A feminist take on molecular biology: Impartial Science – Bonnie Spanier

Feminist science studies was unfailingly interesting in the 1980s and 1990s, though sometimes promised more than it delivered….

Molecular biology is one of the hard cases for a would-be science critic. The approaches, tools and techniques of the molecular biologists, which mainly means the molecular geneticists, are so far in the ascendant in the life sciences, sweeping all before them, that any demurral is liable to seem either futile or perverse.

Bonnie Spanier avoids both these pitfalls in her short study of gender ideology in molecular biology. But she does not deliver quite enough to convince that a rereading of what happens inside the living cell according to new precepts is unequivocally necessary, even if it may be possible.

Once a molecular biologist herself, Spanier is now a professor of women’s studies, and wants to re-evaluate her old discipline in feminist terms. Her approach, after a careful introduction to the issues, is to analyse the wording of extracts from leading textbooks, focusing mainly on successive editions of Darnell, Lodish and Baltimore’s Molecular Biology of the Cell. She supplements this with occasional items from scientific journals like Cell and Science, and from popular accounts of molecular biology.

Her analysis is careful, and she skilfully weaves in others’ analyses of male-centred theorising in biology, in areas like endocrinology, fertilisation and menstruation. Yet when it comes to molecular biology proper, which takes up around 50 pages of the book, the pickings are thinner.

True, there are gendered terms. The adoption many years ago of male and female to denote the roles bacteria play during exchange of genetic material appears a sloppy analogy, to say the least. The description of genes which code for routine metabolic functions as “housekeeping genes” is open to the objection that it imports hidden assumptions. But changing either of these would hardly be tantamount to a root-and-branch reconceptualisation of the field.

The nearest her critique would come to this is the argument that the consistent representation of genes as acting at the top of a hierarchy of control of molecular organisation and activity is the product of an androcentric world view which sees everything in terms of relations of dominance and subordination. This may be so, although the fact that biologists speak of sister chromatids and DNA producing daughter strands might suggest that this is a matriarchal hierarchy. But what bearing may this have on the truth claims of the discipline? Spanier’s position on this is not well-enough worked through here to be clear.

She describes the dominant account of the cell sometimes as “partial”, which it undoubtedly is, more often as “distorted”. But while the latter adjective appears to imply that there is some alternative viewpoint from which an undistorted perspective is visible, her general view appears to be that scientific accounts will inevitably be imbued with the values and ideologies of those who create them. This contradiction remains unresolved.

What one can do, perhaps, is recognise that all views are partial and express preferences about the kinds of metaphors, analogies and models to favour when there are alternatives, and about the kinds of education which newcomers to biology receive. Here, she does offer a consistent view, taking issue with the notion that there is nothing more to biological research than ever-more sophisticated manipulations of DNA, and with the habitual exclusion of the social or political significance of modern biology from straight science courses.

This, though, is part of a more general discussion of what ought to go into a science textbook, and she is a little unfair at times to Baltimore et al. True, their chapter on cancer focuses on molecular genetic events rather than epidemiology or environmental insults, but what else would one expect from a book titled Molecular Biology of the Cell? Yes, the book makes large claims about the future of biological disciplines, but scientists enthused enough to succeed in research always do. Perhaps the criticism would be more fairly levelled at a teacher who would be satisfied to recommend just one book. In the end, many of Spanier’s criticisms are the same as those of others educated in classical biology and biochemistry who see molecular biology as limited, however brilliant its successes, and of those who would argue for a more general antireductionist approach to organisms and ecosystems. The portions of the book which are specifically grounded in feminist critique are not quite strong enough to warrant her subtitle, but this will be a useful volume for anyone who wants to broaden a biology course with an accessible review of alternative ways of reading scientific texts. (1996)

Bonnie Spanier. Impartial Science: Gender ideology in molecular biology. Indiana

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