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- Institute for Comparative Literature
- The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
- Health and Medical Humanities
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The idea that a woman may leave a biological trace on her gestating offspring has long been a commonplace folk intuition and a matter of scientific intrigue, but the form of that idea has changed dramatically over time. Beginning with the advent of modern genetics at the turn of the twentieth century, biomedical scientists dismissed any notion that a mother—except in cases of extreme deprivation or injury—could alter her offspring’s traits. Consensus asserted that a child’s fate was set by a combination of its genes and post-birth upbringing.
Over the last fifty years, however, this consensus was dismantled, and today, research on the intrauterine environment and its effects on the fetus is emerging as a robust program of study in medicine, public health, psychology, evolutionary biology, and genomics. Collectively, these sciences argue that a woman’s experiences, behaviors, and physiology can have life-altering effects on offspring development.
Tracing a genealogy of ideas about heredity and maternal-fetal effects, this book offers a critical analysis of conceptual and ethical issues—in particular, the staggering implications for maternal well-being and reproductive autonomy—provoked by the striking rise of epigenetics and fetal origins science in postgenomic biology today.
About the Author
Sarah S. Richardson is Professor of the History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. A historian and philosopher of science, Richardson is a leading scholar of gender and science whose work argues for conceptual rigor and social responsibility in scientific research on sex, gender, sexuality, and reproduction. She directs the Harvard GenderSci Lab, a collaborative, interdisciplinary research lab dedicated to generating concepts, methods, and theories for biomedical research on sex and gender. Richardson serves on the Standing Committees for Degrees in Social Studies and for the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard.
About the Respondents
Clare McCormack recently concluded a postdoctoral fellowship as a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University and has now joined the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (DCAP) at New York University (NYU) Langone as a Senior Scientist. Her multidisciplinary research is focused on intergenerational transmission of adversity, as well as the psychological, neurobiological, and social processes that are critical for examining maternal-child wellbeing in the perinatal period.
Alexis Walker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics in Columbia's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She completed her PhD in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, and her research investigates financial interests in biomedicine.
About the Moderator
Arden Hegele is a Lecturer in the Discipline of English and Comparative Literature and an affiliated faculty member with Medical Humanities (Institute of Comparative Literature and Society) and Medical Humanities and Ethics (Columbia University Medical Center). She is interested in the intersection of medical knowledge with formalist and historicist literary approaches. Her research in Romanticism has been published in core journals, such as European Romantic Review, Romanticism, The Byron Journal, and Keats-Shelley Journal, and she has also published in Partial Answers, Gender and Education, and Persuasions. She was an SOF/Heyman Fellow from 2016-2019.
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