Save the Males!: The “Degenerating” Y Chromosome

by Sarah S. Richardson

Human genomes are 99.9 percent identical — with one prominent exception. Instead of a matching pair of X chromosomes, men carry a single X, coupled with a tiny chromosome called the Y. Tracking the emergence of a new and distinctive way of thinking about sex represented by the unalterable, simple, and visually compelling binary of the X and Y chromosomes, my book, Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome, examines the interaction between cultural gender norms and genetic theories of sex from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, postgenomic age. Here, we’ve excerpted from the chapter “Save the Males!”

The prospect that the human Y chromosome might be “degenerating” erupted into public debate in the first years of the 21st century. In a 2002 Nature concept paper, Australian sex chromosome geneticist Jenny Graves and a colleague, Ross Aitken, predicted the extinction of the human Y chromosome in 10 million years:

The original Y chromosome contained around 1,500 genes, but during the ensuing 300 million years all but about 50 were inactivated or lost. Overall, this gives an inactivation rate of five genes per million years. The presence of many genes that have lost their function (pseudogenes) on the Y chromosome indicates that this process of attrition is continuing, so that even these key genes will be lost. At the present rate of decay, the Y chromosome will self-destruct in around 10 million years. This has already occurred in the mole vole, in which the Y chromosome (together with all of its genes) has been completely lost from the genome.

This was a back-of-the-envelope calculation, yet Graves’s Y-extinction prediction raised several testable questions in genomics and evolutionary theory. If the Y chromosome disappears, what genes, if any, might replace the male sex-determining pathway in the mammalian genome? What role might a radical change in the sex-determining system play in speciation? What population-genetic dynamics might speed up or slow down degeneration on the Y?

Notably, Graves did not predict the disappearance of males: “A maleless world is not a necessary consequence of losing the Y chromosome,” Graves has insisted. Male-specific processes may also be performed by genes on the X or the autosomes. After all, XX/XO species that lack a Y, such as mole voles, still have males. Loss of the Y, if it did not lead to the extinction of the human species (both males and females), would more likely cause a new sex-determining system to evolve. Graves predicted that a new sex-determining pathway would probably begin to assert itself well before the disappearance of the Y, in response to increasingly low male fertility.

Nonetheless, headlines around the world sounded alarms: “Is the Gene Pool Shrinking Men Out of Existence?” “The Male Malaise: Is the Y Chromosome Set to Self-Destruct?” “Men Are Doomed.” At the 2004 International Chromosome Conference in London, Graves faced off with another Y researcher, Dmitry Filatov of the University of Oxford, in the keynote event. “Leading Geneticists Debate the Fate of the Mammalian Y Chromosome,” the conference press release touted. The idea soon surfaced in popular culture. Gwyneth Jones’s novel Life and the comic book series Y: The Last Man called up the scenario of a threat to the Y chromosome to paint post-apocalyptic futures with dwindling populations of men.

In this discourse, the symbol of the Y as a “shriveled,” “pathetic,” inherently unstable chromosome, stands in for the “crisis of masculinity” in a postfeminist era.

In short order, the Y chromosome degeneration hypothesis became a flashpoint for cultural anxieties around feminism and male social status. A highly mobile and strategic postfeminist identity of male victimhood, masculinist essentialism, and universal brotherhood has found a symbol in the Y chromosome. In the introduction to his 2010 book, Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be, the Australian science writer and archaeologist Peter McCallister asserts, “I love my brother males — every single one of those who, like me, carry the mark of our stunted, mutant Y chromosome on their brows.” In this discourse, the symbol of the Y as a “shriveled,” “pathetic,” inherently unstable chromosome, stands in for the “crisis of masculinity” in a postfeminist era. In Y: The Descent of Men, Steve Jones suggests that, as a result of women’s advances, a “great loss of self-confidence… has swept across half the world” and “manhood itself is in full retreat”:

The figures are stark. At the end of the Second World War, husbands were in effective control of all family finances. As recently as the 1970s, British wives could not obtain credit without their approval… Now three quarters of all married women have a job. In the 1960s they earned half what their husbands did but now the gap is far less.

In Adam’s Curse, Oxford University geneticist Bryan Sykes proffers an even more alarmist hypothesis, arguing that humankind, having eclipsed men’s social power, is now on the verge of losing males altogether. Throughout history, he argues, “patriarchal social structures where men seize and retain control” have helped along the crippled Y chromosome. Because of the decline of male power, coupled with environmental insults to sperm production and the near prospect of technologies for reproducing without the Y, Sykes foresees “the decay of the Y chromosome… inside every testis in the land.” Sykes predicts that “men will become extinct” within 5,000 generations, or about 125,000 years. Then, citing Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto, which infamously — if ironically — called for the elimination of men, Sykes suggests that radical feminists seek to facilitate, and would celebrate, the extinction of the Y chromosome. It is a call to arms: “Men are now on notice,” writes Sykes. In the closing pages of his book, Sykes outlines a program for genetic engineering to restore the Y before it is too late.

Symbolically linking the degeneration of the Y chromosome to the decline of male social status after feminism, these authors make clear that anxiety over male decline in light of changes in the gender system is one context for the widespread media interest in Y degeneration theories. Fears of emasculation, matriarchal dominance, and male redundancy have, of course, been a recurrent cultural meme in Western societies, heightened since the rise of postindustrial urban economies and the advent of women’s liberation movements.

While most of us, both men and women, celebrate advances in gender equality, changes in gender roles have shaken the foundations of many men’s felt sense of power in the home, workplace, and political and economic spheres. Men’s preferences and interests are no longer as culturally powerful as they once were, and some men experience this as a loss. As such, the rapid and dramatic successes of Second Wave feminism have also been accompanied by “postfeminist” aftershocks, countermovements, appropriations, and backlash. There is today a prominent discourse in which “feminism is constituted as an unwelcome, implicitly censorious presence” for men and in which “loss of power for men” is raised as a “possible consequence of female independence.” The notion that males — and masculinity — are endangered in a postfeminist age appears in diverse cultural arenas. As a much-discussed 2010 Atlantic Monthly cover article titled “The End of Men” reported, from the rise of Judd Apatow–style lad flicks featuring “perpetual adolescent(s)” who “cannot figure out how to be a man,” to the new fashion of the slender-shouldered, innocent hipster who prefers cuddling to sex, the notion that traditional masculinity is endangered is in the air.

The supposed decline of males is now a serious subject of study in the social sciences. A 2011 report by the U.S. Families and Work Institute titled “The New Male Mystique” reports that men are experiencing new pressures and confusion as they struggle to accommodate still pervasive “traditional views about men’s role as breadwinners in combination with emerging gender role values that encourage men to participate in family life.” The report concludes that “the new male mystique is harming men much in the ways that the feminine mystique harmed women.” In response to these concerns, activists have launched new organizations promoting men’s rights, men have formed support groups to explore and deepen their sense of masculinity, and scholars have undertaken studies examining the poor educational and economic prospects for boys and men among more competitive, now ascendant females.

In biomedical science, too, the present-day vulnerability or weakening of men is a newly hot topic. Recent studies, hyped by the media, claim that human male sperm counts are dramatically declining worldwide; that rising temperatures due to global warming will reduce the population of males (climate change is said to be harder on vulnerable male fetuses, causing the mother to spontaneously abort males at higher rates); and that endocrine-disrupting environmental toxins are “feminizing” males, illustrated by male frogs found in suburban ponds growing female organs. In another realm of biology, evolutionary psychologists affirm that men’s biology — their size, strength, and aggression — is ill suited for the “postindustrial economy,” which requires “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus.” Females, they claim, will prosper in this new economy, while in evolutionary terms, males will prove “remarkably unable to adapt.” As Martha McCaughey notes in her recent book, The Caveman Mystique, whereas once Western white men found any suggestion of affinities between their human behavior and that of apes and cavemen repugnant, curiously “today… many men find solace” in such comparisons common in popularized evolutionary psychology narratives. Like the theory of Y chromosome degeneration, these many claims of male biological decline make explicit or implicit links to men’s falling social status relative to women. McCaughey argues that these narratives of maleness in biological decline, or as biologically mismatched to a postfeminist age, are becoming increasingly popular as men lose their traditional hold on social, political, and economic power and status.

In characterizing present-day anxieties over the “decline of men,” we must not paint too broad a stroke. Narratives about male decline are of wide interest today, but that does not mean that all individual men (or women) subscribe to them. Moreover, we must be historically and sociologically precise about the present cultural content of these narratives. Worries about the decline of males are not necessarily sexist, misogynist, or antifeminist. In his study of recent masculinist responses to feminist movements, the sociologist Michael Kimmel usefully distinguishes between antifeminism, which “require[s] the subordination of females,” and pro-male backlash, which reasserts “the importance and visibility of masculinity” in the face of cultural changes brought about by women’s increased power, countering feminization without specifically maligning women.

The strain of postfeminist gender politics animated in contemporary scientific debates over Y chromosome degeneration best approximates Kimmel’s characterization of pro-male but not necessarily antifeminist fears of a “crisis of masculinity.” These larger anxieties are not just a media sideshow to the real scientific debate: the concern of the state of masculinity after feminism creates the meaningful receptive context for the discussion of Y chromosome degeneration, informing and shaping the genetic science of sex today.

Photo via vermininc/flickr.

Sarah S. Richardson is assistant professor of the history of science and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. She is coeditor of Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. Sex Itself is out now.