September 08, 2017

For most of human history, we didn’t know where babies come from. Sure, we knew it involved sex, but beyond that, things got a little fuzzy. The story of how we got clarity on the birds and the bees is as circuitous as it is strange. Its cast of characters includes kings, philosophers, sea urchins, and the father of microbiology. Science writer Edward Dolnick, author of the new book The Seeds of Life, tells the tale.

Three Takeaways 

  • There have been some strange ideas out there about where babies come from, including from many of history’s greatest thinkers. At one point, Leonardo da Vinci depicted the male anatomy with a tube carrying semen from the brain, down the spinal column, and to the penis. Turns out, that’s not accurate.
  • Sea urchins helped us finally understand conception. In 1875, a German scientist named Oscar Hertwig witnessed baby sea urchins being conceived with the help of a microscope.
  • The people trying to figure out the mechanics of the birds and the bees were men. Dolnick wonders whether we’d have solved this question much more quickly if women, who (it turns out) play a pretty big role in the baby-making process, had been involved as well.

More reading 

innovation hub, Edward Dolnick, pri, Kara Miller, WGBH

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