This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

The Hive Recap: Mingling Its Own Nature With It

Some Reflections on the Anatomization of Women’s Bodies
By Cosima Herter, Series Science Consultant

The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.
Novum Organum, Aph. XLI

Charles Darwin wrote that his interest in the development of emotional expression commenced in 1838, when he was just 29 years old. [1] On a warm spring day, he rode to the zoo, and there he met Jenny, the orangutan. It was the first time he’d seen an ape, and he was profoundly affected by how curiously similar her emotional countenance was to humans. There she was, he described in a letter to his sister, “in great perfection. [And when] the keeper showed her an apple, but would not give it to her, … she threw herself on her back, kicked and cried, precisely like a naughty child.” She grew sulky, and threw fits of passionate exasperation, but when the keeper promised her to give her the apple if she would only stop bawling and behave he observed that Jenny seemed to have “understood every word of this.” She calmed and composed herself, and finally succeeded in acquiring the apple, which she ate with great content and satisfaction.[2]

Darwin was interested in the expression of emotions as an evolutionary development that revealed continuities between humans and other animals, and he presented his exploration of these ideas in his later works, The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal (1872). The same year he met Jenny, we find him contemplating consciousness and individuality in one of his private journals: “Reflective Consciousness is a curious problem,” [3] he wrote, and mused that through our sympathy with another who is suffering, in particular, we might find some key to our own individuality. Observing the apes observing themselves gave Darwin some clues about the development of subjectivity in humans, but he did not believe that cognitive capacity develops in equal measure for all bodies. Indeed, he believed it would be inappropriate to argue that males and females of a species could attain comparable cognitive sophistication. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes,” he wrote in the Descent of Man, “is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.” [4] Despite evolutionary continuums amongst species, there still remained glaring discontinuities amongst males and females.

The same century that Darwin was contemplating physical and psychic continuities between humans and other animals, nineteenth century novelists were self-consciously mining contemporary controversies emerging in the life sciences for literary inspiration – not least were the controversies regarding biological differences amongst the sexes. Anxieties about the effects of science and medical innovations on human identity, through the lens of the body in particular, had a powerfully emotional place in Victorian narratives. Evolutionary debates, biomedical experimentation, and, especially, vivisection held significant sway in the public imagination. Macabre depictions of the crazed scientist’s desire to play God, to create and control life, and exert power over the fragile human soul, often took shape in the form of bodies both torn open and sewn together. These portrayals of mad scientists were not entirely unfounded; biology, as a newly burgeoning professional discipline, was intimately wed with politics, especially insofar as female (and racialized) bodies were concerned.

Many feminist historians of science have documented how evolutionary science was highly gendered. Historian Evelleen Richards noted that the Darwinian “reconstruction of human evolution is pervaded by Victorian racial and sexual stereotypes and assumptions of the inevitability and rightness of the sexual division of labor. By asserting the instinctively maternal and inherently modest traits of the human female and the male’s innate aggressive and competitive characteristics, Darwin provided naturalistic corroboration of woman’s narrow domestic role and contemporary social inequalities.” She goes on to say, “there was scarcely an evolutionist who did not take up and pronounce upon the woman question;” indeed, she argued, “anthropologists, psychologists, and gynecologists [forged] a formidable body of biological determinist theory that purported to show that women were inherently different from men in their anatomy, physiology, temperament, and intellect – that women, like the ‘lower’ races, could never expect to match the intellectual or cultural achievements of men or obtain an equal share of power and authority.” [5] Long enduring stereotypes of women as less developed analogues of men found scientific rationalization in the evolutionary theories of the day. Jenny the orangutan wasn’t simply a model by which Darwin contemplated similarities amongst species, but a wider symbol of distorted visions of so-called natural inequalities amongst humans themselves.

19th century anti-vivisectionist movements offer an interesting historical window into the fears held by women who were framed as ‘naturally’ unable to achieve the same degree of psychic development as men, and as such were less socially valued. Anti-vivisectionists were predominantly women, and they were especially horrified by the violent anatomization of animal bodies on the physiologist’s table, not least because, as Jon Turney observed, “their experience of medical practice, and their broader awareness of sexual subordination, formed an important subtext to the public debate about animal experimentation.” [6] Animal vivisection posed a threat to women’s bodies insofar as “the vivisected animal stood for the vivisected woman: the woman strapped to the gynecologist’s table,” [7] the woman brutally penetrated by the “male dominated biomedical project.”

The most famous pioneer of vivisection was, of course, the French physiologist, Claude Bernard. Bernard was infamous for his view that to be a true man of science one must cultivate the most hard-boiled, ‘objective’ approach to physiological experimentation; one must ignore the suffering and the pain of his subject, and steel himself against whatever misery he might cause in the service of the greater goal to elevate medicine from a so-called ‘art’ to the status of a full-blown ‘science.’ This attitude is well worth quoting in full:

A physiologist is no ordinary man, he is a man of science, absorbed by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that flows, he sees only his idea and perceives only organism concealing problems which he intends to solve. Similarly again, no surgeon is stopped by the most moving cries and sobs, because he sees only his idea and the purpose of his operation. Similarly again, no anatomist feels himself in a horrible slaughter house; under the influence of a scientific idea, he delightedly follows a nervous filament through stinking livid flesh, which to any other man would be an object of disgust and horror. [8]

When Cosima is confronted with the suffering and death of Jennifer Fitzsimmons, she is also confronted with her own. While Cosima’s suffering is uniquely hers, she is forced to be simultaneously objective – awkwardly holding Jennifer’s entrails during the autopsy – and subjectively absorbed by the body splayed out in front of her. This is her biology, this is her suffering, and this is the crucible of her hope. It is also the locus of the sisters’ collective hope for both understanding and saving themselves, and ultimately recovering some of the agency they’ve been denied by having been created as experimental subjects. Her autopsy isn’t simply an exploration into the disease that ails them, it is also the medium through which each of the clones’ narratives is obliquely refracted. Her body contains clues to their past and their future as well. The dismembering of the clone’s body serves a mirror by which the history of women’s anatomized bodies, more generally, is painfully reflected. Neither Cosima, nor any of these women, can escape the vision of the medicalized female anatomy that has been preserved through the distorted lens of historic expectations and perverse selfishness of male-dominated science and medicine. And, only by perpetrating the medical violence done to women’s bodies can Cosima both recover her own subjectivity both as an individual and a woman, and offer some sense of a hopeful new future for them all.

[1.]Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal. John Murray: London, 1872, p. 19.

[2.]Darwin, C.R. to Darwin, S.E., 1 April 1838, Darwin Correspondence Database,

[3.] Darwin, C. R. Notebook M : [Metaphysics on morals and speculations on expression (1838)]. CUL-DAR125.- Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker, ed. Paul Barrett. (Darwin Online,, p.116.

[4.]Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd editions. John Murray: London, [1871] 1874, p. 564.

[5.]Richards, Evelleen. “Redrawing the Boundaries: Darwinian Science and Victorian Women Intellectuals,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman, University of Chicago Press, 1997, p. 121.

[6.]Turney, Jon. Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. Yale University Press, 1998, p. 53.

[7.]Lansbury, Coral. The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, quoted in Turney, p. 53.

[8.]Bernard, Claude. An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. (1865; English trans. 1927) Dover: New York, 1957, p. 103.

NEXT: Wet Lab & Library

This story has multiple pages:

Read More