A Simple Problem Science Can’t Solve

Women in Science: Portraits from a World in Transition

by Vivian Gornick
Simon and Schuster, 172 pp., $15.95

The earliest discussion I know of in which intellectuals explain to one another why affirmative action just doesn’t work in the academy is in Book V of The Republic. Socrates makes a convincing chairman of the department.

All the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man.

Very true.

Then are we to impose all our enactments on men and none of them on women?

That will never do….

And one woman is a philosopher and another is an enemy of philosophy, one has spirit, and another is without spirit?

This is also true.

Then one woman will have the temper of a guardian, and another not. Was not the selection of the male guardians determined by differences of this sort?

The scientific demonstration that women are intellectually inferior to men has taken a number of forms as scientific theories have themselves developed, but at each moment the latest scientific understanding has been the mode for a naturalistic misogyny. In the nineteenth century it was claimed that women’s brains, being smaller than men’s, were less capable of reasoning. At the same time it was argued that there was a reciprocal dependence of the organs of generation and of reason. Thus, the education of women would cause their ovaries to dry up, with the inevitable extinction of the race (or at least of the better sort of people).

Women beware. You are on the brink of destruction: You have heretofore engaged in crushing your waists; now you are attempting to cultivate your mind: You have been merely dancing all night in the foul air of the ballroom; now you are beginning to spend your mornings in study… now you are exerting your understanding to learn Greek, and solve problems in Euclid. Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost.1

With the realization that brain size has no relation to brain function in humans, and with a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of human physiology, such quaint justifications for sexism have lost their force, but they have simply been replaced by equally baseless, although more fashionable, assertions. Anatomy may no longer be destiny, but chemistry is. Now it is our DNA that makes men dominant. Genes make hormones and hormones influence neural development and neural development makes professors. So the virtual nonexistence of famous women mathematicians is the consequence of the lack of mathematics genes in the gentler sex. That, at least, is the claim of a paper published in the most prestigious general American journal of science, commented on at length in the editorial columns of that journal, and given wide publicity in the general press.2 That the authors of the paper never actually gave any evidence for the existence of such genes seems to have deterred neither them nor the referees who recommended their paper for publication nor the editor of the journal.

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