Encyclopedia of Reproduction

Rendering of sperm making contact with ovum

By Eric Sorensen, WSU News

Science owes a lot to castration.

The practice of removing the testis most likely started at the dawn of agriculture and the domestication of pigs, cattle and sheep some 12,000 years ago. Assyrian tablets from 1500 BC note it was used as punishment for sexual crimes. Aristotle documented its effect on the voices of eunuchs, while he and others saw it affecting fertility, behavior, voice changes, weight, metabolism and more.

“This biological manipulation,” write WSU biologist Michael Skinner and Bernard Jégou of the University of Rennes in France, “is the first documented physiological observation on the impacts of a specific organ on the biology of an organism.”

Another fun fact: Antonie van Leeuwenhoek witnessed the “presence and vigor” of his own spermatozoa, which he called “animalcules,” in one of the first uses of the single-lens microscope. So yes, microscopy owes a lot to onanism, which begat animalculism, a 17th Century concept furthering Aristotle’s own thinking that a male provides a preformed human seed that grows in a woman’s soil.

Book cover of the second edition of the 'Encyclopedia of Reproduction'.These observations are among thousands in the second edition of the “Encyclopedia of Reproduction,” a magnum opus involving more than 1,000 authors, nearly 600 cross-referenced chapters, and edited by Skinner and eight associate editors. At 3,868 pages and a listed price of $2,750, it is the “Modernist Cuisine” of sex and among the heftiest compilations in the history of the field. The book is also available by subscription and electronic access through libraries.

The edition, Skinner writes in the preface, “now provides the most comprehensive educational resource in the area of Reproductive Biology and Medicine.”

The first edition of the “Encyclopedia of Reproduction” was published 20 years go. That version featured four volumes with topics arranged A to Z, from “abortion” to “zygotic genomic activation.”

When the publisher Elsevier asked Skinner to take on the second edition as editor in chief, “it wasn’t a hard sell,” serving as a major resource for undergraduates, the educated public and professionals, he said.

Skinner, Eastlick distinguished professor and founding director of the Center for Reproductive Biology, expanded the number of volumes from four to six, nearly doubled the number of chapters, and organized the volumes under topic areas. He bolstered its discussion of reproductive medicine and added comparative reproduction, looking at all species, including plants.

“So this is the first combined resource for all of reproduction and is the most extensive resource available now,” he said.

Closeup of Michael Skinner.

Skinner acknowledges it was a challenging project in which his associate editors and authors, as well as his assistant Heather Johnson, had critical roles. But a big topic warrants a big look. And we all owe a lot to reproduction.

“Of all the biological areas the one that is most critical for propagation and survival of the species is reproduction,” Skinner said. “That is why so many resources are put into it, and it is so evolutionarily conserved. All species and organisms require it and it is the most important biological system to survive.

“WSU has the largest reproductive center in the world,” he adds, “so it has one of the highest concentrations of reproductive biologists. To have this encyclopedia come from WSU is not a surprise.”



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