About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, December 22, 2006
A real virgin birth, in time for Christmas
The fact that Komodo dragons can undergo parthenogenesis, the technical term for self-fertilization, is new to science, but it is certainly not uncommon among animals and plants. Natural selection, according to researchers who study the dragons, may have favored parthenogenesis as an option so that individual animals would be able to colonize new areas, such as an island. You get there first, have sex with yourself, then have sex with your own offspring (which in the case of female dragons would all be males, because of the genetics of this species), and a new population would be established. Of course, I wouldn't recommend conservative commentators pick this species as an example of family values, better stick with penguins.
The obvious question, given the season, is: could Jesus (assumed he was a real historical figure) be the result of human parthenogenesis? Well, the process is unknown in humans so far, but then again it was unknown in Komodo dragons until this week too (though parthenogenesis had been described before in reptiles, but not in primates). Of course, given the peculiarities of human genetics, this would make Jesus a woman. Take that, Dan Brown!
Much more likely, however, Mary wasn't a virgin at all, but simply a young woman. As is well known, the oldest Greek version of the Septuagint did use the word “virgin” referring to the prophecy of Isaiah, allegedly predicting the birth of Jesus: “ Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Besides the apparently neglected little detail that Jesus was named Jesus, not Immanuel, the original Hebrew word was “ha-almah,” which means young woman, not virgin. To think that scores have been killed throughout history for not believing in a translation error. Ironically, ha-almah was translated into Greek as “parthenos,” the root word for parthenogenesis. Beautiful, ain't it?