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.

Women, Science and the Stage

Guest Post by Molly Freeman, Artistic Director of Smoking Apples Theater Company.

Making theatre from scratch relies on unflinching determination, total belief in what you’re doing, and a good deal of perspiration. But before the lights, the sound, the characters, the plot, the script, the movement, the set, the costumes, the props, the stage itself – you need inspiration. A little nugget of a story, found probably by chance, which follows you around all day, tugging at your arm. A tantalising thread just waiting to be pulled.

Lise Meitner was just that. “The greatest scientist you’ve never heard of” and the inspiration behind the latest show from my theatre company, Smoking Apples. Born in 1878 in Austria, Meitner was a naturally curious, highly intelligent child, keeping records of her research on reflected light under her pillow at night. (Editor’s note: The only thing I kept under my pillow was sometimes my hand, which would then fall asleep; not that it’s a competition). Throughout her education she continued to smash through the gender barriers raised against her, proving her worth as a scientist and in 1926, she became Germany’s first female physics professor. The rise of the Nazis forced her to flee Germany to Sweden, where she received a letter from long term scientific collaborator, Otto Hahn, explaining that he had achieved the seemingly impossible – to split apart a uranium nuclei with a single neutron. Meitner pushed this discovery further, concluding that the loss of mass that occurred from this process was due to the creation of energy, something imperceptible to everyone except Meitner. Nuclear Fission was born, the basis of the devastating nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and nuclear energy today. Meitner was a key part of the team behind one of the most provoking and impactful scientific discoveries of our time, yet in 1944, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Nuclear Fission went solely to Otto Hahn.

As nuclear fission began to be harnessed as a weapon of war, Meitner distanced herself from the infamous Manhattan Project, declaring the atomic bomb a ‘destroyer of worlds’. Her research led her to develop one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors. Her headstone reads ‘Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity’.

Editor’s note: Basically, I want this in my house.

In classic Smoking Apples theatre company style, we don’t like to make it easy on ourselves and this show may be our biggest challenge yet. How to translate complicated science onto the stage in an educating, entertaining & inventive way that doesn’t patronise or alienate a diverse range of audiences? Unfortunately, in order to do this, we first have to understand it ourselves and, having specialised in drama, it’s fair to say our brains do not naturally bend towards science. Cue lots of head scratching. In the end it comes down to how much the audience really need to know in order to enjoy the show and empathise with the character. We’re still searching for the answer to that and, terrifyingly, will only know if we’ve got it right on opening night.

Two weeks into rehearsals we have a main character – “Kate” an ambitious, brilliant young nuclear researcher in the 1980s. We have a story arc – as “Kate” delves deeper into her research, she is confronted by the climate of ‘nuclear fear’, the moral dilemmas of her potential discoveries, and the sacrifices she will have to make to achieve them. We have a name for the show – “New Clear Vision”. We have a prototype puppet.

For us, one of the most important elements of this show is the chance to explore the challenges faced by women in science, many of which Meitner was a pioneer in overcoming. Our research led us to some sobering reads. Women in the UK make up just 12.8% of the science, technology, engineering and maths jobs. 12.8 percent. In 2014, 78.9% of the students sitting their A-Level Physics Exams were boys. Last year, Nobel laureate and English biochemist Tim Hunt said at the World Conference of Science Journalists “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab… you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” (Editor’s note: I always like how basically this guy is all: my number one criteria for falling in love with someone is that the person is (a) under my direct power, and (b) in my lab, as if the gender dynamics of what he said wasn’t bizarrely/normatively messed up enough.)

Family, work life balance, lack of role models, confidence & mentoring, unconscious bias, harassment. These are just some of the obstacles to career women in science, neatly stacking up and seemingly refusing to budge all the way from school level to post-graduate and beyond. We want to give these statistics and reports a human side allowing the audience to experience these enormous frustrations with “Kate.” In one scene, “Kate” leaves the lab and heads out to a bar but actually, that’s not what the audience sees. Instead, we use a combination of flip chart paper, bendy pipes and convex vases to create a science experiment which results in a liquid being poured into a cocktail glass (complete with glacier cherry and straw). Making use of the best chemical compound there is – the magic of theatre. (Editor’s note: I’m not a chemist but I still give my full approval to this analogy.)

Editor’s note: Science-y!

Tricks and scene changes aside, in order to get the character of “Kate” right, we have been talking to a range of female scientists and working with various organisations who aim to encourage girls into science at school. In fact, it was a very early decision of ours to have an all-female cast for this very reason. Our previous work has always had a male protagonist and this was a completely unconscious decision, one which we only recently acknowledged. This is our chance to combine the challenges faced by women in science with the challenges faced by us in exploring it.

As a woman creating this show, I’ve certainly noticed that my attitude towards developing a female puppet is very different. In rehearsals so far, I’ve found myself questioning, is she too thin, are her legs too long, what shall we do with her hair, does she need hair? These are questions that we have been through with every puppet we’ve made, but this time they have a whole new meaning.

Editor’s note: If those were haystacks, this could totally be the quirky physicist neighbor’s Hallowe’en display

Then comes the big question; how are we going to do all this with no words on stage…with a puppet…on a budget?

Paradoxically, when you constrain yourself creatively, it is often the moment when you come up with the most imaginative theatre – hence why one of our best scenes came from us throwing balloons around to the Eurythmics (Editor’s note: PHOTOS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN). The set currently looks like a huge periodic table and we have been looking at playing scrabble with the elements (and making rude words).

Devising a piece of theatre is a bumpy road and it’s still early days. One thing is for certain however, this show will be a celebration of women’s achievements in science and an opportunity to shine a light on the challenges they face in our modern world.

Lise Meitner once said “in nuclear physics we have experienced so many surprises that one cannot unconditionally say; it is impossible.” This may become something of a mantra for us as we head towards opening night.

For more information on “New Clear Vision” and rehearsal videos head to vision-rd/

Want to know more?

-Head to vision-rd.

-Smoking Apples are presenting a work-in-progress performance of “New Clear Vision” on Monday 26th September at 4pm Creation Space, Oxford. For tickets please email

The Natural History Museum (cue conflicted feminist science music)

Ok, so The Natural History Museum (cue conflicted music). You’re all like: Please. No. Not my natural history museum. FOR THE LOVE OF DEITY X, LEAVE ME SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO. You’re like: put the natural history museum down and. back. away. slowly. And I’m like: what? I can’t hear you because: racism. And sexism. And problematics. Obviously, we could also discuss how they’re sometimes rather dusty, but I will leave this issue for the more fastidious of you to take up. Also, you can see my booby post if you want to read more about my natural history museum experiences.

So, here I will “‘fess up” as all the kids are saying these days. I secretly (though, not surprisingly, my secret is now out) love natural history museums. I LOVE THEM. I want to proclaim my love for them whilst jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. I love evolution and I love learning about how various species are related to each other surprisingly closely (or distantly! you never know!) so much that I sometimes want to have a name changing party with a natural history museum and we could both change our last names to NaturalHistoryMuseumAnders*.

Wow. Can I use ppt like a boss or what?! This is obviously a lifelike drawing of a natural history museum. If you think it’s a bit skewed then I guess our friendship is over.

I think one of the first major natural history museums I went to was in New York in my emerging adulthood years (emerging adulthood is like a real thing these days). It may have been called “American History of Natural History.” That’s not the most unlikely title, but don’t quote me on it. Somehow the website doesn’t look at all familiar, but my brain might have emptied out on that. Anyway, I remember a fascination and enjoyment, but also a sort of sickening sensation deep deep down that I couldn’t actually push deep enough. Because I got all the animals and plants and stuff. Obv. very cool. But why the indigenous people from around the world stuck in those life-sized dioramas? At the time, I didn’t know. I did know I was long intrigued by the notion of human evolution and race (I even did an independent study project on scientific racism in high school. Yay ISPs!) and also that it felt like something awry was going on, but I didn’t know what. Or at least I didn’t know how to articulate that what.

Fast forward a few years and I’m at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, on the UBC campus (crazily enough). I’m feeling that fascination and the same sickening sensation deep in my tummy. This time I don’t really push it down at all and sort of look at it. This is a museum of anthropology. It also has a lot of cultural items from First Nations communities. What makes First Nations synonymous with anthropology? Or is it indigeneity that is synonymous? And why is this museum of anthropology so similar to the natural history museum I was at? Is natural history the same thing as anthropology?? What about the First Nations people in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada? This doesn’t feel like their museum. I feel like this feels problematic. I still don’t really know what it is, though, or how to articulate that what.

Fast forward a few years (again) and I’m having lunch with a new colleague at my new job. Joseph Gone is a faculty member who studies the interfaces and problematics of conventional clinical psychology, indigenous healing practices, and cultural psychology among American Indian/Native American communities. Joe and I are talking about various things, including Vancouver, and the UBC Museum of Anthropology comes up. I remember that, in the conversation, I’m sort of – very awkwardly – trying to articulate my discomfort with the Museum and realizing that Joe is the first person I’ve spoken to about this (other than my partner) who isn’t surprised by my sentiments. I ask him if he’s ever been there (the UBC Museum), and Joe tells me in frank terms: no; and explains how those museums are problematic representations and appropriations of Indigenous cultures, so he doesn’t like to go into them. It’s the first time I’ve heard it articulated (that what, finally!) and I remember being taken aback, to hear my deep deep down feelings that had risen to the surface be articulated so clearly. Firstly, because: wow, when people know stuff! Secondly, because: snap, when people know stuff you’re trying to know about and they make sense of things you haven’t! Thirdly, because: OMG it’s so much worse than I had really understood, now that I understand it, and I feel sort of sick for not realizing that on my own.

Fast forward some more years (apparently my life is one blur of fast forwards between natural history museum visits) and I have a kid. We go to our local natural history museum all the time because, as I’ve mentioned, I love it and my kids loves animals and especially birds (there are a lot of stuffed birds there). And I’m a scientist and I want to support that (stuffed animals that aren’t polyester. and science). But, there are a few rooms up there, sort of off the main path, that have Native American stuff. Like a big canoe you can climb in! Who’s canoe is it, though? The Native Americans! Which is not to say that a specific nation isn’t listed; it probably is, though I can’t say for sure. But what I mean is: who made it? who used it? weren’t they actual people? Contemporary cultural objects in other museums often have a record of the European or (white) North American individuals associated with them. Is it because folks are trying to say that indigenous cultures are less individualistic or because they’re communicating (consciously or not) that indigenous cultures don’t quite have individuals in them, the way, you know, contemporary cultures of people do. Aren’t indigenous peoples people? Are they not contemporary? What are they doing in this natural history museum anyway, that only otherwise has Things Of The Earth? To be fair, there are no dioramas so there’s that, I guess.

What’s so problematic about the natural history museum for a feminist scientist? Unfortunately, lots of things. I bet a lot of people have written very smart books and dissertations on this exact issue (indigeneity and the natural history museum) and my ignorance and social location are keeping me from knowing them (if you know, please do share!). Here’s a very random list of things I’ve thought about in my spare time while being at natural history museums and feeling guilty about being there (I am wide! I contain multitudes!) that seem relevant to feminist science:

  1. The representation of indigeneity as somehow closer to nature than other cultures are. Like, honestly, I’m not a huge fan of nature/culture divides, but if the only cultures being represented in the natural history museum are indigenous cultures, that’s kind of like shouting: indigenous people are more natural! And therefore less cultural! Because this isn’t the cultural history museum! Go see the Europeans and their candelabras elsewhere!
  2. The representation of indigeneity as somehow an earlier stage of evolution, and therefore more natural. That is a scary and all-too-common proposition. All people – all things! – are equally evolved at any one point in time. That’s like the basic point of evolution, right??
  3. Indigenous peoples are somehow more like animals than people from other cultures. I mean, put some indigenous people in the room next to vultures and wolves, but keep the Europeans in another museum, and it’s hard not to get the message. Like, there’s animals, indigenes (read savages much?), and people.  When you look up indigenes (which I just did because: computer), the definition (the is literally “a person or thing that is indigenous or native” or “an indigenous person, animal, or thing; native.” Um: uh-oh. Um: I’m uncomfortable even articulating the racism and problematics of putting this all together.
  4. Indigeneity belongs under the scientific gaze. When we go to Natural History Museums, we’re going to learn about science. They’re trying to teach us to look at things like scientists look at things. They’re trying to teach us what scientists look at, and what are proper topics for science. Awesome, right? But, how is it that indigenous folks are somehow more scientific matter than other peoples? Yikes, yikes, yikes-a-rooksy (to use the sophisticated song that gets sung in my house around oopsies). Another way to put it: subjectivity could be thought of as one of the defining human characteristics; what are natural history museums saying about indigenous people when the closest thing to subjectivity they have is being a scientific subject under the scientific gaze?
  5. Indigenous people are more biological and simple. This is really a sub-argument of many of the above. Kim TallBear has published fascinating scholarship about notions of indigeneity and genetics (e.g., what is an acceptable origin story? why genetics but not oral culture? what happens when communities are defined by blood? &etc.) and one of her examples is how one personalized genetics company sells their product, in part, by superimposing their product over indigenous people learning about their heritage. It’s kind of like: even an indigenous person can find their heritage! Even though they’re so origin-ic themselves! And also, it’s kind of like: this will make a fantastic juxtaposition as genetic technologies are obviously in a world apart from indigenous technologies, because: why? One of TallBear’s articles is called DNA, Blood, and Racializing the Tribe and another is called Narratives of Race and Indigeneity. I highly recommend both – they’re very accessible for scientists.
  6. Indigenous peoples’ technologies are somehow more earthy/simple/evolutionary/natural than other technologies. All cultures have technologies, yet most people see indigenous technologies as somehow natural – which is a not surprising outcome of only indigenous technologies being represented in a natural history museum.
  7. The historic preoccupations of natural history museums with collecting “oddities”. What made things oddities? Obviously, their oddness. But is a thing odd because of something intrinsic to itself or the viewer of it? Familiar things seem less odd; newer things seem stranger, odder. Sometimes kids ask me why I have spots all over my arms (I call them freckles, myself) but in certain parts of the world that’s hard to imagine happening. So what’s ‘odd’ depends on what’s ‘normal’. And what’s normal depends on the culture of the person looking at things. There are so many examples of indigenous peoples being presented within a natural history framework as evolutionary oddities that I’m actually uncomfortable re-presenting them and perpetuating their objectification, othering, and exoticization. So, suffice it to say that when the only people presented alongside a saber-toothed tiger (can you believe what something so crazy looks like?!) are indigenous peoples, it doesn’t take a critical theory expert to see the oddification going on. And, yes, I just made up that word, oddification. Why notski?

Obviously, I could go on. I mean, I’m only at #7 and just getting started. But you’ve probably got your own critiques and concerns, and I don’t want to hog the mike (mic?) any more. But, I do want to comment on one more thing (I’M A MIC HOGGER, SO WHAT?!). This is the point where someone throws up their hands and is like: why do you even go to natural history museums if you hate them so much?! Why not just stay away!? There are a lot of answers to that. First, is that I love science, and I love natural history museums. Of course I’m going to critique them because I care. It’s like milkshakes (exactly like milkshakes, OBVIOUSLY): I want each milkshake to be the best milkshake it can be. Second, if feminist scientists didn’t go into places that were problematic, where would they go? It’s not like the world is a feminist place outside natural history museums. Also, how would those places become unproblematic (or at least less) without people who care enough to critique? Third, um, you know when you yell at the referee for making a bad call? Why don’t you just stop watching sports?! How are critiques based in concerns about power and social justice somehow less valid? Maybe the problem is, in actuality, just how valid they are, and what that means for us.

*I can make this joke because I did have a name changing party because I did change my name to a mix of my last name and my partner’s last name.

Memoirs by Scientists vs. Memoirs by Women Scientists?

There is an interesting blog post on National Geographic about Memoirs by Scientists. It started via a twitter crowd-sourcing effort to find good examples – as Carl Zimmer noted: “I started thinking about especially good examples–in particular, ones that manage to balance the personal experiences of the author with the professional accomplishments.” Then, a Gap Junction Science member tweeted this:

I started to wonder a few things (and here they are in handy list form):

  1. As Mallory Bowers pointed out, few of the Memoirs by Scientists on the list were by women (I didn’t check myself, but I rely on Bowers in all things) (though we don’t know each other. But she has posted on GJS’s facebook page and that is reference enough for me, plus it sounds truthy). Is that because few Memoirs by Scientists by women are getting recommended? Or are there few Memoirs by Scientists by women at all?

    I could also call this post “Beyond Marie Curie.” Or I could caption this picture: Marie Curie is thinking about the question I pose at the end HARD.
  2. There is a lot of interesting scholarly and popular writing about women’s literature being a genre unto itself – sort of by force. Like, Literature: we won’t let you into our club! Women: Ok, I guess we’ll start a Women’s Literature club then. Literature: Yeah, we represent the human experience. Which just happens to be a certain type of men’s experience. You only represent women. You’re like a special interest group. Women: What’s new, alligoo? (No one actually says this, including women, no one). Literature: It’s too bad that your writing just doesn’t speak to us. Surprisingly, only writing by “serious heterosexual guys” does. Women: What’s new? That’s why feminism. Oh right, I’m making a point here, but this conversation IS AWESOME and its pretty fun imagining Literature speaking to Women. Anyway, I wondered: Would people think of Memoirs by Scientists by women as an even more particular subgenre? A subsubgenre, if I may? Just because, you know, there’s scientists and there’s women scientists. So there’s Memoirs by Scientists and there’s Memoirs by Women Scientists. Without invoking women explicitly, and using a category that implicitly (and often explicitly!) excludes women, would the average person think of women? (Hint: Research says No.) (That wasn’t really a hint, was it.)
  3. I could imagine that people aren’t thinking about Memoirs by Scientists by women to recommend, and that’s probably a major reason why few are being recommended. But I also thought that there probably aren’t that many written to recommend; I COULD BE TOTALLY WRONG and I’m the first to admit it because I have not done a “rigid search” to quote my favorite hilarious search-related line. Without casting aspersions of writers of memoirs, I wonder what it takes to see one’s self as worthy of self-memoirizing. On one hand, wouldn’t we all like to think that one day we will feel like our lives and contributions have been important enough to merit a memoir? Um, for those of us who have enough enoughness to even think about that. On the other hand, women tend to be socialized to think of themselves as team players rather than leaders, as nurturers rather than pathbreakers (these are all false dichotomies but that doesn’t mean they have no realness), and men tend to be socialized to think of women this way too. And, All The Research shows that women tend to be penalized more for success exactly because success contravenes gender norms.

So what would it take to have a list of Memoirs by Scientists that included women and wasn’t called “Memoirs by Women Scientists”? And other minoritized identities? Obviously feminism and social justice. Solved! But, seriously, what concrete, real steps would it take?

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: