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Fifteenth Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine

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wellcome.pngThursday 13 February 2020
4pm in Seminar Room 2, Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Professor Sarah Richardson (Harvard University)

The maternal imprint: gender, heredity and the biosocial body

The rise of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and the fetal programming hypothesis is part of a forceful reassertion, over the past decade, of wide-ranging theories of the maternal-fetal interface as a critical determinant of lifelong health and intergenerational patterns in disease distribution. Presenting a history of maternal effects science from the advent of the genetic age to today, this talk analyses three intertwined dimensions of scientific speculations about the long reach of the maternal intrauterine imprint: interest in the power of maternal effects science to disrupt genetic determinist ideas about human fate; conceptual and empirical debate over how to study such effects given their crypticity; and claims about the implications of maternal intrauterine effects for women's well-being and autonomy. In each historical period, scientists' views about what can be empirically studied, and indeed known, about human maternal effects are entangled with cultural beliefs about women's and men's reproductive responsibilities and shaped by scientists' politically and historically situated convictions about the relative importance of genes or social environment to life outcomes.

There will be tea before the lecture, at 3.30pm in Seminar Room 1, and a drinks reception afterwards in Seminar Room 1.

Workshop led by Sarah Richardson

Cryptic effects at a distance: constructing causal claims in fetal epigenetic programming research

Thursday 13 February 2020
11.30am in Seminar Room 1 – all welcome

This paper offers a critical analysis of three touchstone research streams linking epigenetic markers with prenatal exposures and later life health in human populations: studies from 2008 to 2018 of individuals gestated during the Dutch Famine; research on individuals prenatally exposed to a 1998 ice storm in Quebec; and studies of the offspring of Jewish Holocaust survivors. In human studies, maternal intrauterine effects are what I call cryptic: they are small in effect size, vary depending on ecosocial context, and occur at a great temporal distance from the initial exposure. The fetal epigenetic programming hypothesis functions as a narrative glue that coheres disparate cryptic findings into plausible causal stories. Through close analysis of these research streams, I examine precisely what inferences scientists believe epigenetic studies can support, and how, in practice, scientists construct causal claims in fetal epigenetic programming research, despite the crypticity of their findings.

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