“A kind of homesickness for the state of the ovum”: Sex, ageing and death in the cellular ecosystems of the fin de siècle (1870-1930)

Kazuki Yamada presented at the project’s Sex and Nature:1800-2018 in June 2019. The paper was titled ‘”A kind of homesickness for the state of the ovum”: Sex, ageing and death in the cellular ecosystems of the fin de siècle (1870-1930)’.

Abstract: In the widely-cited scientific work The Evolution of Sex (1899), biologists Patrick Geddes and John Arthur Thomson use the cellular life cycle to conclude that ‘reproduction in its origin is linked to death’. Utilising protozoan binary fission to illustrate that no trace of the original ‘mother’ cell is left when it reproductively divides, Geddes and Thomson draw on the perceived closeness of the cell to nature, its status as ‘primordial commune’, to draw an analogy between a cell’s reproductive fate and the sexual destiny of other organisms: the death of insects after the production of ova, the fatality of sex for worms, and the debilitating exhaustions of sexual indulgence in humans. For scientists like Geddes and Thomson, because life began from cells and ‘higher organisms’ are made from cells, echoes of the cellular, primordial sexual life cycle can be located in all life-forms—making it possible to unveil the essential and universal nature of sex as causatively linked with ageing and death.

 

The cell, however, was not a stable referent to a single model of understanding, and allowed other analogies of the relationship between sex and death to circulate. Zoologist Charles Manning Child, for instance, influentially read cellular ‘sexualities’ in terms of the instinctive need to replenish nuclear material, thus positing sex as a process of rejuvenation rather than senescence. In this paper, I explore the varied and often opposing ways in which the cell was used as model organism to theorise a biologically primordial relationship between sex, ageing, and death in the fin de siècle West. I analyse the ways in which the sexual life cycle of the unicellular entity was read as representative of a natural state that persisted in the cells of organisms higher up on the evolutionary ladder and manifested in their reproductive lives. In doing so, I show how cytological approaches contributed particular naturalistic understandings of the relationship between sex, ageing, and death to sexological and gerontological discourses—and offer reflections on how the cell both acquiesced to and resisted scientific theorisations on what the human sexual life cycle is and should be.

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