Tag Archives: biology

Who’s Afraid Of Steven Pinker? – A Brief Analysis Of A Debate

A lot of people who have issues with some of the basic understandings of feminism are strong advocates of evolutionary psychology, because it aims to explain behavior patterns among men and women that they believe to be typical and innate. For those implicit or explicit anti-feminists, Stephen Pinker is somewhat of a hero who is referenced so often, he even made it onto the Evolutionary Psychology Bingo card, which feminists enjoy very much. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Pinker is for fans of evo psych what Judith Butler is for the LGBTQ community. Naturally, I’m intrigued, so I googled around for a bit and came across an interesting debate from 2005 between Pinker and his fellow psychologist Elizabeth Spelke regarding the “science of gender and science”. You can watch the video and read the transcript here.
Full disclosure: I am no fan of evolutionary psychology, especially not the kind that focusses on sex differences. Which is not to say that I am anti-science or a denier of Darwinian evolution. However, it is not uncommon that different studies on the same subject produce different results, and that these results are often related to the convictions of the persons conducting the study and/or to the current ideology. Scientific evidence is not free from interpretation; therefore it does not hold the key to ultimate truths. It it wasn’t so, there wouldn’t be any scientific debates to begin with. Science can be skewed, too, so a little scepticism is always in order.
The debate from 2005 that I am commenting on is not so much about whether or not there is scientific evidence for differences between men and women, but why there are so few women who are making careers in the sciences.
So what does Pinker actually say in this debate? First of all, he distinguishes between the extreme “nature” and the extreme “nurture” positions. He positions himself somewhere in between and his colleague Elizabeth Spelke as part of the extreme “nurture” team (which, as it turns out, is the first incorrect statement he makes during the debate). He then goes on to claim to be a feminist, briefly accrediting 1st and 2nd wave feminism and the “effort to increase the representation of women in the sciences”. So far, so acceptable.
His next step is to prove his point, namely that there are innate differences between men and women that influence the abilities and behavior of the sexes in such a way, that men are naturally more likely to succeed in the sciences than women. However, some of the differences he points out, such as priorities in life, career choices and the likelihood to take risks, can easily be explained by nurture. In fact, Pinker doesn’t even find it necessary to give biological evidence for these claims, only statistics that say nothing about the nature-nurture debate.
The other factors – differences in three-dimensional mental transformation, mathematical reasoning, relation towards objects vs. people – may well be justified, at least according to the scientific evidence that Pinker provides. However, as Elizabeth Spelke will show during her speech, all of this “evidence” can just as well be reinterpreted and debunked. Cordelia Fine has done so as well more recently. I am also confused by Pinker’s refusal to acknowledge any sort of bias from parents and teachers. If he doesn’t even recognize the basic assumptions of the nurture position, why bother with this debate?

nature or nurture? photos by jeong mee yoon

Needless to say, I find his part of the debate very unconvincing and was quite relieved but also a bit disappointed by Spelke’s comeback. She concentrates on the actual issue, the under-representation of women in science, saying: “Notice that I am not saying the genders are indistinguishable, that men and women are alike in every way, or even that men and women have identical cognitive profiles. I’m saying that when you add up all the things that men are good at, and all the things that women are good at, there is no overall advantage for men that would put them at the top of the fields of math and science.
Differences, yes. Advantages, no. Or, to quote Diane Halpern, as Spelke does: “Differences are not deficiencies.”
So let’s try and answer the initial question: Why are there so few women making careers in science? Answer: We don’t know. Neither do Pinker and Spelke, apparently. They both have their suspicions, based on their respective findings, but neither of them can give surefire proof. Based on my own views, I am siding more with Spelke’s theory, which blames socialization and discrimination over biological factors, but here is where I disagree with her: “Scientists find things out. The much more difficult questions of how to use that information, live our lives, and structure our societies are not questions that science can answer. Those are questions that everybody must consider.”
The problem I have with this statement is that it seems to absolve scientists from any responsibility. Of course, we have to ask ourselves what conclusions we want to draw from new findings, but scientists have to ask themselves not only what they are trying to find out but also why.
When Pinker states that there is scientific evidence for the assumption that women are biologically slightly less inclined or capable to be math professors, what does this mean politically? The implication would be that girls should be even less encouraged to get into sciences, because overall they’re less likely to succeed. I do not mean to say that this is Pinker’s intention, but that these are the consequences that can easily be drawn from such claims. Which is why I find studies like The Bell Curve morally reprehensible. By no means do I endorse the censorship of scientists; I’d just like to encourage the questioning of motivations. And I have to point out that Pinker is either negligent or incredibly naive when he states that  “none of this provides grounds for ignoring the biases and barriers that do keep women out of science”, because – unfortunately – for many it does.

News- and Blogwatch

France’s Burqa Ban
Yesterday, France’s so-called burqa ban went into effect. The decision was made last summer but from now on women wearing the burqa or the niqab in public can actually be fined, can be forced to attend civilization courses and be taken into custody if they refuse to remove their veils. Two women have already been arrested who protested the burqa ban in Paris. I have stated my position on this subject last year here and here. By now it has become fairly obvious that Sarkozy is only trying to gather votes from the right. His policies on immigration and the Roma have made clear that the only women he cares about, if at all, are white and born in France.
You can blame Feminism for everything
Every now and then scientists come up with these new theories regarding the differences between the sexes, that are somehow considered valuable for society because, duh, they’re scientists, so they must be true. Like this one: Why feminism is the anti-viagra. Neuroscientist Ogi Ogas claims that “gender equality inhibits arousal” because women are hard-wired to be submissive and cannot negotiate this natural urge with their strife towards equality, which therefore limits their libido. Now, I don’t quite understand what one’s personal sexual urges have to do with leading an emancipated life and enjoying equality in one’s relationship. After all, someone with a golden shower fetish is not likely to be urinating on people at work or his or her partner outside of “the bedroom”. But I was interested to find out what this scientist bases his theory on. He references research done on Norwegian rats. Enough said.
Needless to say, homosexual relationships don’t seem to exist in this guy’s universe. According to his theory, homosexuals would have a hard time finding a partner because the men would always want to be dominant and the women always submissive. Unless, of course, this theory doesn’t apply to them because homos are weird anyway, right?
Future Stalkers of America
When I first read about this video, I thought it had to be a joke, possibly even a trolling stunt by men’s rights activists themselves, who enjoy posing as “feminists” in order to ridicule the movement, even though their views of feminism are completely misguided and far from reality. But no, these guys are for real: a couple of new age gurus (they still exist?) thinking they are doing the world a favor by apologizing to women on behalf of all men who have done harm to women throughout centuries of masculine rule. The concept is already flawed in itself, but the execution really takes the cake. While I do agree with perhaps a couple of statements, the overall creepiness and obsolescence of the whole thing is just unbearable. The heyday of ecofeminism was nothing in comparison. If you cannot finish watching the video, for which I don’t blame you, but you still in need of a good critique, David Futrelle over at Manboobz has a great summary:
[…] no matter how earnest all the men in the video are trying to sound, none of them (except perhaps the two ringleaders) seem to really believe the ridiculous things they’re saying. Instead, they seem to be, with varying degrees of insincerity, mouthing a series of essentially meaningless New Age platitudes – in short, simply saying what they think women want to hear.

No one is buying this bullshit, guys. Give it up.


News- and Blogwatch

Blogging has become a bit of a struggle for me over the last couple of months, as I had to study for final exams and indulge in Christmas celebrations with the family. As if all of this hadn’t been distracting enough, after more than three years of mediocre commitment my notebook fell prey to a virus, rendering blogging nearly impossible. While I am impatiently waiting for my new second brain to arrive, have a look at some things I have been reading this week:

Yesterday, representative of the Democrats in Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head during a public event. The gunman killed and injured several other people, sparking a new debate about gun control, Arizona’s political climate and the radical rhetorics of the Tea Party movement.

Now I hate to sound like a prude but the new editorial in the French Vogue is just distressing on several levels. Not only does it further the increasing sexualization and commodification of children, but it is the gender aspect that concerns me here. Of course, we don’t see little 6-year old boys all dolled up and in sexually suggestive poses, but little girls who are taking up the position of consenting adults and, most importantly, sexually available women. These images do nothing but naturalize the objectification of women, except that now girls don’t have to wait until their preteen years to get acquainted with the normative feminine ideal: sexually inviting, yet passive . I have been told that Vogue is an art magazine and that I should read this editorial as satire of the fashion industry’s obsession with youth, but as I understand it Vogue is not selling art, it sells products, making this editorial little more than the commercial exploitation of a predictably controversial subject. I can give Vogue credit for where credit is due; this time it’s just upsetting. Controversial: maybe; subversive: non.

For my German-speaking readers: all-time favorite feminist blogger Antje Schrupp has a couple of great new articles about biologism and how men and women debate with each other. The comments are also worth looking into.

Is German theater progressive concerning gender roles? According to Christine Wahl not so much, but in some regards it’s still better than the rest of German society. She has written a wonderfully shrewd and ironic article in Der Tagesspiegel.

Today's theater audience is more acquainted with actors' penises than with actresses' boobs.

Book Review: Donna Haraway “Simians, Cyborgs, And Women. The Reinvention Of Nature” (1991)

Haraway’s collection of essays is almost twenty years old, but her views on science and technology and the role of gender within these categories are still valuable and fascinating. The most famous essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, has become a seminal work in postfeminist theory and studies on cyberculture.

Most of her work deals with the critique of nature as a universal category and the totalizing power of natural science. As a biologist and historian of science, Haraway is aware of the importance and significance of scientific research, but also of its shortcomings and abuse. She claims that science cannot be assumed as separate from ideology by default. Research and studies are almost always based on presuppositions which often reflect the dominant ideology, for example:

Theories of animal and human society based on sex and reproduction have been powerful in legitimating beliefs in the natural necessity of aggression, competition, and hierarchy. (p. 21)

Important tools such as renaming and reinterpretation can lead to entirely different results. Everyone can tell the difference between the connotation of “female receptivity” vs. “female choice” (p. 41), a simple change of words which may have a huge impact of how we explain human behavior biologically. Haraway’s example of the reinterpretation of the tool-using adaptation in chimpanzees questions the evolutionary legitimization of (alpha-)male aggressivity and domination while at the same time allowing for more options for development:

[…] evolutionary reconstructions condition understanding of contemporary events and future possibilities. […] The open future rests on a new past. (p.41)

Haraway warns us “to pretend that science is either only discovery, which erects a fetish of objectivity, or only invention, which rests on crass idealism” (p. 42), and urges feminists to resist expecting final theories for complex and ambiguous issues, such as reproduction and production, which are always affected by the current dominant ideology, politically as well as scientifically.

However, according to Haraway it is not only science that needs to be reviewed, but our general concept of nature as well. That the universality and holism of nature is also a construction, has been largely ignored by feminists (of the second wave) and the mainstream alike. Consequently, Haraway praises Judith Butler’s move to “‘disqualify’ the  analytic categories, like sex or nature, that lead to univocity” and to “expose the illusion of an interior organizing gender core and produce a field of race and gender difference open to resignification” (p. 135). Like many postmodern feminists, Haraway and Butler have been accused of splitting the feminist movement by doing away with its basis for women’s agency. Haraway answered to this criticism with her vision of  cyberfeminism.

In A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century Haraway presents her version of a Marxist feminism in our late capitalist society, which argues for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (p. 150). To illustrate this vision, she uses the image of the cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (p. 149). According to Haraway, we are all cyborgs in today’s society, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.

The cyborg transcends the boundaries of biology, thereby rejecting universalism and totalizing theory, the foundations of patriarchy. As an animal-human-machine hybrid the cyborg negates organic holism and the Western myth of an origin story. Its most subversive quality is its ambiguity:

Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.

Furthermore, Haraway’s cyborg fits in the anti-essentialist tradition in postmodern feminism. As a post-gender creature it cannot be said to have any specific universal qualities, be they male or female. Escaping these universal categories, of women or other, the cyborg manages to escape patriarchal oppression and creates its own identity. Because the cyborg is as much machine as it is human, technology becomes the determining factor which makes this kind of feminism possible. As the dualisms disappear, they leave room for multiplicity, contradiction and self-development.

As I have mentioned before, Haraway had to face some criticism from certain feminist movements, for aligning women with technology, the tool of patriarchal capitalism, and for eliminating women’s common identity and experience. Haraway challenges those allegations by claiming that feminists should create solidarity and find common ground not based on their mutual identity (as women) but rather on their mutual affinity, affinity being a relation not by blood (race, gender etc.) but by choice. Bearing in my mind how much the internet already influences our everyday lives (not just in the Western world but also progressively in developing nations), I believe this claim to be very much based in our lived reality, the internet being a fantastic source to create and find groups based on affinity.

Finally, as a feminist who has been confronted too often with the allegation that all feminists believe in the superiority of women, I cannot help but close with Haraway’s most famous line:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (p. 181)

[Donna J. Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York 1991.]

Cyborg love for the 21st century: