- Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome by Sarah S. Richardson
Following the tradition of feminist philosophers and scholars of science from the 1980s onward such as Evelyn Fox-Keller, Helen Longino, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and others who revealed how popular notions of masculinity and femininity infiltrated and shaped the content of scientific knowledge, Sarah S. Richardson's book Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome deserves a place on the shelf with this canonical literature. It addresses one of the most celebrated symbols of biological sex binary: the X and Y chromosomes. The X and Y chromosomes, we learn, were not given the role of "sex chromosomes" upon their discovery in 1890 and 1905, respectively. Their transformation into the ultimate biological signifiers of male and female during the next five decades was neither inevitable nor free from significant theoretical and empirical challenges. Rather, the X and Y chromosomes, objects of scientific study, were gendered via the various stages of scientific inquiry and methodology. The implicit promise embedded in the human genome project to decode human differences and identify the genetic elements of maleness and femaleness make Richardson's book a crucial contribution that outlines a much-welcomed reflection of this scientific endeavor.
Whereas during the late 19th century biologists understood "sex" as a "complicated, spectrum-like, and highly variable phenomenon" (24), the beginning of the 20th century saw biologists expressing a dimorphic vision of sex differences, with models that attempted to identify clear and distinguishing elements between males and females. The discovery and study of the X and Y chromosomes fit well within the emerging dimorphic vision of sex overall. Moreover, it led to the gradual replacement of metabolic and hormonal models of sex differences by a genetic model of sex, casting the X and Y chromosomes as the new symbols of biological dimorphic sex.
Richardson's book addresses an issue that has become important to ethicists, jurists, and scientists in recent years: how to account for biological differences between humans in an ethical, productive manner. With [End Page E-1] respect to genetic differences between males and females, the book takes up the incredibly daunting challenge of how to conduct genetic research on sex differences that yields beneficial results but that also avoids the pitfalls of biological determinism that feed sexist agendas. Through the book's historic narrative and analysis of the future trajectory of genetic research, Richardson argues that although gender conceptions have a history of distorting scientific research, they could potentially be used constructively. Beliefs about gender are part of the social backdrop in which scientific research operates and therefore cannot simply be identified and surgically removed. Instead, Richardson offers a theoretical approach she calls "gender modeling," which aspires to understand, on a descriptive level, "what work does gender do in this case?" rather than focus on the possible prejudice that led to gender conceptions in (16). After reviewing the different chapters of the book, I will advance the speculation that the paradigm of "sex itself," the idea that scientific inquiry into the deep biological layers of the body could reveal the essence of sex, might be fading away.
Sex Itself proceeds in ten chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the bio-cultural concept of "sex itself" within the context of genetic research and feminist analysis of science, and the overall argument of the book. Chapters 2 through 4 provide a historical chronology of scientific research leading to the theory that the X and Y chromosomes are the biological markers of sex and gender: maleness and femaleness. When the X and Y were discovered, they were first called the "odd chromosomes." The growing interest in fertilization and biological sexual dimorphism in early 20th century drove scientists to try to link the function of the odd chromosomes to existing theories about sex differentiation. Nettie Stevens and Edmund Wilson created a fundamental theory of the odd chromosomes as the biological element that determines sex, transforming them from "odd" into "sex" chromosomes (34). The theory of X...