Sex Itself

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About the Book

Sex Itself

Book cover

Human genomes are 99.9 percent identical—with one prominent exception. Instead of a matching pair of X chromosomes, men carry a single X, coupled with a tiny chromosome called the Y. Tracking the emergence of a new and distinctive way of thinking about sex represented by the unalterable, simple, and visually compelling binary of the X and Y chromosomes, Sex Itself examines the interaction between cultural gender norms and genetic theories of sex from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present, postgenomic age.

Using methods from history, philosophy, and gender studies of science, Sarah S. Richardson uncovers how gender has helped to shape the research practices, questions asked, theories and models, and descriptive language used in sex chromosome research. From the earliest theories of chromosomal sex determination, to the mid-century hypothesis of the aggressive XYY supermale, to the debate about Y chromosome degeneration, to the recent claim that male and female genomes are more different than those of humans and chimpanzees, Richardson reveals how cultural gender conceptions influence the genetic science of sex.

As Richardson shows, the sexual science of the past continues to resonate, in ways both subtle and explicit, in contemporary research on the genetics of sex and gender. With the completion of the Human Genome Project, genes and chromosomes are moving to the center of the biology of sex. Sex Itself offers a compelling argument for the importance of ongoing critical dialogue on how cultural conceptions of gender operate within the science of sex.


Academic Reception

This is the history I’ve been waiting for: the lucid recounting of a century’s worth of scientific and popular efforts to ground our notions of maleness and femaleness—and their supposed Mars/Venus opposition—in the strands of genetic material that we call X and Y. In Sex Itself, Sarah S. Richardson moves beyond simple notions of gender bias in science to carefully describe both how gender beliefs shape research trajectories and how scientific findings inform cultural and political agendas.

Steven Epstein, author of Inclusion and Impure Science

Through a series of deeply researched case studies, Sarah S. Richardson shows how thoroughly gender ideologies permeated twentieth- and twenty-first-century research on the so-called sex chromosomes. An essential addition to feminist science studies.

Helen E. Longino, Stanford University

Effortlessly combining methods from analytic philosophy of science, history of science, and gender analysis, Sarah S. Richardson offers a rich and extremely rewarding set of case studies of gender interactions with genetics, demonstrating how gender assumptions have led geneticists, over the course of a century, to ‘bypass standard methodology, ignore alternative models, privilege certain research questions, and skew their interpretation of evidence

Elisabeth Lloyd, Indiana University

An understanding of the biology of sex and its relation to the complexities of human gender adequate to the postgenomic era is an urgently needed but dauntingly difficult task. It requires tracing the history from which scientific ideas of sex and gender have developed, and the echoes of which shape our contemporary concepts; a grasp of the decisive feminist critique of the science of sex and gender over the last half century, but one that goes beyond the disclosure of bias to survey comprehensively the influence of ideas about gender on science; and a proper understanding of the revolutionary developments in genomic science that have occurred in the last twenty years. This book provides all of these things with skill, sensitivity, and elegance. It will provide a definitive starting point for future discussions of this vital set of issues.

John Dupré, coauthor of Genomes and What to Make of Them

Sex Itself presents an excellent study of the role of gender in human genomics. With this work, Richardson fills a perplexing—and crucial—gap in the literature of gender and science.

Evelyn Fox Keller, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

About Sarah

Sex Itself

Book cover

Sarah S. Richardson is Assistant Professor of the History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. She received her Ph.D. from the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. A historian and philosopher of science, her research focuses on race and gender in the biosciences and on the social dimensions of scientific knowledge. She has broad interests and expertise in the history of molecular biology, biomedicine, and genetics, the philosophy of science, science and technology studies, and feminist science studies. Website: http://scholar.harvard.edu/srichard


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