Sarah Richardson, science philosopher

This historian of science explores how culture and the genetics of gender intersect. Interview by Nicholas Weiler

April 07, 2015

Sarah Richardson of Harvard University. Credit: Tony Rinaldo
You’ve probably seen the cartoon about a husband missing the “asking for directions” gene or jokes about the X chromosome’s putative “Jane Austen appreciation” locus. Even in our genetically literate age, cultural stereotypes still color our understanding of the science. Harvard University historian Sarah Richardson studies this interplay and how social biases can lead to bad science and dangerous policy.

In her first book, Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Richardson traced a century-long quest to define the essence of sex. In the 19th century, she writes, biologists conceived of sex as malleable and subject to environmental influence. The discovery of the X and Y chromosomes and sex hormones in the early 20th century spurred a cultural shift to thinking of sex, and therefore gender, as a fundamental biological division. Today, as society questions traditional gender boundaries, the complexities of the human genome are also prompting another rethinking of the meaning of sex.  

Richardson is now writing her second book, exploring the cultural and biological relationship between pregnant mother and growing fetus. She examines how society is reacting to the growing field of epigenetics: the discovery that diet, lifestyle, and stress tweak gene expression in ways that can reverberate to affect a person’s children and grandchildren. In a recent Nature commentary, Richardson and her colleagues argued that much of the initial coverage of epigenetics has pointed a finger of blame at pregnant mothers. Rather, they wrote, environmental and paternal factors also contribute to the health of future generations.

Richardson discussed the impact of gender stereotypes on the interpretation of today's research in genetics at the February 2015 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose. SciCom’s Nicholas Weiler then asked Richardson to discuss how the culture and science of sex intertwine.

What drew you to studying science from a historical perspective?

I grew up with scientific ambitions planted by my grandfather, Martin Rodbell. He had a way of engaging with science that was full of artistic references, a deeply ethical way of doing science. When he gave his Nobel acceptance speech [Physiology and Medicine, 1994] he wrote a poem for it. That was a very strong and forceful model of being an intellectual and a human that made a big impact on me.

How did you start to study the genetics of sex, specifically?

When I was doing my Ph.D. at Stanford in 2005, the issue of Nature celebrating the sequencing of the human X chromosome came across my desk. I asked myself, has anyone written a history of this astonishing transformation in the biological understanding of sex? I also saw a lot of gendered tropes in the [media] coverage, probably meant to offer narrative flavor. One article referred to the X as the feminine chromosome. I think it was described as mysterious and changeable. Another article connected the double X in females and the single X in males to differences in intellectual achievement. I found that very provocative. So I began to write and think and explore, and boy was it low-hanging fruit. It just hadn't been done. It evolved into a dissertation project and then later into a book.

From your first book, I was really interested that the 19th century notion of sex was much more malleable. That was surprising to me.

Yes, me too.

Can you tell me about that? How has our view of sex and gender changed over the last century?

In the late 19th century, there was a much greater fascination with conditions of intermediate sex, such as butterflies with "male" half-coloring and patterning. Birds also appear this way. Such objects showed a spectrum-like nature of sex. They showed its openness to environmental factors. After the discovery of the sex chromosomes [at the turn of the century] and the sex hormones in the 1920s, things began to harden around the notion that there are discrete biochemical determinants of sex.

For much of the 20th century, this binary conception triumphed in a lot of areas of biology. The perfect example is the XYY supermale: the notion that an extra Y makes you more [masculine] because, after all, the Y is the male chromosome. This circular kind of reasoning led to one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of 20th century genetics: the widely held proposition that XYY supermales are taller and more aggressive—in short, more male. This led to the stigmatizing of individuals with XYY conditions.

So do people no longer believe that the X and Y chromosomes equal sex?

"There's really no way in which you can think of the X as a female or feminine chromosome."

Oh, no. I think this remains a very strong belief. It's among a small number of facts about biology learned in grade school that people retain.

Why is what I learned in grade school wrong?

Well, let me treat them in turn. The Y chromosome is basically a small X chromosome with only a few genes involved in maleness. A person can survive and be perfectly normal without a Y chromosome. Most of the genes involved in sex determination are distributed all across the genome. The X chromosome is, I think, an even more compelling case. Both males and females, of course, have an X chromosome, which is unusually enriched for genes involved in male spermatogenesis. There's really no way in which you can think of the X as a female or feminine chromosome. The main point of the book is to document how it is that we reduce all the complexity of sex and gender to these two factors and see them as representing male and female.

Epigenetics has become a major interest of yours. You think early findings that maternal health can affect future generations have been overhyped. What made you so concerned about how the research was being interpreted?

I started reading about epigenetics and found that there is an insidious and uncritical discourse about the role of maternal behavior. Very subtle perturbations in development are claimed to have huge impacts—not only for the [child] but for society at large. As a historian, one cannot help but think back on a long history of locating responsibility for social ills in maternal behavior, which has had implications for women's reproductive autonomy and basic freedom.

What are some examples of that?

[One recent example was] the suggestion in the early 1980s that exposure to crack cocaine in the uterus led to such profound developmental problems that women could be jailed while pregnant. They could be forced to give up their babies and lose their social benefits. It's now believed there are no long-term implications of exposure to crack cocaine during the intrauterine period. Yet many women, particularly poor women of color, had their lives totally transformed—as well as their children’s lives. Earlier in the 20th century, in the eugenics era, people who were considered unfit mothers were forcibly sterilized without their consent. It seems obscene to bring up such examples, but if you study the history these are palpable profound social movements that remain just below the surface of much uncritical public-health discourse.

What are the problems with how epigenetic research is being discussed?

Well, one of them is simply the focus on modifying individual maternal behavior. A lot of this, by the way, is in the translation of this work in a popular media context. A complex study becomes a suggestion not to eat a single potato chip while pregnant. I would like to see more focus on both maternal and paternal effects to place things in context. I would like to see animal models that better model human social environment.

A good example is obesity. What's the prescription to the mother? You're pregnant. Become not obese? This is a lot of responsibility being given to the mother, and not a lot of agency. We live in an obesogenic society. If these results hold water, they suggest the importance for everyone of creating environments conducive to healthy living.

What do you as see your role as a historian of science in reminding scientists about this kind of bias?

Let's see. Well, I don't like the question because I really don't think of myself as rapping scientists on their wrists and saying they are irresponsible.

But I think there isn't enough room for big conversations like this.  People working at the highest levels of sex chromosome science may not have the space and the time to think about their work in this way. I have the space and the time and the training, and it's a great privilege.

How do scientists react to your critiques of their work, or how it’s interpreted?

I speak to a lot of scientific audiences. At first, I was nervous that my critical perspective would get push-back. But I've been delighted to find that scientists are highly interested. The process has been more of an engaged conversation. 

I actually think what I'm doing with gender criticism is really good science. There's sometimes a misperception that this work in cultural studies of science is anti-science—that it wants to disrupt the authority of scientific knowledge. But the very best qualities of science—allowing data to speak for itself and constant criticism of our background assumptions—is the core spirit of the kind of critique and analysis that I'm doing.

In your talk you mentioned a leading researcher who referred to the uteruses of impoverished women as a metabolic ghetto. I was really struck by that. What was your initial reaction to those statements?

It points to this possibility of stigmatizing certain individuals as being lesioned from the start, as in earlier uses of the term ghetto. The researcher in question is not a marginal figure in the field, but one of its framing figures. It brings to mind immediate connections to some of the most tragic moments in the history of public health. So it brings home the point very nicely. Did you have the same reaction?

I did, yeah. You also showed these fairly disturbing images of disembodied pregnant female torsos that have been featured in the popular press when talking about epigenetics.

I've had this profound reaction to those images from recent parents, both male and female. Like, grateful reactions. So it is something really strong out there that needs to be countered. I must say, this is not my goal. My book is not about maternal blame. It's about the fascinating science of maternal fetal effects. But yeah: headless and legless torsos. Pretty brutal stuff. Someone once asked me how do you talk about that without getting angry.

How do you talk about that without getting angry?

I've metabolized it intellectually.


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