My parents never sat me down to discuss the birds & the bees, but I think I’ve got the basics down. You need a male parent and a female parent, their gametes fuse, an embryo develops, and, voila! You’ve got a kid! Or a grub, or a chick, what have you.
Although this process seems cooperative — if the kid grows big and strong, it’ll carry on both its parents’ genes — it’s cooperative the way shared-grade group projects in college are cooperative. Everyone wants to get an A, but the more work you can con your partner into doing, the better. The outcome is shared, but when it comes to divvying up the effort, your partner is your adversary.
In game theory, arrangements like this are notoriously slippery. As soon as one partner does a tiny bit more work than the other, that person has more to lose if the rest of the project doesn’t get done right. They’ve already invested more, and their investment will be wasted if nobody does the rest of the work.
A friend of mine was majoring in nonprofit management: most of her assignments were group projects. And she’s very bright. Rarely procrastinates. Which her assigned partners would typically notice — on the first day they’d plan out which tasks each person would do, then on the second day my friend would announce that she’d finished hers.
At that point, her partners would slough off more of their own work onto her — if they do nothing, they’ll all get a low score, sure… but she would get a low score despite having done as much work as somebody expecting to receive a high one. That’s worse! So she’d do far more than her fair share.
In terms of the biological mechanics of reproduction, K has put in far more effort than I have. The imbalance started early. Female gametes carry everything an embryo will need. Male gametes are worthless little things, just delivery mechanisms for DNA. And, like with my beleaguered friend, initial imbalance leads to more and more unfairness. Human females carry the developing fetus for nine months. They might breastfeed for years. Meanwhile the father is out cavorting with his new girlfriend, maybe dropping off some food from time to time.
Or, wait. I guess that’s not what I did. Despite investing little in my gametes, I became our family’s primary daytime parent, talking with N, cooking lunch, reading her books …
Genetics aren’t destiny. We don’t have to conform to the brutishness of the natural world. Still, I’m consciously ignoring what my genes would have me do.
So I’m not surprised that some bees have decided that men — shiftless freeloaders! — often aren’t worth the bother. There’s a type of bee that ditches males from time to time. Females fertilize their own eggs and carry on as a single-gendered colony. It’s not just bees that do this, either. Numerous species reproduce at least occasionally (for some of them, exclusively) by parthenogenesis: virgin birth. Instead of putting forth almost all the effort and getting half the credit for raising a kid, they go it alone.
I don’t blame them. If you’re not doing much more work, and your outcome is comparable (sexual reproduction gives more genetic variation than parthenogenesis, which can give a population more opportunities to survive in a changing environment — but, under stable circumstances, children mirroring their mothers is good enough), why carry the mooch?
Single parent offspring are also common throughout mythology. The phrase “virgin birth” makes most Westerners think of Mary, pregnant with Jesus despite no genetic input from a male, but, in mythology, the single parent is more often male. I think Wendy Doniger’s description of this contrast in Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts is charming:
In the medical texts, it is clear that women can procreate unilaterally but men cannot; in the myths, the situation is reversed, and men, but not women, are capable of unilateral procreation (albeit men do it into a “female” receptacle of some sort — any container at all).
Jesus was born to a single mother, but Eve was produced from the flesh of a man alone. During the birth of Athena, in Jane Ellen Harrison’s translation, “Her life as the lightning was flashed from the light of her Father’s head.” No help from Hera. In some versions of the Ramayana, Sita is birthed nasally by Ravana during a sneeze (ouch!). Prometheus, who created mankind and all the animals, was male. The rabbis who enlivened clay golems: all male. Even Victor Frankenstein, himself the creation of a female, sired a motherless child.
For Mary Shelley’s tale, she might’ve chosen a male creator because the idea of a female doctor seemed more fantastic than electricity quickening dead flesh. In traditional mythology, though, male writers likely gave male heroes supernatural powers because they wanted to feel special. According to Doniger,
In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation. The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it. Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb. The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.
In real life, female bodies are productive in a way that males are not, so my supposition is that the religious tales were inspired by envy.
Indeed, between scientists uncovering the genetic switches that allow females of other species to reproduce unilaterally, and the ease with which human embryos could be modified by CRISPR, human males might find themselves jettisoned from the species. Dudes had better start making themselves useful in other ways.