The Eco-Zombie: Using Biology to Imagine Zombies Beyond the Human

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts on Metathesis, I have discussed the metaphorical uses of contagious disease and examined the figure of the zombie in some popular late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In my final post of the month, I would like to turn to a unique sub-genre of the zombie narrative that unsettles the survivor-centered perspective of zombie outbreaks: the eco- zombie.

Zombies present an interesting study in the metaphor of contagion because they embody contradictions and create questions that disturb our sense of self and communal identity. The most obvious of these contradictions, of course, is that zombies are the “living dead”: two oft-mutually exclusive terms in the human experience. One is generally alive or dead, but not both simultaneously. The biological science of how zombies actually work is often left somewhat fuzzy in zombie science-fiction, which tends to give more emphasis to the latter portion of the hyphenated genre, rather than the former. These complex biological questions are typically subsumed by the drama and urgency of the survival story. One stunning example of this is in the 2105 film World War Z, when the viewer is introduced to a brilliant young epidemiologist who only minutes later slips unceremoniously in the rain and accidentally blows his own head off.

In terms of popular story-telling, this emphasis makes sense: the redemption narrative of survivors makes for a more emotionally engaging and compelling drama with which readers, viewers, and players can identify. Part of the power of the survivor’s narrative is that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. This perspective aligns with the zombie’s function to horrify and disgust the reader, viewer, or player in an act of dis-identification with the dead. In short, the horror of the zombie is centered upon the fact that nobody wants to become one! In fact, it is impossible to even imagine what it is like to be a zombie, given the way zombies embody a complete lack of supposedly distinct human capacities – including a sense of individuality, empathy, personality, and sociality. This narrative dynamic makes thinking outside of the standard human vs zombie conflict relationship difficult.


However, two recent zombie narratives have given us a new spin on the zombie narrative by taking inspiration from biology, and imagining the dead living in symbiosis with the natural world. In both The Last of Us (2013), a highly-cinematic survivor horror videogame from developer Naughty Dog, and The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), a novel and feature-length film developed from M.R. Carey’s short story “Iphigenia In Aulis,” a rampant fungal infection of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infests the human population. Known colloquially as the “Zombie Fungus,” Cordyceps is a true-to-life fungus that consumes and takes control over the bodies of ants and wasps. It manipulates genetically determined behavioral patterns of the ants it infects, compelling them to climb high above the forest floor, where they then clamp their jaws on a leaf, and remain as the fungus grotesquely protrudes from their body.


A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis


Joel battles an “infected” human from The Last of Us

The Cordyceps-infected humans in these stories aren’t specifically identified as “zombies” in either text – they are referred to as the “infected” in The Last of Us and as “hungries” in Carey’s story and its film adaptation – but they can be easily identified as such by their appearance and behavior, especially their cannibalistic rage. Because the “zombie ants” that host the Cordyceps fungus in real life are, if anything, less violent than their healthy counterparts, the violence of the human Cordyceps victims in these texts can be interpreted as making reference to “genetically determined behavioral patterns” recognizable in the aggressive human species.


Melanie and a group of “hungries” in The Girl With all the Gifts


A very zombie-like “Infected” human from The Last of Us

In both texts, the symbiotic relationship between the infected humans and the Cordyceps fungus allows the infected to maintain a scientifically stable relationship to the natural world. This relationship is also markedly distinct from the fuzzy biological uncertainty of most zombie films. Cordyceps really exists, and it only takes a small logical leap to envision humans under the organism’s control. Rather than being presented as monstrous doubles of humanity, these versions of Cordyceps zombies represent an ecological and biological world which is rebounding against human civilization and industrialization. In both The Last of Us and the film adaptation of Carey’s story, visuals which depict the overgrowth of nature into formerly urban spaces play an important role in signifying how the viewer and player should interpret their monsters.


Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Overgrown Salt Lake City in The Last of Us

The encroaching vegetation in these scenes infests the urban landscape and reclaims the landscape for nature, turning the city into a space both uncanny and sublime. The vegetation subsuming the metropolis transforms it into a dilapidated, ivy-embossed maze filled with ghostly relics. Similarly, the Cordyceps infection presents itself on the human body through grotesque, bubbly growths, signifying a biological excess overtaking both the human body and society. The overgrowth of nature on the infrastructure of the city and the Cordyceps fungus on the human body call attention to the material excesses of human cities and urban life. By reclaiming the city and the human body for the natural world, these infestation suggest that humanity has also overgrown, and as a result disrupted biological homeostasis and ecological balance.


Melanie and survivors navigate overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Interestingly, in both The Last of Us and The Girl With All the Gifts, the Cordyceps infestation creates a scenario in which a young woman with a unique resistance to the infection presents an opportunity for a “cure.” However, in order to process the cure, she must be sacrificed. In both texts, characters must weigh the life of the innocent individual against eradication of the human species. In the dramatic conclusion of the narrative arc in The Last of Us, the player must decide if they will save Ellie, the young girl that they have spent hours of gameplay guiding and protecting through a maze of zombies, with the knowledge that her survival means the end of the world. In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie makes this choice herself, choosing to transform the whole world with Cordyceps and found a new zombie society based on the teachings of Miss Justinaeu, the only person who treated her sympathetically.


A doctor attempts to convince Joel (the player) to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good of mankind in The Last of Us

By using biological science to reimagine the biological impact of the fungus among us, these texts break the mold of the standard zombie narrative. The Last of Us and The Girl with All the Gifts imagine zombies through a perspective of biological symbiosis and ecological balance, rather than racialized contagion or scientific terrorism. In doing so, these texts reshape how the metaphor of the zombie can be interpreted in an age when an excess of humanity and human impact threatens to push the ecosystem out of balance.

Zombies are harbingers of an inverted natural order and the embodiment of the redistribution of power. While this disruption of the order of life and death is violently disturbing for survivors, there are signs in many zombie narratives that the collapse of human society might actually be to the benefit of nature and the organic world that zombies inhabit. If we begin to reimagine zombies not as a gross corruption of humanity, but as organisms that are a balancing force of an interconnected biological world moving towards homeostasis, we begin to get a different picture of zombies and their relation to the metaphor of contagion. Eventually, they come to represent not a teleological progression from life to death, but a seasonal, circular, progression reflecting a desire for environmental balance, and a commitment to imagining the world through the changes and returns of life and death on a larger and longer scale.


Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.


The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.


The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).


The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.


An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.

Messages of Power: Epidemic Disease and Metaphor

[10 minute read]

Culture has been infected. From the largest spheres of government and media to the mundane exchanges of everyday living, a small but resilient particle of an idea has perforated the social fabric of our lives and buried deep in our collective imagination. This noxious notion exists unnoticed in many parts of society, a festering lump of our most disturbed and paranoid fears metastasizing just beneath the surface of culture, emerging now and again in full force when the right environment and atmosphere for an outbreak presents itself. This idea is the metaphor of contagious disease and epidemic. In my posts this month, I will ask why the tendency to assign meaning to disease is such a powerful and sustained facet of culture and examine how this viral tendency has mutated and evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Disease is a common human experience vivifying nearly universal fears of that which we cannot see, and thus cannot fully understand. For much of human history, the microbes that cause the majority of contagious diseases remained invisible to us. Only in the last two centuries or so have we developed a scientific understanding of microbes. So, to make sense and meaning out of the epidemics that ravaged our civilizations, we invented stories.

For the religious, an outbreak appears as a punishment for transgressing against God. For the xenophobic, a sudden appearance of disease in a previously healthy community can confirm fears that racial and ethnic outsiders are contaminating and degenerating society. For the rich and privileged, disease becomes associated with the poor. For the poor, disease becomes symptomatic of their social alienation and economic exploitation by the rich. For the healthy, disease in others can become a confirmation of one’s own righteous living and a reason to invest in the factors of division between one’s self and the other. Tragically, victims of disease can internalize these negative associations and may place the blame for their illness on some perceived moral or ethical failing of their own, or on society at large.

NowVenerealDiseasesWorld War I poster created by H. Dewitt Welsh meant to create awareness and prevent venereal diseases in soldiers abroad, note the explicit racialized and sexualized depictions of “Yellow Fever” and “Venereal Disease”. 

Although we now have a growing scientific understanding of microbes at the genetic level, we still tell stories that imbue epidemic diseases with meaning. The habit of assigning religious, racial, economic, and cultural meaning to outbreaks and their victims—developed over hundreds and thousands of years of human experience—has proven hard to quit, and many of these confused and misshapen ideas about disease and epidemic persist. As adaptable and resilient as the common cold, the metaphor of epidemic disease has become a mainstay of human discourse.

But why?

The experience of disease and contagion, the fear of infection, the abjection of the ill, the triumph of recovery, and the tragedy of death are nearly universal human experiences. Epidemic disease is therefore an accessible metaphor; a comparison with disease is widely understood as negative. The commonality of disease makes its metaphorical import apparent, and the mortality of epidemic make its metaphors gripping and affective.

But metaphors of disease and the stories that contain them continue to have a wide influence on our culture because they also tell us who we are, suggest who we ought not to be, and allow us to imagine who we might become. Often metaphors of disease tell us more about ourselves—our fears, guilt, and prejudices implicit and explicit—than they do about the biological, environmental, and social reality of epidemics. Examining how and why epidemic disease is used as a metaphor for social issues can allow us to understand the power of, and problems with epidemic metaphors, and provides a method to trace the dynamics and divisions of societal power and privilege.

Epidemic diseases are powerful messages, but they are also messages of power. How we depict and understand epidemics can tell us much about the cultural atmosphere from which the epidemic emerges.

In these posts, I will be considering metaphors of disease. But I also explore how, ironically, disease can work metaphorically to help us understand metaphors.

Etymologically, the modern English term “metaphor” comes from the Latin “metaphora” and from the Greek combination of “μεταϕορά”: μετα- (“meta”) denoting change or transformation and ϕορά, the present participle of “ϕέρειν,” meaning to bear or carry. If we preserve the grammatical tense of the Greek, then, a metaphor can be understood as that way of speaking which is bearing change, or as that speech which transforms as it is carrying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines our modern concept of metaphor as a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (OED, Third Edition, 2001).

In practice, we tend to follow the OED’s understanding, looking for similarities between unlike things. For example, in the famous Robert Burns metaphor “your love is a red, red rose,” love is not literally a flower, but it shares with the rose a certain intangible quality which makes the comparison apt. Perhaps, figuratively speaking, this love is soft, or sweet, or pleasant to smell, or covered with painful thorns, or a combination of these. In any case, the reader is meant to make the connection organically.

To break down how metaphors work in more detail, communications scholar I.A. Richards devised what he called the “Tenor-Vehicle” model (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936). In it, the “tenor” is the idea being communicated and the “vehicle” is how the idea is transmitted. That intangible quality of “different from, but analogous to” is the synthesis created by the metaphor’s juxtaposition of the two unlike things. In the Burns example from above the tenor of the metaphor is “your love” and the vehicle “a red, red rose.” By carrying the former into the later, the metaphor creates emotional meaning. That is, although tenor and vehicle make up the two parts of the metaphor, neither alone compose the emotional heft of the comparison—it is i the interpretive act of comparing that we construct meaning. Richards believed that all thinking and language are based in this type of comparison and contrast, and therefore he believed that all thought and language were essentially and fundamentally metaphorical. Although one need not go to the extent that Richards does to grasp the pervasive function of metaphor in society, the tenor-vehicle model is helpful for understanding why disease and metaphor are so closely intertwined.

Richards’ model shows that metaphors function much in the same way as microbes. At the very least, microbes offer us a material example of how a system of transmission like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor operates in the physical world. Take, for example, a virus. Like Richards’ tenor-vehicle model, a virus is composed of two parts: the RnA or DnA which constitutes the genetic information of the virus and a protein shell which encases and protects the virus during transmission.

disease2Diagram of a basic virus

Like metaphors, diseases also transform us as we carry them, turning our healthy bodies into symbols and carriers of illness. Also like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor, it is the process of transmission and the reaction (biological and social) to the virus that creates meaning for us in our everyday lives, not its discrete biological components. Often it is not the virus itself, but the symptoms of its reproduction and our body’s immune response that we recognize. In truly explosive epidemics, such as the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic, the social response to an outbreak, or lack thereof, can be as devastating as the illness itself.

Like any effective metaphor, the metaphor of disease transmits an emotive idea—the idea that disease is a vehicle for deeper meaning. Take, for example, a popular depiction of epidemic disease with a number of readily available metaphorical interpretations: that of the zombie outbreak. (For recent interpretations of this trope see AMC’s The Walking Dead series, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, and many others.) In this context, zombies are humans who have been infected by a contagious disease, the primary symptom of which is rising from the dead with a hunger for human flesh or brains. Each zombie victim becomes a zombie, who then creates more zombies in a pyramid-scheme of death. The disease is obviously part of the horror of zombies, but they also serve as a clear metaphor for social issues within and outside their respective sci-fi universes. For example, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), survivors of a zombie outbreak take refuge in a shopping mall, a setting which places the zombies’ need for excessive consumption of human flesh in juxtaposition with the excesses of late capitalism.

disease3The living dead ravage the Monroeville Mall in George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here the metaphorical tenor is the system of consumerism typified by the U.S. shopping mall and the vehicle is the glowering zombie horde entrapping the survivors. The metaphorical interpretation I propose here asks us to consider how zombies relate to capitalism, and in doing so arranges several possible connections: are consumers like zombies in their mindless need for excessive goods? Does the capitalist model reward a type of economic cannibalism that, like the zombies, lacks emotional connection or sympathy? In the act of configuring the zombies in relation to their capitalist setting, different possible meanings are constructed in our minds. The metaphor of the zombie epidemic can also be understood in other registers, so tune in next week for a longer look at zombies!

The metaphor of epidemic transforms any person or group designated by society as outsiders into threatening vessels of contagion and constructs an internal logic that reinforces prejudicial and superstitious thinking. But contagion and disease have also been used as templates for resistance and reframed as opportunities to reimagine a more compassionate, empathetic, and healthy society. I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I take a close look at how epidemic diseases and their metaphors have shaped our culture and our shared imagination.

Maxwell Cassity is a PhD candidate studying 20th- and 21st-century American and world literatures with a specific focus on novels, short fiction, and the influence of minority writers on critical conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Although Mr. Cassity’s scholarship primarily concerns the American novel, his other scholarly interests include fiction, poetry, film, and narrative games. His proposed dissertation will examine how works of fiction have approached epidemic disease and cultural understandings of illness, contagion, and virality. Finding its foundation in the concepts of biopolitics and biopower, this project seeks to investigate how race and class difference have been incorporated into the discourse of disease and how structures of power mobilize the ideology of racialized disease to reinforce social hierarchies, isolate minority populations, and justify power over life and death in 20th-century U.S. society.


“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.


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.



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, 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, 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.


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.


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.


“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.

Figure 2: Bottom left – G. Schatten, scanning electron micrograph (SEM) image of sea urchin fertilization 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.

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.

[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.


[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.



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 or fledgling blog


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.


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.


[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

[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.


[8] Breus, M.J. 2010. Housework After Sex, Not Sleep. Huffpost Healthy Living Blog.


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 or fledgling blog


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.


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 –, Jane Austen –, young Darwin –, old Darwin –, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

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 or fledgling blog


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.

[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.

[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.

& 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 and clip art from

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 or fledgling blog