This post in the seventh in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here, and the next post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
“Science, it would seem, is not sexless: he is a man, a father and infected too.” Virginia Woolf
“This is not about women doing science differently than men. It is about everyone doing science differently when the gender ideology shifts.” Evelyn Fox Keller
Although it might seem a bit silly at first, if we (those of us who are men, at any rate) can step outside our gender for a moment and reflect on the language of science, it’s not hard to see that it is permeated with a great deal of oddly sexual and masculine language. Scientists choose subjects that are “wide open” for exploration, “probe” “fertile territory,” ask the “hard” questions, arrive at “penetrating” insights,” and reach conclusions that are “pregnant with meaning.” Hopefully, if their arguments are “strong,” they will “erect” a “dominant” theory, which will "expose" the “laws” that “govern” nature. A reasonable observer might well wonder whether science is some kind of oedipal rape fantasy directed against “mother nature.”
According to Evelyn Fox Keller (1936 – ), an American bio-mathematician and historian of science who pioneered the study of gender and science, this language is no accident. In Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), she argued that, to an astonishing degree, the origins of science are steeped in weirdly gendered language. Francis Bacon, for instance, wrote an unfinished essay called “The Masculine Birth of Time” (c. 1605), frequently spoke of “dominating nature,” and famously declared that “knowledge is power.” In this same essay he said “I am come in very truth to lead you to Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and to make her your slave.” This imagery was hardly atypical. For generations the Baconian conception of science competed against another, quite different tradition, which had its origins in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa wrote a Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex in which he frankly praised women’s superiority, while Paracelsus thought of nature as a combination of masculine and feminine elements, and held up the image of a pregnant mother as the appropriate metaphor of discovery. What kind of science, she wondered, might have emerged from the tradition of Agrippa and Paracelsus, if it had been pursued with as much vigor as the Baconian program?
She insisted, from her own laboratory experience, that male colleagues frequently held to male gendered biological theories (such as the "pacemaker" explanation for the growth of slime molds, or the "central controller" model of cellular growth, despite persistent failure to locate the theorized structures. On the other hand, explanations offered by female scientists, such as Barbara McClintock (one of the 20th century's most distinguished cellular biologists), which laid more emphasis on holistic interactions, were routinely ignored. If problems of gender and its influence on research were squarely faced, she argued, science as a whole would benefit. The main thing, after all, is supposed to be the quality of the ideas - not the qualities of the people who propose them.
In The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (2010), Keller argued that this seemingly eternal dispute is actually an invention of nineteenth century biologists like Charles Darwin and Francis Galton on the one hand, and sociologists like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx on the other. Both sides had definite political motivations for drawing the distinction. Darwin and Galton were imperialist, conservative millionaires, who wanted to believe that traits were inherited in order to refute reformers who thought social reform could improve living conditions for the working poor. Comte and Marx were revolutionaries committed to the violent overthrow of existing governments, on the assumption that the only thing holding the people back was the intransigence of conservatives who profited from their systematic exploitation.
According to Keller, recent discoveries, such as epigenetics and a diet-based treatment for the IQ-lowering genetic protein deficiency called PKU, make it clear that the terms of the debate make no sense. A gene cannot and does not act independently of an environment, and neither is there a human environment independent of genes. Further, she argued that many studies of heritability and environment fail to clearly distinguish a multitude of meanings that can hide beneath a single, over-stretched term. As a result, they tend to assume too much on the basis of the evidence they actually discuss. It is not, therefor, a question of deciding one way or another between nature and nurture, or even finding a synthesis between two opposed approaches. Rather, the debate should simply be abolished as intrinsically absurd.
Evelyn Fox Keller is a leader among a generation of feminist scholars interested in questions of gender and science. Some of the other leaders of this movement, which emerged after the Port Huron Statement (1962), include Sandra Harding (1935 – ), who linked feminism to post colonialism and the study of various oppressed (or “subaltern”) social groups; Lorraine Code (1935 – ), who argued for the validity of a uniquely feminine heuristic; and Elizabeth Anderson (1959 – ), who has integrated feminist critiques of science with moral and political theories of democracy. Although feminist philosophy (etc.) of science is a complex and controversial field, and these scholars frequently disagree among themselves as to what changes are desirable or realistically attainable, in general they share a commitment to broadening the scope of science so that it does not (as they argue it has and does) devalue feminine perspectives as a kind of structural principle. There is nothing particularly masculine, they argue, about advancing the cause of human knowledge - it is an activity that should be open to anyone with the intelligence and dedication to contribute.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
I have to say that I find Francis Galton to be one of the most vexing figures of modern science. He had no evidence for any of his ideas, and it’s obvious to most contemporary people (who care about this stuff) that his work is pretty much just an elaborate rationalization for what he believed on instinct (i.e., the typical unexamined assumptions of a prosperous mid-nineteenth century Englishman). His legacy wouldn’t be so galling if his ideas were just part of the dustbin of history. But unfortunately some people still take them seriously. There’s actually a recent Slate article in which the authors (one a psychologist) use Galston’s work on the genealogy of certain famous composers to justify a nature over nurture position. They seem completely oblivious to how deeply problematic his theories are in the face of epigenetics and neuroplasticity (which goes to show that even psychologists can be so specialized in their field that anything beyond it fails to register)
It’s interesting that Keller points to that study demonstrating how IQ is raised with a certain dietary influence. I’m not quite sure how to take it, given that IQ tests are highly problematic given her position; i.e., Galton proposed that intelligence was some kind of underlying, one-dimensional entity that gets handed down from parent to child like a quantity of money; and then, in the early twentieth-century, Lewis Terman (a Stanford psychologist) adapted a French-created academic test for Americans and claimed it measured innate intelligence (which wasn’t the intention of the test-inventors); he was the guy who coined the term “Intelligent Quotient,” and his theories were largely based on Galton’s.* I guess my point is that Keller thinks an IQ boost is a good thing even though these tests have a clear umbilical cord to the patriarch who did so much to discourage social reform in the 19th-century. And furthermore, IQ is most definitely a “male thing,” as it were, given that it’s just another one-dimensional number that people use rank themselves against other people (think about income, height, and penis size).
*BTW – Because IQ has become a generic term like ‘pop’ or ‘soap,’ it’s hard to tell what people mean when they talk about IQ; anyone can collect a hodgepodge of puzzles and memory tasks and call it an IQ test (thus the proliferation of online IQ tests). Even tests use by psychologists and neurosciences vary quite a bit (from tests consisting solely of non-verbal geometric series tests, to tests consisting solely of verbal analogies, etc.); and these so-called “good” tests vary quite a bit in their predictive value.