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Rearguard action.

Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality by Kingsley R. Browne.

Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002, 288 pp., $28.00 hardcover.

Like the ever-regenerating heads of Hydra, the beast of biological determinism persists. In the history of genetics, we have eugenics, and in early Darwinism; social Darwinism. We have sociobiology within evolutionary biology. Each of these, I would argue, has been discredited within its original discipline. Geneticists and Darwinists had a critical role to play in the demise of eugenics and social Darwinism. Similarly, evolutionary biologists were crucial to the evolving critiques of sociobiology. Today, you will hear the most strongly voiced sociobiological arguments not from evolutionary biology departments but rather from psychology departments, where they have been incarnated as evolutionary psychology.

The hydralike regeneration of biological determinism is perhaps not surprising. At the heart of these debates is a fundamental question--what is human nature? This question is never innocent, and has profound implications for how we explain social hierarchies of sex, gender, class, race, sexuality. Why do social stratification and sexual stereotypes persist? Do these patterns signal innate abilities and preferences of women and men or the systematic exclusion of women from the structures of power?

Variations on these questions have engaged us for centuries. They have produced a history of theories and countertheories, frameworks and counterframeworks, facts, data and critiques. It is within this broader context that one must read Kingsley R. Browne's account of the futility of striving for sexual equality.

I am not a disinterested or innocent bystander in this debate; I am an evolutionary biologist, feminist and third-world scholar who has everything at stake. I credit my very presence in the academy to the legacy of anticolonial, anti-racist, feminist and progressive scholars who fought biological determinist arguments over the last few centuries to make places for those of us deemed "unfit" and "unworthy."

In the opening paragraph of his book, Browne writes:
The human brain, like the human
body (and also like all other mam-
malian brains), is sexually dimor-
phic as a consequence of selection
pressures experienced by ancestral
generations. The sexual division of
labor, a cultural universal, appears
to be at least in part a conse-
quence of this sexual dimorphism.

                              (p. 1)

Browne, a professor of law, acknowledges the social and political gains made by women in Western societies but points to the striking disparities that still remain. While feminists see these disparities as evidence of the resilience and deep-rootedness of patriarchy, he finds sexual dimorphism and a dual human nature--" male nature" and "female nature." Innate biological differences, he argues, should inform the political, legal and economic arenas.

The persuasiveness of the book rests on the scientific evidence for sexual difference. It has always struck me as ironic that those outside the scientific disciplines are often the ones most willing to make a strong case for biology and genetics. Claims for innate biological differences between men and women are not new; historians of science have documented a rich history of such claims. They have been just as consistently refuted by other scientists on the grounds of poor experimental design, inadequate controls, insufficient data, extrapolation from animals to humans, over-interpretation of the data and so on.

To be sure, interpretations of human behavior are difficult because they rely heavily on correlations (which do not imply causation) or statistical aggregate measures. Anne Fausto Sterling's classic Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men is an excellent exploration of the subject. What is striking and frustrating is how certain claims persist and how enduring and relevant critiques written over a decade ago are to contemporary work. The present book is a case in point.

Its first part builds a case for sexual dimorphism and differences in temperament, cognitive abilities, occupational choices, interests and pay. For those familiar with the literature, the arguments are not new. To name just a few: men are more competitive; boys exhibit more dominance relationships;. females need more feedback and assurance; boys are greater risk takers; females are more nurturing; women are more empathetic; men are more indiscriminate in their sexual behavior; men are better at math, particularly concepts and reasoning. In the workplace, men are single-mindedly dedicated to their careers and tend to value the fruits of that investment more; successful executives have streotypically male traits (competition, assertiveness, ambition, career-oriented risk-taking). Blue-collar occupations are geared toward mechanical interest, technical ability, physical strength and danger, in all of which men excel.

Discrimination does not account for such patterns, says Browne. The evidence is "too frail." He cautions us not to assume that women "really want" the jobs they do not have. Women, because of their biology, want to spend time with their children and lack the single-minded career focus that men have. He then devotes two chapters to supporting these claims.

The first rehashes the tired old idea that hormones are "the proximate cause of physical and psychological sexual dimorphism." No mention is made of any of the feminist literature on sex hormones, such as that by Ruth Bleier, Anne Fausto Sterling, Ruth Hubbard, Nelly Oudshoorn or Carol Tavris. Fausto Sterling, in her 2000 book Sexing the Body, examines in detail the experiments that support a hormonal theory of gender differences and concludes, "all in all, the results provide little support for a role for prenatal hormones in the production of gender differences." This book is not even cited.

Browne rests his second argument for the "ultimate cause of sex differences" on evolutionary theory. Again, he cites the now-familiar arguments that evolution selects women to be attracted to high-status males and men to young attractive and healthy women; men are interested in mate quantity and women in mate quality. Men pursue the short-term sexual strategy of maximizing sexual partners and sleeping with every woman possible while women, because of their greater parental investment, are more discriminating. Some of these arguments have such a long history that Ruth Bleier's classic 1984 critical essay on sociobiology, biological determinism and human behavior is still on the mark.

What I find astonishing is how few critiques of sociobiology are engaged in Browne's book; the work of Elizabeth Allen, Jonathan Beckwith, Lynda Birke, Stephen Jay Gould, Ruth Hubbard, Richard Lewontin and Janet Sayers, to name just a few, is scarcely dealt with. These authors do not critique sociobiology from an abstract position but rather engage with the details of experiments and biological claims. For a book on sexual equality, omissions of the details of feminist work are glaring: issues such as differential math ability, man the hunter and woman the gatherer, the coy female, mate quantity versus quality have been repeatedly addressed.

Having claimed a biological basis for the sexual dimorphism of human natures, Browne uses it to ground his proposals in the arenas of public policy and the law. He discusses the limitations of affirmative action (he's against it), programs to attract equal numbers of women and men into nontraditional occupations like the sciences (what's the point if women aren't biologically good at it?) and blue-collar jobs (again, not a good idea). He discusses the various legal challenges to sexual disparities. Some of the issues he raises here are valid, and some of the data and studies interesting. Fundamentally, he favors "equal opportunity" over "equal result." If women and men have different natures, then an interventionist policy presupposing a common nature is untenable.

Browne is careful to point out that sex differences are aggregate differences: individual men and women may vary, and in such cases, we should work to create opportunities for them (for example, the woman who excels in physics), but we cannot seek remedies with the hope that one day half of all physicists will be women. He rejects legal responses to sexual harassment that suggest it is about power and not sex; after all, sexual harassment is a mating strategy, so creating zero tolerance policies is unproductive.

Browne argues that we should not reduce differences to a "mere" social construction. Here I agree. While I am not a biological determinist, neither am I an economic or cultural determinist. To be sure, biology matters, as does our evolutionary history. But it does not dictate the simplistic biological determinism that Browne offers. For example, if we employ simple Darwinian notions about selecting and maximizing fitness, we need to explain why indices of social status, education and wealth do not correlate with fitness. We need more complex models that account for the interconnections between natures and cultures, biology and culture, genes and environment. While Browne pays lip service to culture and society, he reinforces these binaries rather than refuses them.

For a book about sexual equality, Browne offers little to explain differences across cultures, despite his claims of a "cultural universal." One would expect a book on sexual equality published in 2002--particularly by Rutgers University Press--to build on the legacy of predecessors' thinking on both sides of the debate.

To be sure, battles like these are ideological precisely because there is so much at stake. The primary recipe for the biological determinist's argument is simple: begin with a description of the status quo--occupational segregation, pay inequity, unequal power relations. Then justify it because it is "natural," something that behavior has evolved to. A century ago, women were thought to be biologically inadequate to vote. At other times, we were unfit for an education, not good in any of the sciences, not good enough to earn a living, play a sport, hold public office. Of course, at the same time, women of color and poor women were forced to work and earn a living (which is why cross-cultural, cross-racial and cross-class studies are so crucial). Each of these seeming truths was based on assumed differences of human biology. The only things I find heartening are that the "status quo" has changed and that what women cannot do has kept shrinking May sociobiologists have less and less to explain. Our only respon se can be to press on.

BANU SUBRAMANIAM is an assistant professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She works on issues of race, gender and science.
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Author:Subramaniam, Banu
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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