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) --

Aristotle says here that a female is passive and a male is active.  Thus, the matter of an embryo comes from the female, but the form comes from the male.  The semen doesn't wind up being a part of the offspring.  The male rather gives form to the matter supplied by the female--he is like the carpenter, and she merely supplies the wood. The form, function, and essence of the embryo, and later the baby, are therefore generated by the male.

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.


julian said...

But how true is this today? The impression I have of peer review is that it forces claims to be as conservative as possible, so the level of speculation we see in Aristotle would at the very least be curbed. And even if he were published it'd only be one paper or one series of papers, not nearly enough to set the tone or agenda for his field.

Kinda off topic but I like that you point out how a different set of biases could actually move the discussion along. The ideal, of an entirely unbiased individually looking stoically at numbers and charts is entirely unattainable. I'm a total layman but forcing people to defend their assumptions seems the best way to arrive at greater objectivity.

Jean Kazez said...

Julian, Lots of very controversial stuff gets past peer review. Take, for example, that highly contested EO Wilson article that was in Nature. It was peer reviewed, but later blasted by lots of scientists.


For another example, take the work of Jonathan Haidt on moral psychology. It's all highly contested, yet in excellent peer-reviewed journals.

(Most work done by philosophers is subject to debate, and it's all in peer reviewed books and articles.)

Now you might think--but gender bias will surely be noticed by peer reviewers! Not so, I don't think. Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender has lots of good examples of bad science that's inspired by gender stereotypes, most of which she found in peer reviewed books and articles. I don't think one should endorse every single one of her examples (Simon Baron Cohen's response to her ought to be read), but there are lots of good ones in there.

Aeolus said...

I am sympathetic to some of the feminist critique of science. But I doubt that sceptics "really have to be doctrinaire anti-feminists." For example, I have no reason to think that Margarita Levin, author of the oft-cited "Caring New World: Feminism and Science" (highly critical of the feminist critique) is anti-feminist.

Jean Kazez said...

I haven't read that book, and will look for it. There are two skeptical positions. One says there is no value at all in any feminist critique of science. That's the sort of thing I've been running into lately. The second says that specific feminist critiques have been misguided. For example, you might say feminists are misguided when they're utterly determined to think gender differences are entirely socially constructed. Or you might say they're misguided when they go the opposite route, insisting that women are caring and men are rule-governed (a la Carol Gilligan). I don't think this second type of skepticism is anti-feminist, and in fact agree with it to some degree. It's the first type that bothers me--in fact, astonishes me. It just can't be that ferreting out bias doesn't advance science. I'd say the same about ferreting out other biases--racist, speciesist, etc. etc.

Jean Kazez said...

Got a hold of that and read it (well, skimmed)--it's here, if anyone else is interested: http://faculty.smu.edu/jkazez/5316233.pdf

Craig Urias said...

I agree overall, as long as we keep the obvious point in mind that different perspectives are valued because they might generate different hypotheses. It is the diversity of hypotheses that is a bonus, and whether or not hypotheses -- whatever their source -- ultimately work out is an entirely different matter. When a hypothesis is cherished because of its source it can become a kind of doctrine where facts are picked to fit the doctrine, whereupon we are right back to the same old problem.

A case in point was my run-in with Joan Roughgarden several months ago. She is determined -- seemingly doctrinally -- to believe that biologists have it all wrong. It's the is/ought distinction from other other direction: that since cooperation and egalitarianism should be the rule in human society, it should also be the rule in nature. I am perhaps uncharitably summarizing her argument, but in any case I did not find anything in it which would upend our current understanding of biology.

She also bridges is/ought into other areas. Her book (the Genial Gene) cherry-picks a couple quotes from the Selfish Gene to claim that "The Selfish Gene naturalizes Ayn Rand's objectivist ethics and provides a seamless transition from evolutionary biology to normative human conduct". This is exactly the opposite of what Dawkins says in the Selfish Gene. No matter how many times I explained that she was obviously wrong, showing the passages where Dawkins directly rebuts her claim, it wouldn't take. She's determined to believe what she believes. [link]

julian said...

I think the main motivator is actually a desire to move away from biases. At least that's what I walked away with after reading Barbara Drecher's piece. Because science should be fee of bias and scientist should be free to explore ideas and theories whatever their political ramifications, feminism has no place in science.

That's a pretty solid position I think, if the first bits are true and we can reliably expect people to set aside prejudice. Sadly science is not free of bias (bias that has absolutely noting to do with feminism), scientific exploration is not above ethical considerations and while we can train people to be more objective, bias will always be a part of any human undertaking.

julian said...

" When a hypothesis is cherished because of its source it can become a kind of doctrine where facts are picked to fit the doctrine, whereupon we are right back to the same old problem."- Craig Urias

The problem, I see anyway, is that hypotheses will be cherished more if they come from an established academic or fit publicly held beliefs about a topic. We already have that issue except with the introduction of feminism we have a bias specifically looking for those other biases.

I don't know how effective feminism can continue to be but this definitely is not a problem we don't already have.

Jean Kazez said...

Julian, I haven't seen Barbara Drescher's piece (where?), but I'd be amazed if she thought feminists are just bias-creators, never bias-removers. You have to look at this stuff case by base, but I think scientists with a feminist outlook have done some excellent bias-removing--e.g. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy comes to mind.

I'm big on the idea that bias-removing is a good first step for lots of reasons, including feminist reasons, but also because of the work I do on animals. I think the history of science is full of bias that puts humans on a pedestal, and animals way, way, way below. This has distorted biology forever. Likewise, preconceptions about gender create distortion--like in the Aristotle passage I quoted.

I really can't understand why any card-carrying "skeptic" would be against this sort of bias-hunting, whether aimed at eliminating anti-female or anti-animal bias, or racist bias for that matter, or .... etc. etc. Why (on earth) would you dismiss everyone who does that sort of thing, from Stephen Jay Gould (race) to Marc Bekoff (animals) to Hrdy and Fine (women)?

There's a legitimate worry about excessive political correctness, and one dogma replacing another, but the good writers on this kind of thing avoid that danger.