Feminism and biologyPosted: December 20, 2012
I have been part of a discussion elsewhere on the role of biology in causing men’s violence, and more broadly on biological essentialism in general. I have noticed that some radical feminist bloggers seem to be expressing a more or less grudging acceptance of the role of biology in determining men’s behaviour, especially when it comes to why they are so incredibly violent. However, I utterly reject this position, and I would like to explain why. I have been accused in the past of being too ideological over this, but my position is not ideological – rather, (I hope) it is based on a sound understanding of biology, the application of logic, and considerations of practicality. My position comes more from my knowledge of science (I have a bachelor’s degree in a biological field) than it does from my knowledge of feminism.
This is absolutely a debate that needs to happen, because this question is central to feminist strategy. Sheila Jeffreys has said that feminist activism in the 1970s emerged in a context in which progressive people were generally rejecting biological explanations for human behaviour (not just feminists – also in terms of black people not being inherently stupider than white, etc.) and that this was a central pillar of feminist politics at the time. I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t be discussing the issue today; those of us who weren’t around in the 1970s need to figure things out for ourselves, and we should not unquestioningly adopt every position taken by our foresisters. However, as far as I’m concerned this is one position we do not need to question.
The first point that needs to be considered here is the state of the science of sex differences. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender yesterday, and I cannot recommend this book too highly for anyone who is thinking about this issue (or anyone at all, really). It is an utterly brilliant critique of the claims for inherent gender differences put forward by popular neuroscience, and even sometimes in actual neuroscience. I can also say that based on my own experience in biology, many of the issues of methodology and analysis that she critiques in neuroscience are similarly pertinent in other areas – for example, evolutionary biology; I also suspect that endocrinology (the study of hormones) is in a similar state of confusion. To summarise Fine’s book, there is no solid evidence that sex differences exist in the brain. Additionally, scientists have no way to link violent behaviour to specific genes. In short, there is no scientific consensus on whether violence – or many other non-physical human characteristics – are biological.
I will say now that I believe it is possible that there are sex differences in the brain, and that there are biological factors involved in male violence. However, science has not so far proved either of these statements, and even if it had, I believe it is best to act as if there are not. As an example, I especially think it is entirely possible that there is a genetic basis to violence (though I think it is quite likely a human characteristic rather than a male characteristic). However, genes do not exist in a vacuum, and are in no way solely responsible for the extreme levels of male violence that are so much in evidence at this point in history. This violence can only be explained by a social context that encourages and even rewards men for behaving violently, while teaching them that women are less than human, good only as fuckholes and breeders.
Let me talk for a moment about the way (good) science is done. When designing experiments, scientists talk about “confounding variables” – these are variables that the scientists may not be aware of and which affect a scientific result because they affect the thing that is being examined. If they are not controlled for or eliminated, they can lead to spurious results. An example is the way scientists of the nineteenth century tried to prove that women were intellectually inferior due to having smaller brains. Women do, on average, have smaller brains than men, but the confounding variable here is body size: when the fact that women are generally smaller than men is controlled for using statistical techniques, there is no difference in average brain size between women and men.
When it comes to studying humans, there is one absolutely enormous confounding variable that is impossible to fully control for: the existence of society. It isn’t really possible to design an experiment to examine humans in their “natural state”, much as evolutionary biologists would like to convince you otherwise – and this is the main reason why evolutionary psychology is generally complete garbage. In the case of anything to do with gender, the existence of patriarchy makes it impossible for scientists to get at the “essence” of femaleness or maleness, because patriarchy warps the behaviour of both the sexes to such a great extent. In this context, we will never get to the bottom of the role of biology in the behaviour of the sexes until patriarchy is eliminated. In other words, there really isn’t too much point worrying about it until feminists have succeeded in destroying patriarchy altogether.
It probably sounds like I’m pretty anti-science right now, but I’m not really. I think there is a place for scientific (or social scientific) research on humans and possibly even on sex differences, provided it is aware of the patriarchal context of human society, the difficulty in controlling for this confounding variable, and the limited applicability of any results that are achieved. Given that only radical feminists seem to really understand the patriarchal context of human society, however, I don’t hold high hopes.
In the other discussion someone asked if there wasn’t any point in feminists keeping up to date on the latest research in this area. In short, I would say no, there really isn’t any point. The reason for this is that it takes years of advanced study to get to a point where you can understand a lot of this science, let alone have the skills to critique it. If individuals have the time, money and interest to do this, then all power to them, but it should not be the concern of the feminist movement. There are so few of us, and so many constraints on our time and energy. We should be focusing on what we do best, which is attacking the social and cultural factors that support patriarchy. There are plenty of good scientists out there, like Cordelia Fine and the host of others she cites in her book – Anne Fausto-Sterling and Mark Liberman come immediately to mind – who are fighting a constant battle to prevent bad science from taking over the public consciousness. I’m not really sure that there’s much we can do to help them beyond offering encouragement from the sidelines (I’m including myself in the “we” because even after four years of study I don’t really have the knowledge and experience to do much more) and continuing to provide a more general critique of science from a feminist perspective, as feminists constantly do in areas such as reproductive technology and agricultural science. I’m not saying that feminists shouldn’t get involved in science, because I think we should – we need feminist scientists just as we need feminist politicians, feminist novelists and feminist electricians – but it’s ridiculous to make it a central concern of the feminist movement as a whole.
Let’s do a thought experiment and imagine, for a moment, that reliable scientific evidence for, say, the biological origin of male violence emerges. Let’s assume that this evidence is completely incontrovertible and undeniably true. What will feminists do in response? Well, firstly, they might give up. I don’t think this is likely, though it would certainly be very disheartening to women (such as myself) who have based their entire philosophy on the assumption that social construction is all. Secondly, they might turn to science for a solution. This option is so ludicrous to me that I had never even considered it before yesterday, but I suppose we might as well have a bit of fun with it. So, even supposing that the technology exists to “correct” whatever biological thing it is that causes male violence, how would it be implemented? How would feminists get control of the technology and convince everyone else to let them do it? Who would decide how to use it, and who to use it on? etc. etc. The very idea is farcical.
In fact I think what would probably happen is that feminists, after the initial disappointment, would go back to doing what they were doing before the announcement: i.e., working to reduce the social and cultural factors that work to enforce women’s subordination (which, unlike biological factors, UNDENIABLY EXIST). Because even if there are biological factors involved, reducing social and cultural factors will make a real difference to women’s lives. This is what we can change, and what feminists have been changing for years, with some degree of success. So in other words, caring about the science at all would have been a bit of a waste of time and energy.
1. No conclusions can be drawn from the science as it stands.
2. No real conclusions will be able to be drawn from the science until patriarchy is eliminated, or at least significantly reduced.
2. Even if conclusions could be drawn, there would be little choice for feminists but to continue to focus on social and cultural factors.
This is not an ideological stance at all – it is a practical stance. It is simply most useful politically to proceed from the assumption that there are no biological factors involved. There are plenty of good ideological reasons why feminists should work on the assumption that biology plays no role in male violence, such as the fact that it gives men an excuse for bad behaviour, unfairly restricts the opportunities of those exceptional individuals who might “transcend their biology”, and opens up all sorts of other issues to biological explanations, and then we’re back to “poor people are poor because they’re stupid” and “black people are morally inferior” and “get back in the kitchen, woman!” (for the record, I CAN read maps, with no difficulty at all, and I wouldn’t know an emotion if it punched me in the face), and also new things, like “transgenderism”. Or whatever else – it’s a slippery slope. Biological essentialism along these line has traditionally been used to justify the status quo, and it is still being used for this purpose today (just read Cordelia Fine already!): this alone is a good reason to be highly suspicious, especially when there is no proof. And feminists should know this, as much as anyone else. Personally I stand by all these ideological reasons and I think they’re good enough on their own, but just in case they’re not, see above. And if you don’t trust my take on the science, read Delusions of Gender.
 One of my pet peeves is when people (feminists and non-) hand-wavingly attribute male aggression/violence to testosterone. Now, I don’t actually know much at all about endocrinology so it is possible I am wrong, but the impression I have is that there is simply no clear link between testosterone levels and violence or aggression. I apologise for being a finicky scientist here, but making broad statements about testosterone is just intellectual laziness.
 In the context of social science, I have written before on this issue, though superficially; Chapter 6 (Methodology) of Catherine McKinnon’s Toward A Feminist Theory of the State is the best I have ever read on it, and Sheila Jeffreys’ The Idea of Prostitution also addresses it very well. Related issues exist in science as in social science; again, Delusions of Gender is the best reference I can give here.
 Please, please go straight to Delusions of Gender to understand this point. Fine shows with incredible clarity the way in which unscrupulous scientists can present information in misleading ways, which is then jumped on by the media and popular science as it “challenges political correctness”. In reality, the results of this “research” really just support the status quo, which is why the media loves it. However, it is extremely difficult for non-scientists to critique this research, because they do not have the skills or the knowledge or the access to the journals in which the research is published.
 Hint: it doesn’t. But, e.g., let’s pretend the science shows that it’s genetic and assume that it can pinpoint the genes involved (there is NO WAY it can do this at the moment, by the way). The big issue here is that every cell in the body has a complete set of DNA in it (though not every gene is active in every cell) and so you’d have to change the DNA of a very large number of cells for it to be effective. The only technology I’m aware of that actually has the potential to change genes on a scale large enough to be useful – though there may be others – is gene therapy, which uses a vector (such as a virus) to add or remove bits of DNA in specific places. Theoretically, this could work because that’s what viruses do anyway, and this characteristic could be harnessed *for science!!* But gene therapy is considered risky even by the incredibly low standards of risk of masculinist science, because who knows how the DNA in the viruses could mutate? The bigger problem, however, is that the science is so far from being capable of actually being useful for this kind of thing that it is not a solution that can even be considered at this stage, so we might as well just forget about it. This is true, as far as I know, of all other possible scientific “solutions”.
 That said, I really like Sheri S. Tepper’s post-apocalyptic take on this “solution” in her book The Gate to Women’s Country.
 It may not seem like much progress has been made, and in a way there hasn’t, but I think a lot of the reason for this is that patriarchy has to come up with new ways to get around the changes forced by feminism. Which means that feminism can make change.
 This is actually an important distinction – for example: unlike sex differences in the brain or a genetic cause for male violence, there is objective proof that females are biologically distinct from males – hence issues with transgenderism.