As Aarathi Prasad reminds us in a well-chosen quotation, Coleridge said that "the history of man for the nine months preceding his birth would probably be far more interesting, and contain events of greater moment, than all the three score and ten years that follow it". In Like a Virgin, she sets out to prove him correct by exploring the possibility of virgin birth and using this theme as a way to discuss the science of various reproductive anomalies, current fertility treatments and cutting-edge research in this area. This is not just a book about human reproduction, with many points illustrated with tales of weird and wonderful animal biology.
Strictly speaking, a virgin birth is one that occurs without sexual intercourse, and this has already been realised through in vitro fertilisation and related techniques. But while these treatments are discussed, Prasad goes one step further and defines a virgin birth as one that does not involve men at all. Indeed, this book sometimes feels like an exploration of how women can procreate alone - perhaps because Prasad, a geneticist by training, is conscious of the possibility of the extinction of men through the loss of the male sex chromosome.
She sets the scene with an account of the 2,000 years from Aristotle's realisation that semen was the male reproductive lifeforce via Antonie van Leeuwenhoek's 17th-century microscopic observations of swimming sperm and the denigration by Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley of the proposal that sperm were key before fertilisation was finally observed in 1876. Excellent dinner-party fodder is provided by Prasad's scientific explanations of a whole variety of stories from both distant and recent history, including why Jesus must have been a girl, insights into the bedchamber of Henry II, how 19 women in the 1950s believed their daughters to be the result of virgin births, and accounts of human chimeras giving birth to genetically unrelated children.
Prasad's detailed descriptions of the mechanisms that underpin reproduction highlight the complexity of the chain of biological events that must all happen correctly - and yet amazingly it all works for 80 per cent of couples within a year, a fact that tends to get lost, as do the costs and logistics of implementing the new fertility techniques showcased here. At times Prasad gives the impression that she believes artificial reproduction is the only option for the future of mankind. Ethical issues are raised, in particular those surrounding oocyte donation and surrogacy, and Prasad supports the view that science is the answer rather than social or political change. Occasionally she seems to lose some of her scientist's scepticism and suggests that we are close to achieving wholly laboratory-based reproduction. And herein lies the problem with much media coverage of this topic - a tendency to oversell what has been achieved, giving false hope to those struggling with fertility problems while providing fodder to certain newspapers about what those crazy scientists are up to now.
Although Like a Virgin offers some lay explanations, such as a discussion of what DNA is, there is an assumption that the reader will have basic science knowledge. This is a book that will appeal to many because, as the old adage goes, "sex sells", and it may be a good topic to lure young scientists into the world of genetics. It will also be of interest to those with experience of fertility treatment, helping them to set their own journey in the context of those who have gone before and providing a glimpse of future possibilities. To highlight another of Prasad's quotations, this time from Darwin, "I am particularly glad that you are ruminating on the act of fertilisation: it has long seemed to me the most wonderful and curious of physiological problems."
Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex
By Aarathi Prasad
Oneworld Publications, 288pp, £12.99
Published 23 August 2012