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“It’s Only Natural”: The Dubious Science Sanctioning Sexism

What is “natural” is actually just culture. With the values and ideologies that keep the powerful remaining on top.

May 1, 2020

Marieke Bigg

conducted an interview with a relatively well-known therapist last summer, in which I had to endure her explanations on a range of psychological tendencies in modern human beings, including why women like to go to the bathroom in groups.

Among the evidence cited for this particular phenomenon she drew on scenarios taken from Game of Thrones, which she referred to as a historically accurate prequel to our collective present, as well as the all-too-familiar, “the cave people did it, and that’s why we do it now.”

Leaving aside the fact that GoT is fictional, and the so-called cave people not a clearly defined or homogenous group, it was immediately clear to me what rhetorical strategy she’d deployed. The references to a more “primitive” human past — a past in which we lived more closely to nature — are supposed to convey the sense in which a host of human behaviour is entrenched, essential, and therefore justified.

Behaviour that transcends history, the argument goes, must be innate to the human species, and so cannot be resisted — in fact, shouldn’t be resisted. Because along with the assertion of what is deemed to be “natural,” we also often get one about what is right.

My discussion with this psychologist was just one in a succession of incidents in which I’ve heard the natural cited to justify some kind of sexist assertion or practice.

That’s why I felt it was only natural that I should write an article about it.

Two wrists and hands reach from opposite sides of the page to meet in gentle embrace. The hands are richly sensuous; they fill the space in which they intertwine. One is white and young with well-trimmed nails; the other, about the same size, is brown, hairy, and shows signs of a harder life. Both hands are open and vulnerable.

“In a spontaneous gesture of trust, a chimpanzee in the wilds of Tanzania folds his leathery hand around that of Jane Goodall — sufficient reward for Dr Goodall’s years of patience.”

So reads the caption accompanying an image of the primatologist Jane Goodall and a chimpanzee run by the Gulf Oil Corporation in 1984 to advertise a series of National Geographic programs on primates.

The photo turned out to be hugely popular and became a veritable icon for the reunion between Man and Nature in a world threatened by nuclear and ecological destruction. But to the cultural critic Donna Haraway writing about the field of primatology in 1989, the photo said much more — to her, it told us about the construction of what is considered “natural” in the first place.

Nature is never as natural as it appears, Haraway argues time and time again across all of her writing; indeed, human culture is predicated on the fact that what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom, the natural world, is our mastery over it, our ability to manipulate it and transcend it to form civilized society.

What is natural is actually what we want most of all as a culture; the values and ideologies we need entrenched in order to continue living in a certain way. Meaning of course, the powerful remain on top.

The National Geographic ad was entitled “Understanding is everything.” Haraway reads into the way images like this one — and the depiction of white, female primatologists more generally — came to stand for the redemptive touch of science, a science that could be used, it was implied, to better understand the natural world and hereby save it from destruction.

The female scientist is presented as a custodian of a natural world. The science of the past is at the same time — in one convenient swoop — absolved of its responsibility for the destruction caused. With the likes of Goodall standing in as a symbol of redemptive science, those historically at the head of the most destructive exploits of this science, namely white men, are curiously not presented as the problem, only the solution to the conservation of an untouched “natural” world — women serve as the unassuming mediums connecting the implicitly male science to supposedly heretofore virgin territory.

The female scientists cast into the public eye are given no real agency to influence the narratives of science, are figureheads of an order that is very much the status quo, and serve as a convenient veil for its less life-affirming transgressions.

In these images of the natural world, there is, then, a truth so “natural” that it remains implicit, unspoken—white male dominance over nature.

These images of the “natural world” omit the truth and rationale of their own existence, “excluding the obligatory and normative heterosexuality, masculine dominance of a progressively war-based scientific enterprise in industrial civilisation, and the racial symbolic and institutional organisation of scientific research,” writes Haraway.

Instead, the dramas of communication between gorilla and woman are “played out in a nature that seems innocent of history. If history is what hurts," she continues, “nature is what heals."

This was an important status quo to reaffirm after the calamities of advanced industrialism, and the bomb, had shown the world a less than benevolent science; Haraway argues that it was at this precise point that apes and (white) people were placed together in the “natural” world of the forest to communicate, symbolically reunited in a shared ecosystem, in order to “renaturalize man."

Jane Goodall’s ethereal hand reaching for the gorilla becomes a gesture that is meant to,“absolve the reader and viewer of unspoken transgressions, that relieve anxieties of separation and solitary isolation on a threatened planet and for a culture threatened by the consequences of its own history.”

The scientific hand prying into nature is never "innocent of history," it is always connected to the stories and ideas that we call culture — when scientists show us Nature, those ideas are almost invariably reflected in the messages they send.

We get a glimpse above, too, of the way that Man’s penetration into the unknown that is redeemed — it is his encounter with nature, facilitated by the maternal hand of woman, that is the coded in this image. Women, as Haraway puts it, become the “surrogates” for men in nature; man is coded through women and apes in an ahistorical origin story.

There are other examples in science of this ahistorical assertion of natural facts, and in fact, this denial of the sexist assumptions on which it is built has led researchers astray scientifically too.

A now cult example was offered by the anthropologist Emily Martin in her 1991 article, The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’. By examining a range of the most common textbooks used in classes for undergraduate premedical students or medical students over the course of several years at John Hopkins University.

These were texts that were widely used at other universities in the U.S. too. Martin found one very striking way in which culture shapes how biological scientists describe what they discover about the natural world; she argues that this means that students of biology are being taught about cultural beliefs and practices as if they were part of nature.

Martin’s insights hinged on the depiction of egg and sperm in scientific accounts of reproductive biology and found that these rely on stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female. The stereotypes imply not only that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts, but also that women are less worthy than men.

A classic example she gives is in how the gametes, the sex cells (egg or sperm), are portrayed. Sperm, the language of the text books suggest, are produced at an astounding rate, whereas a woman is born with only a finite number of eggs, waiting passively to be used at any time.

The sperm, on the other hand, are daring adventurers who brave hostile environments to accomplish their mission of fertilising the egg. The egg is “rescued” by the sperm from being flushed away in menstruation, wasted.

These depictions are consistent across the texts Martin studied. Not only do they perpetuate harmful stereotypes about men and women, they also misrepresent the science.

Scientists have found, for example, that it is not necessarily the first sperm to arrive that fertilizes the egg — it takes much more than one to accomplish the job. Moreover, the egg is not simply passively “penetrated” by the sperm.

In 2016, for example, UC Berkeley researchers found that the egg, sensing sperm nearby, sends out a wave of progesterone which activates a receptor on a sperm’s tail, giving it a “power kick,” a boost to make it swim faster that last harrowing distance.

This shower of progesterone also helps the tail of the sperm break through the egg’s protective coating. Without this boost, the fertilization won’t happen. In other words? The egg plays an essential, active role in conception.

This research also suggests another fallacy that accompanies the depiction of sperm — namely, that they are active adventurers. The mechanism between egg and sperm required to spur them along suggest that sperm don’t have the agency or consciousness required to justify their role as the story’s protagonist.

Sperm cells move randomly, without clear direction or intention. Chance — compounded by their prolific numbers — ensure that every once in a while, they reach an egg and are able to undergo fertilization.

Then there are ducks’ vaginas. Assistant professor of biological sciences Patty Brennan at Mount Holyoke University gave another example of the myopic view of science that is the direct consequence of sexist assumptions. She’d spent time studying the morphological evolution of genital morphology in vertebrates, or in layman’s terms, the variations of genitalia in the natural world and how they arise.

The dizzying variety of penises out there was a well-established reality. For vaginas, on the other hand, supposedly less so. Brennan joined a set of evolutionary biologists showing over the past two decades that vaginas were equally diverse.

In doing so, these scientists began to fill a gaping void in the study of genital evolution that had been obscuring an understanding of why genitals look and behave the way they do.

At a duck farm in California’s Central Valley in 2009, she filmed a duck penis — the video went viral. The world watched the surprisingly enormous penis emerge from a duck’s body like an ominous weapon in a horror film. What fascinated the online spectators most of all was their spiral shape. Male ducks, the video showed, forced these corkscrew penises into the females.

Viewers cringed as they felt second-hand the excruciating pain these phalluses afflicted on the female ducks. In the human world, many impassioned conversations about duck rape ensued; many a ludicrous remark, too, about the “natural aggressor” instinct of the male that could be evidenced in nature.

People were all too quick to jump to all kinds of crushingly sexist conclusions. Humans, in light of this case study, even at their most traditional, conventional, really weren’t that bad! Men were the pursuers, women the receivers. Perhaps, they speculated, there was not much to be done about it — it was, quite evidently, “only Natural.”

Even in the field of evolutionary biology itself, the assumption that males were the active, the aggressor, seemed to have been assumed from the outset. In 2011, Kristina Karlsson Green and Josefin A. Madjidian of Lund University in Sweden, conducted a study similar to Emily Martin’s in the 1990s — and with similar findings.

They showed the language that researchers use to describe male and female genitals in their field is very different and stereotypically gendered. They found an Emily Martin déjà vu — active words like “coercion” are used for males, while more passive words like “avoidance” or “resistance” described the female genitalia as well as their sexual strategy.

To Brennan, however, the outrageous shape of the duck’s penis was not evidence of the passivity of women. This was not a foreclosed conclusion — many steps were required to arrive there.

First, she asked the more basic question of what the duck’s vagina, capable of accommodating such a treacherous member, even looked like.

What she found, perhaps predictably, was that duck’s vaginas were spiralled too! In the opposite direction. The cooperative receptacle, perhaps, to the active male counterpart?

No such luck.

Duck mating was often forced, this much was clear. But did that mean that female ducks were the passive victims of evolutionary history? Brennan and her colleagues found that rather than surrendering to the male’s whims, the duck’s vagina had co-evolved to actively resist. The duck’s vagina is a clockwise coil. While it is anatomically possible for the males penetrate her with his counter-clockwise penis, this only happens if — and the crux of the story lies with the if — she chooses to relax her vaginal muscles.

Female ducks have developed a nuanced, invisible strategy to control insemination. Perhaps their strategy wasn’t as palpable, as outwardly aggressive, but it was anything but passive. The female duck fights back where it counts; she maintains reproductive autonomy, she is in control.

These dynamics would never have come to light without considering the vagina’s role in evolution. More important than even this, however, was the stereotypes about male agency over female passivity inhibiting a line of research and had obscured the need for a broader perspective in the first place.

This is the danger in taking nature at face value; in failing to see that we don’t see but are shown, using the language, ideas and images that are deemed sensible by a group.

The ‘natural’ is not an argument, but something to be explained.

Using animal behaviour as a model for what is natural in humans is already dubious when we define humanity precisely by what is not natural (i.e. the ability to manipulate our environment and thus, distance ourselves from being an animal altogether). And when you couple that with our impulse to look to nature for confirmation of our social norms, we get an argument that makes for a dizzying loop of sanctioned nonsense.

Loopy as a corkscrew vagina.

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