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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Review: The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women by Sharon Moalem (audiobook)

I was already intrigued by this book but after the author wrote this article in the New York Times, I was determined to read it. After all, why are more men dying of COVID-19? I know that in every place I've ever seen average life expectancies, regardless of era or culture, women always outstrip men by several years. I joke with other girlfriends about how our male spouses seem just decimated by simple colds when we keep on truckin'. But maybe there's something to that?

Now, Dr. Maolem doesn't address "the man cold" specifically, but his other conclusion lead me to believe that it might be a real thing. After all, women's immunological systems are stronger, which is why it hurts so much when I get my last tetanus booster but my husband didn't recall his being a big deal. And women are, in general, healthier.

Let me back up. It all boils down to the two X chromosomes. Because genetic women have two, when there's an error or bad gene on one, we usually can fall back on the other. Genetic men cannot. In addition, in certain areas, such as the parts of our bodies that produce antibodies, we likely have 2 Xs in operation, leading to more diversity among the antibody production, which leads to more options and better outcomes. Genetic males, with only one X, don't have these options. Sadly, the Y seems to make a penis and testosterone, and nothing else. It's a tiny, pretty useless chromosome. And it means that men get X-related problems like color blindness, whereas woman sometimes can have super color vision, allowing them to see ten times the number of colors a typical person can see, and even to see a fourth color beyond the standard three (like birds do.)

Before anyone jumps on this book for bias, I should note that Dr. Moalem is himself male.

And obviously, he's very enlightened, to investigate the differences between the genetics of men and women to see what advantages women have. In the past, when the differences were acknowledged at all, it was only to point out disadvantages women's genetics give us (hormonal, difficult for drug testing). But by looking at the advantages, we might be able to help ALL humans live longer and better lives.

Of course, there aren't only advantages. There's always a flip side. Women do get autoimmune diseases at a dramatically higher rate than men, due to our strong immune systems that can sometimes backfire, and there are a few other diseases like Alzheimer's which strike genetic women more often. Then there's the fact that since up until a few years ago, drugs were only tested on male mice and male people, the dosages for women might be way off, if they work for women at all (and don't maybe cause women extreme harm!)

Tons of fascinating facts, from why cats and dogs produce their own vitamin C, to how elephants stave off cancer despite being both incredibly large (the more cells you have, the more likely one of them is to go rouge) and their long lives (the longer you live, the more likely you are to get cancer.) If you like armchair science at all, this is incredibly accessible and truly interesting.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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