For many years I’ve been interested in, among other things, the miracle of life. In a bygone age I derived information from books – notably The Body (1968) and The Mind (1984), both by Anthony Smith (1968) and then I completed a couple of Open University courses, Brain Biology and Behaviour and Psychology.
There’s a quotation I used in my out-of-print book Pain Wears No Mask; it’s from Robert Boyle: It is highly dishonourable for a reasonable soul to live in so divinely built a mansion as the body she resides in altogether unacquainted with the exquisite structure of it. [The gender used here is immaterial; the bottom line is we all take our bodies for granted; for example, once it starts in the womb, our beating heart never stops until we quit this mortal coil.]
Last night’s BBC2 Countdown to Life: the Extraordinary Making of You was the first of three documentaries and featured the initial eight weeks after conception – a time, as presenter Michael Mosley pointed out, when some women may not even realise they’re pregnant. Yet while there may be no obvious external signs, inside the body hundreds of changes and processes that could determine the rest of our lives are already under way, and this was the point of the engaging programme. [In my co-written fantasy quest, women know at the instant of conception; the first Chronicle of Floreskand is Wings of the Overlord.]
Mosley showed us the identical quads Holly, Jessica, Georgie and Ellie, who were the result of a 64-million-to one chance. Their single egg divided to create four genetically identical sisters – this process happened just five days after conception.
Then there was basketball star Randy, whose life changed just nineteen days after he was conceived. All of his organs are on the wrong sides – he is a perfect mirror image of most human beings. This was due to some tiny structures called cilia that come to life on day 19, spinning clockwise to create a leftward current to activate genes that will tell the organs where to go, but they failed to spin in his case. [In my out of print vampire thriller set in Malta, Death is Another Life, my two vampire brothers are mirror twins – a crucial plot point.]
Supernumerary digits and other body parts occur from time to time; Ian Fleming’s The Man With The Golden Gun villain Francisco Scaramanga had a third nipple. Amazingly, in Brazil, fourteen of twenty six individuals in the De Silva family possess six digits on each hand; as a result of the so-called sonic hedgehog protein (yes, it was named after the Sega game, Sonic the Hedgehog). It’s difficult enough to draw the usual human hand – that’s why cartoon characters generally only have three fingers; fascinatingly, those six digits looked normal, as the hands were larger to accommodate the extra finger.
Studies over seventy years in Gambia have revealed how babies conceived in the wet season – when pregnant mothers eat plenty of greens – are seven times more likely to live longer than those conceived in the dry season, when their mothers eat less healthily.
Mosley met Nell, a seven-year-old who received a double dose of her father’s growth gene in the womb and so towered over her classmates; happily, the growth spurt seems to be stabilising now. He also met Melanie Gaydos, who suffered from a unique genetic slip-up in the womb which caused catastrophic damage to her hair and teeth, transforming her facial features; she has bravely carved out a life as a striking model in New York.
Mosley was enthusiastic, charming and filled with wonder. He described a body scan as ‘a work of art’, which it is.
And no political points were being made, and no reference to Climate Change either.
As Walt Whitman said, I Sing the Body Electric. Wondrous to behold. Wonderful to be.