The Feminist Egg

Once upon a time, I suppose that one of the characteristics of Age was its hubris. After a certain age, it was easy to dismiss most new things as mere variations on time-tested themes –additions, clever perhaps, intriguing even, but still accretions. Ecclesiastes lived in old minds: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. And yet nowadays, even the quickest peek over the shoulder calls that into question. Maybe it always did, but without the publicity it now entertains.

New things –truly new things- are often the hardest to accept, especially if they fly in the  face of cherished beliefs sufficiently entrenched as to be regarded as not merely true, but obviously true -common sense, in fact. It took generations to accept evolution –and now it seems only sensible that the random acquisition of those traits that help survival will be the ones selected for in the next generation. It was not an upwardly purposeful spiral that inevitably led to homo sapiens; evolution doesn’t change cows to humans –it just eventually creates cows better able to survive in whatever milieu they find themselves. And randomly –the unfit are still granted existence, but if they are not suited, they pass on little benefit to their progeny.

It’s true that animals –mammals, especially- do attempt to influence desirable traits in their offspring by choosing healthy partners exhibiting those characteristics. Hence various mating rituals and dominance contests amongst the males; hence elaborate male bird plumage, presumably a proxy, recognizable by a receptive female, as indicative of a primus inter pares. And yet it was probably regarded as curious in premodern societies that a female would be accorded any important choice, let alone that of selecting what she wanted in a partner. Although there has always been a cadre of women who have made their marks throughout recorded history, the examples are sadly limited –curtailed no doubt, because it was usually men writing about what they felt was important to document.

Fortunately, times are changing, as is the realization that each side of the gender divide is equipotent. Just how fluid the roles are is a constant source of wonder to me. Even in these days of Darwin, I am amazed at the still unsuspected porosity of the envelope. And while it no longer seems unusual or unlikely that an information-processing organism like, say, a bird might be able to select an appropriately endowed mate based on observable clues, it is still surprising –to me, at least- that selection duties might be conferred on a more microscopic scale: on an egg, for example.

I first encountered this idea in an article from Quanta Magazine: https://www.quantamagazine.org/choosy-eggs-may-pick-sperm-for-their-genes-defying-mendels-law-20171115/  I have to say it reminded me of Hamlet’s rejoinder to the sceptical Horatio on seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

The competition in sexual selection was thought to be pre-copulatory –‘After mating, the female had made her choice, and the only competition was among the sperm swimming to the egg. This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. “The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively ‘is transported’…along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined’ and invariably active,” she wrote.

‘Beginning in the 1970s, however, the science began to undermine that stereotype. William Eberhard, now a behavioural ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, documented all the ways that females can affect which males fertilize their eggs even after mating.’ For example, ‘Internal fertilizers have their own methods of what Eberhard dubbed “cryptic female choice.” Some female reproductive tracts are labyrinthine, complete with false starts and dead ends that can stymie all but the strongest sperm. Some females, including many species of reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians, that copulate with more than one male (which biologists estimate are a vast majority of species) can store sperm for months, even years, altering the storage environment to stack the odds to favor one male over another. Many female birds, including domestic chickens, can eject sperm after mating , which lets them bias fertilization in favor of the best male.’

The plot thickens. These strategies seem only to select whose sperm to allow access to the precious as-yet unfertilized eggs. But even sperm from the same individual can vary. So, are things just left to chance? Are we still talking Darwin here? And are the combination probabilities proposed by Mendel that depend on randomness still in the picture?

It would seem that the egg itself may have a say in which sperm it uses, and that unlike the voting system in many democracies, it may not be just the ‘first past the post’ -the marathon winner- who gets the prize.

The article presents several theories as to how the egg may be able to ‘choose’, but as yet there seems to be no clear indication as to whether it always happens, or whether it is just able to weed out some potentially damaging or clearly unsuitable ones by the signals they emit –or fail to emit… Sometimes, anyway. Mistakes clearly occur; abnormal genes do manage to slip through, leading to abnormal embryos –some of which are unable to develop enough to survive.

But that there may be yet another layer of protection built into the system –another unsuspected surveillance system- is what intrigues me. And that, once again, it seems to invest the power of a truly critical decision with the female is a cautionary tale for those who cling to the shredding coattails of androcentrism. It is simply another piece of evidence, if more were needed, that Life and all that it enables, is not a zero sum game. It is not a contest between genders, but a journey together. Still…

Let there be spaces in your togetherness.                                                                                      And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but each one of you be
alone – even as the strings of a lute are alone though the quiver
with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows. –Kahlil Gibran –

I couldn’t resist.

 

 

 

 

 

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Is there really nothing new under the sun?

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. The older I get, the more I understand the wisdom of that passage from Ecclesiastes. It’s not that I have experienced everything, seen everything, and I certainly haven’t thought of everything; I have no proof whereof I speak, and yet… And yet it seems to wear the ring of understanding, doesn’t it? ‘It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen’ as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said.

I suspect there’s something truly atavistic about touch. Something inescapable, at any rate. Birth, suckling, and rearing are universals –at least for mammals- and each involves contact, albeit a closeness that often diminishes with a maturity that adopts different forms of communication. Different types of connection. But its primacy never really disappears –whether in fighting, copulating, or even greeting, it lingers like a shadow never fully in the background.

I’ve written about it before, sometimes vicariously, with a soft brush, sometimes even with a gentle nudge, and once when I was moved sufficiently to address it as a subject worthy of a title: Touch  https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/01/25/touch/ But somehow, it creeps back again and again as needful as a hungry child to be noticed.

Like the fabled Phoenix, it rose anew in an article in the CBC news, and as a still-unrequited lover, I have rushed to it again with open arms: http://www.cbc.ca/1.4363121 It’s amazing how such a basic thing as touch seems to require mention again and again – as if without the attention it would slip beneath the waves like a curious seal and be seen no more. As if we continually need the reminder to see our noses.

And each time it surfaces in a different place than we expect. ‘In the past 20 years, scientists have discovered that our hairy skin has cells that respond to a stroking touch. It’s a trait we share with other mammals. Now psychologists in England say their work shows, for the first time, that a gentle touch can be a buffer against social rejection, too. […] The study builds on previous ones showing that receiving touch from loved ones after a physical injury is supportive.’ -a coals-to-Newcastle study you may ask? I mean, really… But I suppose that statistical validation is a way of indicating that it is a conclusion once-removed – that the findings are hopefully divorced from any possibility of emotional contagion. Still…

It continues, ‘Pain is ubiquitous across medical disciplines. Yet touch has been shown to improve outcomes in people with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia and in pre-term infants, the study’s authors said.’ Once again, the older and wiser amongst you might have to fight against the urge to roll your eyes. Of course touch is important, I hear you whisper, as you move on to another, less flagrantly transparent article.

There was a point to underlining the glaring intuitively common sense observations, however –but not, alas, until the nether end of the article. ‘Our brains are attuned to combining information from our five senses. And when much of our time is spent engaging with social media, which relies on visual and sound cues alone, it’s easy to forget the power of touch.’ This, in an era of proxy reaching, and touching a friend online -‘just “liking” a post or texting an emoji.’

Maybe it’s more obvious to those of us who didn’t grow up with a smartphone in our hands or a screen in our face, but it still needs repeating: Of course touch is important! So is actual eye contact. And body language. There’s something about proximity that facilitates communication and realistic interpretation.

A study at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia –one of undoubtedly many of this type- tracked ‘100 mothers and babies over four years [and] they found mothers who used skin-to-skin contact reported breastfeeding for a longer period, less postpartum depression, and a closer relationship with their babies compared with mothers who did not use the method.’ Without re-stating the obvious, the contention was that ‘Because the baby is being held so close to the mother, the mother learns the baby’s signals…’ And, of course, then the usual self-evident trope that ‘It’s not just newborns who benefit from skin-to-skin cuddling — moms do, too’ with the requisite reductionist explanation ‘For the mother, the close contact stimulates the hormone oxytocin, which helps to promote maternal feelings’ as if a physiological justification for the observation were required to bolster the issue… Just in case.

Surely we know all this, though. Surely, if we look around us we can see touch in action -even in a downtown shopping mall.

I rarely go to malls -I find the crowds of strangers annoying- but every so often, the anthill instinct surfaces, and I dip my foot in the colony just for the experience.

I am usually wary of casual contact and, as on a busy sidewalk in the city, there is an unconscious dance to avoid touching strangers. It’s not a fear thing, nor a dread of pestilence; I do not feel uneasy for myself or my property, so much as that my closeness, however accidental and unintended, might be misconstrued. Touch can be therapeutic and welcomed, for sure, but it can also be unwarranted -misunderstood by a stranger – frightening or threatening if unrequested.

I picked the wrong time to test the mall, I think. It was noon and filled with casual shoppers, their eyes on window displays, and bags akimbo, they wandered aimlessly from store to store, depending on a mall-acquired skill to avoid the Brownian motion alive around them. Me? I felt more dizzy from the chaos than innately protected, and found myself leaning rather self-consciously on a pillar near a bank of seats, watching for a vacancy to rest. I admit I shouldn’t have let down my guard, but I am basically a visiting country mouse -a mall virgin, I’m afraid.

Still, I didn’t expect to be knocked down by a distracted shopper –a thin, middle aged woman at that- but I suppose that anybody, if hit unawares, would go down as quickly. At least that was my embarrassed conceit on my way to the floor.

The woman, a business executive by the look of her dark-blue pant suit and blindingly white blouse, was mortified and stooped to help me up. I must have looked confused –I’m sure I was- at the sudden horizontality of my position when she first extended her hands to me.

“Are you alright, sir?” she said, her eyes leaning heavily on my face. “I’m so sorry… I don’t know how I managed that…” she added, her words thick with remorse.

Sometimes, I think I look younger than my years –one gets used to the reflection in the mirror- but obviously she saw me in a different, more fraught light, and her expression melted as she mistook my surprise for fragility. Suddenly she hugged me –a brief, but reflexive attempt at apology. It couldn’t have lasted more than a fraction of a second, but it was as if, for that instant, she was not a stranger, but a caring person responding to the needs of another.

She blushed at my smile, then touched my sleeve as she walked away, her head disappearing in the crowd like a bird in a forest. But I have not forgotten that heartfelt touch. Some things are special –ordinary or not. Touch is a gift, and I felt unexpectedly blessed…

Recycling the Old

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven

Really? It made sense when I was young, I suppose -when all of Time was ahead. When I needed to think there was some order to things. That past and future meant old and new. But as the years slip past, I find myself wondering about disparate things. Opposites. Like what, really, is the difference between new and old? Is it merely a temporal distinction? A nudge along a spectrum? Or a more fundamental change -a conceptual shift? I suspect it can be any of these, of course, but it still begs the question: does any change, any difference qualify? What if there is no change in form at all, but rather a change in function? In Purpose? Would that be new, or merely a rose with another name?

The concept of recycling has been with us from the dawn of time. When materials were scarce or unavailable things were used again, either in their original roles, or repurposed for something else their makers had not anticipated -a new situation, a new need. And so the old rises from its ashes like a Phoenix, but this time in a different play as another, unfamiliar actor.

The tradition of respecting the wisdom of elders and retelling their stories is also an honoured tradition. But as stories do, they alter over time and are often interpreted in new and unexpected ways. The knowledge is not lost, it’s just explained in different words. Understood in a new context. Reconstituted. Society has learned that there is often a benefit that accrues to re-examining the old and looking at it from an altered perspective. So has Science: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-33635575 Bisphosphonates have been around for a while as treatments for osteoporosis, a condition in which there is decreased bone mass. They help to prevent bone loss and so strengthen the bones themselves. It is most frequently used in the post menopausal woman when she no longer produces bone-protective hormones from her ovaries.

Bone is a common site for breast cancer cells to travel to (metastasize) however, and they can lie dormant there for years after the primary tumour has been removed from the breast. And yet, interestingly, those women who were already being treated with the bisphosphonates in the menopause and later developed breast cancer, showed a 28% reduction in cancers developing in their bones. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60908-4/fulltext And because the patents on bisphosphonates have expired in many jurisdictions, the cost of these bisphosphonates is minimal when compared to other ‘new’ treatments on the market.

But there’s more. A medication originally designed for diabetes –glitazone- has been found to decrease the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-33608725 Of course this is just a comet in an otherwise cloud-filled night because glitazone is not without its own serious side effects –bladder and heart problems, to name just two- but it is a promise whispered emphatically, albeit quietly, to anyone working in the field. A starting point for future research…

So I suppose we should keep poking about in the ashes. Stirring embers to see if there is a Phoenix hiding somewhere in the cinders, fast asleep and dreaming of another job. We affix labels to things –categorize, then name them for all time. It’s a way of keeping track. Knowing what to expect. The problem, of course, is that things change. Evolve. Mutate. And as Jiddu Krishnamurti, a philosopher, once said of the disadvantage of naming god, it constrains the concept. Limits it. Doesn’t allow for growth and development. I think it is sort of like naming and classifying something when it is only a seed and we are still unaware of its potential. Maybe old is something like that. Where there is life there is always a seed and its age is beside the point. Meaningless.

I’m beginning to see age as a definitional issue, and not in the currently favoured framework of chronological versus biological –or even psychological- age so condescendingly mouthed by those too young to have experienced the ill-disguised discrimination it entails. There is useful wisdom that accretes with years and experience of course. But age is an oven that cooks whatever has been put inside –changes it into something else. Sometimes something entirely new.

I opened with a quote from Ecclesiastes, so let me close with one from the Talmud: ‘For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of the harvest.