On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.


More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On unilateral reproduction.

On unilateral reproduction.

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.

group-project-2-300x225At 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.

Capture.JPGSo 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:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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.

On Y chromosomes, surnames, and reproduction.

On Y chromosomes, surnames, and reproduction.

Invisible-History-Human-Race_Author-ImageFor me, the most interesting section of Christine Kenneally’s “The Invisible History of the Human Race” was the section on Y chromosomes.  Because, sure, if I’d spent a moment thinking about it I would have realized that sons of sons of sons carry the same Y chromosomes as their forebears… but it isn’t something I’d bothered thinking about.

But the connection that was most interesting for me – and, yeah, also retrospectively obvious – was that in a patriarchally-named society, surnames will make the same journey as Y chromosomes.

They are coupled throughout time, in ways that researchers have investigated for, say, Scottish clans: a sort of scientific validation for the lineage claims that even in modern times are accompanied by property rights.  From Kenneally’s book:

“It wasn’t until 1957 that the ancient chiefly Arms were finally officially recorded.  Donald’s father assembled a significant amount of evidence to prove that he was in fact descended from the last known MacLaren chief, and he presented it to the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, the Scottish heraldic authority that rules on title and is famously rigorous in its judgement.  The court decreed that Donald’s father had indeed descended from the last-known chief of Clan MacLaren.  When he was made chief, he acquired the legal title to some of the clan lands at Balquhidder that had been lost a few centuries earlier, including the famous Creag an Tuirc, the Clan’s rallying point from earliest times.  When he died in 1966, his three golden feathers were passed on to his eleven-year-old son, now the twenty-fifth chief since Labhran.”

Obviously the evidence presented at the time, as described in the above paragraph, did not include DNA testing – but apparently the MacLarens have been quite involved in DNA testing recently, and current results correlate with the prior historical claims.

The interesting thing to me is that names, and land, and Y chromosomes, all traveled together.  There has long been the sense that sons are special – even in western cultures, where to me it has not seemed like sons provide for their aging parents any better late in life than daughters do – with the idea that some special spark is passed from fathers to their sons.  And the journey of names reflects that.

And, right – now might be a reasonable time to mention that when K and I married, neither of us changed our names.  And we gave N a surname distinct from either of ours.  I am not particularly keen on the idea of patriarchy, and didn’t want to make my own contribution to that system of beliefs by giving my daughter her father’s name.  And, sure, some people pass along a mother’s name instead, but I personally don’t feel like the solution to a patriarchy is to institute practices that we’d have in a matriarchy…although in the short term it does seem reasonable.

(Like, okay, affirmative action in hiring – I assume that most people think that in an ideal world, employers wouldn’t care about your ethnicity and so affirmative action would not be needed.  But given that you can find numerous studies on racist hiring decisions – every few years there are articles about the effect of stereotypically black names in America, and here is a similar study on the effect of African/Arabic names on hiring decisions in Sweden – it seems like affirmative action is definitely still a worthwhile policy in many countries.

And that’s in cases where there is an equivalence between CVs, etc., between people with different names.  You could make a much stronger argument by suggesting that employers should care most about a person’s ability to make the best of their circumstances, or overcome challenges, so if race were correlated with a difference in material advantages at birth, you’d not only want to preference minority applicants with equivalent CVs, but also those who might appear slightly worse based on numerically-documented facts on a job application.)

So, N has a new name.  She does have some amount of my genetic material, though.  Almost 50%.  So there’s that.

Although you could make an argument for using more of the trappings of matriarchy in cultural decisions.  Especially as reproductive science moves forward – it isn’t difficult to imagine a world that doesn’t need men.  Which isn’t just a joke, although I do recall their being a good joke-y treatment of this in a dialogue at the beginning of “Roger Dodger.”  Because you can produce mammalian offspring without the aid of men  – yeah, you need to deliver the genetic material in a laboratory instead of having it be carried by sperm, but is that such a big cost?  Already many couples in the U.S. employ the help of laboratory personnel for reproduction.

And, yes, recently it’s proven possible to engender children with the nuclear genetic material of two males, but this technique still requires a mother to carry the embryo, and a female to provide the egg (and the mitochondrial DNA, although presumably you could develop a technique to displace the mother’s mitochondria with those of one of the fathers).  So you could have a world without men, and humans would be able to propagate, but at the moment a world without women wouldn’t work.

(Bonus parenthetic insert!  Because I already have one exceedingly-long parenthetical inserts in this essay already – why not another one?

Many of those laboratory techniques to aid in reproduction were developed by men, and many of the doctors implementing them are men.  So is it unreasonable to think that this may have influenced the remunerations received by sperm donors, which are relatively high given the low risks and low time input after initial screening, versus those received by women, which are pretty crappy… crappy in a way reminiscent of the low prices flowing to organ donors.  Egg donors, like organ donors, tend to be impoverished and relatively un-educated.  And it seems that there has been collusion on the part of medical providers to keep compensation low.  From Kimberly Krawiec’s analysis of gamete markets:

“In February 1998, the Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey set off a firestorm of controversy when it placed advertisements in several New York-area publications offering potential egg donors $5000, twice the $2500 that the center had been paying.  The firestorm was provoked not because Saint Barnabas proposed to pay egg donors for their services, which it and other fertility clinics had been doing for years, but because the proposed payment increases were made in violation of an alleged understanding among New York-area fertility centers to pay no more than $2500 for eggs.  The ensuing debate (during which many fertility doctors openly discussed the need to control egg prices) quickly garnered newspaper and other media attention, and generated arguments in major medical journals.”)

And yet, despite the fact that reproduction from women alone is much more reasonable than reproduction from men alone, the production of offspring from men appears much more often in mythology.  There’s Zeus, creating Athena from his head.  A similar story associated with the Ramayana, in which Ravana created Sita with a sneeze.

Presumably men throughout time have felt bad about their limited role in propagation of the species and created stories to celebrate that men could have an important role… they just often don’t.

And there are others: Shiva created a mountain range by ejaculating onto the ground.  The sage Bharadwaja saw a beautiful woman bathing and ejaculated into a basket, creating his son Drona.

Which, right, scientifically seems ridiculous – children arising from spilt sperm?  Eggs, maybe… but sperm?  So naturally I had to include the phenomenon in my work.  As a twist on the very-real possibility of a world propagated by women alone, and a nod to the underlying mythology.