Politics & Policy

Feminist Biology: Who Needs It?

Can feminism improve science? The organizers of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new post-doctorate in “feminist biology” – alleged to be the first of its kind in the nation and probably the world – would answer with an emphatic “Yes!”

The program arose when Gertraude Wittig, a German-born biologist, bequeathed a large sum to the UW-Madison’s Department of Gender Studies, instructing the recipients to create a program that would explore the intersection between gender and science. The resulting feminist biology post-doc immediately garnered media attention.

Prof. Janet Hyde, director or the UW-Madison’s Center for Research on Gender & Women, has been interviewed about the program by Popular Science, and New York Magazine. The program has also been discussed in The Guardian and the Washington Examiner. So far, the most critical response came from Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute.

In her video blog, “The Factual Feminist,” Sommers compared feminist biology to “femistry” and “galgebra,” two pseudo-disciplines in an episode of The Simpsons. She also drew attention to the fact that the program is under the supervision of the Department of Women’s Studies, not the biology department.

 “And make no mistake, this new program is not about getting more women into the field,” Sommers said. “It’s about promoting women with the right world-view.”

The program’s organizers and participants disagree. Hyde and her colleagues do not see feminist biology as a post-modern rejection of objective reality, but as an attempt to protect traditional scientific practices in ways that avoid certain kinds of bias, especially gender bias.

“It seeks to redress inequities or bias, particularly bias, in past research and create new research that corrects those biases,” Hyde said to National Review Online. “So that’s kind of a simple definition of what we mean by ‘feminist biology.’”

Responding to Sommers’ characterization of the feminist biology program, Hyde said feminist biology is “not about the right world view. It’s [about] research topics that have to do with gender, and implementing unbiased research methods that correct former biases in looking at gender in biology.”

Redressing biases in biology means exerting efforts not to ignore women’s health and interests in the course of scientific research. For example, until recently the National Institute for Heath was not required to include women among its samples when it came to testing the efficacy of drugs, Hyde said. As a result, a test for the efficacy of baby aspirin in reducing heart attacks and strokes used a sample group of only men.

“As a woman I don’t like that because I would like to know whether baby aspirin is also effective in preventing heart attack and strokes in women,” she said. “People stereotype and think that only men get heart attacks, but in fact lots of women get heart attacks. A feminist approach would question the design in the testing of the drug.”

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Prof. Caitilyn Allen, who teaches does research in UW-Madison’s Departments of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, and has an affiliate appointment in Gender & Women’s Studies, provided another example. Before the groundbreaking primatology research of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in the 1960s, most observers of chimpanzees were men whose work tended to downplay the significance of female-female interactions.

“As far as they went, the observations these guys did make were scientifically accurate,” Allen said in an email to National Review Online, “but they ended up drawing inaccurate conclusions because they did not gather some relevant data. They were not sexist jerks: they just unwittingly brought their biases to their research.  Bringing additional perspectives to primatology improved our data and led to a more accurate understanding.”

Specific details about how the feminist biology program will be conducted are largely unknown, since much depends on the research interests of the students who receive the two-year fellowships, Hyde said.

The first person to receive a fellowship is Caroline VanSickle, who will begin her time at the feminist biology program in the fall 2014 semester. VanSickle recently received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan and she is expected to spend her time at UW-Madison continuing her research on the shape of the pelvises of female human ancestors.

Since VanSickle is conducting fossil research in South Africa until August, she was unavailable for comment.

UW-Madison’s feminist biology postdoc, as Hyde and Allen describe it, seems less radical than Sommers’ video suggests it is. Even so, interdisciplinary work involving both scientists and social/political theorists of a single stripe comes with certain dangers. Given the tremendous respect afforded to science, the temptation to cut corners to achieve “scientific” support of preordained conclusions is all but inevitable.  

So biologists could be corrupted by a partnership with feminists. Moreover, the claim that they have much to gain from a joint enterprise with them is dubious. Scientists have been spotting errors in the work of other scientists long before feminist biology came around. That’s true of Goodall and other primatologists. Science isn’t perfect, but the Department of Women’s Studies is unlikely to be better at spotting and correcting for scientific error than scientists themselves have been.

So while feminist biology might not be crazy, it is still questionable. Avoiding the intermingling of science and social ideology is the wisest policy. 

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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