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In cases of parthenogenesis (virgin birth), an ovum starts to divide by itself without fertilization, producing an embryo in which the paternal chromosomes may be replaced by a duplication of maternal ones. This asexual reproductive method is rare among warm-blooded vertebrates but more common among invertebrates. Pathological parthenogenesis has been observed in higher animals, such as the frog, fowl, and certain mammals. Parthenogenesis usually gives rise to female offspring or sometimes an abnormal male.

In 1900 Jacques Loeb accomplished the first clear case of artificial parthenogenesis when he pricked unfertilized frog eggs with a needle and found that in some cases normal embryonic development ensued. In 1936 Gregory Pincus induced parthenogenesis in mammalian (rabbit) eggs by temperature change and chemical agents. Artificial parthenogenesis has since been achieved in almost all major groups of animals, by mechanical, chemical, and electrical means, though it usually results in incomplete and abnormal development.

Attempts at artificial parthenogenesis in humans have not yet been successful. The first cloned human embryo was produced in October 2001. Eggs had their own genetic material removed and were injected with the nucleus of a donor cell. They were then incubated under special conditions to prompt them to divide and grow. One embryo grew to six cells before it stopped dividing. The same experimenters also tried to induce human eggs to divide into early embryos parthenogenetically – without being fertilized by a sperm or enucleated and injected with a donor cell – but their efforts met with only limited success.

There is some evidence, however, that natural parthenogenesis does occasionally occur in humans. There are many instances in which impregnation has allegedly taken place in women without there being any possibility of the semen entering the female genital passage. In some cases it was found either in the course of pregnancy or at the time of childbirth that the female passages were obstructed. In 1956 the medical journal Lancet published a report concerning 19 alleged cases of virgin birth among women in England, who were studied by members of the British Medical Association. The six-month study convinced the investigators that human parthenogenesis was physiologically possible and had actually occurred in some of the women studied.

Many primitive peoples believe that there are two methods of human reproduction: the ordinary animal one and a higher one rarely employed – virgin birth. One belief is that the rays of the sun can fertilize women. In this regard, it is interesting that ultraviolet rays can cause parthenogenesis in unfertilized eggs of sea-urchins. It is also believed that moon rays, wind, rain, and certain types of food can cause impregnation. In the 19th century the Trobriand Islanders of the western Pacific insisted that cases of virgin birth still occurred among them.

Further evidence for the possibility of human parthenogenesis comes from the mysterious phenomenon of dermoid cysts. These are malformed embryonic growths or tumour-like formations occasionally found in various parts of the body, including womb, ovaries, and scrotum. They often contain bones, hair, teeth, flesh, tissue, glands, portions of the scalp, face, eyes, ribs, vertebral column, and umbilical cord. They are found in males as well as females, both young and old, including virgins. They appear to be undeveloped embryos and fetuses in various stages of growth. Loeb and several other researchers argued that dermoid cysts may be related to the parthenogenetic tendency of the mammalian egg, catalyzed perhaps by an increase in blood alkalinity. However, the body’s parthenogenetic capacity is now very feeble and the generative centres lack the power to carry the reproduction process through to its proper conclusion.

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