Sperm, Eggs, Darwin, and Martin

It’s a puzzling thing.
The truth knocks on the door and you say,
‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’
and so it goes away.

I don’t know what to say about Emily Martin’s essay. I mean, this all seems self-evident. Scientists are people, too. We are all infested with our memes and our socialization. Just today I had to point out that a learning module at work that was aimed at promoting understanding and acceptance of bariatric patients had exactly three images out of (approximately) thirty that showed obese people. None of those three exactly showed them in a positive light, and there was one “normal” sized person who was shown with the caption “I’ve been obese my whole life.”

This from the people who are supposed to be teaching us sensitivity.

I think this is the same effect that Martin talks about in The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. We’ve internalized the concepts of male agency and female submission so broadly and so strongly that it’s showing up in discussions about cells and organs, in labs and textbooks. I mean, there was a recent RadioLab all about sperm… but why wasn’t there one about eggs? Especially when the discussion kept talking about – over and over – how sperm weren’t these “do it all themselves” kinds of cells?

Martin ascribes an intentionality to these sorts of things, though, that’s frankly off putting. She almost insists that it’s on purpose, and I’m always wary about ascribing that kind of motive to a huge class of people. Like, well, men. Especially when speaking about Darwin, since I just finished listening to a three-hour programme about his life and influences. Sure, Malthusian ideas influenced Darwin, just as one can trace the effects of our conceptualization of evolution through the popularity of various types of sociological theory (including before Darwin…). Nobody would ascribe intentionality there, and it’s somewhat disingenuous for Martin to do so here.

The accusation that can be leveled – and quite successfully – is that these scientists were insufficiently self-reflective. Martin is, appropriately, upset at the way an egg’s action is described in passive terms while sperm are ascribed actively. In these cases – just as with sexist, racist, and classist behaviors – we must remind others of what’s going on, and adjust fire.

No pun intended.

It’s appropriate to realize that our descriptions of germ cells is not yet adequate; reminding ourselves that we no longer consider sperm cells as holding wee little men (and that the egg cell contributed nothing) is sometimes worthwhile too.

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