The rise of western science through the Scientific Revolution, especially breakthroughs in anthropology, attempted to understand the human gender, leading to arbitrarily defined characteristics to distinguish between male and female.
The rise of western science through the Scientific Revolution, especially breakthroughs in anthropology, attempted to understand the human gender, leading to arbitrarily defined characteristics to distinguish between male and female. These characteristics helped to explain various physiological phenomena such as a woman’s menstrual cycle and ability to give birth as compared to a man’s lack of ability to do so. Science also attempted to use empirical data to link genes of specific races with each other, as depicted in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Measuring Heads”. This article discusses one scientist’s biased hypotheses of specific data sets to understanding human intelligence, by basing intelligence, and therefore superiority of race and gender, on the size of cranial skulls. The two articles occupy two separate niches – Emily Martin, in her piece “The Egg and the Sperm”, discusses the effects of western science anthropological hypotheses on modern biological literature, while Gould shows the thought process of a modern anthropological scientist that led to a biased conclusion about gender and race from the data he had gathered.
At the time that many scientific marvels were being discovered, women were still seen as the property of their husband or father, and their only “jobs” were to tend to the family, leading to the notion that men were superior to women. Hence, most scientific discoveries at the time were made by men. These thoughts of superiority therefore leaked into the wording of old science textbooks that were written by the men that were making these discoveries, especially in describing the process of fertilization. As discussed in the “Egg and the Sperm” article by Emily Martin, the mechanisms of sperm maturation are given choice words such as “amazing”, “remarkable”, and “transformation”. Egg maturation, or the menstrual cycle, are given far less favorable descriptive words – “debris”, “death”, “unsalable”, and “wasted” all have been used to describe the shedding of the uterine lining. What’s fascinating is Martin’s juxtaposition of the Egg and Sperm love story with that of Sleeping Beauty. Like the beautiful princess, the egg lays dormant in the uterus until Prince Charming, or the sperm, comes and plants his “true love’s first kiss”, or fertilizes the egg. The female lead is shown as passively waiting to be activated by a more operative male protagonist. This depiction was portrayed over and over again to children that learn the process of fertilization starting from roughly the age of 12 throughout their life.
Such linguistic bias against the female counterpart in this biological fairytale is rooted in the mindset of those writing the text, even though recent science studies have shown that the egg is not a passive player in this courtship. As mentioned earlier, a woman was the property of her father or husband, hence she passively accepted her fate. Similarly, the egg is the property of the sperm that fertilizes it, accepting whichever male genome is first to complete fertilization.
Passiveness and Activeness
Why is this important, though? The portrayal of egg cells as passive and sperm cells as active matters because the pro-patriarchal views that the men making such discoveries had been directly influencing biology, a supposedly objective subject, through the prose utilized in children’s texts. This directly affected how children saw the egg and sperm model, understanding men to play the more active role in fertilization and the creation of a zygote, and the woman to wait passively until someone saved her. Honestly, this description made me realize that even the act of sex is described as more passive for women, while men are always actively engaging in it. Before reading the “Egg and Sperm” article, I didn’t realize just how passive females were expected to be during the process of courting, reproduction, and now even on a cellular level. Such a description really makes it difficult to take women’s rights seriously. Why does this matter, then? It matters because the norm should not be that women passively accept what they are offered. Sexual reproduction is a two-way process – women are as active participants as men are in it. Martin suggests a paradigm shift wherein “scientists could begin to describe male and female processes as homologous. They might credit females with “producing” mature ova one at a time…and describe males as having to face problems of degenerating germ cells…” Such a shift would allow eggs to be given a more active role in a biological process that is solely feminine post-fertilization. Promoting the active role of the egg in reading and common scientific discussion would hence allow for more appreciation of the female role in pregnancy.
Race Based Superiority
Another notion that was brought about due to modern science was about racial superiority. Paul Broca, in “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Gould, examined skulls as a means to understand the field of comparative anatomy. He, in a conclusive craniometry study, decided that “in general, the brain is larger in …men than in women…in superior races than in inferior races…”. Although others such as Louis Pierre Gratiolet tried to argue against Broca’s idea that brain size “bore no relationship to its degree of intelligence”, Broca used the rise of science to support his own discussions that white males were the most superior, establishing a hierarchy of gender and race, with white males being at the very top. Publishing in a reputable encyclopedia of anthropology, he used words such as “prognathous” and “orthognathus” against studies trying to deconstruct Broca’s own. He later found an example in George Cuvier, the “greatest scientist [with] the largest brain of France…”. He compared Cuvier’s skull with the skull of an African American woman, calling her ape-like and used scientific words such as “ear was like that of many apes, being small, the tragus weak, and the external border almost obliterated behind. These are animal characters. I have never seen a human head more like an ape that that of this woman…” By using modern scientific measurements, particular numbers to prove his hypotheses, and technical terminology, Broca won the hearts and confidence of his readers, and was able to very reasonably interpret a positive conclusion from the data he had gathered.
Hence, western science while providing empirical data, was utilized to sometimes prove a very biased point. The problem, then, became that with such information circulating in society, people could worry that their race be ranked lower, and hence kill off progeny that did not meet a specific “brain size” requirement. This would have been such an unfortunate situation in the so-called “inferior” races, and could have led to a society that aimed to create more intelligent offspring by carefully marrying only those that fit specific “skull” requirements predetermined by this ridiculous Broca study. While Broca’s conclusions were later disproved by more refined scientific techniques, it is still frightening that such a study gained so much momentum with simply the right wording and some statistics to qualify such a claim.
The rise of western science did spark a lot of progress in many fields – physical and chemical observations were able to be backed mathematically, for example. Even some physiological systems were explained during this time. However, the problems with multiple discoveries began with the interpretation of the data gathered by the scientists conducting these experiments and amplified in its audience that interpreted studies such as Paul Broca’s to be a creation of a set of rules which defined superiority among genders and races. Such interpretations further leaked into education textbooks that were given to children, as noticed by Emily Martin. As white males, there seemed to always be some sense of bias toward the white race and the male gender. Hence, the rise of western science, although attempting to provide empirical data to scientific observation, actually indirectly led to an increased belief that white males were the superior race, a theme that would continue throughout history until the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights Movements in the 20th century.