Of Rats and Women: Narratives of Motherhood in Environmental Epigenetics

  • Martha Kenney
  • Ruth Müller


Environmental epigenetics is the study of how environmental signals affect gene expression. Within this growing field, experiments on the effects of “maternal care” on offspring health have received much attention. In this chapter, we show how commonsense assumptions about sex, gender, sexuality and class are present in the design, interpretation and dissemination of these experiments. We show how claims about human motherhood are supported through a dense speculative cross-traffic between epigenetic studies in rodents and psychological and epidemiological studies in humans, and how research therefore tends to illustrate rather than interrogate existing stereotypes about maternal agency and responsibility. Consequently, we draw attention to the need to analyze the political dimensions of environmental epigenetics and to the potentials and challenges for (collaborative) biosocial knowledge production.



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 atBioSocieties 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. Finally we would like to thanks the editors of this volume for including us and to BioSocieties for allowing us to reprint the article.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martha Kenney
    • 1
  • Ruth Müller
    • 2
  1. 1.Technical University MunichMunichGermany
  2. 2.San Francisco State UniversitySan FranciscoUSA

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