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Women Versus the Biologists

The sobriety, care, and accuracy of the argument are both its strength and its weakness. No one can accuse its authors of polemical excesses, ideologically motivated claims, or anti-scientific bias. The book can and ought to be used as a text in law schools and schools of public policy. The problem is that after the myths are exploded there is nothing left but a hole in the ground. The truth about alcoholism, violence, and divorce is that we don’t know the truth. There are no positive claims about their causes that can be made with any honest conviction. But saying that our lives are the consequences of a complex and variable interaction between internal and external causes does not concentrate the mind nearly so well as a simplistic claim; nor does it promise anything in the way of relief for individual and social miseries. It takes a certain moral courage to accept the message of scientific ignorance and all that it implies.


One place that seems constantly ablaze with fires set not only by hostile forces from across the tracks but by the homeowners themselves is the neighborhood of gender differences. In the struggle for institutional and legal equality, women have been rather less successful than blacks. The Nineteenth Amendment came fifty years after the Fifteenth, and in proportion to their numbers, women are represented among the CEOs and presidents of large industrial corporations and major universities in smaller number than those previously excluded minorities, blacks and Jews. When speaking to academic audiences about the biological determination of social status, I have repeatedly tried the experiment of asking the crowd how many believe that blacks are genetically mentally inferior to whites. No one ever raises a hand. When I then ask how many believe that men are biologically superior to women in analytic and mathematical ability, there will always be a few volunteers whose raised hands are accompanied by a snicker or two from the audience and some frowns of disapproval. To admit publicly to outright biological racism is a strict taboo, but the avowal of biological sexism is tolerated as a minor foolishness, unlikely to bring serious consequences.

While white intellectuals have been among the prime opponents of the claims of the biological inferiority of blacks, the struggle against claims of the innate biological inferiority of women has been mostly the work of other women. Partly, this asymmetry is a consequence of the fact that intellectuals, as members of the middle class, have seen racism as having primarily the economic and political consequences of keeping blacks in a permanent underclass, while seeing the disabilities of women as chiefly secondary issues of consciousness, selfesteem, and professional advancement. “Well, it’s too bad if women can’t be full professors of mathematics or president, but they’ll survive.”

But it is also a consequence of the ideology of the part of the feminist movement that affirms an essential psychic and cognitive difference between men and women,5 and that often denies to men the possibility of serving in anything but a supportive role in the fight against claims of the biological inferiority of women. Sometimes these differences are said to be to outcome of the maturing child’s relation to its mother, and so are biologically based only at second-hand, since it is female biology that prescribes their role as mothers. At other times, it is claimed that psycho-social differences, favorable to women, are directly the consequence of the action of hormones and genes on psychic development. So women have been said to be naturally more cooperative, more loving, less violent and competitive, and more able to conceive problems in broad outline. Of course, it all depends on what one thinks is a desirable trait. The feminist anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy thinks women are superior because they are naturally more crafty and acquisitive than men, and have been made so by evolution. Instead of criticizing claims of innate and ineluctable psychic differences, such feminists seek to use those claims to the advantage of women, and since women have a unique understanding, only they can address the issue on the side of women. That is a mistake that Ruth Hubbard never makes.

No one has been a more tireless and influential critic of the biological theory of women’s inequality than Ruth Hubbard. When the fire brigade is called out to stop the latest arson incident, she can be glimpsed in the smoke directing the hoses, and when the flames are out, and everyone has gone home, it is she who undertakes a thorough overhaul of the ashes to keep the glowing embers from rekindling. Hubbard began as a research scientist studying the physiology and biochemistry of vision and became the first and, for a long time, the only woman given a tenured professorship of biology at Harvard in a faculty of forty-three tenured members. Having finally been appointed professor after many years as a research associate, she had the gall to inform her colleagues that she was giving up the research career that had led to her appointment, and would, in the future, devote herself to women’s studies and social issues in biology.

The very considerable courage and political conviction required to do this should not be underestimated. As scientists grow older, they often give up research in favor of philosophy, history, politics, which most younger scientists see as wooly-minded pursuits that do not really require any intellectual rigor. But they do so imperceptibly, pretending always to be involved in scientific work, for only continuing scientific production confers on us the status and ego rewards that we have coveted all our lives. Scientific work creates that bank account of legitimacy which we can then spend on our political and humanist pursuits. To devalue deliberately, in the service of political principle, the past currency of one’s life at the very moment when the check has been cashed is not a casual act. Of course, one may criticize the decision on strategic grounds. The extent to which scientists have credibility when they speak about social and political issues depends upon their continual legitimacy as “objective” scientists. By giving up that legitimacy, indeed, by showing a certain disdain for her colleagues’ expectations, Hubbard gave up her institutional claim of authority, and thus a certain credibility. “I knew it all the time,” her colleagues must have said. “Just like a woman to give up scholarship for nonsense once she gets what she wants.” Despite the claim that in the marketplace of ideas it is the better-made product that wins the consumer’s heart, it is, in fact, brand loyalty that counts. “Made in Cambridge” has always been worth far more than the force of logic. I once had the occasion to testify as an expert witness, reporting the results of work of a member of a research team who was a professor of economics. Opposing counsel, when cross-examining me, asked whether Dr. Baker was a professor at Harvard (his emphasis). “No,” I replied, “at the University of South Carolina.” “Aha,” he said with a smile and sat down. The defense rested.


The seven books reviewed here all bear in one way or another on the problem of the determination of gender differences. Four are collections of essays, including some of her own, that Hubbard has edited together with a chemist, Marian Lowe, and two lawyers engaged in ecological and women’s issues, Mary Sue Henifin and Barbara Fried, both former students of Hubbard. Two, The Politics of Women’s Biology and Exploding the Gene Myth, are systematic treatments of the relation of inner biological causes to social identity. The last, The Shape of Red, is an attempt to provide an alternative view of the development of a woman through an autobiographical exchange with a political comrade, Margaret Randall, who had exiled herself from the United States to Mexico in response to her sense of alienation from the direction of American politics, and whose attempt to return was unsuccessfully resisted by the American government. All are concerned with the relation between biological subject and biological object, between the inner and the outer, the individual and the social. And all, in one way or another, are glosses on that ambiguous slogan of the 1960s, “The personal is political.”

The problem of the relation between the biological and the social differences between men and women begins with two sets of facts about which there is no dispute and which are laid out by Hubbard in Chapters 9, 10, and 11 of The Politics of Women’s Biology and in Lowe’s essay in Woman’s Nature. First, adult human beings are, with few exceptions, divided into two types that differ in their internal organs and in their external genitalia, and these are associated with clearly different roles in the reproductive process. There are, of course, exceptional individuals with mixed or intermediate anatomies, but the differences of all but a very few people are unambiguous. If we classify human beings by these primary anatomical differences, into females and males, we find a large number of other anatomical physiological characteristics that differ on the average between the sexes, but for which there is more or less variation between individuals of the same sex, and more or less overlap in range between the groups.

Both females and males secrete both estrogen and testosterone, although the relative amounts differ considerably. The amounts of the hormones change during development and vary with age, health, stress, exercise, and other aspects of experience. Breast development, skin texture, body hair, distribution of fat, size, and muscle mass all differ on the average between the anatomically defined sexes, but there are lots of smooth-skinned, fat small, hairless, weak-muscled men, and many coarse, skinny, tall, hairy and muscled women. All other claims about biological differences between the sexes, whether anatomical or psychological, are disputed and rest on weak evidence or no evidence at all.

The second set of indisputable facts, admirably summarized in Lila Leibowitz’s very informative anthropological essay in Woman’s Nature, are sociocultural generalizations. Every known human society has some division of labor by sex, although the particular tasks that are regarded as “men’s work” and “women’s work” vary considerably and may be reversed from one society to another. There are men’s rites and women’s rites, men’s fashions and women’s fashions, things that are forbidden to men and things that are forbidden to women, spheres of male power and of female power. Every society in every era has used the anatomical and reproductive dichotomy between male and female as a basis for a dichotomy in social organization along productive and ritual lines. For Hubbard and her colleagues, the question is: “What is the relation between the anatomical and social facts, and why do we care, anyway? Is anatomy destiny?”

There are roughly three positions one can take on the issues. The first is that some division of labor and rite is a structural property of human social organization, perhaps arising out of the very nature of human social manipulation of the world, and that sex difference, being the most obvious from birth and constantly in our consciousness as adults, is an arbitrary marker, neatly sorting people into two piles. Were the content of sex differences totally unrelated to the content of social differences however, we would expect that the frequency with which institutional power, or property rights, or war making, fell to males would be about the same as any of the three fell to females when we look over large numbers of human societies. While there are, indeed, matriarchal property rights and women warriors, these are far less frequent than their male equivalents, so the complete independence of the nature of anatomical differences from the content of social differences seems unlikely.

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    See, for example, Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Women, (Bantam, 1973) for an “esterocentric” view of evolution, and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (University of California Press, 1978) which stands Freud on his head.

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