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25 September 2006
Will Science Make Men An Endangered Species?
by Paul Aitken

When I was in Grade 9 or 10, I was given an assignment to write a story that followed from a given opening.

"The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door..."

Most of the class came up with stories about aliens or the supernatural. A couple of girls, already feeling pithy and tragic, wrote purple prose about psychosis and insanity. But as far as I know, I was the only one who took a feminist slant. In my scenario, the person knocking at the door was a woman. Women had taken over the planet and had executed all the men. What followed was a dialogue between the two characters as the man walked the last mile to the gallows. The man pleading his case and the woman explaining that a) men weren't necessary anymore because there was lots of frozen sperm; and b) they were responsible for wars, dead baby jokes and other sordid stuff so who wants them anyway. It ended with the man yelling something like; "But what about love?" just before the rope snapped taut. It was a cool story, but I didn't get a high mark. I seem to remember my teacher being disturbed by the unprecedented slaughter implicit in the story. But I still occasionally wonder about a world of only women. Is it possible? Are men necessary?

In 1915, Charlotte Gilman wrote a novella based on a similar idea. In Herland, a trio of intrepid explorers seek a tribe of women who only give birth to girls. The genetic rationale for this was glossed over (in 1915 anything was still possible), but essentially, the women conceived by means of parthenogenesis (without fertilization - virgin births, as it were). The explorers expected to find a horde of primitive squabbling women that they could turn into their own personal harem, but were shocked to discover a peaceful, egalitarian utopia. Everything bad in the world - from jealousy to competition - flowed from the existence of men and without them co-operation and harmony were the default condition. But ultimately, the presence of the men set loose the forces of darkness and the explorers were banished from this idyllic realm.

Utopias don't exist, of course, and attempts to realize them usually end up being dystopias (think Mao's China, Pol Pot's Kampuchea, or any number of hippie communes) for the obvious reason that humans aren't nice enough to live in them. But Gilmans Herland does raise an interesting question. Would a world without men be a better world? While there are no examples of completely maleless societies, history has concocted a few situations where men and women have lived predominantly separate lives. In ancient Sparta, the men and boys lived together in war camps, while the women and girls lived in the village. Far from being exemplars of peace, love and understanding though, the Spartan women were, if anything, more warmongering than the men. It was the men that fought, of course, but any man that didn't fight bravely enough could expect to be excoriated and shunned by the women.

The essential point is this though: they got by. Rather well, too. While the women may have needed men to procreate and to fight and protect them (from other men); they didn't really need them for anything else. This notion was underscored during the two world wars when women largely held up the home front. Additionally, evidence has shown that girls who are schooled without the distraction of boys do better academically and socially. They are more co-operative, less hierarchical, happier and more confident than those schooled in a co-ed setting. Hmmm.

Biologically speaking, males are parasites. Sure, we may bring home the bacon and do the heavy lifting, and the dishes and diapers and the laundry (don't forget the laundry!). But at a very basic level we exist solely to insert our genes into the next generation and everything else we do, from building bombs to burping babies, is indirectly in service of this one essential purpose. And while there is an obvious symbiosis between the male and female of any species, it is the egg producing female which is ultimately responsible for incubating and nourishing her brood. In asexually reproducing species there are no males, every member is a mother. In a way, males are a genetic afterthought, useful only for shuffling the genetic deck between generations. And while this can be very helpful in producing sufficient variability to ward off evolving viruses and parasites, there are many, many species that can get by with moms alone.

Can it be done? Is a wholly female society possible? Well, yes and no. Any group of determined women can buy an island, set up a commune and shoot any man that sails into port. With a couple of vials of frozen sperm they could last generations. But could they last indefinitely? Until very recently the answer would have been no. Human females, by themselves, are not naturally capable of parthenogenesis. That's because women produce haploid gametes. That is, their eggs have 23 chromosomes, half the number necessary to produce viable offspring. The other half must come from someone else, and that's where we guys come in, with all our attendant baggage.

But thanks to the miracle of modern science that extra compliment of 23 chromosomes may no longer have to come by way of a man. In April 2004, researchers lead by Tomohiro Kono, at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, succeeded in combining the nucleus of one mouse egg with that of another. The offspring, (female, of course - females don't carry the Y chromosome) was named Kayuga (pictured), after a Japanese fairy tale in which a princess is found in a bamboo stalk (don't laugh, it's more imaginative than Dolly!). Kayuga survived to adulthood and has now given birth to conventionally fathered offspring of her own.

Now, before you get all depressed, remember that mice are not men and there are many things we can do with mice - including curing diseases - which we can't replicate in humans. And given the squeamishness that ethicists feel about playing Doctor Frankenstein with humans, it's not likely that we'll be producing human Kayugas anytime soon. But theoretically it is possible, and if history is any guide, whatever is possible in theory eventually becomes a reality.

Even if it does though, men are not likely to become obsolete. Women and men may have different reproductive agendas but we've moved through evolution in lock-step. We've grown to depend on each other. Women may well end up taking over the world but they will never get rid of all the men, even if they'd be better off without us. For all they bitch about us, women still need us - in their lives, in their beds and hey... somebody's got to take out the trash.

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