The March for Science… and Politics?

This is a guest post by Anne Fausto-Sterling!

The January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, DC was quite the eye-opener. I am not a naïve marcher, since my first such trek to Washington dates back some 60 years to the 10,000 strong 1958 Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools. So I fully expected to see signs and slogans pledging solidarity with immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and women. I did not anticipate that the first signs I would see would be about science.

Editor’s note: Remember all those witty signs, way back when, ONLY MONTHS AGO…

Given this existential moment, when the very idea that there are facts and true things is under assault, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But still. As the geek at the party, inured to people announcing–right after being told that I am a biologist–that in high school they hated biology, I was fascinated. Participants in the March on Washington made it clear that the meaning of science itself is woven into our current political conflicts, and a group of scientists responded by announcing a March for Science, to be held on Earth Day– April 22, 2017. The organizers–an archeologist, a health educator, and a physiologist [Editor’s note: Can you believe I had to add in an Oxford comma here? That is the real scandal.]-–are not international science stars but rather educators and scholars who work “in the trenches”, and this is one interesting component of the march.

Indeed almost immediately the hashtags #ThisIsWhataScientistLooksLike and #ActualLivingScientist appeared on twitter and then on the March for Science Facebook page. Soon hundreds of moving portraits of working scientists materialized—some by the scientists themselves, some by children honoring their parents, some focusing on the human story, and many joyfully zeroing in on caterpillars, cheetahs, glaciers, molecules, and atoms. The resulting picture displays diversity in the scientific workforce–white, person of color, old, young, male, female, field biologist, theoretical physicist, from many different nationalities and in the many things we study. Putting human faces on science produces an inspiring montage. And what we investigate perfuses all aspects of human life and the natural world.

But humans, even—or perhaps especially–-scientists, are a quarrelsome species [editor’s note: I disagree!]. So when the organizers announced the goals and basic principles intended to guide and unify the March, a crack or two appeared in the growing wall of science. The organizers hope to unite marchers around a set of basic principles: science serves the common good, cutting edge science education is crucial to democracy, public outreach should be inclusive, and we should use science to make evidence-based policy and regulations that are in the public interest. The April 22nd March itself has five more focused goals:

  • To humanize science;
  • To partner with non-scientists;
  • To advocate for open, inclusive and accessible science;
  • To support scientists;
  • (and, perhaps most important of all) To affirm science as a democratic value.

These seem non-controversial to me [Editor’s note: Me too! But then, again, we are feminist scientists…], although there certainly are those who think that science is and ought to be an elite activity. But when organizers articulated specific Diversity Principles, supporting inclusion, diversity and equality in science and stating that citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community, it was

Editor’s note: I like!

not the alt-right or climate deniers, but some very prominent scientists who objected. At the end of January 2017, psychologist Steven Pinker set scientists snarling at each other by tweeting: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric”. Nor is Pinker the only one to paint with the tar of anti-science, scientists who emphasize diversity and who think that scientists should use their talents to lessen inequality. Two recent publications, the first from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and the second from a less well-known neuroscientist/science journalist Debra Soh strike a similar chord.

Coyne holds court on his blog “Why Evolution is True”, where, at the end of 2016, he posted a piece entitled “The Ideological Opposition to Biological Truth.” In it he did not attack creationism, ridicule Northern Kentucky’s extraordinary “Creation Museum”, or launch a jeremiad against climate deniers. Instead, like Pinker, he excoriated “the ideological left” for ignoring biological data that they supposedly believe conflicts with their leftist political preferences. Coyne offers two examples—the conflict about whether the human race is/is not a “real” biological entity, and conflicts over the evolution of “innate (e.g. genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between human males and females.” To press his point on gender, Coyne starts with a generally accepted fact: in most (but not all!) primate groups males are physically larger than females. He provides evidence that this size difference derives from inter-male competition for females and that larger size provides a competitive advantage. As Coyne sees it, only ideologues or enemies of science (mostly misguided feminists) could possibly disagree with him.

His essay provoked a counter-attacking tweetstorm from Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island. Coyne’s account of the evolution of size dimorphism, she writes, is simplistic and biased toward explanations which feature males while ignoring females. [Editor’s note: In case you’re new, this would be far from the first case of evolutionary scientists – or any scholars, really –  ignoring females/women/femininity; there is literally a book by renowned evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy called “The Woman Who Never Evolved.”] Suppose, though, as a result of natural selection, that gestation, which is metabolically demanding, is more successful in smaller bodies. Pregnancy might limit growth. Indeed, it is possible that selection on women for small body size is an important force driving known sex differences in size. “Knowledgeable people,” writes Dunsworth “aren’t objecting to facts”…but to “biased story-telling” of the sort found in Coyne’s post. Dunsworth’s standpoint as a woman and a feminist leads led her to notice women and to think about how they form part of the evolutionary story. And this leads us back to the March for Science’s Diversity Principles. It is not just about being fair to previously underprivileged members of our society. It is that, unless we have scientists bringing diverse standpoints to the table of knowledge formation, the resulting science will be incomplete at best, and altogether wrong at worst.

In a recent op ed in the LA Times, Debra Soh similarly lit into a non-existent group she labeled “gender feminists.” [Editor’s note: When I heard this term, I laughed and laughed and laughed. It’s like the fake news of made-up labels.] The headline and lede give the message. Whoever these gender feminists are (and like Coyne she doesn’t name nor directly cite the scholarly work of the anti-science nemesis), they refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain. (The term “gender feminist” was invented by Christina Hoff Sommers in 1994 in her book Who Stole Feminism, which attacks “feminists who believe that “our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system’ in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive”, as “gender feminism” [taken from Wikipedia].

This seemed to me to be such an outrageous accusation that I consulted a group of evolutionary psychologists who are inclined to validate Soh’s claims to see if they could name these anti-evolution feminist scientists. The best a listserv of over 100 active respondents could do in an extended interchange was identify one feminist psychologist who, in some of her writing, writes some sentences that with malice could be interpreted as supporting Soh’s account. [Editor’s note: Some scientists hate when you ask for evidence for their anti-feminist claims, because: irony.]

Such attacks present us with a conundrum. One side of an intra-science debate has charged the other with refusing to accept facts and data and thus with being anti-science and political. When launched at someone whose life’s work has been dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge and love of rational thought, these are truly fighting words. But even while squabbling with each other, both sides are horrified at creationism, anti-vaxers, climate deniers, and tobacco, oil and gas companies which claim (using paid scientists!) that their products and activities are harmless. How do we identify and counter the real science deniers while at the same time accepting that political differences also and often legitimately shape the conclusions of scientists who are passionately committed to producing reliable results using the tools of objective investigation?

One reason this is such a complex task is that science is porous. It is not always easy to tell when we have crossed some line between legitimate scientific critique and science denial. Obviously, as compellingly laid out in Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), the economic interests of large actors such as tobacco and pharmacy influence knowledge production as they seek to control public policies that might curtail the sale of their products. Sometimes, too, a special interest lobby successfully enforces ignorance about a topic. When this happens, it is not that results are doctored but that we refuse to obtain data needed to make sound policy. Science critic Robert Proctor coined the term “agnotology” to denote the study of culturally-induced ignorance. [Editor’s note: In the feminist science studies literature, this same approach is largely called “epistemologies of ignorance” and you could check out our post on it here.] Indeed, we are in a moment of agnosis so serious that scholars have set up guerrilla teams to save data that are rapidly being purged from US government science websites.

But even while science is molded from without, the attitudes and cultural perspectives of individual researchers also shape scientific inquiry. The social standpoint that you enter the lab with frames what questions you pose, how you pose them, the level of evidence you require before accepting a result, and how you interpret your findings. This is why, in order to have productive debates about many types of research, scientists themselves must learn how to acknowledge their differing standpoints.

Starting in the late 1970s and thinking and writing furiously especially in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist science studies scholars grappled mightily with the concept of scientific objectivity. If science was completely objective, the diversity of the scientific workforce shouldn’t matter. But (all male, all white) communities of scientists always found that women or people of color were biologically inferior while women and scientists of color refuted such claims. [Editor’s note: if I could do that fancy typed out ironic shrug emoticon sort of thing, I would! But it looks hard.] In an infamous example I cite in Myths of Gender (Basic Books: 1985), Darwin and others described as fact that women were more biologically variable and hence more unreliable and less suited for the public sphere than men. But in the early 20th Century, the (still) all white male science cabinet found that men were biologically more variable, and declared variability a virtue that, while it produced more men of inferior ability, it also meant that the extreme high-end geniuses were going to be men, not women. Many examples of this sort addressing women, people of color and the intertwining of race/sex theory can be found in older books such as Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard: 1991) and newer ones such as Melissa Stein’s Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity 1830-1934 (University of Minnesota Press: 2015).

Biologists Ruth Bleier (Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women, 1984), Ethel Tobach (Challenging racism & sexism: Alternatives to genetic explanations, Genes & Gender VII. The Feminist Press: 1994), and Ruth Hubbard (The Politics of Women’s Biology, 1990) led the way with critiques of biological theories about women. They opened intellectual doors that the philosophers, especially Sandra Harding (The Science Question in Feminism, 1984), Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge, 1990), and Elizabeth Potter (Gender and Boyle’s Law of Gases, 2001) stepped through. By the time (1988) that Donna Haraway wrote her still widely-read essay Situated Knowledges: the Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” a review engaging with Sandra Harding’s 1984 book, science studies scholars (see also Daston and Galison’s Objectivity: 2007) were heatedly debating the meaning of objectivity and attacking the idea that science dis-covers objective facts that lie passively awaiting revelation. Exploding the idea of objectivity gave way, in turn, to debates about strong and weak objectivity, standpoint, and situated knowledge.

It is the idea that objectivity is always partial, shaped by the collective standpoints of theorizing and investigating scientists, which feminist evolutionary biologists such as Dunsworth and primatologists such as Linda Fedigan (Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, University of Chicago Press: 1992) bring to debates about human evolution. At the heart of Coyne’s, Pinker’s, and Soh’s attacks on feminist resistance to their understandings of evolution and sex differences in the brain, and the resistance to seeing a March platform for inclusion and diversity as essential to the future of good science, is that they cling to an out-dated vision of the scientific process itself. Thus—figuratively speaking—Soh does not blush when she exhorts feminists and transgender activists to stand down and simply let science speak for itself. [Editor’s note: I’m curious how this would even work and I would like some answers! Because sometimes I yell at my data and IT DOES NOT EVEN RESPOND.] Nor does she acknowledge the many years of scholarship from Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton: 1986), to Bruno Latour’s ground-breaking books all of which show that scientific facts emerge through a process of negotiation, theory and experiment and that their shape reflects the specific cultures and historical periods of their production. [Editor’s note: This is asking scientists critiquing feminist science studies to actually read feminist science studies or, put another way, collect evidence. How. Dare. You.]

Where, then, does this leave us? Even as scientists argue with each other about the nature of the enterprise which, quite apparently they deeply love—each in their own way–larger forces threaten empirical knowledge projects and decision making based on the best existing data and analysis. As I write on March 16, 2017, news is spreading about Donald Trump’s budget proposal. Agencies that fund scientific research—the NIH, NSF, EPA, NOAA, DOE, and more do not fare well. Proposed cuts would further the agnotology agenda by defunding research on climate change, rising sea levels, and the effects of pollution while interfering with beloved and productive basic research programs. On the inside, progressive scientists can legitimately struggle with their more cautious or conservative colleagues to push science towards the service of social justice, but at the same time progressive and conservative scientists need to unite to protect the enterprise as a whole.

Figuring out how to have substantive debates that engage different standpoints within the big science tent and without denouncing opponents as anti-science is not easy. Recently historian Alice Dreger tweeted “when the science march happens I plan to be with my fellow historians and sociologists of science in the ‘yes, but’ crowd.”: To which historian Ben Gross responded: “What do we want? Ans: Acceptance that science is a complex social process! When do we want it? Ans: After a well-researched historical discussion.” It is a tricky dance.

The March for Science is important. It demonstrates our numbers as well as our concern for the nation’s future. It provides a counter-message to the idea that scientists are haughty elites who do not care about the common welfare, and it creates a narrative, long forgotten, I am afraid, that science is essential to democracy and that part of our job description as scientists is education and explanation. Pinker is wrong. The political messages of the March for Science will strengthen our hand and create space for us to have our internal spats. And although it would be nice to disagree without calling each other mean names, perhaps that is too much to expect from #ActualLivingScientists.

Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory.

I know, right?! HOW COULD I EVEN SAY THAT?! Could I be a more worstest person??!? Quickbeforeyouleaveletmeexplain:

If you’re a feminist and you say words, you often end up explaining to people why you’re a feminist. Equo pro icqum, if you’re a feminist scientist, you often end up explaining to scientists, even scientists who are feminists, why you do feminist science and why you make up fake Latin logic statements that sound fancy (answer: you can’t make up real ones). Even the most well-meaning folk, who identify as feminists and bring feminism into every other aspect of their lives, want to know: why bring feminism into science?

Lately, when people ask me why feminist science, I’ve been answering: because it works; because it makes sense of the world. Equo pro icqum, scientists use theories that work and make sense of the world (are you impressed I remembered to italicize my fake Latin for optimum veracity?) (I AM). But is feminism a theory? Feminism is a social movement, a lived experience, a guiding principle. To a lot of people, whether feminism is a theory is irrelevant to their activism and life work. But here, I’m talking about how it’s also a theory. Did you think I would back down from my title? DO YOU EVEN KNOW ME? (Here’s a handy test to see if you know me: (a) Will I back down from a title? (b) Do I like milkshakes? (c) Do I enjoy listy things? No, yes, and who doesn’t?!)

Ok. So, feminism is a theory (among other things). But most anti-feminists want to argue that feminism is a political ideology and therefore evil. This is one of my favorite anti-feminist science arguments, because it equates political ideologies with evil and the picking on feminism is pretty obvious if you insert other ideologies: HUMANISM IS EVIL! PACIFISM IS EVIL! DISARMAMENT IS EVIL! WEARING WHITE BEFORE LABOR DAY IS EVIL! (or is it after?! BOTH ARE EVIL!). In my book, the book of evil, I reserve ‘evil’ for things that deserve the moniker, like walls you stub your toes on (jerks!), plants that won’t grow despite your best efforts (a-holes!), and paper cuts (the nerve of that paper!!!). Yes, feminism is an ideology but, and here is the refrain in my song: feminism is also a theory. I will explain more because even I know that saying the same statement over and over again doesn’t make it true (despite what many academics have tried to teach me. har har! academia jokes!).

This is from that most authoritative source that students should never but faculty often use: Wikipedia. I put it in serious font and left it undecorated to make it look even more impressive and true.

What kind of thing is feminism? It’s lots of things. To be honest, I’m not sure most of my feminist-identified people would have a ready answer to describe what feminism is (in terms of a type of thing) (but maybe I am projecting). Saying feminism is a theory could be troubling in another way because many anti-science folks would say that theories are ‘just theories’, that they’re unproven conjectures, which means that calling feminism a ‘theory’ provides a load of additional kindling for those people who want to burn feminism on the anti-feminism+anti-science pyre. If feminism is a theory, then it’s just a random guess, right?! And then feminism slinks away, tucking its loose armpit hair into its shapeless clothes, weeping, but stridently so, wondering why it ever thought stupid things like payment equity were worth considering. (Full disclosure: I’m pro-armpit hair AND pro-payment equity! Surprise! That was irony! I’m pro-stridency, too, but that is just good sense, not irony BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LIKE STRIDENCY?!?!)

Are theories ‘just’ theories; guesses and random conjectures? No. Theories aren’t just random guesses. They’re not unproven conjectures. They’re incredibly valuable, important, and insightful models of the world. Last I checked, no one can understand the entirety of the world all at once, so theories are a way to make sense of aspects of the world and guide our engagements with it. For scientists, theories are why we get up in the morning because, without them, the world might just be a big bunch of worldness. How to make sense of it? With a theory, of course! Like, take evolution. We use evolution as a way to make sense of the living matter we see in the world and how it has come to be. Evolution is a theory in all the amazing ways we mean theory: it explains the shit out of the world. Its explanatory power is off the charts!

Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory: feminism explains the world we see. That’s why students who take a feminist class are so often like: I was blind but now I see. For realz! Because feminism explains things you can’t make sense of otherwise. It’s like putting on the right prescription glasses and realizing everything had been out of focus before. I, myself, have -8.5 eyesight (which is worse than most people but who would be competitive about their bad eyesight? Definitely not me, but my eyesight is worse than yours) but my eyesight was literally – LITERALLY I PROMISE – -300 before I got my feminist glasses (quirky yet stylish OF COURSE).

This whole way of thinking is useful in another way. I often have students ask me: what if I do a project where the results don’t jibe with feminism? What if my science contributes to anti-feminism, misogyny, inequities, racism, etc.? What if I am still using jibe but no one else is?! I used to think about this myself and worry, so I understand the students’ concerns (jibe is never out of date). Few feminists want to do work that hurts women or undermines feminism. Contrasting this with evolution is useful: no one worries that their evolutionary biology experiment will call evolution into question because evolution is such a strong theory that it will almost inevitably explain the finding. Same with feminism: it’s such a strong theory, a truth of our world, that it will still explain the finding. Because that’s what truth does, make sense. There is no way that one finding will undermine either evolution or feminism and, instead, there is all likelihood that evolution and feminism are strong enough to make sense of unexpected results. That’s why we have them and that’s why we use them. That’s not tautological, where theories explain themselves; I mean that both evolution and feminism will legitimately make sense of even the most head-scratching seemingly off-target results because why? Because feminism and evolution make sense like a boss.

Of course, that’s not to say that evolution and feminism, like all awesome theories, can’t be revised or improved. For example, bringing modern genetics and now epigenetics into evolutionary theory has transformed evolution in wowish ways. Similarly, bringing intersectionality into feminism has transformed feminism in I-can-see-clearly-now-the-rain-has-gone ways. It’s always possible that a theory is wrong – OF COURSE! – but the strongest theories are supported by the available data and continue to be useful. They continue to make sense of the world in such important ways that the world would go unexplained without them.

So, when someone asks you why feminism? think of me in the background saying feminism because it makes sense of the world. Because it works. Because it’s right. Just like evolution. And watch their head explode in all the best ways. Though that is not the best image to leave you with, so also you could imagine me saying that doing the running man because that will definitely up the awesome ante.

p.s. I checked with some feminist philosophers of science as to whether I was allowed to make this analogy. I’m not sure they were entirely happy with it but they gave me the go-ahead. They may have sneaked side glances at each other while they were doing so, thinking I couldn’t see them but I could. So basically what I’m saying is that if you disagree with me or poke a hole in this argument, I cannot be held responsible for anything I have said, ever, and that is a given, unless you want to hold me responsible for awesomeness and THEN GO RIGHT AHEAD WITH MY PERMISSION.

Title: A (soon-to-be) feminist biology post doc tells all! PLUS CAT PHOTOS.

In part 2 of our ongoing investigative journalism here at Gap Junction Science, I interviewed Caroline VanSickle, the holder of the inaugural Wittig post doc in feminist biology at the University of Wisconsin. (In part 1, we described the post doc.) Here’s what soon-to-be Post Doc VanSickle had to say! I asked hard hitting questions such as “tell us about your research.” and also “what’s paleoanthropology?” and don’t forget “what excites you about feminist science?” Don’t worry. I got to the bottom of all of this AND MORE. And, because of my impressive investigative and interviewing skills, VanSickle just gave me a bunch of cat photos WITHOUT ME EVEN ASKING. Along with captions. All I have to say about this is WOW. But also, that VanSickle has some fascinating things to say.

1) Tell us about your research (like: what’s paleoanthropology?!).

Paleoanthropology is the study of human evolution. Studying humans is different than studying alligators because we complicate our biology with culture. (Editor’s note: but wouldn’t some scientists say that some non-human animals do have culture? That said, my money is not on alligators because they are too eatey-scary.) Figuring out how and when we started using cultural behaviors like language, tools, and kinship patterns, is just as important to our evolutionary story as figuring out when and why our skeletal form changed. Exploring this combination of biology and culture (definitely not biology versus culture) is what draws me to the discipline.

My specific research examines sex* differences in our hominin ancestors. Currently, I am completing my Ph.D. research on the evidence of childbirth differences between Neandertals (who lived 100,000-40,000 years ago) and humans. (Editor’s note: this is how you can tell a real anthropologist from an imposter: they spell Neadertals without an ‘h’. If anyone ever writes you a note that says “give me all your money or Neanderthals!” you can say “you’re an imposter.”) For that project, I compared measurements of the pelvis of Neandertal females to that of recent human females and found differences that may have affected birth. For the Wittig postdoc, I plan to research sex differences in australopithecines, the very early hominins who lived in Africa 3 to 1.5 million years ago. (Editor’s note: that is a long long time ago.) There appear to have been multiple species of australopithecines alive at roughly the same time; I want to figure out how we identify anatomical differences as being due to sex differences and not species differences.

*Paleoanthropological evidence consists of fragmentary skeletal remains. It is impossible to ascertain gender or nuanced sex categories from a complete human skeleton, let alone a fragmentary not-quite human one. This means paleoanthropologists are limited to discussing sex in terms of “likely male” and “likely female” individuals.

This bed smells delicious (there was still a pizza inside the box)

2)  Tell us why you applied for the Wittig post doc.

My research in evolutionary sex differences stems from an interest in figuring out the role females played in human evolution. A lot of previous work in paleoanthropology focused on explaining all of human evolution in terms of how it relates to males. For example, there was a hypothesis that hominins became bipedal so that men could hold weapons while hunting. That hypothesis excludes the possibility that a behavior done by women (or women and men) could have caused selection for bipedalism; for example, ability to carry babies or larger quantities of food. One aspect of my research goals is to challenge hypotheses like this by asking “what were the women doing?”

My goal as the Wittig Postdoc is to find ways to further incorporate feminist theory into my research and teaching practices. When I first saw the post on GJS (editor’s note: that’s us!) announcing this fellowship, which asked for someone “who wants to develop research skills in an area of biology related to gender and teaching skills in feminist approaches to biology” my immediate thought was “CHOOSE ME!!!” UW-Madison’s Anthropology department is an excellent place to undertake research on australopithecines, as one of their professors (John Hawks) is actively involved at a South African hominin field site and therefore knows the people and materials that have been found in the region very well. This, however, was really icing on the cake; the opportunity to develop my feminist science principles over two years of teaching courses for the Gender and Women’s Studies department and implement those principles in my new project was what first drew me to applying for the fellowship.

Oh you wanted to print something?

2) Many scientists, even scientists who identify as feminists in the non-science parts of their lives, feel uncomfortable with the notion of feminist science. How did you come to sidestep that discomfort and move to identifying with feminist science?

This is certainly an issue that many feminists and scientists and feminist scientists struggle with; and I am not sure I have fully resolved it in my own mind. I can best describe my current thoughts on what feminist science means by comparing science to one of my favorite feminist bands, Bikini Kill. I think most would agree that Bikini Kill was a feminist band (the lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, is credited with starting the Riot Grrrl movement and composing a feminist manifesto with other women on what the movement should entail).

To get labeled as a feminist band, Bikini Kill…

  • Existed as a women-led band at a time when this was unusual.
  • Sang about topics they found worthwhile, even if they met opposition.
  • Actively created a safe space for women at their concerts (punk mosh pits were often physically harmful for women, forcing women to stand on the sidelines or risk being trampled. Bikini Kill instituted “girls to the front” rules and kicked men out of concerts if they were overly violent or sexually aggressive).

In my mind, feminist scientists should have similar goals. In short, they should

  • Exist as part of women-led science until this stops becoming newsworthy.
  • Research topics they find worthwhile, even if they are met with opposition (this isn’t to encourage pseudoscience or fringe movements; this is meant to encourage research into a more diverse range of topics).
  • Actively create a safe space for women (and other under-represented minorities) within academia (including at conferences, in departments, in the classroom, within publications, etc.).

Despite identifying myself as a feminist paleoanthropologist (who does Feminist Science as well as Science While Being a Feminist), I am still relatively new to this discussion. I do not claim to be an expert on feminist science methodologies. I do firmly believe that since science is a human endeavor, we humans have the ability to change the process for the better. The suggestions I list here encourage better science for everyone, not just women, which is why I do not find feminist science to be a contradiction of terms.

Books put me to sleep.

3) What excites you about feminist science practice?

I tend to be overly pragmatic, which has been known to get me into trouble when I read overly philosophical works. My perspective is: science is how we learn about the world around us; feminist science is a way to expand science by including more people in the practice. The opportunity to be part of improving SCIENCE, and therefore our knowledge about the world, excites me beyond measure.

Shopping bags are for cats, right?

4) What’s your academic background? How did it prepare you (or not) for doing feminist science?

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, ever since I first learned the word back in middle school. Women’s rights – can’t go wrong with that! I read a bizarre assortment of feminist works I discovered at the local library or that friends recommended (it was normal to read Cunt in high school, right?). I took some women’s studies courses as an undergraduate (graduating just one course shy of a minor). In graduate school, I chose a research topic that would let me study the behavior of women in the past. I also took a seminar taught by GJS-member Laura Ruetsche on Philosophy of Science and Gender. This course was really when all of my previous ideas about Science and Feminism solidified. Reading Longino, Haraway, and many others, I finally felt I had an adequate vocabulary to explain how I thought the process of science worked, why I thought it worked, and how it could be improved by feminist principles. After that course, I found paleoanthropology-specific feminist critiques to read and started thinking about how to better incorporate feminism in my research and teaching practices. I never had a true feminist science advisor, though I have been advised by a number of scientists who I would consider feminists.

Gravity, what’s that?

5) What would you say to aspiring feminist scientist trainees and junior folks out there?

If they are available to you, I recommend taking courses in philosophy of science, gender and biology (like the one I am teaching next fall at UW-Madison), or feminist history. If they are not available to you, there are some mind-opening readings out there that are great for helping you see how gendered scientific inquiry tends to be (readings that include the blog posts here at GJS). A paleoanthropology-specific reading list of such topics might include the books The Invisible Sex and Women in Human Evolution.

While informing yourself about issues relevant to feminist science is of course important, you should remember the power you have to advocate change right now. Just because you are a student doesn’t mean you have to go along with gender bias.  The “See something, say something” principle described by anthropologist Julienne Rutherford shows the importance of pointing out everyday gender biases in science. (Editor’s note: also see our post about this for conferences and this post for saying something as a junior person!). It is of course important to read the situation and avoid putting yourself in danger, but part of being a feminist scientist (or a feminist punk band) is not being afraid to speak up!

Finally, assemble a support network, ideally one that includes woman role models. This is important for everyone, not just aspiring feminist scientists; yet forming a community of support does fit with classic feminist principles. I found this support system through my lab mates at Michigan, as well as on Twitter where I interacted with (and sometimes just lived vicariously through) more senior scholars who were willing to share parts of their day with the public. Sometimes it can really improve your day to know that there are other researchers out there who are struggling with a manuscript, taking a break for a favorite TV show, and fighting the patriarchy both within and outside of academia.

My bipedal cat

On the Preponderance of Breast-Like Referents in Bioscience, or, BOOBIES EVERYWHERE!

I suppose this post doesn’t have the least sensationalist title, but – honestly – it’s accurate. Do I know that they’re actually called breasts? Yes. One of my academic homes in sex research. But ‘boobies’ is way funnier than breasts, as every human person knows. And also more appropriate terminology for this post as you’ll see if you stay with me.

So, first: remember that movie by that guy? M. Night Shyamalan? Where that kid with three names was like “I see dead people”? Well, this is like that. Except not about dead people, and I don’t have three names, and I’m also not M. Night (surprise!) (that is my twist ending, obviously). Instead, this is like “I see boobies.” If you also added “Everywhere.” And then maybe threw in “Because I’m a bioscientist” for good measure. Uh – what? Boobies? plus Everywhere? plus Bioscience? Yes.

For example. I was in my local Natural History Museum and believe me: yes this is already another digression and yes there will be a post about feminism and natural history museums in the near-future because: obviously. But really, I wanted to open with the Natural History Museum because they have awesome ancient elephant things. I realize that my calling them that probably made someone’s head explode. I’m sorry about that. But, let’s be honest: there are awesome ancient elephant things (you can tell I’m a scientist by my precision). At my Natural History Museum (the one I go to, at least because so far as I know I don’t own it) there is a huge mastodon, which is really awesome.

The End.

Just kidding! If you know your Greek (or Latin WHO KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE?!), or you’ve had issues with lactation (that’s one thing that boobies can do, as you well may know), then you probably already know what I’m talking about. I will walk the rest of us mastodon novices through this. What does a mastodon refer to? That’s pretty easy, right? Some type of mammalian animal that is somehow related to modern elephants, but went extinct maybe 10k years ago (I’ve always wanted to use money units for time AND NOW IS MY CHANCE). You may think that mastodons and woolly mammoths are somewhat similar but that’s a rookie mistake, and everyone (including me now that I checked Wikipedia) knows that woolly mammoths went extinct about 250k years ago.

So now you know. In case you aren’t sure, the woolly mammoth is apparently the really woolly one (I had to check, myself). I have to admit that the mastodon looks a bit like an anteater which is, for some reason, wholly disappointing.

Anyway, so that’s what a mastodon refers to. But what does ‘mastodon’ mean, literally? Breast teeth. Obviously. What were you thinking it might mean? Something elephanty? R U crazy?? ‘Mastodons’  are so-named because their teeth are breast-shaped. Because obviously the teeth of the mastodon are its most prominent feature, unlike its elephanty-ness.  Look at the above picture: what jumps out at you? Breast teeth. And, obviously the teeth are extremely boobie-ish. Now look below, at the picture of boobies I mean mastodon teeth.

How can any person with eyes not see boobies here?

Can you even see for boobies??? If you ask me, that middle set of teeth kind of looks like an open mouth with a weird nose above it IF I TRY REAL HARD but actually my brain is boring because they just really really look like teeth. Maybe mountains? These are like Rorschach teeth and I failed. Anyway, I do want to acknowledge that they probably unearthed a tooth before they dug out the Natural History Museum-ready fabricated plastic whole model of a mastodon, so that might be partly why the teeth feature so prominently in the name. Anyway, blah blah blah long story short science discovery etc., that Cuvier guy named mastodons ‘mastodons’ because of how breasty their teeth looked. Or nipple-y. Either way: CUVIER SAW BOOBIES. So, here I am, in the Natural History Museum, minding my own business, looking at mastodons and realizing that I’m looking at breast-teeth-ers. Awesome! I mean, nothing wrong with boobies, eh?

  1. (Because this is now a list.) Have you ever heard of mammillary bodies? You probably are like: um, yes? Breasts? No? And I’m like: this is trickier than that. The neuroscientists among you are like: Oh ho! We know what she’s talking about! Yes. The mammillary bodies. I probably don’t have to tell you that ‘mammilla’ means ‘booby’ in Latin (okay: of or relating to breasts, according to the internets). Mammillary bodies are a part of the brain. Right in the middle there – don’t look at the labels and cheat; see if you can spot them!
No matter how funny they are, the mammillary bodies will never be as funny as the medulla oblongata, and that is a fact.

Ok. So these are more boobular than the mastodon teeth, eh? I agree. They’re not exactly un-breasty… You put a bikini on those and – wow!  So, here I am, in an undergraduate neuroscience class, minding my own business and studying the brain and then zippo-presto (is that a thing?): I’m looking at boobies. Boobies everywhere! Right!? But nothing wrong with boobies – they do important things. Like: what kind of bee makes milk? Boo-bees! That’s a very scientific joke, right there.

  1. Remember Dolly? The cloned sheep?
Hi! I’m Dolly the Sheep.
Or, semi-disturbingly, her taxidermied remains.

So, Dolly, eh?! That was pretty amazing science back in the day! Though I’m still waiting on a clone of my favorite pillow because no other pillow can get it right and COME ON GENETICS. Anyway, I remember Dolly. And one day, I thought to myself: I wonder why that sheep is called Dolly. Have you ever wondered? Well, I looked it up. And not even just in my gut. Because my gut would not have really believed it but you obviously have long guessed it by now and my career as a mystery plot writer is over because everyone will obviously already guess who did it with what weapon in which room by the time it’s page 2. Dolly. Long story short: you’ve heard of Dolly Parton, perhaps? She is known for her singing, for being a cultural icon, for receiving many awards, and – yes – for the size of her breasts.

This is Dolly Parton (in white), being honored with the U.S. National Medal of Arts, along with some other who-knows-who-these-people-are people.

Ok, there’s the story: Dolly the sheep is named after Dolly Parton. Got it. But it doesn’t quite make sense yet, right? Because what do SHEEP have to do with BREASTS? I mean, yeah, they’re mammals but it’s not like sheep are known for some especially breasty nature, right? Well, apparently, the scientists named Dolly the sheep “Dolly” because

Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.

I’ve looked this up many times and this is cited as a quote on Wikipedia and in many renowned news sources (BBC, CBC, anything-BC). Wouldn’t you think it was made-up? It sounds apocryphal, right? Or, at least, it would, if you didn’t already know that, for (some) scientists, it’s (all together now) BOOBIES EVERYWHERE! So, there I am, minding my own business but also I guess not because I was looking it up because I had a gut-booby hunch and it’s all: boobies! even in cloned sheep! everywhere!

  1. Mammals. That’s all I need to say.

When has one word EVER been all I needed to say? One word: never.

I thought I’d list mammals too because a whole type of animal got named for having boobies. Like, rock on, boobies! You got a whole TYPE of LIFE named after you! Boobies (or mammillary tissue, but why be so scientific about it? Plus I know boobies are a social construction and that’s kind of my point) are basically the only thing these various types of animals have in common. It’s absolutely natural and necessary that they be named for boobies because that is the only one thing ever in the universe they have in common. Except, oh yeah, hair. Right? I mean all the mammals have hair, but only the females can lactate, so it makes perfect sense to call them something boobular rather than hairicular. Apparently (I read Wikipedia pretty hard for this today’s post, eh?!), they also all have three middle ear bones and a neocortex in common, BUT WHO’S COUNTING!? Not me. They’re almost all viviparous too (I knew that word and didn’t even have to look it up because I AM FANCY LIKE THAT), except for those tricky oviparous monotremes like that platypus jerk who ruins the party (but is pretty cute, I’ll admit. IT HAS A BILL. KIND OF.). Anyway, obviously the only choice to group all these animals is booby-sharing. So here I am, minding my own business and being a mammal and then I realize I’m a classified-by-boobies thing, and that I’m surrounded by other classified-by-boobies things because: (sing it slowly, kind of understated, maybe with a twang): boobies everywhere.

This is a totally unnecessary and completely gratuitous image of a platypus but instead of going predictably cutesy and showing a live one with a bill, I went all Natural History Museum to fit with this post’s sensibilities but I’m kind of regretting that decision now but inserting images is a lot of work and I have to go drink milkshakes.

CONCLUSION: I should have gone with the cutesy live platypus picture OBVIOUSLY. And, this is a long post! And also: I’m realizing that this post is not so much like M. Night Shyamalan’s “I See Dead People” movie; it’s more like that Leslie Nielsen trilogy:

Remember how funny this was when you were 10 years old? I DO. (Sort of.)

I don’t remember which one, but I’m talking about the one where Leslie Nielsen was lamenting how much he missed his girlfriend and how everything he saw reminded him of her. Remember that? The visual gag was that the things he was seeing that reminded him of her were things that looked like (don’t read ahead because you’ll never guess in one million eighthundred thousand k years!) (did you guess? DON’T! You’ll ruin it! You’ll never be able to figure it out because this is so unexpected…) boobies! That’s right. I surprised you For Realz! Everything Leslie Nielsen’s character saw looked just like boobies and it was a gag because obviously things that looked like boobies would remind him of her because boobies = women (or at least hot movie women girlfriends). I remember that one of the visual gags he saw was those things that I don’t know what they’re called so I can’t even look them up to get a picture to post here for you because YOU look up “very big things that look like breasts but aren’t and maybe architecture? what’s in them anyway I HAVE NO IDEA but I don’t think it’s food-related items” and see what you get because I’ve learned my lesson through googling sex-related terms for images I could show when I teach sexuality courses and my eyes just recovered yesterday.

So, anyway: Leslie Nielsen = all bioscientists throughout time?  On one hand: Leslie Nielsen. On the other: Famous Anatomists Who Named Things. What’s the dif? THEY ALL HAVE WHITE HAIR. But, really, what they have in common is that they all see Boobies. Everywhere.

Tell me I’m just seeing people-who-see-boobies-everywhere everywhere. Tell me it’s not that these scientists were seeing boobies, it’s that the things they saw just were so booby-like they couldn’t help but name them after boobies. If that is the case, I give you my closing argument:

Guess what the pituitary gland isn’t called. And I don’t mean boobies.

Charles Darwin’s Correspondence with Women

Guest Author: Samantha Evans, Co-Editor, Charles Darwin Correspondence Project

The Darwin Correspondence Project is a long-term academic project publishing all Charles Darwin’s extant correspondence (letters to him and letters from him) in an annotated edition, both in hard-copy and online. We have also published selections of letters, and since the suggestion was made of publishing a selection of women’s letters, growing out of our online “Darwin and gender” project, I have been looking at Darwin’s correspondence with women and thinking about what it tells us about women’s place in the nineteenth-century scientific community, and how Darwin’s interactions with women influenced his theories.

I own Movember. (Editor’s note.)

Based in a village in Kent, Charles Darwin relied hugely on correspondence in his work. Fortunately a substantial amount of his correspondence survives – nearly 15,000 letters – and provides insight not only into his own thought processes but into middle-class Victorian society in general.

We know of letters to or from around 2000 correspondents, about 100 of whom were women. To get an idea of the overall content of the letters I read the summaries available on the Darwin Correspondence Project’s online Calendar and assigned them to rough categories.  I included in the count letters to women in Darwin’s family that contained messages for Darwin.

Nearly half of the surviving 650 or so letters to or from women are to do with family matters. Despite the fact that Darwin and his wife Emma were rarely separated after their marriage, the correspondence between them is the largest surviving one between Darwin and a woman. The next biggest block after family matters, around 76 letters, might be described as observations. These were from women  – often strangers – who had read Darwin’s work, had noticed something that they thought might interest him, and wrote to him about it; or they might be letters to or from friends and relations who had been asked by Darwin to make specific observations. The next biggest  – around 64 letters – is to and from botanists. I used this term to cover women who were publishing on botany or who were acknowledged by their contemporaries to be skilled practitioners. Botanists carried on the most lengthy and detailed correspondences with Darwin of all his female correspondents other than close family members. Botany was a popular subject for women to take up: it could be learnt and practised at home. One of Darwin’s botanical correspondents, Mary Treat, was also an entomologist, and one woman wrote to him about geology.

After these categories come in descending order: friends; go-betweens (women writing on behalf of a man); writers (usually women writing on science); and editors (there is a substantial correspondence between Darwin and his daughter Henrietta about the editing of his works). Another category that suggested itself but that I omitted since it cut across too many others was “trying to get a pension for someone”. Some letters didn’t sort easily into any category at all, such as instructions for making ginger beer and someone seeking to sell a portrait of Erasmus Darwin. In addition, there are a small but interesting set of letters in which women challenged Darwin on his views on religion or women’s place in society.

The correspondence reveals that Darwin was happy to rely on women for observations (relatives might be roped in to search for plants, for example, or to survey the amount of earth turned over by worms), experimental work, editorial help, and advice on presentation. We know from Darwin’s own comments that Emma was prepared to tell him whether a paper he liked was too boring to republish, and that the women in the family reined him in when he wrote to his Roman Catholic adversary St George Jackson Mivart. Henrietta was a valued editor of his works. In his correspondence with women botanists, Darwin was neither dismissive nor patronising. If he was interested in their findings he urged them to publish, because it was better for him to refer to published works. He didn’t see women exclusively in ancillary roles: he knew women who published in their own right, and he must have been aware of arguments that the generally inferior intellectual status of women was maintained artificially by their exclusion from examinations and learned societies. He supported women’s education in physiology, even though some thought it an unfeminine (messy) subject.

Darwin’s comments on the “difference in the mental powers of the two sexes” in Descent of man 2: 326–9 are complex, and further complicated by views on inheritance that might seem strange today. He begins  with a nod to the view that there is no difference, which he denies, not, at first, on the grounds of women’s lesser intelligence, but on the grounds of their greater tenderness. So far, so conciliatory; a difference in disposition is something Darwin can support from observations of other mammals. Men, on the other hand, have the “unfortunate birthright” of competitiveness (inherent in male competition for females), which can lead to selfishness. However, men have achieved higher eminence in all fields; and Darwin attributes this not to social causes, but to the very habit of dogged persistence that he thought arose from constant competition. (This view of the key to male success is interesting in the light of Darwin’s own opinion of his “genius”; he suggested the motto “It is dogged as does it” for scientific workers, and generally thought patience and persistence more valuable than inspiration. [Editor’s Note: This is so fascinating! But I can see why that motto didn’t catch on…]. Additionally, Darwin thought that constant fighting and hunting would have led to greater “observation, reason, invention or imagination”. (He does not discuss whether the conditions of female life, even stereotypically confined to childcare, housekeeping, and “gathering,” would have developed similar qualities.)

At this point, Darwin applies his own logic of inheritance. Darwin believed that faculties developed later in life were likely to be transmitted only to one’s own sex, whereas faculties developed earlier in life could be transmitted to both. Hence, the particular skills that men acquired through adult conflict and struggle would tend to be passed to their sons only, entrenching sexual difference.

By the end of this passage, Darwin has concluded that “man has ultimately become superior to women,” and is expressing relief that equal inheritance of characters has generally prevailed among mammals, otherwise

man would have become as superior in endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.

(Editor’s note: It is illegal to discuss Charles Darwin without somehow referencing a peacock.)

This seems a conservative conclusion: but he believes that women can, with an effort, raise themselves to the same standards as men. The measures he describes (training in energy and perseverance; having her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point) suggests that the effort involved amounts to having the same education as men, who must maintain their superiority in a similarly effortful way. Oddly, though, he can only imagine this improvement being disseminated infinitely slowly (if at all), by inheritance from a few educated women, rather than more rapidly by universal education.

When he was asked by Caroline A. Kennard, an American campaigner for women’s education, to explain his views, Darwin responded as follows:

The question to which you refer is a very difficult one. I have discussed it briefly in my ‘Descent of Man’. I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually; & there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance, (if I understand these laws rightly) in their becoming the intellectual equals of man. On the other hand there is some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages) men & women were equal in this respect, & this wd. greatly favour their recovering this equality. But to do this, as I believe, women must become as regular ‘bread-winners’ as are men; & we may suspect that the early education of our children, not to mention the happiness of our homes, would in this case greatly suffer.

Kennard responded that to all intents and purposes, women were already breadwinners; that they often had to earn money to put their brothers through college, and that the mental exercise of running a household was fully equivalent to that of paid employment.

No doubt many reasons underlie Darwin’s conservative yet courteous and somewhat provisional account of the female intellect. If Darwin’s account seems contradictory, and at odds with his personal knowledge of talented and intelligent women, it’s perhaps because he believed in the plasticity of evolving species much more than we do now. Nowadays it’s axiomatic in some circles that humans have not been civilised for long enough for much impact to have been made on our Stone-Age genes, so that arguments about gender difference and gender equality are often based on assumption about prehistory, awkwardly enough. But for Darwin, the conditions of  his own era were having an immediate impact, and if conditions changed, so might the biological restraints on the sexes. He was conservative in his views and not sure that would be a good thing; but he didn’t think it was an impossible thing. He supported his undoubtedly traditional views with the logic of inheritance as he saw it, but he wasn’t entirely sure he’d got that right. Perhaps that accounts for his generally genial and supportive relationships with women.

Useful links:

Darwin Correspondence Project:

Darwin Correspondence Project, gender pages:

On Kennard:

Descent of man, 1st ed., vol. 2:

3.5 feminist evolutionary psychologists walk into a blog…

Why am I such a plagiarizer of

I think it’s fair to say that evolutionary psychology is a field that people hold strong opinions about. It’s a field some folks love to love, and a field that some folks love to hate. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Remember when Charles Dickens plagiarized me to start that book?!) Feminist scholars have long taken issue with the assumptions, methods, and conclusions of evolutionary psychology. And, many evolutionary psychologists have argued against feminism itself or specific feminist principles. But what happens when the evolutionary psychologists are feminists? (Cue! Dramatic! Music!) Inquiring minds wanted to know, so I spoke with 3.5 feminist evolutionary psychologists to get their take on what it’s like to be a feminist evolutionary psychologist when evolutionary psychology is not exactly known for being feminist-friendly and feminist scholars are not known for their fond feelings towards evolutionary psychology (wow, can I be politic or what?!). Put another way, I asked them what it’s like to be feminist in a discipline that largely dislikes feminism and that feminists largely dislike.

Who did I speak with? First of all, this is not the 20th century where people “talk” to each other “in person”. When I say ‘speak’ I obviously mean some form of electronic communication. Second of all, people is busy so I asked them to spend no more than 1-5 minutes on their answers. Third of all: I know there are grammar issues with the first sentence of this paragraph, and you grammar police will just have to let your head explode. I spoke with Professors Lisa DeBruine, Maryanne Fisher, Justin Garcia, and Rosemarie Sokol Chang. Why? As with everything in life, it’s pretty clear when I lay it out in bullet form.

  • Lisa DeBruine is Reader in Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow (rhymes with GlasCOW or GlasGO???? NO ONE KNOWS) and has published about three billion papers (roughly). In addition to other degrees, she has a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies.
  • Maryanne Fisher is Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Mary’s University and notes that some of her scholarship is aimed at the intersections between feminist theory and evolutionary psychology.
  • Justin Garcia is Assistant Professor in Gender Studies at Indiana University with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology (he’s also affiliated with 800 other programs I would get carpal tunnel syndrome typing).
  • Rosemarie Sokol Chang is Adjunct Professor of Psychology at SUNY New Paltz and has interests at the intersection between feminism and evolutionary psychology.
3.5 Feminist Evolutionary Psychologists

In addition, more bullet points:

If you are a mathematician or a number genius, you may have noticed that I bullet listed four people but my title tantalizingly noted three point five feminist evolutionary psychologists (is there anything better than typing out a number in full that has a decimal point? If so, I don’t know what) (milkshake). Why 3.5? Well, I’m only counting Justin Garcia as half an evolutionary psychologist because it’s way funnier to count someone as half. Just kidding! There are real reasons that come from the real Dr. Garcia:

I’m an evolutionary biologist by training. This gets us into territory of the fine distinctions within the evolutionary sciences themselves. I do very much consider myself a human evolutionary behavioral scientist, and I’m often called things like an “evolutionary anthropologist” or “evolutionary psychologist”, but in the American tradition, at least, I don’t generally use an “evolutionary psychology” approach… but rather more behavioral ecology, although I do mostly work with contemporary U.S. populations. So, there are also all sorts of distinctions and issues WITHIN both feminist scholarship and evolutionary sciences that complicate these intersections, and make some more or less possible (palatable?) than others.

Now you know why 3.5. Ok, so what did folks say about feminist evolutionary psychology? Well, first, what about just being a feminist evolutionary psychologist? I didn’t ask specifically about that, but people said:

Being a feminist in evolutionary psychology is different depending on who I’m talking to.


In my experience, the first reaction is usually a bit of shock, and then skepticism – but almost always intrigue! The inherent reservations, I think, are about how one walks the disciplinary lines, with all the corresponding issues and traditions in terms of theory, methodology, and scholarly agenda.

‘Intrigue’ is a major selling point for me. Like “Feminist Evolutionary Psychologist, Person of Intrigue”… Who WOULDN’T see that movie?! Back to the main question. A non-unanimous theme emerged that feminism was a harder sell in evolutionary psychology spaces than evolutionary psychology was in feminist spaces:

As I wrote, I realized I get much more guff from the EP [evolutionary psychology] than the feminist community – but that is probably because I am not engaged much with feminist communities.

Ok, you had me at ‘guff’ because: a.w.e.s.o.m.e. Anyway, someone else said:

I won’t dismiss how challenging it has been at times to try to integrate feminism with EP.  I’ve had countless debates over breakfast meetings or social events at conferences, where often I find my EP colleagues placing me in the position of defending feminism.


I’ve found my colleagues in Women and Gender Studies to be far more excited about intersections with evolutionary biology, and bridging gaps, than many outside feminist scholarship would assume. I think there is certainly a level of caution and hesitation, given the histories of human biosciences. But, I’ve thus far found it to all be clean and in an honest attempt toward scholarship – asking questions about theoretical assumptions, methodological problems, interpretation of data, etc., are all things that should happen in any field!

Unfortunately, I’ve personally found that those in human evolutionary behavioral sciences are far more suspect and dismissive of feminist approaches. I suspect this is somewhat due to the tumultuous history of sociobiology itself – a field that not long ago needed to close ranks and fight for the right to do important science, and became hyper vigilant against the outside critic (or so is my interpretation of the history here). I think many have had unpleasant academic experiences trying to find common ground with feminists at a time when there wasn’t much, and have since whole-sale abandoned any thoughts that this is possible.


I remember a judge of the HBES [Human Behavior & Evolution Society] young investigator award telling me that he couldn’t be bothered to read my paper because the topic would never receive an award. I was 26 and crushed. Just before this happened, one of my doctoral supervisors said that the topic wouldn’t work for a dissertation because it was too risky and that I should wait until I was a senior scholar.

Similarly, FEPS (the feminist evolutionary psychology society) received some support from evolutionary psychologists, but not-hugs from others:

When [we] started the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society (FEPS), Glenn Geher showed his support by writing a blog about our fledgling society. This is when I started to realize I was keeping what others perceived to be strange bedfellows. While the feminist community remained silent – indeed, members of this world probably had no idea about the blog post or our new group – the evolutionary psychology community had a few outspoken members. We received more than an earful foreshadowing our doom from aligning research with politics, though this alignment was more in the eyes of the beholders than our own society. Strangely, to my knowledge, the folks responsible for creating the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society never received similar backlash from the evolutionary community – though the goal is to apply evidence based research to practice and policy.

You’ve got to love the use of the “Ahhh! Thou art evil, Politicks and Applyd Approches… unless of course you’re Polytycks and Applyd Approaches that is not Femynyste” ideology popping up here. Here’s another related comment, that also highlights a very partisan view, and the inherent anti-feminism of scientism:

I think many scientists are resistant to explicitly addressing feminist issues in their work because it’s “not science” and use the excuse that they are just reporting dispassionate scientific findings and aren’t responsible for interpretations. But we need to take responsibility for all the potential uses of our research.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to be an evolutionary psychologist in feminist spaces:

…my feminist studies colleagues tend to dismiss that I work within an EP framework and we continue along the best we can.


While I have engaged in conversations with people who are very much feminist, and very against evolutionary psychology (after decades of doctors and politicians trying to be in charge of what women can and can’t do with their bodies and minds, who knew?), the conversations tend to be pretty docile. What appears clear is that there is a wall between feminism and biology, and many feminists aren’t willing to think about climbing that wall anytime soon.

There is also an interesting clash of perspectives even from those who identify as feminist evolutionary psychologists about how feminism is perceived in evolutionary psychology. But, hey, what discipline doesn’t have a good internal clash now and then? So, while one person says:

It is a strange feeling that as a person surrounded by liberal, educated individuals, the word “feminism” is as much a four letter word as if I were transported back to a 1950s conservative household. For this reason, I was never outspoken about my feminist tendencies; in fact, I was more likely to face self-denial about them altogether.

another person comments:

Within the discipline [evolutionary psychology], it’s [agreement with feminist principles] pretty much expected. I perceive there is a higher proportion of publicly self-identified feminists in the evolutionary community (with includes biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, etc) than within the other disciplines with which I’m aligned (animal behaviour, experimental psychology, psychophysics).

Some folks identified a tension for feminist evolutionary psychology, not in the ‘My name is Captain Obvious’ way, but more in the ‘holy, this has more tensions than anticipated’ way. For example, more baggage than realized:

I didn’t realise the topic carried with it an incredible amount of baggage. Those using feminist theory tend to dismiss EP for being reductionistic, sexist, and/or downplaying socio-cultural forces. Those within EP tended to have a cemented view of women (and of men!), and [EP] studies that used a different perspective were (in my honest opinion) somewhat dismissed at first.

As another example of these complex tensions is a comment about who represents evolutionary psychology to people outside of evolutionary psychology:

But most of my interaction is with serious evolutionary scientists, and there are a LOT of novices who I don’t consider part of the discipline, but who advance naive evolutionary hypotheses that aren’t grounded in study of biological evolutionary processes and are perceived by the public as “evolutionary psychologists”. Not to mention members of the field with good credentials who use their scientific authority to advance their own racist social ideas (e.g. Kanazawa, Rushton). So I understand why feminists outside the discipline can perceive the entire discipline as anti-feminist.

But when I interact with feminists outside evolutionary science, so many have a strong impression that ev psych is inherently racist, sexist and biologically determinist (and all straight white men). There has to be something we’re doing wrong as scientists to not be combatting this incorrect impression. For example, HBES [Human Behavior & Evolution Society] has a very large proportion of female scientists, and many of the past presidents and major award winners are female.

Though I didn’t explicitly ask about this, some commented on how they came to feminism in evolutionary psychology. For example:

When I initially started focussing my research on women, it was not with the intention of bringing a feminist viewpoint to evolutionary psychology. Instead, I had read [Sarah Blaffer] Hrdy’sThe woman that never evolved” and was inspired by a comment she made in her last chapter about women’s intrasexual competition being very subtle. This became my main topic of research through my PhD and into the first decade of my professorial career.

and another two examples, that parallel the way many folks come to feminism in any field:

It was once I started paying more attention to the topics cropping up at evolutionary psychology conferences, and the theories that were meant to encompass current as well as past human populations, that I noticed I did not feel wholly reflected in the work of the field. Upon talking with other folks in my field, I realized I was not alone – perhaps I was not the one outlier after all.


Ten years later my resolve has strengthened. I started reading feminist works with the hopes of understanding the arguments – and some of them are compelling. I started to return to original sources in EP and see how as a field, certain topics have been pushed to the side, or how some ideas became fact without empirical testing.

Some of the folks are optimistic for a joining of feminism and evolutionary psychology in at least three ways. One of these ways involved a senior prominent figure in feminism and evolutionary psychology encouraging a junior person entering that same trajectory:

I must also say that when Hrdy came up to me after an ISHE [International Society for Human Ethology] presentation – my first ever scholarly presentation with overheads and all – and said that I was doing the right thing and asking the right questions with my work on female intrasexual competition in humans, I was speechless. Her informal vote of support right then gave me a boost that saw me through some unpleasant storms during my graduate school years.

A second form of optimism for the future of feminist evolutionary psychology was the reflection that support for it already existed:

At the same time, I’ve received support from the most unexpected people. Some of the most notable scholars in EP have congratulated me on exploring issues that have been otherwise pushed aside. A handful of these don’t agree with my conclusions but they appreciate that there is a scholarly discussion underway. I remember one conference where I was stopped in a stairwell – this was just as we received the OUP [Oxford University Press] contract for Evolution’s Empress – and a colleague who I rarely talked to congratulated me on pushing the field open. I was stunned.

A third form of optimism was hope for what could or should happen:

I hope that groups like FEPS and Gap Junction Science will show that there is a way for the two sides to meet, and to create sounder understandings of why it is that humans act, think, and feel the ways they do.


Each field has a LOT to offer the other… I think we’re getting closer to doing that effectively, and it is a really exciting time for these intersections.


I think the tide is turning, too. If I had answered this question 10 years ago, my comments would be far darker and more negative than today. The tide is turning – the intersection between feminism and EP [Evolutionary Psychology] is gaining attention. Evolution’s Empress is out, FEPS is alive and growing. There are special issues of journals dealing with these issues – Sex Roles in 2011, or the upcoming JSEC [Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology] issue in December. There’s a critical mass of scholars now who are working on related issues, and that has changed everything.

So there you have it. Three point five feminist evolutionary psychologists giving some thought about what it’s like to be feminist evolutionary psychologists in a discipline that isn’t always feminist-friendly and that feminists aren’t always fond of. Challenges, tensions, complexities. Convergent and divergent experiences. Changes over time. Value seen is the conjunction of feminism and evolutionary psychology. And hope for a present-future.

Science and feminism: the holy grail for nasty comments?

Just recently, Popular Science shut off their comments in a move they report here. An interesting post came up on Scientific American about this, with a pretty hilarious graphic to start it off (including a great line: “I can science!”). It seems that comments on posts about, especially, climate change and evolution are rewarded by especially vitriolic, nasty, and (worse yet) boring comments.

So, here, apparently is yet one more thing science and feminism has in common, because feminist blogs and posts are subject to the same treatment. Sort of, anyway, because I’m not sure that commentators on science-related posts threaten their authors with horrendously sexualized and gendered physical violence, including rape, though it’s certainly possible. For example, Feminist Frequency’s blogger Anita Sarkeesian received emails with images of her being raped by video game characters… in response to her work trying to create video games that were less misogynistic. Obviously, this would be a serious contender for “Ironic, version II” if Alanis Morisette ever writes a follow-up. Um, or maybe not, because I guess examples of harassment, rape, and sexism are kind of downers (except, apparently, to all the wonderful people in the world who find them hilarious and perfectly appropriate to threaten).

Not surprisingly, there has been a huge pushback by feminist-identified and allied folks against the online harassment of women, feminist bloggers, and public figures, precisely because the harassment has been so serious, disgusting, and – perhaps most concerningly – normative. It seemed sort of ho-hum, like “oh, there’s a woman in public who is being harassed. And? I think there’s a song on the radio!” In fact, there is a law that specifically addresses comments on feminist articles/posts/writings:

I think the anti-evolution and anti-climate change comments are largely intended to shut down debate on, well, evolution and climate change. I think the anti-women/anti-feminist comments are aimed at shutting down women (and feminism). It’s hard enough to put yourself out there, but when you get really disturbing threats for doing so? Well, that’s hard and brave and really really important because – from what I’ve heard – bullies are scared themselves by shows of strength. And feminists in the public sphere are shows of strength by dint of just existing.

So, let’s sum up: people post nasty comments to science posts. And, people post nasty/disgusting/make-you-scared comments to feminist posts. Let’s see where that leaves us here at Gap Junction Science… Um. So, well, anyway, let’s not. And anyway, evolution! climate change! feminism!