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.







What’s Past is Prologue

Sometimes it’s hard to get things right; sometimes it’s hard to get things even sort of right. We pride ourselves on foresight, on our ability to anticipate the future results of our decisions, but it’s often more hubris than skill. Unintended consequences have a way of interpolating themselves like bushes in a forest while we, so focussed on the trees, see only empty spaces –shadows- in between.

Examples are not hard to find. Just think of the well-intentioned introduction of cane toads to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to control the cane beetles. Unfortunately, the toads contain a toxin that is deadly to many animals so they have escaped effective predation and their numbers have skyrocketed.

But unexpected problems can also arise at work with employers’ attempts to adapt to the domestic problems that occur from time to time in employees with families. Things like needing to take a child to the doctor, or having to pick her up from day care don’t often happen with childless singles in the office.

I have to say that I would have assumed that thoughtfulness of this sort would have few major adverse repercussions for the employer –workers able to balance job and family equitably might well be better, more satisfied employees. After all, a reward given, is a debt owed. So, I was surprised to discover another side to this family-friendly benevolence as outlined in a BBC news item:

‘Colleagues with children were […] prioritised when it came to taking their preferred vacation dates, […] while fellow single or childless workers struggled to get time off to care for elderly relatives or were asked to go on more frequent business trips.’ It’s obviously a challenge to separate envy –or resentment- from genuine favouritism and ‘While it’s tricky to nail down concrete statistics that prove how much singles might be being indirectly penalized in the workplace, a recent UK study of 25,000 workers found that two thirds of childless women aged 28 to 40 felt that they were expected to work longer hours.’

‘During research for his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University interviewed hundreds of single people in Europe and America and discovered “there was widespread perception that singles became the workhorses in corporate offices”’

‘Bella DePaulo, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explores the phenomenon in her books and studies, and coined the word “singlism” to pin down the stigmatisation, negative stereotyping and discrimination against singles that she believes is widespread in the workplace and society at large. She argues that many many employers are missing a trick when it comes to single employees, who, far from being lonely and isolated, are actually more likely to be actively engaged in their communities and have strong relationships with friends who “feel like family, even if they are not family in the traditional sense”’.

Unfortunately, the issue is hydra-headed. ‘“There’s a difference in perspective between people who are parents and people who aren’t. If you aren’t a parent, you really can’t see how that changes your life and your priorities,” says Jonas Almeling, a former entrepreneur turned Head of Innovation for a Sweden’s export and trade agency, who is a father-of-one. “I would definitely not have the same flexibility for someone saying ‘oh sorry I am off kayaking’ compared to someone doing a pick-up from kindergarten,” he argues.’

And yet, both parents and singles can be tempted to abuse the kindness –or naïveté- of a forgiving boss. Many years ago, when I was in my salad days and green in judgement, I started my obstetrical specialty practice and hired a young single mother as secretary on the recommendation of a friend. We got along well, and she proved a reassuring presence for my freshling patients. But she seemed to get a lot of ‘colds’ and migraines, however, and often I would only know about when I found a strange woman, a friend of hers usually, standing somewhat befuddled behind the front desk and wondering just who I was when I walked through the door.

I have to say in Martha’s defense, she certainly had nice friends and they all did admirable fill-ins, but I spent as much time coaching them on their duties as I did with the patients. I knew from my training that new mothers had a lot to cope with and, I supposed, especially single parents, so I would usually just shrug, smile at the new receptionist, and introduce myself. After a while, I got to know some of the replacements, and the office got easier. In fact, when change is common, it no longer surprises, and to tell the truth, I normalized it in my mind.

But one of my new obstetrical patients didn’t, and because of some early pregnancy problems she ended up seeing me weekly for a while.

Normally bubbly and talkative, one day Janice was unusually quiet as I led her down the corridor from the waiting area to my office, and before she sat down, she carefully closed the door behind her. “Who is it this time?” she said, and promptly placed a fake smile on her face.

I didn’t understand the question at first and merely raised an eyebrow in response.

“It was Helen last week, and Brava the week before… Come to think of it, I think I saw this one a few weeks ago…” Her eyes hovered over my face for a moment before landing.

“Martha, is supposed to be my fulltime secretary,” I explained. “She seems to call in sick a lot… Single mother, stuff, I think.”

A sardonic smile replaced the fake one. “Have I met her yet?”

I tried to remember, but couldn’t. “She has short, blond hair, and often wears a blue ribbon around her neck, I think…”

Her eyes slid down my face and stopped at my lips –to see if I was serious, I suppose. “I’m a single mother, doctor,” she said and shook her head slowly. “Well, I will be at any rate, I hope…” She sighed and glanced out the window behind me for a second or two. “And even with all the vomiting, I manage to go to work most days.”

I smiled and shrugged. “Martha shows up a lot…” But Janice could see I was struggling with the defence.

She glanced at a picture on the wall. “How old is her child?”

I shrugged again, this time to cover for the fact that I couldn’t remember. But I think Janice understood. “Uhmm, somewhere around 3 or 4 I think…”

“And does she live alone?”

I did remember that –her roommate sometimes filled in for her. “No, she shares a condo with a friend…”

Janice’s eyebrows both crept upward and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Ever phone to find out how she’s doing?” She blinked as she suppressed a word that I could see being pulled back into her mouth in the nick of time.

I shook my head. “You almost asked ‘to find out what she’s doing’, didn’t you…? No, I trust her.”

Janice laughed. “Sometimes an employer phones because he’s concerned about his staff. Trust has nothing to do with it.” Her face brightened even more. “And by the way, I’m feeling a lot better nowadays. Maybe I can go back to monthly visits, eh?” she added. “I’ve been missing too much work lately.” And then she winked at me playfully. “Phone her, eh?”

But I didn’t, you know. I think I was too embarrassed; I liked Martha, and I suppose I didn’t want to catch her in a lie. Anyway, she resigned a few weeks later, and sent me a little potted areca palm for my desk to thank me for my patience with her.

The next month, when Janice saw it on my desk, she asked about it.

“Present from Martha –my former secretary,” I figured I’d better explain ‘former’. “She sent it as a thank you present when she resigned.”

Janice was quiet for a moment. “You didn’t phone her, did you?” Her eyes interrogated me briefly – but they knew…

I shook my head.

Then she sighed, and the slightest wisp of a smile surfaced for a second beneath those wise, experienced eyes.