(Pro)Creating Science: The Parenting Metaphor, Gender, and Scientific Memory

Reproduction, Wikimedia Commons

By Sam Muka

Choose a scientific discipline and do a quick internet search with the term ‘father’ or ‘mother’ in front: The mothers of primatology. The father of nuclear physics. The mother and father of computing science. The mother of ocean floor cartography. The father of thermodynamics.

While there seems to be a good mixture of mothers and fathers on this list, if you keep searching, you will eventually run out of mothers. For instance, there is no mother of empiricism; if you google that phrase you will receive a message that asks Did you mean father of empiricism? Searching for the mother of psychology brings up Oedipus’ mother, but if you search for the father, you receive Wilhelm Wundt, a 19th century experimentalist. And if you stumble onto the Wikipedia page “List of people considered father or mother of a scientific field,” you’ll find that out of 227 listed parents, only seven are women. There are no mothers of chemistry (or biology for that matter) but five fathers; no mothers with multiple children although Albert Einstein fathered not one, but four fields. There are only two single mothers with no corresponding father of the field: home economics and nursing.

For instance, there is no mother of empiricism; if you google that phrase you will receive a message that asks, “Did you mean father of empiricism?” 

After what is often labeled the “linguistic turn” of the 20th century, philosophers and sociologists of science analyzed the link between language and the development and outcome of scientific study. An especially fruitful area was the impact of gendered language on how scientists perceived and performed their work. I would like to look at another area of rhetoric that impacts science: the collective memory (or history) of that field and the language used to describe that history. Students in science are introduced to their field of study through a combination of current practice and explanation of disciplinary history — who figured out what, when. Telling the history of a scientific field involves the shaping and imparting of creation narratives, and these in turn shape who feels at home in the discipline and how they view their work.

The metaphor of parenting a discipline is enduring but inconsistently applied and skewed towards paternity. The continued use of this metaphor, both by scientists and historians of science, tells us that the narratives we form about scientific procreation reflect a continued belief that women lack the vital capabilities to anchor fields of knowledge. Current use of this metaphor excludes women as capable of giving birth to substantial knowledge groups and subsequently strengthens the perception that science is a field built and powered primarily by male ingenuity.

Take for example the case of biodiversity. A few years ago, I was asked to do some research on a scientist named Ruth Patrick. The question: was she very important to the field of biodiversity?

Ruth Patrick received a PhD in 1934 from the University of Virginia and spent over 70 years working at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and 35 years teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialty was diatom analysis in water systems. In 1945, she and her team began work that would link diatom diversity to water quality and pollution impact in water systems. The correlation of diversity of diatoms to ecosystem health was eventually named the “Patrick principle” by Thomas Lovejoy. She served as an environmental advisor for Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan and was elemental in establishing pollution standards for industries.

E.O. Wilson called Patrick the “foremost authority on America’s river ecosystems and a pioneer environmental activist.” What no one has ever called Patrick is the mother of biodiversity. Instead, Wilson, who first used the term biodiversity in 1988 in his book Sociobiology, has been given the title “father of biodiversity.” There is an E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation at the University of Buffalo, and he has authored many popular books on the importance of biodiversity in conservation initiatives. The title of “father” can be traced to a 2009 press release announcing Wilson as the recipient of the Presidential Medal for Global and Visionary Leadership from the University of Montana.

Both Patrick and Wilson have equally long careers, both were involved in basic scientific research and in popularization and politicization of the field. Both had numerous students. Any way you seek to analyze the metaphor, it is clear why Wilson is the father, but it is perplexing why Patrick is not the mother. If you use the most basic analysis –– who was in the field earlier –– Patrick deserves the title of mother of biodiversity. If you use the idea of growth and ushering into maturity, Wilson is the father. If it is merely the matter of who used the word ‘biodiversity,’ then it might make sense that calling Patrick the mother of the discipline would seem anachronistic (can she be the mother of a field that didn’t have a name at the time?). But if this is the case, then a whole host of the labeled “fathers” of fields would need to be revised. What we can see is that there isn’t a clear reason that Wilson has been granted this honorific, so we must assume it has less to do with actual career highlights and more with the way we both consciously and unconsciously perceive and honor scientists. The inconsistencies become even clearer when we see examples of multiple fathers and little understanding of how choices have been made.

On January 26, 2018, The Royal Society’s Twitter account posted this tweet:

It is unclear who calls Faraday and Daniell the fathers of this field; I can’t find any citation or reference for this. If you Google the “father of electrochemistry,” you get Allen Bard, currently a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who invented the electrochemical microscope. And further down the page, you see Allesandro Volta, the early 19th century Italian physicist credited with the invention of the battery. The fact that one need not actually identify reasons for bestowing the title of parent suggests that it is more about myth than meritocracy.

Gender is, of course, the obvious difference. Theorists who have studied metaphors of childbirth and parenting highlight the inherent contradiction in their use. Susan Friedman stated in 1988 that while “the pregnant body is necessarily female, the pregnant mind is the mental province of genius, most frequently understood to be inherently male.” While women’s reproduction is seen as natural, the child produced by a man’s labor is from actual work. According to this logic, women are not seen as capable of developing a field –– the unconscious association of genius and birth of knowledge is towards men, and women are commonly excluded from this community. This subconscious bias towards men as scientific progenitors and women as mere participants continues to create new fathers regardless of actual scientific and historical achievements.

The inconsistent application of the metaphor reifies the masculine narrative of the sciences. Bestowing the title of father onto a scientist suggests to students of science and history that there is an actual reason for doing so. Once that honorific is bestowed, it builds upon itself and gains momentum, until the shared memory becomes deeply entrenched. The inconsistencies of remembering are apparent in the Wikipedia entries for Patrick and Wilson. Patrick’s is notable for its paucity of information; easy to find facts about Patrick (who died in 2008) are missing and her introduction is sparse. The term biodiversity shows up only near the bottom of her entry. Contrast this with E.O. Wilson’s extremely long entry, which lists his title as “the father of biodiversity” in the second paragraph of the introduction. Because Wikipedia is such a powerful tool for public memory creation, we can see that Wilson’s central role in biodiversity has been accepted as shared memory. Patrick’s contributions fade as public memory of her does, and, in an exhausting cycle, the consequence is that women’s roles in disciplinary development are buried. The fact that I was asked about her contributions to the field less than five years after her death means that her amazing career and impact have already been largely forgotten.

Paying attention to the inconsistent and gendered application of the parenting metaphor in the history of science can help scientists, educators, historians, and all of us alter our usage. Bestowing parenthood purposefully, and examining the way we already use this metaphor, will result in the shaping of a public and scientific memory that acknowledges women scientists’ contributions without having to continuously excavate them from obscurity.

Further Reading

Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Science and Culture (Routledge, 2014).

Carol Cohn, Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War, 1993.

Lady Science is an independent magazine that focuses on the history of women and gender in science, technology, and medicine and provides an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web. For more articles, information on pitching, and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit ladyscience.com.