Feminism and Science
Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science
The intrusion, advance, spread, import, insinuation—word choice is important here, exposing world views, projecting fears—of feminist thought into just about every aspect of contemporary cultural life is by now entirely general. Literature, philosophy, sociology, history, economics, law, even linguistics and theology, are engulfed in fierce and multisided debates over the relevance of gender difference, gender interest, and gender prejudice to this or that issue or to the shape of the enterprise overall. But nowhere has the reaction to efforts to move such concerns to the center of attention stirred deeper disquiet than in that last redoubt of impersonal reason, natural science. Sexing science, or even scientists, makes everyone, even those most passionate to accomplish it, extremely nervous.
The worry is, of course, that the autonomy of science, its freedom, vigor, authority, and effectiveness, will be undermined by the subjection of it to a moral and political program—the social empowerment of women—external to its purposes. A physicist determining the spin of a particle, a neurologist tracing the circuitry of vision, or an evolutionist isolating the mechanisms of phyletic change is likely to find such pronouncements as “a sexist society should be expected to develop a sexist science” or “science…is not sexless; she is a man, a father and infected too” to be silly at best, lunatic at worst, and in either case deeply threatening to the centuries of long struggle to examine the workings of nature free of the distortions of wish and prejudice.1 Objectivity—logic, method, knowledge, truth—is what science is about; the rest is romance and special pleading.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon where one’s loyalties lie (and both unfortunately and fortunately if, as is increasingly the case, one’s loyalties are divided), this radical contrast, inherited from the ancients, between “knowledge” (episteme) and “opinion” (doxa) has been breaking down, not merely as between “science” and “non-science,” but, more fatefully, within “science” itself, for at least thirty years. Thomas Kuhn’s enormously influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, with its reconceptualization of scientific change as consisting in an episodic succession of professional dominant thought frames rather than a step-by-step advance toward reality, truth, and the cloudless vision, is usually considered the watershed work. But since Kuhn’s book appeared, there have arisen, one hard upon the next, a series of even more headlong revisionisms. In the sociology of science there has been a so-called strong program, determined to examine science as through and through a social and cultural phenomenon, like capitalism, the papacy, astrology, football, or easel painting. In the history of science there has been a stress on “who is to be master,” in which power struggles among research groups, institutional interests, organizational imperatives, disciplinary elites, professional reputations, and policy concerns are seen as shaping the evolution of scientific thought. In philosophy there has been “antifoundationalism,” the rejection of fixed “methods,” permanent “principles,” and inherent “essences” in favor of multiple perspectives, intellectual genres, language games, rhetorical styles, and practical outcomes. Pluralism, contingency, pragmatism, maneuver. If it is not the case that “anything goes,” at least many things do, and none of them is beyond remark.
This movement toward what is most often termed a “social constructionist” conception of science has hardly gone unresisted by those for whom “the world” or “nature,” “the way things actually are,” is the beginning and end when it comes to knowing. (Alasdair MacIntyre, the moral philosopher and general objector to how we think now, has announced that he won’t rest until the last proponent of the strong program is strangled in the entrails of the last expert in the theory of metaphor.)2 But as it has gained momentum, amounting by now to something of an avalanche, this general movement has cleared the way and provided the model for feminist criticism. If, like everything else cultural—art, ideology, religion, common sense—science is something hammered together in some place to some purpose by partisans and devotees, it is, like everything else cultural, subject to questioning why it has been built in the way that it has. If knowledge is made, its making can be looked into.
Feminist looking, still tentative, limited, and internally troubled, has, since perhaps the mid-Seventies, been driven forward by a critical (and also much debated) bit of social constructionism within feminist thought itself: the distinction of gender from sex—of what it is culturally to be “a woman,” “a man,” “a gay,” “a lesbian,” or whatever from what it is biologically to be “female,” “male,” “hermaphrodite,” or whatever.3 If “woman” and “man” are historically situated social categories, like “black” or “Norwegian” or “communist” or “middle class”—or like “astronomer” or “gynecologist”—then asking whether science is “a man,” or anyway “masculine” (the mode word now—Virginia Woolf would have hated it—is “androcentric”) is no more unreasonable than to ask whether football or the papacy are masculine. It may, however, be a good deal harder to answer.
The uneven and extremely miscellaneous collection of papers, originally published in a journal of feminist philosophy called Hypatia and brought together as a sort of progress report by Nancy Tuana, manages to touch on most of the matters impeding an answer to the questions I have posed without getting very far toward resolving any of them. Framed by nervous, questioning titles (“Is There a Feminist Method?” “Can There Be a Feminist Science?” “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?” “Is Sex to Gender as Nature Is to Science?” “Where Are We Now and When Can We Expect a Theoretical Breakthrough?”), the book is an anthology of dilemmas, conundrums, puzzlements, and worries, which, taken together, give an arresting picture of great intellectual commotion without much in the way of a definitive sense of where it is that it might be heading.
Part of the problem is simply the multiplicity of concerns gathered together under the feminism-and-science rubric. Sue V. Rosser, in her opening “over-view,” a cascade of names, citations, and one-line summaries, lists six: the transformation of training methods and academic curricula to attract more women into the sciences; the historical understanding of the obscured and denigrated role of women in the development of modern science; the sociological investigation of the current status (improving, but still disadvantaged) of women in science; the feminist critique of male-biased scientific enterprises (sociobiology, brain research, intelligence testing, biochemistry); “feminine science” (Do women—Barbara McClintock, Rosalind Franklin—do science differently from men?); and “feminist theory of science” (Is objective, “gender-free” science possible? Is its pretense a sham?). Six, seven, ten, or a dozen—it hardly matters: this is not a field, or even a program. It’s a tumble of possibilities out of which something or other may somewhere come.
That in itself is perhaps only to be expected in an enterprise that is, as Rosser rightfully insists, just now getting seriously under way. But the diffusion of aim and the tone of bafflement that accompanies it (“How do you speak to scientists?” “What do we mean by truth? What can we possibly mean?”) do not spring merely from growing pains; they arise from deep intractabilities buried within the task as such. Putting together a critique of the fictions and illusions surrounding “womanhood” and a mode of knowing claiming to “[limn] the true and ultimate structure of reality” poses rather more problems than moralized and power-conscious “emancipatory theory,” the saving hope of all these essays, can easily meet.4
In the best of the essays, this sense of impasse is everywhere apparent. Sandra Harding’s examination of the question whether there is, as a number of people have suggested, a distinctive feminist method of research (consciousness-raising, organismic thinking) that can be used as a criterion to judge the adequacy of research designs, procedures, and results—a question to which she answers a resounding, well-argued “no”—ends with an apology to her colleagues for disappointing them in this matter and a suggestion that they give up trying to regrind “the powerful lenses of scientific inquiry” and console themselves with the more practical task of swinging them around to feminist concerns.
Helen Longino, asking the even broader question of whether there can be a feminist science in any sense at all, also offers a doubled answer: “no,” if by feminist science is meant an “expression and valorization of a female sensibility or cognitive temperament”—complex, interactive, holistic, and “soft”—for there is no such sensibility or temper; “yes,” if the social conditions—“the making of money and the waging of war”—under which science is now being prosecuted by the androcentric powers-that-be are changed to something less thrusting, manipulative, instrumental, and “hard.” Here, too, one can eat one’s cake as a detached scientist and have it as a partisan. “While remaining committed to an abstract goal of understanding,” to “the science one has learned and practiced,” we can choose “to whom…we are accountable in our pursuit of that goal,…to the traditional establishment or to our political comrades.”
This formulation—Curie in the lab, Sanger in the agora—seems a bit easy, and in the most searching, and the most tangled, piece in the volume, Evelyn Fox Keller is unwilling to settle for it. Though engaged in the same enterprise as Harding and Longino—separating the defensible idea of a feminist science from the chimera of a feminine one—Keller, author of a much discussed biography of the Nobel prize winner Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, resists the notion that the separation is to be made by dividing science into its technical and its moral parts, into methods, which are gender free, and their deployments, which are not.5
Keller wants to affirm both the autonomy of science as an account of “nature” and the force of “gender ideology” in shaping that account. Caught between feminist interpretations of her McClintock study as a manifesto for an alternative, “female science,” and arguments from working scientists that, since many male scientists have “a feeling for the organism,” McClintock’s sex is irrelevant to her work, Keller wants to find a “middle ground” from which she can avoid so polarized a choice. But her efforts to do this involve such a tortuous string of on-the-one-hands and on-the-others (“science does not and cannot mirror nature”; “it [is] necessary to shift the focus…from sex to gender”; “neither nature nor sex can be named out of existence”) that the best she can come up with is imagined discourse:
We need a language that enables us to conceptually and perceptually negotiate our way between sameness and opposition, that permits the recognition of kinship in difference and of difference among kin; a language that encodes respect for difference, particularity, alterity without repudiating the underlying affinity that is the first prerequisite for knowledge.
Intractability and impasse, the feeling of not knowing which way to turn, stays, behind the brave front of new codes and symmetric expressions, rather firmly in place.
Quite possibly, the way out of this wilderness of question marks lies not in waiting expectantly for a Theoretical Breakthrough, but in describing what happens when the imaginings of gender and those of science actually encounter one another in salons, guilds, schools, and academies. This is what Londa Schiebinger does in her fine account of the vicissitudes of women scholars in the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her book is neither a “compensatory history,” countering a “great man” story with a “great woman” one, nor a “different voice” plea for the celebration of female intellect; nor is it but another somber chronicle of male injustice. It is a beautifully detailed portrayal, alternately amusing, astonishing, dismaying, and painful, of “how real men and women participated in [early modern] science” and what difference it made—to them, to science, and to our general idea of sexual difference. Feminism put to work.
Schiebinger’s general strategy is not as such particularly original. Like most intellectual historians these days, of science, literature, or anything else, she places both thinkers and their ideas within the social setting—she calls it “the institutional landscape”—in which they appear, get noticed or ignored, are taken up and celebrated or discounted and driven toward the margins of serious life. The tendency in early modern science to make women and their work peripheral, to constrain them within very narrow circuits of thought and reputation, was something some people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) did and other people (not always unwillingly) suffered. “The persistent effort to distance science from women and the feminine” was just that: an effort. “Science was itself part of the terrain that divided the sexes.”
Schiebinger begins her mapping of this terrain with a survey of the status of women in the institutions—national universities, Renaissance courts, Enlightenment salons, royal academies, artisan guilds—within which early modern science arose. The universities, recently evolved from medieval monasteries, were, the Italian ones in part aside, completely closed; the courts, their martial swagger set off with humanist learning, were a bit more open, but only as after-dinner conversation shops for philosophical ladies; the salons were run by clever and ambitious women, but mainly in the service of male careers; the academies, except again, and again in part, for the Italians, did not elect women. In the guilds women could engage in a certain amount of underlaborer science—anatomical modeling, plant sketching, calendar making—but received little in the way of credit for it.
It is something of a wonder that female scientists existed at all. It is even more remarkable that those who did were impressive enough to induce redoubled efforts to keep them firmly away from the center of things. “Being a Woman,” Margaret Cavendish, the duchess of Newcastle, a “natural philosopher” in the vein of Hobbes, Gassendi, and Descartes, and located by marriage at the edge of their circle, wrote in 1663,
[I] Cannot…Publickly…Preach, Teach, Declare or Explane [my works] by Words of Mouth, as most of the Famous Philosophers have done, who thereby made their Philosophical Opinions more Famous, than I fear Mine will ever be…
The rest of the book consists, then, in a tracing of the efforts of able women (Cavendish herself, who was something of a pistol, the physicist, and amie de Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, the quietist etymologist Maria Merian, the craft astronomer Maria Winkelmann) to get, if not famous, at least anyway properly recognized, and the mounting obstacles thrown in their path by the heightening of sexual contrast, the growing acceptance of a masculine image of science, and, most critically, the triumph, by the time of Kant, Comte, and Claude Bernard of “complementarian,” separate spheres—men are thinkers, women helpmates—view of gender relations.
The story is neither simple nor without its surprises and ironies. There are male naturalists attacked by lady salonnières for femininity of style; women anatomists constructing female skeletons with reduced skulls, exaggerated pelvises, and ostrich necks; passionate rationalists going on about women’s “beautiful understanding” which “can leave Descartes’s vortices to whirl forever without troubling itself about them”; royal astronomers turning their sisters into trained and adoring “puppy-dog” assistants; botanical dons questioning the seriousness of women amateurs or “those men who resemble women”; male feminists urging women scientists to ground their work in “practical matters”; female feminists urging them to remain unmarried. Schiebinger moves through this harlequin material with authority, fairness, and appropriate scorn, and she proves her case:
Science and femininity share an intimate history, shaped as they both have been by similar social, political, and economic forces. By burying gender in science, European culture lost part of its past.
But that was then, and this is now. To see the workings of gender in the making of science, and the workings of science in the making of gender, as they proceed these days, when it is not so much salons and academies, or even universities, as research teams, invisible colleges, mass media, think tanks, large machines, and state agencies that form the “institutional landscape” of science, it is necessary, perhaps, to have a well-defined case of a recently evolved and rapidly changing field, which strikes a chord in the culture and is receptive to women. For this, primatology, the systematic study of apes and monkeys, is virtually ideal; a sheer gift for someone, like the critical biologist cum cultural historian Donna Haraway, whose aim it is to monitor the traffic between images of nature and ideologies of sex.
All the ingredients are there. In the first place, though fascination with non-human primates stretches back to at least the eighteenth century (when Monboddo thought orangutans could play the harp and Buffon sketched them erect with walking sticks), systematic empirical inquiry—taxidermy, laboratory colonies, field studies, cinematography—really starts in earnest only in the 1920s and 1930s, and mainly in the United States. Its history is visible. Second, the “monkeys is the craziest people” similarity of chimps, gorillas, baboons, and so on to ourselves in looks and behavior gives them enormous popular force as images of the not-quite-human: unsettling near-men, comical, childish, primitive, lewd, who leave us uncertain whether to put them in cages or teach them language. Third, the evolutionary cousinship of monkeys, apes, “fossil men,” and human beings makes the description of simian physiology, psychology, and social life seem, to the hard Darwinian, the ground plan of our own, a baseline sketch of what it is, in esse and generically, to be a “Man.” And fourth, for a number of reasons not altogether clear (its late appearance? the need for husband and wife teams in field research? its upper-class ambiance? its back-to-nature tone?), women have become unusually prominent in primatology—some indeed, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, world-famous.
Haraway, who in addition to being a biologist and a historian also aspires to a prophetical role, sweeps into all this laying about her with great abandon—“Monkeys and Monopoly Capitalism,” “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” “Apes in Eden, Apes in Space,” “Women’s Place Is in the Jungle” are some of the chapter headings—in a prose style that seems to have been gathered from the sky. But in the end, in four hundred pages that might better have been half that, she manages to raise, in one way or another, most of the relevant issues (and nearly as many that are not so relevant) and construct a warts-and-all account of the formation of a science amid the push-and-shove of modern culture. Not everything in Primate Visions is either true or fair, and a lot of it is outright odd. Yet, however diffusely, the story gets more or less told; however oracularly, it generally informs. What is surprising is how conventional a story, under the postmodern gloss and the barricade sloganizing, it turns out to be.
The plot is essentially linear and thoroughly whiggish. In the 1920s and 1930s primatology was complacently patriarchal, with its great white hunters and stuffed gorillas, breeding colony laboratories and sexological field studies. In the immediate postwar period, the extraordinarily rapid expansion of paleoanthropological fossil-man studies in Africa, the rise of the so-called “New Physical Anthropology,” and, a bit later, the appearance of sociobiology (plus a certain amount of advanced grantsmanship and celebrity making), set in place a scientifically armored image of “Man the Hunter” that swept all before it. In the past decade or two, women primatologists, most of them trained in one or another of these enterprises but increasingly animated by feminist concerns, have begun to resist the peremptoriness of all this and move the field in more enlightened, and less settled, directions. Not up from the ape. Up from masculinism and the single view.
It is, in any case, not the plot, but what it tells us about how we think about things, and how wrong we are in doing so, to which Haraway would have us attend. And it is here that her work will most provoke those for whom science is reality-driven and everything else is something else—ideology, folklore, poetry, metaphysics—for she denies any fundamental distinction in kind between what is said in the dry, “this-is-your-captain-speaking” voice of disciplinary expertise and what is said in the charged, all-too-human tones of the general culture. According to Haraway, the “discursive fields” within which primatology formed—public museums, university laboratories, experimental field stations, jungle safaris, academic summit meetings, National Geographic Society television specials, space shots, East African fossil sites, textbooks, popular tracts, press reports, science fiction, Tarzan movies—determine what it is as much as its methods, its theories, or its factual claims:
Monkeys and apes, and human beings as their taxonomic kin, exist on the boundaries of…many struggles to determine what will count as knowledge. Primates are not nicely boxed into a specialized and secured discipline or field…. Many kinds of people can claim to know primates,…. [and the] boundary between technical and popular discourse is very fragile and permeable….
Some of the interesting border disputes about primates, who and what they are (and who and what they are for), are between psychiatry and zoology, biology and anthropology, genetics and comparative psychology, ecology and medical research, laboratory scientists, conservationists and multinational logging companies, poachers and game wardens, scientists and administrators in zoos, feminists and anti-feminists, specialists and lay people, physical anthropologists and ecological-evolutionary biologists, established scientists and new Ph.D.’s, women’s studies students and professors in animal behavior courses, linguists and biologists, foundation officials and grant applicants, science writers and researchers, historians of science and real scientists, marxists and liberals, liberals and neo-conservatives.
This is social constructivism with a vengeance. So broad a focus naturally makes for clutter and a general air of blur and distraction. Is there anything that does not relate? (Perhaps not: Haraway brings in the science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s “xenogenic” fetus with “five progenitors…from two species, at least three genders, two sexes, and an indeterminate number of races,” deep-reads a Hallmark greeting card showing a midget King Kong being sexually harassed by a gigantic blonde, and announces, “I have always preferred the prospect of pregnancy with the embryo of another species.”) But more than that, it makes for the possibility of discussing a large number of matters at great length and vast detail without sustaining an argument or arriving at anything that resembles a determinate conclusion. Everything is flourish, irony, gesture, and suggestion.
This loose-limbed way with things is not without its advantages, some of which Haraway well exploits. Her description of the boy’s-book atmospherics of the Africa Hall of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, “dedicated,” by the likes of J.P. Morgan, W.K. Vanderbilt, and Teddy Roosevelt, “to preserving a threatened manhood” in the face of “prolific bodies of…new immigrants” is a fine satiric turn. Her picture of infant monkeys huddled at the bottom of a stainless steel “well of despair” designed by the experimental psychologist Harry Harlow to “reproduce the…utter hopelessness [of] human depression” is an unforgettable image of scientific sadism. And her account of Sherwood Washburn’s creation at Berkeley of a human origins program emphasizing the “ape-beneath-the-skin,” with which about every important field anthropologist has at one time or another been associated, is a model example of how academic empires get built these days. But when it comes, eventually, to establishing her own thesis—“Primatology Is a Genre of Feminist Theory,” a “Politics of Being Female”—her lack of method fails her. The genre doesn’t appear, the politics remain unformed.
The fifteen or so women primatologists whose work Haraway reviews in some detail show hardly more in common than a tendency to be interested, among other things, in female animals, mothering, and sexual receptivity. One is concerned with sexual difference in time and energy budgets among baboons; another with reproductive strategies among female langurs; another with the importance among chimps of female gathering as against male hunting. Lemur intelligence, the emotional lives of gorillas, chimpanzee tool making, and the application of sociobiological notions of sexual competition to the evolution of womanhood all attract attention. Feminist primatology is “characterized by tensions, oppositions, exclusions,…not a series of doctrines, but a web of intersecting and frequently contradictory commitments.”
So, indeed, is the whole of science. Haraway’s account of “politics” comes to little more than a demonstration that women primatologists know one another, attend the same conferences, draw at times on one another’s work—that is, form “networks.” How these networks function, how they differ, if they do, from scholarly networks in general, and what effect their existence has on women primatologists’ sense of themselves as scientists, remains obscure. Nor does there emerge some way of working and “discoursing” distinctive enough to look like a “genre” of anything, much less, as Haraway sometimes seems to suggest, a radical reworking of biology, anthropology, and our conception of nature. That may perhaps be the case. But it will take more than insistence to persuade the dubious to think so.
The feminist critique of science is clearly launched, and as clearly struggling. It seems unlikely either to melt away or turn everything upside down, but to become an abiding feature of intellectual life—ragged, various, and unignorable. Part of the scene.
Just how it will develop, which of the paths it has uncertainly set out upon will prove productive and which will run out into circular chatter, and even what subjects—the social status of women in science, the nature and significance of sexual difference, the role of gender in shaping inquiry—will turn out to be central is wholly unclear, and looks to remain so for a while to come. In the long meantime, the theoretical searching of Harding, Longino, and Keller, the artisan scholarship of Schiebinger, and the polemical vision building of Haraway exist, along with a number of other ventures, side by side, not so much clashing as looking warily across at one another and wondering, nervously, how it will all fall out.
How it will all fall out depends most critically on how the tension gets resolved between the moral impulses of feminism, the determination to correct gender-based injustice and secure for women the direction of their lives, and the knowledge-seeking ones of science, the no-less-impassioned effort to understand the world as it, free of wishing, “really is.” No one, it seems, is anywhere near to doing that. But the issue is joined, and it will not soon disappear.
The first quotation is from Elizabeth Fee, "A Feminist Critique of Scientific Objectivity," in Science for the People, Vol. 14 No. 4, p. 8, cited by Sue V. Rosser, in Tuana, p. 10; the second from Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, cited in Sue Curry Jansen, "Is Science a Man? New Feminist Epistemologies and Reconstructions of Knowledge," Theory and Society, Vol. 19 (1990), p. 235.↩
"Panel Discussion: Construction and Constraint," in Ernan McMullin, ed., Construction and Constraint: The Shaping of Scientific Rationality (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 242. The whole volume is an excellent survey of the range of positions in the debate.↩
For a review of the intense, unstable debate over the meaning and value of the concept of gender in feminist writing generally, see Joan Wallach Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," in her Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 28–50.↩
The quotation is from W.V.O. Quine, cited, negatively, as "dogmatic metaphysics," in Richard Rorty, "Is Natural Science a Natural Kind?" McMullin, p. 50↩
Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (W.H. Freeman, 1983); reviewed in The New York Review, March 29, 1984.↩
The first quotation is from Elizabeth Fee, “A Feminist Critique of Scientific Objectivity,” in Science for the People, Vol. 14 No. 4, p. 8, cited by Sue V. Rosser, in Tuana, p. 10; the second from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, cited in Sue Curry Jansen, “Is Science a Man? New Feminist Epistemologies and Reconstructions of Knowledge,” Theory and Society, Vol. 19 (1990), p. 235.↩
“Panel Discussion: Construction and Constraint,” in Ernan McMullin, ed., Construction and Constraint: The Shaping of Scientific Rationality (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 242. The whole volume is an excellent survey of the range of positions in the debate.↩
For a review of the intense, unstable debate over the meaning and value of the concept of gender in feminist writing generally, see Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in her Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 28–50.↩
The quotation is from W.V.O. Quine, cited, negatively, as “dogmatic metaphysics,” in Richard Rorty, “Is Natural Science a Natural Kind?” McMullin, p. 50↩
Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (W.H. Freeman, 1983); reviewed in The New York Review, March 29, 1984.↩