Genetic destiny

One of the strangest paradoxes in the history of the human race is that while men have commonly dominated simply by virtue of their greater strength and aggression, women time and time again have been the cause of their downfall and defeat. It is as if some great universal arbiter constantly wishes to remind us who in the end has the upper hand.

The story of why Adam fell from grace is so well known it hardly needs mentioning. That downfall may have been symbolic of what was to happen throughout history. The examples are many. There is Helen of Troy, of course, whose beauty launched – and sank – a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium. There is Lady Macbeth tempting her infatuated husband into bloody regicide. Perhaps most compelling of all is Cleopatra, Egyptian queen, in whose captivating arms poor, muscular Antony found it preferable to languish than to go out and fight for the whole Roman Empire. There are a hundred, a thousand, other examples. Great general and spymaster, David Petraeus, is just the most recent in a very long line of famous and powerful men who has succumbed to the eternal and ultimately dominant fascination for women.

My own favourite is not well-known. She is the Comtesse de Portes, mistress of Paul Reynaud, Prime Minister of France at the beginning of the Second World War. At the greatest crisis of Paul Reynaud’s life, and in the history of his country, as the German army flooded into France, this amazing lady plagued the Prime Minister incessantly, at all hours of the day and night. She wanted him to give in and make a separate peace. In the middle of War Cabinets she would telephone him on the private line on his desk and, we are told, if, in despair, he disconnected the phone, she would even burst into the council chamber itself to harangue him. As he was meeting Churchill in a final conference about continuing to fight the war, she sent a message in to him: “We must give up, give up. We must make an end of it. I insist on it.” Reynaud did give up, and so did France. She was an extraordinary woman, Helen de Portes, but by no means unique in her influence on her man.

There is nothing to be worried about in all this. To most of us these matters are the stuff of romantic novels more than anything. Woman as temptress is a storyline as old as history itself.
But there may be more to this than meets the eye. Evidence has accumulated that woman’s power to tempt and seduce is not just a matter of individual fate. It looks as if it is a characteristic of the species itself – in other words, it seems that man is programmed within his deepest genes to succumb to woman through all the ages. What scientists have found is that man becomes what woman wants. He is helpless by force of nature itself, not by chance or individual circumstance.

Dr Peter O’Donald and his colleagues at Cambridge University once completed a comprehensive study of females of the two-spot ladybird species called Adalia Bipunctata. This study showed enhanced female ladybird preference for the darker sort of male ladybird to the extent that this preference is doubled over four generations – conclusive proof that female prejudice for or against this, that, or the other male characteristic can be handed on from generation to generation. This explains, for instance, the peacock’s exotic tail growing in glory through the ages at the prompting of the supposedly drab little peahen. Have no doubt about it – he struts, she controls the strutting and always has.

The implications are not really surprising. We should have known. The male is pursued through the generations by a fateful fact of nature. From generation to generation women manipulate the genetic material, subtly, gradually, until they get what they want in their male counterparts. Without being aware of it the male is moulded to the liking of the female. He is caught in a genetic trap from which there is no escape. How she likes him best is how he is going to be. Sadly, however, this seems to be true only in the very long term. In the meanwhile man remains a pretty shoddy and unsatisfactory work in progress.


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