Life, #4

Having discussed science, feminism, and character relationships in my earlier posts on Gwyneth Jones’ Life, it seems only natural that I should bring this series to a close with some remarks on how the book deals with gender. In many ways, this is likely to be more recap and summation than a substantially new discussion, because gender pervades all the aspects of the book I’ve looked at so far.

The novel’s central sfnal idea – the discovery that Anna spends her professional life finding and demonstrating – is that there a virus has emerged which affects how genes, and the traits associated with them, are “shuffled” during sexual reproduction (198). Usually, only the parents’ X chromosomes take part in this process; the Y chromosome, which (by and large) only males possess, is too small and unlike its counterparts to do any swapping. Genes on the Y chromosome, therefore, are passed only from father to son, whereas X-linked genes can show up in either male or female offspring. Where the phenomenon that Anna calls Transferred Y deviates from this pattern is that it allows the Y chromosome to get involved in gene-swapping. In the long run, according to experiments and simulations run by Anna – and, later, by other teams around the world – TY looks set to lead to the disappearance of the Y chromosome from the human race.

As far as I understand it (and not being a scientist, I’m not completely sure I do…), there is no suggestion, at least from the scientist characters, that this will lead to the end of biological sex differences within human beings; there will still be biologically-male (and fertile) individuals, but they will, like females, have two X chromosomes. Gender, however, is a rather different matter.

Anna steadfastly refuses to spend much time worrying over the implications of all this, focusing on it as a purely scientific issue – a question to investigate in the lab – and ignoring the warnings of colleagues that she could be playing with fire. It is, after all, already happening (indeed, there are already a number of unknowingly-XX males around, living perfectly ordinary lives but for a higher risk of infertility); she is not the cause of the phenomenon, and she had no intention of interpreting it, either. But science does not happen in a vacuum.

It is only late in the book, when her TY investigations have become a media storm – nothing stirs up public fear and anger like a perceived threat to masculinity – and her marital problems with Spence are coming to the surface, that Anna faces what she has learned. Angry and upset over the revelation that Spence is having an affair with insipid Meret (“the not-too-clever sweet feminine younger one” (326), as Anna puts it), Anna finds the temptation to fall back on gendered ways of thinking and fighting about their relationship horribly alluring. “I have become woman”, she reflects; in the Joanna Russ sense, that is: for all her attempts to escape it, she has finally been confronted with her role in the battle of the sexes:

I can be a matriarch like Rosey, who though she loves Wol truly, never forgets to treat him with contempt. Throws him out when he fails to satisfy, allows him back on sufferance. It is what they expect, it is the way relations between the sexes have to be. You have to keep the whip hand, or else they will turn on you. […]

I was afraid of Transferred Y, and I pretended other reasons, but this is why. I didn’t want to think of what it meant for real people because that means me, that means Spence… all that dirt about sexual relations, that I didn’t ever want to handle. (320-1)

I’m not completely sure how to interpret Anna’s thoughts, here (and would welcome suggestions). After some discussion on this point with Niall, my sense is that, regardless of whether or not TY will affect biological sex – or even most of the visible physical traits linked with it – the cultural narratives surrounding gender, and linking gender with sex, are sufficiently powerful that TY is dynamite. Is this Ramone’s “something new”, that will change relations between human beings beyond recognition?

Above and beyond the fact that previously Y-linked (and thus male-only) genes would presumably begin to turn up in females, simply the idea of the chromosomal difference between men and women being ‘lost’ is something that would – and, in the book, apparently does – be profoundly disturbing for some. This is regardless of the fact that, as far as I can tell, there would still be two main biological sexes (my genetics knowledge doesn’t really stretch to speculating upon how this would affect rates or presentation of intersexuality); males and females would all be XX at a genetic level, but nonetheless there would still be as many differences between any given two individuals, regardless of sex, as there ever were.

Consciously and unconsciously, people have so much invested in narratives of gendered thought and behaviour – and, in particular, in narratives of gender and of the battle of the sexes as they shape family life. Rosey, again:

“I used to think Steven and Joe were aggressive because of the childhood they had before they came to us. But boys will be boys. I was so relieved to have a girl.”

If you put a child in frilly ankle socks at birth, thought Anna, by the time she’s three no one will ever know whether genetic predisposition or nurture made her turn out wet as a haddock’s bathing suit. (285)

The possibilities are not spelled out in the book, so I can’t be sure I’m thinking along the right lines, here, and would love to know if anyone has any other suggestions. In particular, does anyone else get the sense from the book that the ‘loss’ of the Y chromosome could make a measurable difference to men – and/or to women – without an accompanying cultural shift? Are there likely to be physical or chemical implications to TY? Or might something like TY itself be enough to prompt a cultural shift? And what about transsexuality and transgenderism?

2 Responses to “Life, #4”

  1. Liz Says:

    With the caveat that it’s years since I read Life, and I can’t find my copy so I’m going off the quotes in your post and speculating wildly.
    Usually, only the parents’ X chromosomes take part in this process; the Y chromosome, which (by and large) only males possess, is too small and unlike its counterparts to do any swapping.

    I’m not sure this is entirely true. It’s true that the Y chromosome is much smaller than the X, but it’s also largely composed of repetitive bits of DNA and has lost most of its genes. This means that there is limited recombination (the swapping of genes between two copies of the same chromosome) between the X and Y because they don’t pair up correctly, which is necessary to exchange genes. There is a small region on either end of the Y chromosome called the pseudo-autosomal region, which does pair up with the X chromosome and lead to X-Y recombination.

    Males with XX chromosomes occur because when the chromosomes pair up and swap genes, they don’t do it entirely evenly, and the X chromosome ends up with a copy of the SRY gene[1] from the Y pseudo-autosomal region, which is the main gene involved in turning on the pathways to cause development of the male sexual characteristics. However, XX males are infertile, probably because there are a few genes on the Y chromosome which are necessary for spermatogenesis

    So I’m not sure how, exactly, Transferred-Y is supposed to work. I presume that somehow, X chromosomes start to carry a copy of SRY, and the other genes necessary to be a fertile male, but they’re only active on 25% of the X chromosomes. If they were always active, or active on more than 25% of X chromosomes, then the gender ratio would start to shift in favour of an increase in males. If they were only present on some copies of the X chromsome, then we’re back to square one, as sticking extra genes on some copies of a chromsome sounds like the start of the process of differentiating your sex chromosomes back into X and Y.

    There is one big thing which would be lost with the Y chromosome, which some would find disturbing – the Y chromosome is the only chromosome which can be used to specifically track the evolution of males, using Y haplotypes. Female evolution is tracked through mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, so that wouldn’t be lost.

    Maybe we will eventually lose our Y chromosomes and become like the spiny rats

    [1] There are cases of XX males who do not have a functioning copy of the SRY gene – probably one of the genes activated by SRY is active when it’s shouldn’t be.

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