Men redundant?


by Philipp Wesche

Originally published in Student, the University of Edinburgh Student Newspaper, approx. April 2004. Note: The printed version differs slightly.


The year was 1997. The necessity of old-fashioned sex had already been eliminated by sperm banks, in vitro fertilisation and other fertility treatments. Paternity testing had played its part in social enlightenment. But the announcement of Dolly the cloned sheep in February of that year hinted at what feminists have long carried on their banners - the redundancy of men. Indeed, the aim in creating Dolly was the avoidance of sex and the resulting genetic diversity, with a possible view to maintaining pure female races of some livestock such as egg-laying chickens.

Cloning avoids the formation of eggs and sperm, but in mammals, the genetic clock, so to speak, is only reset in egg and sperm production. Dolly showed ageing symptoms much beyond her years, and these genetic problems with cloning remain to be fully resolved. Meanwhile, in the last half year, two research publications have exposed methods for making egg cells and sperm-like cells from embryonic stem cells. One of the papers, published by a mixed group of researchers from biotech hotspot Massachusetts even demonstrates that the product of merging lab-made sperm and eggs sometimes begins to develop as an embryo. This was done in the mouse, a species genetically very similar to us.

This could mean that within some five to ten years, it could become technologically possible for women whose embryonic stem cells have been collected to have their sperm produced and "father" children. Wombs, after all, are the one remaining limiting resource for reproduction, and the female sex have a monopoly on these (at least until functional artificial wombs can be made), the question begs asking what effect all this will have on society. What role will remain for us humble gentlemen?

Let us disregard for a moment the fact that men are involved in society in many ways, as scientists, politicians, chefs, fathers and lovers, that would be difficult to instantly replace. I am sure mankind would continue if only men's social functions were missing.

Reproductive biology, however, may be a different game entirely. Men can father more than a hundred children. History records many such cases. Women are much more limited in their reproduction. Nine months, one at a time. But when it comes to choosing fathers for their children, women show great scrutiny. Hence males are the exhibitioners of evolution. They show what the genes can really do, and women get to pick the best of the crowd. This may lead to faster elimination of bad genetic variants (caused by mutation) than is possible without men. The X chromosome with its reproduction-critical genes will be particularly well protected by this since men have only one X chromosome. Most mistakes, especially where portions of the chromosome are missing, will show.

So the important function of men may be to show the quality or otherwise of their genes, and allow the female "shoppers" an informed choice. And, hands on hearts, ladies - what could be a better proof of genetic quality than sweet lovin' itself? Ladies and gentlemen, keep faith in your love!