Magazine article The Spectator

Spiced Up with a Spot of Doomsday

Magazine article The Spectator

Spiced Up with a Spot of Doomsday

Article excerpt

Spiced up with a spot of doomsday ADAM'S CURSE: A FUTURE WITHOUT MEN by Bryan Sykes Bantam Press, L18.99, pp. 310, ISBN 0583050045

From boyhood I recall Thor Heyerdahl's wonderful Kon Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. We now know that the South Seas were populated by seaborne east-to-west migrations. Never mind. Heyerdahl's audacious west-to-east demonstration was a valid contribution to the evidence on what might or might not be possible. And it made a gripping read.

Most scientists are visited by fanciful theories in their idle moments. Rarely is there a chance to test them. Small wonder if some are tempted by the lucrative middlebrow book market to recycle their wilder speculations - not, as in Heyerdahl's case, by reporting personal demonstration, but by the less demanding construction of think-pieces.

In this pursuit, historically even the most reputation-conscious scientists have not been deterred by gaps in logic - so long as these can be bridged by advocacy. Examples spring to mind. Plato, himself a trained mathematician, insisted so forcefully that thought processes were not mechanisable that the builders of the first ever logic machine found their funding withdrawn. To support a dogmatism that far outran the Vatican's, Galileo claimed to have a scientific proof of Copernicus's inspired heliocentric conjecture. He had none, as the Vatican's astronomers were quick to spot. Margaret Meade's tales of the liberated sex lives of the South Sea islanders were later found to have stemmed more from imaginative interpretation than from observation.

Into this melee of illustrious players now plunges Oxford's professor of genetics, Bryan Sykes. His early analysis of DNA, scraped from the bones of the dead and from the cheek mucosa of the living, sparked today's compilation of extensive family trees for our species. Reaching beyond this well deserved claim to fame, he is nothing if not market-savvy. In his new hook he has taken the perennially hot topic of sex in all its manifestations and has mixed in a spot of doomsday. Like the Pat Boy in Pickwick, Professor Sykes wants to make our flesh creep. He spares no adjective in picturing the looming extinction of men, and with them perhaps our entire species.

The chains of reasoning are at times tortuous, and marred by small inaccuracies. Some of the arithmetic is the flakiest I have ever seen in print. Questionable or inexplicably missing links are numerous. But Sykes's positive gift is the gusto with which he spins a good yarn. Most fun of all is the story of his surname.

In Chapter 1, 'The Original Mr Sykes', he explains that the human Y-chromosome sends chemical signals to those embryos who have inherited it (inescapably from their father, as with the inheritance of surnames) to switch them to the path leading to maleness. …

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