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Bethany Torode


Of Poetry and Polyspermy

The natural history of human reproduction.

It was the spring of the year and of my first pregnancy. My silhouette was just beginning to round out to the point where planting was awkward but not unmanageable. I settled my knees into the soil and sowed a patch of violas. As I buried the seeds in the ground and patted the dirt over their hiding spots, I thought of my own Seedling, nestled within me for his nine-month germination. I pondered the thread of continuity running through creation: new life begins in darkness, enveloped by mystery.

For King David, the depths of the womb were known only to God:

My frame was not hidden from Thee,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.
—Psalm 139:15

In our day, however, human reproduction no longer seems so mysterious. Science has revealed exactly what goes on inside the womb, from the meeting of sperm and egg onward. Two new books from Harvard University Press shine an academic light into the secret depths of creation.

On Fertile Ground: A Natural History of Human Reproduction is the work of Harvard anthropologist Peter Ellison. In clean, elegant prose, Ellison has crafted a synthesis of current knowledge in a range of disciplines. As a reader with little background in science beyond high school biology, I found it tough going at times, but those with previous knowledge of anatomy and reproductive physiology will have less difficulty understanding Ellison's terminology, and his exposition offers a superb overview.

A book more likely to end up in a "Reproductive Biology for English Majors" class is Making Babies: The Science of Pregnancy, by David Bainbridge. The playful title suggests the book's flavor. Bainbridge, a professor at London's Royal Veterinary College, covers his subject like an academic reporting for the National Enquirer. His eye for the sensational and amusing aspects of pregnancy, combined with his understated sense of humor, results in a more digestible—but still solidly scientific—read.

The books complement each other well. ...

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