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Woman: An Intimate Geographyby Natalie Angier
UNSCRAMBLING THE EGG
IT BEGINS WITH ONE PERFECT SOLAR CELL
Put a few adults in a room with a sweet-tempered infant, and you may as well leave a tub of butter sitting out in the midday sun. Within moments of crowding around the crib, their grown-up bones begin to soften and their spines to bend. Their eyes mist over with cataracts of pleasure. They misplace intellect and discover new vocal ranges--countertenor, soprano, piglet. And when they happen on the baby's hands, prepare for a variant on the ancient Ode to the Fingernail. Nothing so focuses adult adoration as a newborn's fingernail, its lovely condensed precocity. See the tiny cuticle below, the white eyebrow of keratin on top, the curved buff of the nail body, the irresistible businesslike quality of the whole: it looks like it really works! We love the infant fingernail for its capacity to flatter, its miniature yet faithful recreation of our own form. More than in the thigh or the eye or even the springy nautilus shell of the ear, in the baby's nail sits the homunculus, the adult in preview. And so, we are reminded, the future is assured.
Myself, I prefer eggs.
At some point midway through my pregnancy, when I knew I was carrying a daughter, I began to think of myself as standing in a room with two facing mirrors, so that looking into one mirror you see the other mirror reflecting it, and you, off into something approaching an infinity of images. At twenty weeks' gestation, my girl held within her nine-ounce, banana-sized body, in a position spatially equivalent to where she floated in me, the tangled grapevines of my genomic future. Halfway through her fetal tenure, she already had all the eggs she would ever have, packed into ovaries no bigger than the letters ova you just passed. My daughter's eggs are silver points of potential energy, the light at the beginning of the tunnel, a near-life experience. Boys don't make sperm--their proud "seed"--until they reach puberty. But my daughter's sex cells, our seed, are already settled upon prenatally, the chromosomes sorted, the potsherds of her parents' histories packed into their little phospholipid baggies.
The image of the nested Russian dolls is used too often. I see it everywhere, particularly in descriptions of scientific mysteries (you open one mystery, you encounter another). But if there were ever an appropriate time to dust off the simile, it's here, to describe the nested nature of the matriline. Consider, if you will, the ovoid shape of the doll and the compelling unpredictability and fluidity of dynasty. Open the ovoid mother and find the ovoid girl; open the child and the next egg grins up its invitation to crack it. You can never tell a priori how many iterations await you; you hope they continue forever. My daughter, my matryoshka.
I said a moment ago that my daughter had all her eggs in midfetushood. In fact she was goosed up way beyond capacity, a fatly subsidized poultry farm. She had all her eggs and many more, and she will lose the great majority of those glittering germ cells before she begins to menstruate. At twenty weeks' gestation, the peak of a female's oogonial load, the fetus holds 6 to 7 million eggs. In the next twenty weeks of wombing, 4 million of those eggs will die, and by puberty all but 400,000 will have taken to the wing, without a squabble, without a peep.
The attrition continues, though at a more sedate pace, throughout a woman's youth and early middle age. At most, 450 of her eggs will be solicited for ovulation, and far fewer than that if she spends a lot of time being pregnant and thus not ovulating. Yet by menopause, few if any eggs remain in the ovaries. The rest have vanished. The body has reclaimed them.
This is a basic principle of living organisms. Life is profligate; life is a spendthrift; life can persist only by living beyond its means. You make things in extravagant abundance, and then you shave back, throw away, kill off the excess. Through extensive cell death the brain is molded, transformed from a teeming pudding of primitive, overpopulous neurons into an organized structure of convolutions and connections, recognizable lobes and nuclei; by the time the human brain has finished developing, in infancy, 90 percent of its original cell number has died, leaving the privileged few to sustain the hard work of dwelling on mortality. This is also how limbs are built. At some point in embryogenesis, the fingers and toes must be relieved of their interdigital webbing, or we would emerge from our amniotic aquarium with flippers and fins. And this too is how the future is laid down.
The millions of eggs that we women begin with are cleanly destroyed through an innate cell program called apoptosis. The eggs do not simply die--they commit suicide. Their membranes ruffle up like petticoats whipped by the wind and they break into pieces, thence to be absorbed bit by bit into the hearts of neighboring cells. By graciously if melodramatically getting out of the way, the sacrificial eggs leave their sisters plenty of hatching room. I love the word apoptosis, the onomatopoeia of it: a-POP-tosis. The eggs pop apart like poked soap bubbles, a brief flash of taut, refracted light and then, ka-ping! And while my girl grew toward completion inside me, her fresh little eggs popped by the tens of thousands each day. By the time she is born, I thought, her eggs will be the rarest cells in her body.
Scientists have made much of apoptosis in the past few years. They have sought to link every disease known to granting agencies, whether cancer, Alzheimer's, or AIDS, to a breakdown in the body's ability to control when pieces of itself must die. Just as a pregnant woman sees nothing but a sea of swollen bellies all around her, so scientists see apoptosis gone awry in every ill person or sickly white mouse they examine, and they promise grand paybacks in cures and amelioratives if they ever master apoptosis. For our purposes, let us think not of disease or dysfunction; let us instead praise the dying hordes, and lubricate their departure with tears of gratitude. Yes, it's wasteful, yes, it seems stupid to make so much and then immediately destroy nearly all of it, but would nature get anywhere if she were stingy? Would we expect to see her flagrant diversity, her blowsy sequins and feather boas, if she weren't simply and reliably too much? Think of it this way: without the unchosen, there can be no choosing. Unless we break eggs, there can be no souffle. The eggs that survive the streamlining process could well be the tastiest ones in the nest.
And so, from an eggy perspective, we may not be such random, sorry creatures after all, such products of contingency or freak odds as many of us glumly decided during our days of adolescent sky-punching (Why me, oh Lord? How did that outrageous accident happen?). The chances of any of us being, rather than not being, may not be so outrageous, considering how much was winnowed out before we ever arrived at the possibility of being. I used to wonder why life works as well as it does, why humans and other animals generally emerge from incubation in such beautiful condition--why there aren't more developmental horrors. We all know about the high rate of spontaneous miscarriages during the first trimester of pregnancy, and we have all heard that the majority of those miscarriages are blessed expulsions, eliminating embryos with chromosomes too distorted for being. Yet long before that point, when imperfect egg has met bad sperm, came the vast sweeps of the apoptotic broom, the vigorous judgment of no, no, no. Not you, not you, and most definitely not you. Through cell suicide, we at last get to yes--a rare word, but beautiful in its rarity.
We are all yeses. we are worthy enough, we passed inspection, we survived the great fetal oocyte extinctions. In that sense, at least--call it a mechanospiritual sense--we are meant to be. We are good eggs, every one of us.
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