On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

Juvenile_Smooth_Guarding_Frog_(Limnonectes_palavanensis)_maybe-_(6967250574)Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate.  This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded.  But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch.  Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.

Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate.  Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.

Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths?  If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes.  Or even entire worlds.

Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.

*

Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species.  Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child.  From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.

But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females.  So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.

From Edward Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

9780465082957In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males.  Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all.  Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”

One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence.  “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse.  I copulated with my hand.”

In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors.  Yahweh creates the world alone.  Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.

The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head.  In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.

(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction?  How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)

Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents.  Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not.  So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential.  Women were not.

From Wendy Doniger’s Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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 The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes.  In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device.  When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos.  After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.

Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog.  He was a Catholic priest.  Priesthood was different in those days.

rogersShortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail.  This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until

that one definite moment

When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time

And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,

Bearing now in the white water of the moon

The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.

We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.”  And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn.  I made that!”

The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.

Then we talked about embryology.  I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments.  Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs.  He wore gloves.  The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.

*

Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus.  From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:

419Nh3Un2WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’ 

Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged.  Which implied the converse.  If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul.  Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.

Children needed to be protected from their mothers.  Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.

For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well.  A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not.  After all, sex itself was sin.  And children were rarely engendered without sex.  To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.

These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb.  Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination!  And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.

lamb

*

And yet.  A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior.  Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.

Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby.  “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”

. . .

Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution.  All those men are considered the child’s father.  Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”

*

Biology isn’t destiny.  Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way.  A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.

 

******

post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.

From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.

As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”

Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women.  If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt!  Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”?  Less murky, sure.  Totally exposed to the light.  But it also looks nightmarish.

 

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.