More Book Summaries: Sex/Gender and Race in Genetics + Animals in the Lab and in the ‘Wild’

I just finished another set of readings for my orals list on “History of American Post-War Science and Feminism” with Susan Lindee. Read my summaries below and make sure to check out Etienne Benson’s site with many more resources on “wilderness” and STS.

Works Read
Eugenics, Sex/Gender, Race
Richardson, Sarah S. 2013. Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Braun, Lundy. 2014.
Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Roberts, Dorothy E. 2011.
Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York: New Press.
TallBear, Kimberly. 2013.
Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Animals, Anthropomorphism, Sex, and Evolution
Daston, Lorraine, and Gregg Mitman, eds. 2005.
Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Zuk, Marlene. 2002.
Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Milam, Erika L. 2010.
Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. 1989. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–36,” “Women’s Place Is in the Jungle,” and “Linda Marie Fedigan: Models for Intervention.” In
Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. 26–58, 279–303, 316–30. New York: Routledge.
Fedigan, Linda M. 2001. “The Paradox of Feminist Primatology: The Goddess’s Discipline?” In
Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology, and Medicine, edited by Angela N. H. Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Londa L. Schiebinger, 46–72. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Logan, Cheryl A. 2001. “’[A]re Norway Rats … Things?’ Diversity Versus Generality in the Use of Albino Rats in Experiments on Development and Sexuality.”
Journal of the History of Biology 34 (2): 287–314. doi: 10.1023/A:1010398116188.
Pettit, Michael. 2012. “The Queer Life of a Lab Rat.”
History of Psychology 15 (3): 217–27. doi: 10.1037/a0027269.

Animals in the Lab and in the Wild
Clause, Bonnie T. 1993. “The Wistar Rat as a Right Choice: Establishing Mammalian Standards and the Ideal of a Standardized Mammal.”
Journal of the History of Biology 26 (2): 329–49. doi:10.1007/BF01061973.
Lynch, Michael E. 1988. “Sacrifice and the Transformation of the Animal Body into a Scientific Object: Laboratory Culture and Ritual Practice in the Neurosciences.”
Social Studies of Science 18 (2): 265–89. doi: 10.1177/030631288018002004.
Kohler, Robert E. 1994.
Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Benson, Etienne. 2010.
Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

In her first monograph, historian and philosopher of science Sarah Richardson investigates into Sex Itself, that is, the ways in which cultural gender norms and stereotypes have shaped the search for sex differences in the genome in twentieth- and twenty-first-century genetics. The study is informed by a close reading of genetic, feminist, and popular texts as well as published interviews of geneticists. Richardson argues that the definition of X and Y chromosomes as “sex chromosomes” has “anchor[ed]” the cultural and scientific beliefs in a dichotomous sex (p. 2), even though various different interpretations of these chromosomes as well as maleness and femaleness have been proposed over the course of the twentieth century (chs. 2–4). Opposing geneticists argued that the term “sex chromosome” distorted the broader function of the X and Y chromosomes: the term was simplistic, could not be used across species, and did not illuminate the mechanism of the actual sexing of an individual at all. As Richardson shows, however, geneticists and popular voices of the 1910s and 1920s increasingly referred to “sex chromosomes” in order to promote a chromosomal version of hereditary science. In the 1930s and 1940s, the so-called “sex hormones” moved to center stage and “sex chromosomes” seemed the perfect genetic complement for a new science of sex that had been stabilized by the 1950s and 1960s, when genetics pushed to the forefront of the human sciences. But women were not passive. Richardson also shows (chs. 7 and 8) how feminism has shaped science through “direct exposure, osmosis, and demographic transformation” (p. 126).

Pathologist and STS scholar Lundy Braun’s first (!) book, Breathing Race into the Machine, traces the history of the spirometer, a device that quantifies lung function by measuring the volume of air exhaled by an individual. Invented in Victorian laboratories as a means to assess the lung function of British workers, the spirometer traveled the world and was still in use as a tool of evidence in asbestos lawsuits in the US at the turn of the twenty-first century, making it relatively hard for black workers to prove diminished lung function and obtain compensation. Braun’s account of the spirometer in Britain, the US, and South Africa illustrates how notions of race were literally built into these machines through a “race correction” switch; this materialized concept of race was mostly binary and always with ‘white’ individuals as superior (technically, regarding their lung function, but Braun shows—and we all know—that this is not what the ideology of white superiority was limited to).

Drawing on archival material, scientific publications, and interviews with and published information from spirometer manufacturers from the early to the later twentieth century, Braun shows how the ideology of racial inequality in the social and scientific realms traveled with the spirometer, which was sometimes used to assess the variance within ‘white’ populations (e.g., ch. 7) and sometimes to perform comparative studies across people of different skin colors (e.g., ch. 6). She illustrates that the spirometer of the mid-twentieth century was static in its built-in race “correction” but flexible, throughout the twentieth century, in its use for occupational safety, fitness movements, or racial discrimination—unfortunately always to the advantage of already privileged white male populations. Braun talks about sex/gender significantly more than Richardson mentions race (e.g., ch. 3); from Braun’s account, it becomes particularly clear that Sex Itself and Breathing Race into the Machine are similar proofs of the fact that covert cultural biases materialize in science and technology, be it through ascribing meaning to a chromosome or building a racist, sexist, and classist machine.

Fatal Invention is Dorothy Roberts’s third monograph, a four-part investigation into the ways in which racial categories have been created and used in public policy and biomedicine since the “invention” of race “as a system of governance and ‘moral apology’” during the years of slavery and westwards expansion in North America (p. 309). Drawing on a wide range of published historical and scientific literature as well as court cases, Roberts argues that the political origins of racial categories have been and are deliberately concealed in favor of a notion of biological differences between human races; biomedicine and molecular biology—genetics in particular—have served to stabilize, refine, surveil, and commercialize this political grouping, which today as in times of slavery provides an excuse for institutionalized economic, legal, educational, and health-related inequalities between individuals of different skin colors and ethnic backgrounds. Distinguishing between the deliberate abuse of racial categories, “scientific racism,” and the “reinforce[ment of] race,” which can occur in line with democratic interests (p. 27), Roberts illustrates that genetic explanations of race resonate very well with neoliberal biopolitics so aptly and yet uncritically described by Nikolas Rose; the responsibility and blame for not living the ‘American dream’ is ascribed to the individual and their biological heritage.

Just like Richardson, Roberts presents a clear political agenda in her works, but whereas Roberts makes her agenda explicit as a long personal fight from the first to the last page of her book, Richardson frames it in a more impersonal way as an intellectual proposition and policy implication—maybe because she believes that both gender and sex exists, whereas Roberts believes only in the political concept of race, not its biological substrate.

Kimberly TallBear joins the group of scholars for policy-relevance. She is a professor for Native Studies and a tribal citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Her first book, Native American DNA, illustrates the ways in which DNA testing to determine Native American heritage is redefining the notions of tribal belonging and challenges tribal governance. She draws on ethnographies, interviews, and published scholarship in feminism, Native Studies, and STS, was well as on textual analyses of advertisements, websites, and texts produced in internet communities; these sources allow her to show how DNA’s promise of scientific accuracy has replaced the importance of ‘blood’ in determining tribal heritage (ch. 1), how private DNA testing corporations commercialize Nativeness based on the very same promise (ch. 2), how self-identified non-Native individuals contribute to the commodification of “Native American DNA” by consuming DNA tests in the context of family tree research (ch. 3), and how the Genographic Project, aiming at mapping the movement of human populations, redefines racial and tribal identity in genetic terms in the tradition of colonial science (ch. 4).

This monograph ties in previously summarized accounts on the construction of human races (Roberts, Braun), on DNA profiling and the authority of the science of genetics (Comfort, Lindee, Duster, Lynch et al.), as well as the scholarship on feminist epistemologies (Richardson and section VII of this reading list) in that it makes visible the ways in which race and tribal belonging are simplified and essentialized, scientific uncertainties and inaccuracies are ignored, and folk knowledge as well as perceived identity are devalued.

The four parts of Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman’s edited volume Thinking with Animals treat human–animal relationships in historical and contemporary scientific laboratories, households, visual art, and other cultural contexts. The contributions of this edited volume elaborate the ways in which, on the one hand, humans have ascribed morality and intellectual capacities to animals and, on the other hand, have used animals as symbols and objects of as well as aid to their own reasoning, sometimes in rather schematic ways (e.g., chs. 4 and 5).

Part II of the volume contains a contribution by Elliott Sober, a chapter titled “Comparative Psychology Meets Evolutionary Biology: Morgan’s Canon and Cladistic Parsimony.” It discusses anthropodenial, the non-ascription of human characteristics to animals, and discusses the two different types of errors the approaches can produce. Sober illustrates that British psychologist and ethologist C.L. Morgan, studied in this essay, believed that humans are psychologically biased towards anthropomorphism. Morgan thus advocated for deliberate anthropodenial in his canon in order to evade the naïve anthropomorphism. Chapter five, Sandra D. Mitchell’s “Anthropomorphism and Cross-Species Modeling,” continues the study of the strong negative connotation of “anthropomorphism” in science, showing that the twentieth-century counter-movement of deliberately anthropomorphic cognitive ethologists and environmental ethicists is justified in the post-Darwinian insight into the close relatedness between all animals and useful as scientific models to be substantiated with empirical evidence.

Sexual Selections is a popular monograph written by the feminist biologist Marlene Zuk that provides insight into different forms of animal sexual behavior and debates the ways in which these insights relate to values and habits pertaining to human sexuality. Despite the fact that Zuk is criticizing her own profession, she analyses the extent to which stereotypical ideas held by scientists shape the allegedly objective studies of animal behavior and, in turn, how insights gained through biology influence the human understanding of sexual behavior and characteristics, sometimes too naively applied and leading to sexism, sometimes naturalizing socially sanctioned behavior, and in other cases bearing the potential to fuel sexual liberation movements. Zoomorphism and anthropomorphism are both debated, resonating well with Daston and Mitman’s edited volume; Zuk argues that animal studies targeting knowledge about ‘human nature’ are an epistemologically dangerous and ethically questionable undertaking. Furthermore, the discussion of reading gender stereotypes into sociobiological observations resonates perfectly well with Richardson’s account of gendering the so-called sex chromosomes.

Looking for a Few Good Males is another first book on this list. Erika Milam provides a study of sexual selection and the theory of the role of female choice of mating partners in evolutionary processes, illustrating that this topic has received considerable scientific attention since C. Darwin, even though the historiography argues that interest arose again only in response to R. Triver’s work on parental investment in the 1970s (the so-called “eclipse narrative”). Milam draws on archival collections on three continents, oral histories for which she conducted the interviews herself, contemporary biological journals, and scholarship from various fields. What is at stake with the concept of female choice, Milam shows, are, first, the delineation between the concepts of natural selection (“who survived”) and sexual selection (“who reproduced”) (p. 2); second, female agency; and, third, human exceptionalism.

Milam explains that diverse competing disciplines researching female choice originated from different disciplinary realms and employed various approaches and research sites—the lab and the field. Interestingly enough, the organismal biologists won out over molecular approaches, which is noteworthy in the face of the rise of genetics. But, as becomes clear, all of these approaches were similar in their attempts to utilize knowledge about non-human animals’ sexual behavior to extrapolate and evaluate human sexual behavior, a notion very familiar from Zuk’s monograph. The fact that Milam’s actors make their observations through a stereotypically gendered lens and employ both anthropomorphism and zoomorphism should not surprise, at least not after reading Richardson’s and Zuk’s works as well as Daston and Mitman’s edited volume.

In her second monograph Primate Visions, Donna Haraway analyses the narratives that originate from and within the field of primatology, focusing on notions of love, sex/gender, and nature/culture. Haraway illustrates that taxidermy, photography, and behavioral biology aim at detecting differences that are necessary to establish orders amongst individuals and species, an entirely political endeavor, she argues. In line with Zuk’s criticism of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, Haraway contends that “western primatology has been about the construction of the self from the raw material of the other,” that is, the primate (p. 11). In doing so, scientists observe animals through a lens of stereotypes and presuppositions about humankind and the world. Further resonating with Zuk, Haraway identifies primatology as a field of highly “sexualized discourse” (p. 11). In the African Hall in the American Museum of Natural History, for instance, Carl Akeley and his two (consecutive) wives as well as many invisible African laborers have prepared specimens to create “a history of race, sex, and class” by carefully seeking out “’typical’” (p. 40), that is, “perfect” adult male (p. 41), animals to mount and tell a history of natural hierarchy and true manhood. “[O]rganicism” (p. 30), reproductive hierarchy, social hygiene, and preservation of decay became institutionalized in the African Hall, whose patrons were eugenicists and capitalist leaders of the country. Fittingly enough, the Second International Congress of Eugenics was held at the Museum in 1921.

In “The Paradox of Feminist Primatology,” Fedigan tackles the question of whether, as Haraway suggests in Part III of Primate Visions, primatology has become—or come close to being—a feminist science. In order to test this thesis, Fedigan applies Londa Schiebinger’s eight “Tools of Gender Analysis” (p. 48) to the history, knowledge, and methods of primatology. She gives a positive answer to each of the questions of whether primatology has increased the use of these eight tools in the past decades, with an exception of the fifth tool, “Gender Dynamics in the Cultures of Science.” Fedigan argues that primatology has developed “an androgynous culture” prior to the years of second-wave feminism, simply by good women’s entering the field and proving their adequacy. But despite all of the obviously feminism-influenced changes in the field of primatology, Fedigan argues that primatology has only benefited from “cultural assimilation” (p. 66) and not become a feminist field, because primatologists deliberately try to not be identified as feminists, fearing this may “feminize(d)” their discipline and cost them authority (p. 64), let them seem politically inclined instead of ‘objective’ and unbiased, or may even challenge their deeply ingrained positivistic view of science.

Cheryl Logan, an experimental psychologist turned historian of science, discusses another species of great importance to the study of animal sexual behavior in her paper “’[A]re Norway Rats … Things?’.” Tracing US-American and German-speaking research in behavioral biology from the late nineteenth century to 1930, Logan shows that researchers on both continents valued white rats for their studies for two major reasons: first, they developed slowly and allowed for directed interventions in experimental contexts, and, second, their sexual drive was considered to be very pronounced, an obviously desirable trait in studies of sexual behavior. Logan argues that the widespread use of rats as laboratory animals did not prevent researchers to think in comparative terms until 1915. Rats seemed to be convenient model organisms and thus one step in the direction of obtaining a much broader knowledge about sexuality in many species. By 1930, however, fueled by the rise of the experimental paradigm and the easy availability of industrially produced standardized Wistar Rats (see Clause’s paper below), the comparative focus was abandoned and this special kind of white rats came to be considered the organism for obtaining generalizable knowledge about animal, including human, sexuality, Logan argues.

STS scholar Michael Pettit’s article “The Queer Life of a Lab Rat” continues the analysis of rodents as subjects in studies pertaining to animal sexuality. Pettit’s article is framed by queer theory and draws on archival letters as well as published scientific literature. Pettit traces F. Beach’s research of the reversal of sexual behavior in laboratory rats in the 1930s and 1940s. Beach observed that males can exhibit “female” sexual behavior and females can exhibit “male” sexual behavior in situations of high sexual excitement or under the influence of hormonal treatment. In particular, Beach’s research suggested that the so-called sex hormones did not function as their name suggested. This mistitlement of the “sex hormones” resonates well with Richardson’s argument of the inadequacy of the name given to the “sex chromosomes.” Pettit also argues that much of Beach’s “violence” (p. 224) towards his lab animals stemmed from the attempt to secure his own heterosexual marriage (by reversing the female diurnal rhythm so he could work regular hours and spend more time with his partner) and to eradicate the typicalities of female reproductive behavior (e.g., sterilizing female rats to prevent pregnancy or introducing round cages so they were forced to mate with a male in the absence of any corners to hide and prevent being mounted).

“The Wistar Rat as a Right Choice” is the first publication of independent scholar Bonnie T. Clause. The text analyzes the goals behind the production of the Wistar Rat as a standardized research animal that was bread at the University of Pennsylvania from 1906 through the 1940s and is thus a complementary account to Logan’s paper about white Norway rats in different places. Drawing on archival sources at the Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology Library, Clause weaves together the investments and goals of three main characters into what ended up a trademarked product: newly hired director M.J. Greenman’s attempts to advance the Wistar Institute and make it serve ‘science’ more broadly, neuroanatomist H.D. Donaldson’s need to find a suitable organism for his investigations into the growth of the nervous system, and zoologist H.D. King’s effort to obtain genetic material to continue her inbreeding studies. The alienation of the laboratory rats from their Norway rat ancestors resembled a factory of selective (in(ter))breeding as a means of standardization and perfection (cf. Akeley’s taxidermic endeavors as described by Haraway). As Clause illustrates, Greenman deliberately modeled the rat colony on F.W. Taylor’s principles of “Shop Management,” to promote scientific standardization akin to chemical purity in anatomy and biology. The Wistar Press as well as Greenman in person informally advertised the Wistar Rat as an efficient organism for scientific study, resulting in the industrialized production of 11,000 rats in 1913, 3,000 of which were shipped to other laboratories.

As a complement to the illustration of the industrial production of rats, Michael E. Lynch considers the ritual killing of laboratory animals in his paper “Sacrifice and the Transformation of the Animal Body into a Scientific Object.” Lynch draws on his observations during ethnographies in the 1970s, observing the interaction and rhetoric of laboratory scientists working mainly with rats. He illustrates how the individual “naturalistic animal” that needs to be tamed and handled in the laboratory is transformed into an abstract “analytic animal,” a set of mathematized data, “ostensibly an artifact—a product of human intervention” (p. 269). Depending on the docility of the living animal and the usefulness of the data provided, animals are classified into “good” and “bad” after being “sacrificed” for the advance of scientific knowledge. One important precondition to being a “good” animal, Lynch shows, is being a standardized animal that leads to clean data without any artifacts of individuality, an observation that validates the concerns of Clause’s actors in the attempt to standardize rats.

Robert Kohler, a trained chemist, continues the story of the creation and dissemination of standardized laboratory animals from 1910 to 1940 with a study on Drosophila flies in his third book Lords of the Fly. This is a story of scientific practice, its material culture (consisting of standard fly, fly group, and the exchange network), as well as the “moral economy” (E.P. Thompson’s term) connecting the drosophilists, that is, the scientists values, rules, and regulations that structured their scientific work and the social hierarchies amongst them and defined the recognition that individual researchers were granted. Kohler focuses on the work and international network of geneticist T.H. Morgan and his students at Columbia University and later the California Institute of Technology (cf. tables of institutions in the appendix). Kohler’s primary sources are contemporary scientific publications and a wide range of archival collection.

Kohler argues that the Drosophila (particularly the D. melanogaster) became a lab technology around which scientific investigations were built once it worked in the way intended. But the flies are not passive in Kohler’s account; he endows them with agency, showing how, for example, Drosophila took over several of Morgan’s research lines due to its manifold mutants that allowed the use of the fly for diverse experiments, a quality that only revealed itself after the fly had been introduced to the laboratories for mundane reasons like money and convenience (ch. 2). Another example would be the distinct “moral economy” that had to be developed in fly groups where conflicts could not easily be avoided since most of the work was shared and entire labs worked on the same topic with the same population of animals, a situation that called for a high degree of communality (e.g., ch. 4). The in-built limitations of the Drosophila and the experimental system it was part of that led to decades of experimentation with interdisciplinary methods and finally the move from the standardized lab fly to collecting wild flies in the field and returning them to the lab can be understood in a similar context of animal agency (chs. 6, 7, and 8).

Wired Wilderness is Etienne Benson’s first book, in which he describes the development of radio tracking and telemetry for ‘wild’ animals (birds, grizzly bears, tigers, and maritime animals) from the late 1950s to the early 2000s. Benson draws on oral histories, news reports, and documents from numerous archives of scientific institutions and museums across the US (see “Essay on Sources,” pp. 237–242), locating his story in the borderlands of the histories of science, technology, environment, conservation movements, and the Cold War. He argues that the availability of surveillance technologies significantly impacted the methods and ideology of wildlife science; the biologists saw a chance to increase their claim for objectivity in observations, the field became endowed it with a Cold-War rhetoric, and it regularly centered around the founding and infrastructure of military agencies and corporations (particularly ch. 1). Benson also shows that radio tracking led to controversies of whether these technologies allowed for the monitoring of ‘natural’ habits of different species or only for the observation of a few individuals whose movements were potentially altered by the technology they were carrying with them. Epistemological questions arose and ideological concerns about letting technology steer science into new directions were voiced by wildlife scientists. Like the Wistar Rat and the Drosophila, tracking devices and knowledge were circulated internationally, even as far as to India and Nepal (ch. 3). In contrast to Kohler’s illustration of a closely-communicating mass of fly groups, however, Benson shows that the specificity of radio tracking techniques were kept rather secret—very Cold-War-ish. Leslie, Edwards, Abbate, Kay, and others have shown how Cold-War rhetoric and mentality has permeated science and technology. Benson shows that not even “wilderness” could escape this development, maybe precisely because it is not actually wild.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Tabea Cornel (December 1, 2015). More Book Summaries: Sex/Gender and Race in Genetics + Animals in the Lab and in the ‘Wild’. The Semipermeable Membrane. Retrieved July 23, 2024 from

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