The central social agony of American political and social life since the founding of the Republic has been caused by the problem of equality. Our domestic political history has been dominated by the demand for equality and the resistance to that demand. A destructive civil war, urban riots, the burning of cities, major legislation and judicial struggles, and the local social and political structures of a large section of the United States have all, at least at the level of public consciousness, been responses to the manifest inequality of status, wealth, and power in a society whose chief claim to legitimacy has been its devotion to equality.
Western history had, of course, always been marked by civil wars, peasant uprisings, rick burnings, machine breakings, and urban riots, but these were in the name of bread, land, and work. The demand for social and political equality was a creation of the ideologues of modern society. Both in Europe and North America, the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which overthrew the ancien régime of restricted privilege, were based on the slogans of liberté, égalité, fraternité. “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
These are the slogans of our childhood, the unquestioned assertion of the basis of our political and civil life. Yet the facts of that life are in direct contradiction with the ideology. It is obvious to everyone, no matter how optimistic their politics, that there are immense inequalities of social status, power, and wealth among individuals, among races, between the sexes. While Jefferson could not have meant what he said about all men being created equal, since a mere ten years later the framers of the Constitution arranged that slaves would be counted as only three-fifths a person, he meant literally all men since the political rights of women were not established for another 130 years.
The social tension created by the contradiction between the ideals of equality and the manifest existing inequalities has been, in part, relieved by institutional and judicial arrangements. Constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, civil rights legislation have all been devoted to creating a better fit between the ideal and the real. Yet major inequalities remain, and it does not seem that further judicial and institutional changes of a radical kind will be accomplished. The movement for women’s rights, in particular, is stalled and even reversed, with the Equal Rights Amendment no longer a political issue and abortion rights in at least partial retreat. What is the solution? The Enlightenment, having created the problem in the first place by the claim for individual rights, also provided a tool for legitimizing inequality through its implied claims that the individual is supremely responsible for causing the unequal situation he or she occupies.
Accompanying the static and unchanging social position in which pre-revolutionary Europeans found themselves was the view that divine causation provided legitimacy to hierarchal society. The doctrine of Grace was the guarantor of social stability and only on those occasions when Divine Grace was conferred or withdrawn could one expect to change one’s social position. (Cromwell observed that although Charles I ruled Dei Gratia, grace had been removed from him as evidenced by his severed head.) In the postrevolutionary world, individuals are said to acquire their position in society by their own efforts, and these efforts must be effective if the society built on them is to be legitimate. Individuals are ontologically prior to the collectivity in this world view, and so the properties of society are simply the accumulated consequences of the properties of individuals. Whether it be Hobbes’s derivation of the war of all against all from the self-expansive properties of individuals in a world of limited resources, or Weber’s view of the supreme importance to human institutions of outstanding leaders like Bismarck, or Durkheim’s notion of the collective mind of society, the properties of the individual human being become, for modern social theory, the determinant of social relations. “Natural rights for natural men” has replaced “Dieu et mon Droit.”
If, despite our best institutional efforts to destroy artificial barriers to entry, blacks as a group continue to have lower social and economic status than whites, then we must look into the properties of blacks as individuals for the causes of that inequality. If women lack power, it must be that women are the weaker sex. But if the properties of society are the properties of individuals writ large, then the study of society must become the study of individuals, for social causes are, ultimately, individual causes. To understand the origin and maintenance of social structures, we must, in this view, understand the ontogeny of individuals. Thus political economy becomes applied biology. Economics becomes the study of consumer psychology, worker incentives, and investor behavior, of individual utilities in two-person, zero-sum games.
The first serious “scientific” study of the internal biological causes of social position was Cesare Lombroso’s late nineteenth-century criminal anthropology, which claimed that criminals were born and not made. This theory of innate criminality, updated to implicate faulty DNA, has a modern current and, indeed, is taught at Harvard. There has been, since Lombroso, a major intellectual industry tracing the causes of social inequality between classes, races, and the sexes. A vast literature has been created and, in reaction, a smaller group of debunking critics of biological determinism has emerged1 in what those of us involved liken to the work of a volunteer fire department. No sooner has one blaze set by intellectual incendiaries been doused by the cool stream of critical reason, then another springs up down the street.
There is, at present, no aspect of social or individual life that is not claimed for the genes. Richard Dawkins’s2 claim that the genes “make us, body and mind” seemed the hyperbolic excess of a vulgar understanding in 1976, but it is now the unexamined consensus of intellectual consciousness propagated by journalists and scientists alike. The belief in the absolute primacy of the internal over the external is nowhere more manifest than in the demands of the biological parents of Jessica DeBoer and Kimberly Mays to assert their genetic rights over the lives of their children who had been raised by others. Every physical, psychic, or social ill, every perturbation of the body corporeal or politic is said to be genetic. There are, according to “scientific studies,” genes for schizophrenia, genes for sensitivity to industrial pollutants and dangerous workplace conditions, genes for criminality, genes for violence, genes for divorce, and genes for homelessness. While there have been a few essays and reviews questioning this genomania or at least considering its claims with some measure of skepticism,3 there has been no generally critical book on the diverse claims for the power of DNA until the appearance of Exploding the Gene Myth by Ruth Hubbard and her son, Elijah Wald, who provided the rhetorical skills to supplement Hubbard’s biological expertise.
Past books on eugenics or on biological determinism in general have discussed the claims historically and ideologically, attempting to explain the rise in biologistic explanations as political and ideological phenomena, but expending little effort on exposing the biological issues themselves. Exploding the Gene Myth puts to one side these political and ideological forces and concentrates on describing the “gene myth,” providing an accessible account of what is really known about the relevant biology of reproduction, and discussing the social and legal consequences of the reliance on genetic explanations and causes.
Exploding the Gene Myth begins with a brief survey of how claims about genetics and actual medical and social practice based on genetics affect our lives. The structure of the authors’ description follows the lines laid down by Daniel Kevles in his extremely influential book on the history of human genetics.4 Kevles argued convincingly that the eugenics movement, having been discredited as a movement for social improvement, largely by the extreme racism of the Nazis, was converted into human clinical genetics, whose object is not to better society as a collective, but to provide to individuals and families diagnosis, counseling, and therapies to alleviate individual suffering. By extension, diagnosis and counseling, but certainly not therapies, are provided to employers and insurers to screen out workers who are potential health risks. The explanatory model of human disorders provided by genetics is based on the claim that genes determine significant aspects of human anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Genes are said to “control,” “create,” or “determine” the physical and psychic development of individuals, because the DNA is a set of instructions to the biochemical processes of the cells that make us up.
“Normal” individuals, then, have normal genes, while a very large fraction of the sick (including those with heart disease and cancer) owe their diseases to abnormal sequences of DNA. The first problem of human genetics, then, is to identify the gene “for” an abnormality, and provide a procedure for recognizing its presence in an individual. Carriers of defective heredity can then be advised on a course of preventive maintenance, or a therapy that may in the future include the actual replacement of the defective gene by a normal component, rather like the replacement of a bad steering mechanism in a manufacturer’s recall of a car. At the worst, having no therapy to offer, the geneticist can warn the carrier of defective DNA that it is time to make her will.
Hubbard and Wald attack this model at its base, by challenging the claim that genes “determine” organisms. They describe, correctly, how the development of an organism is a unique consequence of the interaction of genetic and environmental forces, and always subject to accidents of development. Nor are these accidents that we normally think of as traumata causing birth defects. They are characteristic of every individual life history, for time and chance happeneth to all. Moreover, they explain how, even in cases where genes may play a major role in the causal pathway of a disorder, the model of one gene-one disorder is far too simple. It is by no means clear that diabetes, for example, can be explained by reference to defective genes, but if it can, there must be several or even many genes implicated.
The genetic model of disease leads ineluctably to the disease model of all ills and social deviance. So genetic defects are claimed to lie at the basis of heart disease, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug dependence, violent behavior, unconventional sex, and shoplifting. Recognizing that any common-sense consideration of these conditions implicates environmental influence, geneticists often refer to “inherited tendencies” to these conditions. Hubbard and Wald devote considerable attention to showing how little actual genetic knowledge exists for such “genetic tendencies,” and how difficult it is to obtain such knowledge, since the chief tool of investigation is the observed similarity between relatives. The central problem of human genetics is precisely that relatives resemble each other because of both genetic and cultural ties, and we do not know how to disentangle the two.
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.
At the opposite extreme is the biological determinist view, now more fashionable than ever with the overestimation of the importance in human experience of DNA, that the sexual division of labor and power are the direct consequence of physiological and anatomical differences between men and women. The overt biological differences, in this view, are themselves causally efficacious, but more than that, they are signs of many other differences in brain structure and function which limit men and women in their roles. A large body of literature presses this claim, the most influential at present coming from sociobiologists. So E.O. Wilson writes of the sexual division of labor that
The genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies…. Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science.6
Nor do only male scientists make such claims. Camilla Benbow and her colleague Julian Stanley created a considerable flurry with their claim in 1980, published in Science, and widely publicized in the press, that women are biologically inferior in mathematical reasoning so that, although they can indeed do humdrum mathematics, really creative work is beyond their limits. If women mathematicians are rare, it is because the brain structures of women, developing under the influence of too much estrogen and too little testosterone, simply cannot cope with Fermat’s Last Theorem. Wilson’s and Benbow’s claims remind one of Plato’s assertion in the Republic that women have all the same qualitative abilities as men but in lesser degree (except pancake making).
But this determinist view of the division of labor and affect cannot be right either. Knitting and hand weaving, almost exclusively women’s work now that they are outside the mainstream of production, were exclusively men’s work 150 years ago. In like manner, there are now hundreds of women coal miners, just as mining is becoming more insecure and marginalized as a lifetime occupation. Of course, these examples can also be taken to prove that men run the world and preempt the occupations that count. But we knew that already. The question is why?
The third position, taken by Hubbard and her colleagues, demands that we distinguish the origin of social differentiation from the forces maintaining it. In this view, the division of reproductive labor, a direct consequence of the anatomical difference between the sexes, lies at the origin of social differences in work and social role. Under early conditions of production and in hunting and gathering societies, the producers and nurturers of children will be more sedentary and a division of labor, of group association, of spheres of power will develop.7 The continued maintenance of labor and power differences, and their elaboration, however, depend on particular historical circumstances so that we are not bound to the aboriginal situation. Pregnancy and nursing, even in societies of low technological level, do not put an absolute constraint on women’s labor. When intensive labor is required, as for example at harvest time in peasant agriculture, women are in the fields by necessity while pregnant or nursing. In technologically advanced societies with extremely low birth rates and high levels of technical support, again the relation between the reproductive and the sexual division of labor is broken.
While this theory of the sexual division of labor seems reasonable, it is not the version offered by textbooks of sociobiology, behavioral genetics, and so-called “bio-social anthropology.” Of course, like all theories of the origin and maintenance of the sexual division of labor, it is a speculation, so we would not want to teach it to the unsophisticated mind as if it were objectively true. What is so seductive about biological explanations is that they seem to smell of material reality, even when they are equally speculative.
The biological determinist explanation of the inequalities between the sexes requires a program of research that will show the material basis for the different abilities and limitations of both men and women. But the asymmetry in status and power between the sexes results in an asymmetry of explanatory schemes. For most researchers, it is women who need to be explained, not men, who are, after all, the norm, just as it is homosexuals who need to be explained but not heterosexuals; there is no search for the “gene for heterosexuality.” So women are described as victims of “raging hormones,” regularly debilitated by menstruation, subject to irrational mood swings. As Hubbard observes, “No one has suggested that men are just walking testicles, but again and again women have been looked on as though they were walking ovaries and wombs.”
The Politics of Women’s Biology discusses the history of claims for a biologically determined cognitive difference between the sexes. During the nineteenth century, it was a common medical opinion that the brain and the female reproductive organs were in competition for energy, so that an educated woman would be a sterile woman. Testicles, apparently, had their own sources of energy. Women’s brains have been claimed to be smaller than men’s, although actual measurement shows them to be a bit larger in proportion to body size, and, anyway, no one has ever found a correlation between brain size and human cognitive abilities. More recently, a variety of contradictory claims have been made of differences in brain structure between the sexes. In a famous set of observations on people whose connection between the right and left brain hemispheres had been severed, Roger Sperry and his colleagues claimed a differentiation in cognitive functions between the two halves. The left hemisphere was said to determine logical thought, verbal behavior, mathematical ability, and “executive” decision, while the right hemisphere was said to control visual-spatial ability, emotion, and intuition. So the classical feminine qualities seemed to reside in the right side of the brain.
The problem is that on tests of verbal ability, women perform better than men, although men are better at visual-spatial tasks. It must be, then, according to an explanation favored by Sperry, that women are less “lateralized”—i.e., dependent on one side of the brain—than men, using both parts of their brains more or less equally. On the other hand, a competing hypothesis asserts that women are more lateralized than men and are right-brained, while men’s abilities are more evenly spread across the two hemispheres. Neither party has attempted to measure the degree of lateralization in men and women, nor have they suggested how one could go about doing so. The stories are just stories.8
Indeed, much of the “evidence” for basic biological differences determining differential abilities and roles turns out to confuse observations with their causes and explanations. So E.O. Wilson, the great propagator of sociobiology, reasons that “in hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies, and, on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin.”9
Hubbard’s major theme in The Politics of Women’s Biology is that the modern conception of biological woman has been constructed by an ideologically motivated and largely, but not exclusively, male-dominated science. That is, there is an intimate connection between the place of women in science and the science of women’s place. So long as biology as an enterprise is almost exclusively a male occupation, a biased science, masquerading as objective, will make unfounded claims about women’s biology that will justify the inferior status of women.
It is certainly the case that nearly all academic biologists, especially those with tenure, are men, despite the fact that biology has been a popular subject for women students. It is also clear to anyone who has spent his life in the academy that departmental relations, both formal and informal, resemble membership in a small club, with all the exclusiveness and sense of uniqueness that is implied. It must be remembered that academics expend a major portion of their psychic energy acting as gate keepers to professional acceptance, whether they are judging students, refereeing journal articles and book manuscripts, or deciding upon who may join their ranks. Thus academics confront the contradictions of the meritocratic ideal in a particularly acute form. If they really are judging on merit, why are there so few women in their ranks? Why do women not have merit? Certainly they have had access to education, even graduate education. So the fault must be in their very natures as women. While this may appear a pessimistic view of scientific objectivity, even a tolerant review of what biologists have said about women and the quality of the evidence and logic that have been used makes it hard to come to any other conclusion.
One feminist reaction to the male bias of women’s biology has been to attempt a female biased biology, in which the female turns out to be the smarter sex, the gentler sex, the more humane sex, the sex that has a real feeling for nature. But, of course, the evidence for an innate female decency is as bad as that for genetically inbuilt male nastiness, and Hubbard will have none of it. On the surface, there seems to be a contradiction in her position. If, as she says, science is inevitably biased by the social, personal, and political positions of the people who do it, if science cannot hope for some neutral (or neuter) objectivity, then on what grounds can she criticize the received biology of woman as “bad” biology? Has she not fallen into the pit that intellectual conservatives have claimed lies at the feet of every relativist? If there are no empirically grounded values, only what the literary theorist Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls “contingencies of value,” are there also nothing but contingencies of truth about the natural world?
Hubbard finesses this problem, as I do, by an appeal to very basic universal cultural agreements. We demand certain canons of evidence and argument that are formal and without reference to empirical content: a two-valued logic, in which every proposition must be true or false, but not both; the truth tables of Whitehead and Russell, which create the rules of reasoning for such propositions; the logic of statistical inference; the power of replicating experiments; the distinction between observations and causal claims. No natural scientist will deny these as necessary conditions of science, underlying all valid claims about the material world. But on these grounds alone, nearly all the biology of gender is bad science.
A second claim for a feminist science is that its metaphors, methodology, and world view will necessarily differ from masculine science. The metaphors of science are, indeed, filled with the violence, voyeurism, and tumescence of male adolescent fantasy. Scientists “wrestle” with an always female nature, to “wrest from her the truth,” or to “reveal her hidden secrets.” They make “war” on diseases and “conquer” them. Good science is “hard” science; bad science (like that refuge of so many women, psychology) is “soft” science, and molecular biology, like physics, is characterized by “hard inference.”10 The method of science is largely reductionist, taking Descartes’s clock metaphor as a basis for tearing the complex world into small bits and pieces to understand it, much as the archetypical small boy takes apart the real clock to see what makes it tick.
A feminist science would be, it is claimed, less reductionist, less hamfisted, better able to understand organisms and ecological systems as functioning harmonious wholes. The material world is a world of relations among things, and women are said to be more concerned with the dynamic of relationships than are men. Hubbard will have none of this either. Because she rejects the innateness and “naturalness” of what are thought of as feminine characteristics, she rejects the claim that women as a class must alter the nature of the scientific process.
There is, however, no compelling logic here. There is no reason that the socially constructed “woman” could not, in fact, alter institutions as much as any innate one. To deny the innateness of the feminine is not to deny the potential power of the image and set of attitudes and behaviors that are characterized as feminine (although not restricted to women) to alter institutions in which a large number of women take part. So if it were really the case that women, by training and socialization, concentrated more on relationships between things than on the properties of the things themselves, they might reject the reductionist, Cartesian model of, say, the brain and study the central nervous system in a more interactionist, dialectical mode. This mode would place less emphasis on fixed functions of fixed localities in the brain, and see that organ at a more integrated level.11 Were such a change in method successful in solving the outstanding problem of modern biology, the effect would be to radically alter the dominant mode of investigation and conceptualization in other branches of science as well. While such a future for science is conceivable, it is unlikely.
The problem is rather one of the nature of the historical process. If women do, indeed, succeed in becoming a proportionate part of the community of scientists, they will do so slowly, against resistance, and each woman scientist, as a person creating a life for herself in a social institution, will almost surely take on the attitudes and behaviors of the great mass of its members, men. That is certainly the history of women scientists up until the present, who have been successful precisely in the degree to which they are indistinguishable in scientific method from their male colleagues.
Much has been made of a special quality that Barbara McClintock is said to have brought to biology, “a feeling for the organism,”12 that is thought to be characteristic of women’s science. Yet the early work on chromosome mechanics that brought McClintock fame and status in the scientific community (one of the few women ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, she achieved that apotheosis forty years before her Nobel Prize and more recent public fame) was utterly reductionist and mechanist in the then-reigning tradition of cytology and genetics. Indeed, by a kind of social circularity, women who are to succeed as a minority in science will do so only if they are part of the methodological consensus and by their very success will strengthen that consensus. In all likelihood, science will capture women, not women science. So Hubbard may be quite wrong in principle, but right so far as historical events are concerned when, in The Politics of Women’s Biology, she “doubt[s] that women as gendered beings have something new or different to contribute to science.”
Women may have nothing to contribute to science as “gendered beings,” “but women as political beings do.” That is, for Hubbard, the consciousness of womanhood is the consciousness of oppression. That is what is meant by saying that the personal is political. When women enter science they do not do so to confront men with the feminine, but to confront a dominant class with its exclusive and oppressive attitudes and actions. And, in doing so, they make the institution of science better, because they force it to confront its own lack of objectivity, its failure to live up to its self-proclaimed canons.
The problem of science as she sees it is not that it embodies masculine as opposed to feminine values, but that it is a mirror of a structure of social domination, that it produces falsely “objective” legitimization of that structure, and in so doing fails to live up to its own standard. It is, after all, the established academy, including professors at Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, that claimed authoritatively to have shown that blacks, Mediterraneans, and the working class in general were biologically inferior, using canons of evidence that violate even the rudimentary demands of logical and empirical demonstration.13 As is so often the case, the most radical attack on an institution is the demand that it live up to its own myth. It is not an attempt to overthrow it but an attempt to cleanse and perfect it. “Think not that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy but to fulfill.”
Yet the same assimilationist pressure that makes it unlikely that women will succeed in bringing uniquely feminine viewpoints into science makes it doubtful that women will have the desired anti-ideological effect that Hubbard hopes for. Women cannot be both outside and inside science. They come to science as outsiders, but in the process of entering, they become insiders, beneficiaries of the same social status as their male colleagues, with the same interest in legitimizing the status quo. After all, they made it, so why can’t you?
The transformation of personal life that the outsider experiences when taken into the inside has powerful, although not inevitable, consequences for political views. The personal becomes political. And because human beings are the consequences not of internally fixed programs of the genes, but of a continuous psychic development within a social structure, personal histories may illuminate theoretical positions.
That is certainly the case for Ruth Hubbard. Her most personal book, The Shape of Red: Insider/Outsider Reflections, is a series of autobiographical accounts and, like all autobiographies, it reconstructs history to fulfill theory. Thus the personal becomes political not only in life but in our reconstructions of it. In broad outline, Hubbard’s biographical facts are straightforward and not unfamiliar. As a child of the well-off professional middle class in Vienna, she was on the inside, but as a girl and a Jew in Vienna in the 1930s, she was on the outside. As an immigrant to America, she felt on the outside, but as a Radcliffe student, the child of reestablished professionals in Cambridge, she was on the inside. As a young woman in science, she was on the outside, but in marrying a gentile from Westchester, she felt she was back on the inside. Then after a divorce and remarriage with a Jewish professor at an oppressively WASPy and rather anti-Semitic Harvard, she was outside and inside.
Not a few readers of (and contributors to) The New York Review will recognize elements of their own lives. Personal history, in one sense, explains everything, yet it predicts nothing because the same life histories can be claimed to predict the subscription lists of both the Monthly Review and Commentary. Every biological object, but especially a human being, is the nexus of a large number of weakly acting causes. No one, or few, of those causes determines the life of the organism; so that what appear to be trivially different causal stories may have utterly different end products. It is this structure of interaction of multiple causal pathways that makes living creatures, even the scientist, free in a way that inanimate objects are not. That is why, in the end, biographies tell us so little yet exemplify so much about the complexities of development.
April 7, 1994
See, for example, S.J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981) which I reviewed in The New York Review, October 22, 1981, and R.C. Lewontin, S.J. Rose, and Leo Kamin, Not in Our Genes (Pantheon, 1984). ↩
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976). ↩
See R.C. Lewontin, “The Dream of the Human Genome,” The New York Review, May 28, 1992. ↩
Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Knopf, 1985). ↩
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. ↩
E.O. Wilson, “Human Decency is Animal,” The New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975. ↩
For one version of this scenario, see Lila Leibowitz’s essay “Origins of the Sexual Division of Labor” in Woman’s Nature: Rationalizations of Inequality. ↩
See the chapter on “Sex Differences and the Dichotomization of the Brain” by Susan Starr in Genes and Gender. ↩
Wilson, “Human Decency is Animal.” ↩
Although conscious of the flavor of these metaphors, we all use them. I note that in an article in The New York Review (January 20, 1993), I wrote of embryogenesis “yielding” to the Cartesian attack. But Hubbard herself “explodes” the gene myth. ↩
For an interactive view of the function and structure of the brain see Jean-Pierre Changeux, Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind (Pantheon, 1985) and my review of it in The New York Review, October 10, 1985. ↩
See Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (Freeman, 1983). ↩
For a documentation of the role played by major figures in academic science in creating a “scientific” racism see S.J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, and R.C. Lewontin, S.J. Rose, and Leo Kamin, Not In Our Genes. ↩