Radical Science, Feminism, and the Biology of Determinism

Young chimps taking care of each other (2019) by Tambako the Jaguar (Flickr | CC BY.ND 2.0
Young chimps taking care of each other (2019) by Tambako the Jaguar (Flickr | CC BY.ND 2.0)

By Jenna Tonn

For the generation of women biologists trained in the 1950s and 1960s, a new strain of hereditarian thinking that claimed biology was destiny infused their professional and political work with purpose. In 1973, the biologist Rita Arditti warned in a short article for Science for the People about androcentric bias in biological theories about women. Such theories argued, for instance, that women’s ancestral roles as gatherers justified their social roles at home as wives and mothers and in the workplace as secretaries, or that variations in sex hormones during male and female fetal development led to innate behavioral differences and divergent aptitudes for scientific careers. Incensed by popular and scientific books that circulated these theories, Arditti and others drew on their years of technical training and their associations with radical science organizations and the women’s health movement to challenge these assessments of human nature. Groups of women scientists well-versed in feminist consciousness-raising organized conferences, such as the 1977 Genes and Gender Conference, published scientific critiques of biological determinism, launched new initiatives for promoting women in science, and promoted the development of some of the first college courses in feminism and science.

Critiques of androcentrism in science in the 1970s built on mid-20th century feminist scholarship that identified how cultural ideas about men and women informed scientific research. In 1948 the feminist critic and poet Ruth Herschberger published Adam’s Rib, one of an early wave of mid-century texts (along with Simone Beauvoir’s Second Sex) that reframed the supposedly neutral world of science into a minefield of male-centered bias. To illustrate this point, Herschberger retold the story of Robert M. Yerkes’ research on chimpanzees in the 1930s and 1940s. In one 32 day experiment, scientists recorded the amount of food male and female chimps took from a chute. They noted that the male chimp Jack ate all the food until the female chimp Josie went into a period of sexual availability and started taking all the food for herself. Based on these observations, Yerkes concluded “not only that males were ‘naturally dominant’ over females, but that the biological basis of prostitution stood revealed in certain aspects of Josie’s behavior.”

These interpretations proved so absurd to Herschberger that she turned Josie into a fully-fledged character in the text and gave her agency to combat Yerkes’ conclusions in her own words. Josie pointed out the problems with this analysis. Not only did she take the food 44 percent of the time (or almost half of the time), Jack weighed much more than her average mate would have given the circumstances, skewing the results. Josie questioned the presumption that Jack allowed her “natural subordination”to disappear during her period of tumescence and posited that this misinterpretation comes from the lack of women scientists at work in the field. “Some woman scientist,” Josie argued, “ought to start passing it around that males must be unnatural because they don’t have cyclical changes during the month. Then see the furor start.”

Just as women’s health movement activists would start to connect the underrepresentation of women in obstetrics and gynecology with problems in maternal care, Herschberger advocated for the need to correct a vision of science emerging only from the male point of view which reinforced the idea that females of all species represented a deviation from the universal (male) norm.

Taken together, Collective members sought to identify how scientific claims about a woman’s “natural instinct” were grounded in myths or fantasies about women rather than in rigorous science.

Herschberger’s critiques hovered in the background of feminist organizing in the 1970s. In January of 1977, a coalition of women in science organizations in New York held the first Genes and Gender Conference at the American Museum of Natural History. As the organizers Ethel Tobach and Betty Rosoff explained in the first Genes and Gender volume, the event had been sparked by the “myth of genetic destiny” supported by natural scientists who claimed “women are doomed to exploitation because their genes determine their anatomy, physiology, and behavior.” Tobach and Rosoff expected 50 people to arrive to talk about how to combat sexism and racism in genetics but found an eager audience of hundreds waiting to participate. Energized by the need to think more strategically about combating biological determinism in science, the participants founded the Genes and Gender Collective, which sought to raise awareness about these issues.

Scientists associated with the Genes and Gender Collective felt called to action in response to scientific work like the Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology. While Wilson wrote about the evolution of non-human animal social behavior for most of his book, his final chapter on man inspired a backlash among scientists and activists. In it, he explored the genetic origins of human behavior, suggesting, for example, that male aggression and dominance over females in animals are “biologizeable” behaviors determined by the behaviors of early man and fundamental to relationships between men and women.

Tolbach and Rosoff argued that Sociobiology deployed questionable biological thinking in a way that justified discrimination in the human world. Writing in Genes and Gender, Dorothy Burnham, one of the original members of the Freedomways collective, critiqued Wilson’s logic as a form of scientific rationalization of “the way it’s always been and therefore it must be inherent.” Taken together, Collective members sought to identify how scientific claims about a woman’s “natural instinct” were grounded in myths or fantasies about women rather than in rigorous science.

In a follow-up to the first Genes and Gender volume, the biochemist Ruth Hubbard and the chemist Marian Lowe co-edited a second edition, which focused unpacking assumptions embedded in the theories and methods of sex difference research. They connected this scientific research with a historically situated social and cultural desire to deflect “those threats to social stability evidenced not only by the women’s movement, but by the demands for equality on the part of Blacks and other minorities, by the anti-war movement, and by the multiple challenges to the American Dream that have grown out of the recurring (or rather, continuous) economic crises.” Scientists and members of the interested public turned to biology as seen in Robert Ardey’s African Genesis or Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, to reassure themselves that human competition, aggression, and sex role differences were in fact natural. Writing in the second Genes and Gender volume, the anthropologist Lila Leibowitz argued against these positions, pointing out that in fact human sex roles varied across cultures and that patterns of male dominance among primates were not universal.

These efforts were part of wider movements in radical science and academic feminist studies to articulate how knowledge production had been contaminated by value judgements about human nature and how the lack of women in science intersected with these issues.

Before disbanding in 1990, members of the Genes and Gender Collective held conferences, published books and articles, and organized some of the first undergraduate courses about the politics of women’s biology. These efforts were part of wider movements in radical science and academic feminist studies to articulate how knowledge production had been contaminated by value judgements about human nature and how the lack of women in science (a point made by Josie the primate in 1948) intersected with these issues. For instance, the experimental psychologist Naomi Weisstein reflected on what it felt like to be the only woman in the room in an essay, “Adventures of a Woman in Science” for Women Look at Biology Looking at Women. In graduate school at Harvard, her male peers pushed back against her presence: “You are out of your natural roles; you are no longer feminine.” Excluded from social gatherings and mentoring networks, Weisstein experienced what she called “the peculiar kind of social-sexual assault women sustain” on a daily basis, which was designed to keep women in their place.

In a post-Genes and Gender Collective world, critiques about gender, feminism, and science are framed differently. The underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields is a described using (at times problematic) language around diversity, inclusion, and equity and critiques of bias in scientific research emerge from scholarship in gender studies of science, feminist philosophy of science, and science and technology studies. In some ways, we have made great strides. Yet we are still grappling with debates about hereditarian thinking and questions about just how hardwired aptitude is in male and female brains and why numbers of women and minorities in fields like computer science are still so low. As Ruth Hubbard reminded readers in the 1979 Women Looking at Biology Looking at Women, feminists were “in danger of forgetting how much the past is repeated in present, subtler forms - of forgetting how fragile and often two-edged are our gains.”

Further Reading:

Erika Lorraine Milam, Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America (Princeton University Press, 2019)

Naomi Rogers, “Feminists Fight the Culture of Exclusion in Medical Education, 1970-1990” in Ellen S. More, Elizabeth Fee, and Manon Parry, eds. Women Physicians and the Cultures of Medicine (2009), pp. 205-31.

Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World since 1972 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)

Sarah Richardson, Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago University Press, 2013)

Ullica Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2000)

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.