12 November 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 681
Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex
Published by Oneworld Publications
ISBN-10: 1851689117, ISBN-13: 978-1851689118
Buy this book from Amazon UK
'Some people assert, and positively assert, that a female mouse by licking salt can become pregnant without the intervention of the male' - Aristotle, Historia Animalium, 350 BCE.
This outlandish statement is just one of the many fascinating quotes and accounts in Aarathi Prasad's 'Like a Virgin', which explores 'how science is redesigning the rules of sex'.
Reading the back cover blurb, I was looking forward to an eye-opening adventure, discovering the ways in which societies have long been fascinated with creating a child by unconventional means. The book also promised to show how this might be possible in the future. Overall, I wasn't disappointed.
Prasad has a PhD in mammalian cell cycle biology and was previously a researcher in cancer genetics. She is now a biologist and science writer and communicator, appearing in a number of popular television programmes and radio shows. One plaudit from Stylist magazine encouraged us to think of her as 'the female Brian Cox making science accessible to the masses', and it's clear that this is her aim with this project.
The book is well-structured, taking you on a clearly defined journey through history, focusing first on ancient beliefs and myths surrounding virgin births, moving up to the present day – where IVF enables reproduction without sex – and into speculation on the expansion of such technology. Will we one day inhabit some version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World where reproduction has become completely divorced from sex?
Along the way, intriguing trivia abounds: the Virgin Mary might have conceived immaculately thanks to having both male and female sex organs; Komodo Dragon virgin births happened in a UK zoo a couple of years ago; in the 16th century sages attempted to create a virgin birth by placing semen in a glass tube and burying it in horse manure for 40 days.
The first half of this book captivated me as Prasad went into considerable detail to illustrate our historical fascination with sexless birth. As I continued reading, however, I was less enthralled. At times it seemed as though I was reading a something resembling a textbook, something I rarely do unless coerced!
The fault may well be mine. Having studied topics such as 'fertility tourism', IVF and surrogacy, the book's second half just didn't hold the same thrills as the (for me) previously uncharted ground of the first. Despite the book's friendly, welcoming narrative, the discussion surrounding future possibilities for alternative conception was occasionally quite science-heavy, something I think would be off-putting for beginners to the subject.
Despite this, the social implications and considerations of new technology were given thorough consideration, which put the science in context. Issues such as payment for donated gametes, surrogacy and gender inequality were weaved into the narrative on future possibilities, giving the reader plenty to think about.
I don't want to spoil the best parts, but in the chapter 'Real men bear children' there was a twist that I didn't expect. It turns out that men might be in with just as good a chance of becoming solo parents than women. Using a quote from Lord Robert Winston, Prasad sums this up nicely: 'male pregnancy would certainly be possible, and would be the same as when a woman has an ectopic pregnancy... although to sustain it, you'd have to give the man lots of female hormones'. It's odd twists and intricacies like this that kept me turning the pages.
As an engaged reader already familiar with many of these topics, the book held my attention well although I feel both those more fully in the know and readers completely new to the subject might struggle. The book doesn't introduce any revolutionary new theories; many of the options for a 'virgin birth' have been around for decades. People who are knowledgeable in this area will have no eureka moments, but will no doubt enjoy the absorbing background reading in the first half.
Buy Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex from Amazon UK.