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Of rats and women: Narratives of motherhood in environmental epigenetics

Abstract

Environmental epigenetics is the study of how environmental signals affect gene expression. Within this growing field of molecular biology, experiments on the epigenetic effects of ‘maternal care’ on offspring health have received much scientific and public attention and are often called upon to showcase how environmental epigenetics will create a new understanding of life as inherently ‘biosocial.’ While, on the one hand, this research is exciting and offers possible opportunities for collaboration between molecular biology and the social sciences, it is also necessary to consider its political dimensions. In this paper, we show how commonsense assumptions about sex, gender, sexuality, and class are present in the design, interpretation, and dissemination of experiments on the epigenetic effects of maternal care. As these experiments come to support claims about human motherhood through a dense speculative cross-traffic between epigenetic studies in rodents and psychological and epidemiological studies in humans, current research trends work to illustrate rather than interrogate existing stereotypes about maternal agency and responsibility. With this analysis, we offer a cautionary perspective regarding the potentials and challenges for new forms of collaborative biosocial knowledge practices emerging out of environmental epigenetics.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Ludwik Fleck, a Polish molecular biologist and early theorist of science, developed the notion of “pre-ideas” (1935) to account for how scientific processes often depart from pre-set beliefs about the matter they investigate. These include taken for granted assumptions that build on folk knowledge, findings in other scientific fields and earlier, possibly outdated work in one’s own field. In his own work, Fleck uses the example of syphilis to show how the pre-modern folk idea of bad blood crucially shaped how syphilis was investigated. This idea of ‘bad blood’ was both inaccurate and generative of important research. Fleck understands pre-ideas as inherently necessary for knowledge production as they allow for hypotheses to emerge, yet he also points out that they are prone to reflect societal bias and often are hard to overcome, even if empirical evidence to the contrary accumulates. He argues that a sustained reflection of pre-ideas and their historical and social situatedness is hence crucial. He writes: “Whether we like it or not, we can never sever our links with the past, complete with all its errors. It survives in accepted concepts, in the presentation of problems, in the syllabus of formal education, in everyday life, as well as in language and institutions. Concepts are not spontaneously created but are determined by their ‘ancestors.’ That which has occurred in the past is a greater cause of insecurity—rather, it only becomes a cause of insecurity—when our ties with it remain unconscious and unknown” (1935, p. 20).

  2. 2.

    As is the case for many other STS scholars, both authors regularly teach classes for students in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities that explores the social, ethical, and political aspects of life science research. For example, Martha Kenney teaches a class called “Genetics, Biotechnology, and the Politics of Difference” that regularly enrolls undergraduate and graduate students in Women and Gender Studies, Biology, and American Indian Studies. Such classes require introductory texts that teach ‘critical scientific literacy’ to students with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise.

  3. 3.

    Despite the changing politics of gender in the 20th century, Neo-Darwinian accounts of animal behaviors and morphology still rely on these Darwinian gender roles, especially in the sexual selection literature (see Roughgarden, 2004, 2009). For example, evolutionary biologists hypothesize that large human brains are ‘male ornament’ (like the peacock’s feathers) used to compete with other men to attract mates, whereas women developed large brains so that they could appreciate the large brains of men and choose the best specimen (e.g., Rice, 2007).

  4. 4.

    Feminist science studies scholars with graduate degrees in the natural sciences include Karen Barad (physics), Anne Fausto-Sterling (developmental genetics), Donna Haraway (biology), Ruth Hubbard (biology), Evelyn Fox Keller (physics), Lilly Irani (computer science), Natasha Myers (environmental science), Deboleena Roy (neuroscience), Astrid Schrader (physics), Banu Subramanian (zoology genetics), and Ruth Müller (molecular biology).

  5. 5.

    http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/rats/.

  6. 6.

    Beyond the question of whether love is quantifiable is the basic question of whether the human category ‘motherly love’ can apply to the licking and grooming behavior of rats, since human mothers tend not to lick their young. Although it is easy to imagine human analogues (cuddling, breastfeeding, etc.), we argue that these parallels should be investigated rather than assumed.

  7. 7.

    Narratives about pathological motherhood are not just about class, but are racialized as well. In the U.S. context, The Moynihan Report (1965) declared that unwed black mothers damaged their families by “demoraliz[ing] black men” and “transmitt[ing] a pathological lifestyle to their children, perpetuating poverty and anti-social behavior from one generation to the next” (Roberts, 1997, p. 16; see also Collins, 1999, p. 69–96). Although the epigenetics literature refigures this transmission as biosocial rather than just social, it requires special care to avoid these racialized archetypes in telling scientific stories about pathological inheritance.

  8. 8.

    LG-ABN = Licking, Grooming, Arch-Back-Nursing.

  9. 9.

    The relationship between the environment and the genome is often expressed using the metaphor of ‘epigenetic programming’ (Landecker, 2011), which, like many dominant biological discourses of the 20th century, renders life as information (Fox Keller, 1995). As in the genomic era, these metaphors can lead to modes of deterministic thinking. Rather than genetic determinism the metaphor of ‘epigenetic programming’ leads to a new form of “environmental determinism” (Müller, forthcoming) where the psychological and physiological make-up of an organism is defined by its environment.

  10. 10.

    Our best guess is that they had intended to cite Belsky et al (2007) “Family rearing antecedents to pupertal timing,” although this does not appear anywhere in their works cited. However, without the correct reference it is difficult to assess the epistemological strength of the parallels between the human study and the rat experiments.

  11. 11.

    During final revisions for this article, the DOHaD Society homepage has undergone a relaunch. The archived link can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20150802235357/http://www.mrc-leu.soton.ac.uk/dohad/index.asp.

  12. 12.

    In the Nature News article (Reardon, 2015), the study about poverty and brain size that appears in Nature Neuroscience is joined by ‘unpublished research’ from another lab in order to strengthen the explanatory claims of the researchers. Thus, a peer-reviewed study, unpublished data, and a speculation about epigenetic causes are all called upon to support a specific biosocial explanation. This kind of reporting contributes to cycles of hype where poorly substantiated claims are repeated without critical scientific or social scientific analysis.

  13. 13.

    This happens at a historical moment in which actual class mobility is found to be on the decline in many Western countries for the first time in generations (Altzinger et al, 2013; Bukodi et al, 2015). This phenomenon is particularly pronounced for people of color, ethnic minorities, and 2nd- and 3rd-generation immigrant groups.

  14. 14.

    This figuration is familiar from such ‘fish out of water’ narratives as Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881) or Will Smith’s The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1996). These epigenetic narratives take what is usually coded as cultural difference, and render it as biological.

  15. 15.

    Women of color feminists have been especially important critics of public health interventions that focus on mothers and ‘pathological’ family formations. Angela Davis, for example, writes: “While the difficulties besetting the family should by no means be dismissed, any strategies intended to alleviate the prevailing problems among poor Black people that methodologically target the family for change and leave the socioeconomic conditions perpetuating Black unemployment and poverty intact are doomed to failure at the outset” (1990, p. 81).

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Acknowledgements

A first version of this paper was  presented at the workshop “Epigenetics, Society & Gender” at the University of Vienna, June 22, 2012, organized by Sigrid Schmitz, Ruth Müller and Renee Schröder. We gratefully acknowledge the travel support for Martha Kenney that allowed us to start this project, and the inspiring discussions at the workshop. We would further like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editors for their constructive comments that helped improve the article, as well as Martyn Pickersgill and Cornelia Schadler for their valuable feedback during the writing process.

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Kenney, M., Müller, R. Of rats and women: Narratives of motherhood in environmental epigenetics. BioSocieties 12, 23–46 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-016-0002-7

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Keywords

  • epigenetics
  • biosocial science
  • collaboration
  • feminist science & technology studies
  • gender
  • class