Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth in Reproductive Biology

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Sperm and ovum fusing

Humans develop particular truths and perspectives due to their upbringing in a certain time and society. These implicit biases can affect fields that we consider far removed from culture. Our case study first surfaced when Emily Martin analysed reproductive biology descriptions using an anthropological approach. She showed that the scientific truth (objective and positive)[1] differed from the cultural truth (subjective and normative)[2] . Textbooks describe male gametes as active whereas female gametes are passive, but scientifically there is a mutual participation of both sex cells[3]. This chapter explores the intertwining of culture with science in education and how the interdisciplinary issue of truth is subconsciously manipulated to fit culturally determined norms into scientific research. Our chapter will consider this problem through different disciplinary lenses, discuss the implications when science is impacted by culture, and explore how an interdisciplinary approach can improve the field of biology.


History[edit]

A sculpture of Aristotle(384BC-322BC), a Greek philosopher and biologist, who had a profound influence on Western culture.

Origin[edit]

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher and biologist, founded the modern understanding of fertilisation[4]. He observed that menstruation came to a halt when a woman became pregnant and that a woman only became pregnant once sexual intercourse had taken place. Aristotle reasoned that there must be an 'active agent'[5] to initiate the process and a substance to be acted on. He believed 'The father'... makes a living creature by the power [...] in the semen...' '[6], therefore the woman's role is passive and the man's role is active. The theory is based on logic and evidence; however it is likely to have been moulded by Aristotle's social environment.[7]

Development[edit]

Decades after Aristotle, famous philosophers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)[8] still supported his theory. Even as science progressed, the original narrative did not change extensively. By 1890, it was accepted that the fusion of male and female gametes caused fertilization, but the process was still described with gender-biased language. From the assumption that adult males have a 'shorter life span [and] greater activity'[9] in contrast to females who are 'more passive, vegetative, and conservative'[10], Sir Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thomson postulated that catabolism (release of energy[11]) resulted in the birth of a male while anabolism (storage of energy[12]) resulted in a female. This demonstrates the gender-bias that persisted throughout history that influenced the misconstrued truth of reproductive biology.[13]

Biology[edit]

Fertilisation is the fusion of two unique haploid gametes, the egg and the sperm, into a diploid zygote which then undergoes embryogenesis. When the egg and sperm bind, the acrosome and cortical reactions take place, which dissolve the zona pellucida of the egg, enabling a single sperm to be taken inside. Both gametes are active participants in reproduction.[14]

Although in education the egg is often portrayed as 'a dormant bride,'[15] waiting for the sperm to complete a 'perilous journey'[16] to fertilise it, this differs from the scientific truth.[17] The sperm does not 'swim' to the egg, in fact, 'the forward thrust of sperm is extremely weak'.[18] It is transported by semen and cervical mucus, which additionally 'protects, nurtures, and supports sperm' keeping it in good condition in the uterus.[19] When the egg and sperm bind, both release enzymes enabling the sperm to be taken into the ovum.

Fertilisation is therefore a mutually active, interdependent process.[20] Nevertheless, a recent article revising the language describing it in gynaecology textbooks, found that 'of the 38 times textbooks mentioned the egg, 63.2% were in passive terms, as in ‘released’ or ‘fertilized’', while '67% of sperm occurrences were active.'[21] Furthermore, there was limited mention of the importance of the woman’s cervix and cervical mucus: 84.7% 'described the cervix passively—as a location, destination, object', while only 4.8% 'associated cervical mucus with sperm transport or ascent'.[22] On the other hand, semen was described as 'universally potent and fertile'.[23]

The repetition of this subtle but indoctrinating phrasing, which could easily be avoided, induces a psychological pattern perceiving the female as weak and dependent on the male. Gender-bias is thus reinforced through the anthropomorphizing of sperm (implying an active, 'conscious mission')[24]) and the omission of the vital role of female reproductive organs (suggesting that women are passive and less important).

Arts and Culture[edit]

Art expressing fertilisation can shed light on the extent of the issue by exposing how the perceived truth is currently omnipresent and reinforced in society. Since art is a medium of expression that can have a profound influence, it can also help to reject the cultural truth and promote a more objective one.

The sperm and ovum during fertilisation: Visual media is also important. Here the sperm is enlarged for educational purposes, but it creates a false illusion of its size and strength in comparison to the egg. The sperm's head furthermore is portrayed as pointy and sharp, ready for the 'penetration' into the egg.

Literature[edit]

In some informative children's books, the presentation of fertilisation sows the early seeds of gender-biased views. Research conducted in mainland China exposes the socio-culturally influenced perspective on fertilisation [25]. The books personify sperms as boys/tadpoles, in a running/swimming competition with the winner ‘inside a bubble full of flowers’.[26] Such metaphors denote the male competition over the ‘prize' of women, reflecting China’s own cultural atmosphere.

Films[edit]

In Look Who's Talking, the opening credits carry out a visual portrayal of fertilisation that promote sperm superiority, such as how cries of "yeehaw!" and "jackpot!" are exclaimed from the sperms once the egg is sighted. The 'penetration' into the egg is done after a display of strength and perseverance. [27]

Woody Allen presents a satirical perspective on sex in his film Everything you always wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask). The sperm is personified through hyperbole as men with soldier-like uniforms doing physical work whilst the egg is merely a tool. [28] However, the weakness of the sperm is demonstrated through the main character’s fear of entering the uterus. The deconstruction of narratives through pop culture therefore could be a possible solution to gender-narratives in biology.

Education[edit]

In education, one could argue that the metaphorical language (e.g. 'dormant bride') is a necessary mechanism of simplifying information for a younger and broader audience. Recently, more and more students have been required to take sex education, with it being mandatory in most of the EU and more countries predicted to follow [29]. The AP College Board reported that 'there is a widespread belief in education that it is impossible to expand access while maintaining high performance'[30]. Educators extend this argument, claiming that it is unrealistic to expect science textbooks written for adolescents 'to provide a second-wave feminist critique' of education[31]. Therefore, the metaphors and language in fertilization excerpts could be a necessary reduction to accommodate the increasing number of students. However, these arguments are only relevant to high school, and there are still issues with university-level textbooks having sexist narratives[20].

Consequences

The use of gender-biased language in science and sex education has been believed to reinforce negative stereotypes and have a delirious effect on both genders[20] and the economy. There is a danger that by 'presenting science in a gendered way', females will be 'deterred from[…] considering a[…] career in science'[20]. In an economic perspective, women being discouraged from technology-related fields cause a loss of human capital due to failure to utilize 50% of the population[32]. This is reflected in real life with recent reports demonstrating 'the better a tech company's gender diversity, the greater its returns'[33].

Conclusion[edit]

Science is perceived as a field that builds truth through objective methodologies, where 'textbooks serve as authoritative sources of knowledge'[34], therefore it is difficult to find and challenge cultural biases located within the discipline. However, by looking at the issue through an interdisciplinary lens, we can 'recognize areas where gender bias has informed how we think as biologists.'[13] When taking this bias into consideration, fresh perspectives begin to emerge in science, constructing a new narrative that is closer to the objective truth.

References[edit]

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