Magazines of Our Times
David Herlihy. The Natural History of Medieval Women. Natural History March 1978
Cover: A miniature depicts a garden of delights in which young men and women bathe in a fountain of love. During the Middle Ages, rich urban girls often married at age twelve, earlier than their bourgeois or peasant contemporaries. Illustration from a medieval manuscript in the Biblioteca Estense, Modena. Photograph courtesy of Scala/EPA.
“Versed in reconstructing all dimensions of past human experience, many modern social historians have become especially interested in women. Partly inspired by the contemporary feminist movement (whose advocates have correctly pointed out that the history of roughly half of humanity has been systematically slighted), these historians also recognize that in the natural and social history of any society, women have unique and critical functions. They carry the new generation to term, sustain children in early life, and usually introduce the young to the society and culture of which they will be a part. Women begin the processes through which human cultures strive to achieve what their individual members cannot—indefinite life, immortality.
Few historians are willing to accept the claims of sociobiologists, who find culture already programmed in genes and who subordinate cultural history to natural history”(p.56).
The human genome has for far too long dominated the culture and science of human development. Nicholas Wade in “A Dissenting Voice as the Genome Is Sifted to Fight Disease” (New York Times September 16, 2008) cites the studies of David B. Goldstein of Duke University, a leading young population geneticist into the genetic roots of Jewish ancestry. The failure of modern genetics to account for health and disease in human populations is noted: “the effort to nail down the genetics of most common diseases is not working. “There is absolutely no question,” he said, “that for the whole hope of personalized medicine, the news has been just about as bleak as it could be.”
“After doing comprehensive studies for common diseases, we can explain only a few percent of the genetic component of most of these traits,” he said. “For schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we get almost nothing; for Type 2 diabetes, 20 variants, but they explain only 2 to 3 percent of familial clustering, and so on.”
The neglect of women in culture and for the future of our species is matched only by the overreaching emphasis on genetics to account for health, disease and behavior by the biomedical sciences. An agonizing reappraisal of the role of genes in human development and a fuller recognition of how the environment, particularly toxic environments, shapes gene structure, function and expression is long overdue. --jwp