Nicola Ranger

About Nicola Ranger

Nicola works an office job that nobody understands while she secretly dreams of being a writer. She has been described as proudly unsophisticated but terribly polite with it. In her spare time Nicola appreciates good-quality cider and non-commercial dance music. She dislikes repetitive conversations and can’t ride a bike.

Reproduction: The birds and bees…and lab flies?

Nicola Ranger thinks research by UNSW about telegony in the reproduction of flies is all well and good, but it’s a dangerous flight of fancy to suggest the same may be true for humans.


I’d like to congratulate UNSW researchers on publishing some wonderful research into the size of flies and the possible causes of a fly being born either “large” or “small”. By looking at a population of “large” and “small” flies and tracking (or maybe even encouraging/arranging, eww…) their mating activities, the researchers found that the size of a fly is determined by the first male its mother mates with, not by its actual father.

Obviously, most of us don’t give a flying fuck (no pun intended) about the parentage of an insect.

But where does this leave our understanding of human reproduction?

Is the theory of telegony – whereby one male can leave a mark on a female’s body that influences her offspring with another male – back on the table?

The UNSW research proposes that “the effect is due to molecules in the seminal fluid of the first mate being absorbed by the female’s immature eggs and then influencing the growth of offspring of a subsequent mate.”

Right, well that’s a bit awkward for Ms Fly, but it’s not like she’ll be looking after the little darling for the next 18 years with family, friends and strangers getting all involved in her business, she’ll just lay some eggs in a nice compost heap and then be on her way.

Telegony might be going on in the fly world, but it simply does not happen in the human world.

Human eggs are kept safely tucked away in the ovaries until such time as one, or maybe two or three if they’re feeling impatient, pop out into the fallopian tube each month and see if they meet a sperm. Meanwhile, sperm might hang around for up to seven days to see if they meet an egg, but if not, the sperm just die. If an egg happens to meet a sperm, the egg battens down the hatches so that no more sperm can join the party. Need to brush up on some of these basics? There’s a nice no-nonsense write up here.

Headlines of the “Your baby could look like your ex” variety are not heralding a great scientific breakthrough in reproduction theory and this is certainly not a matter to be written about lightly.

You know how some people in this world still believe that a woman has to be a virgin when she gets married; that any woman who has had sex, willingly or unwillingly, is “soiled goods”? That’s a real problem that still threatens women’s lives today, a deadly social problem that stems from prehistoric beliefs about ensuring the purity of a man’s offspring.

The UNSW article notes that telegony “was a concern to royalty in the 1300s”. Virginity, obviously the only way to ensure that there’s none of this telegony business going on, was still a concern to the British royal family as recently as 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer allegedly had to undergo a virginity test before marriage. Womankind breathed a collective sigh of relief in 2011, when Kate Middleton was spared such humiliation.

What the world does not need right now is universities (aren’t these places supposed to be underfunded anyway?!) stuffing around with flies just to publish articles on reproduction that serve only to create sensational headlines and potentially put women’s rights back by a few centuries. 

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