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The Future of Sex

Artificial wombs, lifelong fertility -- it seems the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, but an author says it will happen.


Imagine a woman being able to convert her own eggs into “pseudo-sperm” to fertilize herself – or perhaps instead an artificial womb that will carry the pregnancy to term while she continues her uninterrupted climb up the career ladder. Picture an older woman harvesting eggs from her own bone marrow to beat her ticking biological clock.

Lifelong fertility, artificial wombs, “pseudo-sperm” – it sounds like the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, but a new book suggests it’s an inevitable reality. In  “Like a Virgin: How Science Is Redefining the Rules of Sex,” author Aarathi Prasad writes, “This would be the great biological and social equalizer, a truly new way of thinking about sex. The question is not if it will happen, but when.” It isn’t just women who stand to benefit, either: Artificial wombs will actually give men “more potential than women to make a baby without the opposite sex,” says Prasad, a biologist and science writer. The takeaway is that “male plus female equals baby will no longer be our only path forward.”

The potential social implications of such advances are fascinating, but Prasad leaves those imaginings to the likes of Aldous Huxley. She’s more concerned with reviewing how our reproductive knowledge developed and what technologies are being developed — but in a relatively digestible way (more Jared Diamond than Jonah Lehrer). That said, Prasad cautions against future-panic, arguing that these developments could actually improve on current ethical quandaries around reproduction. For example, which is less morally fraught: stem cell eggs and artificial wombs, or paying a poor woman in a third-world country as an egg donor or surrogate mother?

Prasad spoke to Salon by phone from her home in London about everything from “lesbian lizards,” virgin births and greatly exaggerated reports of the Y chromosome’s death.

It’s bizarre to think of a time when we didn’t know what sperm was. More amazing still is that even when it was discovered that female mammals produced eggs, it was assumed they were merely meant for incubating the all-important sperm. Why was that such a great conceptual hurdle?

That’s a good question. I think the idea went back to ancient Egyptians and ancient India. For long periods of history, human dissection was proscribed — and even when they did it, they didn’t have women. They really didn’t have a good understanding of the female body. When they dissected men, they assumed that women’s organs were some kind of lesser version of the males’. So it may have been, even when these scientists were looking down microscopes and seeing eggs or seeing that there were insects that reproduce without males, they were just unable to entertain the idea, that what could really be happening challenged the ideas that they were so used to. They saw what they wanted to see. It just fit into their social ideas, so it wasn’t challenged.

You point out in the book that it’s a bit odd that women reproduce sexually, since it isn’t “optimal for them or their progeny” (as more-plentiful sperm are more likely to pass on harmful mutations). So why do they — or we?

The best answer to that would probably be “to give increased genetic variety.” If you had a characteristic that was beneficial that one individual in a population had, and another one that was good that another individual in a population had, and they were just going on reproducing themselves without mating, then there will never be a chance that those two good characteristics come together in one individual. You have the option to have that much more variety when you do mate, and this can have huge advantages in adapting to new environments, like if new parasites came in or something. You would have more options in your genetic instruction book to choose from. Having said that, there are animal species that have reproduced millions of years without males, and it’s not always through cloning themselves. There’s not a one-size fits all. There’s a weird and wonderful array of ways that females, with and without males, choose to do it.

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