a bird and a bottle


From Zeus to Hammerheads
May 23, 2007, 10:49 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, frivolity, news, sexuality

The NY Times today ran what is bar none the most interesting article I’ve seen in a very very long time.

Turns out, that parthenogenic reproduction is not just the stuff of Greek myth. It actually happens! And not just in plants. In vertebrates too.

According to the Times, a female hammerhead shark recently gave birth to a baby shark that has no male DNA. How does such a thing happen? Well, it goes a little something like this:

the female shark’s own genetic material combined during the process of cell division that produces an egg. A cell called the secondary oocyte, which contains half the female chromosomes and normally becomes the egg, fused with another cell called the secondary polar body, which contains the identical genetic material.

Whoa. What’s funny to me about this is that there was recently a flurry of news about the possibility of parthenogenic reproduction in other animals.

What’s interesting to me is this: the first — or at least most famous — instance of parthenogenesis is the birth of Athena, fully formed, from Zeus’s head. Athena had no mother. Parthenogenesis, in Greek times, wrote women totally out of the picture. But today that equation is reversed. Now it is men’s role that parthenogensis threatens. If reproduction can take place without the contribution of men, might that make men obsolete?

And what, I wonder, would that mean for the raging debates around human sexuality today? If, sexually speaking, men were less important for reproduction than for sexual pleasure, might we lose some of our puritanism? It’s sci fi for now, but I can’t help but wonder….

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8 Comments so far
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There are several reptiles that reproduce by parthenogenesis, too. The normal route is for the single sex to be female, but komodo dragons sometimes have males reproduce parthenogenetically, too.

You can write sci-fi about a world where all humans are female… but it’s incredibly hard to do it non-polemically. How does an all-female population handle its sexual urges, for example? And, given that scientists will have to keep cultivating viable sperm, won’t anyone get curious and try breeding a male? There are two ways around those problems. I’m not even sure the corpus of human knowledge of psychology and sociology has enough material to make such a setting realistic.

Comment by Alon Levy

I don’t think that I want to imagine an all-female world. Rather, I think it’s interesting to imagine a world in which men are not needed for reproduction specifically. What would that do to our power dynamic?

Comment by bean

You can write sci-fi about a world where all humans are female

Check out The Female Man by Joanna Russ, which is partly about this (there are four parallel worlds, one of which is all-female). It is decidedly a feminist polemic, and a great one, rather than an attempt at realistic SF. There’s a good review here (most of the reviews I found were written by men).

Comment by Matt Weiner

I don’t think that I want to imagine an all-female world. Rather, I think it’s interesting to imagine a world in which men are not needed for reproduction specifically. What would that do to our power dynamic?

Ah… in that case, I don’t think it’ll change much. Women can already get artificially inseminated. Men are still needed for sperm, but the individual woman who uses artificial insemination doesn’t need to go through the motions involved in traditional motherhood.

Now if it were possible for women to have children without getting pregnant… then a lot of social structures would change almost overnight.

Comment by Alon Levy

How does an all-female population handle its sexual urges, for example?

Masturbation? Lesbianism? In a world with no men, women who would otherwise be hetero would not have any knowledge or sight of men, right?

Comment by cici

They’d have knowledge of men… when most other animals reproduce sexually, including all of the species most closely related to humans, it’s impossible for a human society to pretend parthenogenesis is the only way to go.

Comment by Alon Levy

Interesting – but what if all the other animals reproduced through parthenogenesis as well?

Don’t want to drag on forever, but I just think it’s a neat idea.

Comment by cici

That’s not something technology can do… the species that reproduce parthenogenetically don’t even come close to being able to sustain an ecosystem on their own. It’s possible to make a few species reproduce parthenogenetically, but the level of control required makes it infeasible for a whole ecosystem.

Comment by Alon Levy




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