The Racial Plasticity of Gender and the Child
In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century life sciences, sex underwent two key transformations: sex became synonymous with a concept of biological plasticity that made it an alterable morphology, and, through experiments by largely eugenic scientists, it was racialized as a phenotype. The framing of sex through racial plasticity occurred in a broader scientific milieu in Europe and the United States that defined living organisms, both human and nonhuman, as naturally “bisexual,” a mix of masculine and feminine forms. First operationalized through experiments in changing the sex and phenotype of animals, this racial plasticity was adapted for altering the human body by the emergent field of endocrinology between the two world wars. Yet if plasticity named the inherent indeterminacy of sex as a biological form, scientists also began to wonder if that meant it might not be inclined to take on binary form, at least in certain cases. On the one hand, defining sex in the terms of racial plasticity granted unprecedented technical access to altering living morphology. On the other hand, the material reach afforded by plasticity held open the door to biological resistance to the imposition of rigid forms, such as mutually exclusive masculinity and femininity. Since plasticity is a quality—a capacity to generate and receive imprints of form—and not a visibly discrete “part” of the body, endocrinology called upon the figure of the developing child to serve as a stabilizing metaphor. As a metaphor for an invisible but material plasticity, the child organized sex and growth along parallel phylogenetic and ontogenetic scales. Yet this metaphor also preserved and kept alive the tension between indeterminacy and form at the core of sex. As a result, the sex binary moved closer to conceptual collapse the more it became scientifically alterable.
By returning to the era that precedes the emergence of the medical category “transsexuality,” what Henry Rubin calls the “pre-history of experimental endocrinology,” we encounter “sex” as a wide-open field of biological form with highly racialized significance in the heyday of eugenic science. Early twentieth-century endocrinology contextualized how the child’s body became a central living laboratory for trans medicine over the rest of the twentieth century, while at the same time actual children were rendered passive and invisible within the closure of its discourse. This chapter, then, is not about trans children directly but rather works to open up the key concept of plasticity that shaped the trans twentieth century. This chapter is not quite, for that matter, about many actual children at all, but more so about the strangeness of “the child” as a figurative form of life. One of the historical problems endemic to Western childhood is that an abstract concept of “the child” has profoundly overlaid—sometimes, overdetermined—the lives of actual children. The tension between abstraction and material life is, precisely, incorporated into the child as a strangely living figure, or what Claudia Castañeda aptly calls a “figuration.” One of the key historical effects of this figuration is that it allows for the child to serve as a metaphorical representation of other concepts, often ones that are too inhuman to stand on their own—including plasticity.
By calling attention to how scientific cultivation of the racial plasticity of sex relies on a metaphor, I do not mean to suggest that it is for that reason unreal or some kind of ruse. On the contrary, as we will see, it is precisely the partial misfit between plasticity and the child greased by the mechanics of metaphor that was so productive for medical science over the ensuing century. Metaphor is, after all, a well-established explanatory technique in the sciences. The rhetoric of science has been investigated through the metaphors that govern its composition, while the techniques of scientific research and theoretical inquiry have been read in terms of the metaphorical relationships between models and the phenomena under investigation. The history and philosophy of science have also paid close attention to the ways in which metaphor, among many literary, poetic, and aesthetic commitments, explains the emergence of European science from a specific Romantic tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still, in those accounts metaphor tells us much more about language and the practice of science than about the objects, animals, and silenced bodies subjugated through scientific practice. The point is to reassess not only the position of the scientific observer but also the object of observation and scientific discourse. As Gillian Beer observes in Darwin’s Plots, a focus on metaphor is not an argument that scientific discourse is a set of literal fictions. In the case of Darwin, Beer argues that it was precisely his awareness, conscious or otherwise, of his use of metaphor in his writing that allowed him to generate a theory of evolution through natural selection that, read closely, continues to exceed totalization.
Donna Haraway also investigates the central function of metaphor in biology in Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields, her first book. The premise is perhaps deceptively simple: science is not a transcendently objective description of the real world, nor should it be. Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Mary Hesse’s Models and Analogies in Science, Haraway undertakes an analysis of metaphor that is the launch point for a postpositivist study of science. For Haraway, a “metaphor is generally related to a sense object—such as a machine, crystal, or organism. A metaphor is an image that gives concrete coherence to even highly abstract thought” (9 n., emphasis added). In other words, metaphors in science operate much in the same way as metaphors in literature, but with rather distinct effects given the putative purchase of science on real-world objects—or, in the case of biology, on living organisms. Metaphor is also a crucial way for humanists to access the practice of science, rather than only the critique of its epistemological basis, as metaphor illuminates the active role of language and form in the production of scientific knowledge and their entanglement with the material world being described or observed—they are mutually informing. Biological metaphor, Haraway explains, “gives boundaries to worlds and helps scientists using real language to push against those bounds” (10). In so doing, it ensures that language is neither outside those worlds nor an imposition on or misrepresentation of them. Although metaphor imports ostensibly nonscientific or nonobjective meanings that shape the intelligibility of scientific data (10) and for that reason is of concern to critiques of biology, this originary contamination is not itself a problem to be overcome. In offering an account of production in the history or the life sciences, the analysis of shifting metaphors opens up its discourses, data, and historical effects to a kind of dynamic analysis that includes critique, contestation, and the potential for creative mutation and difference.
The point Haraway raises is that a better metaphor can make an epistemological and political difference. In the production of situated knowledges, struggle over operative metaphors is a method for producing responsible, relational perspectives that emphasize the entanglement of the so-called object of a scientific discourse with the scientific observer. An exclusively cultural analysis, which would regard metaphor as contamination or a by-product of ideology, avoids responsibility to objects and beings, such as children, who have been made into poorly fitted metaphors. Metaphor remains a vital avenue for the production of nonteleological, nonreductionist branches of biology and science as much as it has been the historical vehicle of its dominant, objectivizing forms. Rather than opposing metaphors entirely, the task is to imagine different ones that would reshape the practice of science and the production of biological knowledge from the situated perspective of the long-presumed passive object.
If biological metaphors are images or ideas that guide the life sciences without corresponding to an actual object, we could understand almost any abstraction of human or nonhuman life through this framework. Sex and gender, certainly, could be considered rather broad metaphors for human form. More precisely, as phenotypes that pretend to derive themselves straightforwardly from an imagined genotype, they are metaphors that go too far in relation to biological life, overdetermining it with poorly fitted meaning. The endocrine system, as an anatomical abstraction, would also qualify well as metaphorical. When it was first conceived in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, the endocrine system was proposed as a way of differentiating certain bodily functions from the popular nervous models of the era. The supposition that “chemical messengers” secreted by organs traveled the blood system, integrating and coordinating disparate parts of the body, was founded on an abstract image of the circulatory system and accessory glands.
This chapter turns to two related but far less obvious metaphors, ones that have no correspondence to the visual anatomy of sex. They are instead implicit or latent metaphors for life as it becomes human: animality and child development. Since the plasticity of living organisms cannot be isolated as a discrete physiological object, endocrinologists relied on metaphors from the inhuman constituents of the human to animate its coherence as an endocrine system that could be partially manipulated. Given that medical science has been able to leverage that metaphorically animal or childish plasticity to induce real changes in the phenotypic form of the human body, it matters quite little whether plasticity “really exists” somewhere in the flesh. Or, to put it differently, the impossibility of disarticulating actual, material plasticity from the discourse of plasticity is not a hard limit on thinking critically. Plasticity has already had real historical effects through the work of metaphor.
The child and the animal are metaphors as formal ideas and material actors, as Haraway suggests. To say that sex and gender are “metaphors” for the human comprehends the historically specific material, biological effects of those images on, in, and as the animal and child body in the lab: the chemical, technical, and affective forms of masculinity and femininity that have invested and sculpted the flesh down to the tiniest of scales. Yet biological life and the objects of research are also involved in the metaphors medical science deploys to engage with them. The “organic” names precisely that paradoxical entanglement of indeterminacy and form that a metaphor gets just right enough to do something real in the body, without ever controlling or exhausting what it can do. Animals and children were much more than abstract referents that rhetorically directed scientific and medical accounts of endocrine system (although that is, in part, what they were) in the early twentieth century. Animals predominantly but also infants and children, as we will see in the next two chapters, were the experimental objects in the laboratories and clinics of endocrinologists during the first half of the twentieth century. Theirs was the flesh through which the endocrine system was abstracted as raw material and given new form as plastic sex. For this reason, the child and animal metaphors cannot be the vehicle of an exclusively discursive critique of the ideological basis of science and medicine but instead insist on the organic centrality of animality and childishness to sex, gender, and the forms that they keep alive.
Life’s Bisexuality in the Nineteenth Century
The emergence of a concept of biological plasticity in endocrinology and elsewhere is embedded in much larger nineteenth-century debates between mechanist and vitalist views on life. A range of emergent European and American disciplines and fields collecting under the umbrella of biology sought to investigate a set of common questions about the relations between form and genesis, inheritance and impressibility, and the individual and the species. While the mechanists retained a faith in atomism, chemistry or, later, physics to describe the basic unit of processes that made organic matter, the vitalists explored a range of explanatory concepts for the special addition or force that made the inorganic alive. Over this time period the metaphor of the organism was proposed to resolve the entrenched opposition of both camps. Meanwhile, the study of sex in anatomy, physiology, embryology, and endocrinology refined the focus to center around life’s apparent natural bisexuality, the conceptual predicate to plasticity. “Sex,” a concept broad enough to signify in this era both sexual differentiation in organisms and sexual reproduction, was made accessible to science to the degree that it was intrinsically amenable to alterations in form, a capacity verified by and rooted in its originally bisexual disposition.
The earliest figures in European endocrinology came to this consensus by way of animal experiments. Arnold Adolph Berthold’s study, in 1848 and 1849, of chickens in Germany significantly advanced the hypothesis that a unique system of internal secretions governed much of the biological life of the animal. In technique, Berthold was repeating a set of experiments on the gonads of fowl that had been undertaken countless times before, perhaps most famously in the eighteenth century by the English physician John Hunter. Berthold first “caponized” a group of cocks by surgically removing their testes, observing that they subsequently underwent a radical “femininization” in morphology and behavior, not only looking like hens but also acting like them. He also transplanted some of the removed testes back into the birds from which they were taken, but in their stomachs. Berthold’s goal was to disprove an older somatic model of sex by demonstrating that the gonads were not part of the nervous system. By severing any potential nervous connection at the moment of excision and placing the gonads in an entirely separate part of the body, Berthold sought to determine whether they were able to continue functioning by some means other than nerves. When these birds “exhibited the normal behavior of uncastrated fowls” after the testes were placed in the stomach, he argued, “it follows that no specific spermatic nerves exist.” Instead, Berthold explained, “it follows that the results in question are determined by the productive function of the testes [productive Verhältniss der Hoden], i.e., by their action on the blood stream, and then by corresponding reaction of the blood upon the entire organism.” The concept of a system of chemical communication between various “ductless glands” in the body by means of the circulatory system laid the basis for a specifically endocrine body. And for Berthold, sex, directed by the gonads, was the primary means of access to that body.
Berthold’s choice of animal subjects was not made exclusively to avoid the much more complex possibility of human experiments. Rather, endocrinology drew on centuries of informal knowledge in animal husbandry; farmers had long cultivated sex, breed, and phenotype to maximize certain characteristics over others. The notion that “sex changes” were possible by rationally manipulating the chemical output and communication of the endocrine system was well established by the end of the nineteenth century, if still based on a great deal of speculation (namely, the hormone molecule was unknown). The theory of life’s natural bisexuality and its amenability to cultivation simply jumped, by analogy, to the human species. In The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication, for instance, Charles Darwin explains matter-of-factly that “in every female all the secondary male characters, and in every male all the secondary female characters, apparently exist in a latent state, ready to be evolved under certain conditions,” citing the earlier studies in birds. Before moving on, he adds, “We see something of an analogous nature in the human species.”
The key transformation indexed by Darwin’s reference to research in birds and its applicability to human form is that the persistent latency of bisexual characteristics, which could “revert” under “certain conditions,” carried a primitivist meaning. Such latency of sexual form in humans was almost entirely metaphorical—it had never been directly observed, nor had researchers yet removed the testes or ovaries of humans in analogous experiments. If the latency to which Darwin referred had no physiological correlate in the human, then it could be imagined as a stored primitive capacity that was actually observed in “lower” animals. Hence, only under those metaphorical “certain conditions” would a sex change like the ones achieved by Berthold take place in humans. This primitivist sense of a latent bisexual animality on an evolutionary scale (phylogenesis) is important because it would soon be recoded and extended through a parallel timescale: the individual development of the child (ontogenesis). Sex would become the form that could bind evolutionary time and individual life span through a materialist concept of plasticity.
By the time of Darwin’s remarks, the natural bisexuality of life seemed poised to herald a new era for medicine and scientific research: the simultaneous transformation of the individual body and the species through the hormonal manipulation of sex. It is worth emphasizing again that “sex,” in this era, meant both sexual differentiation of the organism (its growth from one cell to maturity) and sexual reproduction. Ernest Starling, who coined the term “hormone” in 1905 and worked to introduce the new field of endocrinology to medical science in the first several decades of the twentieth century, stressed that the function of the endocrine system was precisely to integrate differentiation and reproduction. Sex, which was governed by hormones, simultaneously regulated the metabolism and the phenotypic form of the body (height, weight, bone structure, genitals, secondary sex characteristics), while ensuring the transmission of these traits to the next generation, employing the same organs for both tasks. If in its regular somatic commerce sex was originally and naturally bisexual, this suggested that sex granted access to the real manipulation of form and the transmission of that form’s heredity to future generations. As the twentieth century wore on, then, this bisexuality identified in lower animals was recoded into a general concept of biological plasticity that would direct endocrinologists toward the child.
The identification and naming of the hormone took place at the start of the twentieth century. In the course of research on the role of the pancreas in digestion, William Bayliss and Ernest Starling aimed, much as Berthold had, to disprove a reigning nervous theory of the organ. That view held that some form of nervous reflex governed each stage of the digestion of food, analogous to the secretion of saliva triggered by the presence of food into the mouth. Bayliss and Starling looked at the relation of the pancreas to the small intestine in dogs by surgically removing part of the latter during digestion, scraping off its surface, and distilling the chemicals there present. They hypothesized that some chemical agent produced in the mucous membrane, activated by the entry of stomach acid into the small intestine, was responsible for the secretions of the pancreas during digestion. When they injected the distilled solution into a dog, they found that it induced the pancreas to secrete in the absence of stomach acid. Bayliss and Starling named this speculative chemical “secretin” in 1902. Although they were unable to speak either to its molecular composition or to its actual mechanism of action on the pancreas, in their findings they speculate on the possibility that “there are similar mechanisms in relation to other secretions” throughout the animal body.
Starling, who, in the 1905 Croonian Lectures to the Royal College of Physicians of London provided an important sketch of the new field of endocrine medicine to his peers, extrapolated “secretin” into the broader category of the “hormone.” While the nervous system had dominated the medical conception of the body for some time, Starling ambitiously proposed that the hormonal body was of a more fundamental evolutionary organization. Many organisms lacked a nervous system, after all, whereas chemical communication was ubiquitous down to the unicellular level of life. Even in complex forms like humans, he suggested that the role of “chemical reflexes,” rather than nervous reflexes, had been greatly underappreciated, in spite of the continuing ignorance of the actual operations of hormones (16–17). Starling described hormones as “the chemical messengers which, speeding from cell to cell along the blood stream, may coordinate the activities and growth of different parts of the body” (16). The hormonal economy of the body is distinguished for him by two modes: the increase and decrease of specific organ activities and the growth of tissues or organs. “One cannot, however,” he cautioned, “draw a sharp line between reactions involving increased activity or dissimilation [of an organ] and those which involved increased assimilation or growth, since under physiological circumstances the latter is always the immediate sequence or accompaniment of the former” (25). The endocrine system rather incorporates a vital, if strangely mixed, degree of growth and transformation of the biological body into its quotidian operations.
While the original research into the pancreas had no obvious connection to sex, in the Croonian lectures Starling stressed its comparative importance. “The largest group of correlations between the activity of one organ and the growth of others,” he said confidently, “is formed by those widespread influences exercised by the generative organs” (26). As Darwin had earlier claimed without the model of the hormone, so too did Starling posit sex as the most intense site of the endocrine body’s intrinsic transformability. His final Croonian Lecture focused on the largely speculative but alluring and growing consensus that there exists a homology between sex and growth as hormonally regulated aspects of human form. Beginning with the long-standing experiments on the removal of the testes in birds, Starling then reviewed contemporary work that had established the ovaries as hormone-secreting organs. Research into the mammary glands and pregnancy seemed to him to promise in 1905 the most densely entangled amalgam of sexual differentiation and somatic growth, combining fetal, placental, gonadal, and possibly neurological dimensions of the endocrine system (27–33). “As is well known,” Starling pointed out, in a nod to the theory of natural bisexuality, “at birth these [mammary] glands are . . . equal in extent in both sexes” (28).
While the suggestion of a homology between bisexuality and plasticity was largely latent in Starling’s 1905 lectures because the actual mechanisms of hormonal synthesis and communication remained almost entirely speculative and based in analogies, near the end of his career, in 1923, he reflected in much stronger terms on the potential of the endocrine body to experimental medicine: “It seems almost a fairly tale that such widespread results, affecting every aspect of a man’s life, should be conditioned by the presence or absence in the body of infinitesimal quantities of a substance which by its formula does not seem to stand out from the thousands of other substances with which organic chemistry has made us familiar.” With the passage of time, his confidence in the primacy of sex in the endocrine system had only increased. Speculating that “the reproductive organs are possibly even more marvellous” than any other hormone-secreting glands, Starling sums up nicely the consensus of the life sciences of the 1920s: “The whole differentiation of sex, and the formation of secondary sexual characteristics, are determined by the circulation in the blood produced either in the germ cells themselves or, as seems more probable, in the interstitial cells. . . . Thus, it is possible by operating at an early age to transfer male into female and vice versa.” Berthold’s experimental sex change in chickens had been concretized into a fully fledged model of an endocrine body whose sex and growth were governed by the circulation of specific hormones. What’s more, as chemicals, if sex hormones could be synthesized, that economy could be directly manipulated by science and medicine, altering the sexual differentiation and reproduction of the species. To understand how, in several decades, a vague and largely metaphorical picture of “chemical messengers” could lead to confidence in the scientific changeability of sex in animals and possibly humans, we need to examine more closely the recoding of bisexuality as plasticity. Starling’s qualification of “at an early age” is key: the still vague developmental language growing in endocrinology would be made explicit by the introduction of the child as a metaphor.
From Bisexuality to Plasticity
At this early twentieth-century juncture, the metaphor of primitive animality used to explain the plasticity of sex was transformed into a much more potent metaphor of child development. Drawing from the closely related field of embryology, early twentieth-century endocrinologists wagered that the receptivity to transformation of sexed life was much higher in its juvenile stages—indeed, the embryo was probably the most plastic of all life, with that quantum of plasticity diminishing gradually during fetal life, infancy, and childhood until it was nearly gone in adulthood and old age. In doubling animality’s primitivism from a phylogenetic temporality to a second, ontogenetic temporality, developmental plasticity offered a clear, material target for medical science: intervene into the growing organism before it has finished sexual differentiation and its eventual form could be cultivated rationally.
As microscopic technology grew in refinement and cell theory began to take shape in the nineteenth century, a pointed interest had arisen in “protoplasm,” the direct conceptual predecessor to plasticity. The Czech anatomist J. E. Purkyne had coined the term in 1839 through microscopic examination of an animal embryo. In 1846, the German physiologist Hugo von Mohl, who also proposed the theory of cell division, described the “tough, slimy, granular semi-fluid” in plant cells as protoplasm, arguing it was the original material out of which the nucleus of new cells is formed. While protoplasm’s material referent was, in a literal sense, that observable liquid, speculation simultaneously arose as to its invisible action as the possible abstract force of life, a potential correspondence between cell division and organismic growth. This interest in the protoplasmic qualities of the cell and, by analogy, of living creatures composed of many cells, fed into a broader theory of the plastic materiality of biology by the turn of the twentieth century. Given how conceptually abstract and unrepresentable protoplasm was as a force (although cell division could be observed, the actual mechanism by which it took place could not), the theory of biological plasticity would find itself in need of a more compelling metaphor were it to become alterable in the lab.
While researchers in the mechanist camp of the life sciences still hoped to identify a specific chemical or physiological basis of protoplasm and to picture how it drove cell division and the growth of life forms, they were continually frustrated by its recalcitrance. The field of embryology therefore began to adopt techniques of experimental anatomy and physiology rather than merely describing biological structures, diffusing the interest in protoplasm and plasticity throughout the rest of the life sciences. In an important experiment in 1891, Hans Driesch artificially shook apart two-cell sea urchin embryos. In the dominant mechanist paradigm of the era, he expected that the two now-separated cells would grow into deformed half-organisms, for each would have been otherwise destined to grow into a specific, predetermined part of the adult sea urchin. When the two separated cells instead went on to form whole embryos, albeit about half their normal size, Driesch was forced to reconceive of the embryo as an equipotential system where each part has the material capacity to grow into a whole. In other words, a distinct field of plasticity seemed to pervade the embryo, allowing it to radically adapt to changes from its environment and to maintain a certain form, although this plasticity could not, strictly speaking, be observed under the microscope. Driesch could see only its effects.
In 1907, Ross Granville Harrison, an embryologist at Johns Hopkins University, published a paper on his success in the first culturing of live tissue without an attached body. Adapting what was known as the “hanging drop” method, Harrison removed neural tissue from a frog and was able to culture it in a liquid solution so that it grew in three dimensions. His summary of the implications of this experiment dwells on how the cultured nerve fiber “develops by the outflowing of protoplasm from the central cells”—in other words, an intrinsic plasticity is the vital engine of live tissue, coaxed by the hanging drop apparatus to grow into an incipient form out of its embryonic indeterminacy and without the body of the frog organizing it. The absence of a body in tissue culture suggested that plasticity was a fundamental quality of life at various scales, rather than a property or part of specific biological structures, like the organism or the body.
The Harrison technique went on to play a central role in a massive amount of scientific and medical research over the twentieth century: on cancer, organ regeneration, and transplants, for instance. The plasticity of living tissue, now successfully cultivated in the lab, promised to grant a new mode of access to the biological body for the life sciences. Yet as an invisible, latent force of both growth and receptivity to form, this emergent sense of plasticity still lacked coherence. Protoplasm or, as it was increasingly rendered, plasticity, needed a metaphor because, in its visual absence to researchers except in its effects it was unable to break the deadlock between mechanist and vitalists. Either the plastic quality of life was a series of chemical reactions that had yet to be observed due to inadequate scientific instruments or else plasticity was just another name for a metaphysical, vital force of life that was beyond rational influence of alteration. Neither of those options had provided much opportunity to work with and cultivate plasticity in the lab. And work by embryologists like Driesch or Granville could definitely prove neither. In this context, the child could serve as a much better metaphor for plasticity, combining cell theory with the concept of life’s natural bisexuality through the narrative drama of development. As the child study movement grew on both sides of the Atlantic alongside the development biologists of the Entwickslungmechanik school, the traffic between fields was favorable to the production of the child as a particular kind of metaphor.
Within the child study movement, G. Stanley Hall looms large not only because he established the category of “adolescence” but because of his dedicated interest in the life sciences. His 1904 foundational work Adolescence is grounded in a psychobiological and rigidly evolutionist materialism. Borrowing heavily from physiology, embryology, and endocrinology, Hall made of adolescence a critical period of plasticity, where the natural openness of children’s growing bodies and minds demanded to be cultivated for the teleological ends of his narrow and racist vision of the human species. Hall grounded the psychological and spiritual development of children and young people in a direct analogy to biological development, so that the psychic and somatic unfolded as part of the same material process. Adolescence also reflects the consolidation of a strict teleology of child development. Growth was coded as unidirectional and parallel at the individual and species levels, binding childhood to a highly charged evolutionary concept of race as inheritable phenotype. The discourse of development registered as a problem of timing, in the multiple senses of pacing, stages, and thresholds after which plasticity waned and could no longer be manipulated. In Hall’s ardently recapitulationist view, children and adolescents were “neo-atavistic,” much like ancient human ancestors in form and structure but ready to grow to “higher” ends in a rapid period with the right environmental input. Childhood and adolescence were henceforth incarnations of a temporary plasticity subject to natural and artificial variation that could produce correspondingly normal or abnormal growth. Yet even as he offered this plasticity as an object to be governed by scientific technique, Hall had to concede a certain agency to its unpredictability. “Some linger long in the childish stage and advance late or slowly,” as Hall put it, “while others push on with a sudden outburst of impulsion to early maturity” (xiii). Without the intervention of science, medicine, and education, that plastic indeterminacy could not be counted upon to achieve the specific (and fundamentally racist) form of the human that Hall advocated. Biology alone was not enough; it had to be cultivated. At the same time, it might resist or thwart cultivation.
Hall defined adolescence precisely as “the age of modification and plasticity” (128), and his characteristic overconfidence in the material basis of plasticity indexed its widespread acceptance at the turn of the century:
For biology the plasmata in general and the protoplasms in particular, under many names and aspects, occupy a position of ever-increasing interest and preeminence. Unlike ether, the still more hypothetical background of all physical existence, protoplasm is a tangible reality accessible to many and ever more subtle methods of study, and . . . its all-dominant impulse is to progressive self-expression. It is the creator of the ascending series of types and species of plants and animal, which become its habits of self-formulation. . . . It unites successive generations into an unbroken continuum, so that they bud, the later from the earlier, each ontological line organizing a soma of gradually lessening vitality doomed to death, while it remains immortal in the phylum. (411)
This account of the protoplasmic élan of life from the cell upward to the species verges on an imaginative vitalism. More important is that Hall identified the plasticity of life as its vector of material growth, one that is temporarily impressible during childhood. Hall saw the science of child study as leading directly to the practice of cultivating children and adolescents into normative adults, for nature alone was insufficient to the project of evolution. “Even if it be prematurely,” he explained in the case of schooling the growing child, “he must be subjected to special disciplines and be apprenticed to the higher qualities of adulthood, for he is not only a product of nature, but a candidate for a highly developed humanity” (xii). Such “apprenticeship” could be straightforwardly educational, but even that was based for Hall in a biological metaphor for the apprenticeship of natural plasticity, the directed cultivation of an ideal, mature form or phenotype for the human—for Hall, not surprisingly a white, binary, male body.
Timing asserted itself as the most important problem here because plasticity was neither permanent nor constant. “Never again” after the ages of eight to twelve, Hall felt, “will there be such susceptibility to drill and discipline, such plasticity to habituation, or such ready adjustment to new conditions” (xii). Disease was recoded in this developmental sense as a pathology of precocity, arrest, or belatedness, all indigenous to childhood: “Some disorders of arrest and defect as well as of excessive unfoldment in some function, part, or organ may now, after long study and controversy, be said to be established as peculiar to this period” (xiv). Moreover, and quite importantly, nature alone could not ensure the normal development of children, for corrupt or abnormal growth was stored and transmitted to the next generation by sexual reproduction. “The momentum of heredity often seems insufficient to enable the child to achieve this great revolution and come to complete maturity,” Hall opines, and “there is not only arrest, but perversion, at every stage, and hoodlumism, juvenile crime, and secret vice” (xiv). The slip from “arrest” in developmental progress to “perversion” and “secret vice” is hardly incidental, for sexual differentiation was of uniquely intense concern to Hall, who borrowed from endocrinology the view that sex housed the primary plasticity of life during development and its method of transmission to future generations through reproduction. For that reason, sex was at once the most robustly powerful and fragile dimension of the growing child’s body. In matters of sexual development, Hall pronounced, “life reaches its maximal intensity” (412).
Hall’s concept of development places plasticity in a staged model, according to which different moments of differentiation express plasticity to different degrees, while the overall trend is toward the withering of plasticity by adulthood and old age. Describing the sexual differentiation of body parts during puberty, Hall reasoned, “Such changes are far more numerous and more rapid in the infant, and still more so in the growth of the embryo; but in these respects they are analogous in their nature, although later growths are less predetermined, rapid, or transforming” (127, emphasis added). The protoplasmic quality of the embryo was as an ever-diminishing return as it accomplished the growth of the human, with important spikes in infancy, childhood, and, finally, adolescence, before firming up into an adult morphology. “So puberty is not unlike a new birth,” Hall could say, “when the lines of development take new directions” (127). With a nod to the neo-Lamarckian camp in biology, he adds: “There is much reason to believe that the influence of the environment in producing acquired traits transmissible by heredity is greatest now” (127). Hall’s work on child development provided a stable way to imagine the alteration of racial plasticity in human bodies in endocrinology, which would take up his work in an abstract, metaphorical form, to move closer to the point of being able to alter human sex.
The Racial Cultivation of the Developing Endocrine Body
By the early twentieth century, human development had been rendered as a biological declension narrative of plasticity into form. The intrinsic tension between indeterminacy and form had not actually been resolved but was given new life in the body of the child, with the temporal frame of development ostensibly providing organization and justification for the incredibly narrow phenotypes that scientists like Hall judged to be the proper end of the human. As endocrinology came into its own during the first several decades of the twentieth century, the child as metaphor for plasticity enabled the field to move from animal experimentation toward imagining the hormonal alteration of the human body, a prospect that eugenicist endocrinologists greeted with enthusiasm.
In Europe, Vienna became the anchor of a socialist and eugenic community of endocrine research. During the first several decades of the twentieth century, experimental organotherapy, glandular transplants, and early attempts at hormone administration attempted to modify the plasticity of animals and humans during their juvenile stages, as well as encourage the passing on of more refined, normative phenotypes to future generations. For Eugen Steinach, who would achieve world renown for his endocrine therapies, sex was therefore nothing less than “an integrating component of the life concept.” Steinach’s fame came in large part from his incredibly popular “rejuvenation” surgery, offered to aging men to revitalize and reawaken their physical and psychological youth by reactivating the dormant plasticity of the gonads. In reality, the surgical procedure amounted to a vasectomy, but testimonies of dramatic revitalization from legions of men around the world led to great demand for endocrine rejuvenation in the 1920s and 1930s, and Steinach’s personal clients included the likes of Freud, who was also an avid consumer of Steinach’s published work on bisexuality.
Prior to his acclaim, Steinach began his career by re-creating the animal castration experiments of his predecessors, including Hunter and Berthold. Preferring to work on small rodents, through gonadal transplantation he reaffirmed in a series of papers in 1912 and 1913 that “the implantation of the gonad of the opposite sex” in guinea pigs “transformed the original sex of the animal” (66). A hormonally induced sex change reinforced the thesis of life’s fundamental bisexuality, which he quickly analogized to humans: “Absolute masculinity or absolute femininity in any individual represents an imaginary ideal. A one hundred percent man is as non-existent as a one hundred percent woman” (7). Retracing the line of thought that had emerged from the child study movement, Steinach narrated endocrine development as a teleological arc from natural bisexuality to a stable sexed form. “Long before puberty, at the dawn of their individual existence, male and female human beings show no sharp differentiation of form, apart from their organs of generation.” Rather, “differentiation appears later, and is at first gradual” (45). Steinach often referred to the gonads as “the puberty gland,” and in his references to “the cubhood of young boys and the difficult ‘teens’ of girls” he was fully enmeshed in a discourse of puberty as “crisis” that shared much with Hall (46). The physiological and psychological tumult of growth and adolescence, for Steinach, was “a case of external manifestation of extensive workings under the surface, a secret and fateful activity of internally functioning glands” (46). In his endocrine model, the hormonal body was developmental in organization, and his experiments on animals were interpreted through the metaphor of the child.
Steinach’s interest in the racial plasticity of puberty was expanded in his work with his colleague, the biologist Paul Kammerer, with whom he coauthored a paper titled “Climate and Puberty” in 1920. Kammerer was a strong partisan of the neo-Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Together with Steinach, he hoped to draw on the newly developmental model of the endocrine body to demonstrate how morphological characteristics were both acquired and inherited. Unsurprisingly, they argued that sex, comprising both differentiation and reproduction, played host to that process. They also proposed that the endocrine system, which also played such an important role in metabolism, effectively mediated between the living organism and its environment. In two parts, the essay draws an analogy from their experiments on rat growth to human development through a superficial reading of colonial anthropology. Their experiments had demonstrated that rats reared in warmer temperatures developed quicker than those in temperate environments. Equally important, the warm-temperature rats apparently grew more prominent secondary sexual characteristics. These sexed forms also appeared to be heritable. When after several generations of warm climate the rats were moved to a cooler environment, their offspring continued to grow into the morphology of their warm-weather ancestors. The second half of the essay makes the leap to human populations described in anthropology to argue that warm climate resulted in the hypersexualization attributed to non-European peoples by encouraging the overdevelopment, first, of the puberty glands and, consequently, of the secondary sex characteristics. Similarly, the authors asserted, the neurasthenic exhaustion of European settler colonists from the endocrine overactivity induced by warm climates explains their frequently neurotic sexual pathologies.
This theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics through the sexed form of the endocrine system had two important effects. First, it reaffirmed a racist evolutionary hierarchy of human societies through the hormonal body, drawing a homology between a hypersexualized body of color and species-level primitivism. The sexed form of the internal and external body was coded as an explicitly racial form. Second, and quite importantly, the binding of sex and race relied on the concept of plasticity. If environmental information such as heat could influence the sexed form of the growing body and be transmitted to offspring, a feat replicated in rats in the lab, then the possibility of effecting analogous changes in humans was opened. Steinach and Kammerer mobilized the endocrine system’s now established developmental plasticity to bind sex to race. In so doing, it was no coincidence that puberty was the object of their analysis, for the child metaphor animating their version of the endocrine body made the plastic period of growth prior to adulthood the sensitive moment of environmental input that led to the acquisition and transmission of new sexed characteristics.
This binding of sex to race gave plasticity a eugenic significance. Both Steinach and Kammerer were involved in a community of socialist eugenicists in interwar Vienna, attempting to apply their research to uplift the “stock” of the working class through manipulation of the inheritance of acquired characteristics at the population level. In the United States, endocrinology also took on a eugenic logic during this period, albeit without the same politics. And in its earliest forms eugenic science in America aimed itself at children. In turn-of-the-century California, for instance, the botanist Luther Burbank argued that children were like not rats but plants. Independent of the circulation of Gregor Mendel’s work and the rise of genetics, Burbank undertook countless plant hybridization experiments at his Santa Rosa farm. Not only did his hybrid plants have a major impact on the practice of U.S. agriculture, but also his emphasis on the cultivation of biological form in plants lent itself to a great deal of eugenic writing and advocacy. His curious 1907 book, The Training of the Human Plant, is dedicated to “the sixteen million public school children of America.” Combining his expertise in the crossing of plant species with the principle of natural selection and a neo-Lamarckian understanding of environmental impressibility, Burbank argues for “the adaptation of the principles of plant culture and improvement in a more or less modified form to the human being.” Burbank felt that the United States was aptly suited to creating what he called “the race of the future” (12) because of the widespread “mingling” (33) encouraged by immigration.
While sex as reproduction alone would provide for some hybridization, it was in the planned cultivation of children’s developing bodies that Burbank saw the greatest potential and most urgent matter for eugenicists. “All animal life is sensitive to environment,” he wrote, “but of all living things the child is the most sensitive. . . . Every possible influence will leave its impress upon the child, and the traits which it inherited will be overcome to a certain extent” (14–15). In other words: “A child absorbs environment” (14–15). Were that absorption to be scientifically directed toward the perfection of human phenotype, the racial stock of America could be enhanced through each generation of children to come. At the heart of this earliest American eugenics was the assumption that in the body of the child, as Burbank put it, “no where else is there material so plastic” (26). While Burbank could not advance much further than romantic naturalism, suggesting good sunshine, clean air, and good food as the basis for cultivating children like plants, endocrinologists could turn to the newly modeled hormonal body for a more precise program of human enhancement.
One such important figure for endocrinology in the early twentieth century was the biologist Oscar Riddle, remembered most for the discovery of the hormone prolactin and its function in the pituitary gland. Riddle joined the Cold Spring Harbor eugenic research station in Long Island, New York, in 1913 as a research associate. Although he did not get along very well politically or intellectually with Charles Davenport, the station’s director and the de facto figurehead of American eugenics, the two coexisted for many years. Prior to joining the premier American eugenics research lab, Riddle had spent time in recently annexed Puerto Rico with the U.S. commissioner of fisheries, cataloging and examining the island’s fish in the service of colonial science. He had also spent time teaching in Berlin in 1910 after completing graduate school, where he became well versed in the broader European life sciences.
At Cold Spring Harbor, Riddle’s research was broader in scope than the pituitary gland. His interest in the racial plasticity of sex led him to countless experiments in the alteration of animal phenotype through endocrine experimentation. For years he bred ringdoves, experimenting with the planned refinement of different forms and morphologies. Riddle’s long-term study of pigeons, likewise, translated the promise of plasticity into a critique of the rising field of genetics, with its chromosomally determinist account of life. “The field of modifiability”—his phrase for plasticity—“is not only the more alluring aspect of development—it promises results of more practical importance,” he explained. “Though we may not hope to take from or give to the chromosomes of mankind, the temporary transformability—not mere modifiability—of probably all alternative genes of every human being and of every organism is a scientific possibility which awaits only the work of the investigator.” In connecting sexual differentiation and reproduction to the metabolic activities of the rest of the body’s ductless glands, Riddle’s research intensified the still largely enigmatic relationship between sex and growth first identified by Bayliss and Sterling’s work on the hormone.
In rats and pigeons, Riddle also examined the specific effects of nascent synthetic hormone therapy on growth and sex through the gonads, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands. In an experimental “sex-reversal” in the pigeon, the findings of which he published in 1924, he explained that “the sex of numerous pigeons has been reversed in the earliest (gamete) or egg stage” by the application of partially synthesized hormone compounds. Among his conclusions was that this could mean that the “‘hermaphrodite’ birds might actually be a sex-reversal that had yet to complete.” Although he never conducted research in humans directly, he referred to the child as metaphor for plasticity to lend a developmental organization to sex in the pigeon studies. The sheer plasticity of the pigeon embryo was understood to constitute the “right” moment of sensitivity to induce a “sex reversal” by the application of hormones. Riddle’s technical approach was underwritten by the embryo’s naturally bisexual character, primed for the influence of hormones to develop into a distinctly sexed form. By applying hormones, Riddle understood himself to be artificially inducing sexual development in the direction of his design.
Riddle’s confidence that sex change in animals was both a common occurrence in nature and achievable in the lab by technical means had major implications for trans and intersex medicine during the early twentieth century, as the next two chapters explore in detail. The concept of a mutually exclusive, biologically grounded two-sex binary popular today was simply not an established concept in the early twentieth century. In this era, “sex” was commonly and scientifically understood to mean an original bisexuality that, although quite capable of differentiating into male or female, nevertheless retained the latent possibility of reversal—a revision of Darwin’s concept of “reversion.” At the same time, the growing medical interest in intersex bodies and sexual inverts suggested that the human species, too, harbored a dramatic range of sexed morphologies, rather than hewing strictly to a binary. For endocrinologists, the application of the child metaphor to work with animals established the viability of “sex-reversal” as a possible future endocrine therapy in humans, where it would seem quite natural to begin with children. The tensions in the child metaphor between indeterminacy and form remained latent, hiding just underneath the veneer of a developmental timescale that purported to convert sex into phenotype. A purely mixed bisexuality would never obey a doctor and differentiate into male or female, so the notion of progressive sequence was added to bring a temporal order to sex. Yet the material actions of plasticity in laboratories simultaneously undermined that developmental schema, leading to confusion that was well summarized by the biologist Allen Ezra in the 1920s: “One may well ask: Is any human being completely sexed?” In the face of that increasingly complex question, Ezra reflects the growing consensus of the interwar era, claiming that that “sex is the expression of a combination of male or female characteristics within an individual,” so that “a completely sexed individual is the result of a variety of forces acting in sequence on a progressively changing substratum.” The tension in this account between the notion of “a completely sexed individual” and the “progressively changing substratum” of sex preserved a significant conceptual paradox at the heart of endocrinology’s interest in plasticity.
While the era of normative bisexuality seems to have been largely forgotten or overlooked in the history of gender, sexuality, and trans medicine, so too have its eugenic foundations. Although children occupied a rather visible place within the project of the American eugenics movement in the early twentieth century, notably in “better baby contests” and public health and education campaigns, Riddle’s or Steinach’s reliance on an abstract metaphor of the child to developmentally organize research speaks to a less visible historical role played by the child. Children do figure in the historiography of American eugenics, but their importance is framed mostly in the sense of being born or not being born. While the more visible and violent forms of race hygiene and eugenic medicine were contested in the aftermath of the Second World War, recent scholarship has dismantled that declension narrative, arguing that eugenic ideas and practices in fact have found their most pervasive reach in the postwar era. There is no meaningful, nonideological difference between so-called positive and negative eugenics, and the historical binding of race to reproduction remains largely unchallenged, which is to say unmarked and unspoken, in medical science to this day. The modern endocrine body incarnates one important instance of the persistence of eugenic logics after the war, as later chapters in this book explore in greater detail. The child metaphor was in large part what allowed the cultivation of sexual plasticity through development to proceed without reference to its eugenic heritage and without much acknowledgement of children at all. The figurative purchase of the child in endocrinology brought plasticity under the jurisdiction of experimental medicine, and the potential for more complex “sex reversals,” including in humans, grew over the next fifty years in ways that Riddle or Steinach could scarcely have imagined.
Toward the end of Strange Dislocations, Carolyn Steedman makes an enigmatic claim about the relation of literary figures of the child to the life sciences in the nineteenth century, explaining that she has “attempted a partial description of some of the knowledge . . . by which strange acts of personification took place, that is, the giving of abstract information about children and children’s bodies, shape and form in actual children, not by bringing statues to life through the force of prosopopeia, but by using living bodies as expressions.” To clarify, she adds: “Meaning and knowledge, remembering and affect, actually come into existence in human bodies. I have chosen a literary figure or trope, that of personification, to describe that kind of active making of something out of ideas,” an “act of embodiment.” The figurative existence of the child is always premised on abstraction, but, as Steedman notes, it is an abstraction whose form is paradoxically expressed in the real, living bodies of children. Something about children’s bodies incarnates and takes living form in large part as the personification distilled from an abstract concept. The child, paradoxical as it may sound, is a living figure. Or, in her incisive words, one of the defining characteristics of the history of modern Western childhood is that “children became the problem they represented.” This is so in one sense because “the child” does not exist without relation to actual, living children. As this chapter has examined, it is also so because the child has been made a metaphor, in Haraway’s sense, for the plasticity of sex. The child has been made a living figure in biology because children can metaphorically accommodate the ultimately paradoxical relationship between form and plasticity that, somehow, grows into the human and can be altered by medical science. This is a historical situation, not an ontological one: children are not intrinsically prone to figurative life, nor is that form the only one to which they are perpetually consigned. In the same way, the twentieth-century association of children with the racial plasticity of sex was not inevitable, nor must it necessarily endure into the future.
Steedman’s choice of personification over metaphor to describe this historical process, however, implies a unidirectional account of the materialization of children’s bodies by abstract knowledge. Perhaps matters are less straightforward than that. We might say that the growing child was a compelling metaphor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not merely because plasticity was, strictly speaking, an invisible quality of biological life or that protoplasm was too abstract an idea to guide the life sciences. More important, the child metaphor granted real access to altering the human body for science and medicine. By turning to the developmental model refined by the child study movement, endocrinology was able to redescribe the life of the cell and the unfinished organism’s glands as pervaded by a plastic field sensitive to hormonal information, whether natural or synthetic, even if that field could not be seen under the microscope or in the clinic. At the same time, however, this child figure made to slide from the cell to infant, to adolescent, to adult, and back, was only a partial success. As Haraway reminds, metaphors work only insofar as they are imperfect descriptions, linking two disparate concepts together. For that reason they remain unstable and open to contestation, including from the situated perspective of the disavowed object, in this case the child. The metaphor of the child was meant to manage the paradox between indeterminacy and form that sex’s racial plasticity ignited, but it actually served to keep that tension alive, including in actual children’s bodies as their sex was medicalized in the early twentieth century. Plasticity, as a concept that has no literal or physiological referent, would turn out to be more unruly than Starling, Hall, Steinach, Kammerer, or Riddle might have wished. The child is an alluring living figure of racial plasticity because children grow so quickly and dramatically before the eyes of adults, but the distinction between “the child” as a figure and “children” as actual biological bodies produces an ineffable gap in knowledge about race and sex, rather than extinguishing it. Some of the many historical consequences of this choice of metaphor are taken up in the next chapters.
I have spent so long on the details of turn-of-the-century endocrinology because the clinical histories that follow in subsequent chapters rely directly on the key concepts that were invented and experimentally established in this era. The rest of this book shifts focus from the child as a metaphor in medical scientific discourse to actual children’s bodies in specific clinical settings, examining how plasticity ramified in the medicalization of intersex and trans children over the twentieth century. As the endocrinologists in this chapter began to imagine a transfer of the concept of plasticity from the animal to the human body via the child, physicians in the United States started to make that jump clinically through the early twentieth-century treatment of intersex children, who seemed to literally represent the thesis of natural bisexuality, while finding themselves in the course of that work confronted with some of the first trans people to seek medical support for altering their sex. As the trans early twentieth century took shape, the involvement of biological life in the metaphors used to describe it began to frustrate clinicians and children alike. Scientists and doctors maintained no pretense of being in control of sex and growth, as much as they clung to dogmatically binary and racialized definitions of sex. They could hope only to influence, nudge, and contour still largely metaphorical processes that began in natural bisexuality and, according to them, were meant to end in binary form. For the eugenicists, meanwhile, this indeterminacy of sex occasioned a litany of racist anxieties over individual pathology and population-level degeneration.
In opening up plasticity to its historical context—something so often missing from its celebration in recent years by feminist science studies, neuroscientific work, and neo materialisms—Haraway’s suggestion that the referent of a metaphor has its own organic agencies is useful. The eugenic heritage of endocrinology informs the medicalization of sex, gender, and trans life in the twentieth century, but it hardly exhausts plasticity’s meanings for forms. If intersex and trans children, as we will see in the next several chapters, have been forced to grow in the dislocation between the figurative and the material existence of race, sex, and plasticity, they may have accrued or encountered strange and unexpected plastic agencies along the way. If, as Steedman speculates, “figurative existence is a form of historical existence,” we cannot assume that the overriding power of the child metaphor was able to completely disenfranchise children—even if, most of the time, it nearly did.