This is, however, a book that openly champions women, and it is most enjoyable when giving centre stage to female scientists, who have been too often overlooked. Moalem’s point is that, just as women’s discoveries have been ignored, so too has the importance of their second X chromosome. Even today, medical and pharmaceutical research overwhelmingly favours male subjects, blinding us to knowledge that could lead to breakthroughs, and disadvantaging women who suffer inappropriate treatments and dosing. As men continue to fill the Covid-19 morgues faster than women, Moalem is on a quest to draw the world’s attention to a chromosomal tool we might just need.
His book, though, is brilliant, original and groundbreaking, highly readable and genuinely useful. His thesis is simple: that because of their chromosomes, women are genetically superior to men. They live longer, have stronger immune systems, are better at fighting cancer, have more stamina than men. They are even more likely to see the world in a million more colours, for goodness sake.
Yet this book is full of wonderful titbits of information – from the existence of a female prostate gland to the number of honey bee flying miles it takes to make 1lb of honey. The celebration of the genetic diversity offered by the female’s second X-chromosome is wholehearted and the examples Moalem gives are highly effective. He has written a powerful antidote to the myth of the “weaker sex”.
The idea that men’s and women’s brains differ biologically is also a hot topic. Moalem assigns to the sex chromosomes the greater rates of learning disabilities in men, as well as some of the differences in aggression and various developmental disorders. It’s not that anything he says is the stuff of hidebound reactionary conservatism — it is, as far as I know, very mainstream scientifically — but publishing tends to prefer those books that emphasise the similarities rather than the differences.
The book is a lively, clearly-written discussion of the female advantage in some areas of health. Its arguments – especially towards the end, where Moalem discusses the lack of research on female subjects – are often important, and could be directly relevant for our current coronavirus crisis. Had they been framed in terms of sex differences rather than superiorities, and had the book generally used balance rather than strongly advocating for one sex over the other, those arguments would have seemed all the stronger.