But a stubborn remnant of biological fact and cultural myth, that men and women alike are affected by, persists. So long as we reproduce ourselves, we also reproduce the spectacle of a woman withdrawing into herself, becoming huge, and in blood and tumult bringing forth the succeeding generation.
This is the stuff myths are made of, customs (such as the French custom of kissing a lady's hand, which originated not as a compliment to her but a symbolic gesture of gratitude to all women together for what they endure in childbirth) and practice (such as the practice of the mother, rather than the father, caring for children, because for nine months it was impossible to decide whether she and the child constituted two organisms or one).
Even the mother may experience this mystic awesomeness, so strange and somehow at odds with the present and the future. Yet it is only the remnant of a myth, and technology, which has gone part of the way toward destroying it, may yet destroy the rest.
According to the Nobel Prize Committee, the great advances in the science of biology in the years from the middle fifties to the middle sixties involved advances in knowledge of the genetic code. The most famous hypothesis put forward and confirmed was Crick and Watson's model of DNA, but also of importance was later work, identifying, under tremendous magnification, individual genes. Biologists say that with the cracking of the genetic code and the visualization of the smallest unit in genetics, a period of intense exploration and significant discovery has come to an end; the work remaining is not speculative, but by way of filling in and reconfirming. There is a sense, among younger Len, that the "excitement" has gone out. Many have shifted their attention to the closely related field of embryology, which is rich in tantalizing problems. For example, the knowledge of how the basic genetic material reproduces itself has been helpful to the embryologist, but he still does not know exactly how the genes themselves dictate the orderly development of a fertilized egg into a complicated and highly differentiated / multi-celled organism: what makes an eye an eye, and an arm not an eye, and what puts together limbs and organs so as to make an individual creature? Not only are such questions of "pure" interest, but since they go to the center of the reproductive process, the answers to them promise to have practical application to problems of genetic defect and birth control, two worldly matters much on the minds of scientists and nonscientists alike.
The research of the last few years in embryology, or molecular and reproductive biology, has already yielded a number of interesting hypotheses, as well as laboratory experiments, such as the one called "cloning." Theoretically, since every cell of an animal carries a load of genetic information unique to that individual, it ought to be possible, by destroying (with radiation) the female complement of chromosomes in the nucleus of an unfertilized frog cell, say, and implanting in its place an entire nucleus lifted out from another cell of a second frog, to fertilize the first cell and fabricate an embryo which would grow, be born, and mature into an adult frog that would not merely resemble the donor frog but would be its absolute replica. In cloning, this theory has living proof. A whole crowd (or clone; Greek, "a throng") of identical creatures has been bred in the laboratory, literally and predictably identical in every way to the donor frog except that some of the copies are older than others. Among other things, this shows that an individual creature, previously unique and mortal, may be rid of its uniqueness and have immortality conferred on it. The experiment is dazzling, and some of the knowledge gained ("spinoff") may eventually have practical human application, but so far the major interest has been "pure": no one suggests that humans can be immortal, or that there is any good reason why they should be. Much the same thing can be said of experiments in parthenogenesis, or the asexual fertilization, by mechanical means, of mammalian eggs. The first reports of such "immaculate conception" in lower animals in the laboratory came many years ago, when the French biologist Jacques Loeb caused "traumatic parthenogenesis" by touching a sea urchin egg with dry ice, but recently the accuracy of the method has been improved, and it has been made to work on mammals such as rabbits. Again, however, the direct human application is not apparent for many reasons, among them that human eggs fertilized by parthenogenesis always deteriorate and die; that because of the chromosome business, only females are conceived; and that, taking a long view, parthenogenesis is undesirable because the machinery of adaptive evolution requires sexual reproduction.