The Evolving Virgin: Sexual Treaties, Gaga Procreation and the “Facts of Life”
By Michele Pridmore-BrownMay 5, 2013
Like A Virgin by Aarathi Prasad
Ex ovo omnia [out of the egg, all things]
— William Harvey, Experiments concerning the Generation of Animals
i. The old Virgin Madonna and “the facts of life”
WHY DOES VIRGINITY FASCINATE US? On its face it seems like a simplistic question. Yet generations of human societies have fallen victim to this strange fascination, even organizing some of their greatest legends and myths around the body of the unadulterated virgin Madonna. The Greek goddess Hera found it profitable to “renew” her virginity every year at the holy waters of Kanathos. The promise of a host of willing virgins in heaven allegedly fueled the ardor of at least some of the 9/11 martyrs. And then there’s the enchanted figure of the virgin mother, inseminated by spirit. She has often had a starring role in origin myths — at times even out-starring her infant.
According to Aarathi Prasad, just about every culture tells a tale about a virgin who gives birth, whose unlikely fecundity is held up as material proof of divine interest — and intervention — in humans affairs. Neith, for instance, was an ancient Egyptian goddess, who was virgin, mother, and, significantly, nurse. She may be a prototype of sorts for the most famous virgin of all: the “Blessed Virgin Mary.” In Christian iconography, this virgin Madonna has been a figure of idealized maternity with staggering staying power. As a Mater Dolorosa, or some version of her, she has passively wept for human foibles; as a universal mother she has for millennia propped up, and stabilized, huge pockets of culture, scattering in her wake sublime cultural detritus: cathedrals like Chartres, stained glass, graven images, Raphaels and Titians, human longing, and a vision of (family) harmony and maternal self-abnegation.
In such scenarios, virgin births are a form of magical realism — they’re embedded in “the facts of life” even as they enchant them; the banal earth-bound sexual facts and the enchanted facts are, in other words, all of a piece. Clearly, reproduction without sex — and so perhaps without conflict or death — was compelling once upon a time, as was the idea of an all-giving and all-forgiving mother. They’re still compelling notions in the abstract. But, by the 20th century, the medieval cult of the Madonna was just about defunct; by the century’s end, John Banville, writing in The New Yorker, could, with a mix of awe and summary dispatch, call the Virgin Mary “the greatest joke” — “the wonderful fable made up, elaborated, repeated all over the world.” Her trajectory — from culture-sustaining myth to “joke” — has, arguably, been about evolving understandings of sexual reproduction: of the “facts of life,” of “the birds and the bees,” and so of the sexual grammar of culture. This is in part what Prasad, a biologist and prize-winning British science writer, suggests in her new book Like A Virgin.
It is an implicit suggestion, however — a marginal subtext. More explicitly, Prasad asks this more “history of science”–type question: how does what we know about semen and wombs (in the ancient world), or about sperm, eggs, and placentas (in the post-microscope world) shape the “facts of life” that underwrite culture?
Prasad herself is not particularly interested in the devolution of the Madonna, but rather, in the historical transformation of the “facts,” and how, as they’ve changed, so have our views of sex, gender politics, and (fecund) virgins. Her book reinforces assumptions about how the rise of microbiology, tied to the new microscopes of the 17th and 18th centuries, marked the beginning of the slow death of one world and the uneasy birth of another. Now, in the 21st century, science and technology are ultra-rapidly reconfiguring the human sexual chessboard by further changing what the human mind can see, perceive, and imagine, and what human bodies can do. And, not only are human virgin births being made real, or on the cusp of being made real in the lab, but technology is overriding the Darwinian-ly and mythically inviolable link between desire or longing and procreation; it is creating, as Prasad puts it, a world “after-sex” — a new post-sexual grammar of life.
ii. Ancient reproduction: the (sort of) reign of semen
To her credit, Prasad insists on the old sexual game board as essential to grasping the world-altering implications of the post-sexual one. In other words, she is a scientist who insists on history — not only for its entertaining moments, or to show how the vagaries of (scientific) belief get transmuted into the trenches of lived life, but for the usual reason: because it’s the best bet against sleepwalking towards the future.
As she tells it, official history, in the case of theories of generation, invariably travels through Aristotle. Reading her synopses, one can deduce that male thinkers on the subject were rather anxious about female influence. Leaving aside the details, what is important to know about the old Aristotelian reproductive economy is comedically straightforward: semen (theoretically) reigned supreme! Male “seed” purportedly contained the spark of life and so it was felt that it must have an outsize role in generation. Aristotle in fact opined that men really ought to be able to generate life on their own. Prasad makes much of the fact that women, despite their swollen bellies and the evidence of parturition, were not given much credit for childbearing. In the case of the virgin mother type, even when she was elevated to mythic or magical stature, the point was that she was everything precisely because she was nothing; she was essentially a transparent conduit or vessel for the activating seed or word of spirit (or man): a site of projection. Her power — her very “blessedness” — then lay in being an enabling figure for others. She was “the soil” to the male’s seed. She was youthful inert soil.
As Prasad points out, beliefs (or hopeful conjectures) about the supremacy of semen in the creation process actually stretch much further back than Aristotle, to the Egyptians and Indians. The dramatist Aeschylus, who probably channeled these earlier sources and lived several centuries before Aristotle, described a parent as “he who plants a seed” and the mother as “not a parent” because she only nurtures — plays nursemaid to — “the new planted seed that grows.” This particular image endured for quite a long time. Not only did Aristotle use it — the Bible also used it. Then, hop forward another millennia and a half, as Prasad does, to the late medieval period, when Aristotle was rediscovered, and the metaphor was taken so literally that the brilliant 16th-century scientist Paracelsus hit on dung as a womb substitute. Put human sperm in a hermetically sealed glass jar, magnetize it, bury it in horse dung, feed it human blood at the 40 day mark, and then, after 80 days the semen ought to sprout like a seed into a little human, or homunculus as it was called. Men, or at least alchemists, could then at long last generate life on their own!
From a male point of view, there was apparently ample reason to bypass the womb and its soil-like impurities or obfuscations. Even though scientists like Paracelsus were ponderously opining that women had little to no role in generating life; in practice, they did realize that, as soil, actual women could mess the process up — especially if they were non-virginal types — if they were too flabby or too compact or too old, as one 2nd-century medical textbook that endured for millennia had put it. Real women were held responsible for birthmarks — being startled by a rat could result in a rat-shaped birthmark. And women were held responsible for deformities, and for producing males when females were de rigueur, although super-potent sperm ought, it was felt, to result in a son. A witch was presumably a woman with a too-active (obfuscatory) mind or body. Most importantly perhaps, women were responsible for infertility — for blocking male potency.
Prasad does not so much march through history as organize her book around lively anecdotes that reveal historical views on sex. The choice anecdote is, above all else, her writerly strength. It is through these that she seamlessly funnels details: that she shows rather than tells, and renders “science” — or rather the human mind contemplating the “rules” governing its sexed nature — comedic (at least sometimes). For instance, she opens her first chapter with16th-century Catherine of Medici imbibing daunting quantities of pregnant animals’ urine, and frenetically consulting the then-requisite array of astrologists and tarot readers in a desperate effort to get pregnant. Her husband, soon-to-be King Henri II of France, had a condition now called hypospadias: his penis was visibly malformed, and his urethra misplaced. The point of the story is not a discussion of the infelicities of the royal anatomy, however, but of how cultural lenses determined what was seen and not seen. Henri’s father King Francis I scrutinized marital proceedings in the bedroom to uncover Catherine’s performative failings! It took a presumably less blinded individual, a no-longer-young woman, to be pragmatic about mechanics. The story goes that Henri’s much older mistress advised the young couple to make love à levrette — and they then, at long last, proceeded to have 10 children.
Far more important in the annals of the history of science, though, was the early-Enlightenment moment when the new glass lenses being fashioned in Holland altered for good what could be seen with the actual senses — in an eye-blink! Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a humble Dutch lens-crafter now regarded as the father of microbiology and microscopy. Where Galileo had turned his Dutch lenses to the heavens, Leeuwenhoek just as daringly, in 1677 or thereabouts, turned his to his own semen — and, as Prasad recounts, semen forthwith resolved into sperm. Each time he looked, multitudes of tailed undulating creatures reliably swam into view. Carefully emphasizing in his correspondence his virtuous lifestyle, he pointed out he couldn’t possibly be seeing foreign parasites. He soon arrived at the happy conclusion that, in light of such a surfeit of pristine life, female ovaries were “useless ornaments”: “the foetus precedes only from the male.” In short, the natural order — the sexual order as handed down from the ancients — was thus gratifyingly overdetermined in his view. Leeuwenhoek even thought he espied complex anatomical features in each sperm, and it wasn’t long before another famous Dutch lens-crafter and physicist, Niklaas Hartsoeker, saw, just before the turn of the 18thcentury, a whole child curled up, “preformed,” at the head of each sperm — confirmation, surely, that the real dynamics of generation happened within men.
iii. The uneasy ascent of the egg: virgin aphids and a sea urchin
Much has already been written in other places about the European Enlightenment, the new lenses and the new perspectives or vistas they enabled. Somewhat ironically and yet appropriately enough, it was the pious Leeuwenhoek himself who, even as he thought he was using his new lenses to reinforce the old establishment order, found the first apple — a small blight, not recognized by him as such — in the garden of male supremacy. When he trained his lenses on garden pests called aphids, having first gently disemboweled them, he discovered that they were profligately engaging in female virgin births. A whole Russian doll-like series of female generations of aphids lay within a single female aphid body. This suggested that male aphids were optional to aphid reproduction. Worse perhaps: it seemed that females used the males sometimes, sometimes not, depending on the vagaries of the season. Of course, aphids weren’t very akin to humans, which is why the initially puzzled Leeuwenhoek was able to remain existentially unfazed. But not so others. Another near-contemporary in the 17th century, William Harvey, was experimenting on other renegade species and more daring. In fact, he was far more willing to extrapolate across species; he seized on the radical notion that the egg might well contain the important — non-inert —stuff of life. As Prasad tidily puts it, against the historical tide of establishment spermists, “he boldly claimed himself to be an ovist.” On the frontispiece of his book, Experiments concerning the Generation of Animals, a cracked egg gives rises to a lizard, a deer, a bird, a snake — and a human baby! Its shell is inscribed with “ex ovo omnia” — out of the egg, all things. It was a bit like being a proto-Jacobin in monarchial France or like instituting a matriarchy and relegating males to bit parts. Ovism was, in a word, revolutionary. It was also inflammatory.
This is when the history of generation gets especially interesting — when it starts to lead the cultural cart, or at least provide fodder for its shifting political agendas. Spermists battled with ovists — but by the mid–19th century, Darwin stood for both and everything in between by way of sexual selection: each sex acting on the other, in a tit for tat fashion of male strategy and female counterstrategy operating over evolutionary time. He introduced female choice as a driver of evolution — as the driver of the peacock’s tail. Such a view, and the variability it implied, naturally didn’t do much for notions of inert other-enabling wombs, a.k.a. Madonnas. Or for any sort of rigid Aristotelian ordering of the sexes.
Some decades after Darwin, a symbolic event messed in concrete fashion with the rules of generation and with gender assumptions. In 1905, to considerable media fanfare, a biochemist named Jacques Loeb induced “parthenogenesis” — a virgin birth — in a female sea urchin via salt and ox blood in a recipe vaguely reminiscent of Paracelsus. The sea urchin was banally sexually reproducing; there was nothing untoward about her sexuality, and yet her fertility, it seemed, could be effortlessly tweaked in the lab. No sperm required! Her flexible sexual qua reproductive “nature” was deemed uncannily relevant to larger feminist and “New Woman” issues of the day! Literary types forthwith capitalized on anxieties about gender obsolescence. An H.G. Wells character circa 1909 expressed the opinion that it may well be that “it is only the women matter” — “not every creature needs these males.” Feminist utopias happily hinged on the downgraded status of sperm; the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) featured an all-women “parthenogenically-reproducing” utopia a la “aphids” (an explicit reference in her text). Others, including a prominent Christian Scientist named Josephine Woodbury, seized on the virtues of immaculate conception.
And then, naturally, there were the counter-fantasies featuring hyper-virile male-machine heroes — a braver new world in which men would “take back” reproduction. In 1932 Aldous Huxley’s novel of that title capitalized, in a more dystopic vein, on the newest of new notions — “ectogenesis,” a term coined in 1924 by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane for gestation in an artificial womb, which was purportedly just around the scientific corner. Huxley’s tale did not anticipate a felicitous outcome. Interestingly, Prasad does, to some degree — or at least she’s far more sanguine. But the point here is that the sexual game board — and the story of birds and bees and aphids and sea urchins and possibly humans — was, in the cultural imagination, getting decidedly scrambled.
iv. The modern DNA treaty, conflicted cooperation and a hypothetical bearded Madonna
Prasad is a lively raconteur in part because she sees this scrambling, expressed in prophetic fashion in these literary fables, as breathtakingly world-altering. She uses this historical past — the evolving facts and the unspooling rules of sex — to draw out the implications of ever more penetrating, instrument-driven, culture-unraveling, Vatican-undoing, scientific qua molecular understandings of the grammar of life. Here’s how, in her signature anecdotal fashion, she captures for the general reader “the age of the gene,” as the 20th century has been dubbed: she focuses on a double helix moment by way of a mid-century French tabloid search for a modern Madonna. It was now understood that a virgin mother’s infant would be a girl: flesh of her flesh, with two female chromosomes a la Loeb’s sea urchin or Leuwenhoek’s aphid. Mother and daughter might well look nearly identical. Prasad regales us with the details of both what was known about the underlying science, and not quite known — and the more prurient details of how a dozen semi-immaculate mothers presented themselves to media fanfare. The tabloid nature of the search notwithstanding, both the Lancet and Vatican had considerable stakes in the outcome.
It’s to the rapidly evolving sexual grammar of the last years that her book drives. This grammar brings with it a new set of rules. As Prasad explains, “we” have now become, thanks to new microbiological methods for peering into cells, the site of drawn molecular battles between the sexes. The grammar of this battle, established “deep in our evolutionary past,” hinges on “mutual need,” which is now regarded as being mediated by “imprinting” (a process newly discovered in the later 20th century). This basically means that, contra the unilateral spermists and ovists, there are, according to Prasad’s rendition, about 80 genes that ensure the human female needs the human male to reproduce, because some of her own genes (amongst those alleged 80) are “padlocked”; the male’s are therefore expressed and, in a nutshell, they are implicated in growing the mammalian placenta and the fetus. The instructions that give rise to the placenta in fact come exclusively from the male. As Prasad puts it, once this genetic “treaty” was written in our DNA, “it could never be broken” — which is why virgin births in humans, but not in placenta-less sea urchins or aphids, remained, in the 20th century, the stuff of magic or religion. The tabloid search was just that: a tabloid search for a highly improbable fluke (female cells might self-divide for a bit on their own, but without the male-directed placenta, they were doomed). If the virgin Madonna were to be understood in 20th century scientific terms, then she’d have to be a genetic and sexual chimaera or mosaic, with ova and testes; she could then, in theory at least, self-fertilize — and so “modern” painters ought to depict her with a beard.
With respect to the prosaic kind of sexual reproduction, Prasad leans at several points in her book on the word “treaty” — a metaphor with legs. It enables us to “read” the modern reproductive sex game in Darwinian terms as being about cooperative conflict. The instructions ferried by sperm create an environment that favors the fetus (the invader) whereas the maternal host has her arsenal of counterstrategies, which curb the fetus’ (over)growth. In other words, some of her genes can silence his, just as some of his can silence hers. Contra ancient beliefs then, the overexpression of his or her contribution, the over-silencing of the other’s contribution, spells the embryo’s attenuation or death.
Whether spermal influence over pregnancies means women have carte blanche to blame morning sickness and the ills of pregnancy on their partner’s DNA, Prasad doesn’t say. She does say that acclimatization to a given man’s sperm makes for a less risky pregnancy (which is great for long-term unions but not for surrogates, but that’s another matter!). Of course, it’s impossible not to see the intricacies of this relational drama in social terms — or indeed as fodder for “anxiety of influence” neuroses — but then we’ve been doing precisely this, or adamantly resisting doing this, since before Aristotle. Aristotle and Paracelsus were trying to get rid of female influence over the making of life. The ovists tried to downplay male influence. Now, not only do new epigenetic musings imply loops of influence, but drawn out conflicted cooperation — between the sexes, and also among generations.
For instance, Madonna and child are no longer a harmonious dyad. The fetus is, biologically, an outright “parasite” in some textbook descriptions — not just for the obvious reasons but because it can trigger autoimmune havoc in the maternal body and its cells can permanently lodge in the maternal brain in a rather disturbingly literal manifestation of occupation! In turn — and there’s always an “in turn” or counterpunch or a “tit for tat” in this relational grammar — she, as non-inert soil, shapes its long-term ability to thrive or not. She may not be responsible for rat-like birthmarks, but she marks him nonetheless. Her stress for instance turns the fetus’ genes off and on while s/he’s in the womb, silences or expresses them, which may well dictate to some degree whether, as an adult, s/he lives life in a major or minor key.
In short, family harmony may well be the most poignant site of emotional longing and of aesthetic or religious inspiration — and the mother–infant bond especially so. Evolution pits “Mary” against “Jesus” just as it pits Mary against her inseminator. “Our genetic sources and our genetic creations,” to quote Prasad, “all battle for control.” The fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers and the lives they led and the wombs and environments they inhabited all whisper — in biochemical terms — into the epi-genomes of their descendants. Researchers have discovered that even absentee fathers can influence maternal behavior and mental health in daughters (at least in mice), as well as the “sins of the fathers” — well, yes, they can also wreck havoc or not — via these intergenerational chemical “whispers.” In short: we haunt, occupy, and tweak each other ad infinitum. It sounds Freudian, but couched in 21st century “epigenetic” terms. In a nutshell: family relationships and health are then about biochemical as well as emotional treaties; the dance among players is more like a tango than a waltz.
Prasad overplays the demise of the Y chromosome; it is a tempting story that fits cultural scripts of the moment (e.g., the supposed “death of men”), but her suggestion that the male chromosome is “hurtling down the evolutionary road towards […] extinction” and that “our age as a species may be a factor” is controversial at best, and most likely not true. She suggests infertility might one day affect all men. It may, but the story has already been told — at rather predictable intervals. More interesting than her degrading sperm is her implicit rendition of the present and future Madonna as a function of the lab.
v. Breaking the sexual treaty: postmodern Madonnas and gaga procreation
The modern Madonna is a peri-menopausal Madonna in charge of her own script and a chess queen of sorts with an increasing array of reproductive moves at her disposal. Prasad never references her title — but it surely alludes to the moment when the young passive virgin Madonna morphed circa 1982 into Madonna Ciccone singing “Like a Virgin” and then having children in midlife, at around age 40. Like the Greek goddess Hera, this aging Madonna and her 21st-century heirs can proclaim virgin soil at will. They are not inert channels for gods or men or art or magic. Quite the contrary. They are in charge of their stages and scripts and songs. Do they augur a female-led checkmate? Prasad thinks not — it’s just one more move in a now technologically mediated game.
The bio-postscript to her narrative — and the motor of Like A Virgin — is the “breaking” of the sexual treaty in the 21st century lab: the breaking of the “mutual need” part that heretofore underwrote human generation. To her credit, Prasad does not paint this break as morally good or bad; as she points out, it’s a question of acculturation. In other words, if you’re not acculturated to the new game of sex or of post-sex, your children will be. In any case, with this break, virgin births among humans are likely to become banal. The postmodern Madonna’s fertility is already being tweaked in labs around the world. In addition, skin cells are now being turned into sex cells and even into “things” with beating hearts; semi-tailed sperm are being made in labs in the UK (in time to rescue the degrading sperm of actual men!); researchers at Cornell are developing artificial human wombs; the DNA of two eggs can give rise to healthy mice in Japan; lab-made human ovaries are being developed at Brown University.
Prasad thinks that, if we’re open-eyed (a fraught “if,” to be sure), then these reproductive tweaks will be liberating insofar as enabling the formation — via biogenetic ties — of new kinds of postmodern families. She sums up the future of reproduction like this: genetics and biology “ripped out of” sexed bodies — “egg and sperm allowed to combine freely,” or indeed the DNA of sperm and sperm, egg and egg enabled to combine — will radically rewrite the DNA treaty and the fabric of society. We might call this gaga procreation: a post-sexual grammar that is likely to render the old “rules of sex” rather quaint. Babies will naturalize these new biological and emotional treaties, which isn’t to say that the post-sexual treaties won’t remain fraught, but they will be very willed, and assuredly they will be hard to undo. After all, it’s hard to legislate away pristine squalling babies, however concocted.
LARB Staff Recommendations
How does Albert Camus’s friendship with a molecular biologist unlock a key moment in 20th-century thought?...
MARLENE ZUK IS AN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST at the University of Minnesota. Her last book was a pithily entertaining look at sex on six legs. In her new book, she has jumped from bugs to humans. Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.