A child is conceived, but instead of simply mixing one male sperm and one female ovum, a third set of genes becomes involved. Most often used in a Free-Love Future or as a result of Bizarre Alien Biology, a child turns out to be the genetic offspring of multiple people—except, it was natural conception. Perhaps we're dealing with aliens or supernatural beings and it's normal for them to conceive children this way. Or maybe, this was just some freak occurrence which took everybody by surprise. However it went down, Mass-Coitus Ensued and a baby happened.
Do not confuse with Homosexual Reproduction or Has Two Mommies, where a child is conceived or raised by two members of the same sex. Of course, this could overlap, if all parties were the same sex. Truly Single Parent is the opposite, where a child still doesn't have the normal number of parents but instead of more than two it's actually one.
May be related to Polyamory or occur during A Party Also Known as an Orgy. The situation may spawn (or should that be "conceive") an Aesop about such activities. By far the most common expression of Bizarre Alien Sexes (more than half of that trope's examples are duplicated here).
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Anime And Manga
Subverted in Jojos Bizarre Adventure. To some extent, Giorno Giovanna is the son of Johnathan Joestar, Dio Brando and his unnamed mother, as a result of Dio fathering him while possessing Johnathan's body. Though biologically a Joestar, he seems to inherit more traits from Dio.
Sillage has an alien species that apparently requires two "females" and a "male" for procreation, though no details are given as to how it works.
Double Subverted by Tefe Holland from Swamp Thing. Swampy and his wife wanted a child, but since he doesn't have the necessary equipment, John Constantine did it instead, although he was being (willingly) possessed by Swamp-Thing. This resulted in Tefe being born human but with powers over The Green.
A joke using this: two new parents stare at their newborn in disbelief, wondering how one child can have so many different attributes (sometimes they're listed: blond hair, black skin, small nose, huge ears...). Then they recall having participated in an orgy some nine months back. The baby starts crying, at which point the mother expresses relief that at least he isn't barking.
In Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi, the alien race who visits Earth can conceive children from arbitrary numbers of parents. The most prominent alien character, Joshua, is the child of the entire ship's crew and the first human to visit the ship.
The Soft Ones in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves are from a universe with different laws of physics. They have soft bodies of three sexes (rational/left, emotional/mid and parental/right), all of which are required for reproduction by "melting" (fusing their bodies together at the intermolecular level). This temporarily form a Hard One, but don't remember that after they separate (the Hard One does, however, remember its previous periods of consciousness when it is formed again) and is the means by which new Soft ones are formed. The one that actually gets pregnant is referred to throughout using male pronouns. The Hard Ones are genderless and act in a parental/mentor advisory role to the Soft Ones (though the Parental Soft Ones act as parents to the babies when the latter are very young).
Subverted in the Gor series: the alien Kurii have three (or four) sexes, or genders. They basically work out to be male, female, a "blood nurser" which the females lay their offspring in and then the babies eat their way out of, and a fourth sex which is essentially a male with low testosterone, which is shunned by the community, but in certain circumstances becomes a breeding male; hence they're not sure whether to consider it a separate sex or not.
Merry Gentry: Merry eventually gets pregnant with twins, and the twins have three fathers each.
The My Teacher is an Alien series by Bruce Coville mentions one species that requires "seven genders [sic] to produce an egg, and three more to hatch it". This being a kid's book, the exact mechanics of this are never explained.
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks: The Empire of Azad is ruled by humanoids with three sexes, all of which contribute genes: "males" with testes and penis, an intermediate "apex" with ovaries and a "reversible vagina" that is used as an ovipositor after a male has fertilized them, and "females" with uterus and an endogenous retrovirus that modifies the implanted egg. The only non-sexual difference between the sexes is the eugenically bred-in lowered intelligence for non-apices. The apices are very much on top and exercise crushing sexual discrimination against both other sexes: sexism here sees females as passive incubators and domestics, males as workhorses and disposable soldiers. Notably, more females than males appear to compete in the Azad tournament.
The Yeerks of Animorphs are sluglike aliens whose reproduction apparently involves three of them fusing into a single mass, from which larvae spawn.
Parodied in Making Money. Mr. Fusspot, the canine bank Chairman, is metaphorically described as "the son of many fathers". His spoonhound mother got loose while in heat, and her owners never learned what male dogs she'd encountered before coming home pregnant.
Zig Zagged in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. The Tralfamadorians claim to have five sexes. Because they can see through time as well as space, they claim humans actually have seven sexes. Five of these are "only active in the fourth dimension," so humans can't perceive their contribution to the reproductive process. Three are named as examples: male homosexuals, women over sixty-five, and babies who live less than an hour after birth (though female homosexuals and men over sixty-five are not necessary for reproduction). Each human would thus have 7 individuals who contributed to the act of procreation even though we can only detect 2.
Subverted in Known Space: The Puppeteers, who are already fairly strange looking, claim to have three "sexes", one of which is non-sentient. In actuality, they're merely prudish about admitting that they're a parasitoid species—the "third sex" is a different species, and serves as a host for an embryo created by the two actual Puppeteers. Also, they have quite mixed feelings about the sacrifice of their non-sentient 'bride' for the purpose of reproduction. They positively dote upon the creatures, attracting them to their nest, dressing them up, caring for them. There is love there, ending in the heartbreak of a lethal birth, and joy for the new life.
In The Discovery Of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (also made into a film), the child who brings the Laws of God back to heaven has one mother and two fathers. Ada, the mother, has sex with both men on the same night.
The Lo'ona Aeo in Mikhail Akhmanov's Arrivals from the Dark series have 4 sexes. Roughly translated into English, they are "full male", "half-male", "half-female", and "full female". Only the full female sex is capable of conceiving and bearing a child. A full male and half-male are required for the "mental contamination" process that kick-starts the pregnancy (no physical action required). The half-female sex is sterile and does not participate. The Lo'ona Aeo are capable of chemically altering the future sex of a child, as necessary to maintain the genetic diversity. A Lo'ona Aeo named Zantu defied her parents by allowing herself to become a full female, as originally intended by her genes, instead of the half-female her parents wanted her to be. She was exiled until such time as she reaches the Lo'ona Aeo equivalent of menopause and is no longer a threat to the genetic makeup of the species. Zantu's child is unique among the Lo'ona Aeo for having only two parents, her father being Sergey Valdez, whose Psychic Powers unintentionally triggered the process. The child is still a full Lo'ona Aeo, but he has inherited some of Sergey's adventurous traits.
Zig Zagged in Salman Rushdie's Shame. The main character was born to three sisters. Presumably only one of them actually gave birth to him, but since the other two went through sympathetic pregnancies, all three of them nursed him, and none of them ever divulges which the "real" mother was, they are all considered equally his mothers.
Venus and the Seven Sexes, a 1949 short-story by William Tenn, features a seven sexed species that passes gametes in a chain: sex "D" receives from sex "C" and transmits to sex "E." The sex of the offspring is determined by the sex of the parent which receives/completes the fully fertilized gamete. One sex is tasked with coordinating the family.
Bob Shaw's "Warren Peace" has the Squelchers, an alien race with no less then six different sexes, each one with its own unique appearance, and with a reproductive cycle where each sex fertilizes the others in turn. The forms look so different that, to the vast majority of the universe, the species only consists of the fourth sex, which resembles an orange haired saggy sasquatch (kind of like a blown up balloon that's developed a slow leak) with multiple eyes in a ring around its head (usually covered by its fur), oversized feet that let it wade on water, and two giant red nipple-like gamete sacs positioned one above the other on its torso. The fifth sex, the only other one mentioned, is described as being indistinguishible from a tree, except for the presence of a pair of two dual-pronged ovipositors (they look almost identical to staples) sprouting from its trunk.
Chanur Novels: The stsho have three sexes, called "gtst", "gtste", and "gtsto", and form mating trios instead of mating pairs. None of the sexes can exactly be called male or female, since a stsho which fills the young-bearing role in one trio can simultaneously fill a non-young-bearing role in a different trio. Nothing beyond that is known, since the stsho are an extremely private and xenophobic race which refuses to share details of their biology with any other species. For further strangeness, sufficient psychological/emotional stress can cause a stsho to undergo "phasing" and spontaneously change sex as well as personality.
Andorians—in the Star Trek Novel Verse (Star Trek Online borrowed this)—have four sexes and need to form a telepathically bound quartet comprised of one of each sex before they can hope to conceive. "Chan" and "thaan" approximate male, while "zhen" and "shen" approximate female (the "shen" conceives the embryo while the "zhen" carries it to term in a pouch). There isn't any evidence of this within the Live-Action TVcanon though: It's based on a throwaway line from TNG: "Data's Day" that Andorian marriages consist of four people, but that could just as easily imply polygamy. Since they have a low birth rate, it's a Hand Wave for why that race isn't seen much in space, despite being one of the Federation's founding species. The novels have fleshed out the four-sex biology and four-gender culture interpretation considerably.
In Bactricians, the third sex is a small breeding caste traded between couples of males and females.
In Piers Anthony's Cluster series, the Spicans have three sexes—impact, undulant, and sibilant—of which all three are required for reproduction. Whenever all three are present in the same area, mating will occur—not might, will. There are three roles that can each be assumed by any of the three sexes, and the gender of the offspring is determined by which sex takes which role.
One science fiction story (name forgotten) features an alien species with five sexes, all of which are involved in the conception and raising of a child in their own way. The meat of the story involved an individual of the "siring" sex taking a "nurturing" partner to court to get custody of their offspring.
In the Marsbound series, the "Martians" (who aren't actually native to Mars) don't appear to have fixed sexes. Their reproduction is described as a wrestling match with several participants—and the winner gets to be the mother.
In the novel Silent Runners, aliens nicknamed "pupfish" evolved with three sexes: males, females, and pouchers. All three are necessary to reproduce: males fertilize females, who produce underdeveloped larvae that are deposited in a poucher (like marsupials), where the larvae receive the poucher's chromosomes and continue their development. The species is also superfecund, with a female able to birth the larvae of multiple males at once, and multiple females can deposit in the same poucher. The author worked out a pretty detailed analysis of the biology behind this.
In William Barton and Michael Capobianco's Alpha Centauri, the "leospiders" apparently had several different sexes: males suck some sort of seed from quondam females, take more from quasimales, inseminate macrofemmes with the collection... It's confusing since the expedition learns about the process from multi-billion year old pornography.
In Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, the alien Morror have five sexes: Suth-laaa, Quth-laaa,note Italics present in the original text. Ruul, Thuul and Ma-lashnath. It's rare to actually have five parents, which improves the fitness of offspring, but none have less than three. Only snippets of detail are given about the mechanics of procreation and childbirth, but suffice to say they reproduce in idiosyncratic fashion.
Parodied in Horton Hatches The Egg. A lazy bird named Mayzie talks Horton the elephant into watching her egg. It inexplicably hatches into an elephant-bird.
Live Action TV
The Newcomers in Alien Nation. Tenctonese have three sexes—male, female, and "binnaum"—all three of which are necessary to have a child. Because binnaums are relatively rare, they traditionally live monastic lives, only having sex when they are asked to help fertilize an egg for a male/female couple. Once mating has happened, the egg spends sometime in the mother's egg pouch and sometimes in the father's egg pouch.
One episode dealt with changing social roles as the Newcomers adapted to life on Earth. A binnaum has married a female and seeks the help of "his" male friend in reproducing (IIRC the binnaum was the one to help the male and his wife produce their own children years ago). The male is at first uncomfortable with this non-traditional situation (the male being an absent parent while the binnaum will raise the child), but eventually agrees.
Zig Zagged by River Song in Doctor Who. She is Amy and Rory's daughter, but because she was conceived on the TARDIS while in flight in the Time Vortex, she somehow has Time Lord DNA incorporated into her genetic makeup as well—enhanced by a little manipulation from the Silence. The TARDIS considers herself River's mother.
Double Subverted in Earth: Final Conflict. Liam Kincaid is the result of three biological parents: two human parents and one alien. Agent Sandoval, Agent Beckett and Ha'Gel, who was possessing Sandoval.
Zig Zagged in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Drone". Due to a transporter accident, the Doctor's mobile transmitter and some of Seven's nanoprobes are merged. Later DNA from Ensign Mulcahy is extracted by the growing mechanism and a 29th century drone is born.
Subverted in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Cogenitor". The Vissians have male, female and an intermediate "cogenitor" sex, which contributes no genetic material to the child but provides an enzyme which is required for conception. Trip develops a friendship with the third person in a trio of aliens and had a difficult time when he finds out that the cogenitor sex is treated as an inferior.
Exaggerated on Andromeda. The Than-Thre-Kull (an insectoid One-Gender Race) reproduce by laying eggs in communal burrows. The eggs mix genetic material, meaning that all the resulting grubs are biological siblings and all the adults that participated are their biological parents. Unsurprisingly, their society involves a complex web of family relationships.
The Mercedes Lackey song "Mis Conceptions" features a character who was apparently the result of a party with several mythological beasts as guests.
My mother never talks about that orgy And I can't really blame her much, although I would love to read the guest list for that party And if there's another like it let me know
Mythology and Legend
This used to be an actual superstition named telegony. Several ancient cultures believed that if a woman slept with different men during or shortly before her pregnancy, that each of these men counted as a father.
The Epic of Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh claimed to be "two thirds god, one third human", implying his mortal mother slept with two gods.
In Norse Mythology, Heimdall has nine mothers (and no apparent father). We do not get any explanation as to how this works.
Theseus was the son of both Aegeus and the sea god Poseidon, due to his mother taking an early morning wade in the ocean.
Heracles and and his twin Iphicles. Their mother was Alcmene, with Heracles fathered by the god Zeus and Iphicles by a mortal man Amphitryon.
Leda conceives quadruplets (Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux) in the same night by the god Zeus (disguised as a swan) and and her mortal husband Tyndareus. Instead of giving birth to the children, Leda lays eggs that hatch them. The exact parentage varies widely among accounts.
The Droyne in Traveller have three sexes: male, female, and enabler, the enablers being required to give off scent during a mating session. Droyne also are casted in the manner of social insects and each caste has only one sex. Droyne language focuses more on caste then on sex as that is more important in their psychological framework.
In Star Fleet Battles, the methane-breathing Hydrans (an Expy of the Masters from John Christopher's The Tripods trilogy) have three arms, three legs, and three sexes: male, female, and "enabler." Males take command and technical positions while females take worker, pilot and soldier professions, though rarely females will take command positions. Enablers are barely sentient and exist only for breeding and caring for young, though some sterilized enablers are used as servants on their starships. It requires all three sexesto produce more Hydrans: the male and female deposit their genetic contribution into a special pouch on the enabler, which also has a genetic contribution of its own. After a few months' gestation, it always gives birth to triplets... one male, one female, and one enabler, of course.
In Scarred Lands, the god Vangal is the child of three titans. His mother is Lethene and his fathers are Chern and Thulkas.
William: The current known record for number of parents to a single child is twelve, and only nine of those were Uryuoms.
Gillian: That kid needed some serious counseling.
Exaggerated in Homestuck. The trolls reproduce by mixing the genetic material of thousands of different trolls together within the womb of a Mother Grub, who then gives birth to hundreds of thousands of grubs. As such, they have no taboos against homosexuality or incest, and why they even have separate genders is unlikely to ever be explained canonically.
Parodied in Drowtales. The twist ending of one non-canon sidestory has Asira'malika Val'Jaal'darya cheerfully announce after teasing the (all female) clan leaders at a gathering about the identity of the baby she's carrying that they are all the child's mothers. The other leaders all either think this is a bad joke or get angry at her, but a montage showing the child growing up shows that she displays traits from their various bloodlines.
In Quantum Vibe Nicole is an "osmotic clone" generated from the chromosomes of her geneticist mother and eleven "fathers".
One clade in Orion's Arm has four genders, three passing on a different type of tissue (plant/animal/technological), and one acting as a womb.
Azulians have male and female sexes, but engineered the rodent-like "adaptator" solely to facilitate procreation with humans of the opposite sex. The adaptator merges with the father before the act and adjusts his DNA for compatibility with the mother. Thus resulting offspring are of the mother's species, not hybrids.
Invoked in the Justice League Unlimited finale Epilogue: it is revealed that Terry Mcginnis is more than just the son of Warren and Mary Mcginnis, but the biological son of Bruce Wayne thanks to Amanda Waller of CADMUS secret acquisition of Wayne's DNA in an attempt to create a Batman successor. Waller had Warren injected with Wayne DNA while claiming it was a flu shot. That injection overwrote Warren's reproductive genes. This last-minute Retcon actually helps explain why Terry, and by extension his younger brother, Matt, have black hair while Warren and Mary have red hair, when genetically their children should have been red haired too.
In Conway's Game of Life, a grid-based model of emergent complexity, a square will light up, becoming "alive", if it is surrounded by exactly three other "live" squares, i.e. "parents".
Polyspermy, in which two sperm penetrate a single egg simultaneously, can happen, even in humans. It's just incredibly rare, due to the egg's sperm-excluding cortical reaction, and the resulting triploid zygote cannot develop any further.
It is possible for a woman who has released two eggs simultaneously to have them each fertilized by a different man. The two fertilized eggs, instead of producing fraternal twins, may then merge to form a chimera, an individual that is a mixture of two different cell lines. Some tissues and organs would thus contain DNA from one father, while others would contain DNA from the second father. All tissues and organs would contain the mother's DNA, although almost always not the same subset of her DNA. Thus this individual would have three biological parents. Chimeras made in the lab may have multiple "mothers" as well as "fathers".
There is an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technique where the nucleus of one egg is inserted into a different donor's egg, then fertilized and implanted. The Mitochondrial DNA of the donor egg would be from a third person.
While ultimately, it's still one sperm per egg, some sex researchers postulate that this is the basis of promiscuous behavior among women, getting multiple men to inseminate them so that only the fittest sperm will fertilize the egg, thus ensuring your progeny will be prodigious.
A similar theory puts forth the idea that this is to create uncertainty as to who the father is, inspiring all the men it could possibly be to help support the woman and child on the off-chance it's theirs. It's still, of course, one egg and one sperm, but the resulting child would have many possible fathers.
Bacteria will exchange genetic material with one another through a variety of methods. While it isnít technically sexual reproduction, later generations will have genes from many different parent strains.
Viruses do the same thing, but using a host cell as an intermediary.
Subverted by superfecundation. Multiple ova from the same cycle are fertilized by different acts of intercourse. "Heteropaternal" superfecundation is where the offspring have different fathers. This is common in domestic cats and dogs.