Bashful Eggs, Macho Sperm, and Tonypandy
The following essay was published in A House Built on Sand (1998).
by Paul R. Gross
"Pure Tonypandy. A dramatic story with not a word of truth in it. If you can bear to listen to a few
sentences of the sainted [Sir Thomas] More, I'll give you another sample of how history is made." "Inspector Grant," in Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.
ey's (Elizabeth MacKintoch's) classic detective story was first published in 1951. In it, Grant, with the help of friends whom he dispatches to musty London archives for such facts (not stories!) as can still be dug up, discovers that the foul murder of little princessfor which Thomas More, Shakespeare, and every schoolchild in England since then has condemned Richard IIIcould not possibly have been committed by him or his agents. The case against Richard, it seems, was a political fabrication of this scheming Henry VII. Grant finds a metaphor for such stories: Tonypandy.
"Tonypandy," Grant said . . . "is a place in the South of Wales."
"If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You'll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time was responsible "
"[In fact] all contact with the rioters was made by unarmed London police. The only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two. The Home Secretary was severely criticized in the House of Commons incidentally for his 'unprecedented intervention.' That was Tonypandy. That is the shooting down by troops that Wales will never forget." (Tey 1977)
This excerpt brings me to my subject: Tonypandy, class "science studies," order feminist history and epistemology, and the consequences of some Species thereof. A characteristic consequence is the article in the April 21, 1997, issue of the mass-circulation Newsweek. Its title is "The Science Wars," and the banner reads: "How much is research influenced by political and social fashions? An important debate is making scientists re-examine their assumptions of objectivity." This, you might agree, is not trivial. A vast audiences is told that scientists have good reason to doubt the objectivity of science. What consequence, for intellectual and cultural life, could be more important?
The reporter, Sharon Begley, must be presumed innocent. If she did what reporters usually do, she obtained this alarming information mostly by listening to opinions. In this article, she reports, among other things, on the proceedings of a conference held at the University of Kansas, "Science and its Critics." There, she asserts, "working scientists presented compelling examples of how science got wrong answers when social and political values influenced the work" (1997). This revelation must have been music, if it really happened, to the ears of social analyst, of science present at the meeting. A current tenet of their discipline is indeed that "social and political values" are decisive for the content of science, that is, for knowledge. to support her assertion, Begley quotes Cornell physicist Kurt Gottfried, author of a paper in Nature on the science wars (Gottfried and Wilson 1997): "Cultural and other extraneous factors are more important in the creation of science than most people realize."
Yes, probably. But his opinion, for which no "compelling" evidence is provided or needed, is not the burden of Gottfried's article (cowritten with K. G. Wilson). Instead, the article is devoted to the analysis of a locus classicus of science studies: Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks, which Gottfried and Wilson say "remains the most instructive, ambitious, and outrageous Edinburgh study of modern physics" (1997). Much of my essay, then, specifies this "outrage": confusion, endemic to social studies of science, of "'science as practice' as compared to 'science as knowledge' to use Pickering's terms." Gottfried and Wilson consider Pickering's conclusions "preposterous."
A second canonical work of science studies, The Golem, by Collins and Pinch, receives equally rough treatment in the article, which then ends with the thought: "Forcing scientific knowledge into the Strong Programme's doctrinal straitjacket has often produced sophistry, and compromised studies of practice" (Gottfried and Wilson 1997). This doesn't look to me like Professor Gottfried handing out banquets for questioning scientific objectivity. It looks more like a beau geste, distancing himself from "extremist" and softening his criticism of a particular brand of science studies.
What, then, is Begley reporting as a failure of scientific objectivity, whose discovery is supposed to have forced scientist to reassess their assumptions? Four cases are featured in the Newsweek piece, each nicely summed up in an illustrated sidebar, contrasting "old think" and "new think." The four have to do with (1) conception, (2) primatology, (3) heritability of gaud in the peacock's tail, and (4) the value of the Hubble constant.
Here I examine one of those: old think and new think on "conception." I leave to experts on the other subjects an appropriate response to each (although I doubt that many experts will respond). The "conception" case, though, is one for which I feel a certain urgency. Among other reasons, it has been my field of research for forty-three years. As presented in the Newsweek accountand now in hundreds of college classrooms across the countrythe story is pure Tonypandy. I thought that we had dealt with it in sufficient detail in Higher Superstition (1994, 117-26), but not many in science studies, reporters, or professors of women's studies, even among commentators on that book, seem to have actually read it. This "case" of a failure of scientific objectivity, however, is already one of those, like Francis Bacon's penchant for rape (discussed elsewhere in this volume), that Wales will never forget.
The claim in Newsweek's own words (the quotation marks are in the original):
In the 1960's biologists studying conception described the "whiplashlike motion and strong lurches" of sperm "delivering" genes required to "activate the developmental program of the egg," which "drifted" along passively. The model portrayed sperm as macho adventurers, eggs as coy damsels.
The following is the sidebar, illustrated with an electron micrograph of a spermatozoon penetrating the egg surface:
Old think: Macho sperm swim powerfully and purposefully toward the drifting egg. At conception, genes in sperm activate the developmental program of the passive egg. New think: Sperm are ineffectual swimmers. The egg actively grabs the sperm, and genetic material in the egg alone guides development in the first few hours after fertilization.
Clear enough. The article asserts that new think is a result of reassessing "objectivity," old think having been badly subjective in its social and politicalthat is, masculinistbias. Readers of Newsweek now have it straight on two counts: scientific knowledge can be as biased as any other kind (note the implicit redefinition of knowledge), and social analysis has either ferreted out this particularly odious bit of male bias in science or actually inspired the new think.
Now, you may say, as do some of my Struthian colleagues in the life sciences, "that's nonsense; nobody pays attention to this male bias." But "nobody," it seems, refers to themselves. Important people do pay attention to it. An example is an important person attending not to Begley but to the same Tonypandy as it circulated long before Begley reported on a conference in Kansas:
For our entertainment she recounts it, objecting however that it makes her and her eggs into passive little patsies Sleeping Beauties waiting for Prince Charming's wake-up call whereas in biological/historical fact both ova and ovulator are assertive, even aggressive actors in our life's story (Barth 1997, 167)
This passage is from The Tidewater Tales by the distinguished John Barth, a splendid novel despite its postmodern superstructure, first published in 1987 and now handsomely reprinted as a paperback. There is more of the same in the book, in fact an entire closet drama, in which actively swimming eggs excoriate the spermatic hordes down at the "confluence" as "macho whipcrackers" and "cantino macho pigs." Barth knows the new think on these matters, or at least his delightful (and pregnant) heroine does.
More important, though, even than the proficient Barth or the reportorial Begley, is the source with which I am most familiar: college and university faculty. I hear the versions of this passive eggs / warriors sperm story (some of them much nastier than those just quoted) from their students. In 1995, the last time I taught the 400- level developmental biology course at my university, the issue was raised quite aggressively, early in the semester: half a dozen students wanted to discuss the masculinist bias of their textbooks and of the instructor in regard to the "passivity" of eggs. There source was, as far as I could determine, an anthropology course and seminars or discussions elsewhere, for example, at the Woman's Center.
Here is an irony: the author of their textbook, Professor Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, is one of those responsible for this bit of Tonypandy (as I will explain later). There is certainly no masculinist bias in his textbook. In any event, bashful eggs and macho sperm are a story about science, offered as sociopolitical analysis, that has consequences for what large numbers of people, some of them future political and intellectual leaders, believe. My colleagues are thus wrong: lots of people pay attention, and many of them believe such stuff.
Let us therefore retire Sharon Begley, John Barth, and the students: they are blameless. They have gotten this story from sources supposed to be knowledgeable about the relevant scientific literature, about how reproductive biologists and embryologists actually think, investigate, and write on these subjects. What or who are they? It turns out that there are many sources, all of them feminist publications and teachings, endlessly citing one another. Space allows me to offer only a sample, but it will be representative. Bear with me, please; we will get to the facts of the case after we've sampled what has been saidby those who should know betterabout it.
A recent entry: in her book Im/Partial Science, Bonnie B. Spanier observes the following:
Both the Biology and Gender Study Group at Swarthmore and Emily Martin have traced the effects of gender ideology in descriptions of the interactions of egg and sperm cells in fertilization. . . . Despite recent evidence of the egg's activity in binding and drawing in the sperm as well as blocking out extra sperm and the evidence for the very weak propulsion of sperm tails . . . the stereotype of the active individual sperm persists. (Spanier 1995, 24)
So Spanier is not really a source, just a propagator, but she lists the Biology and Gender Study Group (BGSG) as one of her sources. Note that she says that evidence of the egg's activity is recent and complains that culture-laden (masculinist) stereotypes persist even in the face of these startling new findings.
Even more recently, Evelyn Fox Keller and Helen E. Longino edited a book, Feminism and Science, in which this claim is given prominence. In their introduction, they argue that "the female gamete, the egg, is repeatedly treated as a passive object towards which the energetic sperm propels itself and on which it acts" (Keller and Longino 1996, 6). They then refer to their source, an included essay by Emily Martin. Martin's chapter is concerned with metaphors, with the claim that classic texts express "intense enthusiasm" for the male side of reproduction but show none for the female side (Martin 1996). "How is it that positive images are denied to the bodies of women?" she demands (105). It is here that we see actually quoted the "whiplash motion and strong lurches" that can "burrow through the egg coat," citing for those words the textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell, by Bruce Alberts and others. Martin concludes with "One clear feminist challenge is to wake up sleeping metaphors in science, particularly those involved in descriptions of the egg and sperm" (114). For this source, too, there are precedents.
In The Less Noble Sex (1993), Nancy Tuana complains, "Female passivity is also seen in theories of conception. Theorists continue to perpetuate a view of the active sperm and the passive ovum awaiting penetration," (170) citing as her sources Donna Haraway and Evelyn Fox Keller. But the most influential source, by any measure, is that widely read and reprinted manifesto of the BGSG led by Scott Gilbert, which appeared, among several other places, in Feminism and Science (1989), edited by Nancy Tuana. This is the article to which almost all who propagate the story of that most egregious failure of scientific objectivity the passive egg refer, and justifiably so: it is a magisterial mining of metaphors (and metonymy and synecdoche), but its own, however, not those of its subjects.
Gilbert's piece is famous for the masculinist metaphors of fertilization it exhibits. It is here that readers can find "Sperm Goes A'Courtin'": "heroic sperm struggling against the hostile uterus," "fertilization as a kind of martial gang-rape," "the egg is a whore, attracting the soldiers like a magnet." I spend little time on it here, since it is discussed with full citations in detail in Higher Superstition. Suffice it to say that these quotation-marked metaphors are inventions of the BGSG.
Never, in more than four decades of work in the field, have I heard any colleague speak in that way or encountered such writing in journals of the discipline. The real quotations offered by the BGSG, as detailed in Higher Superstition, are from ancient or secondary sources; have little to do with the state of professional understanding since the nineteenth century; and are, in any case, an order of magnitude less colorful than the metaphors of the BGSG itself. They do, however, cite an apparently legitimate scientific source of the "new" knowledge to which they refer: an article by G. and H. Schatten.
This article, "The Energetic Egg" (1983), is a semipopular report of the state of knowledge of fertilization, written by Gerald and Heide Schatten (Emily Martin misnames her) for The Sciences, the public magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences. The Schatten piece is a good effort of its kind, although it gives much more attention to the work of the authors and their colleagues of the Berkeley and Stanford groups than to findings on fertilization of others working at that time, or before that time. Nevertheless, it was a useful summary of the cell biology of fertilization at that time. The part of it later exploded into an indictment of masculinist bias is a summary of electron microscope studies by G. Schatten when he worked with the late Daniel gazia at Berkeley. The important paperin short, the first real scientific paper relevant to the claims and the argurnentis a 1976 Schatten-Mazia paper in Experimental Cell Research.
Here are its method and findings. In 1976, the technology of scanning electron microscopy (SEM) had advanced sufficiently for direct observation in three dimensions, and at very high resolution, of the details of sperm/egg interaction. Schatten and Mazia added to the technology certain tricks of preparation that maximized the chances of catching the process efficiently and at its earliest stages. They glued eggs to polylysine-coated glass, added sperm, then quickly fixed the preparations while the interaction was still in progress, for SEM. They could then visualize sperm attachment, membrane fusion, and entry of the sperm into the egg interior. These were competent studies that yielded several widely reproduced electron micrographs. They showed the following (I quote from the paper):
The first activity of fertilization is the discharge of the acrosome of the sperinatozoon. . . . This filament . . . brings the sperm head into intimate contact with the egg surface. . . . At the first moments of fusion, the surface of the egg is uplifted in a small cone. When the membranes fuse, the internal mass of the sperm head is seen enclosed in a column which proximally is egg membrane and distally sperm membrane. (331)
And so on. They saw what others had seen earlier, was already in the textbooks, and was known decades earlier to happen, but they saw it more clearly. The acrosome filament (an autopolymerizing mechanism in the sperm head that creates a sort of probe) initiates the contact; the egg surface responds by elevating a "fertilization cone"; surface membranes of the two cells fuse; and the sperm head (in some species the tail, too) enters the egg cytoplasm.
Let me now summarize the astonishing claims, built on this (and similar) work, including studies on the biophysics of sperm-flagellar motion, about what Begley calls "conception." Please bear in mind that the following claims are, in turn, grounds for the superclaim that the objectivity of science is often illusory.
Claim 1. Science ignored, until recently (or until prodded, perhaps, by feminist-epistemological criticism), the possibility that the egg may play an "active" role in fertilization.
Claim 2. As late as the 1960s, science ignored the possibility that the egg might play an "active" role in "guiding" development; masculinist bias prevented the consideration of such a possibility.
Both claims are false. Their offering by anyone who pretends to know something about developmental or reproductive biology is either shoddy scholarship or not scholarship at all, just politics. Here are the facts.
The Egg "Grabs" the Sperm: 1878, 1919
EXAMPLE: In 1919, E. E. Just published his research on fertilization in the sand dollar, Echinarachnius parma. At this stage of his career, Just was a young but influential observer of fertilization and early development in marine animals (which have been the material of choice for everyone else, including Schatten and Mazia). Just's conclusions about the first moments of the process are like the common textbook account:
Immediately on insemination, sperm pierce the jelly hull [not the egg itself], reaching the vitellus [the egg cell] with rapid spiral movements. The moment the tip of the sperm reaches the cortex of the vitellus all movements cease, the head and the tail in a straight line at right angles to a tangent of the egg surface. Penetration follow as an activity of the egg; the spermatozoon does not bore its way inthe egg pulls it in. (Just 1919, 5)
Just, a scholar, was not content merely to report what he had seen (usually with greater care than did many of his contemporaries). For his emphatic conclusion, he cited, therefore, available precedent: "Kupfer and Beneche in 1878 made similar observations on the lamprey egg and reached the conclusion that the sperm is engulfed" (5) Engulfed: note that, please. No monograph or serious textbook on fertilization or embryology that I know failed, after the 1920s, to figure or at least to mention the fact of engulfment or the "fertilization cone," the egg structure that does the engulfing.
[ Continued on pages 65-70. ]
( Paul R. Gross, "Bashful Eggs, Macho Sperm, and Tonypandy," 1998; from Noretta Koertge, ed., A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 59-65. )
Home Page | Further Reading | Site Map | Send Feedback