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

Leave it to nature to contribute with a twist to the “true meaning” of Christmas. Scientists have just announced that a female Komodo dragon named Flora, a resident of the Chester Zoo in England, will give multiple births around Christmas – with no help from any male dragon!

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?


  1. awesome, massimo. very interesting.
    so this is the first time a komodo dragon has done this? at least in captivity? does it have the ability to conceive with a male as well? shouldnt we be able to tell when a species is or has the potential to be self-fertilizing?

  2. obviously it can conceive with a male. what i should ask is are there any self-fertilizing animals that self-fertilize exclusively?

  3. Mark,

    yes there are. For example rotifers, and I believe some species of salamanders.

  4. awesome. why were they so surprised, though?
    shouldn't we be able to tell anatomically,physiologically, etc. when an animal is capable of self-fertilization?

  5. Normally fundies claim that parthenos means virgin but the Greek word parthenos is described of Dina AFTER she is raped. This means that parthenos does not have to mean "virgin" as it is usually claimed and can be "young woman" just as the Hebrew "Ha Almah." The translators of the Net Bible give us "young woman" in this context.

    "When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, who ruled that area, saw her, he grabbed her, forced himself on her, and sexually assaulted her. Then he became very attached to Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. He fell in love with the young woman and spoke romantically to her"

    Here "young woman" is the Greek parthenos. See Genesis Chapter 34.

    The only reason why parthenos MUST be "virgin" is because the gospels that quote Isaiah tell us it means virgin - a loss of biblical inerrancy.

  6. ... and theological position.

  7. I thought the name 'Jesus' was a greek translation of the Hebrew name "Joshua"...

  8. me:
    There are no 'J's in the Hebrew alphabet.
    All young women, unmarried, were virgins. If they werent then they would be stoned.


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