Exceptional and Unconformable Phenomena: Maternal Effects and the Epistemologies of the Life Sciences - Sarah Richardson (Boundaries: Public Lecture)
John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University
Exceptional and Unconformable Phenomena: Maternal Effects and the Epistemologies of the Life Sciences
This talk draws on the intellectual history of maternal effects science to pose the question: What forms of scientific practice and discourse result when life scientists encounter phenomena that persistently rebuff study, control, and optimization, and which demand a high tolerance for uncertainty? The science of maternal effects posits that in addition to transmitting DNA, the maternal body influences descendants’ phenotypes in ways that may constitute a form of heredity. From the earliest days of genetics, scientists struggled to integrate apparent findings of maternal effects into the nuclear genome-centric model of heredity that grounds the modern life sciences. The vexing issues posed by ‘exceptional and unconformable’ findings of maternal effects, however, were not limited to their apparent contradiction with the central dogmas of the genetic sciences. They were also perceived as less ‘knowable’ than the privileged study objects of genetics. Observations falling into the phenomenological category of maternal effects were distinctly out of step with the epistemic styles—the modes of controlling, intervening, explaining, and theorizing—that came to signify good science in the genetic age.
Richardson is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. She earned Ph.D. from Stanford in Modern Thought and Literature, and her B.A. in Philosophy from Columbia University. Richardson is a historian and philosopher of science who studies race and gender in the life sciences and the social dimensions of scientific knowledge. She is the author of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, 2013) and co-editor of Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (Rutgers, 2008) and Postgenomics (Duke, forthcoming). Richardson’s current book project, with the working title The Maternal Mystique, is a history of maternal effects research. The term “maternal effects” refers to the influences of a mother’s behavior, exposures, and physiology on her offspring’s future health and development. The book will explore the intersection between the rise of maternal effects research in the life sciences and changing conceptions of motherhood, health citizenship, and genetic determinism in the twentieth century.