The Seeds of Life

Chapter One: Onward to Glory

By the late 1600s, the era when the scientific world began to take on its modern shape, explorers had circled the globe and mapped the heavens. They had calculated the weight of the Earth, traced the paths of comets that cut the sky only once in a lifetime, and divined the secret of the Milky Way. They had uncovered the mathematics at the heart of music and discovered the laws of perspective, so that an artist armed only with a paintbrush could pin reality to his canvas. But for thousands of years, long after Columbus and Magellan and Galileo, the deepest scientific riddle of all lay unsolved.

Where do babies come from? Such geniuses and creators of the modern era as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton did not know. They knew, that is, that men and women have sex and as a result, sometimes, babies, but they did not know how those babies are created. They did not know that women produce eggs, and when they finally discovered sperm cells, they did not know that those wriggly tadpoles had anything to do with babies and pregnancy. (The leading theory was that they were parasites, perhaps related to the newly discovered mini-creatures that swam in drops of pond water. This was Newton's view.)

Not until astonishingly recent times—in 1875, in a seaside laboratory in Naples, Italy—was the mystery of where babies come from finally solved.

Until then everything to do with conception and development was wrapped in darkness. For centuries, scientists struggled to find out if the woman merely provides a fertile field for the man's seed, or if she produces some kind of seed of her own. They did not know how twins come to be. (Too much semen? Two bouts of sex in quick succession? Sex with two different men?) They did not know if conception is more likely on the night of a full moon or a new moon or if timing makes any difference at all. They did not know, though they assumed, that a baby has only one father, as it has only one mother. They did not know why babies resemble their parents, and sometimes one parent more than the other.

Where do we come from? How does life begin? These were the most urgent of all scientific questions. The world is festooned with mystery and miracle. But not everyone has wondered why the stars shine or why the Earth spins. Every person who has ever lived has asked where babies come from. For millennia, the deepest of thinkers (and every ordinary person) had pondered this cosmic riddle.

No one had a clue.