Has feminism changed science?

Two new books enter the dangerous territory where cold facts meet hot tempers.


Margaret Wertheim
June 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In classic biology textbooks, the story of conception resembles nothing so much as a true-romance novel, in which the bodice-ripping formula of Barbara Cartland et al. is transposed into a cellular-level melodrama starring the virile "active sperm" and the demure "passive egg."

"In these sagas of conception," writes science historian Londa Schiebinger, "the spermatic hero actively pursues the egg, surviving the hostile environment of the vagina and defeating his many rivals." Like Sleeping Beauty, the egg drifts unconsciously in the fallopian tube, waiting to be awakened by the valiant, vital sperm. It is an archetypal story of female passivity enlivened by male energy -- a story as old as Aristotle, and as replete with patronizing overtones.

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Since the late 1970s, however, a new generation of biologists has begun to peek behind this suspect veil and, using fresh analyses, to reveal quite a different story, one summed up by the title of a seminal paper, "The Energetic Egg." In this new account the egg, no longer a slumbering princess, becomes an active agent, directing the growth of microvilli (small finger-like projections on its surface) to capture and tether the sperm. Here the egg and sperm are partners, co-activators in the process of conception.

What is particularly noteworthy is that while the egg's cone of microvilli was discovered in the 1890s, it was not thought worthy of serious scientific attention until 80 years later -- a time when women's roles in society were themselves being reconceived.

But before we cheer too loudly for this liberation of a core biological function from the rhetorical trappings of millennia-old sexism, it is worth stopping to reflect that the new tale itself is rife with gendered cultural overtones. As Schiebinger notes, in this new account the egg and sperm have come to resemble nothing so much as the high-powered dual-career couple of the '80s and '90s.

Like the contemporary corporate woman, the new "energetic egg" is valued precisely because it is now seen to be more like its male counterpart. Like the business exec with her power suit, the new egg has been "masculinized." And just as the female exec risks accusations of aggressiveness, so too the new egg is all-too-easily seen as a "femme fatale, threatening to capture and victimize sperm." The point is that while the new story may have stripped away the old sexist overtones, the egg and sperm remain gendered, essentially reflecting the pattern of current social arrangements between men and women.

This saga of transformation in one of our premier biological narratives raises a question that has become central to the current discussion about science: Can science ever be free of cultural influences? To put it another way: Can science ever be purely objective, an inquiry into the unsullied "truth" about the "real" world, or will it always be prey to the vagaries of subjective experience?

This is the question that resides at the heart of the so-called "science wars" that have rocked the academy for the past several years, and which show little sign of abating. On the one side are the objectivists (sometimes called realists), who believe that science is an ever-progressing ascent toward an ultimate picture of the-world-as-it-really-is. On the other hand are the subjectivists (sometimes known as relativists), who believe, to varying degrees, that science will always carry the stamp of the culture from which it springs. For this camp, prevailing views about gender, race, class and the like inexorably influence scientific theories, so that we can never (even in principle) see the world as it really is. To this camp, that very notion is a fiction that must be abandoned.

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Many, though by no means all, scientists fall into the first camp -- Stephen Jay Gould is an eminent exception. Likewise, many, though not all, historians, philosophers and science-studies scholars fall into the second camp.

The question of whether science can ever be culture-free is also at the heart of a number of new books. One of the best is Schiebinger's provocatively titled "Has Feminism Changed Science?" If science is, as the objectivists claim, a culture-free activity, then the answer must be no. But as the changing narrative of the egg reveals, it is not so easy to strip away the cultural subtext from our scientific theories.

The science wars have been simmering for the past decade, but in 1996 they moved from sort of a cold war standoff phase into active engagement. The catalyst was the publication by a little-known physicist named Alan Sokal of an article in the cultural studies journal Social Text. In his now infamous piece Sokal purported to present a postmodern critique of physics in which, using lashings of trendy French philosophy and deliberately nonsensical postmodern jargon, he suggested that quantum mechanics could be seen to support the view that all knowledge is culturally relative. Immediately after the piece came out he gleefully exposed it as a hoax designed to show that cultural studies types know naught about science and ought to lay off pronouncements on the subject.

Whether one regards this as a brilliant exposi or as a petty frat-boy prank, the fallout has driven a deep wedge between the community of scientists and the community of science-studies scholars (those who study how science fits into the social, cultural and historical landscape.)

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One way of looking at this divide is suggested by Canadian philosopher Michael Ruse in his new book, "Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?" Ruse divides the two camps, roughly speaking, into the Popperians (following the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper), and the Kuhnians (following the American philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn). For Popper, science was a progressive activity, getting us ever nearer to a true picture of reality. Although Popper acknowledged that we could never find ultimate truth, he insisted on an objective view of science as an exploration of the world as it really is.

Kuhn, in his 1962 book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," famously declared that all science proceeds according to "paradigms" -- mental constructs or theoretical frameworks which inevitably change as our society changes. For Kuhn, science is not an ascent towards any God's-eye view, and the science of one age must be considered no better or worse than the science of any other.

Kuhn's book sparked its own revolution, not in science but in science studies, and it became a flash point for even more revolutionary views of science, which have culminated in the radically relativist views that Sokal and the objectivists so deplore.

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The two extremes in the debate may be characterized as follows: For radical objectivists, nature is the only voice, with human culture playing no role. For radical relativists, nature has no voice of its own, and all scientific knowledge is the production of humans. In reality, most people fall somewhere in between. Even Einstein, that arch-realist, recognized that we can only know nature through the prism of our theories -- we can never see it naked, as it were. Glad news it is, then, to see Ruse and Schiebinger trying to find a middle ground.

Both Ruse and Schiebinger approach the question -- and both books are indeed framed as questions -- from the vantage point of a particular case study. For Ruse the case study is the theory of evolution, and the ways that ideas about evolution have themselves evolved over the past two centuries. For Schiebinger the case study is feminism, and the way that both female practitioners of science, and feminist theories about science, have affected (or not) various scientific disciplines -- from cell biology to primatology, archeology, medicine, mathematics and physics.

Feminist science scholars, it must be noted, make up one of the key groups to have claimed science as a culture-laden activity. As such, they are seen by objectivists as a key battalion of the enemy. In the post-Sokal era, Schiebinger is aware of the need for caution, and she approaches her subject with the hyperalert acuity of a lion tamer encountering a large, wild cat. The big surprise for many objectivists will be that Schiebinger lays to rest to the notion that women in and of themselves change the nature of science simply by becoming scientists. The culture of science is not rooted in the chromosomes of its practitioners, she assures us -- a conclusion all objectivists should applaud.

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But if women do not necessarily do science differently, the historical record suggests that feminist perspectives have indeed made an impact on both the culture and content of science. The saga of the egg is just one example Schiebinger gives in which women's involvement in a field has opened up new lines of inquiry that have led to significant new discoveries. Another case in point is primatology. For more than a century primatologists, who were almost exclusively male, focused almost exclusively on male primates. Once a new generation of primatologists -- again beginning in the 1970s, and who by then included women -- started to pay attention to the females of the species, they found that previous views were clearly distorted. Other cases can be found in genetics, archeology and medicine.

Some of the female scientists who made these discoveries were avowed feminists, but many were not. Yet, as Schiebinger shows, it is no coincidence that so many of these insights came to the fore at a time when women's own role in society was changing, and when the very nature of "femininity" and "womanhood" was so much a subject of debate. In short, you do not have to be a feminist to be influenced by feminist cultural movements.

One example of this trend that has struck me forcefully over the past few years is the way in which the whole question of embodiment has become a hot topic in fields like artificial intelligence and cognitive science. After decades during which intelligence was seen to be a purely mental phenomenon, suddenly there is talk of it being ineluctably rooted in the physical reality of a body. Most of the current scientists and philosophers making this claim are men who would not (I am sure) identify themselves as feminists; nonetheless, feminist philosophers have been making just this claim for decades.

We are all a part of a cultural matrix, which, even if unconsciously, affects the way we think. As Schiebinger puts it "We cannot free ourselves of cultural influence; we cannot think or act outside a culture. Language shapes even as it articulates thought."

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Reluctant though he seems to be to admit this, Michael Ruse comes to a similar, if more guarded conclusion regarding evolution. Tracing the evolution of evolutionary theory through a half-dozen of its major proponents -- from Charles Darwin to contemporary practitioners such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and E.O. Wilson -- Ruse reveals how their views of evolution were influenced both by the culture of their time and by their own upbringings.

Wilson, for example, perhaps as a legacy of his Southern Baptist childhood, is still essentially looking for some kind of fundamental truth. As he acknowledges in his own recent book, "Consilience," at university he traded in his religion for science. Given the indelible traces of each man's culture on his scientific theories, Ruse frankly admits, "I see the influence of culture on scientific ideas as something that is here to stay."

That said, Ruse also wants to claim victory -- and for him it is the most significant victory -- for objectivism. The course of history has shown, he says, that although in the beginning evolutionary theory was almost purely a cultural construction, over the past two centuries it has been increasingly cleansed of such intrusions. While individual practitioners may still reveal the hallmarks of their culture, particularly in their use of metaphors to describe their ideas to non-scientists, in the final analysis the theory has been born out by objective, empirical validation.

In the end Ruse wants to have his cake and eat it, too: He sees evolutionary theory as essentially objective, but with an overlay of metaphorical subjectivity. Not everyone will feel satisfied with this resolution, but it is a heartening testimony to our times that this avowed champion of Sokal is at least prepared to acknowledge that the other side is not entirely wrong.

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Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is the author of "Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars," and most recently "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet" (W.W. Norton).

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