Sarah S. Richardson

Sex Itself

The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome

University of Chicago Press 2013

New Books in Gender StudiesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ScienceNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in Science, Technology, and SocietyNew Books Network November 27, 2013 Marshall Poe

Men and women are different, there’s no doubt about it. And you might well want to know what the root of that difference is....

Men and women are different, there’s no doubt about it. And you might well want to know what the root of that difference is. What makes a man a man and a woman a woman? Before the beginning of the twentieth century, most answers to this question were rather unsatisfying, unless of course you like your answers religio-mythical or pseudo-scientific. Then scientists discovered a genetic difference that seemed to correspond to sexual dimorphism: the 23rd pair of chromosomes was XX in (almost all) human females and XY in (almost all) human males. Thus was a research program born, one prefect for the age of molecular genetics: the search for “sex itself.”

In her fascinating book Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Sarah S. Richardson explores the ways in which molecular geneticists pursued this program and, just as importantly, the ways in which their “findings” were molded by contemporary attitudes toward sex and gender. The science we see in Sex Itself is not just about “the facts”; it’s about facts embedded in culture. She shows how the two–sexual science and culture–did a sort of dance, each leading the other about the floor of public discourse. Sometimes the dance is beautiful; other times the dancers stumble all over each other. Listen in to our lively discussion.

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