“Legends of the Sperm” by Scott Gilbert (Swarthmore College)
Date: 3:00pm - 4:25pm PDT April 3, 2014 Location: Gregg Pavilion
Accounts of fertilization are narratives of origins. Since the discovery of fertilization in the 1870s, these narratives have often reflected the idea that the sperm and egg are the respective microscopic embodiments of that which is masculine and that which is feminine. The scientific discoveries of the interactions between the sperm and egg often become enmeshed in socially constructed stories, wherein the sperm and egg becoming surrogates for men and women. This has skewed the way that we think about our bodily origins, emphasizing differences between the gametes and focusing on masculine agency. Recently, fertilization narratives have begun to include the idea of DNA as the secular analogue of soul. The notion that our DNA is our essence and the basis of our behaviors is delivered to us daily by advertisements, news reports, and visual culture. These ideas play important, but often unacknowledged, roles in the abortion and stem cell debates. Analyzing fertilization stories allows us to propose a critical realism wherein being socially constructed does not necessarily mean being wrong and where controls are needed to rein in social myths as well as alternative scientific explanations.