Feminist Science Criticism, 300 BC
Yesterday I happened to be reading Aristotle's account of reproduction, and came upon a nice example where having a feminist science critic on the scene would have been helpful. Let us imagine one Kallista, (imaginary) champion of women from 300 BC, responding to this passage from Generation of Animals (Book I, ch. 21, trans. Platt) --
Now Kallista, let's suppose, is sensitive to a woman's role in Athenian society. She knows that women lived in veritable purdah in Aristotle's time, playing no role in the public affairs of the city. So the male-active, female-passive story sounds suspicious to her. That's just how we're supposed to live, says this society, not necessarily how things really are. She also notes that Aristotle buys into female inferiority in a big way. For example, later in Generation of Animals he says "For the female is as it were a male deformed, and the menses are seed but not pure seed; for it lacks one thing only, the source of the soul." (Balme trans., in A new Aristotle Reader).
Only the male is the source of the soul, says that passage. That's a very big deal. There are multiple souls, for Aristotle. Without ensoulment there can be no growth, nourishment, perception, or thought. Unensouled entities are not even alive, let alone human. So Aristotle's giving the male virtually all the credit for our nature.
Kallista suspects Aristotle is biased--he's got a deeply ingrained notion about the role of women, and he's projecting it onto nature. That's step one in her thinking.
The second step is to take the suspicion and run with it, searching for actual errors in Aristotle's science. She scratches her head .... How is it that the male's role in reproduction is anything like a carpenter's role? How can that really be? How (on earth) could depositing semen inside the female be anything at all like what happens when a carpenter imposes form on a block of wood? The carpenter thinks about the form and function he's after. How could the semen do anything of the kind? What--does semen think? Her feminist suspicions lead her to some very reasonable doubts about Aristotle's account.
The third step is to produce a better theory. Now Kallista shouldn't be dogmatic. She shouldn't presume to know more than she really does. It would be more egalitarian if the female and male both contributed the same amount of matter to the embryo (and fetus and baby), but it's obvious that they don't. (This amusing editorial by Greg Kamikian estimates that males have contributed 1 pound to the mass of humanity, over the whole history of homo sapiens reproduction--107 billion babies thus far. If females contributed just the same--1 pound--we'd be missing another 800 billion pounds!)
It would be more egalitarian if males and females contributed equally to the ensoulment and the form, function, and essence of the embryo/baby, but she shouldn't fully commit herself to that a priori. She has legitimate doubt about Aristotle's view, but not a replacement.
Still, feminist science criticism does move things forward. It creates reasonable suspicion that Aristotle's just projecting male and female social roles. It puts his details under heightened scrutiny, helping us see problems with the idea that semen plays the role of carpenter, with women providing the wood.
So much for defending FSC. It seems like skeptics about it (I've run into some recently) really have to be doctrinaire anti-feminists. It just can't be that Kallista's reaction to Aristotle wouldn't be a good thing--good both for science and for women.