[Paleopsych] Dowd: X-celling Over Men

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Thu Apr 14 19:00:37 UTC 2005

X-celling Over Men
Liberties column by Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 5.3.20

    Men are always telling me not to generalize about them.

    But a startling new study shows that science is backing me up here.

    Research published last week in the journal Nature reveals that women
    are genetically more complex than scientists ever imagined, while men
    remain the simple creatures they appear.

    "Alas," said one of the authors of the study, the Duke University
    genome expert Huntington Willard, "genetically speaking, if you've met
    one man, you've met them all. We are, I hate to say it, predictable.
    You can't say that about women. Men and women are farther apart than
    we ever knew. It's not Mars or Venus. It's Mars or Venus, Pluto,
    Jupiter and who knows what other planets."

    Women are not only more different from men than we knew. Women are
    more different from each other than we knew - creatures of "infinite
    variety," as Shakespeare wrote.

    "We poor men only have 45 chromosomes to do our work with because our
    46th is the pathetic Y that has only a few genes which operate below
    the waist and above the knees," Dr. Willard observed. "In contrast, we
    now know that women have the full 46 chromosomes that they're getting
    work from and the 46th is a second X that is working at levels greater
    than we knew."

    Dr. Willard and his co-author, Laura Carrel, a molecular biologist at
    the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, think that
    their discovery may help explain why the behavior and traits of men
    and women are so different; they may be hard-wired in the brain, in
    addition to being hormonal or cultural.

    So is Lawrence Summers right after all? "Only time will tell," Dr.
    Willard laughs.

    The researchers learned that a whopping 15 percent - 200 to 300 - of
    the genes on the second X chromosome in women, thought to be
    submissive and inert, lolling about on an evolutionary Victorian
    fainting couch, are active, giving women a significant increase in
    gene expression over men.

    As the Times science reporter Nicholas Wade, who is writing a book
    about human evolution and genetics, explained it to me: "Women are
    mosaics, one could even say chimeras, in the sense that they are made
    up of two different kinds of cell. Whereas men are pure and
    uncomplicated, being made of just a single kind of cell throughout."

    This means men's generalizations about women are correct, too. Women
    are inscrutable, changeable, crafty, idiosyncratic, a different

    "Women's chromosomes have more complexity, which men view as
    unpredictability," said David Page, a molecular biologist and expert
    on sex evolution at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in
    Cambridge, Mass.

    Known as Mr. Y, Dr. P calls himself "the defender of the rotting Y
    chromosome." He's referring to studies showing that the Y chromosome
    has been shedding genes willy-nilly for millions of years and is now a
    fraction of the size of its partner, the X chromosome. "The Y married
    up," he notes. "The X married down."

    Size matters, so some experts have suggested that in 10 million years
    or even much sooner - 100,000 years - men could disappear, taking
    Maxim magazine, March Madness and cold pizza in the morning with them.

    Dr. Page drolly conjures up a picture of the Y chromosome as "a
    slovenly beast," sitting in his favorite armchair, surrounded by the
    litter of old fast food takeout boxes.

    "The Y wants to maintain himself but doesn't know how," he said. "He's
    falling apart, like the guy who can't manage to get a doctor's
    appointment or can't clean up the house or apartment unless his wife
    does it.

    "I prefer to think of the Y as persevering and noble, not as the
    Rodney Dangerfield of the human genome."

    Dr. Page says the Y - a refuge throughout evolution for any gene that
    is good for males and/or bad for females - has become "a mirror, a
    metaphor, a blank slate on which you can write anything you want to
    think about males." It has inspired cartoon gene maps that show the
    belching gene, the inability-to-remember-birthdays-and-anniversaries
    gene, the fascination-with-spiders-and-reptiles gene, the
    selective-hearing-loss-"Huh" gene, the
    inability-to-express-affection-on-the-phone gene.

    The discovery about women's superior gene expression may answer the
    age-old question about why men have trouble expressing themselves:
    because their genes do.

    E-mail: [2]liberties at nytimes.com

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