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Like a Virgin:

How science is redesigning the rules of sex

by Aarathi Prasad

(New Scientist review)

FIRST, seal a man's semen in a glass tube. Then bury the tube in horse manure for 40 days, remove it, magnetise it and watch the semen assemble themselves into a tiny human form. Voila - conception, without the pesky uterus.

This was the recipe for life suggested by the 16th-century scientist Paracelsus. His was one of the first enquiries into whether children could be born without the need for women. According to the prevailing scientific wisdom of the time, women were simply vessels, replaceable if you could just find the right alternative.

This misunderstanding isn't even the most entertaining story in Like a Virgin, in which biologist and science writer Aarathi Prasad looks from several perspectives at the possibility of human parthenogenesis, or reproduction without sex. The phenomenon is most often associated with the well-known religious tale, but it has been investigated for a variety of reasons throughout history.

When it comes to the Virgin Mary, Prasad is frank about the science of the predicament. The story can only be true, she says, if Mary were a chimera with testicular feminisation, a condition in which the external body manifests as female, but the internal organs are part male. In other words, Mary was also a man, and got herself pregnant. Prasad is so matter of fact - and well-sourced - about the underlying science that when she unveils this bombshell it has no shock value.

The book is peppered with illuminating analogies. For example, Prasad likens chromosomes swapping genetic information to "dancers circling to and fro, touching hands and retreating back to the line at one of Jane Austen's house balls".

These entertaining biology lessons are woven together with intriguing historical anecdotes and stories from nature. From electric ants to Amazonian lizards, both of which can reproduce without the need for males, the natural world is no stranger to virgin birth.

Intertwining science and history, Prasad meticulously builds a case for the possibility of human parthenogenesis. What she anticipates is neither religious miracle nor one-off scientific fluke. Instead, she believes the future will bring a reality of ectogenesis - gestation in an artificial, external womb - much as Paracelsus envisioned it.

She builds a strong case for this possibility - citing animal studies using artificial wombs and efforts to engineer artificial human placentas. Prasad also argues that this is an outcome that could be more desirable than natural childbirth - not because it is a better alternative to women, but because it's a better alternative for them. Human pregnancy remains risky and even life-threatening, and infertility is a growing problem. An alternative could be extremely attractive.

A hugely successful braid of reproductive biology, history of science, and politics, this is science writing that will keep you up past your bedtime.

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