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Season 5 | Episode 2

Sperm

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Sperm carry half the genes needed for human life. In this hour of Radiolab, some basic questions and profound thoughts about reproduction.

To begin: why so many sperm? We turn to the animal kingdom for answers, which lands us on a tour of sperm battles in ducks, flying pig sperm, and promiscuous whippoorwills. Next, we ponder fatherhood, and wonder...in a world where sperm can be frozen and kept for all eternity...what the future holds for men. We end quietly, in a stark sonic space with a widow struggling to keep some essence of her husband alive.

Guests:

Tim Birkhead, Matthew Cobb, Ari Daniel, Joanna Ellington, Nell Greenfieldboyce, Steve Jones and Kathleen LaBounty

Why So Many Sperm?

Matthew Cobb takes us back to 1677, when Anton Van Leewenhoek first identified sperm and there was much talk of souls and miniature men residing in the seminal fluid. Upon observation it became clear that there were an awful lot of those little guys that never turned into babies! ...

Comments [24]

Fatherhood

In this segment, Ari Daniel introduces us to a young woman and her years-long search for the man whose donated sperm was used in her conception. Kathleen LaBounty has thought long and hard about what fatherhood means, about the psychology of genetic relationships, and about the complicated emotions tied up in ...

Comments [35]

Deep Freeze

Genetics researcher and author Steve Jones speculates on how males got their start, and then presents us with a biological mystery: Why have males hung around so long? Males don't appear to be biologically necessary. In fact, some species, says Steve, have done away with them entirely. But surely ...

Comments [11]

Comments [76]

Coroboree from Redondo Beach

The references to the sexual characteristics of Californian Desert Lizards and Australian Clown Fish are incomplete in detail, and consequently in error.

The show's glibness does not excuse these inaccuracies, even if the truth does spoil the story.

Feb. 22 2014 03:33 AM
Antoine from Miami, FL

I heard this show this weekend, and I could not stop thinking about it.
I am trying to come up with a lesson plan incorporating this show for my high school students. We recently finished the reproductive system and we are moving on the heredity. I was amazed and I am thinking, the nerds in my class who are like me, would be amazed as well.

Feb. 17 2014 09:02 AM

This show inspired a comment on a Charles Darwin photo on FB: "Adaptation by the female in promiscuous species, to prevent unwanted pregnancy by raping male, as seen in certain ducks, must biologically allow a great span of time to have occurred for this type of selection-ism to have evolve." stuff heard today waiting through Shabbos, NPR afternoon show .... I wish your online description of show had full name of scientist interviewed, since I don't have IPods or audio on PC. But I did get name Krulwich, found on a comment, assuming he did this anatomical study on said duck ... anyway, I didn't use story as an argument against biblical timeline, but as another example of amazing creation stories. Thanks

Feb. 16 2014 12:01 PM
sara Holt-Knox from Olympia WA

Just to clarify about the ducks... Males may do some "forced copulation" but not always. Our barnyard ducks (one male/female pair) appeared to only copulate when the female initiated the behavior. Unfortunately, the male duck did attempt to force himself on our hens (chickens) Which ultimately led to our decision to make duck soup. After he was gone the female duck could be frequently seen doing the same courting behaviors she used to initiate relations with her male partner with our rooster (who seemed to have absolutely no interest in her). I just thought I would share this because so often male ducks are described as rapists and I thought it only fair to recognize that ducks both male and female seem to have a rather healthy sexual appetite compared to some other animals.

Feb. 16 2014 01:01 AM

@Catbellou the theory is that while organisms were still reproducing asexually, sperm's "ancestor" was a virus-like entity that took up the genetic material of the host. Eventually the host might use these genetic "thieves" to reproduce and give up the less robust asexual method. Many plants today still reproduce both asexually and sexually. Evolution happens by happenstance, not design, therefore it is reasonable to assume sperm were not "designed" for reproduction but existed in some other form for some other purpose previously.

Feb. 15 2014 04:23 PM
Shari from South River, NJ

As someone who has been in a very similar situation to the young woman searching for her biological father,
I understand the drive to find "the link." I listened with empathy and a certain sad wistfulness to her story.

I guess it wouldn't be exaggerating to say that I reacted with disgust to the way the segment was ended for her. I'm not even sure what that cut at the end was: A laugh? Kind of an, "Oh, well" sound effect? I only know it completely broke the mood, and didn't do anything for the story that preceded it.

I catch the show fairly frequently, and I admire what it brings to the airwaves. I offer this observation as a respectful suggestion to the producers that they, perhaps, vet their stories to someone who has personal knowledge of sensitive situations like the one presented, before they decide they are finished and ready for broadcast. And perhaps bring in some fresh ears to help decide when their signature sound effects and intercutting style is getting too self-conscious and "cute."

I also hope they asked the woman whose husband died whether it was okay to use the taped portion of her interview where she had to pause to gather herself. I think decency would demand that.

Thank you for hearing me.

Feb. 15 2014 02:53 PM
Dale

Fags.

Apr. 18 2013 07:03 PM
CatBallou

I can't possibly have heard this episode correctly. Did one of the speakers actually claim that sperm appeared on the scene as parasites when life consisted entirely of one-celled orgamisms? That can't possibly be correct. Asexual reproduction of multi-celled organisms began way before sexual reproduction!

Feb. 20 2013 02:59 AM
J.E.

So in ducks, it's true that: 'If it's a legitimate rape, the female body, has a way to shut that whole thing down.'. So Akin was just confusing humans with ducks!

Feb. 19 2013 01:30 PM
Zarah from Boston

Keep up the awesome podcasts

Feb. 18 2013 06:55 PM
jonfen

Does anyone know what the music is at 22:10? It's very nice.

Feb. 17 2013 11:39 PM
jacob

Hello, does anyone know what the choral songs featured in this episode are?
email phsjacob@gmail.com

Feb. 17 2013 08:29 PM
Nave

In reply to the criticism, I don't feel this show was a departure from the formula that makes radiolab unique. I've come to expect the science stories to Segway into parallel human interest stories that add depth to the program. There is plenty more science in textbooks for those who crave more and only so much that can be included in an hour of radio. And you can't possibly be a fan of the show if you are off put by the creative sound design. Overall, a good show. A little disappointing that the young lady didn't find what she was looking for, but that's life.

Feb. 17 2013 05:38 PM
Sarak from New York

I am wondering why men donate sperm to sperm banks then forget all about it. I dont know if any other animal or insect acts in such a manner. Are there egg banks for men to use and then find a womb on rent?

Feb. 17 2013 02:49 PM
Mary from Miami FL

This was terrific. But I realized that Todd Akin may have misunderstood scientific research. Female ducks CAN prevent impregnation when they were raped. He was simply wrong at thinking women had the same discerning vaginas!!

Feb. 17 2013 05:56 AM
Rodney from Somerville, MA

I really enjoy Radiolab shows, and I sometimes use the podcasts in my 7th grade Science class.

Today's program on sperm evolution was quite fascinating, however, there was a missed opportunity/mistake early in the program: Leeuwenhoek was described as a draper who developed the microscope. When this came up, one of the hosts asserted that the reason he developed the microscope had nothing to do with his work with cloth and textiles and that it was just a hobby he had.

People who work with textiles and fabric were really interested in being able to see tiny details to determine the quality of the merchandise. The development of the microscope was actually something that organically flows from that sort of need. The fact that he worked with fabric (and was actually a haberdasher) was deeply integrated with the fact that he developed the microscope.

Best,
Rodney

Feb. 16 2013 08:56 PM

Given the present climate for "marriage equality", and public radios unqualified support for gay marriage, how about a show discussing what happens to human sperm when two men have sex? I know some of you will find this suggestion outrageous and provocative. But it seems to me that the emerging consensus for sexuality equality should be open to considering the full spectrum of what happens to sperm.

What happens to male sperm when male lovers ejaculate into their lover's rectum? Hhow does it effect the immune systems of the male recipients of these foreign cells? Can we discuss heterosexual sexuality in great detail and ignore homosexual sexuality.

Wood Tail Lizard? Yes, what about the future of sperm as it pertains to lesbians? Not long ago npr aired a piece on the likely future capability to produce human sperm cells from stem cells. Which would allow same sex female couples to produce, with the help of science, their own sperm. The possibilities are intriguing. Sperm dispensing strap on dildos, etc. How about the prospect of women eventually being able, and sometimes inclined, to impregnate themselves. Would this be termed incest? My advice: buy sperm dispensing strap on dildo stock. Not sure which corporations are working on that!

Feb. 15 2013 10:46 PM
Joao from NYC

Show did border a bit too much on This American Life this week. I much prefer Radio Lab! I too would have preferred a bit more SCIENCE. Keep up the good work though. Big fan.

Feb. 15 2013 10:24 PM
Tom Hunter from Indianapolis, IN

Great show but I must add that the girl looking for her biological father was a "Shaggy Dog" story--a sin that consists of a big buildup that doesn't go anywhere.

Feb. 15 2013 09:39 PM
Elizabeth

One thing that struck me as odd about this was Nell Greenfieldboyce's comment that she would definitely use her dead husband's sperm to have a baby, since they've been together for 8 years. If she's so sure about that, why not have his baby while he is alive to parent the child??

Feb. 15 2013 11:24 AM

or maybe akin was refering to elementary school sex ed videos 18:15 mark

Aug. 21 2012 11:45 PM
AuntScrewy

Maybe Akin just confused human women for ducks. (14 minute mark)

Aug. 21 2012 04:27 PM
J3

We're Strigoi...Ö

Apr. 13 2012 08:49 PM
Anika Habermas-Scher from California

I loved this episode! I'd love to hear an egg episode too!

Feb. 29 2012 10:23 PM
Christine from cdm, ca

What if her dad was really her dad??? They might have had troubles concieving and then decided on a sperm donor right when, by some miracle, it all worked out just in the nick of time! She should do a DNA test with her Dad and see if maybe, ironically, he is her REAL Dad in every way.

Dec. 06 2011 04:03 PM
james

listening to this on head phones is a real experience.

Dec. 06 2011 08:37 AM
sarah

I didn't realize how complex a duck vagina could be.

Oct. 05 2011 09:35 PM
mark

this podcast is one of radiolabs podcasts

Aug. 21 2011 07:16 PM
Amy

Like the girl in the story searching for her father, I learned at a young age (16) that the man who raised me was not my biological father. Only, my father was not a sperm donor, in fact, my mom knew who he was and he lived not so far away and was easily contacted thru a friend. I've since met him twice and found that I have virtually nothing in common with him. Actually I have more in common with the man who raised me. Combine this with the fact that he was a rather unpleasant fellow who, at the time of my conception, had threatened my life and my mother's life, I'm glad to share very little with him other than a bit of my DNA. I'm thankful for the family I grew up with and wouldn't trade them for the world or wish for anything more. Family is what you make of it. A friend you make today may be your sister or brother for life.

Mar. 09 2011 10:13 PM
bryan

"we have semen flying in from Nebraska...."

Feb. 10 2011 12:05 AM
Tom

I wouldn't consider a grown woman that is harassing random men "emotionally stable".

Other than that, great episode.

Dec. 30 2010 03:23 PM

Awesome... as always.

Nov. 07 2010 08:46 PM
Jessica from California

I also have never met my father and come from a mysterious background. I always loved "Somewhere Out There" and also thought of who my father might be.

Oct. 05 2010 04:27 PM
Aron

while listen to the pod-cast on Sperm I was intrigued on the story of the extraction of sperm from a dead man. This made me curious if this or a similar type of procedure could be preformed on a dog that was neutered? Any thoughts?

Nov. 12 2009 02:47 PM
Peter

i loved that show too. keep it up.

Apr. 15 2009 12:21 AM
Sean Robinson

I'm continually impressed and enlightened by this show and its collision of complexity and simplicity. This episode was no exception. Please continue the great work.

Mar. 14 2009 06:59 PM
Ana

I loved the show. Can someone tell me what was the music in the first segment - the a capella all male choral piece? Thanks in advance!

Jan. 25 2009 10:59 PM
Steve

I think you guys are genius how you interlace and juxtapose sound bits, conversation, music... all in such intricate timing. I like the different people butting in on each other, finishing others' sentences, echoing and reinforcing thoughts. It feels very much like how mind works, very trippy, overlapping and integrating across an intelligent competition of incoming information organizing attention.

I say good show!

Jan. 17 2009 10:58 AM
Scott Little

Loved the episode. Felt like I needed more of an explanation on the duck vaginas though. How could that trait in ducks make it through evolution? It seems that if anything, ducks with veegays that lead sperm astray would be less likely to continue to the next generation. Thoughts?

Dec. 29 2008 03:59 PM
Z

i love radiolab so much, but this show really bothered me. the bits and pieces were interesting, but using biological properties of sperm to explain human action is a gross over-simplification. while most of it was done jokingly in the program, it was worth noting that the societal influences are probably much stronger in terms of reproductive choices in humans. of course this is not the first time that biology has been used to describe the differences between male and female choices, and certainly not the most insulting, but i thought radiolab would do a better job of pointing this out.

Dec. 23 2008 02:02 PM
moko

agree with cordelia!
keep up with the great work!

Dec. 19 2008 03:10 AM
cordelia

No no no! the sound effects were amazing! such expert, time-consuming editing - they made me listen to the episode twice. and i think that those disappointed with the content of the this show (i.e. those calling for more science-centered segments) have a rather narrow view of the topics discussed in radiolab.

what radiolab does is to explain complex concepts from multiple perspectives in ways the layman can understand. having segments dealing with the social interpretation and implications of the material on the level of the individual adds an enriching emotional component that is necessary to achieve a holistic understanding of the concept. and remember, there are scientists out there (like me) who need the social-side of some of these concepts explained -- with the help of sound effects, if you don't mind.....

Dec. 16 2008 04:09 PM
Jody

I loved this show, and I think anyone who hated it THAT much really just aren't very comforatable talking about sex, and should probably not have listened to it in the first place.

Dec. 16 2008 01:04 PM
David Polk

Yay for Juana Molina! It must have taken a scientific breakthrough just to obtain the rights to use that in a podcast! :-)

Dec. 15 2008 11:08 PM
colleen

I, too, missed in this episode the aha! moments that I often have listening to Radiolab. The teaser snippet on sperm on the podcast a few weeks back was WAY more interesting than both the section on the woman looking for her father and the woman trying to have her dead husband's baby. Even as a sort of "sociological side to reproduction" they were tired narratives. The real kicker for me was the "we had the exact same GPA" moment of the sperm donor story . . . it seems irresponsible to even allow listeners to think that might have something to do with one's genetic makeup. I was disappointed after this episode. Please do better next time.

Dec. 15 2008 01:58 PM

The title alone was so off-putting to my overly-squeamish self that I nearly changed the channel, but I'm so glad I didn't. The last story is a driveway moment.

Dec. 15 2008 11:41 AM
Tim O.

I am an avid Radiolab fan, but would have to agree with criticism of the paternity segment...Like children of adoptees or foster care gone right this young woman DOES have a real dad...the one she went to when she learned the truth about her biology.

Dec. 15 2008 09:39 AM
ken

Loved the story. First Radio Lab. Tragedy and Comedy make up the myth of existence. Learned a lot about sperm and natural selection. DNA is some powerful force, oldest and most powerful thing on the planet.

Dec. 12 2008 11:38 PM
Salvatore

I usually love radio lab. I am an avid listener. But I couldn't get past the first ten minutes of this show. It was virtually un-listen-able - is that a word? There were way too many sound effects - completely unnecessary. You guys have approached the subject many times on your show; how do you make a show about science interesting and not boring? Well, you give it more substance and less flash. Not only were the effects abundant they were annoying, childish and unprofessional. Editing more akin to an amateurish youtube project than an established and respected public radio show. I hoep the next show is better.

Dec. 12 2008 05:29 PM
Pat

Krulwich's English accent in the first segment...hilarious! I can't believe you added audio from Maury. Too funny

Dec. 09 2008 04:06 PM
Marc Naimark

I was unhappy with the part about the young woman looking for her sperm donor. The great absent in the story was her real father, that guy she ran to when she was eight years old and told him she loved him. On the whole, I felt pity for this bright young woman wasting her youth on a search for something so pointless as a few strands of DNA.

Dec. 09 2008 04:38 AM
Raff

I'd like to cast my vote for more science - there's a ton of interesting stuff about sperm, like sperm entry and body axis formation, sperm possibly collaborating to enter the egg, sperm motility and situs inversus...come on, guys! I hate to be un-original, but the stories this week were a little This American Life-ish...which is my other favorite radio show. But I come here for neat science stuff!

It was still entertaining and moving, though - nice work!

Dec. 08 2008 09:41 PM
Steven

Jad, why are you so fucking cool? Juana Molina is so awesome. Nice pick.

Dec. 08 2008 02:23 AM
Chandler

Thanks so much for some new shows! I agree with the earlier commenters that this felt different...but that's OK. As for the use of sound effects...that's Jad's past, man! Let him play! I like that each show is an experiment in trying things slightly differently. My only comment is the ending...so sad. Even the mortality show ended with a death, and that didn't even feel as harsh as this did. RadioLab is a huge joy for me...like finding out there's one more Pringle in the tube you swore was empty.

Dec. 08 2008 01:26 AM
Kirk

Wow, I don't know what to say. The two stories in this weeks show were so sad. I have never been one to feel great emotion of a sad story, but what RadioLab brought to this was humanity and reality. It was just heart wrenching to listen to, I hope that those who didn't enjoy the show get past the esthetic value of a good story and realize that these are real stories and their value is more than selected appeal.

Dec. 07 2008 03:51 AM
loria

About the segment on using sperm from your dead husband: I know someone who did almost exactly this. Her husband had brain cancer. Before he underwent chemotherapy, he banked his sperm. His cancer was terminal, and he died. 2 years after his death, she had herself inseminated with his sperm, conceived, and had a baby. Its been difficult for her to raise a child alone, but that child has all the love and support of any child in any family.

Dec. 06 2008 08:08 PM
karla

I thought this show was great! I'm a a bit confused by some of the negative comments. I always thought of radio lab as a blend of science and story... and I really thought this show was a great mix of both. And as far as the sound design goes... that's like Radio Lab's signature style! And i love it.

Dec. 05 2008 05:50 PM
megg

whereas i think the above comments are fair, i think we've been a bit spoilt. :)

Dec. 05 2008 08:17 AM
Andy S

Thanks for introducing me to Juana Molina! I am starting to listen to RadioLab for music as well as the regular amazing content. Please come back to Chicago and do another show, it was truly wonderful. I thought I was going to lose my mind I saw Zoe was going to play. It was quite perfect.

Dec. 03 2008 11:47 PM
Wes Chamness

Only the 3rd show I've heard but with each episode being so very different from the one previous, this is a show I look forward to with much anticipation each week.

Thank you!

Dec. 03 2008 05:56 PM
Ellen

re: Mel Messer

About Leisha's husband, John -- the hospital told Leisha that he'd had an acute respiratory infection...a very frustrating and mysterious verdict for his inexplicable passing.

Dec. 03 2008 05:17 PM
Jenn

I agree, that song during the first break is amazing! I was just about to comment to find out what it is, and as always, all of you other listeners are one step ahead of me!

Dec. 03 2008 04:22 PM
jgl

Well I never knew that when Prince wrote "Sugar Walls" for Sheena Easton, he was being literal.

Dec. 03 2008 01:22 PM
alexandre van de sande

finally. listened to the episode a 2nd time.

The male story reminded me of what dawkins called "the evolution of evolvability". Along with eukariote cells and multicellular organisms, he cites sexual reproduction as a moment where evolution itself changed and evolved. Where the "gene pool" was created and the definition of a species comes to exist (as in animals that reproduce with one another). At that point the whole group of reproducing animals are subject to natural selection, not solely the individuals, and they thrive as a group, over the assexuals.
And since that proverb goes, "the only constant in the world is that it changes" this allowed species to be more flexible.

Also the first story about a tiny man inside the sperm opens up a whole world exploring this homunscule idea, that there might be little people inside people. Something that is never found but keeps coming back in acupunture, homeopathy and many other ideas.

But a dawkins interview would not fit in the one-hour show would it? Not with that poor little girl ruining everybody lives by giving them hope that they might have a sister or child only to crush them later with dna test.

Dec. 03 2008 12:57 PM
alexandre van de sande

in the end: radiolab is a science + fun show. there was not so much science, but it was still fun.

Dec. 03 2008 11:32 AM
alexandre van de sande

I agree with some commenters. This episode was a bit unradiolab and very americanlifish.

The thing that was missing was the "ahhh" factor when some new idea comes in that was brought by the story. I had this insight with the "what males bring to the table" story. The "funny facts about animals" story had a bit of that, but left a unaswered question of "why this is a war in the animal kingdom? why some animal species (like the duck) treat sex as a invader/rape and other (like humans) treat it more like a cooperation?"

The other stories were about some little tales about human society, a child looking for a father and a woman wanting to become a mother. They were a bit heartwarming, a little heartbreaking, but ultimately offered no insight, brought no new ideas to the table. There was a hint of moral (as in frozen sperm != dead husband; sperm donor != dad), but not ultimate new idea. And that's why it was americanlifeish and unradiolab.

Dec. 03 2008 11:21 AM
mousey anon

There was too many sound effects and talking over the interviewees. I don't think there is a need to finish their sentences. It seems repetitive to me. Looking forward to future episodes.

Dec. 03 2008 10:21 AM
Ceridwynne

The very first show I ever heard was Detective Stories. I was in my car and fell so immediately in love with Radio Lab that I rushed home and forced my boyfriend to listen to it. Since then other episodes have captured my heart because they are so phenomenal, Detective Stories now almost seems sub-par in comparison to subsequent episodes. I guess my point is, even when you guys aren't as brilliant as you can be, you still capture hearts and minds. I (heart) Radio Lab.

Dec. 03 2008 03:42 AM
Mel Messer

Did we ever hear what killed Leisha's husband, John? Was it in fact the flu? Just, needed some closure on that.

The sound effects ARE becoming an earful! But the music is amazing.

Great show! Go Radiolab go!

Dec. 03 2008 03:15 AM
John-Paul

I was a little dissappointed by this episode, only because I have come to expect so much from Radiolab. Jad and Robert have set an amazingly high standard for themselves to live up to. I echo much of Kenan's comments. I would like to make mention of a scientific breakthrough on the subject of sperm that would have given this episode a bit more umph. Check out this story about how a female human's stem cells can be used to create sperm, thus making it possible for two females to have a child together who is from both their genetic stock. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/3323846/Sperm-cells-created-from-female-embryo.html

Dec. 03 2008 12:08 AM
Jad

Hi Brett. The song is "Salvese Quien Pueda (Juana's Epic Re-Version)" by Juana Molina. She's amazing!

Dec. 02 2008 04:03 PM
Brett Britten

What was that song on the podcast during the first break?!?! It was fantastick - anyone know?

Dec. 02 2008 03:10 PM
Kaleena

I loved this show and i love radio lab.

Dec. 02 2008 02:39 PM
Amy Austin

Kenan - not every story can be put neatly in a box, tied up with a neat little bow, and finished. I thought the paternity story was interesting. In fact, I enjoyed the entire program. I RadioLab!

Yay!

Dec. 02 2008 01:04 PM
Jacob

lol.. "Sugar, sugar"

Dec. 02 2008 10:41 AM
Kenan Hebert

Boo. Boo for structuring a show around a "question" that is neatly answered on the first day of Biology 101; boo for littering it with sound effects that have served the show well in the past but are becoming more than distracting now, drawing enough attention to themselves that they feel like the show's only reason for existing; and boo for using 15 minutes telling a paternity story that would be dull on This American Life, except it would never be allowed on This American Life, because is has no ending, so it's a very real waste of time to listen to.

Boo.

Dec. 02 2008 07:25 AM

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