Thursday, August 17, 2023

 Birth without Sex

Parthenogenesis is more intricate than it sounds. In crude terms, it is birth without sex, asexual reproduction. Depending on one’s style and sensibility, parthenogenesis is viewed as ‘immaculate conception’  or  ‘virgin birth,’ with little role for the male partner. Its human application is right now not even under contemplation but the possibility of a female begetting a progeny on her own is ever more stark. That throws man out of his sexual throne arrogated through thousands of years in the evolutionary cycle.

Birds and reptiles were known to have this rare capacity. But there it stood for long. And now comes news from Costa Rica that crocodyles, kept meticulously out of male company, can lay eggs. The first such egg has been hatched in an epoch-making move towards female independence. The offspring showcased in a reptile museum in Costa Rica is quite like its mother, its genetic personality reflecting more than 99 percent of its mother.  

This is how the Royal Society’s journal, Biology Letters, evaluates the event. “Once considered rare, the ability of sexually reproducing species to generate offspring without genetic contributions of males, termed facultative parthenogenesis, has been documented across multiple vertebrate lineages… This discovery offers tantalizing insights into the possible reproductive capabilities of the extinct archosaurian relatives of crocodilians and birds, notably members of Pterosauria and Dinosauria.”

Warren Booth of Virginia Tech University has been studying for ten years this overwhelming biological event, parthenogenesis or virgin birth. He is hardly surprised by this latest discovery. The independent reproductive genius of female crocodiles reflected through the eighteen-year old American reptile must have been inherited from the long extinct dinosaurs. 

Booth reports that there has been a significant increase in what is known as virgin births among reptiles and fishes and birds. It might not have been seriously noticed. Why or how this singular trait developed in them, reducing or ending the male role in conjugal life is difficult to answer with the scientific data now available. Possibly, dinosaurs developed this faculty when their species looked like becoming extinct. 

From female birds and fishes and crocodiles producing their progeny to sons and daughters being conceived by human females is a far cry, an evolutionary fantasy. While the formulation offered in the following paragraphs is anything but a half-baked para-scientific thesis, mythology and epic historiography gives ample evidence of human preoccupation with male arrogance in conjugal partnership. The elusive male, the absconding father, the abandoned child unowned or disowned by its male guardian--they have all been theme-setters in our holy books.

Look at the familiar story of the primeval virgin birth itself. The advent of Jesus in the Christian tradition is sought to be explained away as an act of god, who is portrayed as a kind presence up in heaven. But the brunt of the birth had to be borne exclusively by the mother. Life’s agony reached its climax when, yielding to his destiny on the cross, Jesus cried out if god, his lord, his father, had abandoned him. 

From Hindu mythology, Karna’s crisis of birth and death is often presented as a mother’s gaffe or an itinerant  father’s unconcern. His tragedy was his solar father’s callous approach to sexual cohabitation. Every crucial and self-revealing occasion in his life was marked by a question about his fatherhood, asked loudly by his inveterate enemies, mumbled by himself and his benefactors. The self-limiting suggestion that the sources of rivers and warriors need not be investigated is hardly helpful. Karna’s portrait as an enraged bastard looms large in the chronicle of the Kurukshetra war. Kunti, his mother, didn’t have the benefit of the story of the Costa Rica crocodile which laid eggs without letting a divine or human partner touch it.

Virgin birth is no boon, neither composite nor exclusive. It throws up the progeny as a bastard, an end product of an anonymous father’s and a luckless and naive mother’s peccadilloes, leaving the  world wide open for a peripatetic male’s entertainment. The progeny lives and dies, smarting under the self-same snide remark that he is a bastard. Being a bastard is by far the most shameful state for a son or daughter to be in. When the queendom of the mother comes, requiring no intercession of a maverick male, maybe, conception and delivery being a selective mother’s exclusive mission, that moral system denouncing bastardness will be knocked out.

I remember anecdotes of different kinds of fathers, ditching their consorts or disowning their wards. In our village eight decades ago, a single woman became pregnant, throwing gossip tongues into paroxysms of vilification. The woman suffered in silence, facing ignominy in the comity of the village folk, and the ire of her humiliated brothers and cousins. One of them waylaid a well-to-do young man in his early twenties whom the gossip mill had identified as the father. Bloody hell was to break out when the pleasure-loving man recognized the imminent danger. Quietly, exuding no dignity or magnanimity, he owned up the baby and made its mother his accredited wife.

Such a turn of events is not familiar or frequent in most places. Long years later, our village was witness to a petite woman of an elite family getting ready for a virgin birth. Everyone knew who  the delinquent dandy was and he came forward to own up the baby in  the womb. She had exercised her will and volition, though not like the daring crocodile of Costa Rica. She chose to remain a single mother without publicly naming her baby’s dad. Begetting a child but hiding its dad’s identity is not common but not unknown. What immediately comes to mind is a Shaji Karun film in which the protagonist’s name is fastidiously held back by the woman in whom he had a child. When human females come to enjoy the power to procreate, as our blessed crocodile in Costa Rica zoo does, male mughals of our time would have no field day.

There was this middle-level employee of a public organization who had never been able to wipe off the stain of being the unacknowledged son of his unsympathetic father. The son was getting married and he proposed to introduce himself as the son of his father. Nothing doing, said the father. The recalcitrant father threatened to take the son to the court. Those were not the days of DNA tests or litigation to legitimize fatherhood. Nothing more of it was heard.

The experience of the self-creating crocodile of Costa Rica, when applied to the human condition one of these distant days, will usher in a two-prong fantasy. For one thing, reproduction will no longer be a male-female mission, mothers declaring independence of fathers, at least in that limited zone of conjugality. For another, who is whose father will be no one's concern. That must remove from our lexicon of abuse an old expletive, a tepid, neither-here-nor-there ridicule, “bastard.”

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