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Historian and philosopher Sarah Richardson interrogates the science of sex and gender.
What wrongs have these mothers committed? Not any sort of physical violence: these articles describe a series of subtle, poorly understood chemical changes, passed from mother to child during pregnancy, that cause obesity and other long-term impairments. But such charges stand on shaky ground, declares Sarah Richardsonin her forthcoming book, The Maternal Imprint University of Chicago, The author, professor of the history of science and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, Ladies wants sex Mc Intosh spent her career researching the history of scientific ideas: where they come from, and what happens once they are unleashed in the public sphere.
Historians of science like Richardson are interested not just in the idealized process of empirical discovery, but in the ways its all-too-human participants are guided and misguided by their scientific tools and the cultures and institutions that support them.
But in recent decades, scientists using the tools of epigenetics have examined the molecular basis for such claims as never before. These claims routinely reach the public as scientific truth despite their origins in small studies and the even smaller effects they report, and despite study des that have taken as a given that in utero effects—rather than genetic or postnatal effects—were the only effects worth considering.
Her critique gained circulation among fellow scholars years before her ideas became the book. Throughout her career, such knowledge has come from carefully considering the fraught overlap of sex, gender, and science. How did the X and Y chromosomes come to be seen as the essence of biological sex? What does that history mean for the researchers who study them—and everyone who carries them in their cells?
How can medical research for the distinct but entangled influences of sex and gender? For Richardson, these questions cannot be answered without interrogating the assumptions embedded in the very words used to ask them. Much of this questioning now happens during meetings of the GenderSci Lab, a research group that Richardson officially established when she gained tenure inbut which grew from a reading group that began in Septemberjust weeks after Richardson arrived at Harvard as an assistant professor.
That group was started by Meredith Reiches, Ph. But she had left The Gambia with lingering questions about the unintended impact of work like hers on the women and girls she was studying. Reiches invited other students and trainees in her field and related areas to a reading group that would discuss the history of their field and of its assumptions about gender and sexuality. Though the only beakers are held by a Marie Curie bobblehead on her desk, the focused and collaborative inquiry on display in lab meetings would be familiar to any scientist.
Lab members discussed their own research projects, ranging from probing large epidemiological data sets to understand whether health outcomes stem from the cultural influences of gender factors such as high heels, employment disparities, or discrimination or sex factors hormones, genes, and biochemical development —or both—to a review of amicus curiae briefs to understand how scientific ideas about gender become translated—and mistranslated—into policy. And they congratulated Reiches, now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, for winning an international award for feminist scholarship with the publication of a paper on that research in the Gambia all those years ago.
The story told in introductory biology textbooks is relatively simple: each set of parents confers 23 chromosomes on each child—22 of which are matched pairs and two of which, the X and the much shorter Y, determine sex. Males have an X and a Y, while females have two Xs, and from this all the other hallmarks of sex—gon, hormones, genitals—follow. But the fact that sex chromosomes are visible under a microscope unlike the genetic markers for essentially any other trait made them useful enough to two groups of scientists—those working to establish the role of chromosomes in heredity and those working to untangle the role of hormones in sex determination—that the association between chromosomes and sex solidified for decades.
She points to scientists like DavidM. Such a focus was not inevitable, Richardson writes: from the s to the s, based on evidence in fruit flies, researchers saw the X as the driver of sex-determination. But from the mid s, and his colleagues studying mammals focused on the Y and the testes. When a historian like Richardson turns her critical examination from people long dead and events safely past to those whose participants are still-living experts in their field, they can—and often do—dispute her s. XYY research played no small part in this. But the tradition that I come from suggests that all science issocial, that we use the resources around us to reason about the world.
XYY studies… represented the primary work on the human Y chromosome for two decades. XYY spurred interest [in the Y]…. XYY research also helped to cement a working model of the Y chromosome as the chromosome for maleness that… remained extremely influential in the coming decades.
It comes easily to Richardson to think of science as a human endeavor inextricable from other human forces driving it. Her maternal grandfather, pioneering Ladies wants sex Mc Intosh biologist Martin Rodbell, helped discover G proteins: molecules that help pass als between and among cells. He worked at the [National Institutes of Health] for all his career on basic science, and bemoaned the corporatization of science, bemoaned the need to constantly produce applied findings.
That commitment to basic science paid off in perhaps the biggest way Ladies wants sex Mc Intosh Rodbell shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his role in discovering the G protein. Her family was deported, and ultimately murdered at Auschwitz. Her mother, her father, her sister, her grandmother, and many other aunts and uncles. She opens The Maternal Imprint by contemplating how the consequences of such unfathomable horror can be passed down from one generation to the generations thereafter.
She cites research on Holocaust survivors and their descendants from neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda, who argues that mothers who survived the Holocaust may have children more susceptible to trauma, because elevated stress hormones in utero can result in chemical modification of fetal DNA. Ladies wants sex Mc Intosh these children are female, their own egg cells, developed while they were still in utero, may pass this molecular legacy of tragedy on in turn.
The Maternal Imprint is written in the context of this eagerness to understand intergenerational connections. The Nazi state, Richardson points out, guided and justified its murders with the logic of eugenics, an international scientific movement—supported by Harvard president emeritus Charles W. Eliot, his successor A. For Richardson and the GenderSci Lab, speaking out means challenging harmful uses and misuses of science, whether by white nationalists or by well-intentioned biologists who might benefit from a fresh look at seemingly fundamental ideas, such as the nature of sex itself.
With the completion of The Maternal ImprintRichardson has returned to the deep question that animated Sex Itself, which she feels remains unanswered: what, actually, is sex? Evolution may tweak its trappings—hormones, chromosomes, anatomy—between species and over time, but sex itself remains constant.
Yet nature is full of examples that defy this pat view. Research into the extent of these differences continues: in July, Davidthe MIT geneticist, published a study of five different mammalian species that compared the sex-related genes that occur on all their chromosomes not just on X and Y. In many cases, genes that were amplified in the males of one species were amplified in the females of other species. Biologists generally acknowledge that the biological variables related to sex vary greatly across space, time, and species, but Richardson says this variability must be treated not as a tacked-on caveat, but as central to how the study of sex is conducted.
Scientists need to be extremely careful about applying to humans their about sex differences gleaned from lab animals or even human cell samples. When the NIH promulgated a policy urging scientists to report their findings about male and female test subjects—worm, rat, or human—separately, Richardson and other GenderSci Lab members published opinions everywhere from the Journal of Neuroscience to the Washington Post urging scientists not to expect those reported differences to generalize to humans. You want to address gender inequalities in medical outcomes?
You want to understand how sex is operating in a particular animal or tissue model? Sex is working at multiple levels and in different ways. It will take some time, says Richardson, to turn sex contextualism into a fully fledged philosophical theory, thanks in no small part to the countless ways that sex matters for biology, scientific research, and culture.
And then someone can critique it, once it is out there as a fully thought-out, positive system for thinking about what sex is. Then we will really get a debate going. Bennett McIntosh, a freelance writer living in Boston, covers science for this and other publications.
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The Science of Sex