Science

“While the dearest of friends lays in the cold ground”: Epidemic Disease, Incarceration and Patriarchal Control; The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding

After Josiah Spaulding, Jr. was chained to the floor in his room in about 1812 by his minister father, he would never again live a life unfettered by his father’s religious and patriarchal control—a control which extended over the Spaulding family long after the Reverend’s death in 1823.

Oral history of Buckland tells the tale of Josiah’s early escape attempt: he rubbed his chains against the wooden floor in his bedroom for about a year, finally breaking them. This story is recorded in Neil Perry’s 1966 article for the Springfield Morning Union. While there is much sensationalism in any newspaper article written about Josiah, my trip to the Spaulding house in Buckland in 2012 led me to believe this had actually happened.

After some research, I managed to locate the owner of the former parsonage, built in the late 1700s, the home of Reverend Spaulding, Mary Williams and their children. There has been very little restoration or modernization done to the former Spaulding home. I was invited there by its owner at the time, Edward Purinton, whose family goes back two hundred years in the Buckland area. Ed grew up in Josiah’s room and his mother had been a local Spaulding researcher. She collected funds from the community to install a gravestone for Josiah in the churchyard cemetery alongside his family, for Josiah, who died at the Deerfield Poor Farm, was buried in an unmarked grave.

Ed told me that the room was very cold in the winter, and in the letters, Josiah’s sisters often expressed concern that he stayed warm enough. Josiah’s bedroom still had the original wide-plank floors, the type of which is no longer seen in the United States. Ed moved the bed out of the way, and there underneath were the chain grooves made by young Josiah, who had been chained in front of the fireplace.

IMG_4091

The grooves in the floor where Josiah scraped his chains.

According to legend, Josiah managed to break his chains after he rubbed them into the wooden floor. He escaped from his bedroom out the back staircase, which was situated very close to his bedroom and would have been easily reached. The original hardware was still on the doors of the house, and Josiah’s bedroom only had a latch—typical hardware of the late 1700s in this region. The back staircase did indeed open to the kitchen, where the back door was about a foot away. The barn was also very close to the house; here, Josiah attempted to take the family horse and ride to freedom. According to oral history, a neighbor commandeered Josiah and brought him back to the Reverend. Next door to the Spaulding house is an early nineteenth century house that would have been there in 1812. Josiah’s sister Lydia is said to have alerted her father of his escape, and in the commotion, the neighbor came out to tackle Josiah.

The villagers of Buckland were all aware of what had happened to Josiah; they knew that he was “insane,” and that the Reverend was keeping him chained up. It may be hard to believe that the villagers did not think of it as abusive, but at this time, they did not view it that way. Instead, church records and biographies of Reverend Spaulding refer to his “affliction,” his punishment from God: his son, Josiah Jr. Just like epidemic disease in this era was not understood to be biological in nature, mental illness was believed also to be something that God put upon a family. These afflictions were not anyone’s business to interfere with, especially not if it was the family of the highly revered local minister. Reverend Spaulding spoke from the pulpit about what had happened with his son and his version of events is what everyone believed, although it is unclear exactly what he may have said. Whatever he said, it did not elicit sympathy for Josiah. The sympathy was for the Reverend.

After Josiah’s foiled escape-attempt, Reverend Spaulding knew he had to contain him in something much stronger and harder to escape, so he had an iron cage built by the local blacksmith. In this very small, rural village, the blacksmith and the villagers all would have known exactly for whom they built the cage. It was delivered to the Spaulding home, probably carried there, and strong men assisted the Reverend as they forced his son into it. Once Josiah was put into the cage, his relationship with his sisters and his friends effectively either ended completely or was greatly changed. Letters from Josiah’s friend Ezra Fisk were no longer sent to the Spaulding house and Josiah’s correspondence with his favorite sister, Mary, also ended. The horror and desperation Mary must have felt upon learning that her brother had been put into an iron cage one can only imagine. It most likely only compounded her own feelings of being trapped, isolated, incarcerated in the patriarchal world of the early 1800s in which she could not attend college, work, or be independent of men. There was absolutely nothing Mary could have done about her brother’s situation—and she knew it.

Shortly after Josiah was caged, Mary’s husband Isaac died at age thirty-three from what I suspect may have been cholera or dysentery, when Mary was pregnant with her second child. Their three-year-old daughter also died of disease around the same time. At this time, Mary wrote one of the most heartbreaking letters of the collection to her parents, in which she implored them to help. Mary was entirely alone in Southampton with her second child. Her handwriting was wild, and her tone was of arrant, devastated and hopeless emotion, the kind that occurs only after a remarkable tragedy like what she had experienced: she lost almost everyone important to her in a matter of a few years. Mary had little choice but to return home to Buckland to stay with her parents. Upon her return the family home, she was met with the reality that her brother was now in an iron cage, and that was where he was going to stay for the rest of his life. I do not think that Mary ever recovered from any of these events, and she died at age thirty-nine. None of the Spaulding women survived past the age of fifty.

IMG_4096

 

The Spaulding Family graves

I often wonder if Mary talked to her brother after he was caged, or if he implored her to let him out. The Spaulding daughters and their mother, Mary Williams, were in charge of keeping Josiah clothed, fed and warm. They did his laundry, stoked the fireplace, and cared for him. Josiah was not at all a “raving maniac”; he was not a “lunatic”; and there is no evidence that he was ever “deranged”—whatever those words mean. He was guilty, as his father would have said, of great sin: for being different. He was guilty of running off to Southampton to have fun, of not sharing his father’s Calvinist beliefs, of what may have been possible homosexuality based on the letters that were sent to him by a seemingly infatuated Ezra Fisk. The possible outcome of all of this, as Reverend Spaulding knew, was a challenge to the indomitable religious, patriarchal hold the Reverend maintained over his family and the village. It was such an incredible hold, made stronger by its ultimate physical manifestation in the form of Josiah’s cage, that it continued to socially incarcerate the Spaulding family for decades after the Reverend died. Reverend Spaulding’s death in 1823 around the same time as his wife’s death, did not mean a release or reprieve for Josiah, who by then was in his forties. The next generation cared for him, in his cage, as Josiah was transported up the hill to his sister Lydia’s house after the death of his parents. He was taken from the cage, his limbs long atrophied, carried up the hill by villagers, some of whom also carried his cage, in a grim procession to his destination at the home of Lydia. They lived right across the street from the First Congregational Church of Buckland, where the Reverend had preached for twenty-eight years. In its shadow, Josiah would live out the second half of his adult life.

Disability history is imperative to the field of Disability Studies, especially when there is primary source material like Josiah’s letters. In this case, a researcher can analyze his life in a more direct fashion, and also can learn from the letters of his family. If we were to read only newspaper articles and biographies of Reverend Spaulding and Josiah, we might come to the conclusion that Josiah really was violent and deranged, and that his poor father had no other choice but to cage him. Understanding that people with psychiatric and other disabilities are often very intelligent, observant, caring and nonviolent people is imperative to creating and fostering a world where disabled people like Josiah are given the resources they need to achieve contribute to what Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson would call a biodiverse world. Diversity amongst humans and perspectives of those who think differently or experience the world differently are an important part of fostering intellectual development for all humans. Presuming the competence of those with disabilities, as former Syracuse University Dean of the School of Education, Douglas Bicklen, would say, is a great way to start the process of biodiverse societal inclusion. Josiah’s letters clearly disprove presumptions of derangement, being “lower than a brute” and “insensate.” However, portrayals of psychiatric disability from the nineteenth century and before have continued to create stigma and bias today. Understanding the history of these perceptions and biases and where they began is necessary to unravel them, and see—really see, without presumption —the lives and experiences of disabled people now and in the past.


The cover photo is the room where Josiah was kept.

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at americanpomeroys.blogspot.com, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.

 

Fifty Seven Years in a Cage: A Story of Psychiatric Disability from the late Puritan Era

My historic work is not about famous able-bodied men, battles or presidents as many think of when they think of history; it is about women, epidemic disease, art, slavery, mental illness, reform and disability. It is about those were marginalized, the ones lost to history whose stories have been long forgotten or never told. The medieval anchoresses who lived in little rooms, those kept in towers, in prisons, in asylums, those who were physically or socially incarcerated. As a genealogical researcher in North Syracuse, I worked primarily with a collection of one hundred and forty four letters written by four generations of Massachusetts women in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, which centered my work on Puritan New England. The collection had been long forgotten until its discovery about four years ago in an Arizona attic. Within the still pristine letters, preserved by dry heat, was the story of the Spaulding family of Buckland, who kept their only son in a cage in the family home. Josiah Spaulding was said to be insane, and remained in the cage for fifty-seven years until his death. The letters were mostly written by his four sisters. I hope to tell some of their stories here.

What are the circumstances that would compel a family to imprison one of its members in an iron cage for the rest of his life? In the case of Josiah Spaulding Junior, born 1787, the answer given by his preacher father, Reverend Josiah Spaulding of Buckland, Massachusetts, was that his son had “lost his reason” and was a danger to the family. Later census records on the Spaulding family state that Josiah was insane. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. I uncovered this story during my time as an archival researcher for a private archive in North Syracuse, where we received one hundred and forty-four letters written by four generations of Spaulding family members. In researching this story, I have been unable to find evidence for violent mental illness, but I have found evidence of many other things. Josiah was kept in a cage by various family members in their homes for fifty-seven years. He was put into it when he was about 23 years old, and it is there that he died.

Josiah Spaulding, Jr., the son of a prominent reverend, was expected to follow a certain life path. He was the only surviving infant of a triplet birth, born to Mary Williams of Taunton, Massachusetts and Reverend Spaulding, originally of Plainfield, Connecticut. Josiah’s sister Mary, the firstborn child, had been born the year before. The two maintained a close friendship for many years. Both of Josiah’s parents were from respected lines of New England families who were among the first white settlers of the region, and their genealogies span to the early seventeenth century in America.

Reverend Spaulding was a staunch Calvinist, and obtained his Doctor of Divinity from Yale in 1778. He was ordained as a minister in 1782 and had gone to Uxbridge, Massachusetts to begin his career as the local minister. He was married there, as well. However, as would occur repeatedly until his arrival in Buckland, the reverend was dismissed from his position in part because of “unpopularity due to his Calvinist theology”, according to the Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, and the fact that he was thought to be eccentric. Hardline Calvinism, which had long been the established religion in New England, was slowly starting to fall out of vogue during this period. According to records, parishioners had a hard time believing that God “foreordained every thought, word and action” of human beings, as Calvinism and the Reverend taught. However, Reverend Spaulding deeply believed in the doctrine and would not renege even a little. As a result, he had to move around a few times until the family settled in Buckland, where he remained minister for twenty-eight years and was widely loved by the townspeople. Josiah was eight years old when the Spauldings arrived in Buckland. Daughters Nancy, Deborah, and Lydia had been added to the family, with Lydia being the youngest, born in 1799.

Letters between Josiah and his older sister, Mary, demonstrate a close relationship between the two. Mary’s 1801 letter to Josiah, written when she was sixteen and he around fourteen and away at a conference in Goshen, spoke heavily of religion and repentance but also of local gossip:

PS I will inform you of the death of Betsy Stinn, she died not long before thanksgiving  & it is expected that Lydia her sister is or will soon be married to the gentleman that courted Betsy. & What do you think of that, it has occasioned considerable talk here…

As a young woman of this era, Mary would not have been groomed for a career in the way that Reverend Spaulding was doing by bringing his son to a religious conference. Unlike her mother and namesake Mary Williams, Mary Spaulding was taught how to write and had beautiful penmanship. She and her sisters attended the local one-room schoolhouse in Buckland where a peer of theirs was Daniel Forbes, famous for his penmanship and friends with the Spaulding family. There is little doubt that the Spaulding children learned penmanship in some measure from Daniel, and in the Spaulding collection there are letters written by him to Mary. However, the Spaulding daughters’ education did not go much beyond their years at the local schoolhouse, as they were expected to excel instead in the domestic arts and get married.

Josiah, also expected to marry and raise a family and continue the Spaulding lineage, could attend college. Neil Perry’s 1966 article on Josiah for the Springfield Morning Union, based on Victorian era articles from one hundred years prior, states that Josiah was violent and rebellious in his youth, and was not accepted to college. These descriptions are from 1866, just before Josiah’s death. However, the language of articles like these is typical to language of the Victorian era when describing or reporting on mental illness, and Josiah is referred to as “deranged.”

The family letters indicate otherwise. Josiah was an articulate and intelligent young man who worked as a teacher, and had the most beautiful penmanship in the family. The story of Josiah will continue in a three part series on this blog. Perhaps he did have some mental illness, and he did seem to be rebellious for the era. It is my estimation that his aversion to Puritan based norms and expectations and his conflicting ideology from his father’s was the real reason that he was caged, along with what does seem to be some kind of possible psychiatric issue. However the description of him as violent and deranged was sensationalized, and is not an accurate description of those with psychiatric disabilities on the whole. There has long been, and continues to be a disparity in power between those who are considered to be able bodied and minded, and those who aren’t. The Spaulding family was absolutely dominated, as most Puritan lines were, by the patriarch. It is not Josiah that should necessarily be looked to as defining derangement, but his Calvinist father, who not only was the patriarch of the family, but of the entire village of Buckland and much of western Massachusetts.

[I will continue my exploration of Josiah and his family in next week’s post.]   


Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at americanpomeroys.blogspot.com, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.

The Fertility of Miró

I have never quite gotten surrealist, post-modern art. (Left to my own devices I happily spend my museum visits floating around the impressionist era.) I look at abstract symbolic paintings and feel that I miss the intended emotion or meaning—as if the painters and their devotees speak a language I cannot understand.

That changed when I stumbled upon an ephemeral relationship between the art of Miró and fertilization research from the early 1980s to mid 1990s. This connection provided me with a whole new way to view, understand, and appreciate Miró. His art was no longer a remote, confusing abstraction, but rather an artistic reflection of the same questions about life, reproduction, and behavior I think about as a scientist.

It all started with a magazine article written by two incredible scientists, Gerald and Heidi Schatten in 1983.[i] (Fun fact, Gerald Schatten and I both attended Stuyvesant High School in NYC, albeit about 50 years apart). The Schattens illustrate the history of research in fertilization starting from Hippocraties, and the paucity of information about the female gamete that persisted until the late 1800s. As scientists probed the mysteries of the egg they found it was active in the fertilization process and discovered intricate mechanisms through which the egg cooperates to bring the sperm through its layers, fuse the maternal and paternal nuclei, and initiate development. New microscopic technologies revealed the complex internal structure of the egg that facilitates many of these key fertilization events.

Miro2

In addition to describing research for a public audience, the article also included three paintings by Joan Miró, as well as works by Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. Nothing in the text describes the art. They are just there: full page, color reproductions, with no explanation. However, when I looked at the paintings included in the article alongside the Schattens’ scientific images of the earliest moments of sea urchin fertilization, I understood. The spherical shapes evoke the female gamete. In the painting Amour, the letters spelling the title spill out from a point on the large purple/blue shape that could be the site of fertilization. The flurry of lines, dots and shapes within the red circle of The Broken Circle captures the energetic egg paradigm the Schattens describe.

I was curious why Miró’s paintings, in particular, had been included in the article. I turned to Google, searching for something that might explain the connection between his work and reproductive biology. Although nothing on the Internet provided me with a conclusive answer, I did uncover additional incidents where Miró and fertilization research intersected.

I found an article from the Chicago Tribune in 1990 about the scientist Yury Verlinsky’s discovery of a new in vitro technology for genetic testing.[ii] If a couple is worried about having a baby because of a genetic disorder that could be inherited, Dr. Verlinsky’s technique would allow scientists to test the egg for the disease before it is even fertilized.  The test is performed on DNA of the polar body, part of the egg that is extruded in the cellular divisions during maturation, and determines whether or not a baby made from that egg would inherit the genetic disorder. The article described that Dr. Verlinsky came up with the idea looking at a Miró painting:

“Relaxing after a day spent pondering the earliest stages of fetal development, Verlinsky visited a Jerusalem art gallery. He contemplated an untitled 1935 painting by the great Spanish abstractionist, Joan Miró. In Miró’s typically droll style, the painting consisted of two disks floating in space, one red, the other yellow. Just underneath the red disk was another round object, black and very tiny. Verlinksy stood and stared for a long time. The more he examined Miró’s colored disks, the more they looked to him like human eggs. Maybe the red disk became the yellow disk after it kicked out the black dot, he mused. “

I became obsessed; I needed to see the painting that had inspired the flash of genius to test polar bodies. The paltry clues included in the article were of little help. I acquired the entire catalogue of Miró’s paintings[iii] and scoured through 1935, staring at anything with even a close resemblance to the description, but nothing matched. As I resigned myself to work through Miró’s entire collection, I worried that I would accidentally skip over or not recognize the painting. My fears were unfounded. I knew immediately when I came to the The Magic of Color, 1930 that I had found it. To me, it was definitely not droll. It was glorious.

Miro3

However, I was still not satisfied. I delved deeper into the pages of my Google search results until I came across a sentence in An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body by Rosemary Betterson[iv] that told of an exhibition in 1992, organized by the Joan Miró Foundation[v] on In Vitro fertilization. I scoured the recesses of the Internet to find any reference of this exhibit and came up empty handed. I was ultimately able to get my hands on both the exhibit catalogue[vi] and record of the accompanying symposium.[vii] The exhibition In vitro. From the mythology of fertility to the boundaries of science, initiated by KRTU a cultural branch of the Catalan government, was not explicitly about Miró; rather, it explored the boundary between science, history, and art in our relationship with fertility.

“We have arranged the exhibition in such a way as to show, through various nuclei, the traces and faces (archaeological, linguistic, gastronomic, artistic, ethnographic, scientific, etc.) of fertility myths, the current situation in the fight against infertility, and the prospects current research is now opening up.” – Vicenc Altaio and Anna Viega, Curators of In Vitro. 8

Pages away from each other are the Venus statues of early humans and ancient Greeks, Miró’s bronze figures of women that emphasize female secondary sexual characteristics, and tools used by midwives and obstetricians. The speculums and dilators are so structurally intricate they are at home alongside the famous sculptures. Powerpoint slides on IVF technologies that could have been pulled directly from a course in reproductive biology for conservation I took while studying abroad are nearly touching reproductions of the Virgin Mother and Child.

As a post baccalaureate fellow in the lab of Dr. Carmen Williams at the NIEHS [viii] I learned how to do in vitro fertilization of mice. I manipulated micropipettes with a joystick to hold and inject eggs in order to change their gene expression. I spent so many hours mouth-pipetting ooctytes to remove the cells that surround them when they are collected from the ovary that I would get home, close my eyes, and see them imprinted on my eyelids. In the In vitro exhibit the same images I saw, starting down a microscope, were suddenly art. Were discussed in the same breath as the biological drawings of Erns Haeckel and the renowned paintings of Picasso, Dali, and Miró.

Miro4

“The beauty of the scientific images and the beauty of the artistic images – even if we are unable to read them when we are unfamiliar with their code – would suffice by themselves to justify the exhibition…”
– Vicenc Altaio and Anna Viega, Curators of In Vitro.8

My winding exploration of Miró provided me with an entirely new perspective of not only surrealist art, but also the aesthetics of my own research. More than that, Miró’s paintings reminded me of the humanity of my research. Although we are using different techniques, terminology, and mediums, fundamentally I ask the same questions about how life begins. If I am receptive to it, I can find the themes of my research in reproduction reflected throughout culture. For these reasons, and so many more, it delights me that the acronym for artificial reproductive technologies is ART.

P.S. If anyone reading this is computer programming inclined, I desperately require an app that will allow me to use Miró symbols as emoji’s. I’ll call them: Miróji’s.

 


Figure 1: Miro, 1967. The Gold of the Azure. http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/coleccio_obra.php?idioma=2&obra=709

Figure 2: Bottom left – G. Schatten, scanning electron micrograph (SEM) image of sea urchin fertilization http://worms.zoology.wisc.edu/dd2/echino/fert/pronuclear/pronuclear.html Top are from 1. Left – Miro, 1964. The Broken Circle. Center – Miro, 1925. The Birth of the World. Right – Miro, 1926. Amour.

Figure 3: Miro, 1930. The Magic of Color. http://catalogue.successiomiro.com/catalogues/paintings-i/painting-the-magic-of-color.html

Figure 4: McDonough, C.E. and Bernhardt, M. MII egg GFP experiments.

 

[i] Schatten, G. and Schatten, H. 1983. The Energetic Egg. The Sciences.

[ii] Gorner, P. and Kotulak, R. 1990. Gene Screening: A Chance to Map Our Body’s Future. Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-04-15/news/9001310515_1_genetic-yury-verlinsky-gene-screening

[iii] Dupin, J and Lelong-Mainaud, A. 2003. Catalogue raisonné. Paintings. Vol. I – VI. Successió Miró A.D.A.G.P., Paris.

[iv] Betterton, R. 1996. An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body. Routledge.

[v] http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/fundaciojoanmiro.php?idioma=2

[vi] Altaio, V. and Viega, A. curators 1992. In Vitrode les mitologies de la fertilitat als limits de la cencia. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

[vii] Altaio, V. and Viega, A. curators 1992. In vitro a Debat Simposi. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

[viii]http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/rdbl/pi/reproductive/index.cfm

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

Perils of Click-Bait Science Communication, or There’s Many a Slip ‘twixt the Cup and the Lip

Science communication plays an integral role in bridging the gap between academia and the public. Science writers have the tricky job of distilling complex ideas into digestible pieces, and explaining highly-specialized experiments in a way the public might find interesting. Research highlighted in the media can become part of a larger cultural conversation and have a more direct impact on people’s lives. However, in this process, a research article undergoes multiple reinterpretations, and can become detached from the original material. As a result of this process, science for public consumption tends to overemphasize human relevance, lose qualifiers or context, and frequently employs ‘click-bait’ methods of choosing catchy titles that distort the results and implications of the research.

A particularly painful example of the pitfalls of a catchy title happened in the highlight of an article on primate sexual behavior. In December 2014, a group of researchers published a study on reproductive conflict and male aggression in chimpanzees. [1] They found a correlation between high-ranking male aggression toward females during the females’ non-fertile period, and the amount of offspring that male fathered. The scientists hypothesized that sustained male aggression played a role in sexual coercion. The title of their article was relatively innocuous: “Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. However, in a companion piece meant to attract attention and describe the research for a more general audience, the title lost some nuance: “Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last.”[2]

Nice guys finish last is a trope that has been increasingly adopted by the MRA (Men’s Rights Advocacy) movement to disparage the sexual choices of women. Although the use of this phrase was likely to add levity and attract attention with no ill intention, I was startled to see Nice guys finish last used so flippantly in a scientific journal without any consideration of the broader cultural implications. Especially last year, when misogynistic ideologies perpetuated violence against women that could not be ignored,[3] it was disturbing to see this phrase used in a way that normalized as natural biological behavior male violence towards women.

Popular science writing about fruit fly sexual behavior can also be extremely anthropomorphic and distasteful. I have come across a couple of examples in my own research area that set my teeth on edge.

About a dozen years ago scientists identified a gene that when mutated resulted in male fruit flies courting and trying to mate with other males. Their article “Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila” discussed this gene in terms of regulation of fruit fly reproductive behavior and the flies’ ability to distinguish between females and males.[4] Misguidedly, a news post on the Science journal website decided to make this research stand out by suggesting it had direct relationship with human sexuality. In an outrageous cognitive jump, the piece was called “How to Make a Fly Bi” and included a figure caption and other language that insinuated bisexuality was the equivalent to lowered inhibitions and increased promiscuity.[5] Bisexual advocates struggle to combat the misconceptions that bisexuality is equivalent to a lack of discernment or confusion. But here, popular writing associated with  a respected science journal perpetuated in these misconceptions and problematic assumptions about bisexuality.

Flies

Research on changes in female fruit fly behavior after mating suffered a similar fate in popular media. A study titled “Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female” found that a specific component of the male ejaculate decreased the amount a female sleeps after mating and also increases foraging activity. [6] In a blurb on the research by the University’s publicity office the title became “Female fruit flies do chores after sex”.[7] An article by a clinical psychologist on the HuffPost Healthy Living Blog took it even further: “Housework After Sex, Not Sleep.” [8] These accessible articles drew a direct relationship between fruit fly behavior and women’s “domestic-type duties or housework” that were not implied in the original research. Although I do think changes in postmating behavior in fruit flies have some fascinating implications for changes in human behavior during gestation and birth, a direct comparison cannot be made. I am concerned about the way the popular media twisted the scientific research to reaffirm underlying assumptions of a woman’s domestic role and primary childcare provider.

Popular science writing wants to attract public interest. As a result, the cautious conclusions that scientists make with clearly stated caveats and limitations can be distorted and aggrandized in the process. Scarily, it can then be used to further a political or philosophical agenda. There is a clear responsibility for science journalists to be more rigorous in reporting the intricacies of science research, as well as be more cognizant of the ways their reporting uses research to reaffirm cultural stereotypes. As a scientist, I also wonder what is our responsibility after we publish a paper? Are we completely out of control of the dissemination of information to the public? If research is taken out of context, or absurd associations to humans are drawn, if the scientist is appalled with the implications derived from their work, what should we do? Scientists need to become more involved in the science communication process, and to be trained how to explain and our research in ways that the public can understand, but that still situate it appropriately in broader contexts. The challenge is finding the time and a platform for a scientist to make sure the totality of their research message makes it safely, with only minimal slips, to the public.

 


[1] Feldblum, J.T., Wroblewske, E.E., Rudicell, R.S., Hahn, B.H., Paiva, T., Cetinkaya-Rundel, M., Pusey, A.E., Gilby, I.C. 2014. Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. Current Biology. 24: 2855 – 2860.

[2] Thompson, M.E. 2014. Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last. Dispatch, Current Biology. 24: R1125 – R1127.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/24/elliot-rodgers-california-shooting-mental-health-misogyny

[4] Kitamoto, T. 2002. Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sciences.

[5] Beckman, M. 2002. How to Make a Fly Bi. Science News Biology http://news.sciencemag.org/2002/09/how-make-fly-bi

[6] Isaac, R. E., Li, C., Leedale, A.D. 2009. Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female. Proc. Royal. Soc. B.

[7] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090929203941.htm

[8] Breus, M.J. 2010. Housework After Sex, Not Sleep. Huffpost Healthy Living Blog. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-michael-j-breus/housework-after-sex-not-s_b_345568.html

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

Austen & Darwin, Love Doctors?: A Valentine’s Day/ Darwin Day Tribute

A few months ago my Google Scholar alert for mate choice turned up a paper not about insect courtship behavior or sexual selection, but Jane Austen.[1] The only time previously I had ever thought about Austen and evolution together was while I wrote lab reports and wished I could watch Pride and Prejudice instead. However, as I looked into the connection between Austen and Darwin, I found abundant similarities: both are from similar social situations in Victorian England, are younger siblings, keen observers, and skilled writers whose works and ideas have persisted in the cultural psyche.[2] There is even an overlap in subject matter: sexual selection, mate choice, and kinship dynamics in Darwinian terms or courtship, romance, and family in Austen.

Although I ardently admire and love both Austen and Darwin/evolution, I have always been a bit dubious that either is able to capture the totality of human sexual experience. Science can examine underlying explanations and evolutionary motivations; experiments have found that had women prefer the used t-shirts stench of men with diverse immunity genes[3] and that during their most fertile period women are more attracted to masculine faces.[4] Neurologists have even put people in love into MRI machines to find that amore is really just the stimulation of reward pathways in the brain.[5] Although this information is edifying and valuable, science cannot capture the emotions of a romantic zenith way Austen does. As much as I love sexual selection and reproductive biology, for me, the realm in which Elizabeth Bennett finally accepts Mr. Darcy’s hand in marriage does not need to be predicated on science. Thus, I was excited about the prospect of literary Darwinism–a theoretical approach that could marry sexual selection theory with prose that evokes the passion of romance.

The Kruger et al. article that popped up in my email is an excellent example of both the insights and detriments that can arise in the utilization of literary Darwinism. The authors evaluated the behavior of Austen’s characters and identified two different alternative female mating strategies: long term (Jane Bennett and Fanny Price) and short term (Lydia Bennett and Maria Bertram). At first, I did not think the strategies described would match the biological definition of discrete tactics in a trait with genetic and/or environmental variation. However, a search through the scientific literature of human evolution revealed I was wrong. A number of studies corroborate that the alternative strategies identified in Austen’s novels also exist in humans.[6],[7] The introduction to the analysis taught me something new about evolution, and the authors seemed to be on firm biological ground discussing the proximate and ultimate goals in human reproduction and the costs and benefits of the different strategies.

Unfortunately, Kruger et al.’s analysis of Austen’s characters strategies quickly diverged from a foundation in evolutionary theory to moralistic, tautological ‘conclusions’ on universals of human sexual behavior. The underlying hypothesis “Both men and women should also be wary of short term, opportunistic, and/or uncommitted female strategists” clearly reveals a subconscious bias for long term strategies. This assumption, that a long term ‘family’ strategy is better than a short term ‘flirtation’ strategy is never tested and has no biological foundation.

In order to comprehensively evaluate alternative female strategies, it would be necessary employ scientific methods. Evolutionary biologists measure the success of a strategy by evaluating its fitness. Fitness is the combination of the effects the strategy has on an individual’s survival, number of offspring and success of those offspring. However, with fictional characters we do not have access to any future life history information (if wishing made it so). A happy long-term strategy marriage cannot simply be assumed to be more productive than a short-term strategy. If Fanny Price does not have children with her soul-mate husband, her strategy is no more fit than Maria Bertram who ended up alone. It does not matter that Mr. and Mrs. Bennett make each other miserable, or his estate was to be entailed away; they are evolutionarily successful with five children, most of who are on their way to reproducing.

S&S

I was disappointed by my first foray into literary Darwinism. The use of the scientific terminology felt inaccurate, as if the authors were trying to force science into their analysis even though it did not quite fit. It also seemed as though the authors were not familiar with the nuances of evolutionary theory. For instance, although in an introductory biology class sexual selection is often presented as a static theory, it is actually incredibly dynamic. The sexual selection we think of today has been modified and changed from what Darwin first proposed.[8] Even now, there are multiple, sometimes conflicting hypotheses of the underlying sexual selection mechanisms, and no single consensus in the biological community. If literary scholars are going to use evolutionary theory, it is important they fully understand its intricacies and idiosyncrasies.

I was ready to be completely dismissive of all literary Darwinism as a reductive misuse of evolutionary theory. Fortunately, a more comprehensive discussion of literary Darwinsim’s potential by Joseph Carroll [9] convinced me not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If conducted properly, literary Darwinism could use evolutionary theory to provide new insights into our understanding and interpretation of literature. In turn the descriptions of human behavior in different historical and cultural contexts from novels can inform research on human and cultural evolution.

Did I end up copiously re-watching Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson is a goddess) and other period dramas on Netflix? Yes, yes I did.


Figures: pulp fiction cover –comicvine.com, Jane Austen – austenblog.com, young Darwin – lookingfordarwin.com, old Darwin – es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy bookcoverings.com

Austen, J. 1813. Pride and Prejudice.

[1] Kruger, D.J., Fisher, M. L., Strout, S. L., Clark, S. Lewis, S. and Wehbe, M. 2014. Pride and Prejudice or Family and Flirtation? Jane Austen’s Depiction of Women’s Mating Strategies. Philosophy and Literature, 38: A114 – A128.

[2] Graham, P. W. 2008. Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists. Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[3] Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S.W., Miller, R., Scheyd, G., McColough, J.K., and Franklin, M. Major Histocompatibility Compex Genes, Symmetry, and Body Scent Attractiveness in Men and Women

[4] Johnston, V.S., Hagel, R., Franklin, M., Fink, B., and Grammer, K. 2001. Male Facial Attractiveness: Evidence for Hormone-Mediated Adaptive Design. Evolution and Human Behavior

[5] Fisher, H., Aron, A., and Brown, L.L. 2005. Romantic Love: An fMRI study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice. J. Comp. Neurology.

[6] Wlodarski, R., Manning, J., Dunbar, R.I.M. 2015 Stay or Stray? Evidence for Alternative Mating Strategy Phenotypes in both Men and Women Biol. Lett. 11.

[7] Jackson, J.J. and Kirkpatrick, L.A. 2007. The Structure and Measurement of Human Mating Strategies: Toward a Multidimensional Model of Sociosexuality. Evolution and Human Behavior. 6: 382 – 391

[8] Prum, R.O. 2012. Aesthetic Evolution by Mate Choice: Darwin’s Really Dangerous Idea. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 367: 2253 – 2265.

[9] Carroll, J. 2004. Chapter 6: Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice p. 187 – 216. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. Routledge, NY


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

A Scientist Walks into an English Blog: Language, Gender, Feminism, and the Science of Sex

I spend my day thinking about sex.

Mostly, sex between male and female fruit flies. I am curious about what happens after they finish doing the deed and sperm move through the female reproductive environment on their journey to the egg. Interested in the changes that occur within the female after sex, how her body interacts with the foreign substances contributed by the male ejaculate, and how an egg gets ready to be fertilized. Ultimately, I try to use fancy scientific techniques to figure out what happens between sex and a baby/larvae on a molecular level.

I am an evolutionary reproductive biologist. While that may not seem like it has much to do with English and the humanities, they actually intersect quite a bit. I like to think of science and culture as constantly interacting, feeding off of and into each other (in science-y jargon, they are symbiotic). For example, a lot of people, in addition to me, spend a fair amount of time thinking about sex. Usually sexier human sex as well as things related to sex such as sexuality and gender expression. These thoughts and the cultural opinions on these topics can then influence scientists.

Emily Martin, an anthropologist, exposed the problematic ways underlying cultural perceptions of sex and gender show up as gendered, sexist language in scientific texts, especially in relation to reproductive biology.[1] Sperm are often described as active and aggressive, competing and battling their way to the prize. Sperm penetrate, sperm fertilize. Eggs, on the other hand, are fertilized. They are passive and fragile, damsels in distress waiting to be rescued by the sperm. These descriptions align closely with cultural expectations of men and women’s behavior. Thus, an insidious feedback loop is formed: gender stereotypes are applied to our sex cells, which is then subconsciously picked up and perpetuated by scientists, reaffirming underlying cultural assumptions. If the gendering of sperm and eggs on its own was not problematic enough, it is also likely that preconceptions of sex cell behavior affect the science that is conducted. For example, the cultural assumption that sperm (men) do all the work may be part of the reason it took nearly a century for the active role of eggs in fertilization to receive attention.[2]

My personal pet peeve is the description of the female reproductive tract as an inhospitable environment because the acidity and mucous can be harmful to sperm.[3]  ‘Inhospitable’ makes my vagina sound like a bad bed and breakfast, not a complex reproductive organ. It is especially annoying because those same things that make the vagina a difficult place for sperm to survive also reduces infections and prevents fertilization by muliple or abnormal sperm. What from a sperm’s perspective is a dangerous environment, to me is protective. Nevertheless, it is the male viewpoint that dominates in textbooks.

Luckily, intrepid scientists are calling out the influence that preconceived ideas of gender and sex can have on science. Starting all the way back in the late 19th century, suffragettes (including one born only an hour away from Syracuse) criticized the Victorian sensibilities and male centric bias of Darwin’s theory of evolution.[4] Zoom forward to the end of the 20th century; increased representation of women in sciences and a concentration on female behavior revealed a complex, active, and often polyamourus, role of females in sexual encounters. Feminist scientists incorporated this new data and along with critiques on Darwinian theory to generate Darwinian feminism, which focuses on variation and plasticity rather than the archetypal survival of the fittest.

Feminist critiques of biology are also working in tandem with growing gender and sex fluidity theories to dismantle the dominant binary sex/gender paradigm. Scientists have drawn attention to sex difference studies that are overly biologically deterministic and do not include the effects of culture or environment. [5]  In addition, developmental biologists are reimagining gender and sexuality in terms of variable, not fixed, reproductive development and interactions between nature and nurture. Currently, scientists are even applying queer theory to critique the heternormitivity of biology.[6]

Unfortunately, feminist biology is controversial and receipt of these critiques by the scientific community at large is tepid at best. I was surprised to experience it myself when I prepared to go to a symposium on Feminist Biology. I gave a practice presentation to a group of colleagues and it was recommended that instead of calling myself a feminist, I should say I ‘apply feminist theories or methodologies’. Calling myself a feminist, they suggested, implied advocacy, biased thinking, and potentially bad science. The scientific façade of an unbiased, impartial pursuit of truth contributes to the resistance of the scientific community to critiques from the social sciences and humanities

Although I spend far too much of my time isolated, mating flies in a lab of the Life Science Center (a Syracuse approximate of the ‘ivory tower’), I would much rather take a leaf from the book of my humanities colleagues and proclaim my positionality and how it might affect my knowledge production rather than sweep it under a rug. In turn, science can then provide a different, intimate and revealing look into the nature, and sex, around us.

 


 

[1] Martin, E. 1991. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs, 485 – 501.

[2] Schatten, G. and Schatten, H. 1983. The Energetic Egg. The Sciences, 28 – 35.

http://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/Martin1991.pdf

[3] Too many scientific texts and IVF websites too list, seriously, I can’t even. Google it.

[4] Fausto-Sterling, A., Gowaty, P. A., Zuk, M. 1997. Evolutionary Psychology and Darwinian Feminism. Feminist Studies, 402 – 417. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3178406?sid=21105762830683&uid=4&uid=3739256&uid=3739832&uid=2

[5] Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. Sexing the Body.

[6] Ah-King, M. 2009. Queer Nature: Towards a Non-Normative View on Biological Diversity. In Body Claims eds Brromseth, J., Folkmarson, K., and Mattsson, K. 212- 232. http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:329592/FULLTEXT01.pdf

& Roughgarden, J. 2009. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People.

 

Figure is a mashup of artificially colored egg and sperm microscopy (David M. Phillips/Science Source) found on http://www.npr.org/blogs/health and clip art from http://www.canstockphoto.com/


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.