How to Keep Us Down
July 06, 2008
It's not just religion, obviously, that's misogynistic, but it's always been interesting to me that this is one of the characteristics that religion and science, often so antithetical to each other, share and for so many of the same reasons. Of course, this is because both spring out of the society around them and are carried out and structured by the people in that society who have the power to make the structure. So if men decide women are too inferior in whatever way to have a personal relationship with God either through study of the texts or through participating in the mysteries (Milton's "He for God only, she for God in him.") little wonder scientists should think the same way about what many saw (and still see) as a new, improved replacement activity.
The reasoning, though is strikingly similar and you'd think scientists would pay more attention to that. Of course, it's to their advantage not to. It's convenient for them to claim that women's brains are not made for math (an old saw rapidly being dulled) or that we don't do science the way it "should be done," i.e., the way men do it. Probably true, but not necessarily bad or wrong. Just different. I'm not talking about the scientific method here, but about the culture of science and the way men and women approach problem-solving.
And of course, there are social and cultural pressures on women now that men don't have to deal with, as a report by the American Physical Society I recently helped edit shows quite admirably (it's still in production so I can't link to it, but APS has a great reading list). This is a factor just as often conveniently forgotten in the interpretations of key scriptures that seem to ban women from positions of authority in the church, while just as conveniently ignoring the scriptures that show them in those positions.
There are also some striking similarities between the two areas in their jealous guarding of knowledge. In both cases, men are are frequently the gatekeepers of the more esoteric aspects of knowledge (see, physicists), intentionally or unintentionally. Personally, I think this is because guys like secret societies and all that. They're forever making exclusionary clubs, from the Royal Society to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. But religion and science are public endeavors, affecting all of us. (Just look at the Evangelical Right's influence on elections in the U.S., if you don't believe me.) Faith that asks no questions is merely blind, stupid obedience; science that allows no free sharing of knowledge is not just bad science, but dangerous blind itself. In both cases the idea that "it's too complicated for you to understand" is used to keep the general public from asking uncomfortable questions: "Why is Junia, a woman, called an apostle?" (see sidebar) or, "Wait, why should we give you taxpayer money for that science project?"
All this is by way of saying that Richard Dawkins's selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is damned odd. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among them; they're almost all scientists, even Rachel Carson, who started her career as a biologist. This is one example of the "father knows best" attitude so many scientists have toward the public: only scientists can truly communicate the beauty and wonder and complexity of science to the rest of you ninnies. This is far from the truth. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science than it is to teach most scientists to write well, particularly for the public. Most of them have a tendency to include too many advanced details that chase people away, rather than broad interesting ideas that draw them in. My science writer pal Jen waxes eloquent about this frequently in our conversations. The advanced details are important, but you don't start out with those for people with no or little background in the subject, and getting the concepts if you're not a scientist is far more important than understanding the technical details right away. Scientists often have a bad case of "can't see the forest for the trees" when it comes to writing for the public, particularly in their own subject.
And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise: biologist Rachel Carson, Helena Cronin, a philosopher who works in sex selection (and who happens to think there are more smart men than smart women—to be fair, she also thinks there are more dumb men than dumb women); and Barbara Gamow, not a scientist, but wife of physicist George Gamow, who is included because of the poem she wrote in response to one of George's lectures. How cute. I say this not to denigrate Barbara Gamow, who was, like many women married to male scientists, extremely supportive of her husband's work and no doubt a sounding board for it, but to illustrate the attitude prevalent about women's role in science: supportive; observer not participator; muse not partner.
Rachel Carson got in, I suspect, because she's hard to ignore; she was so prolific (and a fellow alumna of my alma mater!) and so pivotal in the early days of the ecology movement. But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer. Where is primatologist Dian Fossey? Hello? Gorillas in the Mist anyone? Child psychologist Anna Freud? Primatologist/ethologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, who, like Fossey, wrote extensively for the public? For that matter, where's Margaret Mead? I see physician Lewis Thomas on the list (one of my favorite writers, though he wrote as much about life as about science) but not doctors Perri Klass or Michelle Harrison. Where's oceanographer Sylvia Earle? Or forensic anthropologist Emily Craig? And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
And we haven't even gotten to the non-scientist, women science writers: Natalie Angier, Dava Sobel, Heather Pringle,or Mary Roach, to name a few.
Hawkins's selection is pretty heavy on evolution (no surprise, given that he's an evolutionary biologist), genetics (again, no surprise), physics, neuroscience, and biological systems. There's not much chemistry, straight-up biology, medicine, and no ocean science or any of the so-called soft sciences like sociology or anthropology. If what he was aiming for was a balanced picture of the wonders of modern science, this book is hardly that, but it's not even a balanced picture of the best science writing. Like the hard sciences, it's very male dominated (and white males at that). Enough with Peter Medawar already. He's not that brilliant. He's taking up space with his multiple selections that could easily have been given to a woman or two, scientist or not.
Dawkins could have done much for women scientists everywhere by recognizing their work in this volume. Instead, he dragged out a lot of the old war horses: Eiseley, Watson & Crick, Gould, Thomas, Hoyle, Haldane, Snow. That's fine in an anthology like this. You need to include the classics and the big guns like Hawking and Einstein. But if you're going to include the likes of Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, Lee Smolin and Kenneth Ford (whom I used to work for), then you need to include some contemporary women scientists too, dammit.
Why make a fuss over this? Because this is how women are systematically pushed out of history, in exactly the same way we were pushed out of recognition of our rightful place in the early church. Simply by excluding us from memory. By being ignored by the big shot males. That's all it takes.
"But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer."
You are right, Dr Margulies, who teaches at UMASS in Amherst, Massachusetts, was the co-generator of the Gaia theory. You are 100% right and she deserves equal billing.
(Sadly, she also now believes the collapse of the Twin Towers in NYC on 911 was fake and a government conspiracy....) SIGH.
[But even our best scientists go loopy sometimes, male as well as female. Their brains seem so tightly wired....]
Posted by: Danny Bloom | July 06, 2008 at 10:52 PM
Wow, I had no idea Lynn Margulies had such a goofy idea. But then, who knew James Watson was such an incredible racist? Genius is next to madness, as the Chinese say . . .
Posted by: Lee Kottner | July 06, 2008 at 11:29 PM