Friday, May 4, 2007

Imagination, Language, and Narrative in the Practice of Science

Speaking of language, imagination, & the irresistible force of narrative—checking out the April 20 issue of Science, which has a special section on germ cells, I was struck by the prominent role imagination is playing in a piece of fascinating research being undertaken by a developmental biologistand also by the narrative-laden language used to characterize cellular processes in a couple of the other papers and articles in the special section.

An article titled “A Close Look Urbisexuality: A developmental biologist takes aim at understanding the evolutionary origins of eggs and sperm in our 600-million-year-old ancestor” by John Travis invokes the power of imagination before it even mentions Cassandra Extavour and her work. What, you may wonder is “urbisexuality”? If you haven’t heard of “Urbilateria,” a “hypothetical organism that lived 550 million to 800 million years ago and was the last common ancestor of a menagerie that includes mollusks, worms, flies, mice, and people,” then you’re probably thinking it has something to do with urban bisexuality. Get ready for something completely different: Travis tells us that “scientists have vigorously debated whether [urbilateria] sported legs or antennae, whether it had a true heart, and whether its body was segmented.” In short, urbilateria is a sort of methodological construct, a fiction created by scientists, though not what we here in sf-land think of as “science fiction.” This speculative construct serves the serious purpose of helping biologists theorize how “the current diversity of bilaterians emerged form the twists and turns of evolution.”

Interestingly (perhaps significantly?), Extavour notes that although “so much of evo-devo over the last 20 years centered on what Urbilateria looked like,” no one ever wondered how it reproduced. After raising that very question, Extavour took on the task of answering the question. (& it is she who coined the term “urbisexuality.”) The rest of the article discusses Extavour’s work and its significance (including its prompting her to “rethink the evolutionary connections between primordial germs cells, which ultimately make sperm and eggs, and the stem cells that give rise to other tissues”). A far-ranging, disciplined imagination is obviously essential for the kind of science Extavour does.

That’s the most interesting piece, for me, in the issue. In a couple of the other articles and papers, though, the anthropomorphic language used distracted me. Here, imagination is neither free-ranging nor disciplined to the extent that applies anthropomorphic language to single, non-conscious cells. Take the article titled “The Mysteries of Sexual Identity: The Germ Cell’s Perspective,” for example. In the one-paragraph abstract at the top of the paper, the authors write: “…how do germ cells interpret those external cues to acquire their own sexual identity? A critical aspect of a germ cell’s sexual puzzle is that the sperm-egg decision is closely linked to the cell-cycle decision between mitosis and meiosis…” Cells, it seem, exercise agency: they interpret, they make decisions, they have sexual puzzles; in short, they are caught up in a dramatic narrative arc: which makes me wonder whether the authors of the paper really believe that individual cells possess consciousness. (But no, this is yet another kind of science fiction. It’s all about germ cells “choosing” their “sexual identity,” as the authors call it.) It gets better. In Figure 1, we see depictions of two models of decision-making: in the first model, “sex-specific control of meiotic entry is equivalent to the sperm/egg decision,” while in the second model “gender-neutral control of meiotic entry is modified by sex-specific regulators.”

“Gender-neutral”? Say what? Is “gender” not a term associated with culture? How can germ cells, which are presumably not sentient, have culture? I must admit that I’ve run into other uses of this before, where “gender” (not “sex”) is attributed to rats or dogs: a clear indication that scientists, like the general public, have simply substituted the word “gender” (which began to be used by feminist theorists to designate something other than a linguistic category) for “sex” because “sex” has become an uncomfortable word. (This substitution of “gender” for “sex” is often applied anachronistically to pre-1970s contexts. For instance, sometime back in the 1980s I saw a BBC episode of the David Suchet Poirot series in which a 1920s feminist was constantly talking about “gender.”)

Obviously, such anthropomorphic language is unnecessary (since not all the articles use it & at certain points in the article the authors shed the language of agency: “What molecular machinery inside germ cells directs their differentiation as sperm or egg?”); it seems such a risky choice to use it that I wonder why they do. Joan and Helen will know more about this issue than I, but I seem to recall that philosopher of science Hillary Rose has written about the ways in which the use of sexual narratives have demonstrably distorted science practice by obscuring what was really going on; these aren’t quite sexual narratives, but they are certainly anthropomorphic narratives.


Lesley Hall said...

On rewriting the stock gendered sexual narratives, there are lovely examples in Ruth Herschberger's Adam's Rib, 1948 - a female chimpanzee is scathing about those theories that present her as passively 'receptive' during oestrus, and in Mary Ellmann's wonderful but neglected Thinking About Women (1968). I think this passage is wonderful:
"In actuality, each month the ovum undertakes an extraordinary expedition from the ovary through the Fallopian tubes to the uterus, an unseen equivalent of going down the Mississippi on a raft or over Niagara Falls in a barrel.... One might say that the activity of ova involves a daring and independence absent, in fact, from the activity of spermatozoa, which move in jostling masses, swarming out on signal like a crowd of commuters from the 5:15."

Timmi Duchamp said...

I'd forgotten Mary Ellman's Thinking About Women-- what a wonderful book, well worth revisiting! Her ovular narrative is a witty riposte to the standard tale of sperm in fierce, death-defying competition to swim up against the stream (like a spawning salmon, natch). Almost forty years later, the ovular narrative could be expanded quite amusingly, now that we know that ova have motility--especially considering how much bigger an ovum is than a spermatozoa...