I just told you about my brief history with the gaming community. I drifted away from it into something else, and that something else also shaped the way I think about these feminist issues. I became a scientist. And worst of all, my trajectory started with neuroscience, and led me into developmental biology and genetics, and then on to evolution, and I’ve got to tell you, those subjects…it’s almost as if they were designed to put you on a collision course with feminist concerns. Just think, I could have gone into physics or chemistry and avoided thinking about sex and gender altogether…until, of course, I noticed the humanity of my colleagues.
What brought this on is an excellent article on the history and genetics of the sex chromosomes. Two things leapt out at me, in part because they confirmed something I’ve been trying to teach my students for years.
The X and Y chromosomes are not girl chromosomes and boy chromosomes, respectively. There is a bizarrely essentialist approach to these concerns that even scientists sometimes take, and it’s infuriatingly wrong.
The X is dubbed the ‘female chromosome’, takes the feminine pronoun ‘she’, and has been described as the ‘big sister’ to ‘her derelict brother that is the Y’ and as the ‘sexy’ chromosome. The X is frequently associated with the mysteriousness and variability of the feminine, as in a 2005 Science article headlined ‘She Moves in Mysterious Ways’ and beginning, ‘The human X chromosome is a study in contradictions’. The X is also described in traditionally gendered terms as the more ‘sociable’, ‘controlling’, ‘conservative’, ‘monotonous’, and ‘motherly’ of the two sex chromosomes. Similarly, the Y is a ‘he’ and ascribed traditional masculine qualities – ‘macho’, ‘active’, ‘clever’, ‘wily’, ‘dominant’, and also ‘degenerate’, ‘lazy’, and ‘hyperactive’.”
None of that is true. The X and Y have different genetic properties and evolutionary histories, but they do not define the entirety of your sex. The Y has a little trigger on it that activates a cascade of gene activities on all the autosomes and also the X chromosome that generate ‘maleness’, whatever that is; ‘femaleness’ is likewise the product of complex patterns of gene activity that are spread throughout the entire genome. Sex is most definitely multigenic, and every gene that has differential sexual effects is wildly pleiotropic.
If you want to talk about genes and sex, you’ve got to be more informed than this cartoon version of men and women reduced to just whether they have an XX or XY chromosome set. It’s one of the things that enrages me about the ongoing abuse of science by politicians who think they have perfectly encapsulated all the complexity of sex and gender by trying to restrict bathroom use by what kind of sex chromosome a person has. Do they even realize that these chromosomes have next to nothing to do with the anatomy of the crotch, which requires the carefully choreographed interactions of thousands of genes? Or that the brain is even more indirectly influenced by these magic markers of gene organization? And worse, most of the population has no clue what their karyotype looks like anyway, so their logic reduces to “My sex is male/female. Males/females have XY/XX chromosomes. Therefore, I have XY/XX chromosomes.” That isn’t always true. And even when it is true, it’s not as crudely straightforward as they think it is.
There’s another thing that stunned me about the field I was studying. I’ve always been interested in history (developmental biologists should be: “everything is the way it is because of how it got that way,” as D’Arcy Thompson would say), and when you dig deep into how genetics, for instance, came to be, you discover these little neglected stories. The superficial history of genetics is a series of great Men: Gregor Mendel, Thomas Hunt Morgan, for instance. There’s no denying their importance, but then you look at who was actually doing the work — this is a deep truth of science, that most often it’s teams of students who are laboring under the Great Man who are actually getting the job done in the lab — and there are all these women everywhere, largely uncredited, and working in careers that would never lead to positions of prominence, because institutions simply did not hire women for tenured professorial positions.
So then you have to grub around in the corners of the science to find acknowledgments of women contributing to genetics. And even then, their work is diminished, as happened to Nettie Stevens.
Between 1903 and 1906, Nettie Stevens at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania investigated this “X element”, and found that it wasn’t alone – there was a tiny Y chromosome hidden right next to it. Elsewhere, Wilson (he who first used the phrase “sex chromosomes”) also found the Y, and agreed with her that its presence seemed to influence the development of male sex characteristics. (Richardson takes some time to sardonically note the extraordinary achievements Stevens, who was never offered a full faculty post, made “in the face of few opportunities for women” – when she applied for post-doctoral funding from the Carnegie Institution in 1903, she “assembled stunning letters of recommendation” from America’s most prestigious cytologists, and “none failed to note her brilliance – for a woman”.)
There are lots of instances like that. William Bateson, another of those seminal early geneticists, was very influential for his work on homeotic genes and the translation of genetics into morphology. He was also notable for the fact that he took on large numbers of women to work in his lab. You could even argue that the person most responsible for the recognition of the importance of cell and tissue interactions in translating genes into form was Becky Saunders. Do you hear much about her? Not unless you read historical minutiae any more.
There is a lot in these stories that reminds me of creationism. There’s the fundamental wrongness of how they mangle the science, and there’s the coupling of bad science to the preservation of injustice in society.
It’s no wonder I’m kind of cranky all the time.
Oh, yeah, and don’t get me started on how science is tortured by racists.