Press Column

It was a good week for scientific studiess of the Virgin Birth. It started in the Science pages of the Daily Telegraph, which aired Professor Sam Berry’s theories about how a virgin birth might have been medically possible, though startlingly unlikely. I think, in fact, these were originally developed by his wife, another Christian biologist. In any case, the couple have now worked out a complicated mechanism by which Jesus could have been born parthenogenetically, and still have been male. It’s difficult enough, though not — how can one say — inconceivable — for a mammal to give birth without fertilisation; but, if it should happen, the child would have to be a female, because female eggs contain only X chromosomes, and not the Y that makes males. This is an argument popular with the followers of Richard Dawkins. The Berries, setting out to refute it, are led down some curious byways.

"In the absence of sperm to import a Y chromosome, Berry speculates that Mary could have been male, but suffered a genetic mutation that prevented the target cells in her body from ‘recognising’ the male sex hormone testosterone; Mary would have been chromosomally XY but would appears as a normal female." With another, later, mutation such a person might have given birth to a son parthenogenetically.

Another possibility, he says, is that Mary was really a woman, but that Jesus was chromosomally a woman too, but one in whom the SRY gene, which triggers male development, had moved from the Y chromosome, where it normally lives, to one of the X chromosomes. This would have made him a sterile man. This can happen, though it has never been observed in conjunction with a virgin birth. Indeed, as Berry says, no virgin birth in humans has ever been scientifically attested.

This was all promoting an event at the ICA in London on December 7th, when the science editor has a book of unlikely science to plug. But it was brought into sudden focus by the weekend’s announcement by an American company that it had cloned three human embryos which divided until they had six cells, and also managed to get five eggs to start dividing parthenogenetically, without any additional DNA being inserted. The company responsible claimed this was a step towards therapeutic cloning, which would produce stem cells, rather than reproductive cloning, which hopes to produce babies. Actually, what they announced looks like a scientific failure. Professor Ian Wilmut, the man who cloned Dolly, was quite widely quoted in the broadsheets and even the Daily Mail as saying that the embryos produced by the company had clearly died, and there was no evidence that the inserted DNA had started to co-operate with the cell around it.

But of course this fact, too high up, would have spoiled the story altogether. So the Mail’s story actually started: "RESEARCHERS have created the first cloned human embryos in an experiment that crosses one of the most fundamental ethical boundaries in science. Though just tiny balls of cells, they were the first human life to have been produced without conception." There’s nothing wrong with this story except that, if Wilmut is right, it’s not true; and I haven’t heard anyone pouring scorn in him. Never mind: everyone knows what they think about clones anyway, so the story could safely continue "The announcement last night by American scientists prompted furious debate on both sides of the Atlantic. The embryos were created using techniques pioneered by the British team which created Dolly the sheep."

The other thing about the story that no one seems to have spotted was that it was not just hyping a result. It was hyping the journal the results were published in, and a conference where they were to be presented, both, I think, organised by the same people. The journal itself exists only on the Internet, and, though the article about cloning is freely available, if you want a subscription to the rest, it will cost $545 a year. Hmm. Perhaps the only real novelty of the story, then, was the discovery that if parthenogenetic human eggs were to grow to maturity, they would require a set of almost perfect chromosomes in the mother, without any of the deadly recessive mutations that everyone carries. So it turns out that the Virgin Birth really does require an Immaculate Conception, too.

A rather lesser-known miracle was Geri Halliwell’s interest in Christianity, or, as the Sun put it: "She finds God after losing famous pals." The Telgraph illustrated the story with a huge picture of Ms Halliwell; apparently she turns up to Alpha meetings dressed more warmly than in her photographs. According the Telegraph, she had completed eight weeks of a course. According to the Sun, she had skipped several meetings, including the residential weekend.

The Telegraph did mention her previous enthusiasm for Yoga, which was banned from the church hall at Henham in Essex, to huge publicity. Perhaps they should hold the classes at a football club instead. The Guardian had a very funny piece on the religious rituals welcome on football grounds. From this it appears that the myth that Richard Harries exorcised the Oxford City football ground has taken firm hold of the nation. All he actually did was to say two short prayers over the ground, and sprinkle some water. But in the Guardian he "said a prayer of exorcism"; this was listed along with the abortive goat sacrifice at Tromsoe football club, reported here earlier, and a druid being asked to lift a curse at Leyton Orient.

In Southampton, after a number of more conventional attempts to win games had failed, the club had a "pagan goddess" perform a ritual to placate dead Anglo-Saxon warriors. Thus emboldened, the players went on to record their first win of the season against live opponents. As Harry Pearson said, "Where do they get these people from, the Yellow Pages? "Goddesses, Pagan, See under Deities, Female, Pantheistic, and Druid services."

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