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Parthenogenesis


Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” ~Matthew 1:20-21


Recently, researchers affiliated with the San Diego Zoo revealed genetic data that proved two of the zoo’s condors were born through parthenogenesis, an occurrence where an unfertilized egg produces offspring. It is not unheard of in nature, though more typically among reptiles. There are even species of lizards that are exclusively female. There are recorded incidents among birds, but this is the first record for this species.


California Condors nearly disappeared due to poaching, habitat destruction, and lead pollution. By 1982, there were only 23 birds left. In 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the remaining birds and worked with zoos to launch an intensive program of breeding and reintroductions. By the end of 2019, the breeding programs had increased the condor population to 525 birds: 219 in captivity and the rest released to fly free over the Southwest. Because of this program, extensive genetic records are kept. That is how researchers discovered these two birds that only showed genetic markers for their mothers and no other bird.


Parthenogenesis literally means “virgin birth,” making this news timely as we consider the Nativity of Christ. Scriptural story-telling is meant to be taken seriously, not literally, and since the belief at that time was that the mother contributed nothing more than “fertile ground” in which to grow a child, perhaps we shouldn’t read the story as a scientific text. Matthew is trying to tell us something different. His assertion that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit rather than a human male is meant to tell us about the nature of divinity and this special child. Still, those who might reject the story because some of those who preach it insist on literalism, can take comfort in the scientific possibility of parthenogenesis.


The impact of the Jesus birth narrative does not lie in suspending reason in order to see a miracle. The message lies in understanding the meaning. I like to think that endangered species producing offspring asexually is, well, rather miraculous, even if we can explain it scientifically. Reason may not attribute motivation to nature, but we are more than our rational minds, and we can see the “truth” in the story that says that nature always finds a way. So, whatever really happened two millennia ago, we can still hear the gospel truth that God was finding a way. In spite of difficult, even unbelievable circumstances, salvation was born.


Prayer: Universal love, help us understand that you always find a way to break into the world, even sometimes, despite our doubts, through our very lives. Amen.

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