Amongst the enthusiastic uptake of epigenetics, Sarah Richardson offers a note of caution. Epigenetics, or the molecular mechanisms at or around a gene that effect a gene’s expression, have been embraced by socially-progressive health advocates because they provide a way to measure the unequal effects of class and inequality on health determinates. Richardson does not argue against this strategic use of epigenetics, but instead asks what has led to this shift in epistemologies surrounding inheritance and its consequences for the ways we understand gender. In her talk, she traced a fascinating history of ‘maternal effects’, which are the environmental and tempermental conditions that imprint upon the fetus.
Prior to the 1880s, and stemming from the thought of Aristotle, men were considered to contribute the primary heritable material, while women were thought to provide a nutritive vessel within which the child could develop. This model also insisted that food, environment, and the emotional condition of the mother would affect the child. These explanations were used in the cases when children did not resemble their supposed fathers and in other instances where an unexplainable difference emerged. These theories were strenuously contested by evolutionary biologist August Weissman’s germ plasm theory, which argued that men and women equally contribute to the genetic material of the child. Much of what we now may consider to be genetic determinism, and which also played a role in very troubling histories of eugenics, also recognized women to be fully active in the processes of reproduction, downplaying their bodies or individual actions in light of theories that instead stressed the importance of genes. The move towards a postgenomic epigenetic understanding of inheritance and sexual reproduction can be understood within this history less as a novel innovation than as a return to the acceptance of some older ideas. Richardson is careful to stress the possibilities and restraints of each of these theories, emphasizing the ways in which the turn to epigenetics has resulted in the increase of monitoring of women’s behaviour, extending biopolitical regimes of control onto all female bodies of reproductive age. In particular, she points out the fact that this shift towards epigenetics is not only political, but expresses a cultural anxiety around risk in relation to children. That is, because we are having less and less children, we are attempting to optimize their health and normative standards of well-being. Further, an epistemic shift is occurring in scientific culture with an increased acceptance of small effects, unreplicable results and studies that are difficult to empirically prove. This is perhaps the most interesting element of the emerging field of epigenetics which signals a move away from the normative standards of scientific objectivity that have been in place for at least the past century.
Although the shift away from what has been called ‘genetic determinism’ opens up philosophically to some very interesting analyses that fold the body into the environment, in this new postgenomic era, the maternal body “represents the past, capable of trapping the growing fetus in somatic conditions of deprivation that reproduce social class in postnatal life.” 1 Where the maternal body (again) becomes the site of intervention and critique in relation to ever more scarce, and therefore precious, children. Feminism itself, despite these regimes of surveillance, has been implicated in the shift to epigenetics and the desire to open science up to modes of understanding the world that begin to accept what Richardson calls ‘unconformable results.’ It is clear that the field of epigenetics has a long and rich history and that its emergence today is
1 Sarah Richardson, “Maternal Bodies in the Postgenomic Order: Gender and the Explanatory Landscape of Epigenetics” in Postgenomics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 219. bound to ongoing processes of the control of women’s bodies. Richardson’s fascinating, brilliant and incredibly important account of these movements of thought, allow us to see genes and their expression in an entirely new light.