Sarah Richardson – Exceptional and unconformable phenomena: Maternal effects and the epistemologies of the life sciences

This talk draws on the intellectual history of maternal effects science to pose the question: What forms of scientific practice and discourse result when life scientists encounter phenomena that persistently rebuff study, control, and optimization, and which demand a high tolerance for uncertainty? The science of maternal effects posits that in addition to transmitting DNA, the maternal body influences descendants’ phenotypes in ways that may constitute a form of heredity. From the earliest days of genetics, scientists struggled to integrate apparent findings of maternal effects into the nuclear genome-centric model of heredity that grounds the modern life sciences. The vexing issues posed by ‘exceptional and unconformable’ findings of maternal effects, however, were not limited to their apparent contradiction with the central dogmas of the genetic sciences. They were also perceived as less ‘knowable’ than the privileged study objects of genetics. Observations falling into the phenomenological category of maternal effects were distinctly out of step with the epistemic styles—the modes of controlling, intervening, explaining, and theorizing—that came to signify good science in the genetic age.

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