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:  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.







Scrambled Eggs

Great! Test tube mothers now, is it? Not enough to eliminate the Fallopian tube, or the on-egg dating site where potential sperm candidates meet, are scrutinized, profiles scanned and competition held for first across the zona (pellucida, that is) … Oh no, now we have to eliminate the entire coffee shop. What is happening out there… or do I mean in there? It’s so confusing.

There was a time when it was simple. Well, maybe it wasn’t, but at least we were used to it. You met somebody and expectations and hormones took over. No need to put in a special request for stem cells, or people in white lab coats and masks. No need to take out a loan –although flowers and dinners aren’t that cheap anymore, either. But it was the excitement of the chase, the hunt –searching for clues about the other person that weren’t all tied to their DNA; picking them because they were funny and considerate, cute and snuggly. They had histories. Stories. Isn’t that why we get together? Wasn’t it?

Okay, I’m leap-frogging here. We’re not there yet –I mean they are not there yet; I suspect that, despite the occasional slip-up, most of us are still going to prefer to stick to the traditional court-and-impregnate model that has served us so far. I mean, fun is fun, eh? And to be fair, there’s a lot to deal with if you want to bypass natural stuff -ingredients, for example. Right now, you need a minimum of two things to make babies: a sperm and a receptive egg (sperm always seem to be in the mood…). Yes, and you need a place for them to meet and grow together, but there are any number of uteri out of work at any given time, so, with the rise of things like Airbnb, I suspect they won’t be a problem.

And everything that is alive has DNA and its instruction manuals closeted away somewhere… Do you see the opportunities I’m suggesting? Trick some skin cell, or whatever, into thinking it’s a sperm or an egg, and poof –reproduction-lite. Better still, why not hoodwink that ordinary cell into thinking it’s pregnant? I mean, it’s got all the necessary assembly instructions squirrelled away, hasn’t it? Your argument just has to be convincing. Persuasive. It doesn’t necessarily need to be, well, necessary. You could just be doing it for fun. A prank. Or to prove that you can, I guess. Isn’t that why a lot of stuff gets done? When you tire of trying to justify something that would fly in the face of current needs and desires, you simply create a niche product. Create a want. Wants usually evolve into needs –mutate into needs, at any rate. Look at Selfies and their requirement for sticks. Or bell-bottomed trousers –no, wait, that was a while ago…

My point, I think, is that gender may be rendered redundant not by increasing social awareness of its variations, but rather because of its dispensability. Why keep something you don’t really need? History will decide, of course, but hindsight tends to come down hard on things that outlive their time. Consider phlogiston. It was the postulated fire element that was contained by combustible things and was released when they caught fire. Of course! But who, apart from old people, have even heard of it? Or want to?

And then, in keeping with the air theme, there is the Miasma Theory which just assumed that disease was caused by ‘bad air’. Simple. Elegant. No need to bring in a lot of accessory stuff like animalcules and other things you couldn’t see anyway. Germs, let alone viruses prions and the like, were simply unnecessary and unduly complicated. Why dump many unknowns into an equation that could be solved by one charming known? Why mess with E = mc 2 when it isn’t a theory of everything, especially if it needs Quantum? Explanation isn’t everything, either…

Okay, so I’ve non sequitured again, but hopefully you see my concern. Obsolescence is one thing –we often persist past our best-before dates- but unplanned obsolescence is another creature entirely. It smacks of blundering about in dark corners hoping there are no unpleasant surprises -nothing that will sting in retrospect.

I am as excited as the next person about the prospects for the future, but experience teaches caution. The principle of unintended consequences is a favourite historical topic –almost as seductive as the ‘what if’s’ so popularized in historical fiction nowadays. Maybe there is nothing enchanted about that first introduction between egg and sperm. Nothing magical. Nothing necessary. Maybe life will carry on much as before and procreation will still scratch out a living between the sheets. And maybe it’s always good to have options -choices freely made and understood. Even needed, occasionally. We have always been condemned to live in interesting times –the Past was never an Eden.

And yet…