The Lottery Of Life

Sixth instalment - highly heritable traits

Highly heritable traits that your parents pinned on you – number one

If I haven’t already made this plain, I’ll reiterate that it is not my contention that one’s luck in the lottery of life is determined entirely by one’s genes. 

However I do contend that the 20,000 or so genes that a person is provided with at conception, half from the mother and half from the father, exert a powerful influence in many areas; and in some crucially significant respects those genes are the only determinants.

In this instalment I’ll concentrate on just one trait that is entirely decided by genetics: sex.

Every human cell contains twenty-three pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two of these, known as autosomes, carry genetic information in the form of DNA arranged symmetrically; the twenty-third pair, the allosomes, differ from autosomes in that they contain the sex chromosomes. An egg always contains an X chromosome; a sperm may have an X or a Y. Therefore when the sperm and the egg combine at conception the resulting embryo will have either two X chromosomes or an X and a Y; the former will become female foetuses, the latter male.

I know: I am ignoring the rare cases of intersex embryos, for instance those with more than two sex chromosomes. I’m also ignoring the rare cases of disruption of usual sex determination due to chemical changes in the womb. I’m ignoring them because they’re rare, and therefore not relevant to the main thrust of my argument. At birth, just about everyone is a boy or a girl; whether you’re a boy or a girl was decided by those sex hormones.

Whether a person is male or female is a fundamental trait. It’s about as fundamental as a trait can be. And it has a significant effect on how much luck a person is provided with in the lottery of life.

I hesitate to use the word patriarchy. No, that’s not true. I don’t. Pretty much every country in the world is a patriarchy: men own most of the wealth and hold most of the positions of power.

I am aware that there are some lunatic incels and far-right conspiracy theorists who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, purport to believe that women – and in particular ‘feminazis’ and ‘stacys’ – rule the world. This obviously is bollocks and hardly worth refuting, but just in case anyone reading this needs to be convinced I’ll set out below some boring statistics.

In June 2023 a report for the World Economic Forum concluded that worldwide the gender gap – which represents mainly income – stood at 68%. In other words, women had on average two-thirds the income of men.

Not surprisingly the gap varies considerably from country to country. In the USA women on average earn 80% of male earnings. In Pakistan those women who work (and many do not) earn 16% of male earnings: women make up 90% of the lowest-paid 1% in Pakistan. The situation is of course even worse in Afghanistan, where women are almost entirely forbidden to work.

There are all sorts of other gender gaps. All but one of the highest-earning athletes and sportsmen are men. The highest-earning female film actor earnt less than half of that earnt by the highest-earning male film actor. In the UK 20% of women are victims of sexual assault in their lifetime (as opposed to 5% of men); over 27% of women experience domestic abuse (14% of men); 20% of women experience stalking (10% of men). In many countries the legal system discriminates against women (in Saudi Arabia a woman cannot marry, start a business, be released from prison or seek an abortion without the consent of a male relative). In many countries the system of landholding ensures that almost all land is owned by men. In the UK, 40% of the top 100 companies do not have a woman in any of their top four executive roles.

There are a few countries in Europe where girls now have higher educational achievement than boys; a few national assemblies where there are as many woman politicians as men. But I could fill pages with examples, from every country, in every area – wealth, income, legal rights, political representation, domestic violence, sexual violence, business ownership – of women treated less favourably than men. In many cases so much less favourably that it’s difficult to regard women’s lives as tolerable.

I conclude, therefore, that wherever in the world a person was born, that person had good luck if male, and bad luck if female. The midwife’s announcement ‘It’s a boy!’ heralds the entry into the world of a privileged individual.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that this one factor – a person’s sex – determines his or her destiny. In every society there are examples of women who achieve prominence and wealth (and of men who do badly). In the UK we have had two female prime ministers; there are a few women who run large public companies; others have vast wealth. My point is that in general, everywhere in the world, men fare better than women. Those women who do better than most men in any society or country have the benefit of good-luck factors that far outweigh the sex disadvantage. As I’ll explain in future instalments, one’s luck in the lottery of life is made up of many ingredients. But few of those ingredients are more significant than sex.

In the next instalment I’ll consider one more trait that is determined almost entirely by genetics: skin colour.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.