January 23, 2005

Cavalcade of gender and science!

Bit of a kerfluffle today in blogland and on the NYT over some Harvard colloquium last week. I suppose, as our resident self-appointed commentator on feminist topics, I should put up something.

Okay, first, a digest of links: Atrios, again, and one more time; Echidne, references by Atrios. Apparently she'll have more later. There are also some inane op-eds in the Times itself, one by an evolutionary biologist who recently wrote a book on sex among animals, and another by one of the authors of the Bell Curve. As Atrios points out, the last one is the sign that this discussion has official jumped the shark, so feel free to not even bother with any of this.

Okay, now, my thoughts. My speciality is no longer politics or economics, but philosophy, and my interest in this debate is the issue -- touched on to some extent by Echidne and the Judson op-ed -- of 'essential' gender or sex differences. My position, following Anne Fausto-Sterling, starts with the observation that, notoriously, we can't study essential differences between groups of humans, simply because we can't isolate a (group of) human subject(s) from their sociological environment, nor from our own background. Prejudice and bias simply creep in too easily. A great example of this is a study I read about a few years back, which purportedly demonstrated an innate difference between the way men and women pursue mates, along pretty classical (and completely bullshit) lines: men show off and compete amongst each other to impress women the most, and a woman chooses from among her suitors for the one who's demonstrated the most impressive qualities. The evidence the authors of the study had? A survey of a couple thousand American college freshman and sophomores.

(Somewhere, there was a mention of current studies by biologists on sexual dimorphism and other clear, dramatic physiological differences between the sexes of other species. The difference between studying essential sexual differences between male and female humans and fruit flies is, obviously, that we're bringing a lot less cultural baggage to the table with the fruit flies. Feminist philosophers of science, and like-minded commentators, have pointed out subtle but telling instances of sexual bias creeping into science, however -- fertilization was traditionally thought of as an active sperm cell penetrating a completely passive egg cell, mirroring Victorian beliefs about proper sexuality, for example, while recent work has shown the egg is almost as active as the sperm in the process. So the alternative below applies to biology more generally, though often the prescription is not as radical as with investigations concerning humans.)

But even more, this inability to get a handle on 'human nature' suggests that trying to work towards such an objective account might be a mistake from the beginning. The alternative Fausto-Sterling suggests is to do away with the essential/environment (or nature/nuture) distinction altogether: a human being (or any organism) is a product of the interaction between genetics and environment in such a way that neither can be considered in isolation. Without the environment, the genes are just long fatty acid chains; and without genes, the potential organism is just a disorganized blob sitting in some surroundings.

One of Atrios' post is an excellent illustration of something similar in an economic context: you can't take either gender discrimination by employers or the path of a woman's career as fundamental, because the two determine each other by their interaction. Hence the proper object of investigation should be the relationship between and interactions of gender and employment -- and how the situation can be rectified -- not assuming one is fundamental and asking how it determines the other.

On the broader question of gender and our society as a whole, I would therefore suggest that it's a mistake to ask, eg, whether fewer women are engineers and scientists because (a) some essential difference in ability or preference, or (b) differential attitudes and treatment of women interested in engineering and science. Instead, ask whether a gender-neutral corps of scientists and engineers would be better (and in what sense of better) than our current non-gender-neutral corps, and how we can go about encouraging (or discouraging, I suppose, if that's the conclusion you ended up with) that gender-neutral corps. Not whether discrimination against a group is 'rationally justified', but whether and how the situation can be changed.

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