Saturday, December 8, 2007

A World Without Men


It’s every man’s secret fantasy: a world, exclusively inhabited by women. Well guys, have we got news for you. One day, the dream could come true! But before you straighten your tie, there’s something you should know. In a world without men... Well, humanity dies out.

Chances are you haven’t noticed it, but there’s a war between the sexes going on. A foul, chemical war it is, a bitter battle to the death. Gladly, it’s a rather small-scale war. The parties doing the fighting are sex chromosomes: tiny, curled-up molecules of DNA, that lay hidden within each human cell.Still, the future of mankind is what’s at stake. You see, it’s a war between boys and girls -- literally. And here’s the latest news from the battlefield: the women are winning. At least, that's what it looks like. The girls are about to wipe the boys from the face of the earth.

As you may know, there are two kinds of sex chromosomes: X and Y. If you inherited two X’s at conception (one X from every parent), you’re a woman. When your father gave you a Y-chromosome, it adds up to XY -- which stands for man. All in all, the Y-chromosome is the thing that makes a man a man. Well, apart from that other thingy, that is.On Y, you’ll find all the stuff that a man needs. You’ll find genetic instructions for how to brew semen, and how to grow a trunk -- no, a little lower, if you please. If there exists a gene for watching football and telling lame sex jokes, you’ll definitely find it on the Y-chromosome.

But on Y, you’ll also find stuff that is harmful to women. For example: sperm contains chemicals that attack the woman’s body. Really! Semen comes with chemicals that shut down the woman’s immune system, so that it can make it into the womb alive.

That's why X, the female chromosome, hates Y. In response, X is constantly throwing all kinds of wicked chemicals at Y. X is killing Y.Take a look through the microscope, and you can immediately see Y is in trouble. Y is a tiny, crumpled chromosome -- not exactly a proud symbol of manliness. Ever since Y split off from the other chromosomes, some 300 million years ago, its number of genes went down from about 1,000 to 80. How did it ever get so tiny? You guessed it: that's because of the female chromosome's attacks.But even without a microscope, the signs are clear. The fact that some people are gay or transsexual could be a direct consequence of the battle between the X- and the Y-chromosome, some geneticists think.

And there are more grizzly clues. For example, every now and then, doctors coincidentally stumble upon a woman who has XY for chromosomes -- the ‘male’ combination. Somehow these ladies' X-chromosomes have found a way to disable the Y-chromosome.And in 1947, a French hospital admitted a female patient who gave birth to a baby girl. The woman wasn’t the least surprised. All births in her family were females, she told the doctors. Scientific investigation confirmed this. Somehow, the family’s genes had found a way to overcome the ‘man-problem’. Her family had learned how to kill Y. And now, the family's women no longer gave birth to any boys.

Perhaps the most spine-chilling clue comes from the men. As we speak, 1 to 2 percent of all men is infertile because of a malfunctioning Y-chromosome! That doesn't seem like much, but it is an astonishing number, because the defects cannot have been inherited (because they lead to infertility). So in other words: 1 to 2 percent of all men have their Y-chromosome disabled during their life! You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see where that could lead. A couple of thousands of years more, and Y could be history. Suddenly, you would see the number of men dropping sharply. According to an estimate of the British geneticist Brian Sykes, it could take only 5,000 generations before the world turned into a place almost exclusively inhabited by women.

No, you dirty little sod, that’s NOT a man’s paradise. Indeed; with the numbers of men falling, probably everyone around will be craving for your semen. But it will most likely not be quite like you picture it. Instead of endless erotic nights, think of handing your goody over to the nearest fertility clinic, where the female doctors will try to impregnate as many women as possible with your increasingly rare sperm cells.

They won’t encourage you to start a harem or so. Sex would be an intolerable waste of sperm cells. And besides, you can’t afford risking a heart attack while practicing the world oldest sport. Your semen has become the most valuable fluid on earth now! The women might even decide to keep the last men captive, like a priceless piece of kettle.And how’s this for your world-without-men. There will be no one to watch the games with. No one to talk about cars with. In fact, there will be no football anymore and no fight movies.

You will be heavily discriminated against by all these giggling, chit-chatting GIRLS you’ll see everywhere. It will be a lonely existence. If you’re a guy, that is.And the obvious downside: in the end, everyone will be dead. Without men, no babies. Without babies, no mankind. So we’d clone ourselves, you say? Well -- not too many people know of it, but the latest scientific insight is that this is very, very problematic. Clones are full of genetic errors, causing them to die early. And it’s still undecided if that’s a problem that can ever be solved.

Gladly, the theory with the Y-chromosome is still very controversial. Many researchers don't really believe men will run out of oomph. For one thing, only recently it was discovered that Y has an unexpected defense mechanism against X. The Y-chromosome has made a secret back-up of itself in reverse. It has its key genes tattooed backwards on its own body, so to say. Shoot a hole in Y, and it simply repairs itself by copy-pasting the back-up onto the wound. It seems that the Y-chromosome is less vulnerable than most people think.

On the other hand: the sex chromosome mishap isn't unique. We know of at least three animals where the women are winning. Take the eggfly butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) of Australia. In the 1970s biologists discovered that most of the butterfly’s offspring is female -- almost half of all males mysteriously die before birth. Exactly the same sinister effect was found for the two-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata).

Even more eery is the case of another insect, the buterfly Acrea encedon. As we speak, there’s only 3 percent boy butterflies left, with the ladies taking on 97 percent of the population -- and rising!On the other hand, there's the case of a small rodent from Turkey called the mole vole (Ellobius lutescens). Millions of years ago, the X-chromosomes in this animal succeeded in eliminating the Y-chromosome. But the rodent did something remarkable. It evacuated all male genes to other genes. This quirk of nature still astounds biologists. But it also indicates that men in theory should be able to overcome the attack of the girls.

So in the end, what will happen?

Nobody knows, the jury is still out. On the one hand, some geneticists point out that X is in the majority. Since women have two X’s and men one X and one Y, X outnumbers the Y-chromosomes by three to one.But on the other hand, some researchers suspect foul play. Perhaps the doomsayers are only making fun of Y's small size. While having a smaller one doesn't necessarily mean that it won't function. (Yes, yes, I know...)

Still, like most of the scenarios outlined on Exit Mundi, the one with the chromosomes already happened once - almost. Somewhere in our prehistoric past, X seems to have launched a massive attack on Y. It must have been a very close call. But Y succeeded in repairing itself at last. We can tell this has happened because of certain scars that are still detectable on the male chromosome.

Is that comforting, proof that Y can deal with the attacks of the girls? Or has it weakened Y, and should we worry all the more about the next attack? Better keep an eye on those birth statistics, guys...

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