Avant le 1er janvier 2013

Gender and genes

Yearbook of Women’s History

Date de mise en ligne : [04-12-2012]

Mots-clés : biologie

Yearbook of Women’s History

Franco Castelluccio’s famous sculpture, The Double Helix XX-XY, is
considered to depict the history of DNA as a story in which males and
females, as two separate entities, celebrate life and save mankind through
their growing mutual compassion. The image of a harmonious biological gender
order is implicitly opposed by an image of society as a messy, unruly, wild
domain, within which reigns a variety of contesting and sometimes confusing
manifestations of gender. The ultimate goal, so it seems, is to replace the
messy and unruly character of gender with the clear and clean-cut order of
biology, thus bringing progress and salvation. Castelluccio’s sculpture
articulates - be it in fact or in hope - that biology is destiny.
Women’s and gender studies have, however, told different stories. For a long
time, the core business of women’s studies and women’s history has been to
criticize the idea of biology-as-destiny. Gender scholars have repeatedly
shown how this idea of biology-as-destiny was socially and historically
constructed in biomedical and other sciences, and how socio-cultural norms,
ideals and practices have upheld this idea. Authors such as Anne
Fausto-Sterling, Londa Schiebinger and Judith Butler debunked the early
twentieth century theories, which proclaimed that women and men were
predominantly determined by sex hormones or sex chromosomes, as simply
reflections of specific times, places and power configurations. Women’s
studies placed the concept of ’gender’ centre stage, thus replacing the
concept of ’sexes’.

Yet, ’the genetic revolution’ which began in the late 1980s brought biology
back into gender studies. New studies into the multi-facetted relationship
between gender and genes have been undertaken. Evelyn Fox Keller’s analysis
of the role played by British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer,
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), in unravelling the double helix structure of
DNA, and more significantly, the underestimation of this role, confirmed the
need to examine more critically the importance of gender in the history of
genetics, in the Human Genome Project, and in life sciences in general.
Moreover, questions related to the (re)production of gender and genes in
other scientific disciplines also came to the fore, for example in
psychology, epidemiology, health sciences, medicine, life sciences,
agricultural sciences and bio-engineering sciences. The notion of
mitochondrial DNA (DNA inherited only from the mother) further stimulated
intriguing questions about gender-related patterns of inheriting diseases
and traits. In his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve : The Science That
Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (2002), geneticist Bryan Sykes imbues this
discovery with a rather feminist twist, stressing the relevance of
mitochondrial DNA in understanding the history of the human race : Eve being
more important that Adam in terms of our genetic history.
The genetic revolution has also had a major impact on the field of gender,
medicine and health care. Today, the website of the World Health
Organization (WHO) includes an extensive section on gender and genetics. It
highlights gender-related genetic disorders such as Turner Syndrome and
Klinefelter Syndrome, and draws attention to ethical issues such as sex
selection, genetic discrimination, and genetic exclusion based on
infertility, as well to as the many policies and laws employed to deal with
these ethical issues. Whilst we may be accustomed to discussing the ethics
surrounding the practices of sex selection in Asia, a global perspective
requires that we should also ask whether new reproductive technologies, like
pre-implantation genetic screening, encourage sex selection in Western
countries too.

Many anthropological and sociological studies demonstrate that gender and
genes are interrelated in varying ways across the globe, as local cultures
and customs influence and shape different cultural expressions of genetics.
For example, in her study of breast cancer and genetic services in Cuba,
Sarah Gibbon (2011) shows that Cuban women do not consider breast cancer to
be ’genetic’ or ’familial’, but related to an external ’blow’, stressing the
rather coincidental nature of the disease. Today we are witnessing a
transformation in life sciences, whereby complex biological systems models
are used to investigate the interactions between an individual’s biology and
environmental factors in order to understand cancer and other diseases,
replacing simplistic expectations about the predictability of genetic
disorders. Within this context, the question arises as to how gender relates
to these new ideas of complexity in systems biology.

The genetic revolution may be situated primarily in medical laboratories,
biobanks, knowledge infrastructures, and diagnostic tests, yet social,
cultural and political practices produce specific representations of gender
and genes as well. The Human Genome Project, for example, stimulated a
cultural discourse in which metaphors like ’the book of life’ and
’gene-talk’ played an enormous role. The genetic revolution has been
articulated through cultural representations, such as science fiction movies
(The Cider House Rules, Gattaca), television series like Crime Scene
Investigation (CSI) and other visual media. A large number of artists have
been inspired by the Human Genome Project and the Human Genome Diversity
Project and have strived to represent in artistic form the meaning of DNA
technologies for new individual and collective identities. Due to the
genetic revolution, notions of inheritance, familiarity, inborn traits,
reproductive risks and opportunities have now become part and parcel of our
everyday conversations.

This special issue of the Yearbook of Women’s History, guest-edited by Prof.
Dr. Klasien Horstman and Prof. Dr. Marli Huijer, is dedicated to the
representation, construction, interaction, articulation, enactment, and/or
framing of gender & genes in different scientific disciplines as well as in
the media, design and the arts, forensics, architecture, legal practices,
health care, and daily life across the globe. We welcome historical,
theoretical-conceptual, biographical, and/or empirical analyses ; comparative
perspectives are appreciated.

The Yearbook of Women’s History is a peer-reviewed academic annual covering
all aspects of gender, femininity and masculinity connected with historical
research throughout the world. The volume is published by Amsterdam
University Press. It is supported by The Friends of the Yearbook Society
which wants to promote women’s history in particular, a subject that is
reflected in papers of each Yearbook.
Please send your paper abstract (maximum 300 words) before 1 January 2013,
to :
Evelien Walhout (editorial secretary) e.walhout@let.ru.nl.
The editorial process is scheduled as follows :
Deadline abstracts : 1.1.2013
Deadline first version papers : 1.3.2013
Peer review : 1.4.2013
Deadline second version : 1.5.2013
Final editing : 1.6.2013
Publication : November 2013

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