Why, oh Y, are men so insecure?
The darlings have been fretting for some years now that they may be rendered unnecessary if women get financial and biological independence, learning how to reproduce and refinance without them. What if nature played a cruel trick and demoted men, so they had to be judged merely by their appearance, pliability and talent for gazing raptly at the opposite sex, no matter how bored?
New research on the Y chromosome shows that my jittery male friends are not paranoid; they are in an evolutionary shame spiral.
As Nicholas Wade wrote in the New York Times: "Although most men are unaware of the peril, the Y chromosome has been shedding genes furiously over the course of evolutionary time, and it is now a fraction of the size of its partner, the X chromosome. The decay of the Y stems from the fact that it is forbidden to enjoy the principal advantage of sex, which is, of course, for each member of a pair of chromosomes to swap matching pieces of DNA with its partner."
Wade said that biologists in Cambridge, Mass., had made a remarkable discovery: "Denied the benefits of recombining with the X, the Y recombines with itself."
The ultimate guys' night out. Simply put, the Y chromosome figured out a Herculean way to save itself from extinction by making an incredibly difficult hairpin turn and swapping molecular material with itself.
Self-love as a survival mechanism: the unflinching narcissism of men may send women into despair at times, but it has saved their sex for the next 10-million years.
But, according to Olivia Judson, science's answer to the sensual British cook Nigella Lawson, men may need more than narcissism to survive.
Dr. Judson, a 33-year-old evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London who has written a book about animals in a Dear Abby style, or Deer Abby, under the pen name Dr. Tatiana, says the worm has turned. "For a long time, it was assumed that promiscuity was good for males and bad for females in terms of the number of kids they could have," she explains. "But it wasn't until 1988 that it really started to become evident that females were benefiting from having sex with lots of males, with more promiscuous females having more and healthier offspring."
In her book, Judson writes about powerful babes, noting that females in more than 80 species, like praying mantises, have been caught devouring their lovers before, during or after mating. "I'm particularly fond," she told me, "of the green spoon worm. The male is 200,000 times smaller, effectively a little parasite who lives in her reproductive tract, fertilizing her eggs and regurgitating sperm through his mouth."
And then there's the tiny female midge, who plunges her proboscis into the male midge's head during procreation. As Judson told the journalist Ken Ringle, "Her spittle turns his innards to soup, which she slurps up, drinking until she's sucked him dry."
The Economist recently reported on a variation on the creepy-crawly girl-eats-boy love stories. The male orb-weaving spider kills himself before the female has a chance to. Biologists now believe that the male orb-weaver dies when he turns himself into a plug to prevent other males from copulating, thus ensuring his genes are more likely to live on.
In a new book called Y: The Descent of Men, Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College in London, says males, always a genetic "parasite," have devolved to become the "second sex."
The news that Dolly the sheep had been cloned without masculine aid sent a frisson through the Y populace, he writes, because men began to fear that science would cause nature to return to its original, feminine state and men would fade from view.
The Y chromosome, "a mere remnant of its once mighty structure," is worried about size. "Men are wilting away," Jones writes. "From sperm count to social status and from fertilization to death, as civilization advances, those who bear Y chromosomes are in relative decline."
Perhaps that's why men are adapting, becoming more passive and turning into "metrosexuals," the new term for straight men who are feminized, with a taste for facials, grooming products and home design.
Better to be an X chromosome than an ex-chromosome.
+ Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist. +
New York Times News Service