Self-sexing insects and other cases of parthenogenesis

What's so divine about a virgin birth?

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Dec. 24, 1999

Tomorrow is reputedly the 1,999th birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified leader of Christianity, the globe's largest creed. Many of the faithful followers of this man-Messiah believe that he was birthed from the womb of a virgin, despite scientists' claim that this phenomenon, called parthenogenesis, occurs only in low-level species.

Many annoying insects such as ants, bees, wasps and aphids as well as some fleas and ticks create progeny in a manner similar to the legendary Virgin Mary, i.e., without any assistance from sperm. A few scaly fish and reptiles are also capable of immaculate conception.

Not content with either nature's unimpressive displays of self-conception or religion's high-flown spiritual romances, scientists have been trying to expand single-sex reproduction for the past century. Biologist Jacques Loeb first developed artificial parthenogenesis in 1899 when he developed sea urchin larvae. In 1900 he progressed to polliwogs, creating embryos in frog eggs by pricking their jelly-like shells with a needle. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, American birth-control pioneer Gregory Pincus made the first miracle mammals in 1936, when he injected life into a rabbit ovum with chemicals and temperature changes.

Despite the New Testament's assertion in Luke 1:35 that Mary was impregnated by an angel's simple announcement, "The Holy Ghost shall come over thee, and the power of the Highest shall come over thee," there is no scientific proof that human parthenogenesis has ever been achieved. Even so, the theory that Jesus' embryo was created by a non-copulatory method remains staunchly defended by Catholics, Christian Scientists and numerous other sects.

Miraculous-birth narratives are not limited to Christian theology. Classical mythology teaches that sea foam spawned the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite; the avatar of India's Jainism, Mahavira (aka Nataputta Vardhamana, 599 B.C. to 527 B.C.) was believed to have traveled straight from heaven to a spermless conception; and the Persian prophet Zoroaster was supposedly conceived when his parents drank a sacred infusion of milk and divine plants.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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