Thinking Like A Feminist

The revolution in gender ideology has changed expectations about male and female behavior.

By Evelyn Fox Keller

When I was a graduate student at Harvard, the highest praise, which I several times merited, was “Oh, you really do think like a man!” I was puzzled by this, because I thought I was just thinking. But apparently, some people carried around the idea that there is a certain kind of thinking—objective, scientific—that is specifically masculine thinking and, hence, specifically the preserve of men.

Where does such an idea come from? During the time that I was in graduate school, one could have said that it was based on observation. After all, there were very few women in physics. But one could not say that today. Today we have learned that the absence of women in physics was a historical, not a biological, fact. And the idea that the absence is somehow rooted in nature is just that, it’s an idea. It is certainly not encoded in our DNA. It is encoded, however, in our culture. It is what many people growing up in our culture had come to believe. It is what we call ideology, not shared by all humans in all contexts, but specific to a culture.

Beliefs like this have consequences. For example, they’re clearly not very good for women who want to be scientists. But also, it seemed to me, they’re not very good for science. Not only does this ideology work to deprive science of half of its potential workforce, but this artificially imposed division of intellectual labor also excludes from science the kind of thinking that, presumably, is “thinking like a woman.”

So in the early 1980s, I set out to expose this ideology. I thought, perhaps naïvely, that once these expectations were exposed as ideology, scientists would, of course, reject them. However, when I would talk to scientists about these socially shared gender expectations, they would often say, “You’re just talking about what scientists say, about how they talk, not about what they do.” I decided they were right, and set out to try to show how the ways we talk shape the science that we do.

My very first example was competition and cooperation (also, relatedly, self-interest and altruism), subjects we also have widespread beliefs about. For example, we tend to believe that men are naturally competitive and women are naturally cooperative. When it’s not true, we call it “sex reversal.” Indeed, this belief is part of the very same ideology that gave us the notion of “thinking like a man.”

The second, companion belief, is that nature is naturally competitive. Here is how Michael Ghiselin put it in 1974: “The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end. No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society once sentimentalism has been laid aside. Given a full chance to act for his own interests, nothing but expediency will restrain an organism from brutalizing, or maiming, or murdering his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

This claim, however, is presumed to be a scientific claim, of a kind that was quite widespread in the literature of the 1970s. Indeed, the idea that competition was both phenomenologically and logically prior was so ubiquitous at that time that it was difficult to even imagine an alternative that would not be regarded as “sentimental,” that could be considered realistic.

Might there just possibly be a connection between these beliefs? Might we as scientists in fact be imposing on nature norms that are cultural and, according to our cultural norms, defined as masculine attributes? Perhaps yes, but certainly not by intention. Scientists are, after all, honor-able people and they do try to be objective.

The argument I developed, through a number of examples, was that cultural norms were imported into science by way of language, and more specifically, by way of polysemic terms (terms that have multiple meanings) and the inevitable slippage such multiple meanings lead to.

Competition is an excellent case in point. Mathematical ecologists have a pretty good technical definition of the term, namely, as “the simultaneous reliance of two individuals or two species on a necessary but limited resource.” But this is not the only meaning of competition at play in ecology and evolutionary biology.

There are two other meanings of the term with which this technical definition is often, maybe routinely, conflated. One is that competition is “red in tooth and claw”; it is a life-and-death struggle. Consider this description by Paul Colinvaux of Gause’s competitive exclusion principle: “No matter how many times Gause tested the paramecia against each other, the outcome was always the same: complete extermination of one species. Gause could see this deadly struggle going on before his eyes day after day, and always with the same outcome. What we might have expected to become a permanent struggling balance in fact became a pogrom.” (He’s talking about paramecia who are competing for a limited resource.)

The second meaning is at the oppo-site end of the spectrum. This is where competition is taken to refer to any com-parison of viability and fecundity between different individuals or species, whether or not they are engaged in actual struggle, whether or not they rely on a common re-source, and whether or not the resource is limited. In this meaning, competition comes to be taken simply as synonymous with natural selection.

For example, think of a population of bacteria growing in a chemostat, in  logarhythmic growth phase, with effectively infinite resources. Natural selection operates here, without any interaction between the bacteria, without competition for resources, but simply as a result of different division times. Is this “competition”? Well, not by the technical definition, but the ambiguity of the term enables it to be commonly claimed as such.

In other words, the term covers a very large ground, and with such a large ground of behavior all covered by a single word, it’s hardly surprising that competition appears ubiquitous, and that other forms of behavior come to be overlooked.

To make matters worse, there are also other ways by which alternative modes of behavior were made invisible, especially during this period. For example, cooperative interactions are not mathematically distinguishable from competitive inter-actions in the Lotka-Volterra equations (the standard equations), and thus they are often just subsumed under the larger category of “competition.”

Yet another way alternative modes of behavior can be made invisible, even keeping to the technical definition of competition, is through the assumption that resources are fixed, that they can be represented as a zero-sum game. Is this in fact true?

Over the last 20 years, ecologists and evolutionary biologists have come a long way. There has been a realization that this very simple, primitive picture of nature as “red in tooth and claw” is woefully inadequate. It not only leaves out mutualism and cooperation, but a wide range of behavior, including symbiosis, tit-for-tat interactions, and perhaps most important of all, niche construction. Resources, it turns out, are not in general fixed, but often created.

How come there has been a shifting emphasis from competition to cooperation over the last 20 years? Partly, more sophisticated forms of analysis have come into play, enabled in part by bigger computers, in part by the mathematics of nonlinear dynamical systems. But that’s not the whole story. There are other phenomena in science and biology where we see striking changes over the last 30 years as well. One that I’ve written about is the discovery of what is called in biological literature “maternal affects.” Maternal affects have been “discovered” in developmental biology, in evolutionary biology, and in ecology, and I once collected a whole set of accounts from the literature of why there was this sudden interest in phenomena that have in fact been known about for a very long time. Some authors suggested an interesting explanation, to wit: scientists used to be sexist but now we know better.

Others had a different explanation. For example, I attended a meeting about recent changes in our understanding of primate behavior along these same axes, where it was suggested that the change was due to the number and primacy of women scientists. This is an intriguing suggestion, but I don’t think it is right, for the simple reason that women do not bring a change of ideology with their bodies. Ideology is not chromosomal. We have to think about the question in a different way.

Over the last 30 years, we have lived through a major revolution in gender ideology. This was not a biological revolution, but a cultural revolution, and that transformation had everything to do with there being more women in science today. It also had everything to do with changing expectations about male and female behavior. We have learned, for example, that women can be competitive, selfish, even aggressive, and that men can be cooperative, altruistic, and gentle. In other words, our ideas about the meaning of masculinity and femininity have changed.

Sensitivity to the difference between gender ideology and the facts of nature, and to the ways we tend to impose our ideas onto those “facts,” was, I think, the single most important feature of feminist analyses. And the basic fact is that, over the last 30 years, our gender ideology has changed.

For our purposes here, the crucial point is that the changes in our ideas, the changes in the way we look at the world, have opened up new conceptual spaces. They have made new kinds of thinking possible. Like, for example, the notion that the egg can be active in the fertilization process. Amazing! Or the idea that cooperation might be useful in evolution. Or, as Adam Smith thought was absolutely obvious, the idea that sympathy might be a natural attribute of humans, and of many other animals as well.

These new ideas and new conceptual spaces opened up new research opportunities, and if there is anything that can be said about scientists in general, it is that they are, by the nature of their profession, always on the lookout for new opportunities, new fields to plough, new stones to overturn. I welcome all of this rethinking of evolutionary biology, and I want to suggest that the cultural revolution that we lived through did in fact play a role in our shifting attentions.

This talk is from the panel discussion “Evolution, Cooperation, and Gender,” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 12, 2007.

Evelyn Fox Keller is Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at MIT. Her books include Reflections on Gender and Science (1985) and The Century of the Gene (2000). This talk is from the panel discussion “Evolution, Cooperation, and Gender,” held at HDS on April 12, 2007.

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