Brevia Talks “Sex, Gender, and Evolution” with Dr. Sarah Richardson


Dr. Richardson bookDr. Sarah S. Richardson’s course History of Science 138 has an eye-catching title: “Sex, Gender, and Evolution.” But there’s more to this class than a provocative topic. Brevia sat down with Richardson to explore this course and her work as a whole. In our conversation, Richardson, who is co-appointed in the Departments of History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University, discussed gender roles within science disciplines, students’ reaction to and growth in her class, and the ways sex, gender, and evolution unfold on the Harvard campus.

How did you develop “Sex, Gender, and Evolution”?
The course came out of my own [feelings] both of rage and of curiosity about the power of popular science representations and of the supposed “evolutionary basis” of sexual stereotypes. So pop science led me to it, and then as I started reading the science, I saw that this was a perfect entrée into all sorts of issues that we discuss both in Gender Studies and in History of Science. It’s this knot that we spend the whole semester untangling. And it’s the popular dimensions of science—it’s the history of science as a gendered discipline, it’s the way gender stereotypes and assumptions can actually come to play a role in the science. And it’s about practices of reading, and interpretation, and evidence gathering, and hypothesizing in this very interesting area of research.

What do you mean when you say “gender stereotypes can come to play a role in the science”? Do you mean between scientists or in science as a field or something else?
[I mean] in the theories and hypotheses of the field. So on the first day of class, one of my handouts is an article—again, a pop science article [that is] just a way into the issues. I do not spend the entire semester discussing pop science, [for example], “Men Want Hot Women, Study Confirms.”

It’s the way in which the science almost seems to confirm popular stereotypes rather than take up the corners. …We look to science to find a confirmation of the way in which we think the world works, especially in this heated area of what we might call “sexual science.”

How was enrollment shifted throughout the years you have offered the course?
I first offered [the course] in the Spring of 2011…I think I had about forty-five [students] the first year. The next year I had…seventy-five, and it went back down to forty-five this year for mysterious reasons. It’s not a [General Education course], so I don’t get the hundreds and hundreds. It could easily be a Gen-Ed, so I have to think about that. But it’s been a nice, manageable size with passionate students who produce fabulous work.

What do you think of your students’ reactions do the class? Have you learned more from conversations after class and in office hours or from end of term evaluation revelations?
People say wonderful things on Q-guide! So I’ve gotten the nicest feedback about this course, I think because it really does speak to issues that are relevant to students’ lives and because it gives them a lot of tools to deal with this constant stream of claims branded with the imprimatur of science, but which actually require a lot of teasing apart. So you leave with a lot more facility in understanding the question at the intersection of gender, society, and science. And I feel like the students who come to this class are really looking for that in a really open minded way.

Is there equal enrollment between males and females in this course?
The numbers are not equal by any stretch. It’s been different year to year [and] I think this year [the gap] is even smaller than in previous years, the number of males relative to females. I can’t tell you exactly, but it’s concerning to me because everyone has a sex and everyone has a gender. We’ve all evolved! It’s not a course about women where it only speaks to women’s issues, but I think there’s still something going on where [Women and Gender Studies] and introductions to feminist perspectives are seen as perhaps a female issue or even a potentially hostile or, let’s say, just unwelcoming environment for men. And I actively, actively, try to confront that but it is true that it’s a challenging environment for everyone. And it is true that feminist ideas challenge certain conceptions of masculinity in ways that can be transformative for people but also sometimes at first uncomfortable. That’s one of the challenging things of teaching about these topics as well as one of the exciting [things].

Do you see this course as a reflection on gender relations at Harvard?
That, I couldn’t say. My students tell me things—I really wish there were more interaction between faculty and student life. But we’re doing our research and our teaching, and I was not a Harvard undergraduate so I don’t have that experience of what it is like. But from the experience that students have shared with me, I think that it’s incredibly diverse and heterogeneous. I don’t have the sense of some overwhelming message that “the scene is like this!”

How has the definition of sex and gender evolved throughout history? I know that’s a broad question, but I’d like you to touch on the key aspects of where we’ve come from, and where we are today?
The sex/gender distinction itself is a relatively recent one. It was really only in the 1960s that Western intellectual culture came to appreciate a distinction between sex and gender at all, meaning that maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity were previously seen as internal qualities, individual qualities that were transcendent and natural and essential in people. But we wrested apart sex and gender so that a sexed body, a male body for example, could be distinct from one’s gender identity, and then later from one’s sexuality, from one’s sexual orientation. And so these notions of sex, gender, and sexuality—their interrelation with one another, their social and biological underpinnings—this has been the site of contestation and debate for gender studies for the last fifty years.

How has evolution influenced the way we consider sex and gender?
In the most banal and ultimate sense, all aspects of human society and personality have an evolutionary history and it is true that ‘sex/gender systems,’ we call them, vary among our recent ancestors, our primate cousins, in extremely interesting ways. So we can learn from evolution about the diversity of sexual strategies and systems in the world that have adapted for various reasons—the plasticity and context specificity and contingency of all of those strategies. One of the issues explored in the course, however, is the distance between the scraps of evidence that we can have about human history and the big conclusions that we want to draw about human behavior around sex, gender, and sexuality.

So an example is: do we know who did the hunting? How do we know than it was men? Just like the question—do we assume that the cave artist was a man or a woman? What evidence would you need? We’re dealing with shards of evidence and then we’re using our powers of reasoning and inference to the best explanation, but there’s so much room in there for us to bring our own human assumptions. And therein [lie] the interesting ideological questions at the heart of this field.

 So certainly there’s an evolutionary history, but the question is: how constrained is that story? Does it, as some would have us believe, tell us that males and females have certain gender roles, have certain repertoires of behavior, and that those are indeed the natural and the right behaviors? Or does it tell us that sex and gender [contain] great multiplicity and tremendous variability that we can see across cultures and across time, that…we have a plastic repertoire with lots of potentiality for change? As you can see these are scientific questions and political questions.

What’s the biggest difference between the way sex and gender were handled/considered in the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th century and the way they’re considered today?
Sex differences have been an object of scientific research for hundreds of years, back to the natural philosophers. So how is it different? I think rather than either progressive change over time or kind of radical ruptures and shifts it is kind of a bouncing back and forth between two major ideas. One is that males and females are like different species—[that] they are extremely different, at all levels, down to the cellular level and that they have basically different or even oppositional chemistries. [The other is the] notion that males and females are very similar except for their reproductive organs. So that in old anatomy textbooks and even today sometimes you would represent a human body by showing a male body for all parts except for a kind of cross-sectioned pregnant abdomen to show the female reproductive parts.

So these two traditions have vied with each other. What has changed over the last century or so, in part aided by insights from evolutionary biology, is that there is a less derogatory notion of the female body relative to the male body. The female body used to be conceived as an underdeveloped male, its development [as] passive…It was considered just less than, in all ways, males. A prominent subject of research was females’ greater nervousness, greater emotionality, lesser intelligence, and now I think, when in those fields [there’s] emphasized difference. It’s not so much about ranking, hierarchically, one sex over the other. There isn’t this debate about whether women are full human beings.

What have you learned from your students through the conversations you’ve had in this course?
I have had several students who have read the readings in the course along with their mothers, who are also passionately interested in these subjects…it’s just so striking to me how students are integrating this into their lives. I also do a very difficult lecture on evolutionary theories of rape, and that lecture brings out a lot. We try to have a really open conversation about these theories, we try to understand them, but then also talk about the wider context in which they exist. This is challenging in 50 minutes. The second time I did this lecture I decided we needed to have counselors from the [Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response] there and in the sections. It is a continued challenge for me to do that lecture right but I feel passionately that we have to have it. So I have felt the importance of issues of sexual assault in undergraduate lives through this course.

Have you found that Harvard’s attitudes towards the topics of your course have changed since you’ve been at Harvard? Do you believe your course has had an impact on the way sex and gender have evolved at Harvard?
I only arrived in 2010. So I’ve only been here four years…. I do hear from other professors that students from my class bring up an issue, raise a question, and I think [the professors] appreciate that. I certainly appreciate what [students] bring from those classrooms. So I do think that [this course] is fueling a kind of underground conversation, and my favorite thing is that I have a huge number of science concentrators in my course. They bring it back, and they find it valuable—there used to be a very contested relationship between feminist analysts of science and scientists. On this campus, I think we have a changing environment around that. I think that female and feminist scientists are extremely interested in bringing a wholesome, social…political, and ethical analysis to the game. And that is very refreshing and exciting.

 After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Columbia University in 2002, Dr. Richardson went to Stanford University, where she earned both her Masters and PhD in the field of Modern Thought and Literature. She has obtained multiple grants and fellowships awarded from 2006 to the present 2014, and published a 2013 book, Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome.

Osaremen Okolo is a Brevia staff writer.  She can be reached at