SRY Gene – Master Switch

‘In most species, including ourselves, both male and female contain most of the genes for being either male or female. The differences lie in which genes are turned on. We all have the genes for making penises and genes for making uteruses, regardless of our sex.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘The SRY gene begins a whole cascade of events that leads to the masculinisation of the embryo. Rarely can a single gene have acquired such power. Although it only throws a switch, much else follows from that. The genitals grow to look like a penis and testes, the shape and consitution of the body are altered from female – (the default in our species though not in birds and butterflies) and various hormones go to work in the brain…. its sequence is remarkably consistent between different men: there are virtually no point mutations (i.e. one-letter spelling differences) in the human race. SRY is, in that sense, a variation free gene that has changed almost not at all since the last common ancestor of all people 200,000 years ago’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

SRY Gene

First, we are all women -

in the coded dark of possibility,

warm red mother-soup;

limb buds,

kitten eyes -

the male called forth

from sleeping genes;

sparkling fairylight chain

of chemical switches -

as androgynous clay bodies

sex under sculptors’ hands.

Latent muscles plumping,

hair seeds planting skin -

hallmark organs


a hormonal brain-bath

altering the sex chemistry -

so much gentleness shed,

washing away into water.

First we are all women -

the woman inside the man;

his first smouldering root -

like a ghost of his mother

who loves him more than herself;

giving permission to cry,

soften -

pleading with his hands to remember,

above all, the trusting clutch of his child -

earth, flowers, music in his fingers;

his skill, consummation in art.

Understanding how the cursed spirit of metal -

swords dreaming of being ploughshares -

museum guns with nightmares still,

printed with the trembling hands of boys;

hating their own bodies, forged

from past lives of peace, in gardens, on stoves -

bullets feeling their streamlined DNA,

irreducible design -

dreading the neverending splinter

and blood in silver heads,

trying to hold their breath,

just keep everything in -

still haunts him into new centuries.

She thought it would all be done by now,

must keep defining strength for him -

and he hears in his doctor-hands,

father-hands - seeing his child’s face

printed in all the world’s children -

turning his stupendous brain to good use;

recognising at last the proper mother

of invention is helping this planet

to be better, safer - all people;

who have no idea why they are here.

She will always be with him.

I never knew a man who did not like a dress

I never knew a man who did not like a dress;

wearing a butterfly over his usual dull moth -

liberating feel of the fabric, swirling watery slip

over a cool naked leg - daring air invading skin,

to the hug of black satin knickers; excitingly silken,

tickling with alien lace - but so elasticated and firm.

Mascara, liner, jumping his eyes more lovely -

such luxury hair, decorative dangle and sparkle;

the glistening moisture of glossy pink lips pursed;

inconvenient shoes - poised on a dangerous spike.

And such weird, horrific beauty - big-nosed, jolie-

laide - and suddenly, that ghost of his own mother.

All bearing him up like crutches,

relieving him of brute maleness -

the crippling roughness, coarseness of it;

rehearsing the forgotten womb dreams -

the possible woman; before these genes came

with their muscle, hair and emotional silence -

this burden of testosterone –

dragged him from his mother,

who could still feel him inside;

and he, her she; now being his.

I never knew a man who did not like women’s magazines -

reading them as encyclopaediae, learning what he can’t ask;

because he finds them more interesting than his own,

because he relaxes with women better, as all men do.

Just wants shelter from what happens when men and men

and men rule the world; and he, enslaved in the patriarchy.

‘EXPLORING XX MALES A newly discovered growth factor might play a vital role in sex determination. Carrying an X and a Y chromosome does not necessarily make you male. Maleness is driven by the SRY gene on the Y chromosome, so if SRY is mutated, development proceeds along the default, female pathway – a condition termed XY sex reversal. Rarely, XX (female to male) sex reversal can occur, usually due to translocation of SRY to another chromosome. A new player in the balance between male and female development has been identified by an Italian team studying XX males. These males did not have the SRY gene, but did have mutations in the RSPO1 gene, encoding a growth factor called R-spondin1. Why should these mutations cause maleness? Normally, SRY activates the Sox9 gene, which turns on the testis development pathway and is stabilised in the gonad by Fgf9. Conversely, the gonad can be pushed towards ovary development by the Wnt and b-catenin pathways, which antagonise Fgf9. The new research suggests that R-spondin1 works with Wnt and b-catenin genes in repressing the male pathway, so if RSPO1 is mutated, the balance will tilt towards Fgf9 and Sox9, and testes will develop.’ Wellcome Trust, 2007

‘Darwin’s representation of Nature as female in the Origin (though in a common enough rhetorical tradition) seems to lead his thought forward into this later phase of his argument.’ Gillian Beer, Introduction to the Origin of Species, 1859, Oxford University Press, 1988

Of course Nature is a Woman

Of course Nature is a woman,

she, female -

her genome is Creation;

purpose, the green and creatures.

Earth is always pregnant -

light is he.

‘… in many ancient paintings, foliage hides more than Adam’s genitalia; a wandering vine covers his navel as well… a very different motive – mystery - placed a plant over his belly. In theological debate… many earnest people of faith had wondered whether Adam had a navel. He was, after all, not born of a woman and required no remnant of his nonexistent umbilical cord. Yet, in creating a prototype, would not God make his first man like all the rest to follow? Would God, in other words, not create with the appearance of preexistence?.... many painters literaly hedged and covered Adam’s belly.’ Stephen Jay Gould, Research Biologist, Hen’s Teeth and Horses’s Toes, WW Norton, 1990

‘And there are some of us with/ the tent flap vestige of vaginal lips around the standard/ penis…’ Albert Goldbarth, Vestigial

‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ Genesis 1, The Bible

‘What, however, is the difference between miracle and magic? Is it simply a matter of the particular deity involved? Is it perhaps even a matter of the gender of that deity? An interesting change of myth does seem to have been occurring here, as the Sky God – whom many see as loving and working with the Earth Goddess – began to be seen as finally rejecting her, viewing her as a dangerous rival and insisting that he must reign alone. The imagery of a female nature, a force working under God, which had been largely accepted or at least tolerated by earlier Christian sages, now became blacklisted as hostile both to faith and science…disturbing.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

First, we are all women - A genetic legend, filtered through female storytellers

Man was born of woman.

God breathed Eve out of his fertile mouth

like a glassblower -

as he had breathed life into gas, dust;

coaxing his dreams of water and air

from imagination,

a mouthful of earth.

She came burningly clear -

light solidifying into liquid;

turning white, black -

shell-skin crust

blushing with blood;

paperweight flowers set

in the crying glass of her molten eyes,

her lips printed with kissing limpets -

a young red rose shuddering

in metamorphosis to a heart.    

And she understood creativity;

understood loneliness - so God

took a mould of Eve and sculpted a man

to fit, labouring him out of earth and water.

But before he was perfectly dry, Adam woke,

ignoring Paradise in his jealousy of Eve -

for she had the power of life within her own;

hers was the body that truly understood -

God reasoned with him about the importance of seed -

pointing to the happiness of plants holding damp handfuls

of newborns aloft to sun, blue sky, with perennial joy.

But Adam felt cheated - so much the same but without

Eve’s trick - God’s best trick he gave solely to her;

his useless nipples aping hers, his symbolic belly port

that would have no fruit - no blood rope plugged.

So he broke out his own rib while Eve was sleeping

to make a weapon for his rage, for trees refused their limbs,

stones their bodies. And Adam threatened God’s world -

animals and plants, the very earth and water from which

he had been made - if God did not make him in charge -

invent patriarchy. And what could God do,

when he so loved the world, and wayward Adam too,

and wanted no weapons -

for God had no nightmares then.

But Eve stirred from the first bad dream, caught God

with the rib still in his hand, and Adam pointed,

saying: ‘From my rib, Woman, you were made’.

Eve looked at God, both knowing it was not true,

but wanting peace, so Eve accepted his story for God

and the world’s sake; and when Adam tasted the apple

then blamed it on her, (all sister animals and plants knew

it wasn’t true); when Adam reneged on his deal with God,

found other ways of making weapons, harm,

cursed the very soil and water of his body -

Eve’s daughters forgot the real story of their mother;

for the sons of Adam were dominant, told their own story

to excuse any suffering among the daughters of the world.

God, who so loved the world, was caught in Free Will’s

sacred prison - through all these male centuries of war,

destruction, enduring His life sentence - now, desperately

dreaming mouth to mouth resuscitation

of his wrecked, wounded garden – Earth.

And a time of women - of mothers, who understand

how he loves his children; every last animal and leaf.

God the Mother (You Know it Makes Sense)

God the Father

seems far more likely to be God the Mother -

if such concepts, gendered principles,

can be employed at all regarding the divine.

But even symbolically,

as a more fitting metaphor -

bearing in mind

it is women who can pull off the same trick;

have knowledge of the gift – the bringing forth life

thing - out of nothing.

‘In the butterfly Acrea encedon…the sex ratio is ninety-seven per cent female…this is just one of many cases known of this form of evolutionary conflict, known as sex-chromosome drive.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

Acrea Encedon Butterflies

Acrea encedon butterflies are 97% female

Are there wars among butterflies -

girls with gorgeous clothes printed on their skin;

Roberto Cavalli’s dreams

on sliver-thin figure-of-wings.

Sugar-food sipped straight,

delicately from scented flower cups;

like liquid chocolate in porcelain bowls,

served at the Ritz with a curling straw.

Living the chick flick plot

of certain, feather-light beauty

inside the plump, feasting beastie,

after an easy diet of sleep

in a silken cocoon  -

always that happy ending.

Would bitching, competitive shopping

for the new season’s flowers -

must-have Lady’s Purse clutch,

limited edition Snapdragon bag;    

Lady’s Slippers, Foxgloves,

Bluebell cloche,

all accessorised with gold pollen,

ever be to die for?

Arguments over airspace,

garden boundaries -

dandelion wine versus jasmine champagne -

ever be enough to overcome

such pleasures of opening to the sun,

remembering that first orgasmic time

when wings came;

with blind painted eyes

swimming blue sky bowls,

fluttering to the next sweet girly treat -

flowers wrapping themselves in bright colours,

their exquisite gold gifts -

trying to be the packaging everybody wants seen with.

Could it ever be more important than modelling

nature’s best fabrics, most fantastic patterns;

being living swatches,

learning Earth’s sumptuous floral vocabulary -

pity for fashion victims

shivering in rain-ruined body-frocks

among the last, sale-price, soiled Buddleia

before the bushes close for winter.

Could it ever override this passion for eggs,

strangely dreaming in green leaf beds

of wings -

sparks flying from Nature’s smouldering concept

of beauty;

born grubby caterpillars,

looking - confused, humble, ugly -

at fluttering mummies in sky and light;

mostly wings,

mostly matrix

for pure atoms of ruthless beauty -

just a black hinge,

heart and mouth left,

to keep her luxurious creature,

flying embroidery;

scrap of spirit

written with life –

like finding an angel is your mother,

who cannot explain

her own mystery and symbol,

just is it.

Would any of this ever be reason

enough to kill another girl’s children;

do that to another butterfly mother -

with love in their hearts,

there can be no more men,

just in case.

Butterflies begin as men,

becoming women -

onward to wings,

a life of flowers.

Men begin as women,

becoming men -

downward to guns;

a life of violence.

‘Men and women most prefer (or least dislike) the body odour of the opposite sex who are most different from them genetically. Wederkind and Furi looked at MHC genes on chromosome 6, which are the genes involved in the definition of self and the recognition of parasitic intruders by the immune system… only women on the contraceptive pill failed to show a clear preference for different MHC genotypes in male-impregnanted T-shirt armpits.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

It is not the white intoxication of lilies

It is not the white intoxication of lilies;

dreamy sugars infecting empty rooms -

perfume quickened into airborne drug,

but a conspiracy of genes mugging

senses - colonising eyes - exhaling

scent haloes like bee-loving flowers.

Making us believe love exists -

in talk and music - food, touch,

when they have decided, not us.

And we may not agree -

we vehicles, us stooges, 

clutching our wee hearts,

sighing under a swoony moon;

fooled by such elaborate ploys,

to ensure their personal survival.

‘Through the smells of the bog, I caught the subtle perfume of butterfly wings on my fingers, a perfume which varies with the species – vanilla, or lemon, or musk, or a musty sweetish odor difficult to define.’ Vladimir Nabokov, autobiography, Speak, Memory, Penguin Books, 1969

‘It is not surprising that police dogs can smell the difference between any two human beings except identical twins. Our sweat contains a complicated cocktail of proteins; and the precise details of all proteins are minutely specified by the coded DNA insturctions that are our genes.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

Even your breath is different

Even your breath is different -

smelling of moss, turned earth;

even now in the horribly pongy

Twenty-First Century - stinking

deodorant, emetic air-freshener,

chokin’, boggin’ ‘body spray’ -

women spraying their fannies

for fuck’s sake - made to feel

shadowy vegetation smell

is like hair, flesh – affront

to modern womanhood.

Men stuffing your nose

with ‘Colossus’ or ‘Apollo’ -God’ -

aftershave; smothering masked genes

Nature helps us choose

after millennia of dates,

romance, experiment -

our underarms hingin’

with plastic flower smell,

bunches of android roses

squirted in the pit, just in case

anyone gets a whiff of real us.

And maybe that’s why women

make so many wrong choices -

no longer able to smell clearly -

instinctive, with natural guidance;

no-one naked anymore,

where I bury myself -

in that earth-smell, man-smell;

me with my flowers and seeds.

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
    X & Y
        Y Chromosome
        SRY Gene – Master Switch
        Sex Wars
        X Chromosome
        Some notes on the
        Gender of Science

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