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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 805-827

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The Sexist Gene:
Science Fiction and the Germ Theory of History

Heather Schell

Within the bodies of their hosts, the virus clans worked. Mutating, manipulating the DNA structures, using the knowledge gained over billions of years. . . .

. . .While it was true that many of the hosts would need to be sacrificed before the key sequences could be found, the hosts were plentiful. Their numbers building over the generations, until the earth was filled with their species. It was a further truth that many of the hosts succumbed to aberrations of the trial-and-error method, these producing an unfortunate number of diseases and illnesses. But even this served the clan's purpose. The hosts who survived were stronger, their strengthened immune systems better able to deal with the residual effects of aberrations within the mutation field.

Michael Kanaly, Virus Clans

Many theorists make sense of the broad sweep of human history with some single organizing principle. A feminist theorist sees an ongoing, strategic process of patriarchal oppression. A Foucauldian notes an ominous accumulation of state power to monitor and quantify populations. Then there are the circles in which disease is the fundamental mover and shaker in human history. This theoretical paradigm, which I call the germ theory of history, substitutes disease for more human-centered organizing principles. 1 Through this lens, military and cultural imperialism become the expression of biological imperatives rather than the manifestation of patriarchy or state-inspired aggression. A Marxist might remark on past cholera epidemics as a vivid illustration of class oppression; a germ theorist would see an ecological response to rapid population growth. And the germ theory demands a more inclusive title to universality than do most theories (except for those religious in nature), occasionally dating its genesis to the [End Page 805] beginning of life on earth. Expositions of the germ theory of history characteristically sally forth from the nebulous realms of prehistory, continental drift, and the shift from hunting to agriculture; they wend their way through the grand panorama of the Age of Empire; and they wind up postulating disease as the driving force behind extinction and human evolution. At the same time, they ostensibly remove the politics from history, both the making and the telling of it.

Despite its scientific trappings, the germ theory is anything but free from politics. It bolsters a number of socially conservative ideas about gender, race, imperialism, and human society. These ideas are often latent but manifest themselves in stories about evolution, extinction, and human prehistory. For this reason, I am going to borrow a metaphor of which the germ theorists themselves might approve. Their political conservatism can be understood as a virus, an invisible hitchhiker that infects the germ theory of history with implications potentially more reactionary than the authors themselves intend. My metaphoric virus resembles a particular subgroup of biological viruses, most notoriously represented by HIV: the retrovirus. After the feverish symptoms of initial infection subside, retroviruses can loiter harmlessly in our bodies for years until something triggers them once again to behave in an actively infectious manner. Retroviruses copy themselves into the genetic material of our cells and are thereafter replicated automatically, with no effort or intent on their part, any time the cell divides. Our cellular DNA is littered with what research ers believe is the genetic material of prehistoric retroviruses, now harmless, which at some unknown point managed to infect our germ-line cells. The germ theory of history is similarly infected with a narrative retrovirus. It inherits this retrovirus from 1960s sociobiology, which contributes its trademark sexist and racist biological essentialism to the disease-based biological essentialism of the germ theorists. This inheritance kept the theory sheltered from four decades of development in critical social thought, and, until fairly recently, the germ theorists trundled along in quiet, self-referential obscurity.

Quite a different phenomenon was about to push germs into the limelight. About a decade after the recognition of the AIDS epidemic, when people had had sufficient time to deny, absorb, and...


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