History has seen a number of characters who have pushed the limits of parenthood, producing dozens upon dozens of lives who roamed the Earth against all odds. In a handful of rare instances, these super-parents were so prolific that they even managed to leave gigantic imprints on the world's gene pool that continue to linger today, centuries after their death.
First up, let’s start with the fathers. Not hampered by the timely and biologically costly experience of pregnancy, it’s potentially possible for men to have more offspring than women.
When we think of prolific fathers, a name that no doubt springs to mind is Genghis Khan, the feared founder of the Mongol Empire who lived from 1162 to 1227 CE. Genetic evidence has shown that around 8 percent of men currently living in a portion of Asia from northeast China to Uzbekistan – that's over 16 million men – have an unusual Y-chromosomal lineage that's likely to be linked to Genghis Khan himself.
Leaving such a heavy genetic imprint on the world requires a hell of a lot of offspring. Legend says that Genghis Khan had some 500 concubines, mostly noble ladies and princesses from conquered tribes and lands, and he was the feather to hundreds of children. While this is unverifiable, some historians believe it's not out of the realm of possibility.
As valiant as his efforts were, a single Sultan of Morocco may have beaten the mighty Mongol’s record. Studies have estimated that Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty (1672–1727) was the father to approximately 1,171 children from 500 women in a reproductive time span of 32 years.
In the modern era, cultural change and social shifts mean that people are generally having fewer kids. Simultaneously, however, advances in biotechnology have opened up more opportunities for people looking to reproduce.
There have been reports that sperm donors have managed to create hundreds of kids through artificial insemination. In 2016, an “unlicensed sperm donor” in the UK claimed he was the father to 800 kids. He reportedly met people through Facebook and charged them £50 for a "magic potion pot" of sperm. Once again, it’s hard to verify this story, but there are a number of sperm donors in the past 50 years who claim a similarly high number of children.
When it comes to women, the numbers are significantly lower, although the “feat” of having a high number of kids is arguably more impressive given the risks of pregnancy.
The world record for the most prolific mother of all time is Valentina Vassilyev, a Russian peasant who lived in the 18th century. Together with her husband, she was reportedly the parent of 69 children. They were born through 27 pregnancies, in which she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets.
However, there has been some doubt about whether this is statistically and biologically possible. Without modern medicine and sanitation, pregnancy is extremely risky. Giving birth 27 times in the Russian countryside hundreds of years ago is not impossible, but the odds are certainly not in your favor.
Paired with this, infant mortality was high in the 18th Century, yet 67 out of 69 of her offspring are said to have survived childhood. You also have to wonder how a farm-working peasant would support almost 70 kids.
In the 21st century, when claims are easier to verify, there have been some highly prolific mothers, most notably a Ugandan woman named Mariam Nabatanzi. According to a Reuters report from 2019, she was the mother to 38 children by the age of 39 years old.
Just like with men, it’s possible that biotechnology could allow women to become more prolific mothers too. Assisted reproductive technologies mean that the extreme limits of female reproduction may be much higher than previously appreciated.
Theoretically, fertility drugs could be used to provoke ovaries to release more eggs than usual. These eggs could then be removed and fertilized with sperm in a petri dish, then surgically placed into the uteruses of an army of surrogate mothers. The average girl has approximately 300,000 to 400,000 eggs when they reached puberty. If it became possible to “utilize” all of these eggs, then that’s a hell of a lot of children.
Of course, this thought experiment is largely theoretical for now, and this kind of advancement would arise all kinds of ethical and practical problems. However, it just goes to show how biotechnology has the potential to dramatically change the way we see reproduction and the limits to parenthood.