A practiced adept at metaphor, Sykes' finesse in describing cellular mechanics is unusual in a scientist. He portrays a slow-motion ballet, with chromosomes gently finding their opposite number to "delicately lie alongside each other" until "they are entwined". It's very sensuous genetics. The tone changes when he portrays the head of a sperm entering an egg. The ensuing scene is a battle reminiscent of a Hollywood war film. Mitochondria launch vicious assaults on invaders, slaughtering whatever can be attacked. One wonders how conception ever occurs. It does, of course, but he makes clear that a decline in success is inevitable.
Although Sykes builds a compelling case for the roots of our society's ills, there are too many ignored aspects. He challenges the recent paper by a team demonstrating the Y-chromosome's prowess at self-repair. His arguments require further study, but his adamant insistence smacks of desperation, not evidence. Although this book is a valuable study, there's more work to do. With so much of human evolutionary history to be assessed, we can consider this an important, but not a final, step. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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VINE VOICEon 17 February 2004
The author starts off by investigating his paternal ancestry. Anyone with an interest in genealogy should find this very interesting especially as he discovers that his own surname seemed to be descended from one person. With this introduction he leads you into the main subject which is the Y-chromosome. What this book is not is a male version of The Seven Daughters Of Eve. No doubt some people would be interested in such a book and possibly Stephen Oppenheimer's Out Of Eden would be suitable. It is true that some material has appeared elsewhere - it seems no popular book on genetics is complete without a description of the Sickle Cell Anaemia gene. But most of it seemed new to me.
He is always careful to make it readable and avoids losing the reader. Even more so than Matt Ridley. I know some people are suspicious of this as they think that anyone who writes in such a readable way must be a charlatan. But he is professor of Human Genetics at Oxford so he is much more qualified than anyone likely to be reading this book.
The title Adam's Curse relates to how through sexual selection wealth, power and greed are valued at the expense of the natural world. The most controversial idea in the book is that men will be extinct in about 150,000 years because of falling fertility. However that is only a small part of the book and even if it is disproved does not invalidate the rest of the book which is mostly about sex! Er... sex at a genetic level that is.
I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in genealogy, human genetics and evolution and likes science to be jargon free and written more like a novel than a science book. Do you ever start reading "popular" science books and not finish them? Although this will not go down in history as a classic piece of science literature it deserves 5 stars because you will finish it.
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on 23 September 2003
Adam's Curse is Professor Sykes' second book (after the Seven Daughters of Eve) and develops the informative yet accessible, pacy readability of its predecessor. On the face of it, the book seems to cover much the same ground as Matt Ridley's "Red Queen" and Steve Jones' "Y: the descent of Man". However, it's a much better read and has more provocative angles than either. Sykes has a way of grabbing your attention by choosing an issue that's been niggling your curiosity for ages, and leading you step-by-step into the latest research without jargon or presumption. I suspect many will enjoy the way he describes his work unravelling the wayward rovings of Viking and Polynesian fathers. Others will be surprised at his evidence for generations of good marital behaviour in Yorkshire. In each of these stories he shows how an intelligent use of genetics can shed a detailed and humane light on our reproductive history. How about his big claim - that the Y chromosome and it's product, men, are doomed to fizzle out in an evolutionary dead end? I think the reader better decide for herself!
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on 8 June 2010
I discovered this book sitting in my local library as a set of CDs & thought it an excellent way to revise some rusty genetics, the author being a thoroughly reputable biologist with high academic standing - not to mention a gift for writing.

Adam's Curse will be a source of wonder, enlightenment & amusement to anyone who is male or female & doesn't come from a science background. It is also an indispensable & thoroughly enjoyable aid to understanding or revising genetics at anything from A-level to postgrad studies.

The story revolves around the most fundamental difference between male & female humans: the 2 strings of DNA that are known as the sex (X & Y) chromosomes, one inherited from each parent. A human XX is female & an XY male.

I am endlessly amused by the prospect of many males of my acquaintance having Genghis Khan Y chromosomes (which explains a lot) & the possibility of the extinction of the Y chromosome in a relatively short period of evolutionary time, if left to its own devices. It won't be, of course, & we should be thankful that genetic medicine will be able to correct mistakes in DNA coding in the not too distant future - if not for the sake of men then for the sake of those inheriting DNA abnormalities that too often give brief & painful lives.

Everyone should read Adam's Curse & find out a bit about what really makes a man a man & for the thoroughly stimulating & enjoyable book that it is.
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on 28 January 2013
I was reading this book for research purposes and it was extremely informative and an enjoyable read. It also contained an interesting introduction from the author about his thought processes in making this book. Great, thanks.
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on 3 February 2015
This is a really fascinating read. The Y-chromosome problem is brilliantly laid out in this extremely readable book. Perhaps I would have liked a closing chapter covering a bit more informed speculation. Nevertheless, highly recommended.
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on 12 January 2008
I picked up this book as a normal person sho has no special knowledge of genetics and was a bit flooded with genetic jargon and terms. I got a B in my Leaving Cert. Biology (similar to the A Levels in UK)so therefore had a basic knowledge of DNA, RNA, etc. which is more than I can say for the vast majority of the population. The beginning made sense, but it thickened and I was lost by 2/3 into the book. I assume ths book makes sense to avid genetic specialists but to the layperson... it's a curse!
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on 12 April 2016
Absorbing book and food for thought. I enjoyed it.
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on 27 February 2004
This book has received considerable media attention and stoked up a bit of fuss on ‘gay genes’. This is partly due to Sykes being Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, England and supposedly an authority on human genetics. The book, however, is very disappointing and contains nothing of science that is not explained better elsewhere. Adam’s Curse is a media trifle and Sykes himself a master impresario. Most of the book is taken up with Sykes’ ego. I started to keep a record of the number of times he uses the word ‘I’ but lost count – it runs into thousands!
The premise of the book – that men’s Y chromosome is in demise – is not new and is a subject covered much better in Steve Jones’ Y: The Descent of Men and Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen.
Of particular concern to me in this book is Sykes’ treatment of homosexuality. The subject has become very popular amongst scientists in recent years and some excellent work has been published. This has only been achieved as (most) scientists have learnt from past mistakes and treated the subject with awareness and sensitivity. Sykes bludgeons in on the act like a bull in a china shop.
Male homosexuals are to be explained, Sykes declares, by a mother’s failed attempt to destroy male foetuses in utero. This “poisoned kiss” happens as a result of a genetic battle between a man’s DNA and a woman’s DNA. It’s a bit vicious but we can still all be happy. Sykes is happy, he has a nice media-friendly sound bite. Gay men can be happy because they are genetically explained by Bryan Sykes (lesbians Bryan? No, don’t bother); heterosexual men can be happy because they’re still the best – winners in the genetic battle of the sexes; and heterosexual women can be happy because they’ve got some sweet little child-rearing helpers (just like “sterile workers in the hive were doing for their queen bee”).
New sound bite; old (and disproved) idea. Homosexuals are not sterile and worker bees are not homosexual. There is not a shred of evidence to support the idea that women are attempting to abort foetuses that eventually homosexual. There is a mountain of (growing) evidence that mother’s are designing the foetuses to be homosexual with very good evolutionary purposes (see Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow).
Moreover, there is very little zoological or anthropological evidence to suggest that homosexual offspring act as ‘helpers’ to their mothers any more than heterosexual offspring do (zoologist Bruce Bagemihl laid that one to rest in his excellent 1999 book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity). These are all tired old chestnuts from last century (not, as Sykes would have us believe, his “own rapidly forming theory”). Both author and publisher should know better. There is certainly merit in a long-standing theory that so-called gay genes are actually genes for something else and that these genes may be passed through the mother in mitochondrial DNA but the idea that this process can only be understood in relation to its service to (superior) heterosexuality is the scientific Achilles heel of the ages.
Big ego, little science – this I can just about stand because it is inconsequential. The consistent references to various diseases in Sykes’ gay genes chapter, I cannot. Achondroplasia, sickle cell anaemia, coronary heart disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar disorder, haemophilia, colour-blindness, cystic fibrosis, haemochromatosis and Black Death (BLACK DEATH!) are all used to varying degrees to postulate on how gay genes might benefit heterosexuals and therefore get passed through the generations. Sykes doesn’t directly infer that homosexuality is a disease but, like many scientists before him, he does indirectly. Homosexuality is guilty by association in the first page of this chapter - “I have worked on inherited diseases for a good part of my scientific career and there is no denying that homosexuality has some of the genetic characteristics that you might find in a serious inherited disease.” The disclaimer that follows is pretentious and insulting.
It was precisely this kind of unsupported association between disease and homosexuality (frequently made by blinkered scientists) that political and religious fundamentalists leapt on in defence of their extreme homophobia when AIDS broke out in the 1980s (“When it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” Ronald Reagan, 2 April 1987). Western governments absorbed these ideas and we now live with the devastating consequences of their muted response to the AIDS epidemic. The catastrophic and continued association between sexuality and disease is chartered in a brilliant book called The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present by Peter Lewis Allen. Sykes obviously hasn’t read it but he should before passing further judgment, albeit obliquely, on a section of society that he clearly knows little about.
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on 23 August 2006
The punchline is that the Y chromosome is doomed - but this applies to pretty much all mammals - so what's the news? We occupy the same playing field don't we?

Before the punchline Sykes explores why the Y chromosome in humans may be especially at risk. Point the finger at the rabid dispersion of gender bending chemicals into the environment such as pthalates from plastics and oestrogen type chemicals including vast amounts of contraceptive hormones that leak into sewage and don't break down affecting fish and perhaps us? Sperm counts are going down apparently, but this is not necessarily associated with the punchline, which is on the basis of the Y chromosome not undergoing chiasma formation with the X - leading to an accumulation of mutant mistakes.

Overall the book is good at answering from the secular selfish gene point of view such obvious questions as "Why does sex exist? Why are there two sexes?". Sykes believes in William Hamilton's theories popularised by Dawkins that the gene is the ultimate unit of selection.

Despite the "triumph" of this idea according to Sykes, scientists still debate about whether it is the gene, the individual or the species that is selected. There is in fact evidence for all three. In this book, one sort of also realises that chromosomes too can be units of selection. American evolutionists generally don't like the gene centric approach. The war between mitochondrial DNA and the Y as described in this book seems to be somewhat hollow.

I don't agree that agriculture per se led to a diminution of the status of women and the establishment of a patriarchal set of civilisations epitomised by the masculinisation of the figures of the divine as men seemed to realise that they had an upper hand in procreation.

The most interesting observations of this book is facts about how the Y chromosome spreads and how it can help trace your line of decent - and how this may contradict the line of decent through the female line.

Better still is the evidence suggesting strong assymetry in the natal balance of the sexes in some families leaving aside the obvious cultural bias (in some countries) of sons over daughters. In short, certain families have skewed tendencies to have too many boys or girls which does not add up statistically. But is the explanation presented correct? There is here food for thought.

This book is fascinating though weak in places. I'm not too worried about the punchline and not sure if it is true but I have been somewhat enlightened by reading this book in that it clarifies points raised in books like the Selfish Gene. I feel the truth overall is not as clear cut as the book tries to show and therefore am not going to end up story telling about why exactly there are two sexes. There is plenty here to have conversations with for sure.

Does the gay gene exist? Is it to do with your older brothers training the mother's pregnant body to attack your masculinity if you are a younger brother? There is now some evidence for this just out.

A good read, attacking men, unfairly at times, but a good read none the less.
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