The Riddle of Sex: Biological Theories of Sexual Difference in the Early Twentieth-Century [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 44 (3):505 - 546 (2011)

At the turn of the twentieth century, biologists such as Oscar Riddle, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Frank Lillie, and Richard Goldschmidt all puzzled over the question of sexual difference, the distinction between male and female. They all offered competing explanations for the biological cause of this difference, and engaged in a fierce debate over the primacy of their respective theories. Riddle propounded a metabolic theory of sex dating from the late-nineteenth century suggesting that metabolism lay at the heart of sexual difference. Thomas Hunt Morgan insisted on the priority of chromosomes, Frank Lillie emphasized the importance of hormones, while Richard Goldschmidt supported a mixed model involving both chromosomes and hormones. In this paper, I will illustrate how the older metabolic theory of sex was displaced when those who argued for the relatively newer theories of chromosomes and hormones gradually formed an alliance that accommodated each other and excluded the metabolic theory of sex. By doing so, proponents of chromosomes and hormones established their authority over the question of sexual difference as they laid the foundations for the new disciplines of genetics and endocrinology. Their debate raised urgent questions about what constituted sexual difference, and how scientists envisioned the plasticity and controllability of this difference. These theories also had immediate political and cultural consequences at the turn of the twentieth century, especially for the eugenic and feminist movements, both of which were heavily invested in knowledge of sex and its determination, ascertainment, and command
Keywords Oscar Riddle  sex determination  genetics  metabolic theory  hormones  chromosomes  sexual difference  feminism  gender
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

Our Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 38,928
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

Richard Goldschmidt's "Heresies" and the Evolutionary Synthesis.Michael R. Dietrich - 1995 - Journal of the History of Biology 28 (3):431-461.
The Embryological Origins of the Gene Theory.Scott F. Gilbert - 1978 - Journal of the History of Biology 11 (2):307-351.

View all 29 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

The Demand for Pregnancy Testing: The Aschheim–Zondek Reaction, Diagnostic Versatility, and Laboratory Services in 1930s Britain.Jesse Olszynko-Gryn - 2014 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47:233-247.
The Human Autonomous Karyotype and the Origins of Prenatal Testing: Children, Pregnant Women and Early Down's Syndrome Cytogenetics, Madrid 1962–1975.María Jesús Santesmases - 2014 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47:142-153.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Sex Hormones and Sexual Desire.James Giles - 2008 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 38 (1):45–66.
Seksualiteit en subjectiviteit.R. Bernet - 1988 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 50 (2):231 - 247.
Aristotelian Dunamis and Sexual Difference.Emanuela Bianchi - 2007 - Philosophy Today 51 (Supplement):89-97.
Il femminismo scomodo di una "Political Theorist".Paola Rudan - 2012 - Scienza and Politica. Per Una Storia Delle Dottrine 24 (46).


Added to PP index

Total views
23 ( #315,748 of 2,319,182 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
4 ( #330,942 of 2,319,182 )

How can I increase my downloads?

Monthly downloads

My notes

Sign in to use this feature