Excerpts from Two Lectures on Human Biology

Excerpt 1:  URL-- http://www.scifac.usyd.edu.au/chast/templeton/1996templeton/1996lecture.html




1996 Templeton Lecture

Professor Evelyn Fox Keller

"Gender Language and Science"

August 22nd, 1996


. . . Now I am not here talking about bad science, I am talking about good science. I’m talking about the language, the metaphors, that have encouraged experimental research at the forefront, that have encouraged the doing of experiments which have provided new insights and new understanding of the molecular processes of fertilisation —processes which, in turn, seemed to amply confirm the picture from which it drew. What is remarkable about this example is the fit between metaphor and experimental findings. Until fifteen years ago, the experimental work done by biologists on fertilisation provided ample evidence to support chemical and mechanical accounts for sperm motility, for mechanisms by which sperm achieved adhesion to the cell membrane, for how it could affect membrane fusion — in other words, for how the sperm could penetrate and activate the egg. No mechanisms emerged from any of this research for the activity of the egg. Indeed no mechanisms for the activity of the egg were looked for; inactivity requires no mechanism, and such mechanisms were assumed not to exist.

Today a different metaphor has come to seem more useful, and clearly more acceptable. In contemporary textbooks, fertilisation is more likely to be cast in the language of equal opportunity. My favourite definition is from a textbook widely used by molecular biologists byAlberts et al called Molecular Biology of the Cell, but it is representative: Fertilisation is defined as "The process by which egg and sperm find each other and fuse". (Alberts et al, 1990:868).

In an early and self-conscious marking of this shift, two researchers in the field, Gerald and Helen Schatten, wrote in 1983,

The classic account, current for centuries has emphasised the sperm’s performance and relegated to the egg the supporting rôle of sleeping beauty. The egg is central to this drama to be sure, but it is as passive a character as the Brothers Grimm’s Princess. Now, it is becoming clear that the egg is not merely a large yoke-filled sphere into which the sperm burrows to endow new life. Rather, recent research suggests the almost heretical view that sperm and egg are mutually active partners.

In 1983, that was almost heretical, but, in 1996, it has become dogma. In fact the research goes further, as if confirming some very deep seated fears. Current research sometimes endows the egg with archetypal powers: the egg sends out microvillae which "grasp" the spermhead and "drag" it to the ovum. Other, unwanted, sperm are incapacitated, ejected, or simply destroyed.

So here is my question. Could it be merely an accident that the shift in what counts as a scientific metaphor coincides so closely in time with what counts as a socially effective metaphor? Could it be merely an accident that the current biological account of fertilisation conforms so closely to the concurrent embrace of at least nominal gender equity in the culture at large, just as the traditional account conformed so well with the gender mores that had earlier been in place? Could it be an accident that some descriptions correspond to current anxiety in the culture at large about women having attained too much power? I suggest that such a reading leaves entirely too much to chance, and is, finally, simply unreasonable. Scientists, after all, are opportunists, in the best sense of the word. They are always on the look-out for new possibilities, new research. The coinage of the realm is to produce original research. When the language shifts, when the metaphors shift and point attention to new possibilities, scientists are, by the very nature of the enterprise, eager to jump in.

I suggest that this story illustrates exactly the ways in which language can shape our thinking and acting. It frames our attention, our perception and the fields in which we can envision ways to move. To be sure, not all metaphors are equally productive but in this particular example both metaphors were manifestly productive, albeit of different effects. One led to intensive investigation of the molecular mechanisms of sperm activity while the other fostered research permitting the elucidation of mechanisms by which the egg would have to be said to be active as well.

I want to emphasise that the point here, the moral of the story, is not a moral about the vision or perception of male scientists versus that of female scientists. Rather this is a story about how gender ideology shapes the ways in which all of us see the world, men and women alike. In fact, to read this story as a story of male scientists versus female scientists is simply to project on to science that same archetypal image, so basic to traditional gender ideology, of a war of the sexes, of a contest between sperm and egg, that shaped so much of our thinking in the first place. I want to emphasise: this is not about women doing science differently to men. It is about everybody doing science differently when the gender ideology shifts.

(emphasis added)

Excerpt 2  URL:  http://www.dac.neu.edu/womens.studies/egg&sperm.htm


The Egg and the Sperm

How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles


How is it that positive iinages are denied to the bodies of women? A look at language--in this case, scientific language--provides the first clue. Take the egg and the sperm. It is remarkable how 'femininely" the egg behaves and how "masculinely" the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively "is transported," "is Swept", or even "drifts" along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, "streamlined," and invariably active. They "deliver" their genes to the egg, "activate" the developmental program of the egg, and have a "velocity" that is often remarked upon. Their tails are "strong" and efficiently powered." Together with the forces of ejaculation they can "propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina." For this they need "energy," "fuel," so that with a "whiplashlike motion and strong lurches" they can "burrow through the egg coat," and "penetrate" it.

At its extreme, the age-old relationship of the egg and the sperm takes on a royal or religious patina. The egg coat, its protective barrier, is sometimes called its "vestments," a term usually reserved for sacred, religious dress. The egg is said to have a "corona," a crown, and to be accompanied by "attendant" cells. It is holy, set apart and above, the queen to the sperm's king. The egg is also passive, which means it must depend on sperm for rescue. Gerald Schatten and Helen Schatten liken the egg's role to that of Sleeping Beauty: "a dormant bride awaiting her mate's magic kiss, which instills the spirit that brings her to life". Sperm, by contrast, have a "mission," which is to "move through the female genital tract in quest of the ovum." One popular account has it that the sperm carry out a "perilous journey" into the "warm darkness," where some fall away "exhausted."' "Survivors" "assault" the egg, the successful candidates "sur rounding the prize." Part of the urgency of this journey, in more scientific terms, is that "once released from the supportive environment of the ovary, an egg will die within hours unless rescued by a sperm." The wording stresses the fragility and dependency of the egg, even though the same text acknowledges elsewhere that sperm also live for only a few hours.

(emphasis added, some corrections made--the full text of this essay is in Text Book III)