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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Does the Best Safety Really Lie in Fear?

There are many unheralded benefits of age, one of which is invisibility -changing from a potential threat into a banality. A non-entity for whomever might otherwise be at risk. I can watch from shadows while the world strides past –on the street, in a bus, in a coffee shop. Wherever.

Men, until they age it seems, can be a liability to women –but I never thought of it like that, of course. Few of us ever do. I never thought I was a threat, but now I see I was wrong.

Does danger evolve, or is it the perception? The perceiver? Has its essence been reinterpreted, or merely renamed? Now that I am rapidly becoming a befrailed bystander in my retirement -background noise- I am also subject to harassment I never thought existed.

It’s not the same, I know. It’s not something I have had to endure throughout my life. Something woven into the fabric of each day that hides in the warp and weft of life until the pattern suddenly surfaces from the chiaroscuro like the shark’s fin in Jaws. Knowing the menace is always somewhere beneath the surface, and yet having no choice but to swim above it…

Watching from the shore, where the danger is rarely seen and never felt, it is all too easily dismissed. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to draw a parallel with the tide of years. I’m trying to understand something new to me. Frailty, thy name is Age.

For me, it’s not sexual pestering, of course, and usually not a threat of bodily harm –it’s more of a dominance thing… And yet, isn’t that what the gender divide can be about? Power? Identity insecurity? Role playing…?

I’m not even sure what role hormones play anymore –not all men are provocateurs. Not all men are cursed with the need for entitlement or the fear of losing status . Not all of us are insecure. But I think I can see what is going on –if only through a glass darkly. I think I can understand the gist of the article I found in the BBC news about women worrying about the ‘right’ amount of fear to show in public: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41614720 The appropriate balance between sensible caution and the avoidance of a perceived threat.

Until I read it, I’m not sure I would have put it as forcefully as Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, a researcher at Durham Law School, specializing in violence against women, and one of the 100 Women BBC named as influential and inspirational. But, I’m not a woman quietly smothered by the social blanket either thrown over my protests, or wrapped securely around my screams of dissent much as it might around a tired child’s body. It is hard to shift perspective like the article demands.

Dr. Vera-Gray had been speaking to women about how they change their behaviours through fear of sexual harassment and assault for her new book The Right Amount of Panic: How women trade freedom for safety in public. But I have to say that I had never thought about the need for the tactics she has identified that are outlined in the article. 

For example, she outlines conduct I’m sure we’ve all seen in streets and public transit –all seemingly innocuous, innocent, and yet all purposive: ‘Maybe, like Delilah, a black British woman in her early 20s who I interviewed, you stay away from wearing the colour red, to avoid standing out. Or like Shelley, a British Asian woman in her 30s, you’ve developed a death stare, looking tougher than you feel. Maybe like Lucy, a white British woman in her late teens, you’ve pulled out your phone and made a fake call with your battery long dead. Or like Ginger, a white Latvian woman in her 20s, you’ve kept headphones in without playing music so you can hear what they think you can’t.’

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report (FRA) in 2017 on sexual harassment in Europe found that ‘almost half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their freedom of movement based on the fear of gender-based violence.’

‘Liz Kelly, one of the world’s leading sociologists on violence against women, coined the term “safety work”, to describe the habitual strategies that women develop in response to their experiences in public. We perform safety work often without thinking, it becomes part of our habits, or “common-sense”.’ Peeking over my own male-built walls, I had no idea this was going on.

‘The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive, we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive unless it starts to escalate: he speeds up and crosses the street when you do, he moves from staring to touching. But as this is the very thing safety work is designed to disrupt, success becomes the absence of what might have happened. […] we know that it doesn’t, it simply can’t, always work, and those are the only times we can count. So women are stuck, made responsible for preventing harassment at the same time as unable to know when we’ve been effective.’

But, as Dr. Vera-Gray seems to conclude, ‘[…] there is no “right amount” of panic, there’s only ever too much or not enough. And with no way to know when we’re getting it right, we’ve learnt to just keep quiet.’

I don’t want to seem like a gender apostate, but I find the conclusions very troubling. As Robbie Burns put it O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! But, alas, we see the world, like we see the reflections in a mirror, only through our own eyes. And that’s not enough –we share the same journey, albeit sometimes on different paths. And that’s why there’s a need for signposts along the way. Conversations about the route. We all have to know where we’re going.

Maybe I will never understand; maybe I can only approach it vicariously, but at least it’s a start. I can stand in shoes that will never fit, even if I can’t walk without discomfort.

But maybe that’s what it takes –a sort of self-empathy, before it finally sinks in…