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on 11 June 2017
I seem to have a talent for picking up books with scary messages and, despite my somewhat flippant headline, Adam’s Curse is indeed one of those. The subtitle of the work says it all: A Future Without Men!
At his best, Professor Bryan Sykes has a flair for creative non-fiction unsurpassed in the popular science genre, and one which many novelists might envy. I have read some of his other works but only now got round to this one. Adam’s Curse is serious science and, though published as long ago as 2003, is still refreshingly topical and balefully prophetic.
Readers of Sykes’s The Seven Daughters of Eve will recognise his approach. Beginning with personal anecdote, he reveals how he pursued the origins of the Sykes name and discovered strong links between surnames and DNA. He describes how he went on to extract his own Y-chromosome and have a look at it through a microscope.
Readers who are familiar with the science of reproduction may miss some chapters here because most of it has been described and discussed elsewhere. The essential points to remember: our body cells contain two sets of chromosomes, one set from each parent; the germline cells (those giving rise to eggs and sperm) behave differently from all other cells; two special chromosomes, named X and Y, combine in two different ways to determine sex (gender). Most females have two X chromosomes; most males have an X and a Y. It is the behaviour and fate of this Y-chromosome which gives the book its title, Adam’s Curse, and form much of the book’s theories and conclusions.
Throughout human history, Sykes argues, the Y-chromosome has been successful, and he judges this blind genetic entity as being responsible for the rise of patriarchal societies, in which success is measured by wealth and power.
About five years before Adam’s Curse was published, in a book entitled The Alphabet and the Goddess, the American brain scientist Lleonard Shlain put forward a different theory for men’s desire to dominate women (and a rather more persuasive one in my view), that it began with the invention of writing. I’m not going to quote from this latter work; read it for yourself and judge. However, whichever theory one accepts (or neither), it seems likely that the age of male domination – in humans anyway – is coming to an end. The male Y-chromosome is shrinking. Mitochondrial DNA, present in the cytoplasm of all cells but inherited only by girls is winning the war of the sexes.
In the final chapters of the book, Bryan Sykes examines what might be the consequences of the Y-chromosome dying out altogether. He also asks some very sensitive and controversial questions. Of course, if reproduction depends solely on conventional sex, our species will become extinct. But might there be other ways of ensuring survival (well, of the female of the species at any rate)?
Adam’s Curse is a fascinating read, a mixture of anecdote, real science and controversial theory. Its conclusions are perhaps not something we want to hear, yet it is a book which, for anyone interested in the science of genetics, is difficult to put down.
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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 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 17 January 2018
Thank you.
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on 12 April 2016
Absorbing book and food for thought. I enjoyed it.
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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 7 August 2016
Book is heavily annotated.
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on 15 January 2018
My second copy. Gift for friend. It's all true.
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on 24 June 2004
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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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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