Pregnancy is a battlefield.

There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times about a theory by evolutionary biologist David Haig dealing with pregnancy and how it’s a struggle between the developing fetus and the mother:

“Pregnancy is absolutely central to reproduction, and yet pregnancy doesn’t seem to work very well,” he said. “If you think about the heart or the kidney, they’re wonderful bits of engineering that work day in and day out for years and years. But pregnancy is associated with all sorts of medical problems. What’s the difference?”

The difference is that the heart and the kidney belong to a single individual, while pregnancy is a two-person operation. And this operation does not run in perfect harmony. Instead, Dr. Haig argues, a mother and her unborn child engage in an unconscious struggle over the nutrients she will provide it.

Dr. Haig’s theory has been gaining support in recent years, as scientists examine the various ways pregnancy can go wrong.

In short, the theory suggests that the fetus is an efficient parasite that battles with the mother for limited resources and, from a strictly scientific outlook, that’s a pretty accurate description that is being supported by more and more research. It goes on to talk about how changes to certain genes can result in various problems during pregnancy and even later into adult life and it all starts in the womb.

Because of the negative connotations associated with the word “parasite” I fully expected this article to cause a big blow up among the anti-abortion bloggers out there even though the word itself doesn’t show up in the article, but overall the response I’ve seen out there has been surprisingly subdued. Most folks seem to be resisting the urge to try and apply the scientific findings to their personal political viewpoint on the issue of abortion. Sure, there’s a few folks out there on the anti-choice side that are having a screaming fit over the news article, but overall most folks seem to be taking it in stride.

PZ Myers points out that not only is this not a new idea, but there are examples in nature that could be considered even more troubling—such as how male and female organisms can evolve differently to try and maximize their advantages in sexual reproduction:

This sets up a cycle of counter-adaptations in the population. If a male acquires a mutation that increases his fitness at the expense of his mate’s—for instance, if some component of his semen works on her brain to suppress her interest in remating—it will spread through the population due to its positive effect on male fitness, even though it reduces female fitness. Subsequently, a female who acquired a counter-adaptive resistance to the male’s hormonal sabotage would have an advantage, and that gene would spread through the population, reducing male fitness by making them less capable of controlling female reproduction. Then, of course, males could evolve some other sneaky way of maximizing their reproduction rate—vaginal plugs, secretions that make the mated female unattractive to other males, proteins that put her ovaries into overdrive to produce more eggs now at the expense of the female’s long term survival.

It all sounds improbable and dystopian, but all of these mechanisms and more have been observed in that exceptionally promiscuous species, Drosophila.

For me, this raises interesting ideas about the nature of any so-called “Intelligent Designer” that might exist. Given examples such as Drosophila it implies that any Intelligent Designer responsible for such a creature would have to be a pretty twisted fellow to come up with a model of reproduction such as that. Vaginal plugs? Proteins to force ovaries into overdrive? What kind of a sick bastard IS this Designer guy anyway?

12 thoughts on “Pregnancy is a battlefield.

  1. Describing a fetus as a parasite is very accurate other than the desire of most parasites to use their host to create more parasites. FYI, nematodes (worms) infect 3.5 billion people of which 450 million are children and 44 million are pregnant women. (
    One of the more interesting of these worms is the parasitic worm Dracunculus medinensis or “Guinea worm”. After merrily burrowing through the skin when it decides to lay eggs it digests a hole in your flesh, usually your ankle or foot, and then exits said hole to distribute 3 million embryos of its own. No drugs are currently available to prevent or heal this parasitic disease. Talk about all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. This could be a splendid example of Unitelligent Design.
    Further to the human parasites infesting moms, I have done a fair amount of reading on Omega 3 Fatty Acids which are crucial to good “brain” health in everyone. Eat more fish (the main source of O-3) and you could be as smart as an Inuit or at least a harp seal. The general population has low levels due to a diet excluding oily fish.
    There is evidence that during the last trimester, when junior’s brain is growing the fastest, the fetus will remove Omega 3 from the mom’s stores if her diet is not complete enough. The same is true for breast feeding moms. The end result for some moms, already low in Omega 3, is a total depletion of their stores. This can trigger a brain reaction in the mom that causes severe depression. Perhaps a mackarel a day would be a better perscription for Post Partum Depression than some liver destroying $100 pill from your local friendly pharmaceutical giant.

  2. Thankfully I’m never going to have one of the little fuckers.

    Stop mincing your words woman.
    Say what you really mean.LOL

  3. Stop mincing your words woman.
    Say what you really mean

    Oh, John, you charmer you! wink I love your avatar, by the way.

    I’m quite serious about not having the fuckers, though. I’m getting my tubes tied this coming summer, something that I’ve been wanting to do since I first began menstruating all those years ago. It’s just one thing I’ll never have to worry about, as I have no desire whatsoever to become a mother. Luckily, John (my John, not LuckyJohn19)  feels the exact same way that I do.

  4. I love your avatar, by the way.

    Thanks and, without sounding too immodest, so do I. wink
    When I see that boy’s photo it’s hard to think it was me in another lifetime.

    I found the photo a coupla weeks ago and printed it off and my mate saw it.
    When I told him it was me he didn’t believe me.
    I didn’t think I’d changed that much.
    Anyway he took it home to show his wife and two daughters saying they wouldn’t recognise it either and, how much do you want to bet on it that they do?
    I took a quick calculation, factoring in that women in many ways, are smarter then men, and won $20.

  5. Funny, I was just discussing this elsewhere and no one could understand why I find pregnancy so disturbing. I mean, I love kids and I know I’ll have them, but ICK.  There’s a reason we have crazy hormones I guess!  Because otherwise none of us would be willing to have a baby!

  6. What kind of a sick bastard IS this Designer guy anyway?

    Just read the Old Testament to find out…

  7. For sure, Shana.  Believe me, when you get pregnant, your body takes over and starts driving.  You have NO control over it.  Worse yet, you don’t even have to like it; you just feel compelled to do it.

    Crafty ol’ Designer.  What WAS She thinking??

  8. The end result for some moms, already low in Omega 3, is a total depletion of their stores.

    Crafty ol’ Designer.  What WAS She thinking??

    That the less intelligent ones should be responsible for birthing cuz they’ll forget and do it again? tongue rolleye

  9. Definitely.  And even when my conscious mind is saying, “NO MORE CHILDREN,” every time I see an infant my hindbrain immediately coos, “Ooooo, it’s a BAY-BEE.”  It’s SCARY how hardwired some things are.

    That the less intelligent ones should be responsible for birthing cuz they’ll forget and do it again?

    Consi, you may think you’re being wacky as usual, but there IS an enormous, drastic drop in estrogen levels (like, around 90 percent) right after birth—and estrogen is implicated in memory.

    Then again, it’s also proof that the “less intelligent ones” are still GETTING SOME.  tongue wink

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