Bioethics Blogs

Sarah Richardson’s Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome by Paula Martin

Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome

Sarah Richardson

University of Chicago Press, 2013, 320 pages

 

In Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (2013), Sarah Richardson takes gender criticism to a new level — the genomic one. Following the work of noted scholars such as Evelyn Fox Keller (1995), Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) and Sarah Martin (1991), Richardson’s text explores the interplay between biological notions of sex and cultural conceptions of gender. With close historical attention, Sex Itself takes as its analytic object the sometimes bewildering practices making up the “search” for sex, from the discovery of distinct X and Y chromosomes to the attempt to enumerate the genetic differences between males and females. Richardson compellingly argues that gender is central to our understandings of chromosomal sex, and advocates for the acknowledgement of the interplay between sex and gender so that we may recognize how gender acts not only as a source of bias, but as a productive force driving genetic research.

Richardson troubles the etiological explanation of sex often assumed in both scientific and popular discourse; where genetic factors are taken as necessarily prior to other biological components and socio-cultural notions of gender are overlaid upon individual bodies and biologies (Chapter 1). Instead, she draws out themes of dynamism and exchange, noting how scientists have historically overlooked inherent ambiguities in the relationships between X and Y chromosomes in favor of promoting findings which support gendered ideas about biological sex differences. Though Richardson’s critical analysis centers on the ways in which socially contingent meanings of ‘male’ and ‘female’ have fundamentally shaped scientific practice, she does not shy away from technical and historical detail.

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