Why do men have nipples?

The male nipple - it is something most of us take for granted. "It is there because it is there!". Every other part of the human seems to serve some purpose, each specialized to perform a particular function. As a kid, I pondered over many such mundane things and the male nipple was a baffling one. I didn't get a satisfactory answer or rather any real answer, from anyone. It really wasn't the sort of question you could ask just anybody. A Maldivian primary school teacher would most certainly have laughed at a student who asked such a 'silly' question and would most likely not know of a proper answer anyway. I had had some bitter encounters while in the primary school educational system and had learnt to not ask unwanted questions (I remember being ridiculed for stating Newton's third law of motion - for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction - AND being laughed at for saying that all it takes to make a navigational compass is a magnet and that they work on the principle of the attraction to the magnetic field of the earth). Since this was before the Internet was publicly available in the Maldives and knowledge had to be meticulously extracted from books and large encyclopaedias. To my disappointment, none of the latter that I had shed any light on the matter...

It maybe most obvious why women have nipples but why do men too sport those two so familiar dots on their chests? Is it an element of deliberate design? Placed there for aesthetics? Are they left over remnants on the male body from a time when they weren't so redundant? Has it something to do with the specifics of genetics? The male nipple is one oddity that, in my view atleast, deserves an answer. After all, it is such oddities that often shed greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us!

What do YOU think the answer is?

Anyway, if it tickles your interest, here are some answers that may help you put the question to rest.
- Quite a thorough scientific answer at Scientific American: Ask the Experts
- A shorter answer at A moment of science - Indiana University

Bonobos, skepticism & chemical scum @ TED

The TED Talks from the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference is among my favourite online edutainment destinations and this month has seen them update the site with yet another collection of thought-provoking and informative talks from various top scientists and thinkers of today. I thought I'd give it a little exposure and drop in a mention of 3 random talks that I took a liking to...

I just watched a recently added talk titled "Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-Man" by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh. The talk is on Dr Susan's work on Bonobo apes - one of the closest hominid primates to humans. I've kept up an interest in Bonobos ever since I learnt of them (not too long ago!) and they've continued to fascinate me. They are quite similar to us in that they share more than 98% of DNA, they are tail-less and walk upright/bipedally. They've demonstrated the ability to understand when talked to, communicate via writing and fashion tools. They display altruistic behaviour, are compassionate and kind, care for their offspring pretty much the same as humans and live peacefully. Infact, their motto literally seems to be "Make Love, Not War". They are also understood to possess some of the fundamental ingredients to an intelligent society - culture and concepts of equality of individuals. Interestingly enough, unlike how human cultures have mostly been thus far, the bonobo culture is matriarchal!
- Check out the talk by Dr. Susan

I adore the Skeptics magazine published by the Skeptics Society. Its founder, Dr. Michael Shermer, gave a very engaging talk titled "Why people believe strange things". There's an abundance of supernatural claims and pseudo-science that litters our societies and his talk goes through some of the common claims - dowsing, creationism, UFOs, crop circles, so-called miracles and the rest of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. He encourages critical, rational thought and scientific scrutiny.
- Check out the talk by Dr. Shermer

Chemical Scum
Prof. David Deutsch, whom I had mentioned about in a previous post, delivers a rough painting of the cosmos and where we stand respective to it in a light talk titled "What is our place in the cosmos?". He draws on the contents of the universe and bodies within it, the distances between objects and the ability of the scientific method to explain and model the vast and complex universe. The brain, he says, has the tools needed for solving almost any problem: knowledge, creativity and reason. A very inspiring speech!
- Check out the talk by Prof. Deutsch

Enjoy ;-)

Adam's Curse

I just finished one of the most captivating, enlightening and exciting books I've read lately... no, make that ever! Seriously, this book makes you wonder and belittles you. It also makes you think about a lot of different other things in life...

Whoa. I've been raving on without even mentioning the name of the book eh!? My apologies. The book is called "Adam's Curse", written by Professor Bryan Sykes, a genetist. Mind you, this aint no Harry Potter and aint no LOTR either! It's total non-fiction science narrated in a most engaging style.

The book is about the sexes and goes on from a humble introduction to the animal genetics and the rise of the sexes, especially in humans. After quenching the questions on the need for the sexes, how it came about and why there are only two sexes to be seen, the book then goes onto introduce the X and Y chromosomes. The X and Y chromosome is then chopped into tiny bits, detailing the discoveries of the intricate details of these then elusive sex chromosomes.

This is where it starts to get interesting. The details of the Y chromosome reveal utter truths about itself - its a barren war zone! It's incapable of recombination. It has a high mutation rate. And more importantly (and amazingly), how it was discovered that the default gender of a human baby is always female! A male is produced by the flick of a genetic "switch" by a single gene named SRY, but the story of the sexes goes more deeper. The female X chromosome and the male Y chromosome is ALWAYS at battle with each other. Apparently, this fight for survival lead to many things... including making the Y chromosome resilient, tough and highly aggresive. Prof. Sykes takes the invasions by the Vikings and other conquests by rulers (all of them males of course) as an example of the Y chromosome's need to spread itself and dominate.

In the later chapters, the author explores various ways in which the X chromosome is brutally working to dominate over the Y chromosome and paints a picture of the future for men - which according to him is quite bleak. Then it tells how the X chromosome fought back. How some females seemed to produce more girls than boys. How X chromosomes makes life hard or impossible for Y chromosomes. Like how X chromosomes silently kill Y chromosomes (males) by hindering the performance of the Y chromosone containing sperm, or causing miscarriages for male babies. The diminishing rate of male fertility shown by statistics is also brought up. Gay behaviour is visited as well, discussing whether it maybe genetic or not, whether it is a direct manipulation by the X chromosomes. In effect, the author says, the female X chromosome is winning he evolutionary battle!

He then explores various interventions we could and may make and also how nature - how Gaia - would react. He goes as far as suggesting a future without men entirely and recommends the elimination of the male gender for a more harmonious world! In the finishing pages of the book, he explores how the rapidly mutating and beaten up Y chromosome maybe saved and enhanced to sustain the male sex.

The book is truly truly an eye-opener. It made me think deeper than a philosophy discourse ever made me... Far more thoughts induced in me than I can list here. We obsess about our freedom and intellect, yet genetics proves something more fundamental - some thing far more influential for our behaviour and actions. We are driven by the tiny DNA and chromosomes we carry and they have a lot more say on the choices and decisions we make - unconsciously but surely.