Genetics expert urges us to embrace a future of virgin births (for women AND men) in which sex and marriage are redundant
Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it … The wonderful Cole Porter song, Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love, lists many of the species who enjoy pairing off: ‘Even Pekineses at the Ritz do it!’
The Pekineses are not alone: 99.9 per cent of higher animal species reproduce themselves sexually. Species capable of reproducing themselves without contact between male and female are in the distinct minority.
Whiptail lizards and some hammer-head sharks apparently do it. Or rather, don’t do it. But so far no one has written a song about them and their lonely sexual endeavours.
But a research geneticist from Imperial College London, Aarathi Prasad, has tried to do the next best thing. Not only has she written a celebration of those eccentric creatures who are capable of reproducing by themselves without sexual contact, she controversially claims that sexless reproduction is the way of the future for humans, too.
A generation ago, test-tube babies were the stuff of science fiction: now, we accept these things as realities. In the same way, suggests Prasad, we could well be looking at a future in which human babies could be born without any sperm donors, let alone contact between the sexes. The future is sexless.
Since her publicity photographs show a beautiful young woman with bare shoulders posing coquettishly for the camera, some readers might feel that Aarathi Prasad is teasing them just a little.
But her book, Like A Virgin, is exploring a fundamentally serious theme, and one at the heart of Western liberal thinking. It is that we human beings are in control of our own destiny, and there is nothing sacred or special about life itself.
This is because we live in a world where science means we can manipulate everything — even the process of reproduction. Indeed, the central tenet of her story is that virgin births are now almost within the grasp of science. Can she really be serious?
And while she watches our jaws drop, she reminds us not to be prejudiced. If women can do it, why not men, she asks.
Already, in Australia, they have pioneered an artificial womb — a plastic container specially designed to hold fluids and bacteria found in natural wombs. Admittedly the creatures being developed in this artificial womb are grey nurse sharks — but, where sharks lead, humans could follow.
According to Prasad, it will one day be technically possible for a man to develop a child in one of these ‘wombs’ without the co-operation of any female partner.
Probably, by now, you are beginning to echo Captain Mainwaring’s words to his corporal in Dad’s Army: ‘I think you’re getting into the realms of fantasy here, Jones.’
But Prasad points out that science has already developed artificial sperm. And that such sperm has produced offspring. How far behind can be the synthetic egg?
So far the synthetic sperm has been confined to Japanese laboratory mice, resulting in a baby mouse called Kaguya in 2004.
Kaguya was conceived after the genetic content of an egg from a young mouse was modified to make it appear as if it were sperm, which was then used to fertilise a mature egg from another mouse.
Kaguya was the lucky one which survived from 371 synthetically fertilised eggs. But the point is that science will ensure the technique improves, and it may become viable for human use.
Prasad’s book also comes up with all kinds of freak case histories which appear to suggest that a virgin birth might not be beyond the bounds of science as new techniques develop.
She tells of cases where growths in the ovaries simulate the properties of a foetus. We read of weird ‘ovarian teratomas’ (tumours which grow from unfertilised egg cells) which can develop humanoid features such as teeth and hair.
One such malformation discovered inside a young Japanese virgin in 2003 had a doll-like body with an eye which had lashes.
The idea is that with more understanding of the processes behind these freakish cases, we could learn how to reproduce without the aid of any partner. Prasad warns such research may well be necessary. Infertility is on the rise in the world, she claims — which means that the normal means of reproducing the human race could actually be under threat in the very long term.
She warns that the Y chromosome — the strand of DNA which helps shape the male of any species — is ‘hurtling down the evolutionary road towards extinction’. Research has shown that the genetic information contained on it has been disintegrating over time.
And, if that is the case, if the Y chromosome really is dying out, then does this not mean that the human race itself is slowly dying out — unless scientists can devise artificial means for the human race to reproduce itself?
And is it not clear that, if this were to happen, the human race will opt for Prasad’s idea of virgin birth?
Like so many scientists, Aarathi Prasad believes long-held taboos and traditions should be cast aside in the name of progress.
She wants us to drop all our prejudices about sex, sexual difference, reproduction and foetuses, and to allow science to develop in any way it chooses.
‘Why can’t a man be a mother?’ she asks. ‘Why do we care so much about what it means to be a ‘mother’ rather than to be a ‘parent’?
‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice, too.’
Of course, she is being contentious so that her spirited book will sell. But Prasad is not a neutral research scientist: she is an out-an-out liberal campaigner in favour of taking research on human embryology and fertilisation as far as it will go.
In her vision of the world, it is only fuddy-duddies who would question why anyone — elderly women, men, you name it — should not become pregnant if they choose to indulge the whim.
She is a brilliant scientist, and I know nothing about her subject. But the greatest problem facing this planet isn’t the slight dip in human fertility in the West. Rather, as any third world charity worker will tell you, it is the vast problem of overpopulation, especially in parts of the world scarcely capable of feeding themselves.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the issue is not that a few selfish older ladies or gay men cannot have babies. It is that the babies who have already been born in vast numbers do not have enough to eat. Prasad’s book provides a very strong example of how scientists can ignore the blindingly obvious in an attempt to brainwash us.
No doubt there are some people who love to contemplate the brave new world in which the messy business of relationships between the sexes is done away with.
They probably rejoice at the idea of a future in which human beings are made from artificial sperm; a future where the ‘best’ baby is selected from 371 fertilised laboratory eggs and the others are chucked away.
If Aarathi Prasad is to be believed, such a concept does not belong to the realms of fantasy, but is, on the contrary, just round the corner.
For Prasad and those who think like her, it goes without saying that science offers us choice, and choice is always a good thing. But is it?
Would we really have a better world if we had been able to select our children in the way we might choose a pet in a shop? Is there not something healthy and adventurous about accepting what comes?
Is there not something creepy — almost Nazi — about the idea of trying to create for ourselves a perfect child who does not inherit Uncle Sid’s dyspepsia, Aunt Mavis’s wonky teeth, and those weird knees from Charles’s side of the family? Does not the attempt to make babies into designer items remove any of the adventure of being born?
Yet, above all, is there not something sinister and joyless about the notion of going it alone when it comes to reproducing ourselves?
In the old myth about the Garden of Eden, God says that ‘it is not good for man to be alone’. Modern science disagrees. It thinks there is nothing wrong with this.
A generation ago, we watched families breaking up in large numbers for the first time, and the breakdown of marriages. Nearly every observer of society agrees that this was calamitous, especially in the less privileged parts of our cities, where lack of family structure is the major background and cause of crime, psychological dislocation, and anti-social behaviour.
What appears to be a scientific exploration is actually a political tract, saying that we can do without a patriarchal, male-dominated society, do without Dad, without family, without any of the structures which have hitherto shaped the human destiny.
The subtitle of Prasad’s thesis is How Science Is Redesigning The Rules Of Sex. To my mind, this book is not so much redesigning the rules of sex as suggesting sex as we know it should be abolished.
It is a good example of something purporting to be a work of science but is, in fact, as brimful of prejudice as any religious text, and as biased as any loony tract.
The author is a clever geneticist, and I know nothing. But I very much doubt whether human beings ever will be able to reproduce without the time-honoured meeting of male and female. But even if she is right, how boring life would be without the mutual attractions of the sexes, and the complexities, joys and frustrations of family relationships.